Film Review “Malevolence 3: Killer”

Director: Stevan Mena
Starring: Katie Gibson, Scott Decker, Adrienne Barbeau, Kelsey Deanne, Lela Edgar
Release Date: October 12th
MPAA Rating: R
Studio: Mena Films

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

I have known Stevan Mena for over 15 years, dating back to his first film “Malevolence”. I had a feeling then that this guy was going to be a director to watch out for. Fast forward to today Stevan has finally been completed his planned “Malevolence” trilogy , which also included the second film, “Bereavement”, which starred Michael Biehn (“Aliens”, “Terminator”) and gave Alexandra Daddario (“Baywatch”, “Texas Chainsaw 3D”) her first big break. “Malevolence 3: Killer” has not had an easy road to getting made, including the tragic death of a major cast member which caused a big road bump. With all that being said, I was a little nervous what to expect with the third film…but holy cow was I wrong. “Malevolence 3: Killer” is easily the best in the trilogy.

I don’t think Stevan Mena has received the full credit that he deserves for these films. You can tell that he wears a lot of hats on these productions. They have no budget yet show a much higher production value. I feel like he really gets the horror genre and knows how to setup a shot for a great scare. The scares in “Malevolence 3: Killer” are so effective. Honestly, I feel like a lot of horror films these days don’t get the scares right. I always feel like they are actually afraid to make you scared and these movies waste these opportunities. Mena doesn’t disappoint and has the timing down perfectly. I would have loved to seen “Malevolence 3: Killer” in a theater. Credit should also go to the film’s fantastic score as well for helping achieve that incredible suspense.

This trilogy takes it all back to the beginning following Martin Bristol, the boy who was kidnapped 10 years ago (in the first film), but he is not the same boy anymore. After being tortured and abused by his captor, Graham Sutter (in the second film), Martin is out on a rampage now and is not able to be stopped. Special Agent William Perkins and his team try and hunt down Martin as he heads back to his hometown to brings down a wave of terror down on it. Looking back on these three films, I do feel that this one ties it all together so well. I almost even feel like you can get by with watching this one and not having seen the previous films.

Like I mentioned above with, Alexandra Daddario in “Bereavement”, Stevan Mena really has an eye for talent. This film’s lead actress Katie Gibson is a another fine example. She is a very talented actress and I see her going places! Scott Decker, who died during production, played Agent Roland and was great as well. I am sure it wasn’t an easy task to complete this film with losing one of the leads but it came together well. Horror icon, Adrienne Barbeau, shows up for a little bit as well and her cameos is a great treat for us hardcore horror fans!

Now that this trilogy is completed, I would like to see what Stevan Mena has planned next. Given that “Malevolence 3: Killer” hasn’t had an easy road to release, i really feel like it ended up being a very effective horror film with some great scares, gory kills and solid acting. Horror fans need to see this film for sure! It is our job has fans to get the word out on this film and get people to see it because I don’t think that they are going to be disappointed.

Film Review: “Night School”

Starring: Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish and Rob Riggle
Directed By: Malcolm D. Lee
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 111 minutes
Universal Pictures

It’s difficult to digest a new Kevin Hart movie without first re-evaluating where one currently stands on the stand-up comedian turned actor. My opinion on him was actually quite positive after last year. His trademark high-pitch scream and short stature served the “Jumanji” sequel/reboot well and my prior frustrations with him melted away in “Captain Underpants.” But Hart is back to his old uninteresting shenanigans in “Night School.”

Teddy (Hart) believes he needs one thing to keep his life on track, a GED. The recently engaged man has lost his BBQ grill sales job and is hard-pressed to get an ideal replacement gig because he never completed high school. His fiancée, Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke), is oblivious to the fact that Teddy is a high school drop out because he’s a decent liar. Despite their years of dating, he’s managed to convince her that he’s successful, and not drowning in debt or uneducated. However she did always know he sold grills for a living.

So to keep up this charade, he gets a minimum wage job, takes the bus daily after wrecking his car, and begins to attend night school. These are all things he doesn’t tell Lisa, despite their recent engagement and step forward in their relationship. Even when she does begin to suspect something is amiss; Teddy unflinchingly goes along with her suspicion that he’s getting cold feet about their marriage. If it seems like I’m focusing too much on Teddy, that’s because this movie focuses way too much on him and his night school cohorts.

It’s a really unfortunate fact, especially consider that the other star of this film is Tiffany Haddish, who plays Teddy’s night school teacher, Carrie. Haddish, who burst into the mainstream last year with “Girl’s Trip,” has some solid quips and one liners, but is relatively declawed in this film. Carrie also represents a strong female personality that fits well into the film’s mold about overcoming adversity, but there are a lot of scenes where Carrie’s persona and approach leaves a lot to be desired.

I actually wanted to like “Night School.” It began on a solid promise that Hart, Haddish, and the surrounding cast could unearth some unexpected comedy gold. There are chuckles to be had, but not enough, mainly due to the fact that “Night School” is stretched thin by its runtime and lack of comedic imagination. Even with two comedians that have more than proven to be a comedic force behind the mic and on-screen, “Night School” gets a failing grade.

Film Review: “Where Hands Touch”

 

WHERE HANDS TOUCH
Starring: Abby Cornish, Christopher Eccleston
Directed by: Amma Asante
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hrs 2 mins
Vertical Entertainment
 
The historical drama “Where Hands Touch” glances upon a subject that has been largely overlooked – the persecution of German citizens with African descent by the Nazi government. While their pre-World War II numbers were relatively small (less than 30,000), the Nazis still sought to isolate them socially and economically. They also implemented a barbaric plan of sterilization that was perpetrated against many African Germans. Much of this is brought to light in “Where Hands Touch,” but unfortunately the film, despite its’ horrifying subject matter, is often clunky and lacks the emotional impact of say a “Schindler’s List” or even “Defiance.”
 
We are introduced to Leyna (Amandla Stenberg, “The Hunger Games”), the daughter of an unnamed French African soldier and a German mother (Abbie Cornish, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “Bright Star”), in the Spring of 1944 in the German Rhineland. She has recently turned 16 years old and the Gestapo, Nazi Germany’s secret state police, has taken an interest in her. Desperate to keep her daughter out of harm’s way, Leyna’s mother flees to Berlin with both her and Leyna’s younger half-brother where she mistakenly believes they can disappear.
 
Leyna’s aunt and uncle don’t want her around nor does the school she briefly attends. All the while, Leyna catches the eye of Lutz (George MacKay, “Captain Fantastic”), a teenage boy who is an active member of the Hitler Youth and whose father (Christopher Eccleston (“Doctor Who,” “Thor: The Dark World”) is an officer in the Nazi SS. As she begins to fall under increased scrutiny, Leyna and Lutz develop a romance, much to the chagrin of Leyna’s mother who warns her it will only lead to their ruin. The budding teen romance, which becomes sexual, is suddenly halted when Lutz is called up to the Russian front by increasingly desperate Nazi regime and Leyna is hauled off to a concentration camp.
 
Historically speaking, writer/director Amma Asante (“Belle,” “A Way of Life”) does a sound job of portraying the ever-looming danger African Germans had to endure. Through Leyna’s terrified eyes we also see the atrocities committed against anyone else the Nazis deemed not human, best epitomized in a shocking execution scene. However, the damage caused by the bombing of Berlin by the Allies during the winter of 1943-44 is barely reflected on camera and the concentration camp scenes misfire.
 
Cornish delivers a performance that deftly captures a mother’s desperation and Eccleston shines as a father who makes a ghastly decision. Beyond that, the acting is mediocre at best and downright clumsy at worst. It often feels like an overly long, bad stage play, with uninspiring camera work in the beginning despite Asante’s good intentions. “Where Hands Touch” is certainly a work cinema brimming with good intentions as it’s a story that should be told amidst a myriad of Holocaust-related stories which should never be forgotten. Unfortunately, the quality of work is less than average.

Film Review: “Jane Fonda in Five Acts”

 

 

JANE FONDA IN FIVE ACTS

Starring:  Jane Fonda, Robert Redford and DickCavet

Directed by:  Susan Lacy

Rated:  Not rated

Running time:  2 hrs 13 mins

HBO Films

 

Here is my Jane Fonda story.  In 2005, Ms. Fonda was in Kansas City to promote a book she had written.  I had been able to get my name on the press list in the off chance of getting a few minutes with the Oscar winning actress for a quick interview.  I can’t remember what, but something came up last minute and I was unable to attend.  Imagine my surprise the next morning when my phone began wringing.  It seems that while she was greeting people in line, a former Vietnam War veteran named MICHAEL SMITH spit tobacco juice on her.  Somehow, my name and contact info was discovered on the press list and people assumed it was me.  I received over 1,000 emails, some thanking “me” and others condemning “me.”  I even was invited to address an upcoming Marine Corps reunion in California.  After about two weeks the furor died down, but it was pretty exciting there for a while.

 

It was almost exactly 47 years ago (September 19, 1971) that President Richard Nixon, on one of his many tape recordings, asked an aide, “What in the world is wrong with Jane Fonda?”

The honest answer?  Not a damn thing!

 

“Jane Fonda in Five Acts” takes a look back at the actresses life and career, beginning when she was just known as Henry Fonda’s daughter.  Along with James Stewart, no other actor so embodied the image of the normal American male than Henry Fonda.  He was, according to his daughter, “a national monument.”  But behind that image was a man who could not express emotions unless he was in front of a camera.  Ms. Fonda is shown a photo of the family at a picnic, to which she explains that the image is staged.  The smiles forced and phony.  She can tell by the look in her mother’s face that she is not happy (Ms. Fonda’s mother dealt with many mental issues and would eventually kill herself.  She and her brother, Peter, were told she’d had a heart attack.  It wasn’t until years later, when Ms. Fonda read about it in a movie magazine, did she learn the truth).

 

As a young woman in her early 20s, she makes her way to the home of famed acting teacher Lee Strasberg.  He accepts her into his classes and, after a couple of months, puts her on the stage.  He recognizes her talents and encourages her to pursue them.  She begins to do small parts on television and in film while also modeling.  Tired of always doing the “cheerleader” roles, she heads to France, where she meets director Roger Vadim.  What follows is marriage, a child and a career changing role as the title character in “Barbarella.”

 

Back in America, she accepts a role in what she calls her first “real” movie, Sydney Pollack’s “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?<” earning her first of seven Academy Award nominations. (NOTE:  I didn’t see “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” until the mid 1980s at a tribute to Sydney Pollack.  If you haven’t seen it, I strongly suggest you do).  Just as she is being taken seriously as an actress she does two things:  cuts her hair and visits Vietnam.

Fonda, shown here with Roy Scheider, won her first Academy Award for her role in the film “Klute.”

Depending on the age of the people you speak with, Fonda is either “a great actress” or “Hanoi Jane.”  There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground.  She was one of the first major celebrities to speak out against the United States’ involvement in Vietnam.  If there is any criticism now it is some of the ways she spoke out.   In the late 1980’s she apologized to the veterans and their families if her actions make things tougher for them.  A chance meeting with former vet and anti-Vietnam activist Ron Kovic gives her the idea for the film “Coming Home,” which would win her her second Oscar.

 

Now married to activist Tom Hayden, she puts together films that speak to her beliefs.  Many people scoffed at “The China Syndrome,” a film that dealt with a fictional melt-down at a nuclear power plant.  However, two weeks after the film opened there was a real incident at Three Mile Island.  Nobody was scoffing then.  In one of the most emotional moments of the documentary, Ms. Fonda talks about the only film she did with her father, “On Golden Pond.”  She recalls how, during a scene in the film, she surprised her father with a slight touch of his arm, causing the actor to cover his eyes to hide the tears welling up in them.  This would be Henry Fonda’s last film and it earned him his first Academy Award.

 

As the years progress we learn more about the actress and her life.  Needing to raise money for an organization she and her husband had founded, she produced her own workout video, which today remains the most popular home video ever made.  We follow her through her divorce from Hayden and her marriage to media mogul Ted Turner.  She speaks highly of all three of her ex-husbands.  We also meet some of her children, who explain that growing up was not all limos and mansions.  However, in the end, you end up with an amazing story of an amazing person.  At age 80, Jane Fonda is still going strong.  Here’s to act number six!

Film Review: The Sisters Brothers

THE SISTERS BROTHERS
Starring: John C Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Runtime: 121mins
Rated R
Annapurna Pictures

Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers opens up with its  many company credits appearing from the bottom of the screen and appearing upwards. It’s an off-kilter way to read them but absolutely fitting when what follows is a distinctly off-kilter western. Set in 1851 during the US gold rush, Audiard’s film has all the pieces of a traditional western–the horses, the saloons, the canned beans– but through its four strong leads is able to explore so much more.

Ostensibly The Sisters Brothers is about Eli (Reilly) and Charlie (Phoenix) Sisters, a pair of assassins in the old west who are on a hit job on behalf of their wealthy client, the Commodore (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Rutger Hauer). The Commodore is after a gold seeker, Hermann Warm (Ahmed), whose chemical formula reveals gold just by pouring it into the water. A game changer for treasure hunters. Jake Gyllenhaal’s John Morris has been tailing Warm as he makes his way to San Francisco and leaving breadcrumbs for the Sisters to follow. Trouble is Hermann and Morris turn out to be oddly kindred spirits and Morris’s designs on Warm’s death start to wane. While Morris wrestles with his duties to the Sisters and Warm’s idealism, the Sisters cope with their own infighting. Eli is grasping at a world where they are free of needing to take on this dirty work to survive while Charlie can see no other purpose for himself than drinking and killing. The setup is relatively simple but in campfire chats and detours, mines a deep well of complex themes at play in this unforgiving environment. There’s an air of tragedy around all the leads that undercuts the masculine bravado that so often drives gunslingers in westerns.

If there are John C Reilly-philes out there–and really, why wouldn’t there be?–these next couple months will be providing them with a wealth of his screen time. Obviously there’s the big Disney sequel with Ralph Breaks the Internet, the more familiar comedy pairing with Will Ferrell in Holmes and Watson and soon after that the UK will see him in the biopic Stan & Ollie. But I will go out on a limb and say that his work here for Jacques Audiard’s contains his most interesting performance of the bunch.  As the older brother Eli, he is the more physically imposing presence of the two but continually reveals more and more layers of sensitivity as the film goes on. He has a token of a past romance in the form of a shawl he treats with reverence, he’s open to trying these newfangled tooth brushes that are going around. Most of all he carries the weight of having to take care of his damaged younger brother who would likely drink himself into oblivion without Eli nearby—not least of all because of their shared troubled childhood. It’s by far the quietest performance of the quartet but it’s extremely touching. The long and winding road that this small family unit takes is at every point unpredictable and where Audiard ultimately goes was unexpectedly affecting. A beautiful and unique entry into the genre.

Film Review: “The House with a Clock in its Walls”

Starring: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett and Owen Vaccaro
Directed By: Eli Roth
Rated: PG
Running Time: 104 minutes
Universal Pictures

Did Eli Roth finally direct a decent movie? I kid. But I do wonder how much of his childhood is on screen. I begrudgingly wonder if what makes “The House with a Clock in its Walls” work has a little something to do with the crass director of “Cabin Fever” and “Green Inferno.” However, I’m more likely to praise Black’s infectious energy, Blanchett’s subdued charisma, and the writer of the hit TV show “Supernatural,” Eric Kripke. S

The movie does a fine job establishing Lewis (Vaccaro) and the crummy situation he’s been put in. The 10-year-old boy has uprooted his life after the death of both of his parents. He moves into his uncle’s otherworldly home in New Zebedee, Michigan. Uncle Jonathan (Black) hasn’t connected or talked to his nephew in years, if at all. The unlikely duo are often visited by Jonathan’s lifelong friend and neighbor, Florence (Blanchett). Lewis is an astute lad, and quickly picks up on the fact that Jonathan and Florence aren’t all they seem; Jonathan is a warlock and Florence is a witch (a good one).

I walked into “The House with a Clock in its Walls” having the most basic understanding of what I was in for. I read the book it’s based on in elementary school. The memory of it is so hazy, I can’t quite remember what grade it was or even the nuts and bolts of the book. I do remember our teacher used it as an excuse to bake the cookies that are frequently seen throughout the story. Even with just the faintest of knowledge of what Jonathan and Florence were all about, I still found myself caught up in the film’s gothic tapestry and wizarding hijinks.

Jonathan’s home is a character in and of itself. The stain glass windows change frequently to drop messages or hints to characters in the home, the furniture and lawn decorations act like household pets, eerie clocks and sinister dolls are spread across the home like jump-scare landmines, and there’s an ominous noise at night that sounds like a doomsday clocking chiming to an unfortunate inevitability. The humans inside the house are delightfully quirky as well.

The film builds a lot of momentum, but constantly shoots itself in the foot with juvenile humor, that I can only hope wasn’t in the book it’s based on. Urine, vomit, and poop are not off limits for this film, which is unfortunate because the film itself displays a bit of intelligence that’s sure to put a smile on the faces of adults and kids alike. It really doesn’t need to cheapen itself by undermining its own wit. The film also mishandles the tone of the final act, which involves blood magic, demons and the apocalypse.

The film stays afloat thanks to its delightfully creepy scenery, that’s constantly being chewed on by Black and Blanchett. This is the kind of film that could be cherished by younger audiences for generations, and honestly if it sends a few kids to a library in search of the book, that’s always a bonus. The calendar says September, but “The House with a Clock in its Walls” brings Halloween early for those with a spooky bone in their body.

Film Review -“Life Itself”

LIFE ITSELF
Starring:  Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde and Antonio Banderas
Directed by:  Dan Fogelman
Rated:  R
Running time:  1 hr 58 mins
Amazon Studios

If only all movies could begin like “Life Itself.”  A single camera shot but one that is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson in all his glory!  You can’t help but laugh during the first five minutes of this film.  Which is a good thing, because you’re probably going to be crying for the other113 minutes!

We meet Will (Isaac) and Abby (Wilde) in the middle of what seems to be an incredible relationship.  Living happily together with their dog (a dog with the greatest name ever used in film), it seems like their life together will be perfect for all time.  That is until fate steps in.

A well written but slowly paced film, the “Life Itself” poster tells us the movie is written and directed by the man who created the popular television show “This is Us.”  I haven’t watched it but my wife does religiously and, judging from the amount of Kleenex she goes through each week, I assume it’s a weep-fest.  This movie certainly is.  The film jumps around in time, showing the audience how Will and Abby met, their life together and their all too soon separation.  In between the vignettes you get to spend time with Will’s parents, played by Jean Smart and Mandy Patinkin.  It is their relationship with their granddaughter that makes up the second act of the film.  Act three is the longest – and the most drawn out.  It deals with characters who are peripheral to other two stories, though we are not at first sure how.  It takes place in Spain, where a wealthy land owner (Banderas) falls in love with the wife of one of his workers.  The various extended scenes not only begin to drag, they are delivered in Spanish, which means it’s going to be a long night reading subtitles!

As I mentioned, the film is well written.  I can see why it found itself on the 2016 list of the best unmade screenplays in Hollywood.  There are a few laughs, among them Isaac comparing the vocal stylings of Bob Dylan to the co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon. Of course it’s even funnier to laugh if you know that Isaac is also a recurring character in the “Star Wars” film series.  And the rest of the cast are equally endearing.  The ending comes across as a little too far-fetched but still pretty well thought out.  But be warned, make sure you bring your Kleenex with you, because “Life Itself” makes “Manchester by the Sea” look like the second coming of “Airplane!”

Film Review “An American in Paris – The Musical”

Starring: Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope
Directors: Christopher Wheeldon, Ross MacGibbon
Producer: Stuart Oken
Trafalgar Releasing
Running Time: 2hr 40mins
Release date: September 20, 2018

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

In the mid 90’s, I was working at a old school mom and pop video store, which is where I also happened to meet my wife, I remember us having Gene Kelly binge fests before binging was a thing. We rented all of this movies including “An American in Paris”, the 1951 movie. The dancing! The music! This film was always a favorite of ours and it still stands the test of time. When the play was set to open a few years ago in Paris December 2014. I knew I had to see this production for sure. I was able to catch it on a National Tour and it was unforgettable. This live taping was filmed during the award-winning musical’s London run and features original stars Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope. If you haven’t had a chance to see this on a stage, I would say make that a priority but this filmed version is also so beautifully done and packs the magic that was brought from the stage performance. Worth checking out!

Official Premise: This breathtakingly beautiful Tony® Award-winning Broadway musical, inspired by the Oscar® winning MGM film, tells the impassioned story of discovering love in the ‘City of Light’. Featuring the gorgeous music and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin (including the classic hits ‘S Wonderful and I Got Rhythm), stunning designs, and show-stopping choreography. With a record-setting 28 five-star reviews from critics, An American in Paris is coming from London’s West End to a cinema near you. 

One of the items on my bucket list is to definitely catch a play in West End. This recording came from a 2017 performance there and even though I couldn’t make it, we are able to still enjoy it at your local theater. I have been noticing that the recording of stage shows have been show in theaters much more commonly like last year “Disney’s Newsies” was released also in the same fashion. This production is simply beautiful. I have seen A LOT of shows on Broadway in NY and quite a few in Orlando, FL area also. But London is on point and really delivered such an beautiful magical journey with this play.

Honestly, I am just happy that the memory of people like Gene Kelly are still being preserved in today’s time where the old timers are fading away.  The music is so wonderful and I love how the songs are perfected for the musical format. The stars, Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, have great chemistry together and what talent actors they are! If you don’t catch a chance to see this musical, I have feeling it is not going away anytime soon. Hopefully, a Blu-ray release will follow these screenings and I have a feeling we are going to have several more tours and revivals over the years for this musical. Experience the Broadway hit An American In Paris in cinemas September 20 & 23. Click here.

Film Review: “Lizzie”

Starring: Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jamey Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Denis O’Hare
Directed By: Craig William Macneill
Rated: R
Running Time: 1hr. 45mins.
Roadside Attractions

In many ways, this is the perfect time of year to release Lizzie. As we enter the fall, the movie theaters turn to smaller dramas while basic cable crams its schedules with true crime and hauntings in the run up to Halloween. The axe murders of Abby and Andrew Borden have always figured heavily into the latter. So much so, it occurred to me while watching Craig William Macneill’s carefully crafted depiction of Lizzie Borden that I had never seen a version of this story that wasn’t hyper campy. A quick search on Youtube turns up ample “dramatic re-enactments” and even a Dance Moms routine. Perhaps anticipating that audience, director Macneill serves up Abby’s body mere moments into his film before rewinding back at the investigator’s prompt to Lizzie, “Did your father have any enemies?” Did he ever. What follows is a drama that simmers with tension between its small cast led commandingly by Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart.

In 1892, Lizzie shares a modest Massachusetts house with her father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan), stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw) and sister Emma (Kim Dickens). Lizzie is old for being unmarried and her community—but her father most of all—isn’t shy about treating her as a pariah. Lizzie having a seizure (or “spell” if you’re old timey) in public only adds fuel to the case for sheltering her. Into their home comes an Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan (Stewart), who Lizzie forms a connection with. Before you can say steamy pizza rolls, they are passing notes and rendezvousing in the family shed.

As far as I can tell, the theory for Lizzie’s sexuality being a part of this case, aside from her never marrying, comes from a later in life “crush” on an actress of the time. Whether or not you buy into this particular take really isn’t the concern of this film which draws strength from the bond between Sevigny and Stewart. When Andrew turns predatory towards Bridget, Lizzie’s anger towards him is stoked as is her motivation to sabotage his affairs. Affairs which include compromising Lizzie’s inheritance. Likewise when Lizzie’s uncle (a snarling Denis O’hare, always a welcome addition) tries to intimidate her, Bridget makes her presence known and he sees himself out. Though their society is rigidly patriarchal, under this roof the men are outnumbered and Macneill makes great use of the confined space to reinforce that. The soundtrack remains sparse, giving dominance instead to the ambient sounds of the household. The creaking wood of the stairs and bedrooms might as well be a character unto itself, and gives the whole piece an extra level of claustrophobia. It works really well for this story which is essentially a slowly escalating war between father and daughter.

As we march on through the final acts, the story does slow down with some time jumps between the murders and the aftermath. It’s as though to let us see how an obviously guilty (in this telling of it anyway) Lizzie might sell her innocence to investigators when really that could have wrapped up more strongly with their credible—if still sensational— take on this infamous case.

Film Review: “The Predator”

Starring: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes and Jacob Tremblay
Directed By: Shane Black
Rated: R
Running Time: 107 minutes
20th Century Fox

Not too long into “The Predator,” former Army Ranger, Quinn (Holbrook) is assessing an unthinkable predicament. He’s shackled in a military bus that’s carting around other former soldiers. These unmentionables of the U.S. military range from a veteran who’s PTSD has somehow manifested into ill-timed Tourette’s to a former Marine who grins through his suicidal tendencies. But Quinn, after listening to every sad story, might be the king of crazy or the only sane one on-board. He tells them that he’s handcuffed alongside them because he saw an alien. Unfortunately for his future comrades, and the audience, he’s not the Predator killing hero we need. And “The Predator” may not be the Predator movie we need either.

It’s not that Holbrook doesn’t have the muscles to go toe-to-toe with the big boys; it’s just that he’s not charismatic and his one-liners usually fall flat. I think that’s because most of his career has been spent being an antagonist, and he doesn’t have the pedigree that an Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Campbell might have when spouting cheese at CGI monsters and creature effects. At least the cast around Holbrook makes up for it. Some of the highlights are a delightfully funny Keegan-Michael Key, an energetic scientist turned mercenary played by Olivia Munn, and Sterling K. Brown, who plays a bad guy so witty, you tend to forget or question why he’s pulling the trigger so quickly.

If I was to ever summarize the previous “Predator” films for someone who had never seen them, I’d have no problem. I’d actually have no problem hyping them up despite their flaws. I couldn’t do that with “The Predator” and I’d have a harder time summarizing what exactly the film is about. That’s mainly due to the script, that’s not only all over the place, but has a jumbled tone that squeezes in serious sci-fi stakes, family drama, juvenile humor, macho man action and stylized gore. Since it jams in so much with little finesse, the film never rises above being forgettably amusing. Even if you enjoy this movie, you’re never likely to watch it again or enjoy it as much on a second viewing.

I’ve generally liked the work of director and writer, Shane Black. He has this infectious energy about his films and he creates these subtle nods to iconic bits of pop-culture from his own childhood. Surely you’ve seen some of his best pieces, like “Lethal Weapon” or “Last Action Hero.” Tiny traces of DNA from those films are in “The Predator,” like when we first meet the Predator hunting crew in that military bus or when the Predator itself gets in on the black humor after slaughtering countless unnamed soldiers. During those moments, and several others, I tended to slide into a comfort zone where I could care less about the film’s glaring mistakes.

I have one moral quandary about the film’s use of a child with autism and how he fits into the film’s overall narrative. Not only does it feel lazy to use Jacob Tremblay in that fashion, but it feels insulting to people with autism. I won’t dive too much deeper into my major gripe because my frustrations could easily be misplaced. It’s possible that Tremblay’s character wasn’t eloquently relayed, but the antiquated nature of his usage in the film’s plot seems misguided on Black’s end.

I had a real fun time while watching “The Predator,” but as I think about it in hindsight, I’m finding it troublingly easy to nitpick it to death. I think that’s because Black has done better and the “Predator” is still an underrated franchise deserving of praise. The original “Predator” was actually panned upon its initial release in 1987 by several outlets like the New York Times and Variety. They called it dull and average, but it’s now viewed as a quintessential action movie, spawning thousands of fanboys who’ve taken it upon themselves to write their own fan fiction involving the iconic alien. Time may tell if Black’s sequel is worthwhile, but I can’t help but think there’s a fanboy whose script could put Shane’s script to shame.

Film Review: “The Little Stranger”

THE LITTLE STRANGER
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling and Will Poulter
Directed By Lenny Abrahamson
Rated R
Runtime: 1hr. 51mins.
Focus Features
The pitfall of turning a gothic tale into a feature film seems to be Hollywood’s tendency to sell it as a horror film. As most trailers do, they cram the most exciting visuals or scares into two minute bites hoping to draw that genre’s audience while never considering the ill will they’re potentially engendering with such a mischaracterization. It fascinates me as far as choices go in this age of Cinescore post-screening chatter although I can’t begrudge the trailer makers for their need to get butts in seats. I say this all up front because that is the case with Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger, an adaptation of the 2009 novel by Sarah Waters. What they really have is a carefully crafted and, critically, a glacially slow paced period drama where the “big” bloody moments are few and far between. To be clear, I actually am more of an ideal audience member for English period drama than horror but even my limits were tested. The talented cast languishes in beautiful atmosphere and effective sound design that amounts to a pile of supernatural McGuffins.
The year is 1949 and Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is summoned to Hundreds Hall to check in on the Ayres family’s young maid, Betty (Liv Hill). Betty isn’t sick so much as she’d like a doctor’s excuse to send her back home. The drafty house’s halls don’t sit well with Betty. This uneasiness is chalked up to youth and inexperience but as the doctor learns, her line of thinking isn’t isolated among the inhabitants. Roderick (Will Poulter), the man of the house and brutally scarred up WW2 vet, also swears by a malevolent presence that’s out for his family. Again, dismissed by the rational doctor as well as Roderick’s caretaker sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson). To complicate things, Faraday has a kind of reverence for the place having been enchanted by being brought there as a child in 1919 with his mother, then a member of the house’s full staff. Over all of this lies the spectre of Caroline and Roderick’s dead sister whom the young Faraday had a brief encounter with during that long ago visit. Faraday’s love for the estate drives him to grow closer to the Ayreses, Caroline in particular.

I was excited to check out The Little Stranger, being a fan of Abrahamson’s previous three films (all also adaptations) as well as Domhnall Gleeson who is consistently reliable. The trouble is The Little Stranger can’t quite decide what it wants to be. The awkward romance between Faraday and Caroline occupies far too much screentime for where it ultimately goes while the horror and supernatural aspects of the story pretty much plateau rather than ramping up to a satisfying conclusion. I couldn’t tell if said conclusion was actually meant to be a twist or not because I had connected the dots so so long before the story wended its way to meeting me there and when it arrived, did not add anything exciting. I suspect Waters’s novel made much of the turmoil the Ayres family finds themselves in in Hundreds Hall but the film leans too heavily on its production design to fill in the gaps of its stilted characters.

Film Review – “Puzzle”

PUZZLE
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman
Directed by: Marc Turtletaub
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hr 43 mins
Sony Classics
 
It’s sounds cheesy I know, but there’s nothing puzzling about “Puzzle,” a wonderful new drama based upon a 2010 Argentinian film of the same name. Directed by Marc Turtletaub (“Gods Behaving Badly”), who is perhaps better known as a producer of such silver screen works as “Loving” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Puzzle” is an engaging tale about a woman’s empowerment after being taken for granted for at least all her adult life. The spark which fans the flames comes from nothing less than a 1,000-piece puzzle set.
 
Anges (Kelly Macdonald, “Brave,” “No Country for Old Men”) is a suburban, soft-spoken, anti-technology housewife stuck in the same routine every day – getting her husband, Louie (David Denman, “The Office,” “13 Hours”) up for work, cleaning, shopping, cooking for three men, and volunteering at church. That’s pretty much her entire life. She does know she is stuck in this monotonous cycle, but she is unwilling or unable to break free.
 
We get a taste of this right at the beginning when a birthday party turns out to be one she has thrown for herself, complete with a house full of guests and a cake. However, Agnes, for whom we instantly feel a great deal of frustration for, is more intent on fixing a broken plate than being around other people. Afterwards, she discovers a gift from a friend – an orange and brown-hued map of a world she has only dreamed of seeing. With the simple placement of one piece the art of puzzling suddenly becomes an obsession for her.
 
The thrill she gets gives her the confidence to text Robert (Irrfan Khan, “Jurassic World,” “The Lunchbox”), a champion puzzle player who is seeking a doubles partner. A wealthy inventor who spends most of his days watching catastrophes on the news, Robert is surprised by how fast Agnes is. It turns out, though, that they are both lonely souls. Robert is recently divorced while Agnes suffers from being constantly belittled and taken for granted by Louie. When sparks fly it sets Agnes’s world on fire and while it scares her to death it also gives her a newfound confidence.
 
Turtletaub has crafted an evenly-paced work of cinema with subdued colors throughout. The exceptions are often the puzzles themselves when color is emphasized. He also draws out an excellent performance from Macdonald, which could be the best she has delivered. Macdonald effortlessly fleshes out her character’s extreme timidity while infusing her with enough likability that you can’t help but root for her as she transforms into a ferocious butterfly. The physical chemistry between her and Khan comes off as awkward, but the dialogue they share is beautifully written and delivered. Throughout his career, Khan has often had a soulful, philosophical way of conveying lines and he doesn’t disappoint here.
 
“Puzzle” is certainly not a ground-breaking work of cinematic art nor will it probably rank among the pantheon of the best movies of the year. Still, it remains a sweet, delightful work that is as pleasing as finishing a puzzle on the porch while a gentle spring rain pitter-patters on the roof above.

Film Review: “The Happytime Murders”

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS
Starring:  Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks and Joel McHale
Directed by:  Brian Henson
Rated:  R
Running time:  1 hr 31 mins
STX Entertainment

It’s been almost exactly 35 years since I met Jim Henson.

In September 1983 I was at the World Science Fiction Convention in Baltimore, where one of the films being promoted that year was “The Muppets Take Manhattan.”  Knowing Mr. Henson was going to be in attendance I took a couple photos with me.  One of him and Kermit the Frog taken behind the scenes of “The Muppet Movie” and one from “The Dark Crystal.”  I tracked him down and he very graciously signed both.  I got lucky because he happened to be walking around with Gary Kurtz, who produced “The Dark Crystal,” so I got his autograph also.  He was very friendly and, in speaking with him, I could tell he had a great sense of humor.  Which tells me he would love his son’s latest film, “The Happytime Murders.”

(Ominous voice) “In a world where humans and puppets live together….”

Meet Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta).  He’s a former puppets cop turned private detective.  Actually, he’s been the ONLY puppet cop.  Due to a mishap that led to the killing of an innocent bystander, Phil was fired and a law was put into place forbidding puppets to be police officers.  One day Phil is hired by a mysterious lady-puppet.  His leads take him to an adult bookstore, where he runs into Bumblypants, one of the puppet characters of the popular 80’s kids show “The Happytime Gang.”  As Phil investigates another part of the shop, Bumblypants is murdered.  Soon, other members of the cast are also brutally murdered and the finger points at Phil.  Can he clear his name?  Maybe.

A fun combination of live-action and puppets, “The Happytime Murders” is an outrageously raunchy look at what life may have been like on a certain “Street” if that show had taken place in the worse part of the worse town ever.  In the world of “Happytime” humans and puppets co-exist, though the puppets are often horribly treated.  Call it “Apuppethied.”  Phil’s former police partner, Detective Connie Edwards (McCarthy) is called in to investigate the case and must reluctantly team up with Phil before the entire cast of the show is murdered.  Along the way they must deal with a world full of sex, drugs and violence.  This isn’t your parent’s “Street.”

Let me say this up front (or in the middle):  THIS IS NOT A KIDS MOVIE.  Don’t be fooled by the puppets and the bright lights.  Taking a child to this film will traumatize them for life.  So, again, unless you want to see a puppet re-enactment of Sharon Stone’s famous reveal from “Basic Instinct,” or want to explain to your little one what an eight-armed reach-around is, leave them home.  That being sad, THIS IS AN ADULTS MOVIE.  The jokes are funny, the visuals outrageous and the overall mood of the film will put a smile on your face.  The combination of human and puppet characters is well portrayed, and as the film goes on, you forget your watching puppets.  They become believable characters, which is what you need to make a film work, especially a comedy.  Like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” the melding of human and non-human characters is seamless.  Well, except for the seams on the puppets.  J

Film Review: “Crazy Rich Asians”

CRAZY RICH ASIANS

Starring: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yoeh
Directed by: Jon M. Chu
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hrs
Warner Bros.
 
Romantic comedies can often be a dime a dozen with about as much substance contained in the atmosphere of Mars. Of course, there are brilliant, diamond-like exceptions such as 2017’s “The Big Sick” or 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook.” While the new “Crazy Rich Asians” may not be nearly as creative or fulfilling as those movies, it’s still at least as good as an unpolished sapphire.
 
Directed by Jon M. Chu, best known for such “legendary” works as “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and “Now You See Me 2,” “Crazy Rich Asians” is based upon the 2013 novel of the same name by Singaporean/American novelist Kevin Kwan. It begins in a flashback when Eleanor Young (Michelle Yoeh, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) is denied entrance into a posh New York City hotel when the white manager sees that she is of Chinese descent. What the racist manager doesn’t know is that Eleanor and her husband, whom we strangely never meet during the movie despite being very much alive, are the hotel’s new owners. It’s a scene that sets up her fierceness, which we later see in an unfavorable light.
 
Flash forward to present day when brilliant American economics professor Rachel Chu (played sweetly by Constance Wu, “Fresh Off the Boat”) is invited by her longtime boyfriend Nick Young (British/Malaysian actor/model/TV host Henry Golding) to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. However, charming Nick has not been completely forthright with Rachel when he reveals on the plane that he comes from a wealthy Singapore family, the scope of which she is too naïve to fathom yet.
 
Upon their arrival in Singapore, Rachel is swept away by a night out in Nick’s vibrant hometown with his best friend and his fiancé. Despite descriptions he gives of his family and their business empire, it’s not until Rachel visits her outlandish college friend Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina, “Ocean’s 8”) that she learns just how influential the Young family is. The real problem, though, is not necessarily the vast gulf between Nick’s upbringing and hers. Instead, it’s the fact that she is an American of Chinese descent and not directly from China, which is something Eleanor is less than fond of.
 
So, between Eleanor and a myriad of jealous, petty Singapore girls who do everything they can to drive her off, Rachel has her work cut out for her if she wishes to see her relationship with Nick continue.
 
“Crazy Rich Asians” has nothing all that new to offer to the romantic comedy genre. It has all the prerequisite boxes you can check off like clockwork – resistant parents of one or both members of the couple; crazy, jealous exes; a goofy best friend that can always be depended upon; a goofy friend that no should ever count on; an impending marriage of some sort; etc. In that sense, “Crazy Rich Asians” is about as crazy as a block of wood.
 
Despite its stereotypical characters and plot we have seen a plethora of times in various forms, “Crazy Rich Asians’ still manages to be an entertaining flick. There are plenty of genuine laughs to be had, especially in scenes involving the hilarious Awkwafina and/or her character’s equally goofy father played by “Hangover” alum Ken Jeong. The romance itself will undoubtedly pull at some heartstrings plus there is a fantastic side story of eventual female empowerment that will make anyone feel good.
 
All in all, “Crazy Rich Asians” is a great date flick for any couple of any age, but don’t expect go into expecting to see something that truly separates itself from general, romantic comedy fair.

Film Review: Alpha

Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Johannes Haukur Johanneson and Leonor Varela
Directed By: Albert Hughes
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 96 minutes
Sony Pictures Releasing

Back in elementary school, my school would take classes on field trips to the Kansas City Zoo at least twice a year. On one of the occasions, instead of checking out the various animals dotting the grounds, we’d instead seek air conditioned or heated shelter to watch movies at the Sprint IMAX Theater. The film fare would usually be a nature documentary or some good-intentioned PG movie. If the Sprint IMAX Theater was still around, I could see “Alpha” being used as an excuse for a field trip.

Set 20,000 years ago in Europe, “Alpha” follows Keda (Smit-McPhee), who’s been left for dead by his tribesmen and father, after a bison hunting expedition. Accompany Keda on his journey back home is an unlikely ally, an injured wolf-dog that he nurses back to health. Pitched as the origins of man’s best friend, this movie is only mildly entertaining because of the elements the human and his four-legged friend encounter. Otherwise it’s a humdrum trip back in time.

According to various news outlets, “Alpha” has apparently been sitting on Sony’s film shelf for about a year, with the release date constantly being pushed back or up for various and unknown reasons. I suspect it has something to do with the film aiming for a vibe like that acclaimed “Quest for Fire” vibe, but instead coming off more like Roland Emmerich’s lazy “10,000 B.C.”

It makes noble attempts at visual storytelling, by having very little dialogue, and when primitive man does open its mouth, it’s gibberish that’s translated through on-screen captioning. It may have actually played better without, forcing audiences to immerse themselves further into the Ice Age experience. Instead the movie dumbs itself down a lot, and even throws in some coming-of-age storytelling tropes in for good measure.

“Alpha” could serve as a starting point for young ones interested in human history, but their parents may find themselves rolling their eyes or checking their phones. Director and writer Albert Hughes has a spotty history, but with “Alpha” has shown a little growth visually and narratively. I can’t help but think that ALPHA may have been a much better and nuanced film in someone else’s hands. There’s a lot of potential, but the finished product, while being polished and dazzling, feels like a mix of unnecessary studio meddling and dog-lover peddling.

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