Film Review “News of the World”

Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Release date: December 25, 2020
Running time: 118 minutes

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

It’s funny when you watch a trailer , you either know you are going to like the movie or you don’t. When I first saw the trailer to “News of the World”, I thought to myself this might not be a movie for me. When I see something that Tom Hanks is starring in I usually see it without even thinking twice but a Western didn’t really seem to catch my attention. “News of the World” reunites Hanks with Paul Greengrass for the first time since their 2013 Best Picture nominee Captain Phillips. This duo makes for cinematic gold. This is film that has grown on me since watching it and I have a feeling I will be having a repeat viewing very soon. It is such a pleasant surprise when you find a film that you really enjoy and that grows on you after watching it.

Tom Hanks delivers yet another fantastic dramatic performance. Alongside his young co-star Helena Zengel, who also does an amazing job in her English language film debut. I hope to see more of her as she develops her career in film. Throughout this film, it follows the two of them as they form a great relationship even with not being able to communicate together. I really enjoyed how it develops over the near two hour running time. The film is a little slow paced but delivers some excellent tension and action throughout. You find yourself sitting on the edge of your chair at certain parts for sure. Usually I am not a big fan of Westerns but this one definitely delivers.

Official Premise: Five years after the end of the Civil War, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a veteran of three wars, now moves from town to town as a non-fiction storyteller, sharing the news of presidents and queens, glorious feuds, devastating catastrophes, and gripping adventures from the far reaches of the globe. In the plains of Texas, he crosses paths with Johanna (Helena Zengel), a 10-year-old taken in by the Kiowa people six years earlier and raised as one of their own. Johanna, hostile to a world she’s never experienced, is being returned to her biological aunt and uncle against her will. Kidd agrees to deliver the child where the law says she belongs. As they travel hundreds of miles into the unforgiving wilderness, the two will face tremendous challenges of both human and natural forces as they search for a place that either can call home.

The filming took place in Santa Fe, New Mexico and let me tell you that it is a beautiful location. Some of the landscapes in the film really are stunning. The film opens up into some amazing shots of New Mexico. Top that we an amazing score from composer James Newton Howard and we get easily a contender for one of 2020’s best films of the year. 2020 has been a hell of a year for the film industry but this one definitely stands out above the rest.

“News of the World” is an adaptation of a novel by Paulette Jiles and after watching this film, I am definitely interested in checking out the book that it was based on. This film definitely reminds me that I need to be open minded when I watch a trailer and believe that a film could have a good life outside the trailer. Let’s just say that if the Oscars do happen next year, that Hanks has a very good shot at that Best Actor award…if for nothing else he should be nominated because this role is definitely worthy of it. Come this Christmas day, I would highly recommend that you head out to your local theaters (hopefully it is open) and see this film on the big screen!

Film Review: “HAM; A Musical Memoir”

  • Starring:  Sam Harris, Todd Schroeder
  • Directed by: Andrew Putschaegel
  • Rated:  Not Rated
  • Running time:  1 hr 57 mins
  • Global Digital Releasing

Now that there are 10,000 television channels to choose from, it seems like every one of them have a talent contest program.  “American Idol.”  “So You Think You Can Dance?” “Masked Singer.’  “Masked Dancer.”  ‘So You Think Your Monkey Can Sing?” (coming to the Animal Planet, probably sooner than we think).  But the one that really started it all was an early 1980s program called “Star Search.”  “Star Search” ran for fourteen seasons (13 in the 80s-90s and one in 2003) and introduced the world to such talented performers as Brad Garrett, the band Sawyer Brown, Billy Porter (more on him later), Adam Sandler, Alanis Morisette, Sinbad, Britney Spears and Sutton Foster.  But the best and the brightest to come out of “Star Search” was first season Grand Champion Sam Harris.  After his big win, it was all fame and fortune and success.  Right?

A filmed version of Harris’ award winning off-Broadway show, “HAM: A Musical Memoir” is an entertaining – and deeply moving – look at the life of a boy with a dream and the sacrifices he had to make to keep that dream alive.  Still looking youthful at age 59, Harris takes the stage, accompanied on piano (and in banter) by Todd Schroeder.  We learn that the showbiz bug bit Harris at an early age – 3 ½ – and his early days were happy.  His father was an athletics coach and, when he tried out for Little League and was offered the position of team water boy he realized he was “different.”

A job at Opryland in Tennessee at age 16 released him from the bonds of his Oklahoma home.  It also introduced him to, as Harris calls it, “the Summer of Scott.”  With his dreams still in his sight, Harris heads to California, where he performs in night clubs – sometimes to an empty audience.  Harris talks about his audition for “Star Search” and how he was originally rejected.  He emphasizes these stories with several musical numbers, from familiar show tunes to original songs written by Harris and Schroeder.

But it’s not all music and laughter.  In the most emotional part of the film, Harris explains the emptiness in his young life, how he felt he had not lived up to his father’s dreams for him and how he decided to take his life.  He does not succeed, obviously, but the scars from the incident, and so many more from his life, are evident in his heartbreaking delivery.

I have seen Harris a few times in concert and had the amazing opportunity to catch an early preview of “Grease” before it went to Broadway, which starred Harris as Doody and Billy Porter (told you he’d be back) as Teen Angel. (The show also featured a very miscast Rosie O’Donnell and a very young Megan Mullally, who would go on to star on “Will & Grace,”).  The fourth number in the show is “Those Magic Changes,” which Harris performed.  He brought the house down.  I remember turning to my friend when the applause died down and commenting “well, that’s the show-stopper!”  And it was, though Porter’s “Beauty School Dropout” was a close second.  We had been invited to the cast party after the show and I was able to chat with most of the cast – even got a few to sign my CD of the show (already recorded).  It was a great night and one I still think of, even though I went home with a massive crush on Susan Wood, who played Sandy!

I still have my CD – Sam signed it in silver!

Performed on an almost empty stage (there’s a bench and few props), “HAM” succeeds on Harris’ genuine and unvarnished look at his life, warts and all.  If you are a fan of Harris – as I am – this is a film for you.  If you aren’t familiar with him, I recommend you give it a look.  Not only for the music and laughs, but for the honesty Harris shares.

Film Review: “Driveways”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “All Joking Aside”

  • Starring:  Raylene Harewood, Brian Markinson and Richard Lett
  • Directed by: Shannon Kohli
  • Rated:  Not Rated
  • Running time:  1 hr 23 mins
  • Animal Mother Films

The story is told that, in 1833, a friend visited actor Edmund Kean on his deathbed and said sympathetically, “This must be very difficult for you?”. Kean smiled up at his visitor weekly and assured him it wasn’t.  “Dying is easy,” Kean replied.  “Comedy is hard.”

Not sure if that is a true story or not but it has lived on through the ages.  Jack Lemmon was fond of saying it and, in the film “My Favorite Year,” Peter O’Toole’s character also uses it.  I’ve been told I’m a funny guy but I don’t have three minutes of stand-up to offer.  I have great respect for my friend Sandy Bernstein, who many years ago, in her fifties, decided to give stand-up comedy a try and she has been quite successful at it.  It’s not for everyone.  But Charlene “Charlie” Lewis Harewood) is a 21 year old wannabe who’s not afraid to take the stage.  Unfortunately, she should be.

A well-crafted story grounded by excellent performances, “All Joking Aside” is one of those little films you might miss if you blink. Charlie’s first attempt on stage is ruined by a heckler who dresses her down from the audience for her topic selection.  Charlie later learns that her tormentor is Bobby Carpenter (an excellent Markinson).  A decade earlier he was THE comic that everyone wanted to see, with new material nightly and a disdain for doing television and movies.  Charlie finds out that in his last appearance on stage Bobby got into it with a customer and assaulted him with the microphone, blinding the customer.  Charlie tracks Bobby down and convinces him to teach her the ropes of comedy.  From how to design your set list to which jokes to lead with first.  And, most importantly, to observe and write daily.

Raylene Harewood is “Charlie” Lewis

A film about stand-up should, of course, be funny and “All Joking Aside” has some side splitting moments.  But it also has heart, which makes it a rarity in the genre’. The heart here comes from the performances of the three leads.  As Charlie, Miss Harewood begins as a girl with a dream (and a medical condition) who is not afraid to face down either.  Mr. Markinson, a veteran of several television shows with recurring roles in “Mad Men” and “The L Word” among others, is well-cast here.  At first you’re not sure of his motives for initially heckling Charlie, then agreeing to help her but as the film plays out, they become evident.  And I must also single out Mr. Hewitt, who plays the owner of the local comedy club and whose relationship (and influence) with Bobby helps drive the film.

As I said, the film is well written and nicely paced.  If I had one problem with the film it’s that it makes it look very easy to just walk into a comedy club and get on stage.  Not in New York City!  If you don’t believe me, ask my friend Sandy!

My funny friend Sandy Bernstein

And if you’d like a couple of extra laughs, you can follow Sandy at

Film Review: “BELUSHI”

  • Documentary
  • Directed by: R.J. Cutler
  • Rated:  Not Rated
  • Running time:  1 hr 48 mins
  • Passion Pictures

He was the first movie star of MY generation.  Springing almost seemingly from nowhere he appeared on my television one late Saturday night and remained there for five years, giving my friends and I unending laughs and so many catch phrases – “but NO!” – to take us all the way through high school.  He made hit films, inspiring an amazing Toga Party at my house that is still part of Tampa’s legacy.  He is John Belushi, the subject of an incredible new documentary airing this Sunday, November 22, on SHOWTIME.

Told though audio interviews with many of the people who knew him best, ‘Belushi” introduces us to a young man that was seemingly born with a will to succeed.  As a young boy he would entertain his neighbors, had a successful band and was King of his high school prom.  When he and a couple of friends form their own imrov group it isn’t long before they are asked to audition for the prestigious Second City Comedy Troupe.  He becomes the first person to audition for the group and be asked to join the First Stage group, not learn the ropes in the touring company.  This leads to New York, the National Lampoon show “Lemmings” (and their weekly radio show) and, eventually, “Saturday Night Live,” which my friends and I all watched in my living room the night it premiered.    Soon came Hollywood, albums and fame but sadly the demons also came along with them.

John Belushi in his final film, “Neighbors”

The son of Albanian immigrants, John’s father came to America with dreams of becoming a cowboy.  Instead, he settled his family in Wheaton, Illinois and opened a restaurant.  Both of his parents were ashamed of their accents but John and his brothers and sisters loved America and set out to find their dreams.    When he meets Judy Jacklin at high school (their first date is the senior prom) he finds someone who loves him unconditionally.  The film highlights many letters that John sent to Judy throughout his life.  Whether they contained good career news, or his heart breaking words while dealing with his various addictions, the love he has for her is front and center.  Conversations with Judy, and best friend Dan Aykroyd, reveal the John Belushi nobody really knew and the ache in their voices when they explain they did all they could do to save him from his demons  is real.   After the release of their last film together, “Neighbors” – a film that was not loved by critics – Aykroyd describes talking to Belushi and finding him “sad and defeated.”  Aykroyd informs John that he is writing their next project and that it will be a success.  That film was “Ghostbusters.” 

But “Belushi” is also a testament to the man’s talent.  Early performance clips, including his audition tape for “Saturday Night Live,” show a man

Full of love and humor John only wanted to share both with people.  In 1978 John Belushi did something no other entertaining ever did.  In one week he not only starred in the No 1. Show on television – “Saturday Night Live” – but also in the No 1. Film that week, “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” To add to this historic achievement, he also, along with Aykroyd, had the No 1 Album in the country – “Briefcase Full of Blues” – with the Blues Brothers.  Through the audio interviews, we hear from many people that knew John best, from his mother and brother, Jim, through people that worked with him over the years, including Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty, Penny Marshall, Carrie Fisher, Richard Zanuck and Lorne Michaels. It is these performances that are the highlight of the film.  I have always maintained that John Belushi would have had a career similar to Robin Williams.  Both men had unlimited range and talents and I would not have been surprised if Belushi won an Oscar one day.  Sadly, we will never know what joys John Belushi could have given us.  But the ones he left us in a single decade of work are much more than most performers leave in an lifetime. 

Streaming Film Review: “Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on ‘The Exorcist'”

  • Starring:  William Friedkin
  • Directed by: Alexandre O. Philippe
  • Rated:  Not Rated
  • Running time:  1 hr 44 mins
  • Exhibit A Pictures

What is a perfect film?  To me, it is a film that, when you’ve watched it and absorbed what you’ve seen, you can’t find any fault with it.  Not a false note, not a frame you would change.  Perfect films are rare and the list is short.  “Citizen Kane…”  “The Godfather…”  “Chinatown…” and the most terrifying film I’ve seen in my 60 years on Earth, William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist.”  The new documentary, “Leap of Faith: William Friendkin on ‘The Exorcist’,” which airs exclusively beginning November 19 on the Shudder streaming service, takes you on an amazing journey into the making of the film, with the film’s director as your tour guide.

In Mr. Friedkin’s opinion, the majority of religious-themed films from Hollywood  were “sappy.”  Films like “The Ten Commandments”  and “King of Kings” treated God as being “magic.”  To Friedkin, only the 1955 Dutch film “Ordet” really approached religion – the mystery of faith” – in a truthful way.  Friedkin also believe it was fate that put together all of the pieces that became “The Exorcist.” 

We learn how he came to read the novel and how he worked with the book’s author, William Peter Blatty, to bring the book he wrote to the screen.  Friedkin remarks that Blatty’s script for the film omitted key parts in the novel that Friedkin felt were essential to the story.  Friedkin also reveals that several directors, including Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Penn, turned the film down before he was offered the job.  And while I knew that several actors, including Roy Scheider, had begged for the pivotal role of Father Damien Karras, Stacy Keach was actually hired for the part until Jason Miller pleaded with Friedkin for a chance to test for the role.  As much as I love Stacy Keach, when you watch “The Exorcist” now can you see anyone else in the role of Father Karras? 

Director Friedkin confers on-set with Jason Miller and Ellen Burstyn.

“Leap of Faith” contains some amazing archival footage, including footage featuring a possessed Linda Blair speaking with her own voice.  It’s disturbing enough  to hear a 12-year old girl utter the vile dialogue in the gravelly voice of a demon but when you hear those words uttered in Blair’s own soft voice it’s downright chilling.

As “Leap of Faith” progresses you can’t help but think that this is what it must be like to have Da Vinci describe how he created the Mona Lisa.  Nothing is left unmentioned, including a discussion on the many conclusions that moviegoers and critics have drawn from the ending of the film.  To Friedkin, the ending is the film’s only flaw, one he feels he did not fully explain.  Flaw?  Not in my mind.  It’s perfect!

Film Review: “FATMAN”

  • Starring:  Mel Gibson, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Walton Goggins
  • Directed by: Eshon Nelms, Ian Nelms
  • Rated:  R
  • Running time:  1 hr 40 mins
  • Saban Films

There is a great bit at the beginning of the film “Scrooged” in which an upcoming Christmas special is advertised as such:  “Psycho’s Seize Santa’s Workshop and Only Lee Majors Can Stop Them – THE NIGHT THE REINDEER DIED!”  I thought about that bit while I was watching the newest “holiday” film, “Fatman.”

We meet young Billy (Chance Hurtsfield), a 12 year old boy of some privilege who lives with his grandmother and a house full of servants.  Judging by the blue ribbons on Billy’s jacket, he’s a bit of an overachiever.  He also misses his father, who has just informed the boy, through his grandmother, that he won’t be spending Christmas with him.  Upset at the news, Billy still leaves cookies and milk out for the jolly old elf, anticipating what his present from Santa will be.  Sadly, Mr. Kringle DOES know whose been naughty or nice as Billy receives a beautifully wrapped chunk of coal.

In another part of the world, a mysterious man named Jonathan Miller, played by the always amazing Walton Goggins, is visited by a man with a baseball bat to sell.  It was a gift from Santa when the boy was young, identified by a genuine “made by Santa” marking.  The mystery man buys it and places it on a shelf of similarly crafted toys.  He’s also got a grudge against Santa, though his reasons won’t be revealed for a while.

Speaking of Santa – or Kris as his friends know him –he is fretting about the approaching Holiday that, due to budgetary constraints, may not even happen.  The news is full of stories about children doing horrid things and there just aren’t as many good ones as there used to be.  As played by Mel Gibson, Kris is both wise and wizened.  Things get interesting when, in order to make ends meet, Santa takes on a contract from the US Government – they have been subsidizing Santa for years in order to keep the US Economy booming during Christmas – to use his elves to build military plane components.  Things go from strange to downright crazy when Billy hires Jonathan – did I mention Mr. Miller is a professional hitman – to take out the fat man!  The only thing missing is Lee Majors!

A strange, but entertaining film, “Fatman” is bolstered by it’s amazing cast, who put so much effort into the characters that you readily accept them.  Even the elves, who are guided by their foreman Seven (Eric Woolfe) have a realistic premise about them and you find yourself nodding in agreement when they defend their diet of all carbs and sugars – six times a day!  And while there is plenty of naughty in the film, there is a fine supply of nice as well, thanks to Mrs. Kringle (Jean-Baptiste).  Say what you want about Mel Gibson and his very publicized indiscretions, the man has always been entertaining on screen and he’s no different here.  Tough as nails when necessary but he also has an empathy for those who question his motives.  Goggins, who I just realized last week was in “The Next Karate Kid” – I caught it on cable – has been someone I’ve enjoyed watching on screen since he played “Downtown” Anderson in “Major League: Back to the Minors.”  He has become one of the most sought after character actors, probably best known for his work on “The Shield” and the current CBS program “The Unicorn.”  He also won an Oscar 18 years ago for a live action short called “The Accountant.”  His hitman is both terrifying and funny, throwing out insults to everyone who deserve them, especially when they try to mess with his pet hamster!

The production values are strong, with a nice gritty detail to Santa’s workshop and employees.  It’s not all sparkle dust and gum drops!  And the musical score, by the duo composing team known as Mondo Boys, is beautifully composed to fit all of the emotions of the film. 

“Fatman” opens this week. It may not be your most anticipated Christmas film but it’s much better than a lump of coal!

Film Review: “RECON”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “Where She Lies”

  • Documentary
  • Directed by: Zach Marion
  • Not Rated
  • Running time:  1 hr 41 mins
  • Gravitas Ventures

As an adult who was adopted as a baby I’m always keen when a film that tackles the subject comes around.  They are usually feel good stories that leave you smiling and happy when they end.  That being said, “Where She Lies” took me on an emotional rollercoaster I am still recovering from.

Meet Peggy Phillips.  In 1961, at the age of 19, the unmarried Peggy found herself pregnant.  The father of the child was a married man who had told Peggy he was separated from his wife.  Anticipating the family embarrassment that such a situation would bring in this time period, she is sent to live with her aunt.  Her obstetrician urges her to give the baby up for adoption, as it will always be labeled a “bastard,” while her father tells her that if she keeps the baby she will always be known as a whore.  He gives her an ultimatum – she can come home after the birth but only without the child.  The problem seems to solve itself when Peggy is informed that the child, a girl, died shortly after birth.  But did she?

A puzzle that has you scrambling to put the pieces together right up until the end, “Where She Lies” is not only one of the best documentaries I have seen this year, but one of the best films as well.  Intrigued by reading a story about Peggy and her daughter, director Marion contacts her and informs her that he would like to help her solve the mystery and film the efforts.  What mystery, you ask?  It seems that, on her deathbed, Peggy’s mother informed her that her baby didn’t die.  Instead she was adopted by a doctor and his wife who lived near the aunt she stayed with when she was pregnant.  Peggy discovers the doctor and his wife DID adopt a baby girl 6 months to the day after Peggy gave birth.  The daughter has become a habitual criminal, spending the past 30 years in and out of prison.  But is SHE the daughter of Peggy Phillips?

Peggy Phillips celebrates her birthday with director Zach Marion

In putting together the pieces of this puzzle – director Marion illustrates his film and chapter breaks with scattered jigsaw puzzle pieces – the filmmaker leaves no stone unturned, interviewing everyone from the cousin who swears the baby was alive and in good shape to the widow of the man that impregnated Peggy.  Everyone has their own opinion and somehow they all make sense.  Until they don’t.

Again, as a child of adoption I pay close attention to how the children are portrayed.  I found it incredulous that the convict daughter blames her being adopted for her drug issues, saying that all adopted children crave their real mother and unconditional love.  Bullshit!  I never for one moment doubted my adopted parents’ love.  When I attempted to find my birth family – with my adopted parents’ knowledge and approval – I did so not out of a sense of something missing but more out of curiosity, especially as I was getting to an age where the doctors would constantly ask me if there was a history of “insert a disease here” in my family.  I was 45 when I found them – I just turned 60 – and thought I love them all – I found 6 brothers and 4 sisters – I don’t love my adopted parents any less. 

“Where She Lies” is now available on all major Video On Demand platforms.

Film Review: “Let Him Go”

  • Starring:  Diane Lane, Kevin Costner and Lesley Manville
  • Directed by: Thomas Bezucha
  • Rated:  R
  • Running time:  1 hr 54 mins
  • Focus Features

In the beautiful countryside of Wyoming a baby is being bathed.  He’s one of those cute, chunky Michelin-man babies…the kind you just want to squeeze.  He is surrounded by his parents and his grandparents, George and Martha Blackledge.  It’s another good day in a great life.  Fast forward three years and things aren’t so great.  His father has died in an accident and his mother, Lorna (Kayli Carter), is remarrying.  Grandma (Lane) and Grandpa (Costner) say their goodbyes as the new family moves into the nearby town.  But when a surprise visit reveals that the couple have moved, and taken the boy with them, the longing to reconnect with their grandchild pushes leads them on a horrific adventure.

Smartly written (by director Buzucha) and based on the novel by Larry Watson, with fine performances all around, “Let Him Go” gives a look at how far people will go to save the ones they love.  George and Martha head to Montana where we learn George was once a lawman.  They track down the new husband’s family but soon learn they are not a family to mess with.  Headed by an evil matriarch (Manville), they intend to keep the boy and raise him as they see fit, discounting the fact that the boy’s father was George and Martha’s son.  Things go from bad to worse quickly when an invitation to dinner turns into a showdown.  Then they go from worse to horrific. 

It’s nice to see Costner and Lane working together again, having played Clark Kent’s parents in “Man of Steel,” and both are at the top of their game.  Manville steals the film with her performance.  Had this film been released in the 40s every time she appeared on screen the audience would have hissed at her.  The direction is smooth and the story straight ahead.  Production values are strong – this is a period piece, circa the early 60s – and the scenery (the film was shot in Alberta, Canada) is gorgeous to look at.

“Let Him Go” opens in theatres this Friday, November 6th.

Film Review: “Tremors: Shrieker Island”

NOTE: Hello readers – Mike Smith here. My apologies for the late posting of this review. It should have been posted over a week ago and I completely skipped over it.

  • Starring: Michael Gross, Jon Heder
  • Directed by: Don Michael Paul
  • Rated: Unrated
  • Running time: 1hr 43 mins
  • Universal 1440 Entertainment

      No one could’ve predicted in 1990 that TREMORS,  a box office flop that was essentially a rip-off of JAWS about sandworms would still be birthing sequels thirty years later. Yet, here we are in 2020 with the seventh installment in the franchise and a cult following that mostly doesn’t find the need to pass judgment no matter how bad the CGI gets nor how crazy the plotlines get. That fact will remain true beyond the release of Tremors: Shrieker Island. You either celebrate Burt Gummer or you’ll never voluntarily watch this film.

     In this latest adventure with underground monsters, a billionaire hunter (Richard Brake) has begun shipping Graboids out to a private island for a group of wealthy outdoorsmen, a twisted spin on The Most Dangerous  Game. When things inevitably go wrong, Burt Gummer (Michael Gross) is once again called in to save the day.

     If you were a fan of the original Tremors and have been put off by the direct to video vibes the franchise have given, I may suggest now is the time to return for maximum time investment payoff. Although missing still are the charming practical effects of earlier installments, Shrieker Island is a hard divergence from the lighter atmosphere of Burt’s more recent battles with these monsters.

      Frequently referential of Jurassic Park and Predator and, I can’t believe I’m writing this, Jaws: The Revenge… Shrieker Island borrows the dark bits and pieces of a lot of familiars and delivers a solidly entertaining adventure. Yes, you’ll need to suspend disbelief. Yes, this might be senseless cash grab. No, you’re not getting any side character development.  Yes, Burt Gummer is still one of the greatest heroes ever and so no, you won’t care about any of the above. 

 The Tremors universe has gifted us with a bevy of wild creatures beyond the 1990 film’s original Graboid.  Here you’ll get the biggest and messiest of them, with more modifications and maybe a score to settle?  While his casting announcement initially prompted eye rolls from many, “Napoleon Dynamite” star Jon Heder aides in grooming a surprisingly nice dynamic alongside Michael Gross who is as outrageous as ever and, sometimes, surprisingly emotional. 

Tremors: Shrieker Island will be available on Digital, Blu-ray, DVD and On-Demand on October 20th 2020.

Film Review: “Synchronic”

Starring: Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan and Katie Aselton
Directed by: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead
Rated: R
Running Time: 103 minutes
Well Go USA Entertainment

Unfortunately I’ve known too many people who’ve taken hallucinogens and claim that it has altered their perceptions and opened their minds to the world. Having never done hard drugs like DMT, I can’t speak to whether or not they did view some other worldly, but I feel like those who’ve known people who’ve taken drugs like peyote or acid can attest to the fact that habitual use or people who’ve tried multiple times will talk your ear off about how it’s revealed the world around them. There’s even a scientific community that believes hallucinogens had a hand in helping early man evolve into homosapiens. Regardless, what if that other worldly visit was real?

Steve (Mackie) and Dennis (Dornan) are New Orleans paramedics, who’ve dealt with a lot of bizarre overdoses. First off, the drug is unrecognizable and the packaging simply states ‘Synchronic.’ Secondly, some of these overdose crime scenes are unusual. One crime scene in particular left behind a message sprawled on the wall which stated, ‘Time is a lie.’ Dennis, a happily married father, doesn’t stray too much into what’s going on, but Steve wants to pry. That prying is because Steve has a terminal diagnosis, no family, and a lot of one-night stands who offer no comfort.

I won’t reveal too much about the crux of the film, the drug, because I feel like it’s a decent reveal, even though the film really spoon feeds the details so you should be able to realize what’s going on fairly early. While this would sink most films, “Synchronic” thrives because of it’s personal stories, the atmosphere it crafts and being a unique, fun genre blend. It finds a way to be an emotional buddy film, a sprawling sci-fi, and at times, a tense thriller. While I haven’t seen the previous films made by directors Benson and Moorhead, I might have to with how well crafted “Synchronic” is.

“Synchronic” doesn’t reinvent any sci-fi wheel, but it keeps you engaged and manages to pull off a few tricks along the way. Another key ingredient to the film’s entertainment is cleverly explaining everything, without explaining to the point where they create their own plothole. The intricacies of the sci-fi and humans on screen are taken care of so-well, you’re bound to forget and ignore most of the film’s flaws. 

Film Review: “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”

  • Starring:  Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova and Rudy Giuliani
  • Directed by: Jason Woliner
  • Rated:  R
  • Running time:  1 hr 35 mins
  • AMAZON Studios

2006 was definitely the year of BORAT.  The film, featuring the amazing Sacha Baron Cohen as a foreign journalist sent to America to report on what the country is like, was like nothing ever seen before.  As the presumed “fish out of water” Borat was invited into some very unusual places in our society, sadly (for those caught on camera) revealing the darker, prejudiced side of America.  The questions is:  could he (and, more importantly) should he try it again?

We find Borat (Cohen) doing hard labor, his punishment for having embarrassed his beloved country of Kasakhstan.  However, many things have changed since Borat’s last trip.  There is a new “premier” in charge of America.  One that has the ability of making friends with presumed enemies.  Borat is given his freedom if he will agree to take the country’s most famous celebrity, Johnny the Monkey, to the states and offer him as a bribe to President Trump.  Borat agrees but a wrench is thrown into his plans when, after opening the crate that was supposed to contain Johnny the Money he instead finds his long neglected 15 year old daughter (Bakalova) who claims that Johnny sadly ate himself during the voyage.  The girl has spent many years in her cage watching the animated fairy tale of the refugee woman Melania, who is now a princess.  Deciding to offer his daughter to Trump, Borat begins his journey.  And the hijinks begin!

You would think that EVERYONE in America would recognize Cohen/Borat as he makes his way across the country.  In 2006 you couldn’t go anywhere without anyone mimicking “That nice,” his best known catch-phrase.  And, in the beginning, that is true.  People stop him on the street stop him or try to high five him.  Which means Borat must disguise himself in order to set his plans in motion.  Along the way he learns about Qanon, spends some time with some good old boys – during their time together they write a song about Barack Obama with the chorus “Inject him with the Wuhan Flu” – and infiltrates a conference where Vice President Mike Pence is the featured speaker.  And then there’s Rudy Giuliani.  More about him later. 

  The film also has a sub-plot, where Borat’s daughter, who he introduces as Sandra Jessica Parker Drummond, is taught how to be a lady in our society.  She also is encouraged to get breast implants and constantly refers to a Kazakhstanian “handbook” that informs her of life’s lessons, including one that maintains her “vagine” has teeth and will eat her arm if she ever touches herself “down there.” 

Where I felt the first film was mostly spontaneous, this one is about 50/50 spontaneous and scripted.  Both versions are hilarious, though one is rather disturbing.  You may have seen the many reports detailing Rudy Giuliani’s interaction with Sandra Jessica Parker Drummond, who poses as a journalist (her life dream) and somehow finagles an interview with the former NYC mayor.  If you’ve seen Cohen’s work as Ali G or in various guises on his Showtime show “Who is America,” you know that there will be some questions asked to which the interviewer will reveal his ill-suited answers.  However, things go from whacky to creepy when Giuliani becomes overly friendly with the girl.  That’s all I’m going to say here.  I don’t want to spoil the “big reveal” but I will say that the first thing I asked Alexa after the film was “is Rudy Giuliani married?”

At this time in history the entire world can use a good laugh.  And there are plenty to go around here.  And, with the US Presidential Election less than three weeks away, a lot of food for thought.

“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” – the truncated title – premieres October 23 exclusively on Amazon Prime Video. 

Film Review: “Friendsgiving”

Starring: Malin Akerman, Kat Dennings and Christine Taylor
Directed by: Nicol Paone
Rated: R
Running Time: 95 minutes
Saban Films

Holiday ensemble comedies conjure up bad memories, like “New Year’s Eve” or “Mother’s Day”. However, slapping together a holiday film for the latest, and possibly greatest, holiday feels like a step in the right direction. If you haven’t heard of Friendsgiving or participated in Friendsgiving, you may be missing out on the best holiday invention of the 21st century. As for the movie, “Friendsgiving,” it’s tougher to fully recommend.

Abby (Dennings) isn’t seeing her family for regular Thanksgiving and appears to be going all-out for an upcoming Friendsgiving, with her best friend Molly (Akerman). Abby needs an excuse to unwind and relax a bit because she’s going through a one-two punch of emotional turmoil. She recently came out of the closet and is now dealing with her first post-out of the closet break-up. That effort is undermined by Molly’s newest boy toy, a myriad of random friends that show up for the event, and a lot of unspoken conflicts. Just like a Friendsgiving turkey, this movie becomes stuffed, but not in a good way.

The list of characters that arrive are too numerous to keep track of, especially when half of them don’t really add much to the overall plot or narrative. It seems like some are brought in for some simple one off jokes or to bring a new drug for our two main characters to partake in. I wouldn’t say this movie is bad though, it’s just not a memorable comedy. Some of the jokes fall about as flat as the flaccid penises they’re making fun of, and some of the humor is about as clever as the ones I told in middle school. But there’s something genuinely entertaining about a cast that really dedicates 100% of its talent to the script.

Honestly, if this was a low budget film with a bunch of no-names, I’d be more inclined to not recommend this film at all. But there is something delightfully juvenile about everyone really putting forth their best efforts. It does come into play when the movie needs to get emotional, as all of these holiday themed films end up doing. The earnest attempt at humor really kicks in when a trio of Fairy Gay Mothers arrive to talk with Abby towards the latter part of the film. I only mention that simply because it was one of my favorite parts.

“Friendsgiving” is a movie I can’t really recommend or tell people to stay away from. I can genuinely say that opinion isn’t a cop out. This kind of film is in the same vein as “Bachelorette” or “Rough Night,” where the comedy isn’t memorable, the story isn’t clever, but damn it if the cast and crew did such an admirable job, I found myself smiling and forgetting about the pandemic world around me. In some ways, that’s what a good real-world Friendsgiving is, forgetting about ones problems and just enjoying some good company, food and fun. “Friendsgiving” didn’t offer any food, but two out of three ain’t bad. Since I can’t make a recommendation, watch at your own risk and you may find “Friendsgiving” rewarding.

Streaming Review: “Welcome to the Blumhouse Presents ‘Evil Eye'”

  • Starring: stars Sunita Mani, Sarita Choudhury, Omar Maskati
  • Directed by: Elan Dassani , Rajeev Dassani
  • Rated: Unrated
  • Running time: 1hr 30 mins
  • Blumhouse Productions

Rounding out the initial four films released at part of Amazon’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” package is twin-brothers Elan and Rajeev Dassani directed “Evil Eye.” Blumhouse once again delivering projects supporting diverse creators with inclusive casts, “Evil Eye” explores a culturally specific thriller that at first glance might seem centered around a practice that a majority of audiences won’t be able to identify with: arranged marriages – but the deeper theme here is one that unfortunately all too many will have experience with… making “Evil Eye” a film that feminists may champion

Exploring spiritual concepts of reincarnation and karma inject fascinating albeit culturally specific supernatural elements into what’s basically a story of an overprotective mother constantly attempting to virtually connect and intervene in her daughter’s love life in efforts to redirect her perceived fate. Pallavi (Sunita Mani) is a young Indian woman living a modern Americanized lifestyle after her parents return to their home in Delhi, India.  Her superstitious and paranoid mother, Usha (Sarita Choudhury) is in frequent contact and constantly in need of status updates on her daughter’s love life. Concerned that if she doesn’t find a husband before thirty her daughter will be alone forever, Usha goes to great lengths and frequent astrological consultations to attempt matchmaking for Pallavi. When Pallavi finally meets a promising young Indian man, Usha’s husband and family feels she should finally be content but we quickly learn that Usha’s past has forecasted the return of evil doing, taken form in Pallavi’s new love interest, Sandeep (Omar Maskati). 

Usha’s paranoia is soon understood by audiences: she was the victim of long term emotional and physical domestic abuse. Secretly responsible for bringing her abuser to his death, Usha suggests that he has returned, reincarnated as Sandeep.  Observing from across the ocean how he uses his charms, passively controlling and using his resources to convince Pallavi to relocate and quit her job, Usha sees must act quickly to save her daughter when no one believes in her visions.

“Evil Eye” is another installment of “Welcome to the Blumhouse” that’s hard to quantify as horror. While the heart of this film is assuredly one of the greatest horrors for so many people, especially females and parents of females, it is better to go in with appropriate genre expectations for this thriller which has only momentary touches of the supernatural but still succeeds in entertaining as tense and relevant horror-adjacent storytelling.

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