Film Review: “On the Rocks”

ON THE ROCKS

Starring: Bill Murray, Rashida Jones

Directed by: Sofia Coppola

Rating: Rated R

Running Time: 1 hr 36 mins

American Zoetrope 

There is nothing rocky about the dramatic comedy “On the Rocks” as comedian/thespian extraordinaire Bill Murray delivers a superb performance as a wealthy, partly retired art dealer with a penchant for the playboy lifestyle. Arguably his best role since 2014’s “St. Vincent,” this marks the third time Murray has teamed up with filmmaker Sofia Coppola – 2015’s “A Very Murray Christmas” and 2003’s “Lost in Translation,” which garnered her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Murray received a Best Actor nomination for that collaboration and deserves another for this one. 

In “On the Rocks,” which made its world premiere last September at the New York Film Festival, Laura (Rashida Jones) is a successful yet mild mannered New York novelist who is currently experiencing a severe case of writer’s block. A devoted wife and mother of two young daughters, Laura is often on her own as her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans) is typically away trying to launch his startup tech company. Troubling signs, like a woman’s travel bag in Dean’s luggage, give Laura pause. 

Worried that an increasingly absent Dean could be cheating on her, Laura calls her father, Felix Keane (Murray) for advice. This seems to be a bad idea as we soon learn that Felix, who years ago left Laura’s mother for another woman, believes all men are hard wired in their genetic code to cheat. With all sorts of conspiracy theories, Felix becomes convinced that Dean is having an affair with an assistant despite a lack of concrete evidence. His paranoia, though, feeds into Laura’s concerns and she starts to think her marriage is on the rocks. 

Murray is a perfect fit for his somewhat eccentric character who proves to be one of those rare people who can charm almost anyone. His natural delivery and timing is spot-on, and it often feels like his lines are more often improvised than not. The chemistry he shares with Jones is terrific and their scenes are consequently performed effortless ease. This is best magnified during a casual lunch scene and a more dramatic one later involving a serious emotional confrontation. The latter is given a dash of gravitas as Murray throughout the film subtly infuses Felix with a complexity and fragility that lies below his flirtatious, playboy façade. 

Perhaps best known for her TV series work on “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office,” Jones holds her own as she delivers a nice, consistent performance throughout the film. Her character’s relationship with Dean could have been explored more thoroughly to help enhance depth to the married couple’s relationship, and therefore a better understanding of their issues. However, “On the Rocks” is much more of a father/daughter story than a husband/wife one. It is one that should not be missed.

Film Review: “Promising Young Woman”

  • PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
  • Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham
  • Directed by: Emerald Fennell
  • Rating: Rated R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 53 mins
  • Focus Features 

Former Academy Award nominee Carey Mulligan (“An Education”) delivers the performance of her career in the inventive crime drama “Promising Young Woman.” Written and directed by British actress Emerald Fennell, “Promising Young Woman,” which marks Fennell’s first attempt as the creative force behind a feature length film, is a well-crafted tale of revenge by a woman scarred by the tragic loss of her best friend.

 The night is getting late at a local bar where three single men spot Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (Mulligan) sitting alone at a booth. She appears to be so drunk that she cannot sit up or see straight. The supposed “nice guy” of the three jumps in to save her but betrays who he pretends to be by taking Cassie to his apartment where he attempts take advantage of her. Much to his shock and fear, Cassie suddenly reveals she has been faking inebriation. What she does to him exactly we do not know, but we do see her make a mark in a ledger she keeps that also contains the names of predatory men she has turned the tables on.

 We soon learn that 30-year-old Cassie lives with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge, “2 Broke Girls” and Clancy Brown, “The Shawshank Redemption”) and that she has worked at a coffee shop ever since she dropped out of medical school several years earlier. Her decision came in the wake of her best friend, Nina being raped in school and no one believing her, which ultimately led to her friend’s suicide. Cassie is clearly a broken soul full of rage against most of humanity, especially anyone male excepting her doting father.

 During the process of going after those who she most blames for her best friend’s death, Cassie meets Dr. Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham, “The Big Sick”), a former medical school classmate who awkwardly asks her out on a date. Things move slowly at first, but a romance does unexpectedly develop. It goes so well, that Cassie decides to move on with her life, especially after a conversation with Nina’s mother. However, a ghost from the past reveals an old bit of information that turns the story on its head. 

“Promising Young Woman” made its world premiere on January 25, 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival but its release had to be postponed until this past Christmas weekend thanks to COVID-19. Except for a couple of brief, poorly done supporting performances near the climatic end, the cast surrounding Mulligan does a solid job with the script and Fennell keeps us wondering where exactly she is going to take us. The material is dark yet remains engrossing.

 

Film review: “Promising Young Woman”Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo BurnhamDirected by: Emerald FennellRating: Rated RRunning Time: 113 minutesFocus Features Former Academy Award nominee Carey Mulligan (“An Education”) delivers the performance of her career in the inventive crime drama “Promising Young Woman.” Written and directed by British actress Emerald Fennell, “Promising Young Woman,” which marks Fennell’s first attempt as the creative force behind a feature length film, is a well-crafted tale of revenge by a woman scarred by the tragic loss of her best friend. The night is getting late at a local bar where three single men spot Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (Mulligan) sitting alone at a booth. She appears to be so drunk that she cannot sit up or see straight. The supposed “nice guy” of the three jumps in to save her but betrays who he pretends to be by taking Cassie to his apartment where he attempts take advantage of her. Much to his shock and fear, Cassie suddenly reveals she has been faking inebriation. What she does to him exactly we do not know, but we do see her make a mark in a ledger she keeps that also contains the names of predatory men she has turned the tables on. We soon learn that 30-year-old Cassie lives with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge, “2 Broke Girls” and Clancy Brown, “The Shawshank Redemption”) and that she has worked at a coffee shop ever since she dropped out of medical school several years earlier. Her decision came in the wake of her best friend, Nina being raped in school and no one believing her, which ultimately led to her friend’s suicide. Cassie is clearly a broken soul full of rage against most of humanity, especially anyone male excepting her doting father. During the process of going after those who she most blames for her best friend’s death, Cassie meets Dr. Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham, “The Big Sick”), a former medical school classmate who awkwardly asks her out on a date. Things move slowly at first, but a romance does unexpectedly develop. It goes so well, that Cassie decides to move on with her life, especially after a conversation with Nina’s mother. However, a ghost from the past reveals an old bit of information that turns the story on its head. “Promising Young Woman” made its world premiere on January 25, 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival but its release had to be postponed until this past Christmas weekend thanks to COVID-19. Except for a couple of brief, poorly done supporting performances near the climatic end, the cast surrounding Mulligan does a solid job with the script and Fennell keeps us wondering where exactly she is going to take us. The material is dark yet remains engrossing. Mulligan is nothing short of spectacular in a role that requires her to dwell in a painful place filled with darkness and anguish. She deftly switches between her character’s wide-ranging emotions with the ease of someone who has become an expert at their craft. Mulligan is nothing short of mesmerizing as she elevates “Promising Young Woman” to a different level.

She deftly switches between her character’s wide-ranging emotions with the ease of someone who has become an expert at their craft. Mulligan is nothing short of mesmerizing as she elevates “Promising Young Woman” to a different level.

Film Review: “Wonder Woman 1984”

  • WONDER WOMAN 1984
  • Starring:  Gal Gadot, Chris Pine and Kristen Wiig
  • Directed by: Patty Jenkins
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time:  2 hrs 32 mins
  • Warner Bros.

FINALLY!!

Originally scheduled to be released LAST December, Wonder Woman has

finally returned to the big screen.  And after more than eight months of dark times, moviegoers (and theatre owners) will be glad to see her.

We find ourselves on the Island of Themyscira.  An event to rival the Olympics is about to begin.  Among the participants is the young girl Diana (Lilly Aspell), anxious to compete against the older contestants.  Diana is leading the race when a mishap slows her down.  She tries to “Rosie Ruiz” her way to victory but is stopped.  Upset at losing she is comforted with the words, “Your time will come.”

1984.  A strange time in the world.  A time of popped collars, fanny packs, video arcades and pay telephones.  We meet a now adult Diana Prince (Gadot) at her job at the Smithsonian.  We also meet a new employee, meek Barbara Minerva (an amazing Wiig), so unassuming that she literally has to introduce herself to the supervisor that hired her.  A recent robbery attempt – which Diana as Wonder Woman foiled – has led the F.B.I. to a cache of stolen ancient artifacts which were being sold on the black market.  They have asked the Smithsonian to identify some of the pieces, including an odd piece that is referred to as “the Wishing Stone.” Sounds like a cool item but remember the old adage: be careful for what you wish for.

Jam packed with action as the film travels the world, from Washington D.C. to Egypt, “Wonder Woman 1984” is a thrill-ride of a film guaranteed to get your heart racing.  Gadot continues to bring new aspects of the character to the forefront, here showing the longing and sadness she has endured since her boyfriend Steve Trevor (Pine) died at the end of 2017’s “Wonder Woman.”  As you can see above, Chris Pine is in this film (he’s also in the trailers so I’m not giving anything away) but I’m not going to say anything about how he got here.  I will say that, with his wide-eyed astonishment at what he sees 70 some years after his death (when trying on parachute pants he inquires if everyone parachutes), Pine is perfect in the role.  Wiig is a revelation.  Sure she can be funny, but here she is also vulnerable as well as downright nasty.  As scamming oil dealer Max Lord, Pedro Pascal chews the scenery like Gordon Gekko on speed.

The film is beautifully shot and Ms Jenkins’ direction flows smoothly, though at two and a half hours the film could have used some trimming.  Hans Zimmer’s score sets the mood of the film and energizes the action scenes. 

We missed out on this one last December.  Thankfully Santa thought we were nice enough this year to drop Wonder Woman in our stockings! 

P.S. – Sit through the end credits – you won’t be disappointed that you did! 

Film Review: “News of the World”

  • NEWS OF THE WORLD
  • Starring:  Tom Hanks, Helena Zendel and Ray McKinnon
  • Directed by: Paul Greengrass
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time:  1 hr 58 mins
  • Universal Pictures

News is everywhere today.  Back in my day, you needed to watch television to learn what was happening, both locally and around the world.  Or subscribe to a newspaper.  Today there are 24 hour television news networks, Facebook, Twitter and all other assortments of way to get the word out.  So imagine having to gather in a darkened room, pay ten-cents and have someone read you the news.  If you can then allow me to introduce you to Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd.

Now that the Civil War has ended, Captain Kidd (Hanks, outstanding as usual) earns his living traveling the country on horseback, picking up newspapers along the way.  He is known as a “News Reader,” and his choice of stories, and the way he tells them, earn him a decent living.  It’s 1870 and tonight we find him in the town of West Falls, Texas preparing for an evening of reading.  As he continues on his travels he comes across a young girl named Johanna (Zendel) who had been raised by Kiowa Indians but is now being sent to live with her remaining living relatives (her parents having been killed). Kidd takes her to the local settlement but is told by the authorities that he can either wait with her for three months – when the necessary people are scheduled to arrive – or take her to her family himself.  She is now his responsibility.  Determined to reunite her with her relatives, Kidd sets out with Johanna into the wild Texas wilderness.

Though well-paced, “News of the World” is not the type of film I expected from Paul Greengrass, whose amazing action work includes three “Bourne” films, “Captain Phillips” and the heart-wrenching “United 93,” which earned him an Academy Award nomination as Best Director.  Along the way to San Antonio (where Johanna’s relatives have settled) the pair run into all kinds of problems, including a band of no-goods who at first try to buy Johanna then decide to take her with violence. But Captain Kidd is a sharp guy – and a hell of a good shot.  As the film progresses, Kidd and Johanna form a bond.  He is protective of her as a father would be and she does her best to help him with his business, imploring those interested in Kidd’s news service to ante up a dime. 

Hanks is his usual excellent self, seemingly able to inhabit any character he plays, much like Jimmy Stewart did in his career.  Ms. Zendel is equally outstanding.  Already the youngest actress (she is currently 12 years old) in history to win the Lola for “Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role” at the German Film Awards for her performance in 2019’s “System Crasher,” her inability to speak English only intensifies her work as most of her communication is done through body language and with her eyes.  It’s plain to see that Johanna has seen plenty in her young life and Ms. Zendel lets you see it on screen.

The film is beautifully photographed, with much credit due to Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (“Sweeney Todd,” “The Martian”).  He shoots the Texas landscape beautifully and a scene where Kidd and Johanna are caught in a sandstorm is breathtaking.  

If you’ve ever said to yourself, “I wish Tom Hanks would do a Western – and the “Toy Story” films don’t count – your wish has been granted.  Think of “News of the World” as an early Christmas present.    

Film Review: “The Dissident”

  • THE DISSIDENT
  • Starring:  Omar Abdulaziz, John O. Brennan and Hatice Cengiz
  • Directed by: Bryan Fogel
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time:  1 hr 59 mins
  • Orwell Productions

On October 2, 2018, Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi National, walked into the Saudi consulate office in Istanbul, Turkey in order to obtain the necessary paperwork to marry his fiancé.  He was never seen again.

We open in Montreal, Canada where we meet Omar Abdulaziz, a friend of Khashoggi, is traveling on the subway.  While telling the interviewer he does not feel safe he receives a text.  It informs him to be careful and to change his cell phone number.  The final words are chilling:  “They are going to kill you soon.”  So begins a film that anyone concerned with Human Rights and the right to speak freely MUST see.

We learn much about Khashoggi, both the person and the journalist.  A long time, and popular, Saudi reporter he trumpeted the successes of the Royal Family for three decades.  Enter crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, referred from now on, and in the film, as MBS.  Promoting himself as a new kind of leader (he opens movie theatres and allows women to drive) MBS is the man in charge of the oil, which is the lifeblood and currency of Saudi Arabia.  However, he is in reality not a nice guy and soon Khashoggi begins

to write negatively about him.  Being the age of social media, Khashoggi beings sending unflattering tweets.  Twitter is a big deal in Saudi Arabia, with over 80% of the population tweeting daily.  To combat the negativity, MBS employs hundreds of “trolls” to drive down the popularity of Khashoggi’s tweets – not allowing them to trend – and spread disinformation.  Fearful for his life, Khashoggi leaves Saudi Arabia in late 2017 in self-exile.  But he doesn’t stop writing.

I try to keep politics out of my writing – you’re here to get my opinions on film, not my political beliefs – but the film is a fair, and damning, report on the way the world works.  Jumping back and forth between Abdulzazzi’s travails in Canada and the last year of Khashoggi’s life, it’s clear to see that, as Cyndi Lauper used to sing, “Money Changes Everything.”  Many world leaders, including US President Trump, immediately side with MBS, who proclaims his innocence in the matter of Khashoggi’s death.  Even when Turkish police are finally able to search the Embassy and develop evidence – a room is spackled with blood under the black light, a Saudi agent is seen leaving the Embassy in Khashoggi’s clothes, only to go a few blocks, duck into a restaurant rest room, and exit in different clothes.  Still, ideas like “rogue agents” are thrown out as quickly as beads at Mardi Gras.

We also learn the more personal side of Khashoggi, as we meet his fiancé Hatice Cengiz.  She talks about his gentle side.  How he loved the Lazy Boy recliner she had purchased him and how they spoke of marriage.  Bravely she continues to speak out about Khashoggi’s murder, hoping that SOMEONE will hold MBS responsible.  In fact, as I write this comes word that Ms. Cengiz is calling on President-elect Joe Biden to make good on a campaign promise to get accountability in Khashoggi’s murder, asking Biden to release the CIA’s classified report once he takes office.  I should note that President Trump read the CIA’s report and dismissed it.

A powerful film that will make you think long after it’s over, “The Dissident” is one of the best films of the year. 

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”

  • 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”

  • 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”

  • 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 http://www.sandybernsteincomedy.com/

Film Review: “BELUSHI”

  • 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'”

  • 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”

  • 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”

  • 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”

  • 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”

  • 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.