Film Review: “Mary Queen of Scots”

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce, Joe Allwyn, Jack Lowden
Directed by: Josie Rourke
Rated: R
Running Time: 124 minutes
Focus Features

By many accounts Mary Queen of Scots had a tragic life. The monarch was widowed at eighteen and eventually beheaded decades later only after nineteen years in captivity in England. She can easily be seen as a victim of the machinations of the men who surrounded her. The film version of her life however, from lauded stage director Josie Rourke and scripted by “House of Cards” creator Beau Willimon, would not have you simplify it as such. Instead, the film Mary Queen of Scots, presents an intimate portrayal of a passionate young woman navigating the troubled political waters of both Scotland and England. Although at times it can be hard to keep track of everyone in play, Rourke delivers a strong, richly designed film lead by a confident Saoirse Ronan.

Rourke’s take on Mary benefits heavily by opening up its scope to include the simultaneously eventful reign of Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). From the opening of the film, we know both that Mary’s very existence threatened Elizabeth’s claim to her throne and that Mary would be condemned to die by that same cousin. Yet, with this is mind, the film never quite pits them against each other. Instead Rourke is able to take a more modern look at how each of them faced no-win choices when being challenged by contemporaries frowning upon female rulers. Elizabeth for her part is always wary of taking a husband or providing the heir that her privy council demands while Mary is viewed as a harlot for doing exactly that—but the wrong husband. This dichotomy of the spinster and the slut stereotypes is keenly observed by Rourke and never too on the nose.

Among the menfolk in this story is where I found some difficulty keeping up. It’s a little difficult at first to grasp onto which lord or musician giving Meaningful Looks from the shadows will evolve into an actual relationship for these women. They can be a bit of a blur of beards. Often times when they were talked about while off screen, I regretted not doing a quick wikipedia read of Mary to get a handle on which of them really warranted attention. Still, David Tennant as a vicious Scot priest set firmly against Mary is a snarly delight in this crowd. Buoying every performance, it cannot be understated, is some truly beautiful costume design by Alexandra Byrne .

Finally of course though, the film rests heavy upon its titular monarch and even though she shares much of the marketing with Robbie, this is Ronan’s film. She is by turns steely and vulnerable, whether on the battlefield or in the private company of her lifelong handmaidens. Rourke’s film shines when it spends more intimate time with Mary than many period films usually do with their subjects. Meanwhile, Ronan seizes her titular responsibility with relish and infuses Mary with such conviction that I was rooting for her even as I knew she was doomed. 

Film Review: “Fantastic Beasts : The Crimes of Grindelwald”

 

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston
Directed by: David Yates
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 2 hrs 14 mins
Warner Bros.

Is “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” fantastic or criminal? The answer falls somewhere in the middle. This second installment of what is intended to be a series of “Fantastic Beasts” films, all from the mind of “Harry Potter” creator J.K. Rowling, is a long-winded tale that lacks the charm of its 2016 predecessor. The story is predictably darker in tone, but a bulk of the over two-hour running time is a snooze fest.

Set in 1927, “Crimes of Grindelwald” begins excitingly enough as we watch Johnny Depp play the steely fanatical villain Gellert Grindelwald, regarded as one of the two most powerful wizards around, make a daring yet well-planned escape from the British Ministry of Magic. That’s when the story comes to a screeching halt as we are then forced into the world of mild-mannered Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he tries to get his international travel ban lifted.

Not much has changed with our hero since the original – he refuses to take sides, rarely makes eye contact with anyone, and has trouble communicating with the opposite sex. Newt is offered the chance to work alongside his brother for the Ministry of Magic in order to locate the powerful yet troubled Obscurial Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller, “Justice League”), but he refuses. However, he cannot turn down his former teacher Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) so he travels secretly to Paris with his Muggle sidekick in-tow, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who’s fighting with wizard girlfriend Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol).

It’s all rather sluggish and overly contrived as we are bombarded with a dizzying array of plot points for not only this film, but also for the “Fantastic Beasts” sequels that are already planned. There is little in the way of suspense even though more and more characters are introduced who are trying to find Credence for a variety of reasons, some more mysterious or nefarious than others. Rowling’s story also tries to rekindle the endearing romance in the first film between Newt and Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). Unfortunately, Rowling’s screenplay fails as their bumbling stumbling relationship feels like something straight out of a TV sitcom.

The character of Newt ends up becoming a boring, overshadowed distraction instead of a hero as we are left with wanting more of Law and Depp. Both are a treat to watch on the silver screen with Law successfully being able to make his own mark on a character already forged in the minds of “Harry Potter” followers by Michael Gambon and the late Richard Harris. Depp delivers one of his better performances as Grindelwald as he stays away from being overly quirky and gives his character a magnetic solemnity.

The pace is picked up in the last third of “Crimes of Grindelwald” as secrets are revealed, characters die, and those still living chose sides. Plenty of magical special effects abound but none are necessarily ground breaking or spell binding. Maybe it’s a sophomore slump and the “Fantastic Beasts” series will get better, but in the meantime it’s a disappointing pill to swallow.

Film Review: “Overlord”

OVERLORD
Starring: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell
Directed by: Juluis Avery
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hr 39 mins
Paramount
 
Produced by J.J. Abrams, “Overlord” is not your father’s John Wayne-type World War II flick. Other than the title being derived from Operation Overlord, the codename for the June 6, 1944 Battle of Normandy, best known as D-Day, “Overlord” has little to do with the actual invasion. A mix of action, horror and science fiction, “Overlord” contains a predictable storyline with a degree of vagueness high enough to undermine the plot. However, watching crazy, evil Nazis getting blown apart by the good guys is always excellent fun to watch.
 
The first third of “Overlord” is the most intense of the film as planes full of American paratroopers are flying into Nazi-controlled France on the eve of D-Day. Their mission, as ridiculous as it sounds, is to knock out a singular German radio tower or else the Allied invasion will fail. It’s a chaotic, tense-filled scene as the American fleet tries to survive withering anti-aircraft fire from German positions. Director Julius Avery (“Son of a Gun”) does a wonderful job of making us feel like we are on the plane with lots of shaky camera work. We can almost smell the vomit and the fear.
 
From the moment we meet him we know that Pvt. Ed Boyce (Jovan Adepo, “Fences”) is going to be the story’s hero even though he doesn’t have the respect of many of his fellow soldiers. He is especially harassed by Pvt. Tibbet (John Magaro, “Not Fade Away”), a sniper whose bad faux-accent is as annoying as nails on a chalkboard. Amidst the plane’s green soldiers is brooding explosives expert Cpl. Ford (Wyatt Russell, “22 Jump Street”), the obvious grizzled veteran who doesn’t take any guff from anyone.
 
Eventually it comes down to just four GIs, including our three named American heroes, who must find a way to sneak into the heavily guarded radio tower, which sits on top of a French church. Pvt. Boyce stumbles his way inside, but once there he discovers horrific experiments are being conducted on French villagers, American soldiers, and even dead Germans. Think Captain America soldier serum meets “The Walking Dead.” Some sort of mysterious liquid underneath the church is being refined by a Nazi scientist to make invincible soldiers, which isn’t that the goal of every evil scientist in a war-related movie? Yawn.
 
Ultimately, our heroes, with the assistance of a local girl (Mathilde Ollivier, “The Misfortunes of Francois Jane”), must save the test subjects and destroy the tower while trying to evade a sadistic Nazi officer (Pilou Asbaek, “Game of Thrones”). Oh, and don’t forget they are to ensure that D-Day succeeds.
 
“Overlord” sometimes feels like a version of the Wolfenstein video game, only with slightly better acting. The intensity of the beginning is lost because of predictability and near-campiness of the story. The plot is paper thin with a climax that unfolds like a B-movie. Still, “Overlord” is a bit of a guilty pleasure so get plenty of popcorn.

Actor – and Bronson Lookalike – Robert Kovacs talks about his new film “Death Kiss”

If you were walking down the street and passed by actor Robert Kovacs nobody would question if you did a double-take or two.  Ruggedly handsome, the Hungarian-born actor and stuntman bears more than a strong resemblance to one of the greatest icons of action cinema, Charles Bronson.

Capitalizing  on that resemblance, Mr. Kovacs is currently starring in the action-thriller DEATH KISS, currently available ON DEMAND from Uncork’d Entertainment.

Nicknamed “Bronzi” by his friends, Mr. Kovacs took time out from promoting his new film to chat with Media Mikes.

 

When did you come down with the acting bug, Robert?

I have always loved film. Since seeing the Westerns on the movie theatre screens as a boy. This caused me to work as a stunt man and live performer at Wild West shows all across Europe including Almeria, Spain where I was the Sheriff for many years.  Performing in front of tourists at the same locations the epic films of Sergio Leone were filmed.

Did you go to acting school?

Yes, I attended acting school at the Maria Mezey Theatre School in Budapest.

 What was your first project? 

Aside from Live Performances I have also been featured in commercial print ads for many European Brands and featured in a series of commercials for one of Europe’s largest  supermarket chains. They featured me as a Bronson-type character to promote sales in their Grilling Season promos. Much fun and very successful. But my first film was years ago, a Western called American Night.

 Who was the first person to tell you looked like Charles Bronson?

My good friend Peter. We were very young men and worked together in horse breeding. He would always say “ You look like him.” “ You look like Bronson. “ So he begins calling me Bronzi. It kind of stuck.

 And is this the first film where you’ve emulated him?

The first film where I portrayed a character similar to Bronson was From Hell To The Wild West also by Director Rene Perez. (NOTE:  Mr. Perez is also the director of Death Kiss).  The character was a stranger with no name hot on the trail of a serial killer. The stranger was a man of few words who let his pistols do the talking.

 Is there anything you had to do to ‘perfect’ your look for the film?

I grew my hair in a more familiar style and trimmed my mustache just right. Rene had many suggestions and I listened closely and followed them. Much of what you see is naturally how I move but he greatly showed me how he perceived the character.

How different is Death Kiss to Death Wish

I think they are very different films. Similar in tone with a tale of vengeance or retribution but a very different approach. The stranger is more mysterious in nature and less transparent. So his actions may be perceived as darker in intent. Also Death Kiss is a much smaller film so the emphasis on action and gun-play are more at the forefront.

Did you have to do any weapons training?

I train regularly with replica firearms. I do stunt work as well with most of it being firearms related stunts. I also perform often as a costumed reenactor of famous battles in Europe. This also requires the use of period replica powder firing rifles and cannons.

Do you do your own stunts?

I do. I work hard to keep my body in shape. I have been a stunt man in live shows. Everything from saloon brawls to falling off horses. Maybe even a building or two. I have trained as an acrobat and continue to lift weights daily as well as regular conditioning, Judo training and a few nights a week I do Thai Boxing.

How about a sequel?

If the fans would be so kind as wanting a sequel and Rene has something in mind I think the Stranger still has much work to do.

 

 

 

Film Review: “The Old Man and the Gun”

THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN
Starring: Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek
Directed by: David Lowery
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hr 33 mins
Fox Searchlight
 
Jesse James. Cole Younger. Billy the Kid. Bonnie and Clyde. All were criminals who robbed and murdered their way into history thanks to being turned into distorted Robin Hoods by dime store novels, bleeding newspaper headlines, and eventually a variety of movies. The supposed glory days of stickup artists arguably ended by the time the 1940s rolled around, yet one man named Forrest Tucker (1920-2004), who had a flair for the dramatic, probably stole more than all the aforementioned bandits combined. His life of crime, which began at the age of 15, is detailed in the current drama “The Old Man and the Gun,” starring Robert Redford in the alleged last acting gig of his career. Redford goes out with a bang in a performance that is charming and engrossing.
 
Written and directed by David Lowery (“Pete’s Dragon,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”), “The Old Man and the Gun” is based upon a January 27, 2003 article of the same name in “The New Yorker” by American journalist David Grann. Like the title implies, we meet Tucker in his older years when he should be enjoying retirement somewhere sunny or at the very least staying out of trouble with the law. However, we quickly discover that Tucker cannot give up the thing he loves the most no matter what his age is. With fellow thieves Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits) in tow as part of what the press dubs the Over the Hill Gang, Tucker continues a nationwide bank heist spree in 1981 that garners the attention of detective and family man John Hunt (Casey Affleck). Hunt and Tucker are complete opposites of each other, but there is a bit of mutual respect as a cat-and-mouse game evolves before Hunt’s case is taken over by the feds.
 
In the middle of it all, Tucker encounters Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a single woman with a small horse farm in the country. He beguiles her with his charm, which Redford fleshes out effortlessly in scenes not only with Spacek, but also in scenes when Tucker is holding up banks with smiles and courtesy. Their chemistry on the silver screen is tangible and watching these two acting masters at work is a special cinematic treat to be savored like a fine wine. Of course, their relationship becomes more complicated when she discovers his real line of work, which is growing increasingly perilous as he continues to take chances despite mounting press coverage of his crimes.
 
Lowery has crafted a wonderful little film that flows smoothly from beginning to end with great acting and solid dialogue. Waits is subtly fantastic as a hardened tough guy while Glover quietly plays a worrywart and Affleck is solid in a nice supporting role. Beneath the entertaining Hollywood veneer, though, is a man who was in and out of jail his entire life, which included 18 alleged successful escapes from various detention centers and prisons. The film glides by how many lives were adversely affected by Tucker’s criminal activities and it only gives a brief nod to what happened to his family. Much like the dime store novels of the 19th century, “The Old Man and The Gun” sentimentalizes Tucker by taking a lot of dramatic license with reality. So much so that Tucker achieves a certain level of sympathetic status that whitewashes the fact he was a habitual criminal.

Film Review: “Museo”

MUSEO
Starring: Gael García Bernal
Directed by: Alonso Ruizpalacios
Rated: Unrated
Running Time: 2 hrs 8 mins
Vitagraph
 
Every so often a work of cinema is created that is so fantastic and brilliant that it belongs in a museum where it can be forever enshrined. The new Mexican drama “Museo” is not one of those films. “Museo” is the tale of the 1985 robbery of Mexico’s Museum of Anthropology during which over 100 pre-Columbian artifacts were stolen. Never mind the recognition it received at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival, “Museo,” misfiring on nearly every cylinder, is two hours-worth of distorted history, obnoxious musicality, bad writing and directing.
 
The son of a successful doctor, Juan Nuñez (Gael García Bernal, “Y Tu Mamá Tambien,” “Mozart in the Jungle”) is dissatisfied with his upper middle-class lifestyle and family. He claims to be studying for a degree veterinary medicine, but it appears to be a lifelong pursuit because he lacks all motivation to finish. The same is true for his best friend, Benjamin Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris). While Benjamin may not have quite as comfortable of an existence, he lacks any friends and has little in the way of desire.
 
To alleviate their boredom, Juan hatches a scheme to pull off the greatest heist in Mexico’s history. It seems impossible that could ever work, yet miracle of miracles the two half-wits succeed easily during the pre-dawn hours of Christmas Day. They are amazed by the subsequent coverage and how the news media portrays the thieves as part of an international conspiracy. However, their victory is a hollow one.
 
Benjamin proves to be more worried about his ailing father than Juan cares for while Juan himself begins having visions of a Mayan king that lead to having feelings of guilt. It all puts a great stress on their longtime friendship, especially after they meet an unscrupulous artifact dealer who points out to them that their stolen goods are both priceless and worthless at the same time. Despair falls upon them as the manhunt by Mexican authorities begins to breathe down their necks.
 
Extremely little accuracy is paid to the actual events besides that the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City was indeed robbed by two men. Director Ruizpalacios tries to create suspense by having the two imbecilic friends almost get caught by museum security. Never happened. Nor did they try to sell their artifacts right away or develop a guilty conscience as one of the two main culprits in real life was arrested in 1989 while participating in a drug trafficking ring. The dramatic license taken goes beyond absurdity.
 
The choice of musical score is a complete disaster as it is loud, brash, and fails to heighten the nonexistent suspense. It plays like a bad, offensive sample of a Hitchcock film. Making matters worse are a series of ill-suited, quasi still shots of the dynamic duo as they rob the museum. Combine that with some random shaky camera footage, add a rambling sense of storytelling without any tightness and you get a cinematic mess. Bernal is adequate for his role, but his acting is only pushed in one lone, actual memorable scene involving Juan and his stoic father. The only drama you will find in “Museo” is if you can sit through its entirety.

Film Review: “Wildlife”

WILDLIFE

Starring:  Ed Oxenbould, Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal
Directed by:  Paul Dano
Rated: PG 13
Running time:  1 hr 45 mins
IFC

It’s amazing what a little pride will do to a family.  Take the Brinsons.  Things go to bad when man of the house Jerry (Gyllenhaal) is fired from his job.  They go to worse when he is offered his job back but, because of his pride, refuses to accept it.  With a family to support – wife Jeanette (Mulligan) and 14 year old son Joe (Oxenbould) – he leaves home to take a dangerous job as a firefighter.  He should have just gone back to work.

I don’t know what is happening in Hollywood, but so many young actors are taking the reins and writing and directing their own features.  This film was directed by Paul Dano (the co-star of such films as “Little Miss Sunshine” and “There Will Be Blood”) and written by Dano and fellow actress Zoe Kazan (“The Big Sick” and the granddaughter of the great director Elia Kazan) and while it starts off a little slow, as the story grows you begin to embrace it.

The performances are smartly delivered, with Gyllenhaal at his most hang-dogged at times and Mulligan her beautiful but unsure self.  The story is told through the eyes of Joe and Oxenbould is fine as the central story point.

Technically the film is beautifully presented, with long shots of mountains and sky as far as the eye can see.  Credit this to director Dano and cinematographer Diego Garcia, who give the film almost a “postcard” quality and Mr. Dano a very strong freshman effort from behind the camera.

Film Review: “Boy Erased”

BOY ERASED

Starring:  Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman and Joel Edgerton
Directed by:  Joel Edgerton
Rated: R
Running time:  1 hr 54 mins
Focus Features

 

ARKANSAS.  THE LAND OF OPPORTUNITY.

So reads the license plate that is the first thing we see at the beginning of “Boy Erased.”  But opportunity for who?  It’s certainly been good to the Eamons family.  Father Marshall (Russell Crowe) is not only the town preacher, he also owns the big car dealership in town.  Wife Nancy (Kidman) is busy in the community.  And son Jared (Hedges) is a popular high school boy who dreams of being a writer.  But Jared has a secret, one that will pit him against those he loves because of those he loves.

Based on the experiences related in the book “Boy Erased” by Gerrard Conley and written by director and co-star Edgerton, the film follows Jared as he is outed to his parents and made to attend a program that will “cure” him of his supposed misdeeds.  He is taken to a campus run by Victor Sykes (Edgerton).  The rules are strict.  No cell phones allowed in classes.  They are actually confiscated each morning, with the staff informing the owners that they will be checking their contacts and calling random numbers to ensure there is no evil happening on the other end of the line.  No contact, except for the briefest of handshakes.  Heck, you have to take a counselor with you when you use the bathroom.  Most important…you do not discuss the therapy with anyone outside the campus.  Jared wants so much to please his parents but as his therapy continues he realizes that to deny his true feelings is to deny himself.

I was a huge fan of Edgerton’s previous writing/directing project, 2015’s “The Gift” and he continues to show with his work here that he is one of the most gifted filmmakers working today and one to be reckoned with for many years.  It can’t be easy pulling double duty both in front of and behind the camera, but he keeps the story moving while allowing the audience to absorb the happenings on screen.  He also pulls amazing performances out of both Hedges and Kidman, with both of them doing some of their best work in recent years.  Add to the acting kudo list Edgerton himself, as well as supporting work by Flea, Jesse LaTourette, Britton Sear, Theodore Pellerin and David Joseph Craig, whose smug face and attitude made me want to punch him every time he came on screen.

Awards season is coming and “Boy Erased” has easily put itself in the running for some end of the year gold.

Film Review: “Bohemian Rhapsody”

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY
Starring:  Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton and Joseph Mazzello
Directed by:  Bryan Singer
Rated: PG 13
Running time:  2 hrs 14 mins
20th Century Fox

 

I’m going to confess something here.  On my list of life regrets, one of the ones near the top has to do with the fact that I had a few opportunities in my lifetime to see the band QUEEN live in concert and never went, always telling myself, “I’ll see them the next time they come around.”  Sadly, on November 24, 1991 that statement became moot, as the world mourned the death of the bands flamboyant lead singer, Freddie Mercury (music trivia purists will also note that Eric Carr, the 2nd drummer for KISS, also passed away on that date).  Director Bryan Singer’s new film, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” containing an amazing star-making performance from Rami Malek, lets the world know that Freddie isn’t dead!

London, 1970.  When we meet Farrokh Bulsara (Malek) he is unloading luggage at Heathrow Airport.  He is not happy in his work, especially when his co-workers refer to him as “Paki.”  “I’m not Pakistani,” he constantly reminds them (he was actually Parsi, having been born on the island of Zanzibar before his family moved to England).  While his mother and sister dote on him, he knows his father is ashamed of him, scolding him for going out late at night and imploring him to follow his father’s words of “Good Thought.  Good Words.  Good Deed.”  Farrokh has the opportunity to meet a band who has just lost their lead singer and he soon gets the gig.  A few changes, including the name of the band (and its lead singer) and QUEEN, as well as Freddie Mercury, are on their way.

Full of the music you will fondly remember and featuring one of the most immersive performances by an actor EVER, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a musical masterpiece.  And while the film is definitely designed around the flamboyant Mercury, the other band members – Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardee) and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) – are given ample screen time, allowing their characters to be as fleshed out as possible.  They enjoy the musical ups (concert tours and success) and downs (the head of the record company hate’s their music and concepts, critics hate the song “Bohemian Rhapsody”) together, as a family.

However, anyone familiar with the QUEEN story knows this may not be a family you or I would like to be a part of.  Besides the “getting better through science” fast track that Freddie s drug abuse puts him on, there is the same kind of in-fighting and arguments between the members of the group.  There is also the subject of Freddie’s sexuality.  He meets the “love of his life,” Mary (Boynton) but she understands that there will always be an unsaid “thing” between them that will keep them apart.

The film follows the band through their appearance at 1985’s LIVE AID.  It is here that they cemented themselves as one of the greatest bands of all time.  Four decades later, they still hold that distinction.

Confession number two:  I’m old enough to say that my first concert was Elvis Presley (Valentine’s Day – 1977) so when I say I’ve seen them all, I’ve seen them all.  And I’ve said for years that the greatest front man EVER was Freddie Mercury.  If you care to disagree, drop me an email and we’ll talk about it.

Film Review – “Halloween”

 

HALLOWEEN

Starring:  Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer and Will Patton
Directed by:  David Gordon Green
Rated:  R
Running time:  1 hr 46 mins
Universal

 

There are a handful of films that can be pointed to and described as “game changing” in Hollywood history.  “Citizen Kane” broke all the rules as to how a film is made.  “Jaws” gave us the summer blockbuster.  “Star Wars” ensured that sci-fi fans would always have a voice.  And where do you start when you talk about the Marvel Cinematic Universe?  In 1978, another film arrived and changed the face of the horror genre’ forever.  That film was “Halloween.”

We “meet” Michael Myers as an adult, standing alone in a squared-in area of a state-run mental institution.  He is being visited by a film crew working on solving a mystery:  why did 6-year old Michael stab his sister to death on Halloween night, 1963 and why, after escaping from captivity, did he return to his hometown 15 years later and kill again?

One thing to note here for fans of the series, or just those that are interested.  Despite a plethora of “sequels” to the 1978 original, they are treated here as non-existent, making THIS film a continuation of the original.  And I’ll say here that the film, with some tongue in cheek references to other films, works well.  The scares are legit and the performances, led by the amazing Jamie Lee Curtis, are well delivered.

I was surprised to learn that this film was co-written by the always funny Danny McBride.  Good job.  The script is solid, with some nice set-ups inter-spliced with some emotional family moments between Curtis’ Laurie Strode and her estranged daughter and granddaughter.  But you go to these films to see the boogeyman get his comeuppance.  So, what are you waiting for?

Film Review: “Blaze”

BLAZE
Starring: Ben Dickey, Alia Shawkat
Directed by: Ethan Hawke
Rated: R
Running Time:  2 hrs 9 mins
IFC
 
Having grown up listening to the music of country artists like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, etc., I was surprised I had never heard of Blaze Foley (1949-89). After watching the biopic of the obscure yet influential Austin-based singer/songwriter, I felt saddened that he did not realize the full potential of his artistry. “Blaze” is a tragic tale that flows like a sad country song with little in the way of silver linings. Based upon the 2008 memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze” by Foley’s ex-wife Sybil Rosen, “Blaze” features a powerful breakthrough performance by musician Ben Dickey in an emotionally complex role. Unfortunately, writer/director Ethan Hawke’s endeavor is so draggy at times that it makes a meandering creek look like a raging river.
 
Hawke bravely chose to tell his tale from three different time lines – sometime after the death of Foley within the confines of a radio booth interview; the night of Foley’s death; and the beginnings of his life as an artist when he meets Rosen (Alia Shawkat, “The To Do List”). The interview portion is entertaining as we watch Hawke, who never exposes his face, interview Foley’s friends – singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton), who had his own demons to deal with, and Zee (Josh Hamilton). Van Zandt embellishes to the point where you don’t know if he is telling the truth or creating the lyrics to another lonely country song.
 
The portions involving the night of Foley’s death are rather lackluster. Of course, some of the edge is taken off because we know what’s coming, but Hawke fails to make us feel like we are dancing along a razor. It plays more like a Hank Williams, Jr. tune that never made the final cut in the editing room. Dickey still manages to be a steady presence on the silver screen, but it’s the story of his innocent beginnings with Rosen that truly grab our attention and leave the most lasting impression.
 
Much of the story’s focus, and rightfully so since Hawke heavily used the real Rosen’s novel, is on the years when Foley and Rosen met, and lived for a time in a tree house. Dickey towers in these sentimental scenes like a seasoned veteran of the acting craft. While he sometimes forgets to maintain the limp Foley had, Dickey appears to capture the man’s essence with breathless ease. He hits every note with perfection as he portrays a man who fell hard from carefree joy and blossoming artistry into a dark haze of alcohol and drugs that cost him everything – love, career and life.
 
“Blaze” is a tragic story, yet if you subtract Dickey from the equation it feels stuck in neutral while cameos by a pair of stars, one a recent Oscar winner, feel contrived and over the top. Overall, it’s a story that could have used a lot tightening up and more cohesivity. Otherwise, Hawke’s effort falls short of his other tragic-musician tale in the form of 2015’s fantastic “Born to Be Blue.”
 
Having grown up listening to the music of country artists like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, etc., I was surprised I had never heard of Blaze Foley (1949-89). After watching the biopic of the obscure yet influential Austin-based singer/songwriter, I felt saddened that he did not realize the full potential of his artistry. “Blaze” is a tragic tale that flows like a sad country song with little in the way of silver linings. Based upon the 2008 memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze” by Foley’s ex-wife Sybil Rosen, “Blaze” features a powerful breakthrough performance by musician Ben Dickey in an emotionally complex role. Unfortunately, writer/director Ethan Hawke’s endeavor is so draggy at times that it makes a meandering creek look like a raging river.
 
Hawke bravely chose to tell his tale from three different time lines – sometime after the death of Foley within the confines of a radio booth interview; the night of Foley’s death; and the beginnings of his life as an artist when he meets Rosen (Alia Shawkat, “The To Do List”). The interview portion is entertaining as we watch Hawke, who never exposes his face, interview Foley’s friends – singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton), who had his own demons to deal with, and Zee (Josh Hamilton). Van Zandt embellishes to the point where you don’t know if he is telling the truth or creating the lyrics to another lonely country song.
 
The portions involving the night of Foley’s death are rather lackluster. Of course, some of the edge is taken off because we know what’s coming, but Hawke fails to make us feel like we are dancing along a razor. It plays more like a Hank Williams, Jr. tune that never made the final cut in the editing room. Dickey still manages to be a steady presence on the silver screen, but it’s the story of his innocent beginnings with Rosen that truly grab our attention and leave the most lasting impression.
 
Much of the story’s focus, and rightfully so since Hawke heavily used the real Rosen’s novel, is on the years when Foley and Rosen met, and lived for a time in a tree house. Dickey towers in these sentimental scenes like a seasoned veteran of the acting craft. While he sometimes forgets to maintain the limp Foley had, Dickey appears to capture the man’s essence with breathless ease. He hits every note with perfection as he portrays a man who fell hard from carefree joy and blossoming artistry into a dark haze of alcohol and drugs that cost him everything – love, career and life.
 
“Blaze” is a tragic story, yet if you subtract Dickey from the equation it feels stuck in neutral while cameos by a pair of stars, one a recent Oscar winner, feel contrived and over the top. Overall, it’s a story that could have used a lot tightening up and more cohesivity. Otherwise, Hawke’s effort falls short of his other tragic-musician tale in the form of 2015’s fantastic “Born to Be Blue.”

Film Review: “A Star is Born”

A STAR IS BORN
Starring:  Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper and Andrew Dice Clay
Directed by:  Bradley Cooper
Rated:  R
Running time:  2 hrs 15 mins
Warner Bros.

To quote “Beauty and the Beast,” it’s a tale as old as time.  Big star on the way down meets rising star on the way up.  They fall in love.  One embarrasses the other and their love is tested.  The tale is so old that it’s already been told, very well, three times before.  But the fourth time may be the best!

Jackson Maine (Cooper) is a popular singer who has lived his life on the road.  Once enjoying his time on stage, now he gets by with alcohol and drugs, showing up, plugging in then hurrying off-stage to the seclusion of his limo.  One night, while looking for a place to stop, he ends up at a drag club, where he gets the chance to listen to a young woman named Ally (Lady Gaga – I was just going to put “Gaga” but I’m not sure how the first name/last name thing works here.  I guess I could have put “Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta” but that would probably confuse you even more.  Ally does an old Edith Piaf song and soon Jackson is mesmerized by her voice.  He invites her out with him, where they buy some beer and talk about music.  When he drops her off at home she figures that’s the last time she will see him.  It isn’t.

A familiar story with enough new twists and turns to keep it fresh, “A Star Is Born” is a triumph.  Much of this praise must go to my rival Bradley Cooper.  (I know my wife loves me, but if Bradley Cooper came knocking I would be just a memory J).  As a first time director, especially in a film starring himself, there is an opportunity to make everything BIG and LOUD and, worse of all, put yourself front and center.  Cooper directs with a restraint that is almost unheard of with newbies.  He frames the story almost as if he’s shooting a documentary, and that close, inside look draws you into the story.  As an actor, Cooper is equally up to the task here.  His voice low and gruff (there’s a great line in the film where Sam Elliott, who plays his brother and who was also a musician, accuses Jackson of “stealing my voice”), he gives quite possibly the best performance of his career, which is saying a lot for a man who has already been nominated for the acting Oscars already in his career.

As Ally, Lady Gaga is outstanding.  We already know she can sing.  I haven’t heard a lot of her songs but I still include the night she showed up at the Academy Awards and sang “The Sound of Music” as one of my favorite all-time Oscar moments.  Not only is she in great voice, she has incredible acting chops.  Both the 1937 and 1954 versions of the film earned Oscar nominations for its stars.  The 1976 version swept the Musical Film Category and I’m predicting that both Lady Gaga and Cooper get nods for their work here.  Great supporting work from Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Elliott and Dave Chappelle make the film even more enjoyable.

Film Review “Malevolence 3: Killer”

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

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “Where Hands Touch”

 

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

Film Review: “Jane Fonda in Five Acts”

 

 

JANE FONDA IN FIVE ACTS

Starring:  Jane Fonda, Robert Redford and DickCavet

Directed by:  Susan Lacy

Rated:  Not rated

Running time:  2 hrs 13 mins

HBO Films

 

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

 

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

The honest answer?  Not a damn thing!

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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