Film Review: “The Dead Don’t Die”

  • THE DEAD DON’T DIE
  • Starring: Bill Murray, Adam Driver
  • Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
  • Rated: R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 44 mins
  • Focus Features 

Zombie movies have been a part of the cinema landscape since the 1930s with Victor Halperin’s “White Zombie” in 1932 among the first. George A. Romero’s 1968 “Night of the Living Dead” is regarded as a cult classic with its depiction of cannibalistic zombies. Since then there have been dozens and dozens of zombie flicks, often of low budget origins, featuring the undead scaring the life out of the living. Director Jim Jarmusch (“Paterson,” “Broken Flowers,” “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”) has thrown his hat into the zombie arena with his comical horror/fantasy “The Dead Don’t Die,” which features an all-star cast that’s sure to make anyone alive look twice. While it may have some clever laughs and some dry one-liners that only star Bill Murray can deliver, Jarmusch’s effort is about as mundane as watching Selena Gomez act.

 After responding to a complaint by racist Farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi) that his chickens are being killed by the disheveled eccentric Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), Centerville police Chief Cliff Robertson (Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) notice something odd is going on. Animals are disappearing, cell phones no longer work, and its daylight way into the night. All of this is blamed on polar fracking, which is denied in news reports by the companies who are doing the fracking. With the poles shifting their positions, it has altered Earth’s rotation, which of course means that the dead begin to rise from their graves.

 The town is littered with other recognizable faces including Danny Glover, Chloe Sevigny, Gomez, and Tilda Swinton as, you might guess it, an off-kilter character. I know it’s shocking, but who else could play a Scottish accented, samurai sword wielding, funeral home director? With so many different faces it only makes sense there are several little side stories as the townspeople struggle to avoid having their intestines eaten. They often fail as they are typically slower than the undead and even slower than the film’s pacing, which is often excruciating to sit through.

 Besides some great interaction between Murray and Driver, who talk in character about Jarmusch’s script and the repetitive-to-the-point-of-annoying theme song by Sturgill Simpson, the only bright spot of entertainment is Swinton’s performance. Otherwise, the plot is looser than someone who has drank a bottle of Metamucil in one setting. Characters vanish and unidentified objects appear for no reason. The acting is bland, punctuated by Gomez who seems to have no idea what she is doing and would have probably been better off just playing herself. Lastly, the nonsense becomes ridiculous when Jarmusch’s script turns political when he has Wait’s character go on socialist, metaphoric ramblings about consumerism, among other things. If I wanted that then I could have stayed at home and watched a documentary on PBS.

Film Review: “I Am Mother”

  • I AM MOTHER
  • Starring: Rose Byrne, Clara Rugaard
  • Directed by: Grant Sputore
  • Rated: PG-13
  • Running Time: 113 minutes
  • Netflix 

With the same gusto that Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark used to declare, “I am Iron Man,” I am hereby announcing that “I Am Mother,” currently on Netflix, is the best work of science fiction to grace the cinema universe since 2014’s bold “Ex Machina.” Brimming with a Stanley Kubrick vibe, “I Am Mother” holds your attention with ferocious vigor from beginning to end without ever skipping a beat. It captures the horrors of artificial intelligence gone wrong, something the late Stephen Hawking warned humanity about, with an engrossing cerebral script, solid acting, and a vision of the future that should make anyone shudder. This film should also make us question what is cinema?

 “I Am Mother,” which debuted at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, begins with dark, foreboding music as we are taken to an underground repopulation center. A red counter on the screen tells us that just one day has elapsed since an “extinction event;” that there are 65,000 human embryos being stored here; and that there are no human beings currently alive in the complex. The extinction event is kept a mystery to us, but in the meantime, we watch a solitary droid, known simply as Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne, “X-Men: Apocalypse”), begin the task of restarting humanity by incubating an embryo. When that child eventually asks why it’s the only one, the kind Mother cryptically says that she needs practice to become a good parent.

 Flash forward to 15,867 days after the extinction event to when a teenage girl, Daughter (Clara Rugaard, “Teen Spirit”), is prepping for a test involving moral and ethical conundrums. It’s at this point our suspicions of Mother grow deeper since Daughter is still the only child in the facility, and roughly 40 years have passed since the first embryo was grown into a walking, talking human being. The situation becomes complicated because of Daughter’s own curiosity and the arrival of Woman (Hilary Swank) at the front door. The appearance of Woman, who has been shot, further contradicts Mother who repeatedly warns Daughter that the outside world is unhabitable for humans. Woman, who is less than truthful herself, paints a picture of human annihilation by A.I.-controlled droids.

 A brilliant first feature-length directorial effort by Grant Sputore, “I Am Mother” has influences on it that range from “Terminator” to “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Ex Machina” itself. There is a great feeling of suspense that builds and builds until it reaches a crescendo that will leave you analyzing what you saw for hours after the final credits leave the TV screen. Rugaard is a joy to watch as she delivers a breakout performance that rivals Alicia Vikander’s in “Ex Machina.” Byrne gives us a new HAL 9000 and Swank is raw and powerful as a lone survivor.

 Despite its greatness, is “I Am Mother” not cinema in the truest sense of the word because it is a Netflix endeavor and did not have, for example, a 3,000-screen release across the United States with an international debut of even more? And if it is classified in the same way as say a new “Terminator” would be, without gracing a silver screen, does that mean it would hypothetically be eligible for an Oscar? “I Am Mother” and others like it are a sign of changing times and perhaps a redefinition of what cinema is.

Film Review: “Men In Black: International”

  • MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL
  • Starring:  Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson and Liam Neeson
  • Directed by:  F. Gary Gray
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time:  1 hr 54 mins
  • Columbia

Paris.  Present day.  As a young man prepares to propose to his lady on top of the Eifel Tower they are surprised by the sudden appearance of two mysterious men dressed in black.  They appear curious as to their presence but soon they won’t even remember they were there.  Cue the neurolizer.  FLASH!

An entertaining continuation of the “Men in Black” series, albeit minus Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, “Men In Black: International” introduces us to two new agents – H (Hemsworth) and M (Thompson).  They are assigned to protect a visiting alien dignitary by their superior, High T (Neeson).  However, when things go horribly wrong, they quickly deduce that there is a mole in MIB, one who must be stopped.

I’ve always enjoyed these films.  And I like how they have fun with the time lines.  This time the producers have cast two of the most popular young actors working today and both Hemsworth and Thompson handle their assignments well.  Thompson’s M has dreamed of “What’s out there?” since she was a little girl.  She impresses MIB chief O (Emma Thompson) by doing the impossible – infiltrating MIB headquarters.  This bold move gets her hired – probationary – and her exuberance is felt in the audience.  Hemsworth is the hot-shot H, dealing with emotional issues (his alien girlfriend just dumped him) and slacking off in his job.  They are joined by Pawnie, a six inch chess piece voiced hilariously by Kumall Nanjiani.  The trio team up to save the day, or at least destroy a lot of stuff trying.

Like the other films, the two best things going are the chemistry between the leads and the amazing creature effects.  Seven-time Academy Award winner Rick Baker designed the original trilogy’s creatures and the new group who worked on this film carry on the great tradition.  The direction, with Mr. Gray replacing trilogy director Barry Sonnenfeld, is brisk and keeps the story moving.  If you’ve even wondered “What’s out there?” this film may not have the answers.  But it will give you an enjoyable two hours to contemplate. 

Film Review: “GEORGIE”

  • GEORGIE
  • Starring:  Tony Dakota, Meredith Binder
  • Directed by:  Ryan Grulich
  • Not Rated

I’ll admit here that I was very late to the acclaimed and beloved 1990 horror mini-series “IT.”  About 27 years late.  That’s right, I didn’t see it until just before the feature film was released.  No reason really.  Actually there is.  I’m deathly afraid of clowns.  Not sure why.  I don’t have any bad “he touched me” stories to share.  Actually I’ve only had two “run-ins” with clowns, the first being when I was threatened with protests (and worse) should the theatre I was managing at the time show the film “Shakes the Clown,” which these clowns – and I’m not using slang, they WERE clowns – felt was disrespectful to the clown community.  Anyway, I watched it and I loved it.  Loved the film as well.  Hate Pennywise but you know what I’m saying.

Welcome to the town of Derry.  As darkness falls we find ourselves inside a modest house.  Inside a frail woman is finishing a sketch of a young boy.  The flights flicker, then go out.  As she begins lighting candles her hand shake.  To quiet her nerves, she begins to play “Fur Elise” on the piano, but the tune is slow and deliberate…almost like a dirge.  Though the room above her is empty, she hears footsteps.  Georgie?

A short film – about eight minutes in length – “Georgie” is that rare short film that gets its message across loud and clear.  Written by Producer John Campopiano and director Grulich, it is being promoted with the question “What if Georgie returned to Derry?”  For those of you not familiar with the story of “IT,” Georgie is the little boy whose paper boat has the misfortune of going into the storm drain occupied by Pennywise the clown.  Things don’t go well for the youngster.

With only music and atmosphere to propel the story, “Georgie” relies greatly on its two leads.  As the woman of the house, Binder is able to convey her fear in her eyes.  She is unsure of the noises we hear and so are we.  Dakota, who played the young Georgie in the 1990 mini-series, is a blank yet terrifying face, able to express his menace with a wink of an eye or a smile.  Grulich’s direction is top notch and the film is well paced.  Credit also the musical score, animated sequences and visual effects that help create and sustain the atmosphere. 

If you’re a fan of “IT,” horror films in general or just great filmmaking, I urge you to pay “Georgie” a visit.  To view the film, click HERE.

Film Review: “The Secret Life of Pets 2”

  • THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2
  • Starring the voices of: Kevin Hart, Patton Oswalt
  • Directed by:  Chris Renaud, Jonathan del Val
  • Rated:  PG
  • Running time:  1 hr 26 mins
  • Universal

If you are a pet owner, I’m pretty sure you’ve seen, and loved, “The Secret Life of Pets.”  It was uncanny how the creators captured the little idiosyncrasies that had many in the audience, myself including, thinking “that’s exactly what my dog/cat/bird/ferret, etc does.  And that insight carries over into the second chapter in the adventures of Max (Oswalt) and his furry and feathered friends.

Things are going well for Max.  His owner attends to his every need and all is right with the world.  Until the day she meets a gentleman.  Nothing wrong with that.  But as things progress, as they do in life, Max soon finds himself having to deal with a new person in his life…a baby.  At first he is wary of the new arrival, but as the boy grows, they form a bond that, anyone who had a dog as a child will know, can’t be broken.  Which makes Max frantic.  Where he used to enjoy going for walks, he now feels the streets, and the things encountered (steam grates, flocks of pigeons) are hazards for the boy.  This causes him to develop a nervous tic which sadly leads him to be encased in, what both my wife and I (and the film) call the cone of shame.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, Snowball the bunny (Hart) is also enjoying life.  His owner likes to dress him up as a superhero and he takes to the idea, proclaiming his prowess to his pet friends.  He is quick to jump – do you see what I did there – into action when he is asked by his Shih Tzu friend Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) to help save a tiger being held by a cruel circus worker.  What’s a bunny to do?

Cleverly written and fast paced, “The Secret Life of Pets 2” is the ideal early summer film.  The characters and their traits are spot on and the voice actors do their best to inflect some of their own personalities into the characters.  Oswalt, replacing original Max voicer Louis C.K., is well cast.  Of course, he was outstanding as the voice of Renny in “Ratatouille,” so this should come as no surprise.  Hart once again is the frantic Snowball and I’m happy to see he is no longer homicidal (my one big problem with the first film).  Other actors lending their voice include Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Nick Kroll, Ellie Kemper and Pete Holmes.  Even Harrison Ford shows up, marking his animated film debut.  But as great as they all are, the vocal star here is Lake Bell, who seems to inhabit the character of Chloe, a cat like no other and yet like every cat we’ve ever encountered!

My only fault with the film is the same one I had with the first.  Though obviously geared for kids (and the parents that accompany them), there are some scary moments here, including one (thankfully off camera) of the tiger being disciplined with a whip.  There is also a pretty intense pack of wolves that made at least one child near me at the screening hide her face in her mother’s side.  So parents with very young children, be warned.

All in all, though, “The Secret Life of Pets 2” is a welcome treat to begin the early days of summer.

Film Review: “Rocketman”

ROCKETMAN
Starring: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell and Richard Madden
Directed by: Dexter Fletcher
Rated: R
Running time: 2 hrs 1 min
Paramount

Not sure if it’s a coincidence or not, but Paramount has chosen to release the new Elton John bio-pic, “Rocketman” the same week that, 47 years ago, the song “Rocket Man” made it’s debut in America on the Billboard Top 40 Chart. That song was so popular that I can remember my 7th grade teacher bringing in the lyrics for everyone in class to read and discuss their meaning. Heady stuff. As is the film.

We first meet Elton John (played in an award-worthy performance by Egerton) as he walks into a group therapy session. He obviously sticks out. But not because he’s Elton John. It’s because he is wearing one of the flamboyant outfits – complete with oversize glasses – he has become famous for. After he introduces himself and rattles off his many issues – alcoholic, drug user, sex addict – he begins to reflect on his life and the journey that took him from a shy English boy named Reginald Dwight (something to remember if you play trivia) to the gregarious superstar named Elton.

Full of great music and fantastical spectacle, “Rocketman” appears to be what everyone who found “Bohemian Rhapsody” lacking (I didn’t – I thought it was one of the best films of the year) – wanted it to be. Rather than a straight – no pun intended – bio-pic, “Rocketman” is more of a look at the life of a superstar through his increasingly large and rose colored glasses (the film’s director – Dexter Fletcher – took over “Bohemian Rhapsody” after original director Bryan Singer was let go). We learn that Elton’s father (Steven Mackintosh), who was a music lover, had no time or even interest in the young man, usually only speaking to him when scolding him. His mother, played by an almost unrecognizable Bryce Dallas Howard, obviously loves her son but has other interests. It’s left up to his grandmother (Gemma Jones) to recognize his brilliance – he can hear a piece of music once and then play it flawlessly on the piano. She’s the one who takes him to the Royal Academy each Saturday (he studied there for four years).

Reg is recruited to play in a backing band for visiting American groups and, when answering an ad looking for musicians, is handed a random envelope of lyrics and told to “do something with this.” The lyrics were written by Bernie Taupin (Bell) and, after the two are introduced, they would go on to be perhaps the greatest songwriting duo after John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

Egerton does a great job inhabiting the role. Besides physically resembling the singer, Egerton also sings the songs here. And while
he doesn’t sound a lot like Elton John, he does a fine job in his phrasing and in capturing the emotional moments of the music. Bell is equally good as Taupin while Richard Madden is both smoothly suave and cruelly businesslike as John’s manager (and lover) John Reid.

Don’t go into the film looking for facts. There are many “errors” (including John playing a song in the late 60s that he and Taupin actually wrote in the early 80s) in the story that are used to keep the story moving, which didn’t really bother me. My problem with the film was the occasional “over the top” production numbers that took away from the drama and emotion of the scenes. And there are some emotional moments. Most heartbreaking is when John gets up the courage to tell his mother he is gay. She tells him she has known this, but also tells him that, because he is gay, he will never be loved properly.

If you are even a slight fan of Elton John, you will find the film, and it’s music, enjoyable. And if you’re lucky enough to catch Elton John on his farewell tour, I urge you to go. That experience is even more enjoyable

Film Review: “Aladdin”

ALADDIN
Starring: Will Smith, Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Rated: PG 13
Running time: 2 hrs 8 mins
Walt Disney Pictures

Will Smith has fought many a cinematic battle.  He’s taken on drug dealers, aliens (many times), a mechanical spider and George Foreman and beaten them all.  This week he takes on his biggest challenge, the memory of Robin Williams.  And I’m happy to report he succeeds.

We open with a family at sea.  The children remark at the opulence of the boats around them, causing their father to remind them that bigger isn’t always better.  He then begins to tell them the story of Aladdin and his Magic Lamp.  We meet Aladdin (Massoud) as he and his monkey companion, Abu, work their trade through the marketplace.  Their trade is theft, and they are very good at what they do.  However, when Aladdin sees a beautiful young woman (Scott) ahead of him, his thoughts go from larceny to love.  He introduces himself and offers to show her the town.  However, she suddenly rushes off, explaining that she is a handmaiden to the daughter of the Sultan.  Like Cinderella, she is off with Aladdin seeking to find her.  However, unlike Cinderella, SHE is the Sultan’s daughter, which puts her a little out of Aladdin’s league.  If only he had a way of becoming a prince.

The least “Guy Ritchiest” of any Guy Ritchie film, “Aladdin” is actually an entertaining bit of filmmaking.  All of the characters from the beloved 1992 animated film are here.  Aladdin.  Princess Jasmine.  Jafar (a very evil Marwan Kenzari).  His parrot, Iago.  Abu.  Rajah the tiger. And, of course, the Genie.  Robin William’s performance as the Genie in the animated feature was so amazing that the Golden Globes created a special award for him.  It was really the first time I thought that an actor would get an Oscar nomination for voicing an animated character.  I give Will Smith a lot of credit for even accepting the role.  And he does well.  He isn’t Robin Williams, but he isn’t trying to be.  This is vintage early Will Smith.  Think the Fresh Prince or Mike Lowery from “Bad Boys.”  A lot of fun and a lot of attitude. 

The musical numbers are immaculately staged, like you just wandered into a “Bollywood” production.  And while this film is about 40-minutes longer than it’s animated predecessor, it doesn’t suffer under the crush of added time like the recent “Dumbo,” which was almost twice as long as the 64-minute animated original.  The cast is excellent, and I’ve read where Disney made sure to cast actors whose heritage is from the actual parts in the world the film depicts.

My one disappointment, and this was echoed by many of the people around me in the screening that sat through the entire closing credits, was that there was no dedication to the memory of Robin Williams.  For generations to come, whenever the animated “Aladdin” is mentioned, his name will be the first thing brought up.  A very simple “FOR ROBIN” would have been a fine and quiet tribute.

Film Review “Tolkien”

 
TOLKIEN
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins
Directed by: Dome Karukoski
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hr 52 mins
Fox Searchlight
 
He was arguably the greatest fantasy writer of all time and certainly the godfather of modern fantasy literature. British author J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (1937) and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (1954-55) have endured the test of time while inspiring countless other works of the same genre, not to mention a modern-day film franchise that grossed nearly two billion dollars domestically. What many may not know is who Tolkien was during his formative years and what inspired him to create such a diverse world. Finnish director Dome Karukoski (“Tom of Finland”) helms a modestly successful attempt to shed light on the complicated young life of the writer, poet, philologist, academic and World War I veteran.
 
When we first meet John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973), he is being forced, along with his younger brother, to move from their family cottage in the English countryside, which is painted as grossly idyllic, to the overly dark and sinister heart of an industrial city by his widowed mother. (The family patriarch died in South Africa when Ronald was three years old.) Thanks to the efforts of the stern, yet caring Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney, “Layer Cake”), the Tolkiens avoid complete destitution, but things go from bad to worse in 1904 when Ronald’s mother suddenly dies. Father Francis does not abandon them, though, and helps the lads find a home at a boarding house, and ensures their continued education based upon the family’s reputation.
 
Although brilliant and already well-educated, Ronald initially does not fit in well with his fellow classmates, preferring the company of books over people. However, thanks to a scuffle on the rugby field, Ronald develops a close fellowship with three other lads as they form their own, semi-secret society. Even into their teens, Ronald (Nicholas Hoult, “Mad Max: Fury Road”), Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle, “The Lost City of Z”), Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney, “Dunkirk”) and Robert Q. Gilson (Patrick Gibson, “The OA” tv series) continue their pledge to change the world through artistic endeavors. Their most difficult challenge, though, arrives when they all volunteer to serve in the war to end all wars.
 
The hallmark of a good movie is how long does it stay in your train of thought. Some are gone so fast that you might as well file an insurance claim for amnesia. A few manage to linger on forever like the taste of apple pie that grandma made for you twenty years ago. While “Tolkien’s” romantic elements are full of innocent sweetness and the four lads’ friendship is nice, none of it is all that remarkable. The only exception might be how Ronald’s imagination, even at a young age, began to create the fundamental building blocks that would become Middle Earth. What does stay with you are the horrific battle sequences. War is hell, as Sherman once said, and it’s depicted as such in “Tolkien.” Karukoski doesn’t shy away from also delving into what’s nothing less than PTSD for the survivors of the Great War. Hoult is at his best when he portrays the evolution of the author from naïve linguist to a leader of men suffering from trench fever to a grown man struggling with his inner demons. Karukoski does a marvelous job throughout with the use of symbolic imagery to put us into the head of Ronald as he continues to put together Middle Earth. It greatly helps to overcome some of the sluggishness that exists during the more mundane aspects of Ronald’s life, which is left a little vague in a spiritual sense as Tolkien was a devout Catholic, something that’s barely alluded to in the story.

Overall, “Tolkien” should satisfy all but probably the most die-hard Middle Earth enthusiasts who may strive to pick apart every, last embellishment. It’s a fairly satisfying film that should wet your appetite for a “Hobbit”/”Lord of the Rings” movie marathon.
 

Film Review: “The Chaperone”

THE CHAPERONE

Starring: Haley Lu Richardson, Elizabeth McGovern

Directed by: Michael Engler

Rated: Not Rated

Running Time: 1 hr 43 mins

PBS Distribution 

Period drama “The Chaperone” is a delightful little film that’s as much about a married woman seeking out who she is as it is a study about the early life of iconic dancer/actress/writer Louise Brooks (1906-85). A native of Cherryvale, Kansas, Brooks moved to Wichita in 1919 where she began a dance career that would lead her to the legendary Denishawn School in New York City. It’s during that transitionary period that we meet her as well as the older woman who chaperones the then 16-year-old on her journey.

Based upon the 2012 novel of the same name by American author Laura Moriarty, “The Chaperone” takes us back to a time when modern dance was still establishing itself. This newfangled artform is alien to the folks of Wichita who have difficulty appreciating its artistry. That is except for Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern), the clearly unhappy wife of prominent lawyer Alan Carlisle (Campbell Scott) and the adopted daughter of a Kansas farm family who claimed her when she arrived aboard an orphan train from New York City.

Norma may be straight-laced, but she is more cosmopolitan in 1922 than her neighbors, some of whom casually talk about joining the KKK at dance recital to maintain purity. Revolted by such sentiment and looking for an adventure, Norma jumps at the chance to chaperone Louise (Haley Lu Richardson, “Five Feet Apart,” “Split”) to New York City, where Norma hopes to learn who her birth mother was. Her traditional values and quiet nature are a stark contrast to Louise who struts around like she is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Louise becomes a fast-rising star at Denishawn, which only feeds her free-spirited, sometimes petulant attitude, played with unmistakable charm by Richardson. Director Michael Engler, who has helmed episodes of “Empire” and “Downton Abbey,” insures Louise doesn’t become too unlikable by harnessing the tangible chemistry between McGovern and Richardson to reveal to us just how damaged the young dancer was. McGovern’s infuses her character with subtle bravery and humility, making Norma that much more admirable as she becomes a source of encouragement for Louise, not to mention an inspiration as she tracks down her past and finds new love. Famous for her bob haircut, Brooks, whose actual first name was Mary, is resurrected on the silver screen with wonderful flair as Richardson not only captures the look of the famous Kansan, but also her sexual complexities even at such an early age.

Although filled with marvelous period costumes, “The Chaperone” does fail to go into real depth about the social conditions and inequalities of the era, and is therefore a missed opportunity by the filmmaker. Still, “The Chaperone” provides a nice change of pace from commercial epics involving caped heroes and purple-skinned villains.

Film Review: “Avengers: Endgame”

AVENGERS: END GAME
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr, Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth
Directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo
Rated: PG 13
Running time: 3 hrs 1 min

I think it’s ironic that the 22nd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is opening the same week that the 25th James Bond film is announced.  James Bond first hit the screen in 1962 with “Dr, No.”  The MCU began in 2008 with “Iron Man,”  And while some of the Bond films have been hit or miss (I’m looking at YOU, “A View to a Kill”), I don’t think I’ve ever given an MCU movie a rating less than four stars.  Sadly, our rating system only goes up to five, because otherwise I’d give “Avengers: Endgame” six!

NOTE:  THIS WILL BE A SPOILER FREE REVIEW

“Endgame” picks up where “Avengers: Infinity War” ended…with half of the world’s population vanishing in a literal puff of smoke after the evil Thanos (a superb Josh Brolin) has donned his gauntlet, studded with the Infinity Stones, and snapped his fingers.  Unfortunately half of the people eliminated included some popular figures from the MCU, including Black Panther and Spider-man.  Those that have survived mourn their lost colleagues, with Tony Stark (Downey Jr, the backbone of this franchise) taking the loss of Peter Parker badly (I will say that, of all the characters that were lost in “Infinity War,” the loss of Parker hit me he hardest – Tom Holland has really inhabited the character).  The remaining Avengers gather and try to figure out how to return their world to the way they knew it.

I really can’t share any of my favorite moments for fear of giving away a plot point.  I will say this; you will laugh.  And you will cry.  And you will go through every emotion in the middle.  For the last eleven years we have met, and grown with, these characters.  We are as protective of them as we know they would be of us.  And the final chapter of this saga is one for the ages!

Film Review “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”

Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgård, Olga Kurylenko, Joana Ribeiro
Release date: 10 April 2019 (US)
Running time: 132 minutes

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I had no idea that back in May of 1998, when I first snuck in to see a film in theaters called “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, that he would end up becoming one of my favorite directors and influencing my interest in film so much. Terry Gilliam has always had a lot of luck with getting his film well receptive. They are always unique and never follow the Hollywood typical bubble that every other film does. Well “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is no different for Gilliam. This was a film that he was trying to get made for nearly three decades. If that shows nothing else it is that the guy was determined to bring this project to life no matter what. Well after it’s long journey to the world, it is definitely worth the wait.

Back in 2000, Jean Rochefort was originally cast to play Don Quixote and Toby was to be played by Johnny Depp (imagine that?!). They even made a documentary about this failed attempt called “Lost in La Mancha”, worth checking out. I have to admit thought, I am HUGE fan of Jonathan Pryce, who also collaborated with Gilliam in his film “Brazil”, another one of my favorites). Pryce nails it for me as Don Quixote. Other than Depp, the role of Sancho Panza has previously had even Robin Williams and Ewan McGregor attached before Adam Driver aka Kylo Ren in the “Star Wars” Universe. I have to admit, if I had a dream cast and out of all the people that could have played Panza Driver probably wouldn’t have been my first choice. Don’t get me wrong, he was good in the film and did the role justice but I wanted a little more from him here.

Here is the film’s official Premise: “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is the story of Toby (Driver), a cynical advertising director, who finds himself trapped in the outrageous delusions of an old Spanish shoe-maker (Pryce) who believes himself to be Don Quixote.  In the course of their comic and increasingly surreal adventures, Toby is forced to confront the tragic repercussions of a film he made in his idealistic youth – a film that changed the hopes and dreams of a small Spanish village forever. Can Toby make amends and regain his humanity? Can Don Quixote survive his madness and imminent death? Or will love conquer all?

When I watch a Terry Gilliam directed film, you know you are going to get amazing locations, really unique set designs, wonderful costumes and simply the best cinematography. “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” delivers in all of these departments, no question. The film runs a little long for me personally and when watching it with my wife, I noticed she checked out not shortly after it started. I think I appreciated it cause you can see where all the blood, sweat and tears went into this film. You can tell that this was the hail Mary pass at the end of the quarter for Gilliam and I definitely think it was a score!

Speaking earlier of “Lost in La Mancha”, the writers and directors of the film are currently working on a follow-up film, titled “He Dreamed of Giants”, which dives into the history of the film’s making this time around and what has happened since the events documented in “Lost in La Mancha”. Count me in!

Sponsored content: If you go searching for this film you might have to do a bit of digging since it can be a little hard to find a stream. Be sure to browse safely and enjoy this less than typical film.

Film Review: “The Aftermath”

THE AFTERMATH
Starring: Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke
Directed by: James Kent
Rated: Rated R
Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
Fox Searchlight

I can still vividly recall the first art-house film I reviewed professionally – the 2000 British drama/comedy “Topsy-Turvy” at the Tivoli Cinemas in the Westport area of Kansas City, MO. Sadly, the Tivoli, an arthouse institution in our fair city for nearly 40 years, has permanently closed its doors. So, it was poetic that the last film I reviewed there would be another period British drama, “The Aftermath.” While it has its share of flaws, “The Aftermath” proved to be a decent swan song before the proverbial final curtain came down at the Tivoli.

Directed by James Kent (“Testament of Youth”) and based upon the 2013 novel of the same name by Welsh author Rhidian Brook, “The Aftermath” is set in Germany just months after the end of World War II. With the ruins of Hamburg as a backdrop, where an estimated 40,000 civilians died in a firestorm created by ten days of heavy Allied bombardment, Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) arrives at a train station to meet her husband, British Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke). It’s a subdued meeting at best and we can instantly tell that something is amiss between the two.

Colonel Morgan has been assigned to command British forces in Hamburg who are tasked with keeping the peace and helping to rebuild the city. Similar to how the British Empire forced American colonists to house their soldiers, Colonel Morgan and Rachael commandeer the home of widower Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgrd), a former German architect with no love lost for the defeated Nazis. However, the British see all Germans as the enemy just as much as Stephen’s teenage daughter sees all Brits as villains. Colonel Morgan, much to the dismay of Rachael, invites the Luberts to remain in the upper story of their home to avoid sending them to a tent camp in the middle of winter.

Rachael is desperate to have her husband again, but he remains mostly stoic despite the pain he carries with him. In addition to his emotional distance, Colonel Morgan is often called away to deal with Germans protesting over how little there is to eat and increasing guerrilla warfare violence carried by the SS’s, young Germans still devoted to Hitler’s cause. Increasingly starved for affection, the two wounded souls belonging to Rachael and Stephen become drawn to one another despite their differences. The question then becomes can Colonel Morgan save his marriage before Rachael runs away with Stephen.

In a partially successful effort to create suspense, and to give Colonel Morgan something to do besides having awkward conversations with Rachael, the script presents the aforementioned side story of young German men, presumably former members of the Hitler Youth, brandishing the number 88 burned into their arms. “The Aftermath” never goes too in-depth about it, but these 88s are an allusion to a real-life military organization the Nazi hierarchy tried to create towards the end of World War II with a program called “Werewolf.” While the goal was for trained soldiers to commit acts of sabotage behind Allied lines during the war, and to keep up the fight even after it was over, the Werewolf never amounted to anything more than just a lot of propaganda. The members of Werewolf were improperly supplied and more importantly, had little stomach to continue fighting once Nazi Germany had officially surrendered.

The dramatic presentation of the SS in “The Aftermath” murdering British soldiers in a last-ditch effort of defiance is a fallacy. While films do sometimes have to take dramatic license to make a story more entertaining for the masses, the mis-telling of history often leads to misperceptions of actual events and therefore can cause ignorance on a broad scale. I would make the argument that filmmakers who choose to play fast and loose with historical facts in order to liven up a story should state at the end of their creation that what the audience has seen is historical fiction. At least it would be more honest than giving lip service that it has been “inspired by/based upon true events.”

The overall performances are entertaining and there is solid chemistry between Knightley and Clarke. The latter delivers the most powerful scenes of the film playing a man sick of death and destruction. Kent’s pacing is a little choppy at times, but it all leads to a conclusion the audience can savor. “The Aftermath” deserves praise for at least exploring a time frame rarely done before as war movies are usually all about blood, guns and guts. For a refreshing change, we get a tale involving what happens in the aftermath.

Thank you, Tivoli Cinemas. It was a pleasure seeing art-house films there for the past 18+ years. Hopefully the aftermath of your ending won’t be as despairing.

Film Review: “Penguins”

PENGUINS
Narrated by: Ed Helms
Directed by: Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson
Rated: G
Running time: 1 hr 16 mins
Disney Nature

I don’t know what it is about penguins that make them so damn cute!  Is it the way they walk?  The fun they obviously have when they slide across the frozen tundra of the Arctic?  The excessive fuzziness of their young?  I really don’t know but I’m pretty sure they could do an all-penguin remake of THE EXORCIST, complete with projectile vomiting and self-gratification with a crucifix and people would go “awwwww.”   Which is exactly the sound I made many times during a recent screening of “Penguins.”

Steve is an Adelie penguin looking for love.  He and the other males in his colony are on a trek to find a mate.  But the road to love isn’t easy.  Especially when your pals are stealing parts of your nest in order to attract that special gal.  And what are you supposed to do when you finally meet her?

A beautifully shot (over an almost three year period) film that manages to be both heart-warming and thrilling, “Penguins” gives the audience the “birds-eye” view of life in Antarctica.  And it’s a pretty chilly one.  Whether it’s having to walk miles upon miles to find food or teaching your chicks how to play dead when a leopard seal tries to eat them, it’s a hard knock life.  Yet, it’s also one full of love and adventure. 

Like “March of the Penguins” before it, “Penguins” is a film the entire family can enjoy.  Kids will love it for the penguins; parents for the story.  Nature is on full display in this film and it’s one I highly recommend.

Film Review: “The Haunting of Sharon Tate”

THE HAUNTING OF SHARON TATE
Starring: Hillary Duff, Jonathan Bennett, Lydia Hearst
Directed by: Daniel Farrands
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 34 mins
Saban Films

As a child of the 60’s, I grew up in a time full of tragedies.  Some of these events (among them, the assassinations of JFK and RFK) intrigued me to the point of learning everything I could about them.  Another were the murders of Sharon Tate and her friends at her home in August 1969.  Which really made me want to see the new film, “The Haunting of Sharon Tate.”

In 1969, Sharon Tate was on her way to becoming a movie star.  With roles in films like “The Fearless Vampire Hunters,” where she was directed by her future husband, Roman Polanski, and “Valley of the Dolls” she proved to be a very beautiful woman whom the camera loved.  A year earlier, during an interview, Sharon Tate spoke of a premonition she had of her death, one that was very disturbing. 

After a brief clip from the aforementioned interview, the film picks up in August 1969, when Sharon Tate (Duff) returns from London, where she is visiting her husband while he prepares for his next film.  8 ½ months pregnant, Sharon is happy to be home, surrounded by her best friend, Abigail Folger (Hearst), Folger’s boyfriend, Wojceich Frykowski (Pawei Szadja) and family friend (and Sharon’s former lover) hair stylist Jay Sebring (Bennett).  One day a knock on the door reveals a small, bearded man asking to speak to “Terry.”  Despite being told that Terry no longer lives there, the man drops off a package and leaves.  Sharon is told that the man and his friends has been coming by constantly, looking for the former owner of the home, record producer Terry Melcher.  That night, Sharon has a vision of a very violent encounter with the mystery man, one that continues to grow in violence and intensity.

I’m completely torn in how to review this film.

On the plus sign, I give much credit to writer/director Daniel Farrands, who has done an incredible amount of research and ensured that everything noted in the film, from the red mailbox at 10050 Cielo Drive to the name of Sharon’s dog (Dr. Sapesrstein) is faithful.  There were a few factual errors but, creative license being what it is, I’m not going to quibble.  The performances are also strong.  Though Hillary Duff looks nothing like Sharon Tate (while Ms. Duff is certainly attractive, I can honestly say that, at the end of the 1960s, Sharon Tate was one of the most beautiful women in the world), she gives a fine performance of a woman slowly descending into a nightmare she cannot prevent.  The supporting cast is also well cast and deliver good work. 

On the negative side, the film is horribly violent.  A quick intro using actual news and crime scene footage opens the film, and the murder scene including Sharon Tate’s body is shown, though her body has been retracted from the image.  However, as Sharon’s vision continue to grow, so too does the violence.  In the real attacks, Ms. Folger was stabbed almost 30 times…Mr. Frykowski over 50…and you get to witness almost every one of them.  That and the fact that Ms. Tate was pregnant make the violence horrific to watch.  Eventually you become numb to the violence being inflicted, taking away from the horror of the situation.

So I’ll leave it up to you, the reader.  If you’re looking for an interesting take on a very familiar story, you might want to check this film out.  If you’re not a fan of multiple murders, repeatedly depicted, you may not.  Or, like me, you’re just waiting for Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming take on the story, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

Film Review: “The Mustang”


THE MUSTANG
Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruce Dern
Directed by: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Rated: Rated R
Running Time: 1 hr 36 mins
Focus Features
 
Robert Redford is no stranger to being involved with projects that explore the American West (“The Horse Whisperer,” “Jeremiah Johnson”) or the hardships of prison life (“Brubaker,” “The Last Castle”). It’s no wonder then that the Hollywood icon, under the title of “executive producer,” is prominently featured for the new prison drama, “The Mustang.” It makes perfect sense as a means to market the film, but this occasionally emotional story proves to have legs strong enough, thanks to its lead actor, to not need Redford’s name as a carrot.
 
In a powerful, career-defining performance, Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts (“Far from the Madding Crowd”) plays Roman Coleman, a convict in a rural Nevada prison who prefers solitary confinement over being with the general population. Roman admittedly does not play well with others as his inner rage often gets the best of him. A caring psychologist (a drastically underused Connie Britton) sees him as a challenge and decides to give him a second chance, whether he likes it or not, by providing him a rare opportunity to rehabilitate.
 
Roman finds himself thrust into a program in which wild mustangs are saddle broke and then sold, something that’s currently done in real life at several prisons throughout the West. A grizzled horse trainer named Myles (“shockingly” played with grit by Bruce Dern) offers Roman a deal to move up from being a manure shoveler to a trainer. The catch is that Roman must stay in the ring with a mustang that’s as seemingly untamable as Roman. It’s a tall order yet the outcome is predictable.
 
Despite guidance from a veteran, horse training prisoner (Jason Mitchell, “Straight Outta Compton”), Roman’s achievement is short-lived as his temper rears its ugly head and he treats his mustang as a punching bag. Back to solitary Roman goes while at the same time his estranged, pregnant daughter is trying to get him to sign over some property so she can use it to start a new life. A storm as fierce as Roman and his mustang unexpectedly rolls in, giving Roman a second chance at redemption, but as expected, nothing comes easy in this tale.
 
As the first, feature-length film by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre (“Rabbit”), “The Mustang” captures the essence of the Western landscape and the power, and even grace of the wild horses who populate it. It also presents an all-too brief glimpse at a prison system that in general has no intention of rehabilitating criminals. It’s only rare exceptions like the mustang program that a chance is given, but those seem to be skating on thin ice as they are poorly funded and snickered at.
 
Schoenaerts is a revelation. His performance is fueled with tangible fury against the world and himself. It covers a pain he gradually comes to face and Schoenaerts fleshes it out with nothing short of perfection. However, Clermont-Tonnerre beats us over the head with the whole, Roman-and-the-horse-are-reflections-of-each-other thing. Events within the story are also often foreseeable so don’t expect any genuine surprises or originality where that’s concerned.
 
In the end, “The Mustang” is worth the ride because of Schoenaerts’s performance alone.