Film Review: “Blow the Man Down”

  • BLOW THE MAN DOWN
  • Starring: Sophie Lowe, Morgan Saylor
  • Directed by: Bridget Savage Cole & Danielle Krudy
  • Rated: R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 30 mins
  • Amazon Prime Video

 With a title borrowed from a classic English sea shanty, “Blow the Man Down” is an average, yet entertaining mystery/drama with a multitude of secrets that emanates a “Fargo”-like vibe. First-time feature length directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, who also co-wrote the film that debuted on Amazon Prime, have crafted a smooth-paced work of cinema with a few flashes of well-timed suspense. 

Set in the small, picturesque fishing village of Easter Cove, Maine, “Blow the Man Down” begins with the Catholic wake of one Mary Margaret Connolly. Her two daughters – Priscilla (Sophie Lowe, “The Beautiful Lie”) and Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor, “Homeland”) – are naturally saddened by the loss of their mother, whom they had to care for in recent times. The girls, though, seem surprised to hear tales from their mother’s three closest friends – Susie Gallagher (Academy Award nominee June Squibb, “Nebraska”), Gail Maguire (Academy Award nominee Annette O’Toole, “A Mighty Wind”) and Doreen Burke (Marceline Hugot, “The Messenger”) – of how Mary had saved their bacon on several occasions. 

Interspersed within this sadness is a scene in which a nameless woman frantically jumps out of a car and runs screaming from an angry man who eventually tackles her. All the while a woman we come to know as Enid Nora Devlin (Margo Martindale, “August: Osage County”) watches silently from a second story window. We get the sense she may approve of the violence that is transpiring and thus has no interest in helping the woman. It’s brief but it’s an important nugget of things to come.

 Back at Mary’s house, the younger Mary Beth is dismayed to learn from Priscilla that their mother has left them with nothing. Mary Beth leaves in an explosion of anger and ends up at a dive bar where she latches onto a man who proves to be far more dangerous than she had ever considered. This is followed by a killing and cover-up that leads the sisters down a rabbit hole of secrets and lies involving prostitution, bribery, murder and a police force that either looks the other way or is incompetent. 

Even with a solid story, “Blow the Man Down” does contain some mystery clichés so don’t expect anything fresh when watching it. Additionally, the two leads are fine enough in their roles, but they are overshadowed greatly by the much older, supporting female cast. Squibb, O’Toole and Hugot are a hoot as a trio and they excel at making us feel like there is something more to their characters without giving too much away too quickly. 

Overall, the real star is Martindale who is simply a delight to watch. A woman with a ton of secrets and a hardened, mean streak a mile wide and a mile deep, Enid is someone that proves to be a perfect antagonist. Martindale also infuses her character with a level of complexity that the other cast members are not quite able to achieve. 

Call it a poor man’s version of “Knives Out,” “Blow the Man Down” is a nice way to spend 90 minutes in front of a screen at home.

Film Review: “The Way Back”

THE WAY BACK
Starring: Ben Affleck, Janina Gavankar
Directed by: Gavin O’Connor
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hr 48 mins
Warner Bros. 

Having its release date delayed several months was not a good sign for the new sports drama “The Way Back” starring Ben Affleck. However, instead of just being another piece of cinematic rubbish that is typically released at the beginning of each year, “The Way Back” proves to be one of the greatest cinematic surprises in recent memory. With one of Affleck’s finest performances to date, this sports drama about an alcoholic who becomes a high school basketball coach ranks among the pantheon of such classics as “Hoosiers” and “Bull Durham.”

 The life of construction worker Jack Cunningham (Affleck) has boiled down to this: wake up and have a beer while showering; drive to work while having another beer; work all day while drinking some more; drive back home while drinking; and then either drink a case of beer in his run-down apartment or drink himself into a stupor at a local bar. It’s a tragic life as he is clearly on a path to drinking himself to death. 

One day, Jack receives a coaching offer from the priest who oversees his alma mater – a private Catholic school that is experiencing some hard times thanks to diminishing enrollment. We learn that once upon a time, Jack was a high school basketball phenom and was recruited by NCAA Division I programs. However, Jack walked away from basketball after high school and never looked back. 

Reluctantly, Jack takes on the role, but he soon discovers that his team is less than stellar and his assistant coach (Al Madrigal, “The Daily Show”) is a math teacher with no real experience. There are some predictable things that subsequently occur, but for the most part, the story evolves beyond general sports clichés, which typically dominate this subgenre, and deals with real life issues, thus giving “The Way Back” substance over style. 

Whether he likes it or not, Jack becomes a mentor to his players, particularly so for the team’s lone standout. Yet his newfound lease on life is shaky at best because of the underlying issues that remain, which are brought to the forefront again when his estranged wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar, “True Blood”) reaches out to him. Inevitably, Jack hits rock bottom in a painful and sad way. 

Once upon a time, yours truly was offered a position as a basketball coach at a private high school. Strictly basketball speaking, Affleck nails the evolution of Jack’s growth as a rookie coach and as a mentor to young men, notwithstanding his profane tirades. Director Gavin O’Connor (“The Accountant”) also brilliantly captures the atmosphere of the little gymnasiums that these schools play in as well as bringing an authenticity to the depiction of games played. 

Affleck has been open about his own battle with alcoholism in recent years and it is easy to see that he gave everything he had to the role. As the lone “star” of the film, Affleck lives up to the challenge with a fantastic performance as a man in great pain that is raw and authentic. In the end, like a Steph Curry jump shot, “The Way Back” is nothing but net.

Film Review: “Ordinary Love”

ORDINARY LOVE
Starring: Liam Neeson, Lesley Manville
Directed by: Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hr 32 mins
Bleecker Street Media 

Nearly everyone has been affected by cancer in some way. Whether you have had to battle it yourself or had a family member, friend or acquaintance to be diagnosed with it, cancer, as we all know too well, is non-discriminatory as to who it invades. In the somber British drama “Ordinary Love,” this hideous disease inflicts a toll on the relationship of a devoted married couple still haunted by a tragic loss. The ups and downs they experience during one long year are portrayed with absolute brilliance and humanity by Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville (“Phantom Thread”). 

By the time we meet Tom (Neeson) and Joan (Manville), their relationship has developed into one that feels like putting on a comfortable pair of slippers. There is a tangible ease about how they interact with each other, punctuated by wonderful chemistry between the two leads. Initially, they have all the appearances of carefree empty nesters enjoying the autumn period of their lives. However, when Joan discovers a lump in her breast, we learn that underneath the pleasant exterior of their marriage is a scar that runs deep in their souls.

 Somehow, their marriage endured the death of their daughter long ago, but cancer threatens to put them through an altogether different ordeal. Despite trying to maintain a stiff upper lip about her diagnosis, Joan is racked with fear of the unknown while Tom swims in denial while trying to do his best to be supportive. What unfolds over the course of a year are challenges they meet with a variety of emotions, ranging from gut-wrenching despair to laughter to anger born from frustration. Through it all there is a grace which carries them through. 

“Ordinary Love,” which had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, is a serious work of cinematic art that will leave its mark on you. It is raw and unfiltered. Neeson and Manville are terrific at making us feel the painful intensity of their characters’ emotions. For her part, Manville, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in 2017’s “Phantom Thread,” delivers a gut-wrenching performance as a woman trying to endure a disease that takes its toll on the mind, body and spirit. 

The film’s brevity, at just over an hour-and-a-half, means less time the story can explore the medical/hospital elements of Joan’s cancer. As such, these moments seem rushed and too abbreviated, thus lessening how truly impactful “Ordinary Love” could have been. Some elements are also predictable, yet this can be overlooked as a negative because of the overall emotional potency within the film. “Ordinary Love” is certainly not ordinary and will hit close to home for anyone who has been touched by cancer. 

Film Review: “Onward”

ONWARD
Starring the voices of:  Tom Holland and Chris Pratt
Directed by: Dan Scanlon
Rated:  PG
Running time:  1 hr 42 mins
Walt Disney

Fathers and sons.  As a father (and a son) I can tell you there is nothing like the bond shared between the two.  Films dealing with this special relationship have been around since time immortal.  From “The Godfather” to “The Lion King,”… from “Field of Dreams” to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” the celebration of that bond is timeless.  So, if you had only 24 hours to discover that bond, wouldn’t you do ANYTHING to achieve it?

Ian Lightfoot (Holland) is turning 16 but he doesn’t seem to pleased.  His mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) wants him to invite his friends over for a party but, with the exception of a few of his classmates, he really doesn’t have any.  Ian lives with his mom and his older brother, Barley (Pratt).  Ian’s father passed away before Ian was born and today, to honor his pop, Ian is wearing his dad’s favorite college sweatshirt.  A random meeting with a former classmate of his dad gives Ian a new insight into him.  To make things even more exciting, his mother gives Ian a present that dad intended to give him on this special day.  It seems that dad was a fan of wizardry and has bequeathed Ian his staff.  He has also given him a spell that will allow Ian to bring his father back for one day.  A day that Ian will remember forever.

I’ll have to admit that I went into this film not expecting much.  Obviously, as it was from PIXAR, I knew that visually it would be amazing (and I was right) but from the previews I didn’t think the story would hold my attention.  WRONG!  Helped by the strong vocal performances from the cast, “Onward” is a fine addition to the proud line up of films the company has produced.  It hits all of the emotional notes and, if you’ve ever been a child who longed for a few extra moments alone with your dad, it brings tears to your eyes.

Like most animated films these days, the cast is top notch.  Holland brings his youthful exuberance to the role while Pratt is all blustery bravado.  Both actors inhabit their characters.  Louis-Dreyfuss, Octavia Spencer and the rest of the cast do likewise.  Visually, the film is gorgeous.  Brightly colored and stunningly rendered, this is a film that can stand proudly next to such recent fare as “Toy Story 4” and “UP” as a can’t miss hit for the entire family to enjoy!

Film Review: “The Invisible Man”

THE INVISIBLE MAN
Starring:  Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen
Directed by: Leigh Whannell
Rated:  R
Running time:  2 hrs 4 mins
Universal

There’s a great joke I first heard in the eighth grade that deals with a mishap involving Superman, Wonder Woman and the Invisible Man.  I can’t relate it hear but believe me, the punchline is killer.  So is the latest incarnation of the Invisible Man.

We open on a couple in bed.  As Adrian (Jackson-Cohen) sleeps, Cecilia (Moss) gets up, gathers some things and makes her way quietly out of the state of the art house.  Doing her best to avoid cameras and not set off alarms, she makes her way to the road, where a ride is waiting.  But she will soon find out that you can’t run away from some things, no matter how hard you try.

Genuinely terrifying, with a tour-de-force performance by Ms. Moss, “The Invisible Man” starts off slowly and clumsy.  20-minutes in I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to see a rehash of “Sleeping with the Enemy,” only with a Patrick Bergin that I couldn’t see.  But just as that thought came into my head, writer/director Whannell flipped the switch, taking the film into directions I never would have imagined.

There have been many attempts at filming H.G. Wells’ story of a man with the power of invisibility, from the 1933 Universal Horror Classic “The Invisible Man” starring Claude Rains to the 2000 Kevin Bacon-starrer “Hollow Man.”  Heck, even Kurt Russell and Chevy Chase have taken comedic shots at the story.  But here, the main theme is terror, especially to an audience who is on the edge of their seats, intently staring at the screen and looking for the slightest hint the bad guy is there.

Moss is a revelation here.  Best known for her television and streaming work (“Mad Men,” “The Handmaids Tale”) and a strong supporting turn in last year’s Jordan Peele horror masterpiece, “Us,” she has the unenviable job of basically interacting with a character that the audience never sees.  Whether arguing, pleading or physically fighting with our villain, it’s just her on the screen, yet you feel her terror, especially when she is violently struggling with an entity that she (nor the audience) can see.  Mr. Whannell, no stranger to horror thanks to his involvement in the “Saw” and “Insidious” film series, keeps the pace moving (after the first half-hour) and uses his camera as an almost additional character.  The musical score, by Benjamin Wallfisch (“IT,” “Bladerunner: 2049), helps set the mood as well.  The result is the most terrifying film since the aforementioned “Us.”  By all means, go see it…even if you can’t SEE it!

Film Review: “Emma”

EMMA
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn
Directed by: Autumn de Wilde
Rated: Rated PG
Running Time: 2 hrs 5 mins
Focus Features 

Patience is a virtue and you must be virtuous indeed to eventually enjoy the newest adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 classic novel, “Emma.” This is due to its initial pacing, which is lethargic, and it takes a bit to get comfortable with the cadence of the dialogue. Anya Taylor-Joy (“Glass,” “Split”) delivers a solid performance as the strong-willed title character, but excepting Bill Nighy as her character’s somewhat eccentric father, the remaining supporting cast doesn’t provide much that is memorable. Some of the blasé quality can arguably be attributed to “Emma” being the feature-length film debut for American director Autumn de Wilde, whose previous endeavors have predominately been video shorts. The trick for something so well known, and thus predictable like “Emma” is for it to be unpredictable. Sadly, it fails to surprise in any way. 

This silver screen adaptation of Austen’s work begins by telling us that, “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition… and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” Having grown up in a privileged, aristocratic existence, Emma is spoiled and is vain about her matchmaking abilities. Her own self-aggrandizement has caused her to be blind to the dangers of playing with other people’s hearts. 

With no wish to become married herself, even though she pines away for an often talked about yet unseen Frank Churchill (Callum Turner, “War & Peace”), it has become Emma’s desire to follow-up her most recent matchmaking success by finding a suitable suitor for her friend, Harriet Smith (Mia Goth, “Suspiria”). Harriet is a nice girl with a pleasant disposition but is not as high on the social ladder as Emma, which is a challenge for her because she wants to upgrade Harriet’s status.

 Emma proves to be ignorant of a good thing right in front of her in the form of one George Knightley (Johnny Flynn, “Clouds of Sils Maria”), a gentleman of means who lives within walking distance. Generous and kind-hearted, George doesn’t mince words with Emma as he often expresses disdain for her meddling in other people’s affairs. Ultimately, Emma finds herself in an ostracized position and must look inward in order to make things right.

 “Emma” contains some beautiful costume designs, wonderful locations, and good cinematography throughout its running time. It’s nice icing on the cake, but the cake itself is what’s truly important. There are a few moments that produce laughter, especially ones involving Nighy being a scene stealer, but de Wilde’s retelling fails to pull on the heartstrings enough to evoke a deep, emotional reaction when the climax arrives. It’s a decent enough film so that one doesn’t feel like they have wasted two hours of their life, yet “Emma” isn’t something that’s so impactful that you will still remember it say two years from now except, of course, for perhaps diehard Austen fans.

Film Review: “The Call of the Wild”

THE CALL OF THE WILD
Starring: Harrison Ford
Directed by: Chris Sanders
Rated: Rated PG
Running Time: 1 hr 40 mins
20th Century Studios 

The 1903 novel “The Call of the Wild” by American novelist John “Jack” London (1876-1916) was written after the author had spent nearly a year in the wilds of the Canadian Yukon. It is arguably his most popular work and has been adapted to film several times – a silent film in 1923 followed by a 1935 version starring Clark Gable and Loretta Young, and numerous others since. Its indelible mark on American literature cannot be discounted as Hollywood has yet again decided to release another silver screen adaptation. Directed by Chris Sanders (“The Croods,” “How to Train Your Dragon”) and starring Harrison Ford, this newest incarnation is a dullish version of London’s classic tale. It’s tragic because the original story is full of harrowing adventure and timeless themes. However, its clear that Sanders and 20th Century Studios, formerly 20th Century Fox, wanted to make a more politically correct and kid-friendly story. 

Set in 1897, we meet Buck, a 140-pound St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix, at the Santa Clara Valley home of one Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford). A highly intelligent, happy-go-lucky pet, Buck has a knack for getting himself into trouble. It’s all nice and cute and feels like a Disney movie at this point, but what becomes annoying perpetually forward is that Buck is a CGI creation, and a poor one at that. It gives the film a phony quality, but of course it might have caused too much controversy if a real dog had been used instead. Be that as it may, after one trouble-filled occasion, Buck is forced to stay the night on the porch, which proves to be a fateful decision by Judge Miller. A nefarious local steals Buck for the money he will receive from those looking for good sled dogs in the Yukon. 

After learning the law of the club, Buck is purchased by a mail deliverer and his assistant who need a new dog for their sled team. (Amidst this, Buck has his first encounter with John Thornton (Harrison Ford), a man with a wounded soul looking to disappear into the northern wilderness.) Gradually, Buck, guided by a black wolf that represents his inner call to the wild, learns to be a part of a pack, but he ends up butting heads with the team’s menacing sled leader, Spitz for leadership. This conflict, for example, has been watered-down to the point it fails to reflect the struggles of nature that London related in his work. However, it’s par for the course as London’s original, brilliant story is repeatedly gutted. 

Eventually, Buck acquires yet another new master, but this one is cruel, naïve and blinded by gold lust. When Buck is worked nearly to death, it is Thornton who saves him and takes him in. Perpetually mourning the loss of his son, Thornton answers a call to adventure and sets out with Buck to find the wildest place they can. Once there, Buck is put in a position to decide if he wants to stay in the world of man or answer his ancestral calling. The real calling, though, that everyone should answer is stay away from this movie. Instead, pick up London’s book, or download it, and read it for yourself. You’ll be glad you did.

Film Review: “Downhill”

DOWNHILL
Starring:  Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss
Directed by:  Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Rated: R
Searchlight Pictures       

WARNING:  Do not be fooled by the previews for the film “Downhill” which highlight a few humorous scenes from the film.  If it’s funny you’re looking for…this aint it!

Pete and Billie (Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfuss) have arrived in Austria for a skiing vacation with their children.  On the surface things seem fine and the first night in their hotel goes swimmingly.  The next morning Pete brings out his father’s old ski hat and we learn that he is still grieving the man’s passing several months before.  While lunching on the terrace of their chalet a “planned” avalanche heads towards the chalet and buries everyone on the terrace in a pile of snow.  Except for Pete.  At the moment of truth he has hopped off his chair, grabbed his cell phone and run off, leaving Billie to try to shield her sons from the white peril.  They are fine but Billie can not understand why Pete left them.  And here is where we learn the film’s title refers not to the skiing but to Pete and Billie’s relationship.  Are you laughing yet?

Based on a French film titled “Force Majeure” – a term which is defined as  “unforeseeable circumstances that prevent someone from fulfilling a contract” – “Downhill” is more a drama than a comedy.  Pete must deal with his feelings of loss regarding his father and the look of shame in his boy’s eyes for his cowardice.  Billie must deal with her perceived loss of trust in Pete to look out for and care for the family.  A “chance” meeting with one of Pete’s co-workers and his lady friend, both of whom seem carefree compared to Pete and Billie, only make things worse.  There are some funny parts but most of them are contributed by Miranda Otto who plays “Charlotte,” a lady at the chalet looking to enjoy her life and the adventures it holds.

Not to say that Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfuss aren’t fine in their roles.  They each handle the dramatics well.  I think it’s the fact that the film took me off guard concerning it’s theme that resulted in the rating I’ve given it.  I mean, I honestly think I laughed more at “Joker.”  Co-directors Faxon and Rash also did the same thing on a film I loved called “The Way Way Back.”  They also co-wrote it, as the did here along with Jessie Armstrong.  “The Way Way Back” was also a mix of drama and comedy but it had something that “Downhill” is clearly missing.  Heart.

Film Review: “Color Out of Space”

COLOR OUT OF SPACE
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Madeleine Arthur
Directed by: Richard Stanley
Rated: Unrated
Running Time: 1 hr 51 mins
RJLE Films


     Ladies and gentlemen, if you’re going to plunge into a pool of psychedelically deranged lunacy you might as well jump in feet first. Richard Stanley has arrived with a holiday gift that’s a little late but greatly appreciated and it’s gift wrapped in Alpaca fur. Its contents is the offspring of the trifecta of mania that no one imagined they’d ever see but secretly wished for: Cult-favorite director, Richard Stanley adapting a nearly century old tale of cosmically horrifying oddity by H.P. Lovecraft, top-lined by Nicolas Cage, who is maybe strictly here to ooze an excess of eccentricity (which is okay because it’s working!)   

 “Color Out of Space” opens with an excerpt of Lovecraft’s story, guiding us through a tour of rolling vegetative forestry, swollen from mist and fog. Combined with the onset of composer Colin Stetson’s majestic score (a follow up to his unforgettable work on Ari Aster’s “Hereditary”), it is clear that if nothing else the audience should buckle in for a highly satisfying visual and aural experience.     

The Gardner family has moved into an  inherited remote farmhouse to recollect and cope with matriarch Theresa’s (Joely Richardson) cancer diagnosis. Her husband, Nathan, (Nicolas Cage) has been dealing with his newfound domestic isolation by raising alpacas. Their three children are settling in individually via decidedly caricatured teenage ways – son Benny (Brendan Meyer) has started smoking pot with a local squatter-weirdo named Ezra (Tommy Chong, naturally) while their daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) has taken to theatrically carrying around a copy of Lovecraft’s omnipresent Necronomicon and practicing spells whilst cloaked on a white horse. Lavinia’s meeting of a local hydrologist turns the faucet on for a slow drip of Easter eggs that will please Lovecraftian fans everywhere, placing this story specifically just outside fictional Arkham, MA with references to H.P.’s Miskatonic University and other locations peppered in.   

 The Gardner family is barely settled in when a  luminous meteorite crashes in front of their house. Curiosity not to be ignored, the family investigate and while the children complain of high-pitched sounds, Nathan continuously and independently notes it is emanating a horrific unidentifiable odor…  right before remembering he has to tend to the alpacas.      

Things progress quickly from here. The hydrologist advises the Gardners that he suspects the area’s water table may be unsuitable to consume, the meteorite deteriorates and disappears into the Earth, their farm is suddenly billowing with exotic, colorful and alien plant and animal life. So, yes, now there’s exotic animal life AND alpacas. We learn that whatever the meteorite was… it’s in the water, it’s in the soil and it’s universe altering. It’s part of the farm and now it’s become a part of the Gardners and if you’re here for the Nicolas Cage variety hour, now is the time to prepare for some full-force scenery chewing.     

The family’s afflictions are all uniquely fashioned. Their youngest child is hearing voices coming from the family’s well, Nathan and Theresa become aggressively manic with their children and Lavinia can’t stop puking meteorite juice. Things are about to get a little… well, psychedelic.     

There’s no time for a why, how or what else after because this movie is ultimately singularly about the destruction of this one family and their space. Color Out of Space’s third act brings a full artillery of body horror, gore and disgusting imagery that’s stitched together with brain-melting and fur-sliming sequences of fantastical imagery and effects. Did I mention the alpacas?! Nathan tells his family they’re the animal of the future and they are most certainly the apex of this glorious fever dream.  At this juncture some viewers may feel that narrative has fallen casualty to special effect work, a sacrifice I’m happily willing to make if I must for a film like this, but ultimately the unknown is very much your co-pilot here.   

 There needs to be more Richard Stanley in Hollywood and certainly more Lovecraft.  Arguably there’s probably JUST enough Nic Cage but when he hits, it’s a home run of wild eyed lunacy that’s always welcome in my universe.      

The brilliance of Lovecraft’s story is that it’s terror is limited only by the confines of one’s imagination. Put to screen it will immediately never satisfy all fans and therefore this film is probably best utilized as an experience of your senses. This is a film to see in a theater if it all possible given its limited release. “Color Out of Space” will check all the boxes if you’re looking for satisfying cosmic horror, a colorful Lovecraftian journey or if you’re just scratching an itch for wanting to watch Cage’s mind unravel for awhile and it will do and or all of these things with the dial turned to eleven.

Film Review: “The Gentlemen”

THE GENTLEMEN
Starring: Matthew McConaughey abd Charlie Hunnam
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Rated: Rated R
Running Time: 1 hr 53 mins
STX Entertainment 

There’s little that’s gentlemanly about the sordid cast of characters in director Guy Ritchie’s new action crime thriller “The Gentlemen.” However, there is plenty to enjoy in this wonderful caper that’s brimming with sharp dialogue, a delicious plot and a few laughs along the way. It is certainly Ritchie’s best effort since 2011’s “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” and is only surpassed by 2000’s “Snatch” as his greatest overall work. With a talented, all-star ensemble cast, and a terrific hook at the start, Ritchie takes us on an exciting, twisting journey that’s certainly not for the kiddos. 

From an impoverished childhood in the United States, Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) rose above his situation to earn a Rhodes Scholarship to England’s esteemed Oxford University. Instead of becoming a law-abiding scholar, Mickey saw the monetary potential in selling marijuana to his fellow students. Those humble beginnings led Mickey, often through violent means, to build a multi-million-dollar illegal empire. Despite the power, and prestige he commands, Mickey has grown tired of the game and wants out to spend time with his beloved, yet equally criminal wife, Rosalind (Michelle Dockery, “Downton Abbey”), for whom he will do anything. 

Much of this background information is told to us during an extended, elaborate conversation between an unsavory, thick-accented private investigator named Fletcher (scene stealer Hugh Grant), who’s been hired by a jilted tabloid editor snubbed in public by Mickey, and Mickey’s righthand enforcer, Ray (played with subdued rage by Charlie Hunnam, “Sons of Anarchy”). For his efforts, which he has typed up in a screenplay form, Fletcher wants 20 million British pounds to keep his scoop silent. 

Meanwhile, Mickey finds a potential buyer for his empire, but there is a concern that this will show competitors that he has become weak. Blood is spilled in the water when one of Mickey’s illegal sites is robbed by a group of young, social media savvy thugs led by a man known simply as Coach (Colin Farrell). The plot only thickens with the introduction of overly ambitious, young Chinese mobster Dry Eye (Henry Golding, “Crazy Rich Asians”) and the accidental death of a Russian mobster’s son. 

McConaughey is perfect for this role. Of course, he is quite adept at playing it cool, calm and collected, as demonstrated in a variety of his previous performances. What makes this more notable is the vengeful side he fleshes out while playing Mickey. It’s something we don’t normally see from him and he is brilliant at unleashing the lion in “The Gentlemen.” For their parts, Golding is a nice surprise as a villain and Farrell is marvelously entertaining, harkening back to Brad Pitt’s unintelligible performance in “Snatch.” 

Written by Ritchie, the plot is chock full of twists and surprises that keep one glue to the silver screen, waiting on edge as to what is going to happen next. There are some laughs amidst the violence, which is brutal enough, along with adult-oriented lingo, to make “The Gentlemen” non-kid friendly. Ritchie’s pacing is just as quick as the dialogue with nary a dull moment. In the end, “The Gentlemen” is a jolly good time and the best release of the new year thus far!  

Film Review: “Three Christs”

THREE CHRISTS
Starring: Richard Gere, Peter Dinklage
Directed by: John Avnet
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hr 57 mins
IFC Films 

When you think of great films with mental hospitals as the setting, indelible titles such as 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” or 1990’s “Awakenings” probably come to mind. With a similar backdrop, the drama “Three Christs,” starring Richard Gere, boldly attempts to delve into the realm of paranoid schizophrenia by exploring a time when pre-fontal lobotomies, insulin-induced comas, and electroshock therapies were standard treatments. Directed by John Avnet (“Fried Green Tomatoes”), “Three Christs” alas fails to achieve any level of greatness as it is saturated with terrible melodrama and an overall lack of emotional connectivity.

 An adaptation of the 1964 psychiatric case study “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti” by psychologist Milton Rokeach, “Three Christs” takes us back to December 1960 when a bruised Dr. Alan Stone (Gere) is recording a defense of himself against accusations leveled at him by a disciplinary board. It’s a nice hook as it gives off a sense of mystery. We are soon taken back to the beginning during the summer of 1959 when he arrives at the Ypsilanti State Hospital.

 Having left a prolific teaching and writing career to pursue a study of delusional patients, Dr. Stone, with the help of his new assistant Becky (Charlotte Hope, “The Theory of Everything”), finds three men who all claim to be Jesus Christ. Joseph (Peter Dinklage), Leon (Walton Goggins) and Clyde (Bradley Whitford) are tragic figures with sad pasts. Each has been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenics and left to essentially rot in near-barbaric conditions. 

With the encouragement of his wife (Julianna Marguiles), Dr. Stone challenges his peers and a reluctant hospital head by using more modern methods that don’t involve inflicting pain. The irony is that he is treating three men collectively who believe they are Christ while he himself does not believe in organized religion. Gradually he makes progress, but countless roadblocks make it a treacherous path. 

Despite having a solid cast, “Three Christs” falls flat on nearly every level imaginable. The story is without any unique qualities as it feels like any other run-of-the-mill medical drama. Its characters are nothing special and Gere seems to just rely upon every facial gesture he has ever used in his past films instead of pushing for something more. The pacing is sluggish, and the plot is predictable. Gere is also not believable as the father to two young, pre-teen daughters considering he was roughly 67 years old at the time of filming. Furthermore, we are supposed to believe Dr. Stone fought in WWII and Korea. Assuming his character matches his age, then Dr. Stone would have been 59 or 60 while fighting on the front lines against North Korea. Uh, no. Of course, to be fair I should mention the rest of the cast, which can be covered in one statement – every actor is so over-the-top with their performances you have to wonder how on earth the film ever got released, much less contemplate if Avnet should ever direct again. 

In the end, “Three Christs” is a strikeout.

Film Review: “Bad Boys for Life”

BAD BOYS FOR LIFE
Starring:  Will Smith, Martin Lawrence and Joe Pantoliano
Directed by: Adil and Billal
Rated:  R
Running time:  2 hrs 3 mins
Sony Pictures

Riggs and Murtaugh.  Carter and Lee.  Tango and Cash. 

The law enforcement teams above are some of the most beloved in film history.  Another powerhouse was the team of Miami-based cops named Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett.  Starting with 1995’s “Bad Boys” and continuing with the 2003 sequel “Bad Boys 2,” the two blazed their way across the screen with flashy cars and blazing guns.  It’s been awhile, but Lowrexy (Smith) and Burnett (Lawrence) are back…and it’s a welcome return.

It’s an ordinary day at the women’s prison.  In the laundry, the inmates do their best to fold and stack.  However, one inmate (Kate del Castillo) is motionless, staring off as if she was in a trance.  When she’s approached she suddenly springs to life.  The carnage that follows is horrific.

Meanwhile, in Miami, Detectives Lowery and Burnett are speeding through the streets in Lowery’s Porsche.  Their destination:  the local hospital, where Burnett’s daughter is about to give birth.  The new grandchild causes Burnett to rethink his future and soon he informs Lowery and their captain (the always great Joe Pantoliano) that he is going to retire.  But when you’re a “bad boy” do you ever really retire?

Moving at an almost breakneck speed, “Bad Boys for Life” plays on screen like a live action version of “Grand Theft Auto.”  The pace is fast, yet the plot never feels rushed.  Smith and Lawrence have great chemistry together and their playful banter feels natural.  They are assisted by strong supporting turns from Paola Nunez and rapper DJ Khaled, who does well in a small role.  And for fans of the original, keep your eyes open for a cameo from “Bad Boys” director Michael Bay. If you wanted a movie poster or or canvas print American Sign Letters can do it for you.  

The production values are outstanding, with all of the light and color of Miami on display.  And I don’t know what cops in Miami make but Lowery seems quite comfortable in his penthouse pad and speedy Porsche.  All in all, a fine return to the screen for Lowrey and Burnett.  Now whatcha’ gonna do ‘til they come back for you?

Film Review: “Reality Queen!”

  • REALITY QUEEN!
  • Starring:  Julia Faye West, Denise Richards and Mike Tyson
  • Directed by: Steven Jay Bernheim
  • Rated:  Not Rated
  • Running time:  1 hr 24 mins
  • High Octane Pictures

You can’t get away from “them.”  The Kardashians.  The various Housewives of various counties.  “The Bachelorette.”  For good or bad, reality television has grabbed a major part of the world’s attention and, like it or not, it’s here to stay.

London Logo (Ms.West) is a CELEBRITY.  I use all caps to emphasize her status.  Known for her frequent magazine appearances, annual “nip slip” awards and exiting cars sans underwear, London is a mix of Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson rolled up into one.  When things begin to go bad for London, who finds her fame declining with the appearance of the large-assed Kim sisters, she agrees to participate in a documentary about herself which will open the eyes of everyone involved.

As a critic, “Reality Queen!” is the kind of film you love to discover.  Cleverly written by a gaggle of writers, including director Bernheim, the film is an amazingly precedent look at the state of “fame” today.  Nothing is sacred as zinger after zinger is thrown out and the jokes hit much more often then they miss, a testament not only to the script but to the cast.

As London, Ms. West proves herself to be a fine comedienne.  Movies like this often rest on the shoulders of the actors who, if they don’t deliver the lines properly, bring the production down to the level of any recent National Lampoon film that didn’t begin with the words Van and Wilder.  She is also breathtakingly beautiful.  Denise Richards co-stars as London’s best friend, an actress named Angelina Streisand.  She also shows fine comic timing.  Other standouts include Loren Lister as London’s put-upon publicist, Cliff De Young and Jill Jacobson as London’s parents, the amazing Charles Fleischer as a Larry King-ish television host, Kate Orsini as the documentary reporter and the late John Witherspoon in one of his final film appearances.

Mr. Bernheim keeps the pace moving smoothly and I must give credit to he and production designer Ryan Henneman, whose production values are amazing for a film you normally wouldn’t consider “big budget.”  If you’re not in the mood for football this weekend, I highly recommend checking out “Reality Queen!”

Will The Next Bond Film Be Daniel Craig’s Last?

Daniel Craig has served as one of the best James Bond’s of all-time, but could he be about to put down the gun following the released of the 25th Bond flick titled ‘No Time To Die’ in 2020.

The rumours have been ripe that it will be Craig’s last, but there has been no other Bond in the history of the franchise that can claim to have had as much box office success at the Layer Cake star.

Craig’s Bond Films

‘No Time To Die’ will be the fifth film that Craig has played Bond, and the success that the previous four have had will highlight that next year’s release is going to be an overwhelming success. His tenure at Bond started in 2006 with the release of Casino Royale, and 14-years is the longest that anybody has ever played Bond. Of course, the record of playing 007 the most still falls on the lap of Roger Moore, but the argument over who was the best will continue forever.

But, the box office figures certainly don’t lie. The 2012 release of Skyfall is by far and away the most successful Bond film of all-time in terms of the box office, as it earned over $943 million, which was almost double what the pre-Craig best was. The second most successful of all-time was the most recent release of Spectre in 2015 which brought in just over $725 million.

What It Takes To Be A Great Bond

Bond is one of the most beloved characters in the world of film, and any British actor would love to play the part. However, since the first film, only seven actors have been able to utter many of the countless Bond catchphrases that have become a common part of pop culture. But, should Craig leave his role, then that void will open up for a new opportunity. However, not all actors have the desired traits about them to deliver.

The secret service agent oozes cool, and the next actor must excel at being able to walk into a casino and look like the most confident man in there. Craig has excelled at this, as who could forget his scene in Casino Royale when he is in a battle of poker against the villain in the film- Le Chiffre. The films famously feature poker and casino scenes but the battle between the two in Casino Royale was possibly one of the best Bond scenes of the Craig era.

However, it wasn’t the only impressive casino scene as the Skyfall sequence when Bond walks into a Macau casino. He looks a million dollars and looks like he is about to get down to business as he tries to track down Patrice. The scene eventually ends when Bond has overcome two strong adversaries before he tells Moneypenny to put a briefcase full of cash on a game of roulette.

Who Are The Front Runners?

The betting markets for the next Bond are one of the most competitive around online, and there is a host of big-name actors being spoken about. Tom Hiddleston has been one of the favourites since the talk surrounding the long-term future of Craig has been in the air, while Sam Heughan is one of the big market movers.

Heughan rose to fame in ‘A Very British Scandal’, before becoming a household name in ‘Outlander’. His move to the favourite in the betting would be a shock to most, but he is likely to have a significant breakout moment in 2020 when ‘Bloodshot’ hits the cinemas. Other popular selections include James Norton, Idris Elba and Tom Hardy.

Cillian Murphy was also a front runner earlier in the summer, but his price has drifted after he admitted that he wouldn’t fit the role of Bond. Murphy would have been a popular pick among fans after his portrayal of Tommy Shelby in ‘Peaky Blinders’ has seen the show go on to become one of the most beloved dramas across the world.

However, whichever actors picks up the baton after Craig will have big shoes to fill. But, regardless, the Bond franchise will live on forever and will continue to produce box office smashes consistently.

Film Review: “Just Mercy”

JUST MERCY
Starring:  Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson
Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton
Rated:  PG 13
Running time:  2 hrs 16 mins
Warner Bros

Recently here in Kansas City a gentleman was released from prison after serving 17-years for a crime he didn’t commit.  Naturally, your heart goes out to him and his family but, even in your worst dreams, there is really no way to understand what he went through.  I mention this because injustice is the theme from the new film “Just Mercy.”

Monroeville, Alabama.  Fans of the book “To Kill a Mockingbird” will recognize the town as the birthplace of author Harpee Lee.  It was also the birthplace of Walter McMillan.  We meet Walter (Foxx, in a top notch performance) in the woods, cutting down a tree and enjoying the freedom of nature.  However, Walter’s life takes a dark detour when he is arrested for, and convicted of, the murder of a young white woman.  I mention the victim’s race because that is an important part of the story.  You see, Walter is black.  Found guilty (in an amazing precedent the jury sentenced Walter to life in prison and the trial judge overrode the decision and sentenced Walter to death) he’s sat on death row for the past six years, waiting for the horrible dream his life has become to end.  Enter Bryan Stevenson (Jordan, equally strong) a young, Harvard-educated lawyer who has received a grant to start an advocacy program for inmates on death row.  To say Bryan is welcomed with open arms would be a lie.  More like welcomed with clenched fist – and closed minds.

A powerful film that pulls at your emotions, “Just Mercy” is based on a true story, one of racial bias and unscrupulous people.  It’s almost fate that the story takes place in the birthplace of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” That bit of information is played up by the locals, who urge Bryan to visit the Mockingbird Museum and stand in the same courthouse as Atticus Finch.  But “Mockingbird” also deals with the trial of an innocent black man, Tom Robinson, who is falsely accused and, even though there is mounds of evidence to prove his innocence, is found guilty.  Bryan, like Atticus Finch before him, believes in the system and can’t understand how that system has failed Walter.

As noted above, the performances from Mr. Jordan and Mr. Foxx are powerful.  Jordan continues to add great work to his resume’ and this is easily Mr. Foxx’s best performance in years.  As Bryan’s assistant Eva Ansley, Brie Larson delivers in a true supporting role and Tim Blake Nelson is well cast as a fellow convict whose testimony sent Walter to prison.  The film is well paced and Mr. Cretton’s direction is spot on, his camera capturing the little things that help make the story a powerful one.  He has definitely created one of the best films of 2019.