Streaming Review: “You Don’t Nomi”

YOU DON’T NOMI
Directed By: Jeffrey McHale
Starring: Elizabeth Berkley, Paul Verhoeven, Adam Nayman, April Kidwell
Runtime: 92 mins.
RLJE Films

My introduction to Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls was definitely by accident on some random childhood afternoon on a local network because my memories are of a hazy mishmash of ‘why does Jesse-from-Saved by the Bell looked Like That?’ and laughing at the crude 90s tech that they used to ‘paint’ dodgy cgi bras over very naked chests. So in tackling McHale’s documentary You Don’t Nomi, I knew I’d have to take another look. I don’t regret it as such but I was not converted into the cult that this doc’s trailer alluded to. That doesn’t mean You Don’t Nomi isn’t worth a look for the uninitiated. On its surface, You Don’t Nomi may appear a puff piece on something so-bad-it’s-good but it puts in a surprising amount of work to show not only Showgirls’s second life as a camp crowdpleaser but also how a critically reviled film evolves over time–even in the eyes of its filmmakers.

There is no better way to describe the 1995 critical reception to Showgirls than dog pile. It was brutal in that way that it becomes a sport unto itself to find the snarkiest pull quotes. It tanked Elizabeth Berkley’s transition from sitcom actress to the big screen and took the sexual thriller momentum that Verhoeven had in the US off of 1992’s Basic Instinct and sent him back to the more marketable sci-fi with Starship Troopers (Instinct was preceded by Total Recall and Robocop). The doc delves deep into Verhoeven’s career and finds parallels and themes that connect Showgirls back into his work in Europe before he escaped to Hollywood. Unfortunately the documentary did not manage to include modern interviews with any of the creative forces on the film but again, in diving into archived footage, the documentary exposes how Verhoeven and Berkeley in particular have decided over time to try and sell that they knew all along that their film was camp. As one of the speakers in the doc says, camp is “failed seriousness,” so I don’t really buy their attempt to control that narrative but as a storyline in the documentary, it’s very amusing.

Despite the box office flopping, Showgirls found a second life in midnight screenings, drag shows and an off-broadway musical. For me, Nomi hits its stride by zeroing in on the experience that the actress who played Nomi in the musical parody had and the difference it made in her life. Watching her account, as well as those of the drag hosts of sold out midnight showings I kept thinking about that speech from Pixar’s Ratatouille where critic Anton Ego says “the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.” -Hey if McHale can take a campy stripper movie seriously, I can defer to the wisdom of the cartoon rat movie. Even though I couldn’t relate to their obsession, I can certainly pinpoint pop culture hills I will die on and on that level I enjoyed hearing from such a well researched niche.

You Don’t Nomi is now streaming On Demand and digital, an additional review by Mike Gencarelli was posted earlier here

TFF 2020 Shorts: Animated

Note: Though the 2020 Festival was officially postponed due to ongoing pandemic precautions, online screeners and the fest’s press library meant we could still offer coverage of this year’s selections. Tribeca is also participating in the We Are One global film festival, whose streams are being uploaded through June 7th.

Every year the Tribeca Film Festival showcases a wealth of short films from across the globe in all different mediums. Where animation is concerned, the fest turns to acting legend Whoopi Goldberg to curate their lineup. Due to the unprecedented postponement of the festival in New York, I screened this collection from the comfort of my home and would like to highlight my favorites of Goldberg’s picks.

Personal Favorite: Beyond Noh

Beyond Noh

Patrick Smith’s 4 minute foray into every mask you could think of is mesmerizing. The setup is a simple black space with masks from every culture and time around the world rapid-fire shuffling through to a rhythmic drum beat. It’s so simple but so deftly made. This short doesn’t stick to just the fine arts either with detours through American Halloween masks, and the quite topical medical field to boot, it covers all the faces–err, bases.

Award Winner: Friends

Friends

Florian Grolig’s deceptively simple Friends took home the prize for Best Animated Short from the Tribeca Film Festival’s jury and it was well-deserved. It’s just two characters–one very small and one so large we only see its massive hand or foot for most of the runtime– interacting despite the challenges of their massive gap in size. For me, it’s the one that most celebrates the medium of animation. With its simplistic line work morphing through a blank white void accompanied by perfectly pitched breathing from its giant, the scope is clearly conveyed.

Most Star-Studded: The Tiger Who Came to Tea

The Tiger Who Came to Tea

Clocking in at 24 mins, Robin Shaw’s adaptation of Judith Kerr’s story is the longest of the program and starts very slow before evolving into something much more fanciful. We watch the cute morning routine of a British family ending with sending the father (Benedict Cumberbatch) off to work for the day while mother (Tamsin Grieg) and daughter (Clara Ross) are home to receive an unusual visitor. The titular tiger voiced by David Oyelowo politely invites himself to their afternoon tea and proceeds to scarf down the whole pantry. The animation on the tiger is utterly charming.

Historic and Beautiful: Kapaemahu

Directors Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hame and Joe Wilson delve deep into Hawaiian history to tell the tale of transgender healing spirits that are behind a landmark often passed by in Waikiki Beach. The use of native voices and music bolsters some gorgeous and warm animation as the tale transcends across time.

Kapaemahu

Additional program titles included “Umbrella” and “Grandad was a Romantic”, which both mine true stories for some lovely animation, and “Bathwell in Clerkentime” which is third in a series whose bouncy black and white animation couples with a soundtrack that may drive you as cuckoo as the birds it follows. (Note: “To Gerard” from Dreamworks artist Taylor Meacham was also selected however was not available to me in the press library at the time of the festival)

TFF 2020 Review: “The Trip to Greece”

THE TRIP TO GREECE
Directed By: Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan
Runtime: 103 mins.
IFC Films

Through no fault of its own, The Trip to Greece is arriving on VOD today with some extra baggage. Seeing as this release comes at a time when the world doesn’t know how and when we might resume the kind of care free international tourism that stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon enjoy, it’s hard to judge how this film might hit you. Is armchair tourism at this juncture escapism or masochism? At this point in the series, given this is the fourth time around with this specific formula, that might be the only factor in your decision making. As with their first three trips–starting in England the duo then hit Italy and Spain–the vistas are gorgeous, the food looks delicious and the impressions are plentiful. What sets this one apart, fittingly for ancient Greece, is the injection of some tragedy within the film’s “plot” separate from the context of its release. The result of this turn is a film that is more an admirable finale than the hilarious joyrides that its predecessors were.

The setup is slim, as always, with the comedians ostensibly working on some article while retracing the trail covered in The Odyssey from modern day Turkey to Ithaca. Ten years of Odyssey condensed into six days of jet setting. The structure sets their agenda but then Brydon and Coogan’s conversations go off the rails as needed. This time around, Coogan has recently received dramatic accolades for his portrayal of Stan Laurel in Stan & Ollie and a lot of their comedic tension comes from Coogan trying to emphasize his newly minted dramatic chops while Brydon firmly still categorizes his buddy as a comedian. If there were an Olympics for negging, these two would surely medal. The guys are hilarious at oneupmanship whether it’s picking up on a Mick Jagger impression and doing their own take or attempting to turn the the mundanity of a restaurant check into a game show round. In these sequences this series always hits its stride and credit must go to director Michael Winterbottom and his editor Marc Ricardson for often wringing another laugh out of a moment by just cutting on the right beat.

The film does do that shift for the dramatic though by adding in ominous black and white dream sequences rooted in Greek myth for Coogan and introducing a family health crisis as well. I haven’t been able to suss out if that part was based on something in Coogan’s actual life or entirely fabricated for the film but if the latter, it seems an odd choice. At one point they also take a detour to a refugee camp after coming across a former colleague of Coogan’s who’s based there. While it is, as I said above, admirable that this series of extreme-first-world tourism actually takes a moment to observe the realities of a host country, it comes off more as momentary lip service rather than genuine reflection. Eventually the back home problem for Coogan split the comedic duo apart for the remainder of the film much to its detriment. Where the pair end up does have the air of finality, which this installment supposedly is, so I understand the choice. Overall I enjoyed Brydon and Coogan’s competitive company as I always have, just wish that this finale could have focused more on the series’ strengths as it headed off into the sunset.

Note: The Trip To Greece was due to make its North American premiere as part of the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival’s “Spotlight Narrative” slate. Though the 2020 Festival was officially postponed due to ongoing pandemic precautions, online screeners and the fest’s press library mean we can still offer coverage of this year’s selections while looking forward to getting back to the fest in the future!

TFF 2020 Review: “Inheritance”

Note: Inheritance was due to make its world premiere as part of the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival’s “Spotlight Narrative” slate. Though the 2020 Festival was officially postponed due to ongoing pandemic precautions, online screeners and the fest’s press library mean we can still offer coverage of this year’s selections while looking forward to getting back to the fest in the future!

INHERITANCE
Starring: Lily Collins, Simon Pegg, Chace Crawford, Connie Nielson, Patrick Warburton
Directed by: Vaughn Stein
Runtime: 111 mins.
Vertical Entertainment
Not Rated

Early on in Inheritance, the will of deceased banker Archer Monroe (Patrick Warburton) is read out to his district attorney daughter Lauren (Lily Collins) and her congressman brother William (Chace Crawford). While the campaigning son takes a massive twenty million dollars, his sister “only” gets one million. If you think that’s the main source of strife in this family then oh boy, strap in because that difference barely scratches the surface of Lauren’s problems. Director Vaughn Stein’s new thriller releasing on VOD this week after having been a 2020 Tribeca Film Festival selection, takes a hard turn into its potential-horror setup but doesn’t fully embrace it with leads who can’t sell it.

The monetary discrepancy between Lauren and her brother quickly gives way to Lauren receiving her actual inheritance in the form of a mysterious key and a video from her late father urging her to keep the truth buried. Not to be too cynical but it’s pretty expected that a wealthy family like these Monroes–populated with bankers, lawyers and politicians–is going to have its share of skeletons in its closet. Stein’s film does this cliché one better by Archer leaving his daughter a full grown man chained up in a bunker. Thanks, dad. The bunker man is named Morgan (Simon Pegg) and seems to know everything about Lauren who desperately wants to know the whys and hows of Morgan’s disgusting situation. More than that, Lauren must face a crisis of conscious whether to heed her father’s will, especially in the middle of her brother’s re-election or release the bedraggled, pitiable Morgan with his trove of family secrets.

Simon Pegg has long been one of my favorite actors, whether in leading the “Cornetto trilogy” or popping up in larger fare like Star Trek or even better the Mission: Impossible series, but saddled in this film with the heavy wig and grime of Morgan’s imprisonment and, worse, a ropey American accent, and he is utterly wasted. The main tension in Inheritance should come from whether Lauren can muster enough pity for Morgan to release him or Pegg can be sufficiently menacing in his blackmail of the Monroes to achieve his ends. But in their contained scenes, the dynamic never coalesces into real tension. Where you’re expecting someone to actually strike, they just keep talking in circles. And I can’t underscore enough how badly Pegg’s US accent hobbles how threatening his character could have been. There are later parts in the film where I imagine Pegg was really having fun with it, but too much of the runtime for his character is leaden stuff. Collins, 31, for her part as a DA in Manhattan is much too young to hold such a role and comes off as someone playing dress up. It was hard to take either of them seriously in these parts.

For a movie where the crux of the problem is a man chained up in a basement, Inheritance is just overall way too bland. Outside of Pegg and Collins, the Monroe family and their posse come off as stock soap opera characters. Chace Crawford, so good on “The Boys,” is as ridiculous as a hot-shot congressman as Collins is as the DA. Ultimately their rich people problems–and secrets–aren’t as shocking as the film wants them to be.

Inheritance is available on DirectTV and releases on VOD on May 22nd

Panic Fest Film Review: “The Vice Guide to Bigfoot”

Starring: Brian Emond, Zach Lamplugh and Jeffrey Stephenson
Directed by: Zach Lamplugh
Rated: R
Running Time: 90 minutes

I used to work as a morning news producer in the Kansas City metropolitan area. One of the strangest things I ever came across during my time was during the closure of the Wentworth Military College in Lexington, Missouri. Cpt. Scott Nelson, an instructor at the former private university, believes to have tapped into the language of Bigfoot (or is it Bigfeet?). He believed in it so thoroughly, he served as a keynote speaker at several Sasquatch conventions. I guess what I’m trying to say is, not every Bigfoot believer is some backwoods simpleton. That’s one of the few charming takeaways you’ll get as well if you happen to catch “The Vice Guide to Bigfoot.”

Vice reporter Brian (Emond) loathes his job. He entered journalism in hopes of tracking down a juicy story or saving the world. Instead he’s chasing after clickbait stories and highlighting war torn Crimea’s craft beer scene. Brian’s constant in life, other than the terrible stories he reports on, are his cameraman and producer, Zach (Lamplugh). Brian reaches his breaking point when the two are tasked with going on a hunt for the infamous, Bigfoot, along with Youtube Sasquatch hunter Jeff (Stephenson).

“The Vice Guide to Bigfoot” is almost a mockumentary in the same vein of “What We Do in the Shadows,” but it’s more focused on mocking other things, like the current state of journalism and Vice’s attempts at it. It also has a lot of humor at the sake of online cryptozoologists, hillbillies and social media. While there is a lot of comedy, at a character’s expense, the film is never cruel. Everyone is given their own backstory that’s sympathetic, so that they can have their own form of redemption by the film’s end.

In a lot of ways, the movie is far from being about Bigfoot which works to its benefit. Especially since some found footage or mockumentaries prior, like “Willow Creek,” more or less tread familiar tropes despite a change of scenery. While it’s a pretty damn funny movie, it’s hard to see myself watching this again by myself. I may watch it again if I want someone else I know to watch it, since some jokes work better with a group. In some ways that’s a knock at the movie, but I feel that it’s sufficiently funny and entertaining enough, that it’s worth a watch.

Film Review: “Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

BIRDS OF PREY
Starring: Margot Robbie, Ewan McGregor, Rosie Perez, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ella Jay Basco
Directed By: Cathy Yan
Rated: R
Running Time: 109 mins.
Warner Brothers

After a major breakup, one Harley Quinn is down in the dumps. But dammit if she’s not going to lift herself out of it and take audiences along for the ride. And what a wild ride it is. Cathy Yan and producer/Harley herself, Margot Robbie deliver a creative, intense and above all, fun burst of action that really couldn’t be better placed on the calendar than right before Valentine’s Day. Grab your favorite colorful candy, your friends, your pet hyenas (just not any shitty exes) and go.

For those unfamiliar with Ms Quinn, director Yan opens with a helpful primer without  having to look at a single frame of Suicide Squad. HQ was a brilliant med student-turned-psychiatrist-turned-lover of the Joker, her former patient. It was a position that allowed her to get away with murder, possibly literally. No one was crossing the Clown Prince of Crime. Unfortunately for her, it was also a subjugated position. Her schemes weren’t appreciated when they succeeded, she was abused and taken for granted. Yan doesn’t go into the particulars of the breakup and blessedly doesn’t bring Jared Leto or any other iteration of “Mr. J” in here—because he’s besides the point—but Harley is a bit of a mess as a result. She’s already dealing with an identity crisis when a crime lord named Roman Sionis (McGregor) places a bounty on the young girl that Harley herself is meant to be delivering to him in 24 hours, on pain of death. 

If the above has you questioning where the “Birds of Prey” from the title come in, you would be right, but I’d also wonder if you watched a single trailer for this movie. This is very much the Harley show. Her teammates come in gradually—Black Canary (Smolett-Bell) first and most prominently, followed by police officer Renee Montoya (Perez) and Huntress (Winstead). They all have their own grievances with Roman. The good news is, Harley cheerfully gets you up to speed on their backstories as they join the party. Meanwhile the actresses truly make the most of their limited screen time. Winstead in particular sells an assassin who is as fierce in battle as she is socially awkward. I mean, if all you do is train for vengeance, yeah, you might not be great with new friends.

The person who gets the most time to balance out Harley’s zaniness with his own brand of ham is Ewan McGregor as Roman, aka The Black Mask. He and main enforcer, Mr. Zsasz (Chris Messina) are operating on their own levels of strange and flamboyant and I was into it. Again, he could have even gone for more over the top as far as I’m concerned, but his finale left me more than satisfied. Above all, if the worst I can say about this movie is I wanted more and not less in a time where bloated two and a half hour runtimes are the norm (sorry, Aquaman!) that’s not a bad thing.

Finally not to mix up my IPs or anything, but as this movie unfurled, I actually thought of Disney Imagineers. As it goes, they’re encouraged to “plus” their rides and attractions–a phrase they use when taking a solid idea and ramping it up with “what if?” possibilities. Every action sequence in Birds of Prey feels like it’s been plussed. It’s not enough that the stunt work be impeccable but what if everyone also dressed fantastic? Or what if a gunfight takes place among rainbow smoke bombs? Turn on some sprinklers while you’re at it! Have a climax in a carnival. The result is a film that feels like a comic book in the best of ways.

Going into the new year, I was majorly psyched for the trifecta of big name female-led superhero movies we have coming our way. Birds of Prey just blew the doors off 2020 and raised the shiny, glittery bar. Bring on Natasha and Diana.

Film Review: “Bombshell”

Starring: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and John Lithgow
Directed by: Jay Roach
Rated: R
Running Time: 108 minutes
Lionsgate

I’m sure regular Fox News viewers still believe that former CEO Roger Ailes was a “victim” of the #MeToo movement. But those people probably never troubled themselves to read the avalanche of allegations leveled against Ailes, which spanned decades. The truth, which still hasn’t necessarily seen the light of day, attempts to be told in “Bombshell.”

When we’re first introduced to Ailes (Lithgow), it’s through Megyn Kelly’s (Theron) narration. She’s breaks down the structure of Fox News and how each part of the multi-floor business in downtown New York City functions. During her walkthrough, we see Ailes, micromanaging every detail, from the chyrons on the TV to the length of a news anchor’s skirt. It not only shows how disgustingly creepy he is, but how obsessed he is with the content that Fox News puts out on a daily basis. While it’s certainly interesting to see the monster and his tentacles at work, “Bombshell” isn’t necessarily about him, it’s about the damage he did. It’s when we meet Gretchen Carlson (Kidman) that the wheels are set in motion. We learn that she’s waiting for the hammer to fall because she’s slowly been building up a case against Ailes.

As much as I enjoyed “Bombshell,” I can’t help but feel it could have been better. Writer Charles Randolph, who previously worked on the magnificent film “The Big Short,” doesn’t dig in deep enough to reported mudslinging that was happening behind-the-scenes. It doesn’t help that he’s working with director Jay Roach, who was criticized for the inaccuracies riddled throughout “Trumbo.” With their combined forces, they’ve put together a film that never swings as hard as it should. That may be because there isn’t enough evidence to support some of the more inflammatory and horrendous incidents portrayed on the screen.

Like I said though, this is an enjoyable movie. There are moments that feel like they’re trying to emulate Adam McKay’s style from “The Big Short” and “Vice.” They don’t quite match that style, but they do a tremendous job making us sympathize with some incredibly flawed individuals. Kelly, as pointed out in the film several times, has made some comments and remarks that are not only divisive, but intentionally offensive. One scene in particular shows her arguing that Santa is white and should always be white. It’s an unnecessarily despicable belief that’s intent is to infuriate, offend and divide, but it’s far from being a belief that warrants the kind of treatment she received by her colleagues or the sexual harassment she was subject to.

As for the main cast, they do a magnificent job with everyone they’re portraying, whether they’re the spitting image of their characters or replicating their mannerism to a ‘T’. Theron does a tightrope act with Kelly that’s unmatched, and Lithgow channels the monster that was Ailes. Some of the “cameos” are more distracting than they are funny, like when Richard Kind portrays Rudy Giuliani. “Bombshell” is equally energetic and unnerving, making it a rollercoaster of a time, but despite its title it doesn’t have any Earth-shattering revelations, and it certainly won’t change any of the minds who tune into Fox News every day and night.

Film Review: “Villains”

VILLAINS
Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Maika Monroe, Jeffrey Donovan & Kyra Sedgwick
Directed By: Dan Berk & Robert Olsen
Rated: R
Running Time: 89 minutes
ALTER

A pair of thieves with dreams of living it up in Florida make a couple of big mistakes during a gas station holdup sending them down a wildly different road in Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s Villains. First, they swear this is their “last job!”—always a no no where movie characters are concerned—and second, they forget to,  you know,  pump their escape car with any of the station’s gas. Thus they find themselves stalled out on the road and scouring the nearest secluded home for anything to help them in their journey. The home they find just so happens to have a small girl shackled in the basement. Suddenly the mission isn’t just for gas for the car but an all out battle with the unsuspecting homeowners. As I said, it’s a much different path than Florida.

Villains grabs you quickly and easily thanks to the charisma of its two leads, Jules and Mickey (Maika Monroe and Bill Skarsgård, respectively). They’re goofy as all get out—we’re introduced to them fumbling through their robbery in rubber animal masks—but it’s so obvious they’re head over heels in love with each other that you just want to root for them. Of course Monroe (It Follows) and Skarsgard (It & It Chapter Two) are no strangers to the suspenseful or violent elements Villains throws at them eventually, but as these two crazy kids they both show off a genuine knack for comedy. I can’t imagine a better time to see Villains than if you’re in need for some comedic relief after a dose of Pennywise.

Now let’s get back to that girl chained up in the basement. Turns out she belongs to the equally tight couple of Gloria and George (Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Donovan), the homeowners who combat Jules and Mickey’s manic energy with nothing but civil hospitality. The thieves are ready to fight their way out of the house with the chained little girl, but George and Gloria disarm them long enough to chat about what’s going on. Donovan in particular revels in George’s southern salesman draaaaaaaaawl to calm everyone down. The unlikely clash of these couples is strongly supported by candy colored production design and a nifty musical score that keeps the proceedings tonally in sync until very near the end of the film. The resolution of the wildcard chained child isn’t quite as much fun as how we got there, but with a runtime just shy of 90 minutes, it’s hardly an issue.

The fun of this Villains is all down to the perfect casting. The couples are equally unhinged but operating by their own internal logic while being totally devoted to their partners. Mickey and Jules are like excitable puppies in their eagerness to please each other while George keeps up a veneer of civility even though it’s clear that Gloria is way out of touch with reality. Sedgwick too puts in a delightfully bonkers turn as Gloria that includes a striptease for Mickey. Everyone is chewing so much scenery it’s a wonder anyone has room for Gloria’s shepherd’s pie.

Film Review: “Official Secrets”

Starring: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode and Ralph Fiennes
Directed By: Gavin Hood
Rated: R
Running Time: 112 minutes
IFC Films

At just 29 years old, British translator Katharine Gun became the center of UK headlines when she leaked a memo from her job at the Government Communications Headquarters to UK publication, The Observer. The memo detailed a plot between the US and UK to illegally strong arm smaller UN member countries into signing off on the ill-fated war in Iraq. When she admitted to as much, Gun spent nearly a year before being formally charged under the Official Secrets Act of 1989. Meanwhile the US and UK invaded Iraq despite lacking the support of the nations in the memo. The film adaptation of this case as directed by Gavin Hood is a well crafted political thriller driven by a top notch performance from Keira Knightley.

I had concerns going into this film that it would play out like so many Newspaper Movies (as brilliantly parodied by Seth Meyers and Co, in case you missed it) and I wasn’t entirely wrong. The hallmarks of that trope are all still here –Phone Acting, clandestine meetings on benches, the obstinate paper editor–fortunately they’re performed by a charismatic ensemble led by Matt Smith, Matthew Goode and a very shouty Rhys Ifans. As the film goes on it adds additional strong players to the field with the likes of Tamsin Grieg and Ralph Fiennes when the legal drama starts to ramp up.

More importantly though is that all those subplots and their cliches take a back seat to Keira Knightley’s tightly wound performance. As Gun, she is resolute but not without fear. Some of the most thrilling sequences of Hood’s film come as the enormity of Gun’s act bears down on the wide-eyed Knightley and she realizes how much she has at risk by forging ahead. Having an immigrant husband in Gun’s situation as she does, for example, truly raises the stakes when contending with the government. Often Hood makes some smart choices to elevate Gun’s bravery by highlighting that relationship. How easy it would have been for Katherine, as her barista husband suggests repeatedly, to just do her job and leave the consequences to her higher ups.

Gun had so much to lose but recognized an opportunity to avert a disastrous war and chose to act for her people rather than a lying government. Gavin Hood’s film adaptation of her story comes at a time when relations between the press and politics are arguably even more fraught than 2003, making her story well worth hearing. 

Film Review: “Angel of Mine”

Starring: Noomi Rapace, Yvonne Strahovski, Luke Evans, Richard Roxburgh
Directed by: Kim Farrant
Rated: R
Running Time: 98 minutes
Lionsgate

Angel of Mine, based on the French 2008 film, L’Empreinte de L’ange, sees Noomi Rapace as a woman convinced that her neighbor’s daughter is actually her own long-dead child. It’s a thriller that drew me in with its strong cast but passes too far over into melodrama before the credits roll to warrant much interest. 

Rapace stars as Lizzie who drums up a tenuous relationship with the parents of one of her son’s friends (played by Yvonne Strahovski and Richard Roxburgh) for her own ulterior motives. Turns out the friend’s little sister Lola looks so much like her dead baby daughter to Lizzie that she is desperate to spend as much time around the child as possible. Lizzie’s obsession extends so far as her ingratiating herself with Lola’s parents by pretending to be interested in buying their newly listed house. This connection is already awkward but the film does not help itself by withholding the circumstances around Lizzie’s grief for so long in the film. Revelations over the loss of Lizzie’s daughter earlier in the film to the couple may have won some understandable sympathy points for allowing Lizzie around but as it is, it strains credulity as to why these parents would allow this random woman to have so many one-on-one interactions with their young child. Lizzie’s obsession with Lola is intriguing at first due to Rapace’s haunted intensity but without knowing much about her past, I found myself spinning off many different possibilities for where this could go and the ultimate resolution had me bored. Perhaps that’s on me for wanting something more outlandish or exciting while the film so wants to be grounded. It felt as though since director Kim Farrant wanted so much for Lizzie to be our sympathetic protagonist that they could not inject her obsession with a child with any sort of genuine menace. 

Still more irritating is that so much of the film’s run time is spent with husbands choosing to downplay their wives’ legitimate concerns. This goes for both Luke Evan’s Mike as Lizzie’s ex, shunning her where she clearly needs mental help in her grief, and infuriatingly Richard Roxburgh’s Bernard who is for some reason A-OK with a woman wanting to spend time with his seven year old while his own wife sees red flags all over. Why would he take Lizzie’s word over hers? How their story lines end up in relation to Lizzie and Lola after all this drama rings hollow–and also doesn’t seem legally feasible. 

I had been drawn in by the big name cast Farrant had assembled, particularly Yvonne Strahovski fresh off of her fantastic “Handmaid’s Tale” work (is there such a thing as ‘maternity battle’ typecasting?) but they’re working in service of a basic script that doesn’t throw anything more exciting at them than a Lifetime TV movie. 

Angel of Mine opens in limited release on August 30th

Film Review: “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch”

Starring the Voice of: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones and Kenan Thompson
Directed By: Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney
Rated: PG
Running Time: 90 minutes
Universal Pictures

“Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” is a moderately safe viewing experience for children. I say this because the past several films churned out by Illumination have been less than stellar with questionable ethics, and they were more about selling toys than they were about telling a genuine story. Illumination has managed to create a crowd pleaser for kids new to the story. But while its super sugary goodness may satisfy kids, it’ll certainly give their parents a toothache.

“The Grinch” is fairly similar to the book and the television special that followed, give or take a few creative liberties that are equally distracting or amusing. Benedict Cumberbatch voices the furry green creature that loathes Christmas, and honestly does a spectacular job. He’s likeable, yet cruel, as well as casually dorky, yet firm with his voice. The rest of the voice talent, Kenan Thompson, Rashida Jones, and others, feel like they were only given a few hours to rehearse and read their lines.

When taking into account, the films based on Dr. Seuss’ work, “The Grinch” stands firmly near at the top by default. It’s not gross and obnoxious like the live-action “Cat in the Hat” or a complete misfire like “The Lorax,” another Illumination film. It’s possible the studio learned from those mistakes, catering towards fans of the original work while making sure they didn’t make it to obnoxiously modern with pop-culture references.

The criticisms of commercialism aren’t lost on the 2018 update on Dr. Seuss’ classic tale. “The Grinch” spends several moments touching upon how the title character is transfixed on the buying, receiving and gluttony of the holidays. It’s the viewpoint of a curmudgeon who’s spent his life loathing a holiday that’s beloved by all. You probably know the story by now about how the cynic softens and how his heart grows multiple sizes by the tales end. It’s hard to take that message at face value when Illumination’s only reason for retelling this tale is for financial reasons.

There are several attempts by the creative team to inject some original, unique ideas into the timeless tale, but only one seems to actually stick. The idea that the Grinch is an orphan, whose deep-seated dislike for Christmas stems from his parentless childhood and the PTSD that follows helps bring everything around in a more complete circle. Other subplots brought in to help the movie don’t resonate at all, like a group of kids in town plan on capturing Santa or Cindy Lou Who’s mom who’s in desperate need of some R&R.

Just like Ron Howard’s film in 2000, this film doesn’t hold a candle to the 1966 television classic. But with television sliding to the wayside with the rising of streaming services, “The Grinch” actually has a legitimate shot at replacing that hand drawn classic. “The Grinch” is bright, flashy and silly; a perfect combination for young children who’ve had their parents read them the Dr. Seuss’ book throughout their young life during the holidays. Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the kind of comment that could get a critic crucified in the domain of public opinion, but anytime Dr. Seuss’ works are adapted for TV or screen, it’s a cash grab regardless of how good and wholesome the final product is.

Film Review – “The Death of Stalin”

THE DEATH OF STALIN
Starring:  Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Andrea Risebourough, Rupert Friend and Jason Isaacs
Directed by:  Armando Iannucci
Rated:  R
Running time:  106 mins.

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

In the Soviet loop. Armando Iannucci brings his breakneck quips and futile power plays to Stalin’s final days in The Death of Stalin, a darkly hilarious take on a moment in history handled by a collection of top notch actors.

In 1953 Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) sits atop a well oiled oppression machine. He doles out hit lists to his gulags on a daily basis and even among his closest confidants he wields terrifying power. Steve Buscemi’s sycophantic Khrushchev takes personal notes on what jokes bombed in his company so as not to repeat his mistakes. Inconveniently Khrushchev and company find their leader face down and on death’s door in a puddle of his own piss. With no official recourse for succession, the jockeying for power—and chewing of the considerable scenery—begins.

Filling out this Stalin’s cabinet with Buscemi is a dream team lineup of Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin (my favorite Python!), Jeffrey Tambor and Jason Isaacs. To Iannucci’s credit none of the actors in this film are asked to adopt any sort of Russian or even any shared accent which only adds to the air of chaos in the party and likely is what frees up these actors to stay absolutely focused on the script’s fast and fierce comic timing. Additionally just when you’re getting the rhythm of this first set of yes-men, Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend are imported in as Stalin’s wayward offspring to inject even more manic energy into the proceedings. Friend in particular is a revelation as Vasily, a bellowing drunkard who arrives landing insults with surgical precision and more often than not, departs by being wrestled physically from the frame.

I had some hesitation going into this film being pretty much unaware of the specifics of this moment in history and wondered whether that would impact my experience however this turned out not to be the case. The themes of absolute power corrupting absolutely and the pettiness of men are always ripe for political farce especially from the likes of the man behind “Veep” and this spectacular cast.

Film Review: “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Berges-Frisbey and Jude Law
Directed By: Guy Ritchie
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 126 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

Our Score: 2 out of 5 Stars

For those who’ve read, studied, or are even fans of Arthurian legend, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” isn’t for you. In fact, if you’re well versed in the British folklore, your confusion will quickly turn into anger a couple of minutes into the movie. While I’m not concerned about the mythology-to-book legitimacy of Guy Ritchie’s film, I’m more concerned about the emotional disconnect between its characters and the film’s unrepentant amount of murder.

Arthur (Hunnam), is born into royalty in Camelot, but not raised by his parents. His power hungry uncle, Vortigern (Law), murders his mom and dad, leaving Arthur orphaned and stranded in a boat. He’s picked up by some ladies of the night in Londinium, raised to become a compassionate and strong warrior. Arthur lives life ignorant to his royal and legendary bloodline, but he’s quickly thrust back into the bizarre world that he was born in. A sword in a stone has appeared and there are rumblings amongst the peasants about the return of England’s true king.

Anyone whose familiar with the works of authors like Geoffery of Monmouth and T.H. White, is surely wondering what the hell is going on with their beloved story. Guy Ritchie has pieced together one of the most disjointed and confounding action movies of the year. It’s really difficult to pinpoint blame on this one, but when he’s in the director’s chair and credited as one of the writers, the blame should fall at his feet.

Hunnam, is charming enough, but much of his allure feels forced. Maybe it’s because he’s much better suited as a tragic hero, which he played for six years on “Sons of Anarchy.” Law can’t suit up and play a compelling villain, and his character is inept and underdeveloped. Vortigern spends most of his time making empty threats and talking to an unnamed octopus woman in the dungeon of Camelot. By the way, the live-action Ursula gone-wrong, is just one of many unnamed and unexplained things, places, and people populating Ritchie’s vision.

Recognizable names, like Sir Lancelot or Sir Galahad, are on short supply as most run-of-the-mill fans will be struggling to remember or relate with characters like Back Lack or Mischief John. Merlin is mentioned, but the only mage Arthur ever comes into contact with is played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey. She’s never named in the movie, in the credits, or on the movie’s IMDB, yet she’s the only person of magic to interact with Arthur and help him tame his sword. You’d think an integral component of your plot would at least have a nickname.

There are inspired moments of “King Arthur,” but that’s only because of Ritchie’s visual flair and when his signature style is deployed, the use of narration over action sequences to condense exposition in an entertaining manner. The action is mostly digital; including a finale that feels like it was created with the video game engine from “Dark Souls.” It must be noted that this movie is excessively violent as we watch anonymous and unnamed civilians, usually helpless women, slaughtered. It makes the specific Arthur subplot that he lacks motivation to become king and save the day especially confounding.

If you were to take away the legend of King Arthur, as the film’s backdrop, it’s not an especially unique action film. It’s a mish mash of multi-national war dramas, “Lord of the Rings” and slow-motion CGI battles. While there’s rarely a dull moment, that void is filled with plenty of stupid moments. It may find an audience amongst connoisseurs and lovers of bad cinema; much like “Gods of Egypt” did last year.

“King Arthur” is certainly an attempt to kick start a franchise for Warner Bros., who’s still unwilling to admit their regret for hiring Zack Snyder to put together the DC universe. There was potential for “King Arthur” because Ritchie was in the pilot’s seat, but his talents are  overwhelmed by a messy script, bland characters, dimly lit settings, and an over indulgence in summer blockbuster movie tropes. If there’s a sequel, I’ll hope for the best, but expect the worst.

 

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Film Review “Deadpool

Review by Mike Smith
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Ed Skrein and Morena Baccarin
Directed by: Tim Miller
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 48 mins
20th Century Fox
Our Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sometimes you know a few minutes into a film what the tone is going to be. Deadpool sets it almost immediately when, during the opening credits, the Producer is identified as: SOME ASSHAT! Thank you, Mr. AssHat, for making one hell of a film.

One of the lesser known (to me anyway) of the Marvel Comic characters (think Spider-man in red without the webs), Deadpool (Reynolds) is a foul-mouthed fool who enjoys his work a little too much. And when I say “foul-mouthed,” I’m talking filthy. He makes Hit Girl in Kick Ass look like Little Miss Sunshine. Known to his friends as Wade Wilson, he earns his money by taking down local bullies. Things are going well for Wade. He’s just found the perfect woman of his dreams (Baccarin) when he learns he has cancer. He is offered a chance for the cure if he becomes part of a mercenary team. Instead he is greatly disfigured by the treatments he receives and decides to just disappear from those that love him (“please don’t make the suit green or animated,” he tells his handlers, pointing fun at Reynold’s last attempt as a hero, “Green Lantern”). If smart-assed sarcasm is your cup of tea, then Deadpool will quench your thirst.

As a character, Deadpool is unlike any “hero” you’ve ever seen. He has no qualms with blowing a bad guys head off with his pair of nine-millimeter pistols or cutting them off with his twin katanas, he’s mixing it up with both the on-screen baddies and the audience. Between breaking the fourth wall and dropping little “inside” quips – when told he needs to go see Professor Charles Xavier he asks, “Stewart or McAvoy?” If I have to explain that comment to you, stop reading now. You don’t want to see this movie.

A superhero film is only as good as the actor playing him and, if ever an actor was meant to play Deadpool, it is Ryan Reynolds. Ever since “Van Wilder” he has spent his career trying to re-capture that “smart-ass” charm. He fits the bill here perfectly. He is surrounded by some strong co-stars, including Skrein as a fellow mercenary and Baccarin who is as tough as she is loving. And I’m sure Stan Lee will agree with me when I say this is his “best cameo EVER!” Throw in a couple of X-men and you’ve got a damn good escape for the weekend.