Category Archives: Reviews

Movie Review: Todd McFarlane: Like Hell I Won’t

Todd McFarlane: Like Hell I Won't

Todd McFarlane: Like Hell I Won’t celebrates McFarlane’s history breaking run on Spawn and is a look at his career. The documentary intersperses footage from conventions, testimonials, and McFarlane himself. He recounts his time in comics with a recurring theme of “drive”. The documentary is an interesting one that mostly props McFarlane up with little criticism. In that way, it feels a bit glossed over in history and is an incomplete picture of his actual career in comics, film, television, and toys. But, the documentary goes through some interesting history doing a fine job of catching up those that might not know it.

From McFarlane’s beginning to modern times, the documentary covers a career that’s been focused and full of drive. From his early comic career to his start at Marvel, we get to see how his early years was one of luck that opened opportunity. We get some strife as he admits that his time at Marvel was one of being pushed back on with his style but he also praises some people he was able to work with there and the opportunities he received. It’s a look at working within a corporate structure as an artist.

But, where things get interesting is when the documentary shifts away from Marvel. While the formation of Image goes quickly, the documentary focuses on the collapse of the comic industry and how McFarlane weathered the storm. We get to see the pillars by which he built his empire and his shift from comics to film, television, video games, and most importantly toys. Though that too is painted as nothing but success with little failure or issues.

Todd McFarlane: Like Hell I Won’t isn’t all roses. A few minutes of it towards the end are dedicated to lawsuits and bankruptcy though all of them are just touched upon with little detail. McFarlane attempts to wash over the time as if success begets lawsuits, and there’s nothing more than others seeing opportunity. It comes off as if he did nothing wrong and everyone else was the issue. The documentary though highlights the losses. The rocky history of Image isn’t mentioned and his Chapter 11 filing is briefly mentioned. Though there’s been success there were failures too that aren’t explored enough. And that makes sense based on Todd McFarlane: Like Hell I Won’t’s focus. The documentary is meant as a puff celebration of Spawn #300, not as a hard-hitting history.

The documentary is about McFarlane’s belief. It’s about the belief in himself and his vision of how things should go. And it’s clearly worked for him. Spawn is still going, well past issue #300, setting a record each month witch each new release. McFarlane Toys continues to inovate and maybe we’ll eventually see Spawn on film again some day. McFarlane has had a successful career and Todd McFarlane: Like Hell I Won’t is focused on that. It dances around his impact. It dances around the industry has changed yet he remains. There’s so much more that could have been explored and expanded upon to make this documentary interesting. But, the final product feels a bit like a late night informercial, an advertisement wrapped up as something else.

If you don’t know anything about Todd McFarlane, a super fan, or a fan of Spawn, then Todd McFarlane: Like Hell I Won’t might be interesting. It’s surface deep in details dancing around the depth and never exploring statements or giving any examples of impact. For those looking at an exploration of comic history, even McFarlane’s career, there’s so many other documentaries and books to spend your time with.

Todd McFarlane: Like Hell I Won’t debuts on SyFY on July 25 at 11pm ET.

Overall Rating: 6.0

Movie Review: The Old Guard

The Old Guard

The Old Guard‘s concept is pretty simple. A group of immortals walks the Earth as a pack of mercenaries and an evil corporation wants to find out what makes them tick and develop a new drug from their gift. A new immortal is discovered and dragged into their shadowy world. Based on the comic series by Greg RuckaLeandro FernándezDaniela Miwa, and Jodi Wynne, and published by Image Comics. The film stars Charlize TheronKiKi Layne, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and is written by Rucka and directed by Gina Prince-Bythwood.

There’s a lot of fantastic elements to The Old Guard. Most of those concepts get a little bit of depth but all feel like there could be so much more done with all of the elements. But, even with that, the film is beyond enjoyable with some fantastic action sequences (not enough of them really) and some solid character connections.

Lets go through bits of the film to discuss what does and doesn’t work:


The relationships – This is one of the best aspects of the film. The team is hundreds of years old and that’s a key aspect of so many members of the team. They have either formed bonds with each other or long for the loss of their friends and family of the past. Two team members are in a rather mature/different type of relationship having bonded over centuries. Team members have died (yes immortals can die) and then there’s the loss of family. It’s all on the table and the actors deliver the pain and love you’d expect in each situation.

The goal of the “evil” corporation – The evil corporation wants to use whatever genetic gift that keeps these individuals alive for medical purposes. Though they go about it in an evil way, and probably would do evil corporate things, the overall goal isn’t too out there. There’s something to debate about possibly being able to save the world but not doing so. There’s also moral debates about testing on these individuals since they can survive the testing in theory.

Choices weigh down on characters – The body count rises throughout the film and the idea of the blood on the hands of the immortals is a feature. There’s the concept of fighting their way through life. There’s the idea of living with family for as long as they can before their immortality is realized. It’s an interesting balance and discussion of choice of actions. The concept of killing one is difficult enough but also think about that body count rising over decades? Try to figure out what you’d do knowing you’ll see your friends and family die? Do you spend it with them? Or, do you run?

The theme of the film – The film ends in an interesting way. It’s not a spoiler to say the film is about leaving a footprint. Early in the film, there are moments that touch upon these individuals attempting to stay anonymous but the bigger question thing isn’t their anonymity but instead their impact for the better. That plays deeply into why the evil corporation wants them


There’s absolutely issues to the film. It foreshadows things a bit too much. You can predict what’s coming down the road with a bit too much easy. It doesn’t diminish the story at all and there’s reasons the foreshadowing happens, to explain the world and rules, but still, it feels a bit forced and a bit too obvious.

The Old Guard is an entertaining film that doesn’t use its twist in too many ways to make the concept not seem interesting. It also adds just enough reasons as to why it doesn’t. It’s the rare action film that has some moral questions underneath and themes to it that makes it a bit more than the fantastic action sequences. It would absolutely work better as an extended television series but from everything teased it looks like we’ll be getting more of the film series down the road. Here’s hoping as it’s an enjoyable two hours to kick back and relax to.

Overall Rating: 8.0

Movie Review: Da 5 Bloods is an essential part of Vietnam War cinema

Da 5 Bloods
Da 5 Bloods, Netflix

Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is a new Vietnam War movie classic, worthy of a spot among Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon. These movies all stand on their own and are inherently different because Vietnam itself was so unlike conventional warfare. It quite simply resists a particular storytelling mold due to it being a very singular kind of conflict, a different species of war. For Lee’s movie to make it into that list it needed to honor that same level of uniqueness present in those other films. I can gladly say it overwhelmingly achieves this.

Da 5 Bloods follows a group of four black Vietnam War veterans that go back to Vietnam to look for a box full of gold they buried during a mission with the intention of retrieving it later on. The group is led by Stormin’ Norman, played by an intensely magnetic Chadwick Boseman, a leader/teacher figure that basically acts as the Bloods’ own war version of Malcom X and Martin Luther King.

The film alternates between flashbacks and the present time (where it spends the majority of its time), with no de-aging tech used for the four main guys during flashbacks. Boseman’s character is the only one that looks young in the flashbacks because he’s the only one who didn’t make it out of the war.

It was so refreshing not being distracted by any de-aging techniques, which made The Irishman such a frustrating watch for me. I couldn’t go five minutes at a time without asking myself why a another actor wasn’t cast in the role of the younger Robert DeNiro.

In fact, the decision not to make the four main characters younger digitally also plays into some of the film’s strongest themes: combat memory and PTSD. That the same actors played both past and present versions of their characters gave the flashbacks a tragic sense of remembrance that communicated the very rough reality of how combat vets never truly leave the war behind. It’s a constant thing that makes vets think their wars never really end (another theme explored in the movie).

Da 5 Bloods
Da 5 Bloods, Netflix

As stated earlier, the story stays the great majority of its time in the present. Their final mission in Vietnam–the retrieval of the buried gold–brings with it discussions on reparations and why black soldiers specifically deserve what’s rightfully theirs due to fighting for an America that didn’t respect them nor acknowledged their sacrifices back on the homefront.

This theme stuck with the movie throughout, making sure it was a part of every discussion that took place between the four vets. Spike Lee makes the point come across even clearer with his signature cuts to archival footage of black protests and black leaders like MLK and Malcom X adding their two-cents on any given discussion, even if it’s in presence alone. It evokes a kind of continuity for the black soldiers, seeing in Vietnam a contradiction of the very idea of military service. Why fight when black lives are being disregarded back home? Why not find this gold and give it back to the people? These questions lie at the heart of the film.

Black Lives Matter discourses are also echoed throughout the film thanks to its aggressive focus on how black military service means an entirely different thing altogether when compared with white military service. This sets this particular Vietnam War movie apart from the others, making it so different and unique in its own right. Apocalypse Now, for instance, explores war as madness. Platoon goes for misguided leadership, the absence of order, and a complete lack of accountability in war. Full Metal Jacket approaches the war as a morally corrupt and senseless act of mass violence that’s too far gone for it to be redeemed. Da 5 Bloods is about how something as historically charged as race in America completely changes what soldiers fight for. How society treats these soldiers at home will determine how their war is fought on the battlefield.

Da 5 Bloods
Da 5 Bloods, Netflix

In other words, America brings a multitude of Americas to war, each meaning something different depending on who you ask and what color their skin is.

Delroy Lindo’s character, Paul, best exemplifies all of these metaphors. Paul is the character that most visibly carries the trauma of war on his persona. He’s unstable, angry, and resistant to help from the other vets. He’s a challenging character to engage with, but the movie’s genius is often seen through him as we go from being frustrated with Paul to understanding why it’s been so hard for him to leave the war behind.

Lindo puts on a performance for the ages. He grabs the audience and pulls them in close to him whether they want to or not, but it’s all for a cause. Spike Lee entrusts him with his signature monologue sequences, in which an actor stares straight to the camera to address a problem head-on and without restraint. Lindo steps up to the challenge and gives a monologue that we should be discussing for years to come as it ruminates on what happens when a country asks its most oppressed communities to go to war in its name. The monologue ties in well with the opening scenes of the movie in which we see archival footage of Muhammad Ali explaining why he refused to serve in the Vietnam War is shown.

Actors Isaiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, and Clarke Peters all do a fantastic job stepping into the shoes of the other three vets. They represent a cohesive unit that also struggles with leaving the war behind while also representing what Vietnam meant to them through their own character arcs. Clarke Peters in particular always keeps up with Lindo’s intensity, playing the part of the moral compass without falling to the trappings of passing judgment on any of his friends. Jonathan Majors as Paul’s son also becomes a mayor player as his fractured relationship with his father manifests and changes as the movie progresses. To a point, he represents inherited trauma and how the war extends beyond the combat veteran’s experience to become a generational problem.

Da 5 Bloods
Da 5 Bloods, Netflix

Da 5 Bloods is a powerhouse of emotion, politics, and black history that easily fits in with the Black Lives Matter movement currently voicing their anger on the streets today, but it never takes for granted that it’s first and foremost a Vietnam War movie. It’s important it doesn’t run away from that as the black experience in war has seldom been explored with the seriousness it deserves.

Vietnam War cinema in America has largely been dominated by white experiences of it. Spike Lee’s Vietnam War movie is invaluable because it sheds light on why it’s important everyone knows that not every soldier fights for their country for the same reasons. The color of a soldier’s skin dictates which version of America they’re fighting for, and they all differ on their definition of freedom.

Shudder’s CURSED FILMS is a surprisingly noble look at notorious horror cinema

Cursed Films
Shudder

The idea of a cursed film evokes images of satanic creatures standing behind the camera, corrupting what’s captured on celluloid. It’s a kind of subgenre in its own right, a kind of supernatural conspiracy theory hub for fans that do not believe in coincidence when it comes to set fires, mysterious crew deaths, and filming disasters. Shudder’s new Cursed Films docuseries traverses this particular horror terrain, and it does it well, but thankfully not in ways I was expecting.

Cursed Films is a five-part documentary series focusing on five films widely considered to be cursed by horror fans, collectors, and even casual moviegoers, especially those that love to dig into the mythos behind productions marked by tragedy and controversy.

The cursed movies explored in the docuseries are The Exorcist, Poltergeist, The Omen, Twilight Zone: The Movie, and The Crow. As of the time of this writing, only the first three films have been explored in the series.

Those expecting a gratuitous indulgence in the dark stories surrounding these films, and validation of popular beliefs, will not leave entirely satisfied. I say this as a good thing. Cursed Films is, surprisingly (to me, at least), a very serious deconstruction of horror myths, where fact and fiction are separated and then dissected to get at the root of why people like to think cursed movies exist.

The first episode dives straight into perhaps the most controversial movie of the bunch, The Exorcist. My personal favorite horror movie (traditionalist that I am, I guess), William Friedkin’s movie about a girl possessed by a demon has been mired in darkness since day one. People worried that the actual making of the film resulted in the legitimate summoning of Lucifer and his army of possession-hungry demons. Injuries sustained by actors during production and even unexplained set burnings seems to confirm all of this to eager followers of the happenings of The Exorcist’s initial release.

People lined up in droves to see The Exorcist.

To tell you the truth, just writing the name of this movie down gives me chills, irrational though that may be. It’s the only movie that gets scarier with each viewing for me, and yet Cursed Films took me down a different path with it. It dedicated most of its runtime to explaining why people so aggressively associate the devil with the movie and why horror inspires audiences to pursue such dark trains of thought.

The show features psychologists, religious scholars, key production and cast members, and writers all mostly aligned within the idea that the only thing that can curse a movie is its audience. Psychological terms are conjured up to explain why fans gravitate towards curses to explain the mysteries of their favorite movies, all of which have perfectly plausible explanations (for the most part).

The Exorcist episode, for instance, debunks a lot of its myths by looking at the PR campaigns of a desperate movie studio hellbent on turning a profit while also looking at how some of the accidents in the workspace actually happened. It even includes talks on the impact of the work culture the movie’s director created during filming, which is well documented.

Perhaps the most potent and surgically precise look at a cursed film can be seen in the Poltergeist episode. Two deaths and rumors about the macabre nature of certain props have been circulated enough for some people to confirm the tragedies that accompany the franchise are the results of a curse, possibly originating from beyond the grave.

Scene from the movie Poltergeist.

What Cursed Films does with this movie is nothing short of masterful, going from legend to legend in an attempt to dispel the “curse,” which for the series means proving no such thing exists. It looks at the psychological and supernatural value people put into objects and locations seen in popular films and how it translates into a whole tradition of people visiting fictional haunted places as if they’re actually haunted.

I’ve participated in this, although not under the impression the place I visited was really haunted. I once had the chance to drive close to where the Amityville house from the infamous 1979 Amityville Horror movie was located. The fact the movie was loosely based on “true events”—that have since then been disproved—made the opportunity all the more enticing, so I took it. I saw the house. People live there. I saw no ghosts walking around, not a single swarm of flies hovering over its windows, and no blood dripping from its walls. In fact, I saw other houses that looked almost the same neighboring it. So much for a place housing one of the gates of Hell.

I thought about this short trip to Amityville a lot while watching Cursed Films. The show’s deconstruction of what could be termed as magical-horror thinking made me rethink the entire experience. It’s interesting because even though I knew the house wasn’t haunted, I did feel unsettled. The power of the movie, and the story it’s based on, had definitely charged the place with a supernatural sensation that was hard to shake off. In the end though, it was just a house. For the few minutes I was there, the only thing haunting it was a curious horror fan holding up traffic to take in one of horror cinema’s most iconic locations. Watching Cursed Films, one can feel a lot like this, especially if you’re prone to give into urban legends.

Cursed Films aims at reminding people horror fiction is just that, fiction. And it needs that emphasis on fiction. In fact, the docuseries suggests these myths and legends do a disservice to the people behind the scares, the ones who work for a living to get a scream out of people in the movie theaters. It’s a meditation on the power of belief when it comes to the representation of evil in film. It wants us to consider that movies themselves don’t have to be haunted to become superior works of horror fiction. They can achieve that pretty well on their own, without the necessity of being cursed.

Movie Review: Bloodshot

The very first feature-length film based on a Valiant property was released on digital this weekend after spending a short time in theaters; Sony PicturesBloodshot starring Vin Diesel as the title character. I was able to get to the cinema a few days ago to check out the film, and have been thinking about it on and off for a few days. I wanted the film to sit with me so that I could really mull my thoughts about the movie.

Before we get anywhere, there won’t be any plot specific spoilers in the below review assuming you’ve watched the trailers released.

The character originated in the 90’s, created by Kevin Van Hook, Don Perlin and Bob Layton, is a recently deceased man brought back by a shady weapons tech corporation for their own use by the use of billions of tiny robots in his bloodstream. it’s these little machines that give him an ability to heal from pretty much anything, enhanced physical attributes, the ability to “talk” to other machines and ghost-white skin with a never healing open wound on his chest.

Bloodshot takes the core concept of the character and throws in an equal blend of Vin Diesel, an A to B plot with a twist that’s revealed in the international trailers (or, you know, is in the comics), of well-paced action. And humor – most intentional, some not. But that’s as far as the movie uses its comic book inspiration. For the most part, this is a straight action movie that just happens to be based on a comic book. It’s a break from the MCU movies we’ve seen over the last few years and their somewhat formulaic (but no less enjoyable) superhero stories. Bloodshot is more Terminator and Pitch Black that it is Iron Man.

Bloodshot movie poster

It’s refreshing in its simplicity, and while I saw the twist coming long before my arse was in the chair, there’s a chance that those who aren’t readers will be taken by surprise. It’s a very well-orchestrated film.

It feels disingenuous to say that this movie is a pretty straight forward action film, but it really is. Despite the potential to really explore the themes of a man being manipulated by technology and corporations to do things he’s barely aware of, the film requires less of your grey matter than it could have. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that Bloodshot needs to stand on its own as a competent action movie, and it does just that. There’s no real Easter Eggs in the movie that’ll alienate moviegoers, and there’s absolutely nothing here other than Bloodshot. The film doesn’t try to introduce characters for the next movie in a potential Valiant Cinematic Universe. I get the sense that if that happens, then this was a good starting point. If it doesn’t, then we still get a solid action flick.

The only issue I had with the comic book adaptation part of the movie was honestly an aesthetic choice. Bloodshot’s two most defining aspects are his white skin and the bloody circle on his chest. Neither of which are present for any great length of time in the movie and certainly not long enough to make a lasting impression. Other than that, though, I’ve no real complaints about the movie. It took a comic book I enjoyed, honored the core concept of the character and touched on a couple of themes that could have been explored further. Which brings me to this; letting go of the past to embrace the future and the manipulation of humanity by technology and corporations are great backdrops to this film and fit the source material very well.

Bloodshot isn’t on par with Endgame, but then to compare the two is like comparing a tomato with Stonehenge. They’re just two totally different things. What Bloodshot does incredibly well is telling a story that translates very well as a comic book adaptation to the big screen (or to a streaming service near you now that the movie has been released digitally already). It never strays too far from an action movie formula, which isn’t a bad thing. I enjoyed the hell out of this movie as a fan of the comics and the character when I saw it in theaters, and I’m enjoying it again now.

Bloodshot isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s damn fun. And that’s what matters.

Movie Review: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Birds of Prey

If you go into Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) thinking it’s fanfic brought to life along with subpar cosplay costumes, cheesy dialogue, and gross misinterpretation of some of DC”s most iconic characters, then yes, the movie was good. If you go into the movie, thinking it should ONLY be called “The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” or simply “Harley Quinn” instead of “Birds of Prey,” then yes, this was a good movie. If you are able to divorce the fact that you have been a fan of this particular comic series since 1998…if you are able to ignore the fact that there is no freakin’ Barbara Gordon as Oracle (you may remember her as the original pre-“New 52” Batgirl)…then yes, it was a good movie.

But let’s not call it “Birds of Prey”.

Sure, sure. I am aware of how they restructured the fan-favorite comic. I recall vaguely Harley Quinn is a member of the “New 52” version of the Suicide Squad. To be honest, I’m not sure how she ended up associated with Birds of Prey. Maybe when Poison Ivy, her bestie, joined the team? IDK. Even more reason for this movie to have its own title to focus solely on Harley Quinn. Because let’s face it: it was all about her emancipation and a motley crew of DC’s anti-heroines who were just along for the ride. And with all the said, I really enjoyed this movie more than I thought I would!

I don’t know what it was, but Margot Robbie seemed cooler as Harley Quinn than she did in Suicide Squad (which incidentally does not come anywhere close to how entertaining Birds of Prey was). She literally had me laughing out loud within the first few minutes especially when she was like “I’m telling the story the way I effin’ want to!” The more obvious attempts at humor like the Cheez Whiz and her getting super drunk or buying a hyena named Bruce was cute, but that didn’t tickle my funny bone. The more subtle humorous scenes made me bray like a donkey. Liiiike Harley jumping onto the driver’s legs, breaking them, then sitting on his lap and correcting him, telling him she has a Ph.D. (okay so maybe that was not meant to be subtle) or when she held the water with the huge cucumber in the bottle. But honestly, it was the egg sandwich with the possibly expired cheese that did it for me. Real tears. Y’all, she had real tears. And can I just say I literally exclaimed “yasss” EVERY TIME Harley was tearing up those kneecaps with aluminum baseball pats and sledgehammers? She was poetry in motion; violent gory poetry. And the lighter…! We got a chance to see her vulnerable side that finally sold me on Margot Robbie’s take on this hilarious epic character. The “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” scene had me hype. So well done.

The rest of the cast was a mixed bag of nuts. And not the good kind.

I’ll start off with this: I am NOT a fan of when they change the ethnicity of a particular character. Especially ones you’ve grown up knowing and loving. With that said, I was not a fan of Jurnee Smollett-Bell being cast as Dinah Lance a.k.a. Black effin’ Canary. But what can you do, right? Also, I was not a fan of the changed origin. But I will give credit where it is due. Jurnee did a good job and the way she kicked some ass was reminiscent of the Black Canary I know and love. I mean, who else can fight like that while wearing stylish tight as hell pants? And she really can sing!

“They call me…Ramona Flowers”. Let me stop, haha. Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress gave me mixed feelings. On one hand, Helena Bertinelli has been a fave of my since my teens so seeing her on the screen was nice. It would have been nicer if she actually, I dunno,  resembled her comic book counterpart? How are you going to go around assassinating people while wearing a Missy Elliot garbage bag poncho and no mask? She was like a lazy cosplayer. I’m sure the comic book version would have used the crossbow on the movie version. I must admit, she does redeem herself. Just a little too late.

Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya actually surprised me. She was gritty, oddly funny, and true to character. She put me in the mind of Renee’s journey of redemption in 2006’s much-lauded “52” series. I actually sighed with relief when the movie touched on one major part of her character growth. And yes, that tied to the “52” book. I won’t say what it was. I won’t spoil. I’m not a savage. And may I add that Rosie Perez still looks amazing? She was certainly “fighting the power” in this movie. But there was no dancing like in Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing”.

And then there’s Cassandra Cain played by Ella Jay Basco. Cute kid. She was your average Forever 21 shopper specializing in early 90’s fashion. Like I said: cute kid. Only the Cassandra Cain we know used to run around in a featureless snitched Batgirl mask and kick some serious ass. We got none of that in this movie! She was a liability throughout the entire movie. If she was not so integral to the plot (stay with me) I would have dragged her by her arm cast to No Man’s Land myself.

Now for the “Big Bad”: Roman Sionis/Black Mask portrayed by the truly versatile Ewan McGregor. He was actually a delight to watch on screen. He was funnier than Jared Leto’s Joker without even trying. I loved his sense of style and his BDSM-esque art involving the black mask was appropriate. Also, I’m positive Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz was secretly in love with him. He kept saying “eww” and “kay” which was hilarious. But honestly, McGregor has always had the singular talent of becoming whomever he played in a movie. This experience was no different. Birds of Prey is the better for it.

The film didn’t deserve the measly $33 million it grossed opening weekend. As stated before, I so thoroughly enjoyed the insane hijinks of this wildly unpredictable, satisfying, but fanfic-y take on Birds of Prey. I was prepared to go into this movie hating it, but it had the opposite effect. The non-linear storytelling, overall fun and engaging characters, and the fantastic fight scenes (especially when Harley was fighting solo) was something right up my alley. The camaraderie and sense of sisterhood and women empowerment was unmistakable and I’m totally here for that! I would love to see a sequel or spin-off movies. It’s deserving of that. Also, is there a post-credits scene? Yes and no. Go check it out. And let me know what you thought, puddin’.

Movie Review: The Gentlemen – Pure Guy Ritchie Fun, Problematic Takes Included

Guy Ritchie's The Gentlemen movie poster

Somehow in the last decade, noted British scumbum auteur Guy Ritchie pivoted from gritty, street-level crime dramas with accents so heavy you need to turn the subtitles on to being one of the most bankable journeymen who brought us the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and last year’s Aladdin remake. But with The Gentlemen, he goes back to the same well that brought us Snatch and Rock n Rolla. Ritchie’s fans will be very happy, as you can’t imagine two films more diametrically opposed than this and Aladdin.

Our story centers around American-born Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) who parlays his Rhodes Scholarship into an empire of dealing marijuana to Britain’s hoi polloi. But as he reaches middle age and considers getting out of the business, selling to fellow American Matthew (Jeremy Strong) but is beset by competition from rival Chinese syndicates, who mostly control the heroin and cocaine trade, led by up and coming lieutenant Dry Eyes (Henry Golding) and also ends up crossing an MMA-training street gang trained by “Coach” (Colin Farrell) who like to post videos of their crimes on Youtube cut into their rap videos. Seriously. It’s very Guy Ritchie.

Perhaps the most Guy Ritchie thing about it is that the entire film is framed as a conversation where glorified paparazzo Fletcher (Hugh Grant) is trying to shake down Ray (Charlie Hunnam), who is Mickey’s majordomo in this weed empire. Fletcher lays out the story of the film as… a spec screenplay– it’s a movie in the movie! How Ritchie and Grant managed to not to die from exhaustion from incessantly winking at the audience will perhaps never be explained. It’s cute, and it would be unforgivable if it wasn’t so fun. Grant continues his recent run of amazing supporting performances and he’s so effortlessly charming as he runs through his schtick– and spends most of the movie flirting with Charlie Hunnam. There’s an ad campaign to be built just around a bearded Hunnam and all the ways Hugh Grant flirts with him. It’s a nice stretch for Ritchie, who also punctuates this a lot of his other trademark moves.

It’s also very Guy Ritchie in the fact that his schtick which may have worked two decades ago now sticks out as, at best, problematic, and, at worst, racist. Yes, Henry Golding is a bad guy– all of these guys are bad guys– and so it’s expected that they’re going to do bad things. But that doesn’t absolve the film of Orientalist tropes that otherize and homogenize people of Asian origin, such as the fact that the Malaysian Golding is referred to over and over as a “Chinaman.” Please, dude– even The Big Lebowski knew that term was inappropriate two decades ago. One of the characters is even named “Phuc.” Get it? It’s so subtle, let me explain it to you the way the film does over and over in the hope that the joke will become funnier. Hint: it doesn’t. And a scene where Coach calls one of his students “a black cunt” and then explains to him that it’s a term of endearment doesn’t remove some of the racial stigmas. Sigh. Double sigh for the weird anti-Semitic tropes and gay stereotypes layered on Jeremy Strong’s character.

But we don’t come to Guy Ritchie expecting him to be politically correct. He is what he is, and these are the films that he makes. I firmly believe in the philosophy of judging a movie by what it is and what it’s trying to be rather than what it’s not and never could have been. There’s no way to make Guy Ritchie make a movie that conforms to these expectations, the same way I expect Sam Mendes to make exactly the movie he made with 1917.

What IS unfortunate is that Ritchie walks away from a few concepts in the film that needed to be explored more. He is by no means a feminist, so it’s not surprising that his film doesn’t pass the Bechdel test when. . . *checks notes* no, wait. . . it does? An early scene where Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), Mickey’s wife, pulls up to her personal place of business– an all-female car repair shop that seemingly caters to posh British women with high-end sports cars– gets run over so quickly in order to continue to the main storyline and I just wanted to pause the movie right there and live in it.

Stop drilling– you struck oil. I want more Dockery, more sports cars, now, please. That scene was so vivacious and fun and I want an entire movie about it.

Ultimately, the film is what it is: it’s fun, it’s violent, it’s pure Guy Ritchie. And that means you take the good with the bad. But for anyone who is a fan of Ritchie’s schtick and has wanted the old Guy Ritchie back, you’re in for a treat. All others? Your mileage may vary.

3.75 stars out of 5

1917 – Movie Review: Visual Tricks Overshadow War’s Human Story

1917

1917 definitely has a very specific energy, and that is tension built on top of tension on top of tension. But like a meal whose flavor profile is just based on one flavor, the final effect feels a little flat, even if it’s so technically stunning. Director Sam Mendes has always been an arresting visual director, from his award-winning work on American Beauty two decades ago to the comic-adapted Road to Perdition to (the best Bond film) Skyfall. And here he’s aided by (one of the greatest living cinematographers) Roger Deakins (who also teamed with Mendes on Skyfall) and editor Lee Smith, who help him achieve the illusion of a single, uninterrupted shot for the entire length of this gorgeous and arresting movie. The film’s strength and weakness are that the gimmick works incredibly effectively. But the story and characters take a backseat to the narrative and technical constraints, which somewhat hamstrings a technically amazing film.

Said story and characters are simple enough: in the waning days of World War I in the trenches of the Western Front, two English doughboys are dispatched to warn a battalion to call off an attack scheduled for dawn. To make the matter more personal, one of the infantrymen’s brother serves in that battalion, so they’re not only saving the war effort, but a family member. The camera follows the action in what appears to be one interrupted take (although it’s fairly clear where they used specific transitions to hide their cuts) and the results are intense.

Much like in Hitchcock’s classic film Rope, (and used in a somewhat more gimmicky way in Birdman) the lack of cuts helps elevate the dramatic tension. You never quite notice how much we depend on a simple cut to alleviate that anxiety that simply comes from letting a take run long. Especially in our quick-cut, quick edit world, we are simply not used to a filmmaker using a single shot for an extended period of time and it becomes incredibly unnerving. The way the camera moves, and what it chooses to linger on (including disturbing images of the horrors of war) also double and triple down on the dramatic tension.

The downside is that our characters and actors take a backseat to all of this, as a veritable who’s who of acclaimed British actors show up all too briefly. Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch bookend the film as British generals in their strongest stiff upper lip personas, and along the way we also run across Andrew Scott (Hot Priest sighting!) and Mark Strong. But where the film actually works best is in some of its quieter moments, such as encountering a young French mother trying to protect her infant while under siege/occupation by German forces.

1917 surely deserves the awards nominations and attention it has been receiving. As a technical achievement, it is breathtaking. But, then again, so is Avengers: Endgame. And in a year where we’re once again discussing the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of awards nominees, it’s hard to not take a second look at 1917 for what it is: a technical masterpiece which puts all of the talents of Roger Deakins and Mendes on full display, but which is choosing to tell a very traditional story centered around the heroics of white men. I had similar problems with Dunkirk. (However, it should be noted that Mendes does take time to at least cameo the contributions of non-white British soldiers) But this is very clearly a passion project and one where Mendes is cashing in a lot of favors to make the movie he wants to make. And it’s time to stop for one moment and think about exactly what kind of film comes out of that process and why, and how that compares to the barriers faced by some of 2019’s other top films and filmmakers. And is there a reason why Sam Mendes might get a Best Director nomination but Lulu Wang won’t? Which, again, isn’t a reason why Mendes shouldn’t be nominated. But maybe Todd Phillips shouldn’t?

All of that is to say that you should most certainly see 1917 and revel in its technical prowess, but also interrogate it a little. If not one of 2019’s absolutely best films, it’s one of its most technically audacious and certainly deserving of the awards hype it’s getting. My personal recommendations would be to not only watch this but then also delve back into Deakins’ back catalog, from his work with the Coen Brothers to Dennis Villanueve, to understand how much visual sauce he’s able to bring to most films.

4.25 out of 5 stars

Cats Zooms Past So Bad it’s Good Territory

Cats

Look, Cats was always going to be a disaster. There’s simply no way you could take the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and turn it into a coherent film because Cats is and always has been nonsensical garbage dolled up with amazing costumes, dancing, and setpieces. Notice I didn’t say music, because Cats has exactly one great song, “Memory,” and the rest is more ridiculous garbage.

Imagine the amount of cocaine that was ingested in the writing, conception, production design and staging of Cats beginning with TS Elliot’s poetry to the 1981 musical to every production of the musical since then to this film. Every bit of celluloid screams “WE ARE ON DRUGS” up to and including the way the cats’ CGI animated ears and tails WON’T STOP MOVING. Yes, cats can and do move like that, but apparently “Jellicle” cats can and do EVERY 2 SECONDS.

One way the film does improve on the play is its attempts to actually convey some sort of plot: every year on a special night, our band of jellicle cats meet and their matriarch (played by Maggie Smith) chooses one to go up to kitty cat heaven and be reborn. So the cats put on a series of elaborate song and dance numbers to compete for that honor, like you do. Except one of the bad cats (played by Idris Elba) is trying to rig the competition in his favor by kidnapping other top kitties. It is not a plot-forward movie.

Instead, you basically get a dozen little vignettes each devoted to introducing one cat or another and there’s singing and dancing. Ok, the dancing is pretty great. Francesca Hayward plays Victoria, our audience surrogate cat, who is new to the junkyard and this band of jellicles, so we learn through her eyes. She is an amazing dancer. There is no way to oversell how great she is. It’s just such a shame she isn’t in a better film, especially one that doesn’t weirdly sexualize her so much.

What do I mean by weirdly sexualize? Well, you come away from the film with a weird feeling like. . . maybe director Tom Hooper has a cat fetish? If you are a cat furry and love the Cats musical, then this movie is 100% for you. Everyone else? Ehhhhhh. . .

Is it so bad it’s good? Like a cult classic sort of way, like a sneak in some edibles and enjoy it way? No. It zooms past so bad it’s good territory that it’s so bad it’s bad again. I pity anyone who goes to this movie high on drugs. It’s going to be a bad trip.

Cat Meow GIF by Cats Movie - Find & Share on GIPHY

This film has such an amazing cast and they are all wasted here. I have no idea what Idris Elba is doing in this movie. I have no idea what Judi Dench is doing in this movie. I have no idea what Ian McKellan is doing in this movie. I have no idea what Jennifer Hudson is doing in this movie. Ok, I sort of know what James Corden, Jason Derullo, and Rebel Wilson are doing in this movie and that is hamming it up as much as possible. I have no idea what Taylor Swift is doing in this movie.

And speaking of Taylor, she has a new song she co-wrote with Andrew Lloyd Webber and it is exactly the unholy abomination a combination of those two would be. Meanwhile, Jennifer Hudson seems determined to make “Memory” hers as much as possible, full-on ugly-crying under the weight of all that makeup and CGI as if to say, “Remember when Anne Hathaway ugly-cried in Les Mes and you all ate it up? Well here’s THIS.” When she finally lets loose and belts as hard as she can, it’s actually pretty good for a few seconds. But it can in no way redeem the rest of this thoroughly inexplicable movie.

Cats will have a fanbase. There will be people who love this. I’m glad they’ll find what they like. And I will say this for it: between this and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, one of these two movies took a big audacious swing. And there’s something to be said for that. Yes, it’s still a giant festering garbage fire, but at least they were thinking big enough to ask, “What if Cats, but with CGI ear and tail twitching and more like humans and sexier?”

1 out of 5 stars

The Rise of Skywalker: An Imperfect Ending, But Provides Populist Hope in Dark Times

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

A lot of digital ink has been spilled already discussing the failures of The Rise of Skywalker. It’s not a bad movie, but it has the weight of literally four decades of expectations and fandom riding on it. It was going to be impossible to deliver something that satisfied everyone.

And yet, it is incredibly clear that this film tried to do exactly that. Unfortunately, in trying to do and be everything to everyone, it ends up doing none of those things particularly well. Its plot twists are predictable enough that they’ve been guessed already by a thousand angry Reddit fanboys. I hope they are pleased with what they got.

Because what this movie feel like is “safe.” It’s the cinematic equivalent of gluing in the firing rocket from Boba Fett’s jetpack because you’re worried someone will hurt themselves with it. Yeah, it’s still a Boba Fett figure and therefore pretty damn cool. But when you create something for mass consumption based on the idea that we have to please an (angry) lowest common denominator, you end up serving up something that is blander than it needs to be.

The Force Awakens worked because despite its reliance on nostalgia and creating a new hero’s journey for our new characters, it was a reinvention of the original Star Wars for a new, diverse, and female-led generation of fans. People got angry. All the right people got angry. Good art should do that. Then The Last Jedi took that and turned it to 11. It subverted expectations and tropes, delivering something that was divisive in all the right ways. The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker could not be more polar opposite of movies in that way– as JJ Abrams described it in The New York Times, a “pendulum swing.” It didn’t need to swing that far, JJ.

It’s as if, after making the 8th highest-grossing movie of all time, “But there’s all these people who are Mad Online about it. Maybe we should make the next movie to try to please them.” And that is exactly how we end up with things like the abomination of a car Homer designs, built for the “average” person:

But great art isn’t built like this. Compare and contrast this with three of the best wide-release films of 2019, starting with Ford v. Ferrari. Shelby and the team at Ford didn’t set out to create a car for the average person. Far from it: they wanted a race car and delivered something that was, in fact, hard to drive. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is a crowd-pleaser in all the right ways and delivers in all the ways fans of the detective mystery will enjoy. But it has some sharp corners that you can poke your eye out with. But it also has Chris Evans in a sweater in a scene with Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” playing in the background and him telling basically every other member of the cast to “Eat $#!t.” Sharp edges.

And then we have Avengers: Endgame, which was set up with much the same expectations and weight. But somehow they managed to stick the landing. Why giving us a film that both felt nostalgic and literally traveled through the past of the MCU, but ultimately all of that was done in service a furthering the characterization of our characters, especially Tony and Steve. So when the final “I am Iron Man” snap happens, it’s earned, it’s organic, and it’s beautiful. Yes, the giant Avengers Assemble moment at the end is a bit contrived and designed to please, but it’s so fun we don’t mind that we’re being pandered to.

The Rise of Skywalker differs in that its pandering doesn’t feel earned. It feels focus-group-tested and, frankly, boring.

If The Rise of Skywalker fails to perform at the box office, Disney is going to need to do some serious self-reflection. The first step is admitting that you have a problem with an abusive, toxic fanbase. And maybe you need to break up with them. Because they’re not letting you be your best, true self. And you’ll never be able to please your abuser enough to make the abuse stop. So stop trying to appease the unappeasable.

Now, all that being said, I actually still mostly like this movie. Because Star Wars is like ice cream. Even if it’s not your favorite flavor, it’s still ice cream, dammit. Even if it’s insipid and bland, it’s still pretty damn cool.

The film is a little basic. Most of the first two acts are a giant MacGuffin hunt, culminating in a final showdown between good and evil with a massive space battle raging overhead. It is very on brand for Star Wars. But what exactly were we expecting?

Keri Russell is Zorii, my new favorite character. She’s badass. She puts Poe in his place on several occasions. And their angry/flirty banter is like straight out of Moonlighting. She also offers the film’s populist message (not these exact words, but this sentiment): the powerful divide us and make us feel like we’re alone. But if we remember that there are more of us than of them, we can unite and overthrow them.

Of course, Poe does his same move that he does in The Last Jedi, and take the words of a smart, successful woman and repeat them back to everyone in a rousing speech– and everyone listens to him. But in this case, unlike his foil Admiral Holdo in TLJ, Zorii is sexually available to Poe (her last name is BLISS like she’s a goddamn Bond Girl. . . yikes), so her putting him in his place and explaining the meaning of the movie isn’t going to ruffle anyone’s feathers. I say this more out of a sense of awareness of the sexism at the base of criticism about TLJ than as a complaint about this movie, because I really like all the business between Zorii and Poe, and Russell and Oscar Isaacs have a definite chemistry, even when she is acting underneath that helmet. But that also says more about me as a heterosexual middle-aged white male who has had a crush on Keri Russell since she was on The Mickey Mouse Club than it does about The Rise of Skywalker, except, again, that it feels the film was built to be almost aggressively pleasing to me.

The same is true of the conflict between our two main characters, Rey and Kylo Ren. There is conflict, there is that strange romantic tension that ReyLo shippers pick up on. Oh, ReyLo shippers. . . there is so much in here for you to enjoy. Everyone else? Well, there is at least one thing in the movie that is likely going to be divisive. But the fights between the two of them are a lot of fun.

But some of the best payoff in The Rise of Skywalker comes in its opening moments where (I hope this isn’t a spoiler for anyone) there are scenes of Leia training Rey as her new Jedi Master. This film sends off Carrie Fisher in some amazing ways. While some of it seems maybe a little forced, it’s mostly just great.

There are some big hero moments near the end. They’re a lot of fun, but they punctuate a final act that feels a little messy. But we get to see Lando fly The Millenium Falcon again and team up with old friends. Billy Dee Williams has never been better. It almost forgives a lot of the messiness and contrivances that get us there.

My biggest complaint is how so many of the side characters get sidelined, especially my precious Rose Tico. She is given almost nothing to do, and in the final act heroics, Finn is paired up instead with new character Jannah. Don’t get me wrong, Jannah is great and presents some great foil moments for Finn because of her backstory (no spoilers on that), but the problem with this is it feels like in the first movie they tried to pair Finn with Rey, then in the second with Rose, and certain segments of the audience rejected that. So they give him, as with Poe, a foil who is sexually available and also black as though we’re sort of subtly saying “Oh, these two characters should be together.” That gives me oogey feelings because, again, it feels like playing to the lowest common denominator: “Here’s a ship no one can get upset about.”

But then on the other end of the spectrum, there’s C-3PO and Chewbacca. Both play integral roles to this story, and Threepio specifically steals every scene he’s in. If you would have told me C-3PO was the breakout performance of the movie months ago, I would’ve laughed in your face. It is, nonetheless, true, and he’s absolutely amazing. New droid D-O is also a lot of fun. There are also some cameos, especially near the end, that made me squeee with delight. Specifically, one character who I’ve waited the entire new trilogy to show up makes it on screen, if only briefly.

But that beautiful populist message ends up ringing loud and true through that final act. It feels in so many places like a very direct middle finger to Donald Trump, to Boris Johnson and Brexit, to all the other forces in the universe who stand with the dark side. Just don’t tell Xi Jinping, or else Star Wars will get banned from China. And no way will Disney be willing to take that.

For all the complaining about The Rise of Skywalker, it isn’t really a bad movie. It just isn’t the great movie it could’ve been. I shouldn’t be arrogant enough to expect that Star Wars is always going to cater to my tastes and be my wish fulfillment (in this case for more complex, subversive material). But, it’s incredibly important to let people like what they like. I’m sure there will be millions of Star Wars fans who love this, and I’m determined to let them have their fun. It’s doubtful the toxic parts of the fanbase will be so kind or will even like this. Maybe Lucasfilm can learn a thing or two from their corporate cousins at Marvel.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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