WHITE BOY RICK (2018) – Somber Authentic Tale of Family, Drugs, and Guns in 1980s Detroit

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Richie Merritt and Matthew McConaughey in WHITE BOY RICK (2018).

Matthew McConaughey is a helluva an actor.

I like to poke fun at his Lincoln TV commercials, but in the movies, he’s the real deal and then some.

WHITE BOY RICK (2018) which stars McConaughey is one of the most somber, depressing movies I’ve seen in a long while. It may not be an enjoyable film, but it is certainly an authentic one. At times I thought I was watching a documentary. It does an exceptional job capturing the depression of 1980s Detroit, and its story, while slow, is delivered without fanfare, led by two powerful performances, one by McConaughey, and the other by newcomer Richie Merritt.

WHITE BOY RICK opens at a gun show where Rick Wershe Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) and his teenage son Rick Jr. (Richie Merritt) purchase semi-automatic weapons because that’s how Rick Sr. makes a living, by selling guns on the black market. Rick and his son live in Detroit. It’s the 1980s and the economy there is deplorable.  They are dirt poor and things are only getting worse. Rick talks optimistically about opening a video store but he never seems to get around to it.

They live alone in a run-down house, as Rick’s wife left them years ago, and Rick Jr.s older sister Dawn (Bel Powley), a junkie, moved out because she can’t stand her dad’s restrictions. Rick Sr.’s parents live next door, his cranky dad Grandpa (Bruce Dern) and his more soft-spoken mother Grandma (Piper Laurie).

Rick Jr. hangs out with his best friend “Boo” (RJ Cyler) whose dad Johnny (Jonathan Majors) operates the local drug trade. As Rick Jr. becomes closer to this seedy side of Detroit, he’s nabbed by FBI agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane). They give Rick an ultimatum: if he sells drugs for them, in an effort to infiltrate and help them arrest the local drug pushers, they won’t arrest his dad for selling guns to drug dealers. Seeing that he has no choice, Rick Jr. agrees, and suddenly he’s playing a very dangerous game.

Eventually, as things continually get worse financially for Rick’s family, Rick Jr. decides to take matters into his own hands and use his drug contacts to sell drugs on his own. While Rick Sr. protests, arguing that selling drugs is bad news, he can’t deny that the money they could make dwarfs what they make selling guns, and they are desperately poor.

As I said, this is not a happy movie.

One of the main messages in WHITE BOY RICK is that under the drug laws of the 1980s it was actually worse to get caught selling drugs than it was to murder someone. Several characters mention this in the movie, and ultimately this is what happens when Rick Jr. is arrested. He receives a life sentence, And he was just a teenager.

It provides one of the more emotional moments of the film where Bruce Dern’s grandfather character cries out in court room, “He’s just a boy! How can you do this to just a boy!”

Not only can they do it, but they did do it, in real life, as WHITE BOY RICK is based on the true story of Rick Wershe Jr. who did indeed receive a life sentence in 1988 for selling drugs.

There is nothing flashy about the screenplay by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller, and Noah Miller. It goes about its business telling its story without frills. As such, the pacing is slow as often the audience feels like a fly on the wall to some of the conversations and situations, but it does do a remarkable job fleshing out the its characters. You might not like these people, but you will feel for them, mostly because they come off as real.

Director Yann Demange captures poverty-stricken Detroit perfectly, in spite of shooting the film in Cleveland. The story he tells is raw and gritty, the characters unrefined and pungent, and the overall feeling of the film is somber and depressing.

Demange also gets the most out of his actors, as there are strong performances throughout.

Matthew McConaughey, as he almost always is, is excellent as Rick Sr., and newcomer Richie Merritt, who’s making his film debut, is just as good as Rick Jr. The two really seem like father and son.

McConaughey is near-perfect as the dad who just wants to do right by his family, but wouldn’t know a good idea if it knocked on his front door. Stuck selling guns, unable to help his drug-addicted daughter, and out of the loop regarding his son’s drug dealings, he nonetheless refuses to quit, even with all of life seemingly working against him. Eventually, he does go after his daughter and help get her clean, he does step up to help his son, but unfortunately, the need for money proved too great for him to tell Rick Jr. not to sell drugs.

The scene near the end of the movie where Rick visits his son in prison and sees that Rick Jr. is giving up, and he begs his son not to quit, knowing that there’s nothing he can do to help him, is one of the film’s best. When he cries out to his son that “he’s his best friend. You’re my only friend!” It is such a powerful realistic moment.

McConaughey fares much better here than in last year’s THE DARK TOWER (2017). This might be my favorite McConaughey performance since DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB (2013.)

And Richie Merritt doesn’t seem like an actor playing a role at all. He seems like he is Rick Jr. It’s one of the more authentic performances I’ve seen this year.

Bel Powley is also very good as Rick Jr.’s sister Dawn, who like Merritt and McConaughey, doesn’t seem to be acting.  The trio come off as a real family, albeit a messed-up one, but a real one just the same.

Then you have veteran actors Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane as a pair of FBI agents. Both RJ Cyler as “Boo” and Jonathan Majors as his drug dealing father Johnny are excellent, and character actor Eddie Marsan enjoys a couple of memorable scenes as drug dealer Art Derrick.

Not to mention cinema greats Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie as the grandparents of the family.  Dern gets to do more, as Grandpa is the more outspoken of the two and gets to utter some explosive lines here and there, but it was still good to see Laurie as well.

The cast in WHITE BOY RICK is really a plus.

And the film gets its title from Rick Jr.’s nickname. Since Johnny Curry and his gang were primarily black, and Rick Jr. was often the only white person in their inner circle, Johnny got to calling him “White Boy Rick.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect from WHITE BOY RICK. But when all was said and done, and the end credits rolled, I realized I had just watched a potent movie.

This one is about as fun as a traffic accident, but there is not a shred of fluff to be found here. It plays as authentic as a documentary, and with a talented cast of actors, it does one better, as the characters it creates, while not likeable, are real and sympathetic. I didn’t like these folks and wouldn’t want to know them, but that didn’t stop me from feeling the injustice of Rick Jr.’s fate and the heartbreak of Rick Sr. when he realized he was never going to spend time with his son again.

WHITE BOY RICK has a lot to say about the motivations of people who just don’t have money to live their lives, and speaks to the imbalance of drug laws, how the punishment may not fit the crime.

You may not be hearing much about WHITE BOY RICK, and even if you are, it may not sound like something you want to see. But if you do see it, you’ll be in for a no-nonsense movie that speaks the truth about some unpleasant people, the choices they make, and the situations they find themselves in, people who ultimately you will feel empathy for.

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A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018) – Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively Lift Uneven Comedy Thriller

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Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively in A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018)

The combination of comedy and thriller is a complicated dance.

A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018), the new film by director Paul Feig, known mostly for his comedies, with films such as BRIDESMAIDS (2011), THE HEAT (2013), and SPY (2015), makes an energetic attempt to master this nuanced tango, but with a few missteps along the way, especially towards its latter half, it’s not exactly a polished polka.

The best part of A SIMPLE FAVOR, and honestly the main reason I wanted to see this one, is its casting of Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, as two very different moms whose lives intersect in a way that at first suggests an unexpected friendship but gradually reveals the hatching of a sinister plot.

Kendrick and Lively are both excellent, and they are the main reasons to see A SIMPLE FAVOR. What stopped me from really liking this one was its story, filled with more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie novel, and as such, far less believable.

A SIMPLE FAVOR opens with Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) hosting her vlog, which is usually a platform for helpful tips for moms, but this time she’s discussing the disappearance of her best friend Emily (Blake Lively) who five days earlier had asked Stephanie to do her a simple favor and pick up her son from school because she had to work late, but then Emily never showed up, and no one has seen her since.

Stephanie decides to bring her viewers up to speed and tell the whole story leading up to Emily’s disappearance, and thus the film flashes back to how the two friends first met. Stephanie is an incredibly energetic single mom who volunteers nonstop for her son Miles’ first grade class. When Miles wants to have a play date with his friend Nicky, Nicky’s mom Emily (Blake Lively) at first says no, that she doesn’t have time, but eventually changes her mind and invites Stephanie and Miles over to her luxurious home.

They live in a small town in Connecticut, and Emily works for a high-profile designer in New York City, and her lifestyle is completely opposite from Stephanie’s. But the two strike a friendship which at first seems odd but happens because the one thing they both have in common is that neither one really has any friends.

When Emily disappears, Stephanie joins forces with Emily’s author husband Sean (Henry Golding) to find out what happened to her. And what quickly becomes apparent is that this is not an ordinary missing person’s case. With that in mind, I’ll stop right there because the less known about the plot the better.

That being said, the story as a whole even with all its twists and turns, didn’t really work for me. For starters, there are just so many curves thrown to keep the audience off-balance that after a while it simply becomes too farfetched. By the end of the movie, I found myself believing very little of it.

And this is where the thriller/comedy combo comes into play. Had this been a straight comedy, then I most likely wouldn’t have cared as much if the story wasn’t all that believable. But A SIMPLE PLAN in spite of frequent comedic outbursts retains a serious tone throughout, and when a thriller isn’t believable, that’s problematic.

The screenplay by Jessica Sharzer, based on the novel by Darcey Bell, mixes things up from the outset. In her opening vlog Stephnie announces that Emily is missing, a serious beginning, but in the ensuing flashback Stephanie is shown in highly comedic scenes. It’s an odd mix. The overall look of the film is light and bubbly, yet the dialogue and the plot is most often somber. At one point Emily says the best thing she can do for her son is “blow her brains out,” to which she quickly follows with an “I’m kidding.” The entire film plays like this, and to be honest, as it went along, I had a difficult time determining what was supposed to be taken seriously and what wasn’t. The plot certainly goes down some dark roads as it involves fraud and murder.

And it’s not a comedy which just happens to feature murder a la some of the classics of yesteryear like FOUL PLAY (1978) and MURDER BY DEATH (1976). It’s much more a thriller with some quirky characters and brief comedic moments.

Both Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively are excellent, even if they are playing characters who by film’s end I didn’t find very believable. Which is another problem I had with the movie. Most of the characters didn’t seem credible, and so you have this rather serious plot inhabited by characters who were difficult to take seriously.  It just didn’t quite work for me.

I like Anna Kendrick a lot, and her performance was my favorite part of this uneven movie. At first, as Stephanie, she seems to be this supermom, but when she starts loosening up and confiding with Emily, she has some secrets of her own to share. And later, when her relationship with Emily’s husband Sean changes, it opens up the door for some questions about her character and motives. Kendrick does a nice job capturing the nuances of the character, even if the script ultimately lets her down.

Blake Lively is equally as good as the complex Emily Nelson. She’s the complete opposite of Stephanie. She’s the trend-setting go-getting career woman with little or no time for her son, but yet she and Stephanie do become friends. Stephanie is attracted to Emily’s fierce no-apology take-everything-you-can philosophy of life which is so opposite of her own self-sacrificing personality. Lively has a field day as the no-nonsense power mom, whose shadowy past is revealed once Stephanie starts looking into her disappearance.

Henry Golding rounds out the triumvirate as Emily’s husband Sean. Fresh off his starring role as eligible bachelor Nick Young in CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) Golding is married this time around but still brings his attractive good looks to dress up the proceedings. Golding makes for a confused husband. At times he’s completely mesmerized and dominated by Emily, and at others he seems genuinely in love with her and sincere in his efforts to find her.

But when his relationship with Stephanie develops, it raises questions that ultimately I’m not sure the film does the best job answering.

When all is said and done, and all the twists and turns have come to a halt and the dust has settled, the result is a plot that is pretty darn ludicrous. I bought very little of it. And one of the main twists in the film is one I’ve seen done many times before.

But it might not matter. I saw A SIMPLE FAVOR in a crowded theater, and there was lots of genuine laughter from the crowd.

Some dark comedies work. In fact I love most dark comedies. But A SIMPLE FAVOR is less a dark comedy and more a comedic thriller, with the emphasis on crime and mystery, but it’s a crime and a mystery that I just didn’t believe.

I ultimately found  A SIMPLE FAVOR to be a disappointment, even with solid performances by Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. Kendrick and Lively are very good, but the story they occupy is too far-fetched not to have been played completely for laughs.

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PEPPERMINT (2018) – Jennifer Garner Fans Deserve Better

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One of the worst sins a movie can commit is to bore its audience.

Because you’re in the theater, you’ve paid for your ticket, and now you find yourself sitting there, bored, and you can’t even be entertained. I mean, some films are simply so bad you can’t help but laugh, and so you can at least have fun with that. But for the boring films? That’s the worst.

And so, with that said, PEPPERMINT (2018) by far is the most boring film I’ve seen this year.

PEPPERMINT is the tale of Riley North (Jennifer Garner), a woman who witnesses the shooting deaths of her husband and ten year-old daughter, and when the killers are allowed to go free, thanks to a crooked judge who is in the pocket of the powerful drug lord whose men committed the murders, she decides to take the law into her own hands and seek justice.

She does this by disappearing for several years, during which time she trains to become a killing machine, and once she returns, she’s hell-bent on killing everyone who had a hand in her family’s murders. Charles Bronson would have been proud.

PEPPERMINT opens in present day where we witness Riley kicking the living daylights out of a villain and then some. Let’s put it this way. His body ends up in the trunk of the car. The action then flashes back to five years earlier, where we see Riley happily married to Chris (Jeff Hephner) and enjoying a close relationship with her daughter Carly (Cailey Fleming).

When one of Chris’ buddies tries to persuade him to take part in a robbery, arguing that his blue-collar mechanics job is never going to get his family ahead in life, and that this will, Chris wisely turns him down. But that’s not good enough, apparently. See, his buddy tried to rob the local drug lord, Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba). Garcia promptly captures and kills the buddy, and then, just because Chris “considered” stealing from him, he orders his men to kill him to make an example of him.  Jeesh!

Anyway, they shoot Chris and young Carly dead, in a scene that is surprisingly tame and not very powerful.

In spite of threats and a payoff not to testify against the men Riley identified to the police as the killers, she does in fact testify against them. But in one of the more ridiculous court scenes I’ve seen in a while, the judge lets the guys go. Obviously, the screenwriter here, Chad St. John, has never seen an episode of LAW AND ORDER. It’s an embarrassingly phony court scene.

Riley vows revenge, and then the action jumps back to present day, where Riley has returned as a vengeance machine.

PEPPERMINT is so dull that not even the scenes of vengeance are all that good.  I mean, that’s how bad things are. Why? Well, for starters, director Pierre Morel simply goes through the motions here. Morel directed the Liam Neeson movie TAKEN (2008) ten years ago but not much since.

When Riley kills a judge, when she goes after drug dealing henchmen, it’s all by the numbers and not even remotely memorable. Everything that happens in this movie has happened in a billion other action movies.

The screenplay by Chad St. John is also very weak. St. John also wrote LONDON HAS FALLEN (2016). Here, the dialogue is trite and often ridiculous, and characters robotic. Riley lost her husband and her daughter, yet I barely felt a connection to her. I felt little emotion at all through the entire movie.

Jennifer Garner of ALIAS (2001-2006) fame is okay as Riley North. She looks convincing as a fighting machine, I’ll give her that much. Although, the body count is so high in this one it’s the furthest thing from being believable. It reached Terminator proportions only without Schwarzenegger’s one-liners. As such, Garner is certainly not helped by the script, which struggles to give her either realistic dialogue or any memorable lines.

Both John Gallagher, Jr. and John Ortiz, both fine actors, are wasted here as L.A. detectives who are trying to help Riley while the rest of the authorities are out to get her because she’s a dangerous vigilante. Where have we heard that before?

Gallagher Jr. was very impressive in films like THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2016) and 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016). Not so much here, as his Detective Stan Carmichael is like the rest of the movie: a snooze.

Likewise, John Ortiz has been memorable in films like SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOOK (2012) and ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM (2007) but he too barely registers on the interest meter here. Actually, I thought he fared a bit better than Gallagher Jr. because his Detective Moises Beltran actually seemed like a real person.

In a brief role, Jeff Hephner made for a convincing loving husband, and young Cailey Fleming impressed in her brief screen time as Riley’s daughter Carly.

But Juan Pablo Raba as drug lord Diego Garcia is about as generic a villain as you can get. His dialogue could have been copied and pasted from any other fictional character of his type. The result is he’s about as scary and believable as if his name had been Carmen Sandiego Garcia.

This one offered little or no surprises. About the most surprising thing here was that I saw it in a rather crowded theater. So, there seems to be definite audience interest in this one.

That being said, audiences, especially Jennifer Garner fans, deserve far better than this.

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THE NUN (2018) Is Not Fun

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THE NUN (2018) has one major thing going for it: atmosphere.

And that’s because it was shot on location in Romania, and so you have enormous ominous castles and an Old World countryside that is ripe with superstition and evil spirits. In terms of setting, you can’t get more authentic. It’s so rich in atmosphere it brought me back to the Hammer Films of yesteryear.

And yet it’s all for naught because unfortunately, sadly, in spite of this being an atmospheric gem, the rest of the film is unbearably awful.  As in really awful.

What a shame.

This one would only have needed a halfway decent story, and direction that just allowed the story to flow without getting in the way, and yet the writers and director here couldn’t even do that.

Again. A shame.

THE NUN is the latest film to take place in THE CONJURING (2013) universe.  THE CONJURING of course is the well-received horror movie by director James Wan, and a film that I liked a lot, that told the story of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. It was followed by THE CONJURING 2 (2016) and a pair of ANNABELLE movies featuring a scary doll which first appeared in THE CONJURING.

Now we have THE NUN which features a scary demon from THE CONJURING 2  that looks like a nun.

And this nun demon which goes by the name of Valak is pretty scary looking, which is another thing this movie has going for it. This film actually has a few things going for it, which makes it all the more amazing that it’s so gosh darn awful!

The film opens in Romania in the 1950s at a cloistered abbey where we witness two nuns fighting an unseen demon. To prevent the demon from entering her body, one of the nuns hangs herself.

The action switches to the Vatican where a priest named Father Burke (Demian Bichir) is informed he’s being sent to Romania to investigate the suicide of a nun, with the implication being that there’s more going on there at the abbey because Father Burke has experience with exorcsims.  Burke is told he needs to bring a young nun with him, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) because she has experienced visions, and these visions will be of help to Burke in his investigation.

In Romania, Father Burke and Sister Irene interview the young man who found the body of the hanged nun, a man who goes by the nickname Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) because he’s French. Duh.

So, Burke, Irene, and Frenchie go to the abbey and begin the investigation, which does not go well. Why, you ask? Because there’s a demon there of course! And this demon doesn’t like people poking around in his business, and so he does all the things audiences are used to seeing demons do in horror movies: makes loud noises, makes people see things that aren’t there, jumps out at people, and generally wreaks havoc all the while giving people in the CGI business jobs.

Yawn.

I’ve pointed out a couple of things THE NUN did well, but now it’s time to mention the things it didn’t do too well.

Let’s start with the special effects overkill.  There’s so much going on in the special effects department I felt like I was on the Disney Haunted Mansion ride. And when this happens, it kills any authenticity the film has. I didn’t believe any of it.

 

The story here has a lot of problems. The screenplay by Gary Dauberman creates very dull characters without any real sense of purpose. I’m still not sure what it was exactly that Father Burke was investigating or why exactly the Vatican wanted Sister Irene to help him. Additionally, I don’t really know what this demon was all about. Why was he possessing these nuns? It’s not like he’s actively trying to leave the abbey.  Is he a demon-homemaker who just wants to be left alone?

And the characters here have zero depth and are all rather boring.

Demian Bichir, an actor I generally enjoy, looks serious as Father Burke, and he definitely carries himself with some presence, but he’s about as interesting as a rosary bead.

The far more interesting bit of casting is Taissa Farmiga as Sister Irene. Farmiga is the younger sister of Vera Farmiga, who played Lorraine Warren in THE CONJURING movies. Hmm. THE NUN takes place before the events in THE CONJURING, and here we have a character Sister Irene, who because she is played by Vera Farmiga’s sister, bears a strong resemblance to the Lorraine Warren character. Would there, I wondered, be some sort of connection between the two? In other words, would the filmmakers have used this potentially ingenious bit of casting to the story’s advantage?

In a word, no.

So much for that.

Anyway, Taissa Farmiga is very good as Sister Irene, but again, I didn’t know much about the character or understand what her visions had to do with the story being told here in this movie.

THE NUN was directed by Corin Hardy, and I can’t say that I was impressed.  The scares were practically nonexistent, and the pacing poor. For a film that clocked in at just over 90 minutes, it felt much longer than that, especially during its second half. It also featured far too many special CGI effects which did nothing but detract from its storyline.

The other thing I did like was the music score by Abel Korzeniowski, which certainly captured the whole possessed abbey feel with lots of religious undertones. You could almost see the chanting monks hovering in the damp dark corridors. Korzeniowski also composed the music for the PENNY DREADFUL (2014-16) TV show.

THE NUN actually gets off to a good start. The on-location shooting in Romania combined with Abel Korzeniowski’s effective music score easily lured me into the proceedings. And upon first meeting Father Burke and Sister Irene, and buying into the performances of Demian Bichir and Taissa Farmiga, I was definitely interested in joining them on their investigation into the mysterious occurrences at the haunted abbey.

But this investigation only led to lots quiet moments searching dark corridors and hallways, with ghostly encounters that made little sense, and demonic confrontations that featured over-the-top CGI effects that were anything but scary, and some pretty awful dialogue.

Yes, when it became apparent about two-thirds of the way through this one that its story wasn’t going anywhere, the film simply lost my interest and became flat-out dull and boring, which is too bad, because it really looks good.

What a shame that the filmmakers went all the way to Romania to make this movie but didn’t bother to bring a decent story with them.

And I don’t know about you, but I went to see THE NUN to see a horror movie, not a Romanian travelogue.

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SEARCHING (2018) – Missing Daughter Thriller Nearly Done In By Ridiculous Ending

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SEARCHING (2018), a new thriller about a man named David Kim (John Cho) searching for his missing daughter, hooked me in immediately and never let go— until its ending.

The gimmick in SEARCHING is that all of its action takes place on a computer screen, which is similar to the same gimmick used in the horror movie UNFRIENDED (2014), a film I thought I would hate, but I didn’t, as I found its computer use surprisingly refreshing. I found the same here with SEARCHING. In spite of the fact that everything that happens in this movie is seen through a computer screen, it all works. I believe this is so because we are all so familiar with personal computers that looking at them for the duration of a movie seems both comfortable and natural, which I know sounds weird, but I think it’s a major reason why the tactic works.

SEARCHING opens with the familiar Windows screen from a decade ago, and in an opening computer montage, we learn all about David Kim’s family. We see footage of his daughter Margot’s first day of school, and fun videos of him and his wife raising Margot. But then things get serious as his wife Pamela (Sara Sohn) learns she has cancer, and we follow her struggle to beat back the disease, achieve a victory with a remission, only to ultimately lose the battle and die, her death depicted on a computer calendar marked with the words “Mom comes home,” the phrase copied and pasted to a later date, before it is quietly deleted.

This opening montage, completely told from images on a computer screen, emits more emotion in five minutes than a lot of traditional movies do in their entirety.

After this montage, the action settles on David communicating via Face Time to Margot (Michelle La) who is now in high school, as she’s rushing off to a study group which she says will go late.  The next day, David awakes to find a couple of missed calls from his daughter. His attempts to contact her the next day go unanswered.

As the entire day and night pass without word from Margot, David suspects foul play and calls the police. He’s put in touch with Detective Vick (Debra Messing) who’s the lead detective on the case.  She promises David she will do her best to locate his daughter, and what follows, as David continues to track down leads himself using his daughter’s computer, searching her contacts and friends, is a series of twists and turns that will keep audiences off-balance and guessing until the final reel.

It’s all riveting and exciting, until the end, which provided one twist too many. This final revelation is rather ludicrous and for me ruined what ultimately would have been a very credible thriller.

But before that final twist SEARCHING is a first-rate thriller.

It also has some things to say about families and computer use.  David is shocked to learn once he starts looking into his daughter’s contacts that he really didn’t know his daughter, that there was so much in her life that they never talked about. The film serves as a nice reminder for parents to remember to take the time to talk to their kids.

David is able to learn so much about his daughter once he starts searching her computer because everything is recorded. That’s one of the more fascinating parts to the story, that he can learn as much as he does by researching Margot’s online connections. The electronic stamp we leave with our online use is both fascinating and somewhat scary.

John Cho gets most of the screen time in this one as frantic father David Kim, and Cho is more than up to the task of carrying this movie. He’s excellent throughout.  We get to see a lot of emotions from David, from when he first fears his daughter is missing, to learning that she probably ran away, which goes against everything he knows about her, to other evidence which supports foul play.

Cho, who plays Sulu in the new STAR TREK movies, and who played Harold in the silly HAROLD & KUMAR movies delivers a top-notch dramatic performance here.

Michelle La is also very good as Margot, although since her character is missing she’s really not in the movie all that much and makes less of an impact that Cho.

As Detective Vick, Debra Messing, who plays Grace on TV’s WILL AND GRACE (1998-2018), is okay, but there was something grating about her character. The film continually hammers the point home that for Vick family is everything, and so she is extra driven to help David find his daughter.

A stronger performance was turned in by Joseph Lee as David’s brother Peter, who like any good brother is there for David both as support and to help search for Margot. Until there are some sketchy revelations regarding Peter that suddenly cause David to question his brother’s character.

Director Aneesh Chaganty has made a very entertaining thriller.  I really enjoyed its creative style of storytelling by only showing events on computer screens. This gimmick didn’t detract from the story at all.  On the contrary, it somehow made it even more compelling.

Chaganty also wrote the screenplay with Sev Ohanian, and it’s a good one.  The mystery of Margot’s disappearance is strong, the characters three-dimensional and fleshed out, and the dialogue very sharp. I completely bought David’s relationship with his daughter, and it played out like an authentic father-teen daughter relationship.

I also enjoyed the various twists and turns this one had to offer.

Except for the last one.

Just how bad was that last twist?

It was so bad. How bad was it?

It was so bad it came close to ruining the entire movie for me. It didn’t. But it came oh so close.

It reminded me, for those of us who used to watch soap operas back in the day, of one of those really bad soap opera plots. You know the ones I’m talking about.  Where someone disappears and the clues lead everywhere, and then there’s that one person who should be the last person who is a suspect, but since this is a soap opera where anything is possible, it turns out that yes, that’s the person who committed the crime!

It’s one of the more ridiculous endings to a movie I’ve seen in a while, which is too bad, because everything that came before it was pretty darn good.

All in all, I enjoyed SEARCHING.  It held my interest throughout, all the way to its very disappointing ending, where it offered one twist too many, a twist that comes oh so close to ruining all that came before it.

If only the writers had spent more time searching for a better ending.

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OPERATION FINALE (2018) – Tale of Nazi Capture Relevant Today

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operation-finale

Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley in OPERATION FINALE (2018)

There are moments in OPERATION FINALE (2018), the new historical drama about the capture and extraction of Nazi Adolph Eichmann from Argentina in 1960 by a group of Israeli agents, that resonate more powerfully today because they call to mind current events.

Watching a raucous Nazis meeting you can’t help but recall images of the hate-filled march in Charlottesville or the frenzied crowds at a Trump rally.  The images are eerily similar.

But the action in OPERATION FINALE is all historical.

When we first meet Israeli Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) he’s leading a failed attempt at capturing a Nazi target.  Shortly after they remove the man from his home, ripping him away from his wife and kids, Malkin realizes they have the wrong man, but before he can do anything about it, his associates shoot the man dead. When Malkin tells them they grabbed the wrong Nazi, his partners shrug and ask, does it matter? He was still a Nazi.

The action jumps ahead a few years to 1960, where in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a young German girl Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson) brings home her new boyfriend Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn) to meet her blind father Lothar (Peter Strauss). When Lothar hears the boy’s name, he sends word to the Israeli government that he believes he has met the son of Adolph Eichmann, the infamous Nazi known as the mastermind of the “Final Solution,” the Nazi plan which led to the mass murder of millions of Jews.

Israeli agent Isser Harel (Lior Raz) sends a team which includes Malkin to Buenos Aires, and shortly thereafter they confirm the identity of Eichmann (Ben Kingsley).  They then plan to capture him and extract him from the country so he can stand trial in Israel for his crimes, which will be no easy task, since Eichmann is surrounded by a vigilant group of Nazis looking to rise to power once more.

OPERATION FINALE really isn’t receiving strong reviews, as I keep hearing it described as slow and unimaginative, but it really deserves stronger praise than that.  I will agree that it is subtle in its storytelling, and it’s rated PG-13 so the horrific violence from the Holocaust will not be on full display here, but there are enough potent images to make it work just fine.

The film is anchored by two very strong performances by Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley. Both actors drive the story forward with their convincing interpretations of the two leads.

I like Isaac a lot, and he seems to get better in every movie I see him in. While he’s probably most known today for his recurring role as pilot Poe Dameron in the new STAR WARS movies, it’s not in that role that he’s really been allowed to strut his stuff.  He’s been excellent in films like ANNIHILATION (2018) and EX MACHINA (2014), and way back when he made an impression in the stylish action fantasy SUCKER PUNCH (2011).

He’s excellent here as Israeli agent Peter Malkin.  He plays Malkin as a man not quite sure of himself at first, and his confidence grows as he’s allowed to establish a relationship with Eichmann while they’re held up in a safe house awaiting the opportunity to fly out of Buenos Aires. The Israelis need Eichmann to sign a document expressing his willingness to leave the country, and when their hardball tactics continually fail, Malkin believes he can get him to sign by appealing to his ego.

The two men partake in a psychological cat and mouse game which heats up in one of the movie’s best scenes when Eichmann attempts to get under Malkin’s skin by telling him the story of how he shot a woman and her baby, knowing that Malkin’s sister and baby were lost in the Holocaust. He asks Malkin if he thinks it was his sister and her baby he shot , and if so, wouldn’t that have been a good thing, for them to have been killed so quickly as opposed to the horrifying ways Eichmann saw others killed?

Ben Kingsley is very, very good as Adolph Eichmann, a man who refuses to stand trial in Israel because he knows there will only be one result, his death, and he believes that in order to receive a fair trial he should be tried in Germany. He also refuses to be the scapegoat for the sins of his former government, and he makes the argument that he was only following orders, just as Malkin is doing now.

At one point Eichmann tells Malkin that he actually tried to help many Jews escape, as he didn’t agree with his fellow Nazis’ solution for getting rid of the Jews. He believed they should have been relocated, and he in fact did relocate many of them, to which Malkin scoffs that he sent them to malaria-filled Madagascar. Eichmann replies that no other country would take the Jews.

It’s a subtle performance by Kingsley, yet it’s no less successful. He makes Eichmann a formidable  force to be reckoned with, and there is something icy cold and sinister underneath nearly every civil line he utters.

The rest of the cast is equally as solid. Lior Raz as Israeli agent Isser Harel, and Nick Kroll as fellow agent Rafi Eitan, and Michael Aronov as agent Zvi Aharoni are all convincing, as are the rest of the actors who round out the team, including Melanie Laurent as the sole woman of the group, Hanna Elian, tasked with drugging Eichmann during their escape.

I also enjoyed Haley Lu Richardson as Sylvia Hermann, the young Jewish woman whose relationship with Klaus Eichmann led to the capture of his father. Richardson is a promising young actress who has yet to land her break-out role. She’s been memorable in supporting performances in films like SPLIT (2016) and THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016). Her role here in OPERATION FINALE is again small, and she again makes an impression.

It was also fun to see Peter Strauss back on the big screen as Sylvia’s blind father Lothar. I think the last time I saw Strauss in a movie was the Johnny Depp thriller, NICK OF TIME (1995). Of course, Strauss mostly did TV work, bursting onto the scene eons ago in the highly popular mini series RICH MAN, POOR MAN (1976).

Director Chris Weitz’s straightforward unassuming style allows the story to unfold gradually and build towards a rather riveting conclusion.

The film does a good job of getting under your skin without blood and gore. For instance, the scene where the young mother raises her child to Eichmann is unnerving to watch even without the actual shootings occurring on-camera.

Weitz also directed THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON (2009), the second TWILIGHT movie. Needless to say, OPERATION FINALE is a much better movie than NEW MOON and should go a long way towards helping moviegoers forget that Weitz made that vampire clinker.

The scenes between Malkin and Eichmann are the best scenes in the movie, and they’re also the best written, thanks to a credible screenplay by Matthew Orton.

And while the screenplay doesn’t make Eichmann a sympathetic character, it does make him a three-dimensional one. We see him caring for his family, we catch glimpses of the cold psychological power he possesses, we experience his raw fear when first captured, and we are allowed to enter his calculating mind while he’s a prisoner.

Critics are not being overly kind to OPERATION FINALE, and that’s too bad, because it’s a solid well-made movie.

It works as both a historical piece, in that it’s a compelling tale of the capture of Nazi Adolph Eichmann, and as a cautionary tale for our times, reminding us of the importance of striking down fascism.

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THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (2018) – Not Such A Happy Time

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the happytime murders poster

The idea sounds funny enough: an R-rated raunchy Muppet comedy starring Melissa McCarthy.

I like Muppets, and I like Melissa McCarthy, and the notion of foul-mouthed Muppets sounds just refreshing enough to make this one something special.

Now, I realized this movie was getting dreadful reviews, but Melissa McCarthy’s previous film, LIFE OF THE PARTY (2018) also got poor reviews, but I actually thought it was pretty funny. So, I headed off to the theater to catch this adult puppet comedy.

And it is a puppet comedy.  I know I called it a Muppet comedy, but they’re referred to as puppets here, even though, yes, they look exactly like Muppets, and the film is directed by Brian Henson, the son of the late great Muppet creator Jim Henson, and director of two Muppet movies himself.

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS takes place in a world where puppets and humans co-exist, but not equally. In fact, humans treat puppets rather poorly. What a surprise!

Puppet private eye Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) finds himself at the center of a murder investigation when the former cast members of an 80s puppet TV show, including Phil’s brother and some of his friends, are murdered one by one. Phil is a former LAPD officer, and his former partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) is on the case.

Phil left the force under tragic circumstances when he failed to make a shot against a fellow puppet and his stray bullet shot and killed an innocent bystander. The notion became that puppets couldn’t be police officers because they couldn’t be trusted to shoot their own kind.

When Phil himself becomes a suspect in the Happytime murders, he and Connie work together to help Phil elude the police and find the real killer.

The biggest problem with THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is that the script doesn’t hold up. For starters, the story here is structured like a million other cliché private detective storylines with the Bogart-like private eye gloomily commenting on the proceedings with a film noir voice-over. For such an overused trope like this to work, the script would have to be incredibly good and creative, and sadly, it isn’t. So, the story becomes boring long before the film’s 90 minutes are up.

Admittedly, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS gets off to a pretty funny start. Watching crude vulgar puppets swear at each other and worse, is hilarious at first, but without enough jokes to sustain it, the novelty of the whole thing wears off fast. That being said, there are a couple of laugh out loud moments, one involving an octopus and a cow in one of the wackiest sexual images you’ll ever see, and another involving an obscene sex sequence that takes advantage of the fact that you’re watching puppets. It shows things you wouldn’t see outside a pornographic movie but since the figures on-screen are puppets, the filmmakers can get away with it.

The film definitely earns its R rating. The jokes are lewd and crude, and they’re funny.

At first.

But then strangely they disappear. The first half of THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is definitely the best half.  The second part of the movie simply isn’t as creative, and the laughs become pretty nonexistent.

It’s simply not a very strong script by Todd Berger. The jokes aren’t there, and neither really is the story. For the whole puppets in a human world storyline to work, there has to be some depth. We see humans being cruel to puppets, for instance, but only briefly and the whole thing comes off as incredibly superficial.  I didn’t believe anything about this puppet world at all.

The film only works when the jokes are funny, and this only happens early on. And the jokes are all of the vulgar variety, which I didn’t mind, but if you’re not into very raunchy humor, especially humor that is sexual in nature, you’ll want to avoid this one.

The cast doesn’t really help either.

The story is built around the main puppet character Phil, and he is a complete bore, which really drags the film down. Bill Barretta does an adequate job voicing Phil, and most of the time he comes off sounding like Robert De Niro, which only made me wish the real De Niro was playing the role.

Melissa McCarthy does her thing, but she’s simply not that funny here. She has a couple of okay scenes, but having seen a lot of her movies, this is one of her least comedic performances. I definitely enjoyed her more in LIFE OF THE PARTY (2018).

But I’m still a fan. She was hilarious in BRIDESMAIDS (2011), THE HEAT (2013), and SPY (2015), to name just a few of her movies, and she’ll be back again in top form I’m sure. Here in THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS she was simply okay and really didn’t have much of an impact in this movie.

Elizabeth Banks is stuck in a thankless role as Jenny, Phil’s former love interest and the one human star of the Happytime TV show.  Maya Rudolph, who has co-starred with McCarthy before, in LIFE OF THE PARTY (2018)  and BRIDESMAIDS (2011) admittedly does enjoy some humorous moments here as Phil’s secretary Bubbles.

The rest of the human cast is rather dull, and the puppets don’t add much either.

In spite of the potentially clever concept, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is pretty bad. In fact, it just might be the worst movie I’ve seen all year.

The film starts off funny, if you don’t mind your humor crude and rude, but then the jokes pretty much disappear, and the second half becomes a monumental bore.

In spite of its title, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS isn’t much of a happy time.

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