TOMB RAIDER (2018) – Alicia Vikander Is The Reason To See This One

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Alicia Vikander in TOMB RAIDER (2018)

I had zero interest in seeing TOMB RAIDER (2018).

I’m not into video games, so I haven’t been a fan of the Lara Croft video game character, I haven’t seen any of the earlier movies with Angelina Jolie, and I could give a care that this reboot presented an origin tale for the character. I could have easily skipped this one.

But, I do like Alicia Vikander.

And Vikander is playing Lara Croft here.  So, I asked myself, how many times have I ventured to the theater to see a low-regarded action film starring a Sylvester Stallone or an Arnold Schwarzenegger over the years just because they were in the movie? Plenty. So, why shouldn’t I do the same for a female actor?  I couldn’t come up with a good answer.  With that in mind, I decided to check out TOMB RAIDER, starring Alicia Vikander.

I wish I could tell you that it was all worth it, and the film was great, but it’s not.  But you know what? It’s not awful, either.  In fact, it’s a halfway decent movie, if your bar isn’t set too high.

And the reason it’s watchable is Alicia Vikander. If you’re going to see this one, she’s the reason to do so.

Twenty one year-old Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) is having a tough time of it.  She’s working as a bike courier in London, scraping together just enough money to live on, even though she’s heir to a fortune.  All she has to do is sign the papers which declare her missing father Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West) legally dead, and the company and all its assets are hers, but she declines, because she refuses to believe that her father is really dead.  He disappeared seven years earlier somewhere in Hong Kong.

However, when informed that unless she signs the papers, her father’s entire fortune will be lost, she relents and agrees to sign, but just as she is about to do so, she discovers a secret note to her from her father.  The note leads her to a secret room containing her father’s secret work, as a researcher into the supernatural. When he disappeared, he was actively searching for a mythical Japanese witch who it turns out is so dangerous, that the message he left for Lara was for her to destroy all his notes so no one will be able to misuse the witch’s power.  But Lara being the strong-willed woman that she is, decides instead to use this newfound information to seek out and learn the fate of her missing dad.

So, she travels to Hong Kong in search of the man who took her father to the mysterious island home of the witch, and instead finds his son Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) who nonetheless agrees to take Lara to the island.  There, they are captured by the villainous Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) who is running a slave labor camp in an ongoing attempt to locate the tomb of this all-powerful supernatural demon queen.  He’s overjoyed to meet Lara because he finds in her belongings her father’s notes which will lead him at long last to the hidden tomb.

But Lara has other ideas.

In terms of story, the one that TOMB RAIDER tells is completely ridiculous and silly. I didn’t believe any of it.  By far, the main plot involving the search for the demonic queen/witch is the weakest part of the film. That being said, the screenplay by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons is not awful.  It does some things right.

For example, it downplays the supernatural.  The whole demonic queen aspect of this story is ludicrous and one thing I could never wrap my head around was why these folks were so darned interested in her.  The story never really makes that clear, and as a result, this one had the potential to be a goofy mess.  But it’s not, because as we learn more about this queen, it’s revealed that she’s not all that supernatural.  In fact, she’s not supernatural at all, but that doesn’t mean she’s not deadly.  It’s a twist in the story I really liked.

Also, early on, the tale is grounded in reality.  A lot of time is spent on Lara’s life in London, and this gritty part of the story works well.  The film takes its time before it gets to all the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK treasure hunting stuff, and with Alicia Vikander in the lead, the film doesn’t suffer at all for its patient storytelling.

As I said, the best part of TOMB RAIDER is Alicia Vikander’s performance as Lara Croft. I’ve always enjoyed Vikander’s work, ever since I first saw her in EX MACHINA (2014), and she was just as memorable in THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015) and JASON BOURNE (2016).  And of course she won the Ocscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for THE DANISH GIRL (2016).

The story here might be ludicrous, but Vikander makes Lara Croft completely believable.  She brings her energetic spunky personality to life, and she’s as tough as nails.  She looks completely believable in the role, as she’s lean and mean, and she gets to take part in some really cool fight scenes.

Vikander is so good in the role, that even though I have had no interest in the Lara Croft character, I would easily be happy to see Vikander play the role again, hopefully in a movie with a better plot.  She’s that good. Is she up there with Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman? In terms of the entire package, no, but in terms of individual performances, yes. Vikander carries this movie in much the same way that Gadot carried WONDER WOMAN (2017), which might be more impressive since Vikander has less help, in terms of cast, production values, and writers.

The supporting cast in TOMB RAIDER is okay.  Walton Goggins is the biggest standout here other than Vikander as the villain, Mathias Vogel. Goggins makes evil look so effortless, but that doesn’t make him any less impressive.   The best thing about his performance is that he makes Vogel real.  He’s surrounded by silly story elements, but Vogel could have walked off the set of THE WALKING DEAD- he’s that type of bad guy. You don’t want to mess with him. All this comes as no surprise, as Goggins has been a highlight of a bunch of recent movies, including DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) and THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015).

Daniel Wu is likable as Lu Ren, although his character is stuck in a thankless sidekick role.

I was less impressed with Dominic West as Lord Richard Croft, who just never came to life for me.  He seemed like a stock character from a 1980s soap opera, that handsome lead who disappears from the show for six months and then turns up later on a deserted island.

And veteran actors Kristin Scott Thomas and Derek Jacobi have small roles, mostly appearing in the Croft board room.

TOMB RAIDER was directed by Norwegian director Roar Uthaug, and he does a decent job. The fight scenes involving Alicia Vikander are all first-rate, and they’re pretty intense and compelling.  Of course, the film is rated PG-13, and so the skirmishes never get as grueling and dirty as they should have been.

There’s also a couple of really cool scenes, one in particular involving Lara and the wreckage of a plane that is right out of an Indiana Jones movie.  Lara is fighting through a raging river, trying to avoid a massive waterfall when she seeks refuge inside the wreckage of a plane precariously hanging on to the edge of the fall. It’s a scene that is well-staged and is one of the more intense sequences in the film.

There’s also a bicycle chase through the streets of East London that is well done, although it’s early on in the film and much lighter in tone than the later sequences. And all of the hand to hand battles which Lara engages in are well worth the price of admission.

On the flip side, things tend to slow down a bit towards the end, and the film does struggle to get through its 1 hour and 58 minute running time.  Also, the very end, which sets up an obvious sequel, is forced and contrived.

That being said, TOMB RAIDER is much better than it has any business being, and the number one reason for this is Alicia Vikander.  With this movie, she makes the Lara Croft character her own.

So, should you run out and see TOMB RAIDER? Is it on par with a film like WONDER WOMAN? No, and no. But I see a lot of movies each year, and as a result, unfortunately, I see a lot of bad movies. TOMB RAIDER is not a bad movie.

It’s a decent movie, lifted by a spirited performance by Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft, and it has a competent script, and features some energetic directing by Roar Uthaug. It’s not going to make my list of best movies of the year, but for a film I had zero interest in, it’s not all that bad.

If you’ve never seen Alicia Vikander, or you have seen her and you’re a fan, either way, she’s the reason you should see TOMB RAIDER.






Memorable Movie Quotes: ANNIE HALL (1977)

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Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in ANNIE HALL (1977).

One of my favorite Woody Allen films is ANNIE HALL (1977), which just might be the quintessential Woody Allen movie.

I didn’t always feel this way.  I remember feeling quite bitter as a 13 year-old when ANNIE HALL bested my beloved STAR WARS (1977) for Best Picture that year.  Grrrr!!!

But it didn’t take me long to come around, as by the time I was in college I had watched ANNIE HALL multiple times and absolutely loved it. The jokes are nonstop and nearly all of them work, making ANNIE HALL the perfect subject for today’s MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES column, the column where we look at noteworthy quotes from some truly memorable movies.

ANNIE HALL works so well because Allen nails many of the truths that go along with relationships, and he finds humor in even their darkest moments. There’s an honesty in ANNIE HALL that lifts the humor to a whole other level.  There are enough memorable quotes in ANNIE HALL for several columns.  Today we’ll look at just a few of them.

The film opens with a memorable quote, as Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer addresses the camera:

ALVY SINGER: There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly. The… the other important joke, for me, is one that’s usually attributed to Groucho Marx; but, I think it appears originally in Freud’s “Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious,” and it goes like this – I’m paraphrasing – um, “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” That’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.


There are a ton of hilarious quips regarding the relationship between Allen’s Alvy Singer and Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall, like this split-screen exchange when they’re each seeing their respective therapists:

ALVY SINGER’S THERAPIST: How often do you sleep together?

ANNIE HALL’S THERAPIST: Do you have sex often?

ALVY SINGER (complaining): Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.

ANNIE HALL (annoyed): Constantly. I’d say three times a week.


And this conversation:

ALVY SINGER: Hey listen, gimme a kiss.


ALVY SINGER: Yeah, why not, because we’re just gonna go home later, right, and then there’s gonna be all that tension, we’ve never kissed before and I’ll never know when to make the right move or anything. So we’ll kiss now and get it over with, and then we’ll go eat. We’ll digest our food better.


And here’s one of my favorite jokes in the film, where Alvy confronts Annie about having an affair:

ALVY SINGER: Well, I didn’t start out spying. I thought I’d surprise you. Pick you up after school.

ANNIE HALL: Yeah, but you wanted to keep the relationship flexible. Remember, it’s your phrase.

ALVY SINGER: Oh stop it, you’re having an affair with your college professor, that jerk that teaches that incredible crap course, Contemporary Crisis in Western Man…

ANNIE HALL:  Existential Motifs in Russian Literature. You’re really close.

ALVY SINGER; What’s the difference? It’s all mental masturbation.

ANNIE HALL: Oh, well, now we’re finally getting to a subject you know something about.

ALVY SINGER: Hey, don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.


Then there’s this observation on relationships:

ALVY SINGER: A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.


And of course there are jokes that have nothing to do with relationships that are flat-out hilarious in ANNIE HALL, like this comment by Alvy on California when he and Annie are visiting The Golden State:

ANNIE HALL:  It’s so clean out here.

ALVY SINGER: That’s because they don’t throw their garbage away, they turn it into television shows.


Another of my favorite bits involves a scene with Christopher Walker as Duane.

DUANE:  Can I confess something? I tell you this as an artist, I think you’ll understand. Sometimes when I’m driving… on the road at night… I see two headlights coming toward me. Fast. I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car. I can anticipate the explosion. The sound of shattering glass. The… flames rising out of the flowing gasoline.

ALVY SINGER: Right. Well, I have to – I have to go now, Duane, because I, I’m due back on the planet Earth.


And like it begins, ANNIE HALL ends with another memorable set of lines, once more spoken by Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer, to close out the film:

ALVY SINGER: After that it got pretty late, and we both had to go, but it was great seeing Annie again. I… I realized what a terrific person she was, and… and how much fun it was just knowing her; and I… I, I thought of that old joke, y’know, the, this… this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And, uh, the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us… need the eggs.


As I said earlier, there are so many more memorable quotes and jokes in ANNIE HALL, there’s enough to fill an entire second and third column. But that’s it for today.  I hope you enjoyed today’s MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES column and join me again next time when I look at cool quotes from another classic movie.

Thanks for reading!


GRINGO (2018)- Unfunny Comedy Can’t Generate Laughs


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GRINGO (2018) is one of the more unfunny comedies I’ve seen in a while.

Interesting, amiable, even amusing, but funny?  Nope.  And that’s just not a good sign for a comedy.

Harold (David Oyelowo) is an honest and rather naive businessman who finds himself in hot water in Mexico when his dishonest bosses Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton) and Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron) put him in harm’s way when they double cross a Mexican drug lord known as The Black Panther (Carlos Corona).  On top of this, Harold learns that his wife is having an affair with Richard, and she’s planning to leave him. Talk about having a bad day!

Sick of playing by the rules, Harold stages his own kidnapping, hoping to extort ransom money from Richard and Elaine. But Richard sends in his militarily trained brother Mitch (Sharlto Copley) to extract Harold from Mexico so he doesn’t have to pay the ransom money. Of course, the The Black Panther’s henchmen really are trying to kidnap Harold. And when Harold crosses paths with an American couple, Sunny (Amanda Seyfried) and her boyfriend Miles (Harry Treadaway), who is involved with a drug deal of his own, things get even more complicated.

Complicated, but not funny.

I’m still in disbelief at how little laughter this movie generated.  I didn’t laugh once, and the audience I saw it with was as silent as if they were taking a nap. Perhaps they were.

First of all, this movie has a fantastic cast, and yet they are pretty much all wasted in a script that for a number of reasons can’t get a laugh to save its life.  GRINGO is marketed as a dark comedy, and that label is somewhat true.  The story is dark, but the tone is light. Screenwriters Anthony Tabakis and Matthew Stone tell a story that has the makings of a riotous comedy, but the jokes and situations fall short time and time again.

David Oyelowo’s Harold is a likable enough protagonist.  He’s definitely a sympathetic character who the audience will relate to and root for, but the situations he finds himself in never rise to the level of uproarious laughter.  His attempts at staging his own kidnapping, for instance, involve hiring a couple of locals to talk tough in the background while he’s on the phone with Richard. Not that comical. Sadly, nearly all of Oyelowo’s comedic scenes fall short. On the contrary, his best scenes are his serious ones, like when he laments to Sunny that the world is upside down as it rewards bad people and punishes the good, a conversation that actually rings true.

Oyelowo just starred in the less than stellar THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018), and he’s probably most known for his powerful performance as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in SELMA (2014). His role here as Harold is largely forgettable.

Both Joel Edgerton and Charlize Theron play two of the more unlikable characters I’ve seen in a movie in a while. They’re supposed to be funny, but they’re not.  They’re just callous and mean. Plus they’re excluded from the main action in the story. Rather than being part of the storyline in Mexico with Harold, they spend most of their screen time in their offices speaking on the phone and to other characters.

Likewise, Sharlto Copley’s Mitch is yet another unfunny character.  He’s a former military assassin who’s now found religion, but even this twist adds nothing to the humor.

The Black Panther loves The Beatles, and he often kills his enemies based on their opinions of the Fab Four, but this running gag falls short, mostly because it’s not that funny to begin with. And hearing the name Black Panther did nothing but distract me throughout, as every time I heard it I found myself wishing I were in the next theater watching Marvel’s THE BLACK PANTHER (2018) again instead of this movie.

Amanda Seyfried plays it straight as Sunny, and she’s likable enough in this role, but sadly it’s a small role and not terribly important.  She’s a very talented actress and deserves better roles than this.

And Harry Treadaway, who played Victor Frankenstein on the TV show PENNY DREADFUL (2014-2016) looks completely out-of-place here as Sunny’s drug dealing boyfriend Miles.

GRINGO was directed by Nash Edgerton, Joel’s older brother, and he does an okay job. The biggest problem with the film is the script, but still there are some odd choices from the director’s chair.  There are a couple of scenes that end in odd places, like one between Elaine and fellow businessman Jerry (Alan Ruck) in a bar, where Jerry is hitting on her but she turns the tables on him in what looks like a potential hilarious moment but before it reaches this climax it just ends without the expected payoff.  Likewise, there are several scenes between Harold and Sunny where you expect more to happen but it doesn’t.

I certainly didn’t hate GRINGO.  I liked the character of Harold, and his plight in Mexico was fairly amusing, but it’s a story that ultimately plays like a light drama rather than a dark comedy.  The laughs just aren’t there.

As such, GRINGO is probably my least favorite film of 2018 so far.







RED SPARROW (2018) – Cold Spy Thriller Doesn’t Heat Up


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RED SPARROW (2018) is as cold as a Russian winter.

And for a spy thriller that is about forced prostitution, murder, and espionage, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a Russian ballet dancer who suffers a grisly injury while performing on stage which breaks her leg and ends her career.  Dominika’s uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a higher-up in the Russian Intelligence Agency, and he recruits his niece into the organization, promising her he will take care of her sick mother’s medical bills if she serves Russia as a spy. Ah, supporting the sick mother storyline!  Where have I heard that one before?  In fairness, the plot does take a more believable darker turn when good old Uncle Vanya basically threatens to kill Dominika if she doesn’t work for him.

So Dominika is enrolled in a spy training school which, as she puts it, is really a school for prostitutes, since the candidates are trained to use their bodies to get the information they need. The training includes constant humiliation and degradation. The spies who graduate from this school are referred to as “sparrows.”

Dominika is then sent into the field to make contact with an American C.I.A. agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) who knows the identity of a Russian mole who is selling secrets to the Americans.  Dominika’s mission is to extract this information from Nash. Of course Nash being a veteran agent, is on to Dominika from the start, and he believes he can turn her to the American side.

Let the intrigue begin!  And that’s pretty much the plot of RED SPARROW.

In terms of story, RED SPARROW is as bare as an empty bird’s nest.  The main plot is pretty simplistic and not all that believable.  And the early segment involving Dominika’s humiliating training at the sparrow school is so emotionless I hardly cared. And that’s the biggest weakness of the screenplay by Justin Haythe, based on the book by Jason Matthews.  I didn’t really care about any of the characters.  Dominika is a cold fish–obviously to survive her training she has to be— but the result is a robot-like character who I never warmed up to.

Joel Edgerton’s Nate Nash is the more likeable character of the two, but he’s not the main focus here, nor do we ever learn all that much about him.

The dialogue is standard and doesn’t do the characters any favors as most of the folks in this story talk like robots.  Haythe also wrote the screenplay to the horror movie  A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016), a movie I liked much better than RED SPARROW.

The theme that nothing happens by accident is true here, but not because of a sense of fate, but rather because the characters in this tale don’t allow anything to happen by accident.  They force, coerce, and manipulate everything.

Director Francis Lawrence fares slightly better than his script.  The film looks sufficiently dark and distressing, and the several scenes of torture in this one make their mark— literally— but again, like the movie as a whole, emotions just aren’t all that prevalent. There are some decent fight scenes, but nothing like the ones in last year’s ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) starring Charlize Theron.

Lawrence directed the last three HUNGER GAMES movies, also starring Jennifer Lawrence, and that’s pretty much where this film falls in terms of quality and feel, on par with a HUNGER GAMES sequel, and that’s not a good thing. Plus, as a spy film, it does nothing to set itself apart from other films of its type.

Jennifer Lawrence, in spite of her considerable acting talent, delivers a one-note performance here as Dominika.  She’s cold and she’s tough, and that’s about it. Obviously, Dominika had to be this way to survive the training and her ensuing mission, and so on paper Lawrence is doing what she should be doing to capture her character’s persona. But there’s nothing beneath the surface here.  We know little about Dominika before her conversion into a red sparrow spy, nor does Lawrence give us any insight into what kind of person Dominika is, other than she’s relentlessly strong-willed and resilient. But you can say the same thing about both Wonder Woman and Frances McDormand’s character Mildred in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), two very different characters who we learn a lot about in their respective movies and so we understand where they are coming from and where they are going.  Such is not the case with Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominika.

Joel Edgerton does a fine job as Nate Nash, although his character is also under-written, and so  not a lot is known about him either.

The film is peppered with a strong supporting cast which helps keep this film afloat.

Matthias Schoenaerts gives one of the best performances in the film as Dominika’s uncle Vanya. He makes Vanya cold, calculating, and heartless, which pretty much sums up the feel of the entire movie.

Veteran actress Charlotte Rampling plays the Matron, the no-nonsense woman in charge of training the candidates at the Sparrow school. Mary Louise Parker is memorable in a small role as Stephanie Boucher, the chief of staff of a prominent U.S. Senator who has secrets to sell.

Sakina Jaffrey and Bill Camp are memorable as Nash’s C.I.A. handlers, while Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons play top Russian intelligence officials.

And Sebastian Hulk makes for a frightening Russian torture artist who likes to peel the flesh off his victims. Slowly.

RED SPARROW has strong acting, tepid writing, and by the numbers direction. Combined with an overall emotionless feel, and a focused but uninspiring performance by Jennifer Lawrence, the result is a formulaic and often lackluster spy thriller.

Its frigid tale simply never heats up.




GAME NIGHT (2018) – Gimmicky Comedy Will Make You Laugh




Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams in GAME NIGHT (2018)

Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) love to play games.

In fact, that’s how they met, at a pub trivia game night, as seen in a pre-credit sequence. And they love games so much that Max even proposes to Annie at a game night, and the theme of their ensuing wedding— you guessed it, game night!

Yes, Max and Annie love game night.

But will you love the movie GAME NIGHT (2018), the latest comedy by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the guys who wrote HORRIBLE BOSSES (2011)?

Chances are you will, because it’s a pretty funny film.

So Max and Annie host game nights regularly at their home with a group of close friends, although they try their best to exclude their neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons) who is somewhat of an odd duck. When Max’s brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) shows up and invites them all to what he calls the ultimate game night at his house the following week, they all agree.  Max and Annie agree because they find Brooks arrogant and annoying, as he always seems to win the games they play, and he constantly insults Max in the process.  Max and Annie plan to win the game at Brooks’ house.

Brooks explains that his ultimate game night is going to be a live action mystery game, and he’s hired actors from a game company to perform a kidnapping storyline, and whoever finds all the clues and solves the kidnapping mystery wins. But real life thugs show up and engage in a fierce fight with Brooks, since Brooks has run afoul of some pretty nasty people, but Max and Annie and their friends watch in amusement, thinking it’s all part of the game, and when Brooks is whisked away, they believe the game is for them to find him.

And that’s the gimmick of GAME NIGHT, at least for the first half of the film. Things change when they figure out what’s happening, and then the comedy is all about trying to save Brooks for real.

GAME NIGHT is a very gimmicky comedy, but it’s a gimmick that works.  There are plenty of laughs, the pacing is good, and this one flies by fast. The audience I saw it with seemed to like it a lot, as there was plenty of loud laughter.

As I said, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein wrote HORRIBLE BOSSES, a comedy I liked a lot, but this time they didn’t write the screenplay.  They directed GAME NIGHT. The writing honors went to Mark Perez. The jokes do work, but the humor isn’t as dark or outrageous as in HORRIBLE BOSSES. Most of the comedy comes from characters not knowing what’s really going on and acting in ways which they wouldn’t act had they known.

As plots go, the one in GAME NIGHT is contrived and not at all convincing, but the jokes work, and that’s because the film’s gimmick works. It’s fun to watch these folks in action in situations they’ve got figured all wrong.

One of the funniest bits is the sequence where Annie has to extract a bullet from Max’s arm.  It had the audience howling with laughter.  But there aren’t many of these raucous laugh-out-loud moments.  GAME NIGHT is not on the level of a film like THE HANGOVER (2009) which pushed the envelope throughout.  Mark Perez’ screenplay has its moments, but most of them are of the smaller chuckle variety, although there are lots of these moments throughout.

As directors, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein keep the pace moving fast.

For the most part, Jason Bateman is funny as Max, although at times he’s a bit too mellow for what’s going on around him. I enjoyed Rachel McAdams more as Annie.  I thought most of her scenes were hilarious. While not on the same level as her work as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer in SPOTLIGHT (2015), it’s still a fun performance, more so than her recent role as Christine Palmer in DOCTOR STRANGE (2016).

Kyle Chandler is at his roguish best as Max’s annoying brother Brooks, and Jesse Plemons, who continues to turn up everywhere these days, does a nice job playing oddball neighbor Gary. This is the third film I’ve seen Plemons in this year, following on the heels of THE POST (2017) and HOSTILES (2017). Plemons of course had a memorable role as Todd during the last season of BREAKING BAD (2012-13).

Sharon Horgan stands out as Sarah, a character who’s new to game night, as she’s the latest date for Ryan (Billy Magnussen) who brings a new date to each game night, only Sarah is different.  Usually Ryan brings beautiful but shallow dates to the contests, but this time, since he wants to win, he invites Sarah, who’s a bit older and wiser. Sarah spends her time exposing Ryan for the mental lightweight that he is.  And in the role of Ryan, Billy Magnussen is pretty funny.

Rounding out the game night friends are Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and his wife Michelle (Kylie Bunbury). Morris currently stars in the TV show NEW GIRL (2011-2018).

GAME NIGHT isn’t a particularly realistic comedy, and at times this hurts the movie, since the characters as a whole aren’t very believable.  But the majority of the jokes work, and at the end of the day, that’s still the best way to judge a comedy.

Other scenes that worked were Max’ misadventure with Gary’s dog, the sequence where Max and Annie force the real thugs on their knees at gunpoint, and Annie suggests they do so in a yoga position, and the chase involving the stolen egg.

Not everything works.  The subplot of Max and Annie struggling to have a baby is meh. Likewise the storyline involving Kevin’s trying to figure out which celebrity his wife Michelle once slept with is forced and goes on too long.  The jokes certainly could have been darker and more outrageous, but GAME NIGHT is funny enough to overcome these weaknesses.

GAME NIGHT is an uneven comedy that still provides plenty of laughter, thanks to a clever gimmick and fun performances by the entire cast.

At the end of the day, GAME NIGHT is a winner.







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Bela Lugosi carries off Luana Walters in THE CORPSE VANISHES (1942)

It’s winter.  It’s friggin cold.  Let’s heat things up a bit with a good old-fashioned Grade Z horror movie starring Bela Lugosi.

My favorite part of any Grade Z Lugosi flick is that in spite of the awful acting, writing, and production values which often accompanied these films, Lugosi would always bring his “A” game, the result being a masterful horrific performance in an otherwise forgettable movie.

Take today’s movie, for instance.  THE CORPSE VANISHES (1942) would no doubt be a forgotten film if not for the presence of Bela Lugosi.  And while there are a few other parts about this movie that I like, Lugosi’s the reason to see it, and as he almost always does, he delivers a commanding performance.

It seems that it’s not a good time to get married.  Yup, in THE CORPSE VANISHES, every time there’s a wedding, the bride drops dead at the altar, and to make matters even more horrifying, her body is then stolen by phony morticians and whisked away to some unknown destination, leaving the grieving families shell-shocked and devastated.

That’s because Dr. George Lorenz (Bela Lugosi) has a wife who for reasons that are not entirely explained needs a special serum made from the gland fluid of virginal brides to keep herself young.  It’s a good thing for her that she’s married to Dr. Lorenz, because he’s only too happy to accommodate her, and so it’s Lorenz and his weird housemates who are busy killing and stealing the brides’ bodies so Lorenz can extract their fluids back in his secret laboratory in his home.

While the police are baffled, young newspaper reporter Patricia Hunter (Luana Walters), trying to make a name for herself, vows to investigate and solve the case on her own.

And that’s the plot of THE CORSPE VANISHES. The best parts, of course, involve Bela Lugosi.  One of my favorite scenes has the police searching the hearse which contains one of those dead brides.  When they open the coffin, rather than find the dead bride, they find Lorenz pretending to be a corpse. The officer says “it ‘s a corpse all right, but not the one we’re looking for.”  The scene’s a hoot because the audience expects to see the deceased newlywed but instead it’s Lugosi inside the coffin, and of course since it is Lugosi, you half-expect him to sit up and declare, “I am— Dracula.”

Speaking of Lugosi and coffins, when Patricia searches his house and discovers both the doctor and his wife sleeping in coffins, she calls him on it the next day.  His response? “I find a coffin much more comfortable than a bed.” Only Bela Lugosi can utter that line and make it seem so matter of fact that it is completely believable.

And what Bela Lugosi “mad scientist” movie would be complete without him grabbing a whip and beating on his mute assistant.  And while it’s not Tor Johnson, the guy is still rather creepy. In fact, one of the creepiest scenes in the movie occurs when Patricia searches the secret tunnels under the house, and the mute assistant Angel (Frank Moran) slowly pursues her, munching on a humongous turkey drumstick, no less!  This scene also features some neat music, and the whole film, for a grade Z flick, has a pretty decent music score.

But make no mistake.  This is definitely a grade Z movie, with absolutely no production values whatsoever. Directed by Wallace Fox, THE CORPSE VANISHES does have the aforementioned creepy scene in the secret corridor, and it does have Bela Lugosi, but other than this, there’s not much that makes this one all that horrifying.

The screenplay by Harvey Gates tells a rather ridiculous story, but in a movie like this, that’s half the fun.

And Lugosi isn’t the only actor in this film who turns in a decent effort.  Luana Walters is very good as reporter Patricia Hunter.  She’s smart, sexy, and feisty, the perfect female heroine.

Tristram Coffin— yes, that’s right, Coffin— is very good as well as the likable Dr. Foster, a doctor who ends up helping Patricia with her investigation.

As already mentioned, Frank Moran makes for a creepy mute henchman, while diminutive Angelo Rossitto plays Lugosi’s other assistant, the very little Toby. Rossitto also starred in Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932) and would co-star with Bela Lugosi again in Lugosi’s only color film, SCARED TO DEATH (1947). Rossitto remained active as an actor until 1987.  He died in 1991 at the age of 83.

Also in the cast as Dr. Lorenz’ wife, the Countess Lorenz, is Elizabeth Russell, familiar to horror fans for her role as the Cat Woman in the original CAT PEOPLE (1942).  Russell also appeared in the classic ghost story movie THE UNINVITED (1944) with Ray Milland, WEIRD WOMAN (1944) with Lon Chaney Jr., THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944), and BEDLAM (1946) with Boris Karloff.

But the main reason to see THE CORPSE VANISHES is Bela Lugosi. In these frigid icy nights of winter, heat things up by watching Bela Lugosi chew up the scenery as he steals the bodies of dead brides, drains fluids from their glands to make a serum to keep his wife young, whips his mute servant into obedience, and settles in for a good night’s sleep inside his comfy coffin alongside his now youthful beautiful wife.

Sure, there are a lot of classic “A” list horror films featuring Lugosi, from DRACULA (1931) to THE BLACK CAT (1934) to SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939), but just as fun and just as memorable for Lugosi fans, are the plethora of low-budget horror flicks he made, adding his distinctive presence to films that would otherwise be long forgotten.

One last piece of advice.  If you find yourself unable to sleep after viewing this movie, consider trading in your mattress— for the latest designer coffin.

Pleasant dreams.





ANNIHILATION (2018) – Natalie Portman Leads All-Female Team in this Thought-Provoking Science Fiction Adventure


The all woman team in ANNIHILATION (2018)

While superhero movies have captured all the hype and box office receipts in recent years, science fiction films have quietly enjoyed a resurgence of their own. The last few years has seen a decent number of science fiction films landing at the cinema, most of them very good high quality affairs.

You can go ahead and add ANNIHILATION (2018) to that list.

ANNIHILATION was written and directed by Alex Garland, the man who also wrote and directed EX MACHINA (2014), one of those recent high quality science fiction flicks, a thought-provoking thriller about artificial intelligence.  Here in ANNIHILATION, Garland takes on a topic that is rather innovative and original.

In ANNIHILATION, biologist and college professor Lena (Natalie Portman) is dealing with the absence of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), an army officer who’s been missing in action for over a year. One night, Kane returns home, but he’s different, distant, but before Lena can find out why, Kane becomes violently ill.  She rushes him to the hospital, but before they can get there, the ambulance is intercepted by the military, and both Kane and Lena are extracted from the vehicle.

When Lena awakes, she finds herself being questioned by a psychologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Lena learns the truth of her husband’s mission, that he and his unit had been sent in to investigate a mysterious area called the “Shimmer.” Numerous parties had been sent in, and none had returned, until Kane.

When Lena learns that Dr. Ventress is leading an all female team— a scientific decision because so far the investigators had all been male and they had all failed— into the Shimmer, she decides to join them, believing she owes it to her husband to learn what happened to him and what exactly is going on inside the bizarre area.

The Shimmer began when an unknown object struck a lighthouse on the south coast of the United States, and afterwards the lighthouse began to emit an unusual aura which over the course of the year continued to grow, and Dr. Ventress predicts that unless it is stopped it will continue until it covers cities, states, and eventually, everywhere.  The Shimmer looks like a huge oily wall which distorts one’s vision, and so you can’t really see beyond it.  Those who have entered, have not returned, except, of course, for Kane.

When Lena and the all women team enter, they immediately realize that they have entered a place where the laws of nature have changed, and it’s up to them to find out how and why and to survive its hostile environment.

ANNIHILATION tells a fascinating tale that works on multiple levels. Sure, the thought-provoking science fiction ideas are there, in this case some innovative thinking involving refraction and DNA, but ANNIHILATION works even better as an adventure and a thriller.

There are some very exciting sequences here involving some frightening creatures which live inside the Shimmer, in particular an enormous crocodile and later an extremely intense sequence involving something that was once a bear. There are some definite edge-of-your seat moments in this one.

My favorite part though is the female cast.  It’s a fresh take on a science fiction adventure tale like this to have the main players all be women.

Natalie Portman leads the way with a strong performance as Lena. She gets to express two sides of this character.  There’s the cold, clinical biologist side, as she investigates the strange phenomena inside the Shimmer, and since Lena is ex-military, having spent several years in the army, we get to see her no-nonsense kick-ass side, as she takes on the formidable creatures inside this strange land.  Portman excels at both.

I like Portman a lot, and it was fun to see her in this action role after her meticulous performance as Jackie Kennedy in JACKIE (2016).

Jennifer Jason Leigh is also excellent as Dr. Ventress.  As the leader of the group, she is as tough as nails in her determination to reach the lighthouse in the hope of resolving this dilemma. While Leigh has enjoyed a long career, she’s turned in some particularly impressive supporting performances of late, including memorable roles in GOOD TIME (2017) and THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015).

The other three women are also notable.  Tuva Novotny as Cass, Gina Rodriguez as Anya, and Tessa Thompson as Josie round out the cast in impressive fashion. Thompson was also excellent starring opposite Michael B. Jordan in CREED (2015).

And Oscar Isaac is effective as Kane, Lena’s husband who’s not quite the same once he comes home.  Isaac also starred in Alex Garland’s previous science fiction flick, EX MACHINA, and he’s known now for his recurring role as Poe Dameron in the new STAR WARS movies.

ANNIHILATION is not perfect. It’s slow at times, more so during its third act.  Early on, when the audience is first learning about the Shimmer, the story is so engrossing that pacing is not a problem.  But once we start to get answers, things slow down a bit as the film moves towards its conclusion.

The CGI effects are uneven.  Some of the creatures look fearsome, while others look fake.

The story works if you don’t think about it a whole lot. I couldn’t help but think that if such an event were really happening, there’d be more of a military presence around the Shimmer.  We’re led to believe that there is, but it’s not something we see much of. In fact, we see hardly anyone other than Dr. Ventress and her team.

Still, I enjoyed the screenplay by director Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer. The dialogue is strong and the concepts explored in the story rather fascinating.

And the film looks stunning. The mind-boggling world inside the Shimmer contains some memorable cinematic images.

The whole film has a sort of LOST (2004-2010) vibe to it, and if you mix in a little bit of ZOO (2015-2017) with INTERSTELLAR (2014) and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (any version you’d like) you’ve got ANNIHILATION, a nice mix of edge-of-your-seat thrills and thought-provoking science fiction.

But its strongest attribute is its all-female team, which by far is the most refreshing part of this exciting fantasy adventure.