THE RHYTHM SECTION (2020) – Blake Lively Actioner As Dull As Advertised

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the rhythm section

Sometimes I need to listen to the critics.

THE RHYTHM SECTION (2020), an action thriller starring Blake Lively, opened in theaters back in January to some pretty tepid reviews, but I like Blake Lively, and I enjoyed the film’s trailers, so while I missed it on its first run, I finally decided to catch up with it this weekend.

As I said, I should have listened to those critics. THE RHYTHM SECTION was actually worse than I expected it to be.

Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) is so distraught after her parents and brother are killed in a plane crash that she turns to a life of prostitution and drugs. But when a reporter approaches her with the news that the plane was blown up by a terrorist bomb, and that the news was covered up, and that he knows who was responsible, well, she cleans up her act and decides to train as an assassin to personally bring those responsible for the death of her family to justice. Of course. That’s what anyone would do. Right?

Hardly.

Anyway, Stephanie trains with former MI6 agent Iain Boyd (Jude Law) who tells her she doesn’t have what it takes—cue ROCKY music here— but she sets out to prove him wrong. And she does, and soon she’s travelling all over Europe to assassinite those nasty terrorists.

Okay, there are a lot of things wrong with this movie but the biggest one is the story.  The screenplay by Mark Burnell, based on his novel, just never becomes believable. Why Iain Boyd would ever give Stephanie the time of day is beyond me and never made any sense. Why not just train anyone to be an assassin? The story gives us no reason why Stephanie is particularly suited to become a hired killer, other than her drive to avenge the death of her family. Furthermore, the film puts zero effort into convincing us that Stephanie can become a cold-blooded murderer at the drop of a hat, and that she can morph into a super skilled fighter who would give Jason Bourne a run for his money.

Also, before this, it’s not clearly explained why the reporter seeks out Stephanie in the first place. Why does he reveal the story about the bomb to her? Does he plan to interview her? It’s never made clear what his purpose is, other than to serve as a plot device to have Stephanie learn that her family was murdered.

And since no one knows the true identity of the mastermind behind the bombing, it’s part of Stephanie’s “mission” to learn his identity, and so the film also suffers from not having a villain. There’s no one to root against. Stephanie keeps moving up the food chain with one hit after another, but the main terrorist is unknown until the end of the movie, and even that reveal is disappointing and anticlimactic.

Director Reed Morano doesn’t help matters. Right off the bat the film gets off to a muddled start. It opens in a confusing manner as we see Stephanie closing in on a kill, and then it jumps back in time to show Stephanie enjoying time with her family, but then this turns out to be a flashback within a flashback as suddenly we jump ahead to Stephanie as a prostitute. It all adds up to an opening that did not draw me in. Period.

The characters are also pretty blah. The biggest snooze, unbelievably, is the main character, Stephanie Patrick. I never warmed up to her or really liked her, nor did I ever believe later that she could do the things we saw her doing.

The action scenes are also unimpressive.  I expected this one to play out in similar fashion to ATOMIC BLONDE (2017), but the action scenes in that movie were much more stylized and better executed.  The fight scenes here often seemed slow, the choreography not that exciting.

The soundtrack also didn’t work for me, as the songs chosen to cover key scenes seemed out of place, and the film’s score by Steve Mazzaro was hardly noticeable at all. The one song that does work, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” performed by Sleigh Bells, which was featured heavily in the film’s trailers, doesn’t appear in the movie until just before the end credits. So much for that.

I usually like Blake Lively, but her performance here didn’t really work for me. I never believed that Stephanie became that assassin. Likewise, Jude Law was rather wooden as former MI6 agent and current assassin trainer Iain Boyd. And Sterling K. Brown, usually a very reliable actor, is also subdued here as a former CIA agent also involved in the mix, Mark Cerra. Brown knocked it out of the park as attorney Christopher Darden in the TV series AMERICAN CRIME STORY (2016), and he’s been similarly striking in other movies as well, but not so much here.

Also, there was simply no chemistry between Lively and Law, or between Lively and Brown. Their relationships with each other simply fell flat.

The film did take advantage of its many European locations, so much so at times it resembled a James Bond movie, which is no surprise, since it was produced by Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson

Incidentally, the rhythm section refers to Boyd’s advice to Stephanie to slow the rhythm of her body, to let her heartbeat be a drum, all in an effort to cool her nerves to make her a successful killer.

I think the filmmakers heeded this advice too literally. The film is slow and cold and really could have used an infusion of energy and oomph!

THE RHYTHM SECTION is an inferior action movie, with few compelling scenes, characters who never come to life, and a story that not only didn’t grab me but never came off as believable.

The only rhythm here was the tap, tap, tap, of my fingers on the arm rest of my chair as I waited for the end credits to roll.

—END—

 

 

 

THE NIGHT CLERK (2020) – Drama About Murder Suspect With Asperger’s Only Mildly Entertaining

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Ana de Armas and Tye Sheridan in THE NIGHT CLERK (2020).

While THE NIGHT CLERK (2020), a tale about a young man with Asperger’s syndrome who becomes the suspect in a murder case, is being billed as a crime/drama/mystery, the emphasis here really is on drama.

The crime, a murder which occurs right at the beginning of the movie, surprisingly never becomes a driving force here, and it’s not much of a mystery.

What it is though is a vehicle to showcase the talents of actor Tye Sheridan, who does a really nice job in the lead role as Bart, the young man with Asperger’s. Sheridan is an up an coming actor who has starred in READY PLAYER ONE (2018) and played Cyclops in the two most recent X-MEN movies, but his work here in THE NIGHT CLERK is better than what he was allowed to do in those movies.

Bart (Tye Sheridan) works the night shift at the front desk of his local hotel. In an effort to learn more about people and how to interact with them, since that is something Bart struggles with because of Asperger’s, he secretly records the activities and conversations of the hotel guests in their rooms. He does this by setting up cameras in the rooms and watching from his laptop. While this is voyeuristic and creepy to the rest of us, Bart doesn’t mean any harm by this, and he innocently watches people to practice conversing with them.

But one night, he witnesses a murder in one of the rooms, and rather than call the police, he runs into the room where later one of his co-workers finds him sitting by the dead body of the murdered woman.  Police Detective Espada (John Leguizamo) questions Bart, and because there are holes in his story about his whereabouts, Espada considers Bart a person of interest in the case.

Bart lives at home with his mother Ethel (Helen Hunt) who does her best to support her son although it is difficult since her husband and Bart’s father has passed away. As Detective Espada continues to poke and prod Bart in search of answers, things become more complicated when Bart befriends another hotel guest, Andrea (Ana de Armas) a beautiful young woman with problems of her own. Bart finds himself immediately attracted to Andrea, and as he tries to get to know her better, the murder plot thickens.

Well, it doesn’t thicken that much, which is the biggest problem with THE NIGHT CLERK. If it were a stew, it’d be darned watery, that’s for sure! And that’s because the murder takes a back seat to Bart’s story and his crush on Andrea, and the mystery itself is pretty obvious. You’ll know from the get-go exactly where this one is going, in terms of who is out to get who.

The screenplay by Michael Cristofer, who also directed, works much better as a character study than as a crime drama. Bart’s character is well-written, and his observations on life as seen through his eyes are intriguing. For example, when he talks to Andrea about love, and speaks of how being in love is not really an emotion but an addiction, he’s spot-on. As is the script. When Bart struggles to be sociable, it’s refreshingly honest.

Tye Sheridan delivers a topnotch performance as Bart. He effortlessly captures what it’s like to live with Asperger’s syndrome. It’s the best I’ve seen Sheridan on screen yet.

Ana de Armas is really good as Andrea, even though her character is stuck in the lame murder mystery plot that never really gets off the ground because it’s so obvious. Her best scenes are when Andrea interacts with Bart, and they share some tender moments together.

I like Ana de Armas a lot, and she’s making movies left and right these days, which is fine by me, because she’s fascinating to watch. She was just in SERGIO (2020) which I reviewed a few weeks back. She was amazing in BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) and her performance was one of my favorite parts of that movie. She was also in KNIVES OUT (2019) and she is slated to star alongside Daniel Craig in the next James Bond movie, NO TIME TO DIE (2020).

Helen Hunt is solid as Bart’s mom Ethel, although it’s a small role and she ultimately doesn’t really do a whole lot. The same sadly can be said for John Leguizamo as Detective Espada. He actually has some of the best scenes in the movie, but he disappears for long stretches when the film becomes more about Bart and Andrea and less about the murder investigation. And towards the end, when you expect that things will be heating up, they simply don’t. So while Leguizamo is good, he’s not in this one enough to really make much of a difference, in the way, for example, he did with his fine supporting work in THE INFILTRATOR (2016) in which he starred with Bryan Cranston.

There are some plot holes as well. For example, Bart is suspected early on of the murder, and it comes to light that he’s been recording guests in their rooms, yet he doesn’t lose his job! He’s not even given a warning of any kind. I thought this was weird. Also, he’s a suspect at first because Espada wrongly believes Bart never left the hotel, which he did, and he had a very memorable verbal exchange with a clerk at a store. This clerk would no doubt remember Bart. Yet, we never see Espada following up this part of the story, which had me scratching my head why we saw the exchange in the first place if not to establish an alibi for Bart.

The ending is also edited strangely. It’s set up to make the audience think one thing, while something else is really happening. The problem is in terms of Bart’s character, it doesn’t make much sense for him to do what he did the way he did. He could have simply dealt with Espada directly. In other words, it comes off as a forced contrivance.

THE NIGHT CLERK works best as a character study of Bart Bromley, a young man with Asperger’s, who as a suspect in a murder case, falls for a mysterious young woman Andrea, who’s also a guest at the hotel where he works. It’s not much of a crime drama or a murder mystery, as the criminal elements are downplayed, and the mystery is way too obvious to matter all that much.

At the end of the day, THE NIGHT CLERK is a mild drama with some solid acting performances by the principal players. It’s watchable, but it certainly would have benefitted from a tighter script with more emphasis on the murder melodrama.

An Alfred Hitchcock thriller this one ain’t!

—END—

 

THE WRETCHED (2020) – Horror Movie About a Hungry Witch Works Well

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There’s a lot to like about THE WRETCHED (2020), a new horror movie about a very hungry witch whose favorite item on the menu happens to be young children.

Yikes!

A teenager Ben (John-Paul Howard) who’s struggling with his parents’ recent divorce prepares to spend the summer both living with his dad Liam (Jamison Jones) and working for him at the local marina, and it’s there on the job that Ben strikes up a friendship with fellow teen Mallory (Piper Curda). Speaking of relationships, his dad also happens to be  in one, also with a co-worker, Sara (Azie Tesfai), which does not sit well with Ben.

Actually, Ben has his share of issues. He has a broken arm, which he got when he jumped out of his neighbor’s window after trying to steal some pills from their medicine cabinet. Yes, Ben has a history of substance abuse problems. He’s also headstrong, opinionated, and defiant.

But one night he hears and then glimpses a strange creature lurking outside which makes its way to his dad’s neighbor’s house. Turns out, this creature happens to be a witch which likes to invade and take over other people’s bodies. And it does just that, taking over the body of the young mother Abbie (Zarah Mahler) next door, and since this witch likes to prey on children, it has a couple of tasty morsels waiting for it inside the home.

When Abbie’s son Dillon (Blane Crockarell) turns to Ben for help, Ben believes the young boy and decides to make it his mission to protect him. Trouble is, the witch is rather powerful, and when Ben turns to others for help, who is going to believe a teen with the kind of history he has?

I really liked THE WRETCHED, mostly because of the way it framed its story. It was just different enough to keep an old trope fresh. It also does an excellent job creating its characters. Ben’s story is an interesting one even without the supernatural elements, and the film does such a good job developing his back story, that once the horror stuff starts, it really gets interesting.

The character of Ben is an intriguing protagonist, and he lifts what could have been a standard tale of a hungry witch to more watchable levels.

The screenplay was written by Brett Pierce and Drew T. Pierce, and they also directed the movie, billed as The Pierce Brothers.

The dialogue is fresh and real, and all the characters are fleshed out, which is something that doesn’t always happen in a horror movie. The character that is fleshed out the least, ironically, is the witch. We never learn all that much about it, but in this case, it doesn’t matter because the story is driven by Ben and the other characters, and having the witch as simply an evil entity intending them harm works here.

The special effects are also pretty good for a low budget movie. The Pierce Brothers use a less is more approach, in that we don’t always get clear shots of the witch, as we often catch glimpses, or there are effective uses of lighting and shadow, but combined with the sound effects, it all looks terrific. And scary. The witch is certainly a frightening looking creature.

That being said, THE WRETCHED is somewhat of a slow burn horror movie. The empahsis here is on character, and the horror elements are few and far between, and there really aren’t all that many satisfying shock scenes. But on the other hand it’s not a let down either. The scares are there, as is the suspense, especially during the film’s third act.

There’s even a twist thrown in for good measure that I didn’t see coming. It’s an intriguing one, and unlike a lot of twists that show up in horror movies only to unintentionally ruin and undo all that came before it, the one here in THE WRETCHED supports the story and while not a game changer in either direction, good or bad, it’s one that makes you nod your head and say, “That’s cool. I didn’t see that.”

There are also some gory scenes that work well, too.

There is a prologue which takes place in the middle of the opening credits that while well done doesn’t really seem to have any place in the story, other than to show that the witch has been at it for a long time. But this is just an afterthought. The rest of the movie works fine.

John-Paul Howard does an excellent job in the lead role as Ben. He nails the character, who is often annoying, which makes the audience empathize with the characters who don’t believe him later more than him, which is a neat trick to pull off in a movie like this. Because he needs to be believed! Howard also starred in HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016), one of my favorite movies from that year. It was a small role, as he played the son of Chris Pine’s lead character.

All the acting here is good, from Piper Curda as Mallory, who grows closer to Ben as the story goes along, to Jamison Jones as Ben’s dad Liam, who desperately wants to support his son, but Ben’s increasingly erratic behavior makes it more and more difficult for him to do so.

THE WRETCHED is not going to do for witches what THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) did two decades ago, nor should it, as it’s not as innovative a movie as BLAIR WITCH, but it is a very good horror movie in its own right, one that horror fans especially should definitely check out.

It’s much better than THE TURNING (2020) which came out earlier this year, and it’s also witch brooms ahead of some of the horror films from last year, clinkers like PET SEMATARY (2019), ANNABELLE COMES HOME (2019), and THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA (2019).

In spite of these inferior entries, horror movies, contrary to popular opinion, are alive and well and have been thriving these past twenty years. There have been a lot of quality horror films during this time. In fact, already here in 2020 there have been some really good horror flicks, films like UNDERWATER (2020) and THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020).

And you can go ahead and add THE WRETCHED to that list.

It’s quality horror at its best.

Now, pass me that ladle. I need to sample what’s brewing here in the cauldron.

Mmm. Delicious!

—END—

 

 

Movie Lists: SPIKE LEE MOVIES

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spike lee

Welcome back to MOVIE LISTS, the column where we look at— lists pertaining to movies. Duh!

Up today, it’s a look at the career of director Spike Lee, which of course is still going strong, so while this is an incomplete list, it’s still an important one because Spike Lee is an important filmmaker.

Now, I haven’t really seen enough Spike Lee movies to consider myself a true fan, but I’ve generally enjoyed his work, and his most recent movies have spoken to current racial tensions in ways that have really resonated, so Lee has been on my mind lately more than ever. And rightly so. Lee makes movies that make you pay attention.

Okay, here’s a partial list of Spike Lee’s 93 directorial credits:

JOE’S BED-STUY BARBERSHOP: WE CUT HEADS (1983)- Lee’s first directorial credit.

SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT (1986) – Spike Lee’s first legitimate hit, a comedy about a young woman and her three lovers. Well-received by critics upon its initial release. I was fortunate enough to see it when it first came out, as I was in my senior year at Boston University and saw it when it premiered as part of one of my film classes.

In addition to directing and writing the screenplay, Lee also appears in the movie as one of the boyfriends.

SCHOOL DAZE (1988) – Lee’s next film, a comedy/drama/musical about a fraternity pledge at a black college. Starring Laurence Fishburne and a young Giancarlo Esposito who would go on to star in a lot of Lee’s movies.

DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) – Powerful tale of race relations in Brooklyn. Starring Danny Aiello, John Turturro, and again, Giancarlo Esposito.

MO’ BETTER BLUES (1990) – again directed, written by, and starring Spike Lee, this one is the story of two jazz musicians played by Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes.

JUNGLE FEVER (1991) – Lee’s take on interracial relationships, starring Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra.

MALCOLM X (1992) – probably my favorite Spike Lee movie. This riveting bio pic of African American leader Malcolm X also features one of my favorite performances by Denzel Washington of all time, in the lead role as Malcolm X.

CROOKLYN (1994) – a look at a black family in Brooklyn in 1973.

CLOCKERS (1995)- crime thriller about drug pushers and cops in Brooklyn, starring Harvey Keitel and Lee regular John Turturro.

GIRL 6 (1996) -comedy/drama about a struggling actress who turns to sex to make money.

GET ON THE BUS (1996) – chronicles a bus ride to Washington D.C. for the Million Man March.

HE GOT GAME (1998)- basketball player drama starring Denzel Washington.

SUMMER OF SAM (1999) -Lee’s take on the Son of Sam murders.

BAMBOOZLED (2000)- comedy drama about a frustrated African American writer who in a fit of frustration comes up with a blackface minstrel show only to see it become a hit.

25TH HOUR (2002) – drama about the last 24 hours of a convicted drug dealer, starring Edward Norton.

INSIDE MAN (2006) – Tense crime drama about negotiations over a hostage situation following a bank robbery, starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, and Jodie Foster.

MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA (2008) – World War II drama about a group of black soldiers who get trapped in a village.

RED HOOK SUMMER (2012) – drama about a boy who spends a summer with his deeply religious grandfather.

OLDBOY (2013) – weird action drama, a remake, about a man, played by Josh Brolin, held captive for twenty years who is then suddenly released, and he sets out to find answers to why this happened to him. This one just didn’t work for me.

DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS (2014) – thriller about a mysterious curse which results in a thirst for blood.

CHI-RAQ (2015) – modern day adaptation of a play by Aristophanes.

BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018) – the first Spike Lee film since MALCOLM X that I really, really enjoyed. Intriguing from start to finish, it tells the story of a black cop played by John David Washington who infiltrates the KKK but then needs the help of a fellow white cop played by Adam Driver to pull off the ruse. Thought-provokig throughout, it’s actually based on real events.

DA 5 BLOODS (2020)- Lee’s most recent film to date, and his first for Netflix. I actually enjoyed this one even more than BLACKKKLANSMAN, as its story of four black veterans of the Vietnam war who return to Vietnam in 2020 to reclaim the remains of their fallen platoon leader speaks to today’s modern day Black Lives Matter movement with a clarity that is seldom found in the movies. An outstanding movie that really speaks to the plight of the black male in the United States.

And there you have it, a brief, partial list of the movies of Spike Lee, one of the most influential film directors working today.

I hope you enjoyed this MOVIE LISTS column and will join me again next time when we look at another list pertaining to the movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

DA 5 BLOODS (2020) – Spike Lee’s Latest A Moving Discourse on Black Lives Matter Told Through A Story About Vietnam

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DA 5 BLOODS (2020), Spike Lee’s latest movie, and his first for Netflix, is must-see viewing, especially in light of current events.

It offers a history and an understanding of Black Lives Matter that argues that the plight of the African American male in the United States has been an issue since the country was first formed, and in spite of various movements to make changes, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, things here in 2020 remain largely the same. And it does it with a story about Vietnam that is straightforward without being preachy. It makes its points without hitting you over the head with them.

DA 5 BLOODS is the story of four Vietnam vets, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clark Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), who return to Vietnam in 2020 to both locate the remains of their fallen Squad Leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman) and to recover a stash of gold which they had found and buried in the jungle there.

The bulk of the movie is this present-day story, but the film also incorporates flashbacks to show us these five friends—da 5 Bloods— in action in Vietnam. Spike Lee does a couple of creative things with these flashbacks. He didn’t use younger actors or CGI affects to make the four main characters look younger. They appear in these scenes looking as old as they do now. Only Norman, played by Chadwick Boseman, appears young, which serves to accentuate that Norman’s life was cut short and he never got to grow old. I thought this was a bold decision on Lee’s part, as this is hardly ever done, especially with the available CGI technology. It’s a decision that really worked.

The other creative decision Lee made with the flashback sequences is he changes the screen format for them. The movie is in widescreen format, but when the flashbacks occur, the ratio changes and the picture is reduced in size. It’s another neat effect that works.

The screenplay by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee is full of intricacies and works on multiple levels. It hammers its point home that the plight of African Americans in the U.S. has been going on since day one— with references to George Washington owning slaves— and that it continues to this day.

And the main story of the four men returning to Vietnam is a good one, and would have worked well as a straightforward war drama. It’s a really good screenplay. It was originally written by Danny Wilson and Paul De Meo as a story about four white Vietnam veterans, and for a while Oliver Stone was attached to the project. It eventually made its way to Spike Lee, and he and writer Kevin Willmott rewrote the script and changed the story to be about black soldiers instead.

The other subplot is that these four friends have changed over the years, and throughout their journey back into Vietnam they struggle to get along because they have changed so much. Paul, played by Delroy Lindo, is the most interesting character of the four. He suffers from PTSD and is haunted by dreams of Norman, who he idolized. To make matters more complicated, Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) also joins the group, against his father’s wishes, but David is worried about his dad and wants to be there to keep an eye on him. Paul also feels guilty because he has never been able to love his son the way he wanted.

To the shock of his friends, Paul is also a Trump supporter, and even wears a MAGA hat! As he explains it, he is sick and tired of the system constantly walking over him and taking from him, and so he wants to blow it all up and vote for someone who hates the system like he does. Delroy Lindo is excellent in the role, and he delivers the best performance in the movie.

Clark Peters as Otis, Norm Lewis as Eddie, and Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Melvin are also very good, and each of their characters also have their own back stories. And Chadwick Boseman, who of course plays Black Panther in the Marvel movies, and also played Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013) is really good here in a limited role as Norman. He’s only in the flashback scenes, but he makes his presence known, and it’s clear why his friends admired him so much. The scene when they finally find his remains is one of the most emotional scenes in the movie.

Jean Reno also shows up as a shadowy French businessman Desroche who is also interested in the gold the men are searching for. Van Veronica Ngo enjoys some chilling scenes as Hanoi Hannah. And Melanie Thierry is very good as Hedy, a French expert on land mine diffusion who David meets in a bar and who later becomes an integral part of the storyline.

DA 5 BLOODS doesn’t skimp on the war violence either. There are some gruesome scenes, especially toward the end.

There are also plenty of emotional scenes and poignant ones, including the sequence where Otis visits an old girlfriend, and Paul and David’s father/son interactions.

There are all kinds of memorable exchanges, like when Paul calls his friends the N-word, and they take offense. There’s conversatons about drug abuse, alcohol, guns, and other hot button topics. The script even throws in an Easter Egg to one of Lee’s favorite movies, THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE (1948), as one of the characters utters the film’s most famous line.

All in all, DA 5 BLOODS is one of Spike Lee’s best movies. I actually enjoyed it a bit more than his previous film, BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018), which was also an excellent movie and was a Best Picture Nominee. I thought DA 5 BLOODS was a more ambitious movie and a bit grander in scope. That being said, it’s a bit long, clocking in at two hours and thirty four minutes, and I thought it dragged somewhat during its second half.

But it’s still one of Lee’s best.

It convincingly defends Black Lives Matter and explains why this movement is so important, because nothing has changed for over two hundred years. And while the film offers a conclusion of hope borne from tragedy and violent bloodshed, it does so with one eye on the future that perhaps at long last this is indeed the moment of change people have been waiting for, but also with another eye firmly set on the past as a reminder that we’ve had these moments before and they haven’t changed a thing.

DA 5 BLOODS is a movie about friendship, bloodshed, and sacrifice. It travels between the 1960s and 2020 effortlessly, offering looks at two key volatile periods in the history of race relations, offering a vision that perhaps this time the change is permanent and real.

—END—

 

LIKE A BOSS (2020) – Not Much To Like About This Unfunny Comedy

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Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne confront Salma Hayek in LIKE A BOSS (2020)

LIKE A BOSS (2020) is almost like a comedy.

Ouch!

Yeah, I can’t say I’m much of a fan of this comedy starring Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne as best friends running a beauty company together, who see both their friendship and business threatened when they cross paths with beauty tycoon Claire Luna (Salma Hayek).

LIKE A BOSS was released theatrically back in January, and I missed it back then, and I wanted to see it now mostly because I find good film comedies hard to come by these days, and I like comedies, so I’m constantly in search of good ones. Sorry to say, after watching LIKE A BOSS, I’m still searching.

The biggest issue with LIKE A BOSS is that it is simply not very funny, and for a comedy, yes, that’s a rather big deal.

Its story of two friends Mia (Tiffany Haddish) and Mel (Rose Byrne) who have been friends since middle school and now run a successful beauty company together starts out well as it does a good job of introducing these two characters and their two likable employees, Sydney (Jennifer Coolidge) and Barrett (Billy Porter).

The stage is set for some comedic conflict, which arrives in the person of Salma Hayek’s Claire Luna, who not only wants to buy out their company, but also wants to drive a wedge between the two friends because their contract together stipulates that if one or the other leaves the company, control of the business goes to Luna.

The trouble is this conflict never becomes all that funny nor does it rise above anything that isn’t one hundred percent cliche and predictable.

I did not enjoy the screenplay by Sam Pitman and Adam Cole-Kelly. The jokes were few and far between, and the comedic situations were nowehre near as over the top as they should have been. There’s a funny sequence involving Mia eating some very hot peppers, but this scene was widely given away in the film’s trailers. There’s also a funny moment early on involving some marijuana use and the proximity of a sleeping baby.

But the biggest hit against the comedy is that the main scenes between Mia and Mel with their nemesis Claire Luna are never funny. These scenes all fall flat and are rather dull and painful to sit through.

The two leads are enjoyable although they aren’t strong enough to carry this movie on their own. Tiffany Haddish probably fares the best as Mia and she definitely enjoys the film’s best moments.  Rose Byrne is almost as good as Mel, although her character is less comedic than Haddish’s. Byrne fared better in the INSIDIOUS movies where she played frightened mom Renai.

But Salma Hayek who I usually enjoy is stuck here playing an unlikable and one-note character Claire Luna. Rather than being an interesting villain, Luna is a colossal bore.

Director Miguel Arteta successfully tells the story of two lifelong friends struggling to run a business together but drops the ball every time it attempts to be funny, which is not a good thing for a film billed as a comedy. I enjoyed Arteta’s drama BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017) more, which also starred Salma Hayek. BEATRIZ was an intriguing drama that remained strong throughout until its head-scratching and rather confusing ending.

LIKE A BOSS, however, is rarely strong. It provides us with a pair of interesting and for the most part likeable characters, but it puts them in a rather dull storyline that really struggles to be even a little bit funny.

Sharper writing would certainly have helped.

As it stands, there’s just not that much to like about LIKE A BOSS.

—END—

THE LOVEBIRDS (2020) – Romantic Comedy Offers Some Light Diversion

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the lovebirds

Movie comedies are in a major slump.

Think about it. When was the last time you saw a new movie that made you laugh so hard you couldn’t stop? There haven’t been all that many recently. Which is too bad, because we can always use a good laugh, especially in the here and now.

I wish I could say today’s movie, THE LOVEBIRDS (2020), bucked that trend and had me laughing throughout, but that’s not the case. That being said, this silly romantic comedy about a couple who seconds after deciding to break up become involved in a murder that sends them fleeing from the police and searching for the real killer has its moments, and as such, is for the most part a pleasant diversion from current real world woes.

THE LOVEBIRDS opens with the first date between Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae) and then leaps forward several years in time to the point where these two lovebirds are on the brink of breaking up. In fact, while in their car on their way to a party they do break up, and at that very moment, they strike a bicyclist with their vehicle. When they run out to see if the man is okay, he gets back on his bike and pedals away in a panic.

Stunned and shocked, they attempt to process what just happened, but they barely have time to do this when a man (Paul Sparks) arrives on the scene claiming to be a police officer. He commandeers their car with them inside and tells them the man on the bike is a dangerous criminal. They give chase, and when they finally catch up to the bicyclist the “police officer” who’s behind the wheel runs him down, and then runs him over several more times until he’s very dead. As he gets out of the car to check on the body, Jibran tells Leilani, “I don’t think he’s a cop.”

What follows is a comedic tale in which Jibran and Leilani work hard to elude both the police and the man, who they refer to as Moustache, as they attempt to find out why Moustache wanted to kill the bicyclist. If they find out why and can prove it, they can go to the police with a real story rather than the flimsy one they have now, with little or no reason why they fled a crime scene other than they were afraid.

THE LOVEBIRDS is a mixed bag. The two leads, Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani, do work well together, and by far, the funniest parts of the movie are their interactions with each other. The screenplay by Brendan Gall and Aaron Abrams gets this part right. In fact, the opening date sequence had me both laughing out loud and really enjoying these two characters as they got to know each other and fell in love. And this part of the movie remains consistent throughout. Rae and Nanjiani are both funny and enjoyable to watch from beginning to end.

The problem is the rest of the movie isn’t as strong. The plot never becomes as zany or as madcap as it needs to be. Most of the predicaments Leilani and Jibran find themselves in either fall flat or never push the envelope as far as they should. For example, in one scene, as they are held prisoner, they are given a choice, either hot bacon grease to the face or the unknown threat behind the door. Jibran chooses the door, and finds himself facing the back end of a horse. He actually says what the audience is fearing and expecting, but what happens is anticlimactic. This happens throughout the movie.

I almost wish this one had been a straight romantic comedy without the silly crime plot because Rae and Nanjiani really do work well together. In this case, they have to because they pretty much are the entire movie. Which is another problem with THE LOVEBIRDS. Movies like this really need some quirky supporting characters to keep the comedy moving, but this film doesn’t have any.

The only other memorable character is Moustache, and Paul Sparks plays it straight. He’s simply a menacing bad guy, but he’s not in the movie enough to have an impact. Moustache is also not developed at all. That being said, Paul Sparks does a nice job with what little he has to work with, which is no surprise, because he’s a really good actor. He’s been memorable on the TV show HOUSE OF CARDS (2015-18) and as a rather nasty critic James Gordon Bennett in THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017).

Issa Rae is excellent as Leilani, as is Kumail Nanjiani as Jibran, and they really do succeed in making these characters seem like a real couple. They’re funny throughout, and even when the situations they find themselves in simply aren’t as comical as expected, they still manage to garner a chuckle with a one-liner here and there. My favorite Kumail Nanjiani movie remains THE BIG SICK (2017). THE LOVEBIRDS is on par with his silly buddy comedy STUBER (2019) in which he co-starred with Dave Bautista.

There’s a conversation in a restaurant between Leilani and Jibran after they have fled the scene of the crime in which they discuss their options. and they agree they can’t go to the police since they are both nonwhite and fear the police would shoot first and ask questions later. This conversation reminded me of a similar moment in the dark drama QUEEN AND SLIM (2019), a movie about a black couple who flee a crime scene and go on to become an unintentional “black Bonnie and Clyde.” While its heart was in the right place, a lot of QUEEN AND SLIM simply didn’t work as well as it should have. Here, THE LOVEBIRDS attempts to be a lighthearted version of the same predicament, although race relations and police brutality, while a central theme in QUEEN AND SLIM, is barely mentioned here, although it is the reason the two main characters fear going to the police.

Two very different movies, two very similar scenes, and one very present and timely theme.

THE LOVEBIRDS was directed by Michael Showalter, who also directed Kumail Nanjiani in the far superior THE BIG SICK. In THE LOVEBIRDS, Showalter succeeds in bringing the two main characters to life. You will really route for Leilani and Jibran to survive their ordeal and get back together by the movie’s end. But he stumbles somewhat with the rest of the story. The predicaments are never as nutty or as energetic as they could be, and supporting characters who could add to the absurdity are nowhere to be found.

THE LOVEBIRDS works much better as a romantic comedy than an action comedy, because the relationship beween Leilani and Jibran is sincere throughout, while the action sequences are simply not very silly.

THE LOVEBIRDS is good for some light diversion, and it’s generally a fun experience, as long as you’re not looking to laugh your butt off for 90 minutes. Yep, at last check, my butt is still there.

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CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT – POETRY INSPIRED BY DRACULA (1931)

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dracula-1931

Last month I shared some poems I’d written inspired by the Universal Frankenstein series. Today we’ll give Dracula equal time.

Here are some poems I’ve written, inspired by the Universal DRACULA series, specifically the original 1931 DRACULA starring Bela Lusosi. Lugosi’s lines, and the haunting way he delivered them, are inspiration in and of themselves.

These poems follow the Fibonacci form.

dracula-1931-bela-lugosi

“Children of the Night”

Bats.

Wolves.

Children

of the night.

What Music They Make.

Blood is the life, Mr. Renfield.

 

dracula1931 - worse things than death

“Worse Things”

To

Die.

To Be

Really Dead.

Must be glorious!

Far worse things await man than death.

 

 

dracula 1931- renfield - rats!

“Renfield”

Rats!

Rats!

Thousands!

All red blood!

Millions of them! All

These will I give you! Obey me!

 

 

dracula 1931- dracula renfield

“Wine”

Old

Wine.

Hope you

Will like it.

But aren’t you drinking?

No, Renfield. I never drink— wine.

 

 

dracula 1931 - van helsing

“Van Helsing’s Wisdom.”

The

strength

of the

vampire is

that people will not

believe in him. Nosferatu!

 

Nosferatu, indeed!  Hope you enjoyed these poems, which really are based on real quotes and dialogue from the movie, tweaked into a poetic format, specifically, the Fibonacci form.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

ALL DAY AND A NIGHT (2020) – Chilling, Disturbing Portrait of Black Life in America

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all day and a night

Ashton Sanders and Jeffrey Wright in ALL DAY AND A NIGHT (2020).

If you want to know what it’s like to be a black man in the United States in 2020, then you need to watch ALL DAY AND A NIGHT (2020), a Netflix original movie that tells the story of a young man stuck in a hopeless fate that rings all too true.

When ALL DAY AND A NIGHT opens, we witness Jah (Ashton Sanders), a young black man from Oakland, California, shoot and kill another black man and his girlfriend in front of their teenage daughter. Jah is sentenced to life imprisonment, and it’s there through a series of flashbacks that we learn his story.

Jah grew up in a household where he was mostly raised by his mother Delanda (Kelly Jenrette) and grandmother Tommetta (Regina Taylor) because his father JD (Jeffrey Wright) is in and out of prison and rarely home. In fact, as Jah explains, that’s how it is for nearly every family in the neighborhood. The dads just disappear.

Later, when Jah is in prison, he’s not only reunited with his father, but he sees all those folks who disappeared during his childhood. They’re all living in prison.

Even as a young boy, Jah knows he wants to do something more with his life which is why he gravitates towards music, but inside he knows he’s not going anywhere. His mom and dad constantly argue over his fate, as his mother swears that her son is not going to end up like her husband, but JD argues that he has to teach his son street smarts or else he’ll never survive, which is why he beats Jah when a local bully steals his toy. Jah learns at a young age to hit hard and go on the offensive, making sure that other kids will not mess with him.

As a young adult, Jah and his best friend TQ (Isaiah John) navigate through a world of music, drugs, and gangs, with all of these things intertwined in a dangerous soup of murder and violence. Jah keeps away from the drugs, but his reputation for being a tough fighter catches the eye of local gang leader Big Stunna (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who keeps Jah close with the intention of grooming him to be his muscle.

Jah’s other friend Lamark (Christopher Meyer) vows to do things the right way and escape the confines of their neighborhood and their fates. He joins the army but returns an invalid.

Even as Jah enjoys a relationship with his girlfriend Shantaye (Shakira Ja’nai Paye), who’s pregnant with their baby, he can’t resist the allure of his neighborhood’s code of ethics, that matters can be solved by violence, and that one takes care of one’s own problems, which is what he does, a decision that lands him in jail for life.

But he does it because he honestly doesn’t see anything else to live for. As Jah says in the movie, the judge when sentencing him told him he was seeing his last days of freedom, to which Jah responds that he never ever felt he was free in the first place.

And that’s the somber, depressing tone throughout ALL DAY AND A NIGHT. These men live in a world where there is no hope. They see their fathers, brothers, and friends go to prison. They struggle to find jobs, especially with a prison record, and as JD laments, not only won’t people hire him, but his prison record prevents him from getting food stamps, which only makes his ability to provide for his family even more difficult.

On top of all this, Jah and his friends are hounded by the white police, and when Jah takes a retail job in a shoe store, he’s often not recognized as an employee by the white customers who look at him with a suspicious eye, or worse, who actually ask him what he’s doing carrying shoe boxes, the implication being that they think he’s robbing the place.

ALL DAY AND A NIGHT paints a bleak picture of black life in Oakland which speaks to black life throughout out the nation. Writer/director Joe Robert Cole has made a no frills slice of life movie that offers a hopelessly depressing view of its subject. The dialogue is gritty and raw, the violence shocking but not glorified.

The acting is excellent. Ashton Sanders is perfect as Jah, a young man with hopes and dreams who is also a realist, and as such, falls back on what he believes is real, his fists and acts of violence, things he learned from his father. Sanders of course starred in MOONLIGHT (2016).

Jeffrey Wright plays Jah’s father JD, in a role that for most of the film doesn’t evoke a lot of sympathy, even though his life his hard, because of the harsh way he raises his son Jah. But in a juxtaposition of scenes, we witness Jah being born and JD predicting all the wonderful things he believes his son will do, that he wants to give him a better life than he had, and then we switch to the two men sitting in prison together, where Jah offers to teach his dad gardening, in an effort to form a bond finally and give something back to his father.

Wright has been in a bunch of movies, including playing Beetee in THE HUNGER GAMES films, and he played Felix Leiter opposite Daniel Craig’s James Bond in CASINO ROYALE (2006) and QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008). He’s slated to play Commissioner Gordon in the upcoming THE BATMAN, which is set for a 2021 release.

Kelly Jenrette has some fine moments as Jah’s mother Delanda, as does Shakira Ja’nai Paye as Jah’s girlfriend Shantaye. I also enjoyed Isaiah John as TQ.

ALL DAY AND A NIGHT paints a disturbing picture of life in the U.S. for black males, but it’s one that goes a long way towards achieving an understanding of why things are the way they are.

As such, it’s required viewing if you really want to know and understand more about the racial divide which currently exists in the United States.

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SWALLOW (2020) – Disturbing Drama About More Than Just An Eating Disorder

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Swallow

SWALLOW (2020) is one intriguing movie.

Its story about a pregnant woman who suddenly starts swallowing dangerous household objects is certainly one you don’t hear about every day.

SWALLOW could also be aptly titled SUFFOCATION, because that’s exactly what the main character Hunter Conrad (Haley Bennett) seems to be suffering from. She’s trapped in a family that pays her no attention. She’s married to the wealthy and very successful Richie Conrad (Austin Stowell) who’s succesfully climbing the corporate ladder of his father Michael Conrad’s (David Rasche) business.

In a telling scene at a restaurant with Richie and his parents, Richie encourages Hunter to recount an uncomfortable story from her past which she clearly does not want to do, but Richie persists anyway, and midway through the awkward experience, Michael rudely interrupts her, and the conversation abruptly turns to business.

In scene after scene, Richie condescends to Hunter all the while professing his love to her yet never actually hearing anything she has to say about what is important to her. Before marrying into Richie’s money, Hunter had only worked in retail, and Richie’s family makes sure she doesn ‘t forget how lucky she is that Richie decided to marry her.

The film goes out of its way to show traditional food preparation of specialty items that are considered delicious, like lamb, for instance, as rather disgusting, and so when Hunter eyes a smooth beautiful marble, the juxtaposition is clear. It’s a much more attractive object to consume. And in terms of Hunter’s current life, where no one around her notices or cares what she’s up to, it’s her chance to do something special for herself.

Suddenly, the practice becomes an obsession, and she begins to consume some very dangerous objects, a practice that lands her in the hospital. Richie reacts by shouting at her and demanding that she should have told him before that she was weird like this. His family pays for counseling for her, and when that doesn’t work they hire a live-in male nurse to watch her round the clock. It’s all extremely humiliating for Hunter, especially when she discovers her therapist is sharing their private conversations with Richie.

SWALLOW is a disturbing movie on multiple levels.

It’s difficult to watch Hunter swallow things like push pins and batteries, and even more excruciating to watch the effect these items have on her once they’re inside her body. This condition, the eating of objects that possess no nutritional value, is known as Pica. But SWALLOW is about more than just an eating disorder.

It’s about a young woman and the deplorable way she is treated by her husband and her husband’s wealthy family. On the surface, it looks like she’s living the dream. She has everything she wants, money is no object, and she’s free to do whatever she wants. The problem is she has a husband who day after day doesn’t see or hear her for who she really is, which becomes maddening. It’s a portrait of what can happen in life when people don’t listen to each other, when people who are supposed to love each other don’t practice what they say.

One of the plot points involves a rape, and it’s one of the issues that through therapy Hunter learns she’s dealing with. It’s telling that in the entire movie, the scene where Hunter confronts this rapist, there’s a conversation in which this man connects with her in a way that her husband and his family simply never do. Which symbolizes that life is messy and complicated, that people make horrible mistakes, that people can be redeemed, and that one doesn’t have to carry guilt around with them for their entire life. It also speaks to the value of real listening, and the film makes the point that women in particular need to be listened to.

SWALLOW is a rather powerful movie, a drama that shouldn’t be masked by its plot point of an eating disorder. The disorder is only a reaction to the bigger problem which is effectively laid out in this movie, that Hunter and others like her are stuck in one-sided relationships, and she has no choice in the matter, no choice but to hush up and swallow whatever her family hurls at her. The swallow in the title definitely has a double meaning.

SWALLOW was written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis. He does an excellent job with both. The camera helps tell the story, from the aforementioned scenes of food prep, to shots of the interior of Hunter’s body during some of the medical procedures performed to remove the objects, to scenes of Hunter retrieving objects from the toilet bowl after she has expelled them from her body. SWALLOW isn’t really for the squeamish.

And the screenplay is just as strong. It doesn’t take long for the audience to understand what’s really bothering Hunter, and although the movie does take us on a journey in order to fully comprehend Hunter’s back story, we empathize with her from the beginning. The sense of isolation which Hunter endures is suffocating. You completely understand her need to make a connection to anyone or anything, and when she starts consuming these objects, you get why.

Haley Bennett is excellent as Hunter. Bennett has been in a bunch of movies, including roles in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016) and HARDCORE HENRY (2015). And way back when she played the teen lead Molly Hartley in the not-so-good horror movie THE HAUNTING OF MOLLY HARTLEY (2008). Here, Bennett makes Hunter someone who knows she is supposed to be happy, who’s told by those around her that they love her, but she doesn’t feel it. In fact, she feels the opposite, that they don’t truly love her at all. She completely captures the feeling that Hunter is a woman who is trapped, trapped in a situation that to all who see it, would imagine it to be the perfect life, when in reality it is anything but.

Austin Stowell is sufficiently annoying as the supposedly loving husband Richie, as are David Rasche and Elizabeth Marvel as his parents, Hunter’s in-laws, Michael and Katherine.

And Denis O’Hare is only in one sequence, right near the end, but it’s one of the most emtionally moving and satisfying scenes of the entire movie.

SWALLOW isn’t for everyone, but if you can get past the swallowing sharp objects scenes and their ramifications, you’ll discover things that are far more difficult to swallow than push pins and nails.

Much more.

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