Infidel

If “inspired by true events” is meant to suggest that you’re about to watch a true story, then labeling a food as “light” will help you lose weight.

So, no, Infidel is not a true story. And that’s good, because if the two main characters were truly as reckless as portrayed in this film a more appropriate title would have been “Imbecile.”

Doug Rawlins, a famous evangelical Christian blogger is invited by a friend to travel to Cairo to be a guest on a popular talk show. His wife Liz who works at the State Department warns him not to make the trip, double dog dares him not to evangelize while there, and then equips him with her seemingly CIA-like skills so he can send her a secret encoded message if necessary.

Doug is played by Jim Caviezel, the tall, dark and deadly Mr Reese, from the successful television show Person of Interest. He has also had his share of religious themed roles, as the apostle Paul and as Jesus himself in Mel Gibson’s brutal 2004 telling of The Passion of the Christ. In Infidel, his appearance on the Egyptian talk show goes smoothly until he turns to the camera and states, “Jesus IS god.” Until that point the audience was happily applauding Jesus as a teacher and prophet. At this point he initiates an international incident and his own kidnapping by Hamas terrorists. Fortunately, Rawlins is able to use his magic USB drive to get a message to Liz, but first he drops the drive within sight of his captors, and then a hacker on the Internet intercepts, decodes and posts the message. Out comes the power drill and Doug agrees to anything they want.

Not to be outdone, Liz Rawlins, played by Australian Claudia Karvan, throws on her hijab and travels to the Middle East to rescue her captive husband. She is alternately helped and harassed, stumbling through a series of chance encounters, eventually gaining the attention of Israeli agents from Mossad who need her help to liberate their own captives. A hint for married couples reuniting during a raging gun battle. Don’t stop for a loving embrace while hand grenades are rolling toward your feet. And if you’re going to pick up a live grenade and throw it at the bad guy, don’t think about it for a few seconds.

Some unbelievable sequences make for decent action and suspense, assuming you can suspend your disbelief. The film examines the very real topics of kidnapping and honor killing, which is Director Cyrus Nowrasteh’s intent. His own father was detained and arrested on a trip to Iran in 2013. Plenty of coverage on the evening news has focused on tragic events like the kidnapping and death of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson. Nowrasteh’s only other directorial credit during the last ten years is for a film called The Young Messiah, about Jesus from age seven as he grew into his religious identity. The film lost over ten million dollars worldwide.

Infidel (2019) runs 1 hour, 48 minutes and is rated R.

 

 

The New Mutants

When a movie starts with the graphic flipping pages of a Marvel comic book I’ve come to assume it will be a top-notch film and an enjoyable couple of hours. So much for that theory.

This is an origin story of a handful of young “new mutants” who have been sequestered for their own protection by Doctor Cecilia Reyes, played by Alice Braga. The secret facility allows monitoring and guided development of superpower skills that put the mutants on a path to someday becoming X-men. This is obviously a world in which X-men are known and mutants are still feared and marginalized.

Problem one: they’re troubled teenagers. Problem two: the newest recruit (or prisoner) is Danielle Moonstar played by Blu Hunt. I think Blu Hunt is a better name than Danielle Moonstar but, oh well. She has the ability to materialize everyone’s worst fears. She is Native American and believes that inside every person dwells two bears, one good and one evil. The evil bear makes an appearance late in the film.

Charlie Heaton, recognizable from his work in Stranger Things, plays the Kentucky coalminer Sam Guthrie, whose powers cause a mine collapse that kills his father and leaves him with survivor’s guilt.

Anya Taylor-Joy plays Magik, an armor-plated, sword wielding bully with a bad attitude and a personal history with monstrous “Smiley Men.” Her strangely wide-set eyes feature as prominently here as in her recent portrayal of Emma in the movie of the same name.

The film spends far too much time on character development. The Mutants are discovering the limits of their powers, a convenient means of educating the audience as well. It seems we also need lots of convincing that Dr. Reyes is not a sweet, softspoken caretaker after all. Dani and her new buddy Rahne head off on a young lesbian love tangent, and the Smiley Men add a bit of Guillermo DelToro style monster horror. It should be horrifying enough that real life Marilyn Manson voices over one Smiley Man.

Eventually it is determined that Dani is too powerful to be controlled. Dr. Reyes receives some sinister instructions from an offscreen superior and the Mutants bond against a common enemy.

Originally intended to be the first part of a trilogy, multiple delays interfered with this film's promotion and release. It is now considered the thirteenth and final chapter of the X-men series even though the ending screams “sequel.”

 

The New Mutants (2020) runs 1 hour, 34 minutes and is rated PG-13.

Tenet

A palindrome is a word or phrase that reads the same backward as forward. “Tenet” is a palindrome. There are entire scenes within this movie that are palindrome-ish. The movie is utterly confusing and exhausting to decipher for the entirety of its two and a half hours. It is also brilliantly written, if complexity gets credit, and the editor(s) of this beast should win an Oscar.

I could tell you the entire plot and key scenes of this film without spoiling it. I love good time travel movies, but they are simple by comparison to this looping, parallel timeline action film in which John David Washington, known as “The Protagonist” and his strangely familiar partner Neil, played by Robert Pattinson, set out to save the world from something they don’t understand. Washington recently starred in BlacKkKlansman, which was a walk in the park compared to this very physical role as a CIA type who has been tested for inclusion in a secret organization that operates outside of time and national interests. Michael Caine makes a brief appearance as Crosby, an elite conduit to forged art and the world of uber-wealthy arms dealers.

If you’re familiar with the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb during the 1940s, lead scientist Robert Oppenheimer has an analogous team leader hundreds of years in the future. That female scientist is working on a project so dangerous to the existence of everything that she hides nine components back in time and kills herself to prevent her knowledge from being known. The project is called Tenet and it has fallen into the hands of Andrei Sator, a crazed Russian oligarch suffering from a terminal illness. He plans the annihilation of the entire history of the human species rather than die and leave the world to continue in his absence. As with his estranged wife, if he can’t have her no one can.

“What’s happened has happened” is repeated frequently throughout the film. People and things are “inverted” through time turnstyles, machines that act as portals to a backward running parallel dimension. This results in fights, battles and chases being run simultaneously in positive and negative time, bullets being caught by guns and characters coming dangerously close to their alter-selves, sometimes without even being aware. The climactic James Bond-like battle scene is filmed with red and blue teams of soldiers running against ten-minute countdown and count-up clocks toward the same zero point. One’s knowledge of the other’s actions contributes to confusing reversals within the action and results in unexplainable paradoxes that defy logic and physics. Buildings are simultaneously blown up and reconstructed as timelines cross. The sometimes overly ominous musical score has snippets of backward sounds, and some dialogue is played both forward and reversed.

It’s no surprise that Christopher Nolan wrote and directed this mind bender. He is also responsible for MementoInception and Interstellar, all cerebral and non-linear productions, but not to this level.

I recommend being well rested before seeing this movie. It’s worth seeing, perhaps more than once if you really want to understand what’s happening. But that might require using the turnstyle to run a temporal pincer operation in order to give future information to your past self. Yeah, it’s that complicated.

Tenet (2020) runs 2 hours, 30 minutes and is rated PG-13

 

The Broken Hearts Gallery

On our latest outing to the “new normal” intensive care unit known as going to the movies in the year 2020 I wanted to see Tenet but it wasn’t my turn to choose. That’s ok, since a steady diet of Netflix eventually grows tiresome and just isn’t the cure for cabin fever or whatever we now call being trapped by an invisible enemy. We needed to get out of the house.

Something light hearted actually sounded appealing, and a Rom Com is about the lightest level movies can attain, short of Blazing Saddles or Superbad. But be clear, this is a chick flick, fulfilling all criteria of that species – catering to a youthful, female demographic on topics of love and romance. But this is not The Big Sick or When Harry Met Sally. It’s cute, but not even close.

The only familiar actor in this film is 72 year old Bernadette Peters who is not only still living but has retained that pinched, cute little face and voice that plays well in drama or comedy. She is an insanely talented singer who branched off into comic roles thanks to Mel Brooks and alongside one time partner Steve Martin. She even appeared on Carol Burnett and with The Muppets where she fit right in.

A diverse and heavily female cast of twenty-somethings over shares just within the bounds of the PG-13 rating, threatening each other with vibrators and talking obsessively about penises and vaginas. Lucy, played by an energized but frequently depressed Geraldine Viswanathan is a collector of memorabilia. She is clearly a hoarder living in an apartment-sized museum of reminders, the most recent of which is a tie from the artist she just broke up with. That tie becomes the inspiration, hung from a nail on a wall, for a gallery of memorabilia. The idea is a surprisingly huge hit among fellow New Yorkers who share a similarly unhealthy tendency to wallow in past relationship souvenirs. Nick, played by Dacre Montgomery, Lucy’s eventual love interest is rehabbing a building that becomes the Broken Hearts Gallery. He plays the part with sweet and sincere detached strength and vulnerability. You know, kind of a Rom Com Everyman. Prior to this he appeared in Stranger Things and as Jason, the red Power Ranger.

The dialogue in Broken Hearts Gallery often becomes that machine gun spray of impossibly cohesive and funny lines that perhaps only Robin Williams was actually capable of delivering. But there are quite a few laughs and if you can look past the unrealistic delivery, the lines are quite good. Director Natalie Krinsky also wrote the screenplay which may explain this stuffing of large words into small spaces.


The Broken Hearts Gallery (2020) runs 1 hour, 48 minutes and is rated PG-13.

Unhinged

In Unhinged, an almost unrecognizably overweight Russell Crowe stars as a deranged assailant in pursuit of a young mother who honks at him when he fails to proceed at a green traffic light. Granted, she lays on the horn hard three times and he sits through the entire light. Road rage ensues, but quickly becomes something far more sinister.

Consider this film a cross between Falling Down and Duel. Although not all of the action is in vehicles, much of it takes place behind the wheel. A staccato tap, tap, tap, tap musical/mechanical score during a relentless pursuit accompanies the action, similar to Duel and eventually you expect Rachel’s station wagon to start smoking and breaking down, just like Dennis Weaver’s car did on a long uphill climb.

If Crowe gained a ton of weight for this script I feel bad for him. It wasn’t worth the pain and suffering he’ll endure if he wants to trim down. He does a great job of playing a deranged killer, but the script has numerous flaws, mostly in the frightened female victim’s logic. After so many recent films in which women leverage their strength, intellect and cunning it seems this script returns us to a time in which helpless females were victimized by a big, bad man, though she does have a plan thanks to her Fortnite-playing son.

Just a few of the lessons we learn between scenes of graphic torture and highway carnage:

1.     Control your emotions in traffic,

2.     Say you’re sorry convincingly, even if you don’t feel the need,

3.     Don’t put on mascara while driving,

4.     Take your phone with you when you pay for gas,

5.     A phone without a screen lock is asking for trouble,

6.     Call the police instead of trying to outwit a lunatic,

7.     Never negotiate or follow a psychopath’s instructions.

Caren Pistorius plays Rachel, the woman who drives a red station wagon with lots of warning lights illuminated. She allows her busy life to get in the way of her busy life, oversleeping and losing her biggest client, letting her gas tank run down to empty and other avoidable actions on a day when everything has consequences. Pistorius does the best she can with a somewhat corny script, but she just can’t seem to find a breakout film. This one surely won’t be it.

Director Derrick Borte has six unremarkable films to his credit in twelve years. The opening scene in Unhinged is solely for the purpose of establishing Crowe’s unstable, violent behavior, I guess so that we understand when he next “unhinges” we’ll know what he’s capable of doing. But when Michael Douglas comes unglued in 1993’s Falling Down, you almost feel for him. That one is a much better film.

The opening scenes in Unhinged are a compilation of news stories, some of which appear to be actual footage of our stress-filled and chaotic current events. This sets up the film’s premise but then takes it to a completely insane next level, sort of like Fortnite.

The anxiety first felt when Rachel is targeted eventually fades when her actions and those of her pursuer become clearly unreasonable. Reaction to Rachel’s decision-making border on those experienced in teen slasher movies where you find yourself asking, “Why is she doing that? No, don’t go alone into the dark kitchen filled with knives.”

This pandemic-delayed film is mercifully short and has an estimated budget of $33 million with global opening weekend receipts of $23 million. They may make money on this thanks to Crowe’s power to draw crowds.

 

Unhinged (2019) runs 1 hour, 30 minutes and is rated R.

The Personal History of David Copperfield

Those who may be mistakenly drawn to this film as fans of the magician David Copperfield will be disappointed. But as a huge Charles Dickens fan, it was a must see as soon as I heard it was released. It was also our first time venturing out to a theater since about February. I’m happy to report that the experience was safe and sanitary. Being virtually the only two people in the theater helped a lot. Contactless ticketing and concessions, masks, gloves, cleaning between features and social distancing were all in play.

So, a brief note about the magician we’ve unfortunately all come to know better perhaps than this classic character from Dickens’ own favorite and most successful book. Magician David Seth Kotkin changed his name to the Charles Dickens character David Copperfield because he liked the sound of it. The book is magical, but that’s about all the two have in common.

Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire plays David alongside several other memorable cast members. Not least of these, and a real treat to see them onscreen together, are Peter Capaldi as Mr. Micawber and Hugh Laurie as Mr. Dick. Capaldi is known primarily from his television portfolio, with 46 episodes as a recent Dr. Who incarnation, and Laurie we know of course from 176 episodes of House, sans English accent, and much other television work. The two could have easily exchanged the quirky roles they played in this film. Both were a delight.

This modernized take on Dickens’ enhanced autobiography is his own coming of age story. It takes us from his birth to middle age, with memorable characters and events that became fodder for his eventual writing career. The director explored young Copperfield’s brilliant and inquisitive mind dissecting and jotting down bits of idiosyncratic comments and capturing differences in dialect among those around him. Casting of this movie is interestingly diverse. Copperfield is Indian and several traditionally white characters are Black. After a very brief bit of confusion you settle right into the acting and accept the portrayal without regard to race, which is nice.

Perfectly cast as the character Uriah Heep is Ben Whishaw who has played everything from Q in recent Bond films to Melville in The Heart of the Sea and the voice of Paddington the bear. Critics have called him one of the best actors of his generation. He is a sniveling, falsely humble and insincere antagonist to the extreme. Those who think Copperfield is a magician may think Heep is a rock band. Nope, but great choice of name.

It’s been a long time since I read David Copperfield, but this movie makes me want to read it again. There are numerous comedic threads running throughout the story that make it a fun and richly British period piece set in the mid 1800s. The opening scene has an adult Dickens reading his tale to an auditorium filled with admiring listeners. For a brief period, the public speaking engagements of Dickens and Mark Twain overlapped. Amazingly, though Twain was a great admirer of Dickens, and they were once in the same room, they never met. What a dream it would be to hear either one perform.

One other note: the actual title of the book was The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery.

 

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019) runs 1 hour, 59 minutes and is rated PG. 

Swallow

If you’re looking for a short movie reminiscent of Ordinary People or Good Will Hunting, this film shares a couple of themes with those longer, better known films. In all three the main character is in therapy, has an abusive or emotionally distant parent and comes to grips with demons, thus resolving a lifetime of struggle.

Now factor in a rape and the desire to eat dangerous objects and prepare to watch Swallow. Haley Bennett wonderfully plays Hunter Conrad, a sort of Stepford Wife to Richie Conrad (Austin Stowell,) heir apparent to the family business and a perfectionist who just wants Hunter to step up her game and behave. Richie’s parents are no help, supporting and increasing the pressure on Hunter to be everything their boy deserves. “Richie likes his girls with long hair,” quips his mother, suggesting that Hunter grow out her neatly coiffed short style.

Hunter journeys from family pressure cooker to therapy, through multiple hospitalizations and eventually comes face to face with an intervention that is in reality a forced voluntary commitment. “Sign here or Richie wants a divorce,” says Dad.

You might want to look up the medical condition called “Pica” before viewing. I thought this was limited to children or pregnant women who develop a taste for dirt, but it’s so much more and is quite disturbing. Here is a brief summary of what you’ll find online: Pica is a psychological disorder characterized by the desire to eat substances such as ice, hair, paper, sharp objects, metal, stones, soil or glass. Hunter seems to crave them all and creates a little display, collecting her trophies after they pass through her digestive system. This is delicately handled.

The problem is, some don’t pass through without causing internal injuries, and the resulting E.R. visits alarm the family, rattling their cages so to speak, and being control freaks, her cage most of all.

I won’t reveal anything further about the film’s outcome. Hunter’s journey with its betrayals, confrontations and awakenings is definitely worth watching. Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s own grandmother suffered from compulsive hand washing in the 1950s and is incorporated into the character of Hunter along with societal expectations of a happy, expectant mother. That and his experience as a “gender fluid” man who lived as a woman named Emma Goldman for four years in his twenties led him to say, “What’s interesting is that I don’t really know what I currently am right now, especially after directing this movie. Emma is always a part of me, and I’ve thought a lot about her over the years. It’s always a continual journey.”

Awareness of this background information elevates this film from a fictional story to more of a psychological study of the human mind with its malleability, vulnerability and ability to cope. I don’t know if the previously mentioned two films can make the same claim.

Swallow can be rented on Amazon Prime, YouTube and AppleTV for $4.99.

 

Swallow (2019) runs 1 hour, 34 minutes and is rated R.

Should I see this movie? 



First Cow

This is another potential casualty, at least on the big screen, of the Covid pandemic. We had trouble finding a way to watch First Cow despite good reviews and recommendations from friends. We finally resorted to watching it on a laptop through iTunes. We do not have an Apple TV and our ancient (four year old) Smart TV was just short of smart enough to cast this movie from a phone.

Despite those limitations, this beautiful film has an art-house feel, a simple story line and quiet, engaging dialogue between its two main characters. The feel is immersive, softly focused under the smoky forest canopy with audio engineering that brings to life every twig cracking under foot, the snap of a mushroom’s stem and the sounds of quietly chewing bites of biscuits. This contributes to an anxious experience for audiences who have been conditioned to expect sudden action on the heels of silence.

John Magaro plays Cookie, an expert East Coast baker accompanying fur trappers in the Oregon Territory during the mid to late 1800s. Verbally abused by a troop of surly mountain men, he remains a loner and spends much of his time searching for food in the forest. There he discovers King-Lu (Orion Lee), crouching naked in the woods, having escaped a group of pursuing Russians for having killed one of their members in self-defense. Keep in mind that this was a period of extreme racial injustice and mistreatment of Chinese immigrants. (Read Mark Twain’s Roughing It for more.) The ensuing friendship leads to an entrepreneurial arrangement that puts both new friends at risk. The actors turn in memorable, understated performances.

Eventually we meet the “first cow” brought to the territory by a wealthy landowner, who has a nostalgic craving for fine baked goods. Cookie and his new partner attract his attention at a sort of woodsy marketplace where they sell their biscuits, a memory-invoking Eastern treat in the remote frontier. The landowner’s insecurity with military counterparts and his vengeful nature factor into the plot as we approach the film’s subdued climax.

Director Kelly Reichardt, a Florida native, prioritizes atmosphere over plot and visual effects in her film festival entries, one of which (River of Grass) was called one of the best films of 1995 by the Boston Globe and others. The Academy Awards may seem overwhelming for someone who considers herself  “a pretty boring person” but if the awards are conducted virtually next year, First Cow may be a surprisingly perfect fit. At the very least it should receive nominations for sound editing and design.

First Cow (2019) runs 2 hours, 2 minutes and is rated PG-13

Should I see this movie? 

Yellowstone (Series)

Sit back and enjoy vistas ready made for postcards, a cinematic feel that spans episodes and intriguing opening credits embedded in a steaming, sulfurous counterpoint of the old and new west. Welcome to the Yellowstone Ranch. Meet rancher/patriarch John Dutton. He is your host. Do not try to escape.

I heard a lot about this series from the Paramount Network, but it wasn’t until our local Xfinity service rolled out the Peacock channel that we had the ability to stream the first two seasons. Now that we’ve binged ourselves into a stupor, it’s time to take a look back and decide if season three is worth purchasing. 

The star of the show and one of its executive producers is the legendary Kevin Costner. He’s one of the much older Newman/Redford Hollywood genre of hunks that cause misty-eyed lasses to temporarily forget all about their feminist ideals and leave us normal guys saying, “Hey, did you hear what I just said?” But what does he have that I lack, other than, well, everything. And he’s a year younger than me to boot. When he was Dancing With Wolves I was dancing with diapers and stuck in one of the most boring jobs of my life.

But this is not a bio about Kev. For that, head to Wikipedia for an exhausting ride through a busy career, multiple marriages, vacillating political affiliations and errors in judgment that would derail most mortals. He has aged well and in Yellowstone has a gruff voice that, if not his own, is going to result in a nodule on this vocal chords.

Dutton is a sixth generation homesteader who would have us believe, “I’m not a rich man.” This, despite owning a ranch near Bozeman, Montana the size of a national park, his own helicopter, a fleet of trucks and ATVs, cattle, horses, barns, stables and a log cabin mansion to die for. I guess he’s house poor. And “to die for” is the key to this entire series. The Dutton clan is a modern day James Gang.

Dutton’s wife died while out on horseback with her children fifteen years earlier. Daughter Beth (Kelly Reilly) is blamed for the accident with her mother’s dying breath and goes on to become the meanest, sleaziest cowgirl in Montana. Her hatred for older brother Jamie (Wes Bentley) intensifies as the series progresses. Jamie is equally damaged, but was sent away early on by Dad to attend Harvard Law School because, “I need a lawyer.” As a result he returned a misfit, a slick hipster in a family full of murderous wranglers. Thus, the need for a lawyer.

The family is embroiled in local politics. Dutton is literally in bed with the Governor on the anniversary of his wife’s death because, “That’s the one day I most need to think about something else.” He is also at war with competing interests for casino and property development with Native Americans on the nearby reservation, a California developer and the Beck brothers, a sinister duo who stop at nothing to get what they want, including poisoning all of Dutton’s cattle and abducting his grandson.

There are tons of tangential plot lines, generally woven around hapless cowpokes, some of whom pledge allegiance to the Dutton brand by literally being branded by Dutton. The proper position, according to Yellowstone graphic guidelines for the stylized Yellowstone “Y” is the upper left quadrant of the chest, the fleshy part that sizzles nicely while the recipient is screaming. Given that many of the Yellowstone Ranch wranglers are recruited when released from prison, what’s a little permanent disfiguration when offered a job with a bunk and three squares as an otherwise unemployable felon?

When Beth is not goading Jamie into killing himself, or making others wish they were dead, she’s out trashing a Bozeman boutique where her Native American sister-in-law is accused of shoplifting. Racial injustice toward the occupants of the “Res” is a consistent theme throughout the show. And thankfully, they are the only people in the show who aren’t portrayed as murderous savages.

What would a modern day Western be without a compassionate killer who dresses in black and goes by the nickname “Rip” (Cole Hauser.) I’ve lost count of the individuals who are RIP-ing as a result of his trips to “the train station.” This is the local dump where anyone trying to quit their job at the ranch are unceremoniously shot in the head and pushed over a cliff. It makes you wonder about the size of the pile of bodies and duffle bags at the bottom of that ravine.

Rip is the only cowboy who is man enough to handle Beth, but she continually baits and humiliates him. He’s just born to suffer, and is the only branded “family member” who will never benefit from being treated like John Dutton’s son. Meanwhile, actual son Kayce (Luke Grimes), a self-sabotaging outlaw, psychically damaged in the war like Dad, resists being programmed and abused further but can’t seem to escape Dutton’s crushing gravitational pull. Like, who doesn’t have a fistfight with their coworkers to get the respect they deserve when they’re promoted?

Aside from the scenery and a plot that offers plenty of cliffhangers to ensure a repeat visit, there is a possible drinking game emerging thanks to a script full of paragraphs filled with Western wisdom. After a while you can predict the onset of an impossibly cogent sharing of life experience with a pause during which an actor seems to adjust their footing and brace for the delivery of a soliloquy memorized just before Director Taylor Sheridan said, “And, action.” Of course, he’s the screenwriter, so he’s actually setting up a shot framing his own words.

Categories of wisdom thus far identified are: Cowboy wisdom, Indian wisdom, John Dutton wisdom, wrangler wisdom, real-estate developer wisdom, Governor wisdom and Beth’s own particular brand of psychosexual wisdom. In fact, half of the characters are delivering wisdom while the other half are receiving it. Seems like they should eventually learn from each other and kind of even things out. But the really smart ones invariably try to escape, with one last bit of wisdom on the way to the train station.

I have friends who have lived in Bozeman for years. I’d like to hear from residents who are being portrayed as affluent snobs in a town full of baristas, boutiques and whiskey bars where you have to hope you don’t show up at exactly the wrong time. Even minding your own business can get you beaten nearly to death for wearing a nice tie. If confronted, remember to say, “Yes sir, Mr. Dutton” and offer to pay for his drink, or at least be prepared to listen to some words of wisdom. And don’t forget, nothing good happens in bars or after midnight, especially near the Yellowstone Ranch.


Should I watch this? 

  

Radioactive

When I was in fourth grade I acquired a huge chemistry set from someone who had tired of learning science and gaining knowledge. Or maybe they set their basement on fire as I recounted here. In the set was a small black device that looked like the eyepiece for a microscope, or maybe a printer’s loop. I discovered that it was actually a spinthariscope, a toy version of a tool that allows a viewer to observe the nuclear disintegration of ionizing alpha radiation on a surface coated with radium or other phosphor.

The Gilbert Company, maker of the Erector Set, created the U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, parts of which had been combined with the chemistry set I enjoyed. 

Can I just say, toys were really cool in the 1960s!

Toy Spinthariscope

This is the long way into a review of a movie about Madame Marie Curie, but allow me to finish by saying that I still have my toy spinthariscope. Late at night, long after your eyes grow used to complete darkness, looking into the eyepiece reveals frequent streaks and flashes of green light that look like shooting stars. It’s definitely a “wow” experience, especially when you consider that these same particles are passing through your body without even slowing down – all day, every day for your entire life.

Polish born Marie Curie was a “wow” kind of scientist. This biographical Amazon original does an adequate job of telling her life story, and rather heavy-handedly makes the case for her triumph within and beyond a male dominated field during Victorian era Paris. In fact, she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the first person of either gender to win one twice. With her partner and husband Pierre she discovered Polonium and Radium and went on to discover X-rays that were used in the field to save the lives of soldiers in World War I.

The movie compartmentalizes her science, love life and feminism in a less than fluid script. Those times, like viewing old movies from the 1950s, induce cringe-worthy reactions to the behaviors and attitudes of her contemporaries. She was far ahead of her time, a brilliant, inexhaustible worker and mother to Irene, another Nobel Prize winning female in Chemistry for the discovery of artificial radiation. Sadly, Marie died of aplastic anemia, likely due to her long exposure to radiation.

As the wonder of radium became known to the scientific community it was popularized as a magical substance and commercialized in a bizarre variety of products ranging from toothpaste to cigarettes. On the face of watches and clocks “you could even say it glowed.” A brief series of actual product photos was incorporated like a Powerpoint slide show in a clumsy sequence at this point in the film. It felt like the director was a super fan of Curie, or maybe just not that great at directing. And indeed Director Marjane Satrapi has only five directorial credits in twelve years.

Rosamund Pike plays Marie Curie. She is best known for her Academy Award nominated title role in 2014’s Gone Girl. She captures the intensity and motivating self-righteous indignation that propelled Madame Curie beyond the accomplishments of her male counterparts. A scene in which she dresses down The French Academy of Sciences with the words, “Your understanding of this was wrong” is likely revisionist scriptwriting at a time when Curie was snubbed by the Academy for a seat that went to Edouard Branly for his work on wireless telegraphy.

If you have Amazon Prime you can do a lot worse than spend a couple of hours learning about an interesting historical figure. If you tended to daydream in science class, this is your second chance to learn about a pioneer of science. And since it’s a movie you don’t even have to read a book.

Radioactive (2019) runs 1 hour, 49 minutes and is rated PG-13.

Dark Waters


Mark Ruffalo plays real life corporate attorney Rob Bilott in this true story about Dupont Chemicals Company’s atrocious poisoning of the farming community of Parkersburg, West Virginia over a period of decades. Through a series of unlikely connections, Bilott exposed and brought to account the largest chemical company of its day.

Ruffalo also steps into the Producer role for this film, with co-star Anne Hathaway as Bilott’s wife Sarah. Tim Robbins plays Bilott’s reluctantly supportive boss Tom Terp, who becomes crucial to the eventual success of Bilott’s extensive research.

The use of several actual characters from the community that were poisoned by Dupont’s blockbuster product called Teflon, lends the film additional credibility. One baby, born disfigured from the effects of “C-8” in the drinking water and on the production line where a number of pregnant women worked, appears as an adult late in the film.

This is not a wild ride or even that exciting, but throughout the film you hope for a happy ending for Bilott, whose marriage suffers, and for the residents of the town who come to blame Bilott for suing their largest employer. There is harassment of several key individuals and tension among the partners at the law firm where Bilott works.

The data mining done to ensure “medical monitoring” is guaranteed in the lawsuit sets a precedent for discovery, analyzed for over seven years and resulting in six key linkages to disease states with over 3500 victims. The final credits reveal that the chemical in question is now present in 99 per cent of Americans at some level, and it never leaves the body – a “forever” chemical.

Interesting stuff, frustrating to watch when power, money and greed align to get in the way of humanity and Bilott is left feeling that no one, companies, governments or agencies support the people. Only the people do.

Ruffalo looks bloated and soft spoken for this part, which we have to assume is appropriate. The story is well told, difficult at times due to the extensive covering up of information and what Bilott has to endure to sift through a deliberate burial in records reluctantly provided by the Dupont attorneys.

We watched this on Amazon Prime for $5.99. It’s another movie that we saw previewed before the pandemic and had planned to see in the theater. Well worth watching at home.

 

Dark Waters (2019) runs 2 hours, 6 minutes and is rated PG-13

Should I see this movie?  

The King of Staten Island

Perhaps I can save you twenty dollars. This is my second review of a Pete Davidson film in a month. And I have a feeling that when I think back I’ll get the two confused. This one is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Davidson has already been typecast as a twenty-something stoner who lacks desire and direction. His current movie could be a sequel to his role in Big Time Adolescence, though that film ended lacking a sense of closure when it came to his main character. You mean he stays that way?

Yet I can’t help admiring his wit and real life achievements. How does an emotionally damaged, sickly looking twenty year old become a regular on Saturday Night Live? He has an endearing quality and an openness about his problems that makes you worry about him. Perhaps Ariana Grande thought she could fix him when they were briefly a couple.

Those qualities factor heavily into the character that has emerged in his two films to date. The latest, produced by Judd Apatow, who gave us Bridesmaids, Knocked Up, The Forty Year Old Virgin, Superbad and The Big Sick brought a level of raunchiness to modern movies that now seems normal.

Davidson plays Scott, an aspiring tattoo artist whose own body could be a sample book for tats. His fireman father died seventeen years earlier. It becomes clear that he draws his identity from that loss and has never fully grieved or moved on. Little sister is headed off to college, the pride of her family, and mother Marisa Tomei is left grieving and stuck in a home that is part shrine to the late husband and shelter for her floundering twenty-four year old son. When Mom begins dating again, the new family mobile is sent jangling and Scott is sent packing.

Scott’s delayed coming of age takes up the remainder of this overly long movie. Staten Island features prominently, both in the movie’s title and in conversation among the film’s desperate Millennials. But Scott is lost, chronologically and geographically, and in that respect the title is a misnomer.

There are some good laughs, Davidson style, throughout the film. There are also lots of uncomfortable moments thanks to Scott’s excessive truthfulness. But the film ends suddenly, as if to say, ok everything is better now, aaaannnd cut!

 

The King of Staten Island (2020) runs 2 hours, 16 minutes and is rated R.

Should I see this movie?  

My Spy

Currently streaming free for Amazon Prime members, My Spy seems like a Disney movie for adults. Dave Bautista, a professional wrestler who has made a smooth transition into the world of movies, much like Dewayne "The Rock" Johnson, appears here as JJ, a CIA operative who struggles to keep things under control. On a recent assignment he blows his cover and proceeds to kill everyone the agency was hoping to track more subtly and strategically. The killing is all accomplished bloodlessly and in pseudo comic book fashion.

As a last chance he is assigned to a surveillance project along with computer analyst partner Bobbi (“you’re not my partner”) played by Kristen Schaal. We know Schaal as a commentator on The Daily Show and as Carol, alongside Will Forte on Fox’s The Last Man on Earth. Here she provides lots of comic relief and is clearly the more capable of the two member team.

Bautista is no stranger to humor, also like Dewayne Johnson. In 2019’s hilarious Stuber he plays Vic Manning, another tough guy paired with the hapless Kumail Nanjiani. That film is reviewed here. And although Bautista is taking a turn as Producer on My Spy, his role as Drax in Guardian’s of the Galaxy, a Disney property, reinforces the notion that this film feels a bit Disney-ish.

The funny tough guy with a heart has worked as far back as 1988, when Arnold Schwarzenegger teamed with Danny DeVito in Twins. I guess people want to believe that there’s warmth and humanity under all those bulging muscles. Whatever the reason, it works, and continues to do so in My Spy.

JJ is very quickly paired with nine-year old Sophie (Chloe Coleman), the manipulative daughter of the woman the team is surveilling. From there the film becomes a heartwarming romp through the streets of Chicago, culminating at a non-existent airport in Naperville. How do we know this? The runway at the fictional airport ends at the edge of a cliff. It provides some exciting action reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a fact mentioned within the film just as you’re thinking the scene is familiar.

For free and fun entertainment that doesn’t take up a lot of your time, My Spy does the job. Lower your expectations just a bit and allow yourself to enjoy a few good laughs. Overlook some of the acting and much of the script. It still works.

 

My Spy (2020) runs 1 hour, 39 minutes and is rated PG-13.


Big Time Adolescence

We’re running out of movies that aren’t horrifying or disturbing, so we searched for lighter fare. Pete Davidson is funny, but we should have known that his own dark side would feature prominently in Big Time Adolescence. After viewing this occasionally humorous but deeper coming of age story about twenty-three year old Zeke and his high school buddy Mo we found ourselves wondering if there was more to this film than a casual viewing reveals.

You have to go back beyond Superbad to find a possible genre match for this movie. It is certainly a twenty-first century “smart kid/dumb parent” movie, the origins of which go back to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In fact, if a remake of that classic is ever made, 17 year old Griffin Gluck who plays Mo looks quite similar to Allan Ruck, Ferris’s friend Cameron back in 1986.

Zeke is a heavily tattooed, drug-using post-high school slacker who at age seventeen becomes friends with his girlfriend Kate’s adoring nine-year old brother. That’s sort of creepy but is generally overlooked. Zeke cannot keep a job, but exudes confidence and has tons of advice, all wrong, which he gives our freely. As a result, no boy gets the girl in this movie, it is continually proven that girls are smarter than boys and it becomes clear that Zeke is only a legend in his own mind. At one point the easily impressed Mo tells a classmate that Zeke invented the party they were attending. She wisely responds, “You mean he invented hanging out in basements?”

Writer Jason Orley freely admits that Big Time Adolescence is his life story. Teaming up with Executive Producer Pete Davidson brought street smarts to a character written as a Midwestern Jewish kid in tight jeans. The concept of “hotboxing” – getting stoned in a car filled with smoke with the windows rolled up, was a Davidson contribution. 

Zeke and Mo mirror each other, past and future selves the sum of which equal less than a whole. If this were simply a buddy film, the two characters would have complemented each other, each playing to the other’s strength. At the end of the day, Zeke has the kind of life that’s fun to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there. He lives in the house he inherited from his grandmother after his parents died and where he is failing to become an adult. He understands the high expectations and adult consequences society places on him but waves them off and uses Mo as a younger extension of himself.

Hip Hop fans will recognize Machine Gun Kelly (Colson Baker) as Zeke’s friend Nick, whose real life energy is tapped for the drug fueled circle of pals Mo has come to admire and hang out with. Here we have Davidson at age 26 and Kelly at age 30 playing much younger parts. This is probably symptomatic of their own delayed maturation, though both are no doubt quite rich. Peter Pan anyone?

Zekes’s claims are transparently false to Mo’s parents. As his Dad says, “You know how I know Zeke didn’t make a podcast? Because he didn’t.” Mo begins to see Zeke as the on ramp to his own road to ruin. On a break from his fast food job, Zeke claims to have written a movie script. Well, at least he wrote it in his mind because, “Writing it down is the easy part.”

As the film begins to take a turn into the plot for Risky Business, Mo is called out of class by the school principal and a police officer. They know he’s been selling drugs and want to know where he got them. He refuses to rat out Zeke, covering for him and accepting a stint of community service. The film leaves us wondering if Mo has outgrown Zeke, realizing it’s time to move on. 

Big Time Adolescence (2019) runs 1 hour 31 minutes and is rated R.

Should I see this movie?  

 

Vivarium

If ever there was a metaphor for the hopeless, isolated and trapped experience of pandemic confinement, Vivarium might be custom made. A vivarium is an enclosure prepared for keeping animals under semi-natural conditions for observation or as pets. But there’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye.
In brief, Vivarium is the story of Gemma and Tom, played by Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg, who are exploring options for the purchase of a home. The showroom of a planned development called "Yonder" is their first and only stop. Following a brief and bizarre description of this “perfect” community, a robot-like salesman drives along with them to the model home at number nine.
The neighborhood is comprised of row upon row of identical homes, not unlike some gated communities here in Florida, or other more upscale versions we saw on the North Shore near Chicago. But these homes are utterly identical, all the same sickly shade of green inside and out, situated beneath subdued, somewhat artificial sunlight and motionless little clouds that look like something Bob Ross painted in the sky.
On the chance that you’re in the mood to see the most bizarre movie since 1982’s Liquid Sky, or 1979’s Phantasm, I won’t reveal the puzzle Gemma and Tom are forced to solve. Both of those older movies have cult followings, and this film might develop one as well. Those familiar with the RiverWorld science fiction series of stories might find this story intriguing. In that classic by Philip Jose Farmer set on a planet of endless rivers, people are reconstructed, naked and alone, mysteriously provided with food but with no clue where they are or for what purpose.
Written and Produced by Ireland’s Lorcan Finnegan, six production companies have their hands in this film. It is an international co-production of Belgium, Denmark and Ireland. Themes of materialism, happiness and purpose are explored by the writers in a full feature expression of their 2011 short called Foxes. Jesse Eisenberg plays his usual intense and serious persona.
One hint, pay close attention to an early scene in which a cuckoo takes over the nest of another bird. There are parallels. And you may find yourselves talking about this movie long after it ends.

Vivarium (2019) runs 1 hour, 37 minutes and is rated R.



The Lovebirds

 Meet Jibran and Lailani, smitten with each other and flashing that “I want to kiss you” face at every turn. Now fast-forward five years. The magic is gone, they are at each others’ throats, and just moments after they realize they have inadvertently broken up, the movie begins in earnest. A random event embroils them in a one-night attempt to clear their names of a crime they did not commit.


This brief synopsis serves as a metaphor for my experience viewing this film, having so looked forward to it based on a very funny trailer. And then the movie let me down somewhat. The best laugh lines and sight gags were compiled in the preview. A couple of our favorites were dropped from the final cut and were not replaced by other lines. We found ourselves saying, “What about when he says…?”
So, that’s disappointing, but the movie is still a fun ride mostly because of the onscreen chemistry between Kumail Nanjiani as Jibran and Issa Rae as Lailani. They are a comic odd couple, a wonderfully diverse pairing by two actors both of whom currently have boiling hot careers. Rae is fresh off of The Photograph earlier this year, and Nanjiani is capitalizing on his trademark subtle Pakistani accent with the hilariously understated teddy bear delivery we loved in Stuber and The Big Sick. Rae served as Executive Producer of this film.
If looking for a reason for this film’s shortfall it might be best to blame the writing. Or perhaps the role shifting of actors, writers and producers resulted in deficits. It certainly wasn’t the fault of the two stars that mostly carried the film. The idea is sort of a rehash of 1985’s After Hours but lacks the Directorial prowess of Martin Scorsese. Perhaps Nanjiani should have been tapped for the writing assist he has provided in previous projects.
If you haven’t seen the trailer, see the film. If you have, adjust your expectations accordingly.
The Lovebirds (2020) runs 1 hour, 28 minutes and is rated R.
Should I see this movie?  

The Half of It

We have a winner! Now if people would just start watching and recommending this Netflix gem we found hidden in a grid of choices clearly being influenced by factors beyond viewer control. It falls within the RomCom genre, a coming of age film with a rating of PG-13 that is watchable for families locked in with young teens.
Ellie Chu is a brilliant high school senior who rides her bike, seemingly always uphill and taunted by bullies, through fictional Squahamish, Washington, the kind of town that either traps you for life or provides the catalyst for escape. Actually filmed in upstate New York, Ellie is played by Leah Lewis, a multi-talented, adopted Chinese-American from Orlando, who has appeared in Disney films, on The Voice and even sang a solo at her own high school graduation. Her singing is put to use in a Napoleon Dynamite moment that serves as a bridge to her eventual acceptance at school. 
She is almost boyish, plain and hiding behind glasses and pulled back hair in The Half of It, but there’s power and talent lurking just beneath her nerdy surface. Ellie is making money by writing essays for half of a philosophy class to help support her financially struggling father. She and the teacher have an understanding; the teacher is grateful for the assistance with an otherwise languishing group of students. Dad emigrated with a PhD in Engineering only to literally work switching train traffic in Squahamish. He and teacher both want Ellie to launch toward Iowa at Grinnell in the fall.
Ellie’s marketable talent as a writer takes an unexpected turn when Paul Munsky, doltish but kindly local jock and son of a large family with a meat business, hires her to write a love letter to his crush. That crush is Aster Flores, played by Alexxis Lemire, who sings like an angel and floats through her Squahamish existence with a Zen-like acceptance of her lot in life. She is the object of affection by Paul and also by Trig Carson, a self-absorbed pseudo celebrity among school seniors who also seems to have been programmed by expectations within the community. Ultimately, Ellie’s management of Paul’s relationship with Aster through letters and texts results in a crush of her own and closeted lesbian feelings that may not be entirely unrequited. What would we do in modern movies without cell phones? Art imitates life.
The Half of It is written and directed by Alice Wu, a computer science major with degrees from MIT and Stanford. Wow, talk about a career change! This is her second film. Online references to the story of Cyrano de Bergerac find parallels between self-doubting Ellie in the roll of Cyrano and Aster as the Roxanne equivalent. It is unknown if this was intentional or not, but it’s a great modern adaptation either way. The door opens for a sequel when Aster tells Ellie, “See you in a couple years.” And we are left wondering about Aster. What’s her story going forward?
If you enjoy being thoroughly engaged by a sleeper of a film with a cast devoid of overpaid stars, violence, nudity and profanity, this one just might bring a tear to your eye and a smile to your face.

The Half of It  (2020) runs 1 hour, 44 minutes and is rated PG-13.
Should I see this movie?  

High Life

I also like good Science Fiction, but this strange 2018 Amazon Prime offering just gave me an excuse to make multiple trips to the kitchen for snacks.
Somewhere in the not too distant future, criminals are being sent on voyages of rehabilitation from a ravaged planet to a black hole approximately eight light years from Earth. Well, surprise, it’s a one-way ticket to the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Everyone knows you can’t fly into a black hole and hope to come out intact. The premise for recruiting crews is the concept of circling the black hole to investigate the possibility of harnessing its energy to augment Earth’s own diminished resources.
This French produced film stars Robert Pattinson as the father of an infant daughter, apparently alone on a large vessel that recycles waste, grows plants and can approach light speed. But what happened to the crew? Hold on, you’ll find out. It feels at first very much like 1972’s Silent Running with Bruce Dern. But here we don’t have cute little repair-bots named Huey, Louis and Dewey. Instead, the criminal crew is being sexually manipulated by an erotically hypercharged female doctor who spends a lot of time in a machine reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Orgasmatron in 1973’s movie Sleeper.
Yeah, it’s a weird ride just short of two hours and rated R.

Bone Tomahawk

I love a good Western. This 2015 film popped up in our Netflix assortment recently and we gave it a chance. We’re now in treatment for PTSD.
The movie starts strong. Great sets and acting, some brutality early on, but nothing we couldn’t handle. The dialogue was punchy and had that formal-English dialect that wouldn’t be entirely out of the realm of possibility given the recent emigration during this period of most pioneers from the East Coast and beyond. Dark humor permeated early scenes, and then it just got deeply dark. Kurt Russell plays a no nonsense sheriff in ironically named Bright Hope near the border of Texas and New Mexico. He is known for his trademark shot-to-the-leg when confronting bad guys, resulting once again in the summoning of cattle rancher Arthur’s wife Samantha, who seems to have some medical expertise, or at least a bag of tools.
Samantha and two others are kidnapped by a rogue group of Native American cannibal Troglodytes early in the film. The subsequent rescue mission culminates with the most graphic, disturbing and horrific portrayal of Indian atrocities I’ve ever seen in a move.
At 2 hours, 12 minutes this unrated Western Horror (sparsely populated) genre entre will give you nightmares and should not be watched unless you can handle Saw or The Human Centipede.

Waves

If you liked 1979’s The Great Santini this film might be one you enjoy. It seems that Sterling K. Brown is in danger of being typecast as intense father figures, and for this role he is perfect. But unlike his character in This Is Us, the loving father of the second generation Pearson clan whose type A angst turns mostly inward, the Waves character Ronald (no last name) is laser-focused on improving teen son Tyler. His pep talks are abusive, manipulative guilt trips steeped in racial insecurity and the need to “do ten times more” to gain equal footing with privileged whites.
Set somewhere in southeast Florida, near the mega-wealthy South Beach excesses of glitz, drugs and Art Deco Hip Hop, colors and music form an immersive backdrop for what is essentially a teen coming of age movie. Once again, Smartphones are a key plot device, if not a character, that are an end-run around the need to convey much information that would traditionally need to be spoken or acted out. As writers know, show-don’t tell. Performances are convincing, the script is gutsy, real and the in-your-face cinematography plays well on a home TV display. In a time of streaming and confinement, this is important though accidental. Writer/Director Trey Edward Shults did not see Covid coming.
So, as the Black Santini, Brown trains with his son, challenges him to an arm wrestling contest over breakfast in a diner and trash-talks constantly, belittling and apparently thinking he’s motivating his wrestler son into being the man Dad has become. A small but effective wrestling sub-plot has appeal to sports enthusiasts, but the motivation leads to a career-ending shoulder injury, drug abuse, loss of scholarship and a pregnant girlfriend Alexis, played by Alexa Demie. Demie is a multi-talented singer and actress currently involved in HBO’s Euphoria. All of this comes down very quickly, as does the subsequent series of scenes in which Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) unravels minute-by-minute and text-by-text. The results are disastrous and tragic, leaving more than one family shattered.
Taylor Russell plays Tyler’s younger sister Emily. She’s filling in her spare time while staring as Judy Robinson in the reboot of Lost In Space, which is surprisingly good. During the second half of the film, which could benefit from an emotional intermission, she becomes the focal point of the crumbling family. She is the shoulder upon which Dad, her boyfriend and Tyler have learned to lean, the Caretaker who appears poised for her own journey of potential self-destruction. She holds herself responsible at a pivotal moment in the film’s plot for something she was unable to prevent. Like most survivor guilt, she rewinds a mental tape and simply asks, “Why didn’t I act?” And in a far too simple cathartic outpouring side-by-side with her suddenly sensitive and emotive father, the director takes the easy off-ramp to an act three that, if not happily ever after, at least heads the family in a better direction.
Watching Waves sits you, if not on the edge of your seat, at least holding onto your arm rests waiting for something bad to happen. At one point our little group of viewers wondered, “What kind of teen party is that?” when the location shifted to an unsupervised multi-level mansion up-lit with glowing, colored lights, fountains and filled to overflowing with drugs and alcohol. But it served as a stage for flowing blood on tile and the arrival of red and blue stroboscopic emergency vehicle lights, of course set to music.
This movie is somewhat depressing from beginning to end. As a cautionary tale, it dismantles a wealthy family striving to extend their hard-won privilege into the next generation. And there, but for an unforeseen cascade of events beyond our control, like a pandemic, go we all.

Waves (2019) runs 2 hours 15 minutes and is rated R.

No Time to Die

We saw the long-awaited James Bond film recently. And not surprisingly, I began this review with the wrong title, not that it matters. The f...