Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater

The Girl in the Spider's Web (R)

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Directed by: Fede Alvarez
Starring: Claire Foy
November 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) is back in The Girl in the Spider’s Web, based on the novel by David Lagercrantz and the characters created by the late Stieg Larsson.  An extension of the American franchise (predated by a Swedish trilogy based on Larsson’s Millennium series) that began with David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), Spider is directed by Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe) and features a largely foreign cast, which lends the film added authenticity. The story begins with computer hacker Salander accepting a job to steal top secret information. Soon after completing the task, Salander becomes the target of several international agencies including: the Swedish police, Russian agents, the NSA and a mysterious figure from her past. What has drawn the interest of such disparate entities?  A computer program called Firefall, which can access the codes of every nuclear arsenal on the planet.  And it’s up to Salander to make sure the program doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. The stolen files become the movie’s MacGuffin—the various parties are willing to go to any length to secure it, which presupposes an action-oriented plot. And indeed, the movie is packed with full throttle, well-choreographed action sequences that feel like they were lifted right out of a Bourne or Bond film.  The motorcycle chase, culminating with Salander hurtling across an icy lake, is one of the most spectacular sequences in the movie.  The bathroom brawl, vertical-lift bridge shoot-out and gas mask melee are also finely executed fight scenes. Foy (TVs The Crown) is absolutely spellbinding as misanthropic photo journalist Salander.  Whereas Rooney Mara (from Dragon) tried to act anti-social and mad at the world, Foy just is.  Though Foy is effective throughout, she’s downright frightening in her initial sequence where she goes vengeful vigilante on a woman beater—the makeup around her eyes gives her an added layer of feral intensity and makes her look like the newest member of the Suicide Squad. Salander’s boss and confidant, Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), has a far less significant role in this movie and, disappointingly, doesn’t really factor into the story in any meaningful way. And, with apologies to Gudnason, he’s no Daniel Craig. The gorgeous locations, many of which were filmed in and around Stockholm, Sweden, add a great deal to the film and are truly mesmerizing and transporting.  The cityscape establishing shots, particularly the ones shot at dawn, dusk or night, are breathtaking.  Alvarez and his location scouts found some spectacular places to film, most notably an abandoned observatory.  Such a locale is typically used as the villain’s lair, not the hero’s hideout, so kudos to Alvarez for bucking convention. There’s far more backstory for Salander in this film than in Dragon. At the beginning of the movie, we witness a deeply disturbing flashback scene where young Salander leaves her sister alone with their father. The scene gives us the distinct impression that the girls grew up in an incestuous environment. Due to Salander’s traumatic childhood, she distrusts most people, men in particular. Since one of the movie’s main themes is the sexual exploitation of women, Salander is held up as a type of avenging angel (or demon) when she ties up and tortures the man who batters a defenseless woman. On a psychological level, taking revenge on the man is a form of catharsis for Salander; tormenting the perpetrator is like getting back at her father. The film seems to suggest that such heinous deeds are justified and that “an eye for an eye” is a perfectly acceptable method of punishment under the circumstances. It’s ironic that her vicious attack makes Salander just as bad as the abusive man. But such irony is lost on a movie bent on glorifying violence and applauding vigilantism. Sad. Whereas Dragon was a well-constructed mystery; Spider is a high-octane spy film.  Though lacking in star power, the story by Alvarez, Jay Basu and Steven Knight is a taut thriller that keeps the audience engaged all the way up to its cliffhanger ending. So, let the debate begin. Is Spider as good as Dragon?  Regardless, if you can get past the movie’s objectionable content, this is one yarn you’ll be glad you got tangled up in.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Overlord (R)

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Directed by: Julius Avery
Starring: Jovan Adepo
November 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


They say honesty is the best policy. In that case, I need to be honest from the start…this isn’t my kind of movie. But if I’m being totally honest, I feel like I’ve been the victim of a bait and switch. When I signed up to review this movie, I thought Overlord, the J.J. Abrams produced WWII tale, was going to be a straightforward action movie. Then I saw the trailer and thought, “What in the world have I gotten myself into?” The movie’s premise is straightforward…a group of American soldiers parachute into France on the eve of D-Day. Their objective is simple; sneak into a French village under the cover of darkness and take out the radio tower that sits atop a church building. However, when the American soldiers infiltrate the church, they discover many living and dead people who’ve been mutated by evil alchemy in a makeshift dungeon. To accomplish their mission, the American troops must engage in a series of gun battles with Nazis while evading the fast-moving zombies that lurk in the claustrophobic corridors of the church. From that brief description of the story, you’ve guessed right that Overlord is a mash-up of Saving Private Ryan and I Am Legend. Although the story has some semblance of a plot, the novelty of its premise wears thin around the movie’s midpoint. Writers Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith weave their paltry plot among the tapestry of overblown action sequences and zombie brawls. Overlord is directed by Julius Avery, a virtual unknown who has directed only one other feature-length film. The cast is populated with newcomers, bit players, and journeyman character actors with nary a star among the bunch. Other than the intrigue of its story, Abrams’ name is the movie’s only real draw. The movie’s theme is as obvious as its premise: the dangers of playing God. Though taken to unrealistic extremes, you can totally see how Hitler would sanction such a diabolical plan to create super-soldiers. The “1,000 Years of the Reich” program is an interesting concept, but the zombie subplot is flagrant revisionist history and is only in the story to provide thrills and chills for the audience. Overlord has an excessive amount of violence, swearing and disturbing images. Aside from its myriad shoot-outs between Nazis and American forces, the movie also contains a graphic torture scene and two attempted rapes. We catch glimpses of disfigured and mutated humans inside the cells in the church’s basement. The surgery room contains mutilated cadavers and several experiments gone wrong, like a talking woman who has only a head and spinal column (which is much more macabre than the initial image of the bodiless Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact). The mutation process, when human subjects are turned into zombies, is quite hideous. Another horrific scene is when corpses (failed experiments) are carted out of the church, dumped into a ditch and incinerated with a flamethrower. Those with a weak stomach have been forewarned. One area of the movie that’s commendable is its production. From the opening CG shot of the Allied fleet to the pyrotechnics and FX, to the costumes and creature makeup, Overlord is a well-crafted movie. It’s to Avery’s credit that he only sparingly resorts to standard horror movie gimmicks, like characters suddenly appearing in front of the camera to startle the audience. In the final analysis, Overlord is a war/horror hybrid that’s unabashedly graphic. From start to finish, the movie is gratuitous for the sake of being gratuitous. Though Overlord is a unique film, it certainly isn’t a great one.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4

Indivisible (PG-13)

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Directed by: David G. Evans
Starring: Justin Bruening
October 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Based on the true story of how Army Chaplain Darren Turner (Justin Bruening) suffered from PTSD after returning home from Iraq in 2008, Indivisible is a well acted and produced film about faith and family. A third of the film takes place in Iraq (filmed in Santa Clarita, CA—M*A*S*H country) and another third in Memphis, Tennessee. During these scenes, the story effectively shifts its focus between the battlefront and the home front. Not only does the parallel action keep the movie rolling along, it also serves as the structure and core of the film. The final third of the movie focuses on the events before and after Darren’s tour of duty. Instead of fanfare and bliss, Darren returns home to a marriage on the brink. Darren’s wife, Heather (Sarah Drew), is deeply distressed by his withdrawal from her and the kids. Darren and Heather are a proxy for many other couples who’ve struggled to readjust to “normal” family life after a spouse returns home from active duty. The most poignant scene in the movie is when Darren tells Heather she has no idea how horrible it was in Iraq and Heather tells Darren he has no idea how difficult it was to raise kids all by herself while consoling many other soldier’s wives. The scene contains superb acting and is infused with raw emotion. It’s a shame the rest of the movie wasn’t as riveting or dramatic. Despite the finest allocation of its limited budget, Indivisible comes off as an inspirational movie of the week rather than a major theatrical release. Though the movie flirts with meaning, many scenes are oversimplified, predictable and borderline schmaltzy, which is a shame since the serious nature of the story demanded more from it. Still, it’s clear that everyone involved in the production was dedicated to the story and its message. Bruening and Drew, who both appeared on TV’s Grey’s Anatomy, have excellent screen chemistry and do a fine job portraying their characters. The movie boasts some fine guest performers as well, including Michael O’Neill as Chaplain Rogers and Eric Close as Lieutenant Colonel Jacobsen. In the end, Indivisible is too conservative for its own good—director David G. Evans could’ve portrayed the effects of PTSD in a more compelling and serious manner while retaining the movie’s family friendly, faith affirming themes and values. Unfortunately, what we’re left with is heartfelt but Hallmarky.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4

First Man (PG-13)

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Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling
October 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


I must confess…space was my first love. Practically before I knew the alphabet, I knew the names of the nine planets (I grew up before Pluto was downgraded to a dwarf planet). I’m also reasonably certain that I knew the names Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins before I knew my multiplication tables; an assumption made even more likely by the fact that I’m terrible at math. To say it’s a thrill to see a movie that chronicles the historic first mission to the moon is a galactic understatement. What a critical period in our nation’s history. What a sacrifice (ultimate, in some cases) made by the army of scientists, engineers, mechanics, support personnel and, of course, intrepid astronauts; all of whom made the Apollo 11 mission possible and successful. Based on the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen, First Man begins in 1961 when Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), a test pilot in California, gets a taste of space when he flies his X-15 jet high into Earth’s atmosphere. When the plane malfunctions, Armstrong relies on his mechanical know-how, piloting acumen and nerves of steel to help him return safely to terra firma. Turns out this brush with death was just a dress rehearsal. When an initially successful Gemini 8 mission takes a dangerous turn, also instigated by a mechanical failure, Armstrong’s skills are put to the test as he attempts to salvage the mission and save his crew. Of course, anyone familiar with the Apollo 11 mission knows it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing and that, once again, Armstrong’s mettle was challenged. Besides being a natural-born pilot, one of the reasons Armstrong was able to survive so many close calls with death was his preparedness. Even when he was at home, Armstrong was constantly working out solutions to potential problems on the dining room table. One of the best lines in the film is when Armstrong tells Deke Slayton (the ever dependable Kyle Chandler) “We need to fail down here so that we won’t fail up there.” That kind of dogged determination to get things right helped to preserve Armstrong’s life and the lives of those under his command. The gritty, metal-creaking realism during the heart-stopping flight scenes is enough to induce a panic attack. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren brilliantly builds tension by keeping his shots tight on the performers, which creates an overwhelming sensation of claustrophobia. Adding visceral punch to the cockpit scenes are the many POV shots of the characters looking out the small windows at lunar landscapes or, most nauseatingly, the Earth zipping past at regular intervals as the ship spins out of control. Of course, if First Man was simply a period picture that recounted the failures and successes of the space program during the 60s, it would get pretty boring pretty fast. Wisely, writer Josh Singer grounded the story with several significant events that impact the character’s personal lives early in the film. At its core, First Man is an examination of the effects of trauma. Armstrong loses a family member and several close friends. He uses that anger and grief to fuel his resolve to make it to the moon. But before he can set foot on that distant rock, Armstrong must overcome adversity, tragedy and the laws of gravity and probability. Gosling, who previously worked with director Damien Chazelle on La La Land (2016), delivers a beautifully understated performance as a grief-stricken man who summons the courage to rise above the many tragedies he’s been forced to endure. First Man is a nuanced character study of a man trapped between two worlds…the pain of the past propels him toward the promise of a brighter future. As with similarly themed films set during this era, such as The Right Stuff (1983) and Apollo 13, (1995), First Man reveals the plight of the astronaut wives who anxiously waited at home for days on end as their husbands traversed the dark expanse of space. As Armstrong’s wife, Janet Shearon, Claire Foy effectively embodies the debilitating effects of such constant worry. In addition to the individual price that was paid during the missions into space, there was also a societal toll. While the Space Race raged on, many people questioned the exorbitant appropriations for the space program. One of the movie’s more poignant passages is a brief montage of various political protests from the 60s, which is accompanied by the Gil Scott-Heron song, “Whitey on the Moon.” This exposes the adverse consequences of the space program—America’s quest to beat Russia to the moon brought about the suffering of many people. First Man is a staggering cinematic achievement, both in terms of its immersive, pulse-pounding space sequences and in its accurate depiction of the often tragic early days of the space program. The film boasts tremendous production values, deft direction and stellar performances from Gosling, Foy and the impressive array of journeyman actors. The evocative score by Justin Hurwitz features a number of unusual instruments, including the theremin, which was used to great effect in many 50s sci-fi movies. Delicate harp tones are heard during several space scenes; the ethereal arrangement produces an appropriately otherworldly score which is both inspiring and haunting. Like many of the aircraft/spacecraft it features, First Man has some serious flaws. At 2 hours and 21 minutes, the film is 10-15 minutes too long. Also, the stark contrast between the deliberate scenes on Earth and the frenetic sequences in space make this an exasperatingly uneven movie. The moon walk sequence is a visual marvel, yet is sadly lacking in magic. Where’s the elation of hoping along the lunar landscape (we only catch a brief glimpse of this)? Where’s the national pride of planting the American flag on the moon? The entire sequence is shot in a strangely detached manner. Lightheaded euphoria is eschewed in favor of art film moodiness. This is a tremendous disservice to spectators, who patiently waited the entire movie for an exhilarating, triumphant climax. The moon landing was one of the defining moments in human history and deserved far more grandeur and excitement than what Chazelle delivers. Another disappointing choice by Chazelle is the muted, ho-hum ending. Rather than fanfare and ticker tape, the director closes out the film with an awkwardly unemotional reunion between Armstrong and his wife. Regardless of its many missteps, First Man is a deeply-affecting biopic that somehow manages to achieve maximum intensity despite its slow pacing. The film is relentlessly jarring, so if you suffer from motion sickness you might want to take a Dramamine before entering the theater. First Man is one bumpy ride.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4

Operation Finale (PG-13)

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Directed by: Chris Weitz
Starring: Oscar Isaac
August 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Throughout film history, there have been several WW2 dramas with “Operation” in the title, including: Operation Crossbow (1965), Operation Daybreak (1975) and Operation Pacific (1951). Now there’s Operation Finale, a historical biopic from director Chris Weitz and actors Ben Kingsley and Oscar Isaac. The movie has an intriguing premise… Adolf Eichmann (Kingsley), one of the chief architects of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” disappeared after the war. Since Eichmann evaded capture, he was never brought to justice during the Nuremberg trials. Fast-forward to 1960. Mossad agent Peter Malkin (Isaac) and his team of secret agents track down Eichmann, who’s been living under an alias in Buenos Aires. After a series of narrow escapes, Eichmann is captured and delivered to Israel, where he finally stands trial for his crimes against humanity. If that synopsis makes the movie seem straightforward, predictable and inevitable, it is. Here’s a movie that could’ve been a first-rate period piece with a poignant message, but instead squandered its potential on a ponderous plot. Surprisingly, Weitz is responsible for much of the movie’s underachievement. I say “surprisingly” because Weitz has had a good deal of success contributing (as director, writer or both) to adventure driven fantasy/sci-fi movies in the past, like: The Golden Compass (2007), The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). Here, Weitz’ direction is consistently arthritic, and his stiffness of form isn’t aided by rookie scribe Matthew Orton’s sluggish script. Orton’s story is adversely uneven: the first half is terminally slow while the second half is a taut thriller with a satisfying, if haunting, resolution. The movie is just over two hours in length and a good 15 to 20 minutes could’ve been excised with negligible impact on the story. If the movie has a saving grace, it’s the superb performances of the two lead actors. The scenes with just Isaac and Kingsley are the meat of the movie; the screen chemistry between the two actors is palpable and undeniable. The mental chess match that ensues between their characters is utterly enthralling, and it’s to Isaac’s credit that he’s able to hold his own against grand master Kingsley. Isaac does a fine job of keeping his character’s emotions in check…he delivers a beautifully understated performance and is believable throughout. Kingsley, as would be expected, is the movie. His portrayal of the nefarious mastermind of the Holocaust is effectively restrained and finely measured—our utter loathing of the character gradually turns to sympathy when we learn more about the man from his back stories. It’s plain to see that Kingsley elevated the production with his very presence. Without him, the movie would’ve been a glorified indie film with a gravitas vacuum. Kingsley, no stranger to WW2 films, acted in Schindler’s List (1993) and Walking with the Enemy (2013). There’s an appreciable disparity in ages between character and actor: at the time of his capture, Eichmann was 54; at the time of filming, Kingsley was 74. The early stages of the film are inundated with a number of distasteful racist comments. One anti-Semite makes the reprehensible remark that Jews seem to “pop up everywhere, like mushrooms after the rain.” Another rabble-rouser refers to Jews as the “rot in society.” Though upsetting, these remarks are an important reminder of the ugliness of racism and how it pervaded the 60s and, sadly, still persists in the world today. At the heart of the film is the theme of loss. On an individual level, Malkin and Eichmann have each lost something—the former, his sister; the latter, his humanity. Widening the lens, the film’s mass scale loss was the deaths of 6 million European Jews during the Holocaust. One of the compelling aspects the film foregrounds is the fine line between justice and revenge. In a couple scenes, Malkin admits that putting a bullet in Eichmann’s head would be far easier than smuggling him out of Argentina. Though it’s tempting for Malkin to exact revenge for what Eichmann did to the Jewish people, he is determined to capture the Nazi so that justice can be served. Rather than torture Eichmann to obtain his signature, as his fellow agents want to do, Malkin opts for a more humane approach. Malkin’s “good cop” strategy proves successful both in securing the signature and in creating a bond between himself and Eichmann. Even though Eichmann claims that all humans are animals, he reveals that he tried to facilitate the escape of some of the imprisoned Jews and shows remorse over his past actions, which serves to redeem his character…at least a little. In the end, Finale is a mild disappointment because it’s slow-moving and overlong. Still, it showcases the talents of two superb performers; one is an Oscar winner at the top of his game, the other is named Oscar and is an emerging star. Finale touches on many universal themes, including the deceptive nature of evil and our intrinsic need for justice. It’s a worthwhile film because it memorializes the Holocaust without glorifying it. Finale reminds us of the heinous acts that were committed during one of the darkest chapters in human history…lest we forget.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

The Meg (PG-13)

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Directed by: Jon Turteltaub
Starring: Jason Statham
August 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


“There’s always a bigger fish.” – Qui-Gon Jinn, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)

Qui-Gon’s wry comment is perfectly illustrated by one of the movie posters for
The Meg, the new deep sea thriller from director Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure), which depicts the terrifying tableau of a diver swimming toward the surface who is being pursued by a great white shark which is stalked by a massive megalodon (technically, carcharodon megalodon, a supposedly extinct mega-shark that serves as the movie’s ubiquitous threat). Simply put, it’s eat or be eaten out on the open water. Our “supersize” mentality has permeated every segment of society, ranging from value meals to movie monsters. This is particularly true of thriller franchises like Jurassic Park where the T-Rex was replaced by the Spinosaurus, which was supplanted by the Indominus Rex which was superseded by the latest bigger/faster hybrid introduced in the recent Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (which I won’t spoil in case you haven’t seen it yet). Instead of starting off with a great white shark and working up to a larger predator, the movie goes right to its supersized antagonist, the megalodon. The movie opens with an ill-fated rescue mission, where Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) makes a difficult judgment call that condemns half his crew to a watery grave after the ship is attacked by what he later describes as a 70-foot creature. Five years later, after losing his career and marriage, Jonas is a guilt-stricken alcoholic who has sworn off diving for the rest of his life. Jonas’ pity party is interrupted when pal Mac (Cliff Curtis) and Mana One underwater station supervisor Dr. Zhang (Winston Chao) show up to enlist his help on another rescue mission. Jonas is adamant about not getting involved until Mac reveals the identity of the person trapped inside the disabled submersible, which is rapidly running out of air…Jonas’ ex-wife. And I’ll give you one guess as to what damaged the sub and lies in wait for Jonas at the bottom of the ocean. As would be expected for a summer creature feature, the movie is packed to the gunnels with stock characters. Statham is the reluctant hero. Bingbing Li is the love interest. Rainn Wilson is the unscrupulous business tycoon with no respect for people and no reverence for nature. Ruby Rose is the uber-smart techie. Page Kennedy is the comic relief. Robert Taylor (who is solid as usual, but seems miscast here) is the cool under fire doctor. Shuya Sophia Cai steals the show as precocious youngster, Meiying. The real star of the show, of course, is the giant shark. The sheer immensity of the creature is breathtaking. And yet, even though the leviathan is undeniably imposing, there’s something lacking in this terror from the deep…some aspect that prevents it from inducing the same level of bloodcurdling dread that the violently thrashing creatures showcased in earlier shark movies did to a superlative degree. Maybe it has something to do with the way Turteltaub frames the super-shark. Or maybe it’s the photo-realistic CGI that’s so finely rendered that it leaves nothing to the imagination. Say what you will about Steven Spielberg’s animatronic shark in Jaws (1975), it was downright terrifying. The less-than-impressive title creature leaves us with a lingering question: how is it possible that something so gigantic, so powerful, and so quick can be so unconvincing? One of the major reasons why the megalodon fails to frighten is that the story, written by Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber (based on the novel MEG: A Novel of Deep Terror by Steve Alten), has no teeth. The story is highly imitative of the Jaws series and the many cheap knockoffs it inspired: Deep Blue Sea (1999), Megalodon (2002), Sharknado (2013) and The Shallows (2016), to name just a few. With the subgenre’s tropes so well-defined at this point, it’s almost impossible to make a shark attack film without being derivative, and The Meg is no exception. The scene where the giant fish approaches the teeming Chinese beach is reminiscent of the initial shark sighting at the beach on Amity Island in the first Jaws film. Someone needs to inform the writers that humans don’t taste good to sharks, and that all the people in the water would only serve as an appetizer to the colossal creature. Plus, as one scene slyly visualizes, clothing, snorkels, flippers, etc get lodged in between the megalodon’s massive teeth…and there’s no such thing as shark floss. Though the crew pursues the megalodon in a big boat, it turns out they need an even bigger one, which, of course, is a tip of the hat to the famous line in the first Jaws movie. Mana One station is a high-tech, less commercial version of SeaWorld Orlando’s underwater tunnels in Jaws 3-D (1983). Also, there’s more than a passing resemblance between Jonas firing a spear-like weapon with a tracker at the whale-sized shark and Captain Ahab hurling a harpoon at the white whale in Moby-Dick. Suffice it to say, the list of comparisons between The Meg and other shark films is expansive. The one thing the story does right is pacing. The ratio of character beats to action scenes is surprisingly well-balanced for a horror/thriller flick. In the end, The Meg is a disappointing effort that feels more like a big budget Syfy channel movie than a major studio tentpole. Even when characters are face-to-face with the megalodon, the movie has a strange lack of peril. Still, The Meg delivers exactly what it promises…a summer popcorn flick that boasts a generous number of adrenalin-pumping chases and close calls with rows and rows or razor-sharp teeth. So, will there be a Meg 2 and if so, how will they outdo the mega-shark in this film? Or, to put it a different way, how can you supersize a megalodon?

Rating: 2 out of 4 stars

Ant-Man and the Wasp (PG-13)

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Directed by: Peyton Reed
Starring: Paul Rudd
July 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


One of the subplots in the first Ant-Man (2015) revealed that scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) lost his wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) when she went subatomic to disable a Soviet nuclear missile, a heroic deed that relegated her to being tossed about inside the swirling maelstrom of the quantum realm for all eternity. The sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp, opens with that fateful mission (these archival clips from the first film set the tone for the sequel’s rehashed sameness), which effectively kicks off the action and establishes the movie’s premise as a straightforward rescue tale. Since the last film, Hank has been busy building a quantum tunnel. Hank prevails upon Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) to enter the subatomic dimension and rescue Janet. Other than a few character beats and a handful of action sequences, that’s pretty much the whole plot in a nutshell. The Ant-Man franchise is like the redheaded stepchild of the Marvel universe. Compared to the Avengers series, this film feels downright low budget. Like Scott, who is under house arrest (a story element that quickly tires), the movie is firmly moored to its San Francisco locations. Whether intentional or not, the film’s insular framework is symbolic of the confinement Scott and Janet have been forced to endure. The story by Rudd and four other writers is rote and seems more like an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. than a big budget summer tentpole. With a dearth of character development and reheated dialog, the movie’s central figures are merely caricatures of themselves, especially Luis (Michael Pena), whose one-liners are as stale as last week’s pizza. The rest of the actors do what they can with mediocre material. This is a sad fact since the movie boasts some impressive actors, including: Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer and Laurence Fishburne. For this outing, Scott is joined by Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who takes her mother’s mantle as the Wasp. Other than watching the duo kick some major tuchus in a couple action scenes, the only aspect of the film that’s enjoyable is the loving relationship between Scott and his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). The homemade ant farm inside the house is a creative and thoroughly enjoyable scene. Another clever concept is how Hank’s lab can shrink down to the size of a milk crate so that it can be transported to another locale and enlarged back to its skyscraper proportions. The mobile tower concept was also used to great effect in the fantasy/sci-fi cult classic Krull (1983). The FX inside the quantum realm are a major disappointment…any decently produced TV show can achieve, and in many cases supersede, these multicolor miasma effects. The blurry ghost image employed whenever Ava/Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) time shifts is a really well conceived and executed visual effect. In the end, Ant 2 is a safe and predictable follow-up to the first film, which was a surprise hit. The only surprise here is how uninspired the story is. For Ant-Man 3, Marvel had better step up its game. Otherwise, they might discover that, like their titular hero, the audience can shrink too.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (PG-13)

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Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise
July 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Even though this is the sixth movie in the series, Mission: Impossible - Fallout has many firsts. This is the first MI movie to be released in 3-D (RealD 3D). Christopher McQuarrie has become the first MI director to call the shots on more than one film in the franchise. And while on the subject of firsts, Rebecca Ferguson, who plays MI6 agent Ilsa Faust, is the first female to appear twice in a leading role in a MI film (also noteworthy is that she was pregnant while filming her scenes). At age 56, Tom Cruise is in amazing physical shape and still looks credible as an action star (unlike Roger Moore in his later James Bond movies). Cruise’s devotion to his craft is remarkable and his stamina is undeniable, especially since he continues to do most of his own stunts. Cruise trained for a year in order to pull off the HALO (High Altitude, Low Opening) parachute jump in the movie. Since the scene takes place near sunset, Cruise and crew could only attempt one jump per day. With the assistance of a C-17 military aircraft and a ground crew to create a vertical wind tunnel, Cruise made over one hundred jumps at 25,000 feet just to deliver three shots for McQuarrie to use in the film. Now that’s dedication! Not all of Cruise’s stunts were successful, though. In a scene where he jumps from one building to another, Cruise fractured his ankle, which delayed shooting for nearly two months. Weighing in at 2 hours and 27 minutes, MI6 has a longer running time than any previous film in the series. Unfortunately, it’s about 27 minutes too long. That comment is no disparagement of the movie’s action sequences, which are innovative, wildly entertaining and, along with Cruise and Henry Cavill, the main draw of the film. If MI6 were to be judged solely on its high-octane action scenes, it would be a 4 star film. However, in a summer blockbuster jam-packed with mind-blowing stunts, it’s easy to mistake spectacle for quality. Despite having some of the finest pulse-pounding stunts in the entire series, this is a lesser MI film, thanks to McQuarrie’s flaccid screenplay. The passé premise (the 80s spy movies called and want their plutonium back), trite dialog (“Family…what can you do?”) and languid storytelling (especially in the early stages of the film) are all narrative ailments the film can’t quite overcome. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have a plot…it does; a very straightforward, predictable and contrived one. People from Hunt’s past pop up at regular intervals with little explanation or preamble. Erica Sloan’s (Angela Bassett) backhanded comment about IMF agents treating every day like Halloween is amusing and incisive. Ironically, the movie fails to take its own hint since the mask gag is overused here. The down-to-the-last-second bomb disarming is a hackneyed story element that, thankfully, is delivered with a little self-reflexive humor here. McQuarrie trots out the tired “mole inside the operation” plot device in an effort to muddle the motivations of Hunt (Cruise) and Walker (Cavill), but the shocking reveal is obvious from the start. And why did Hunt and Walker have to parachute from a high altitude (a similar sequence appears in 2009s Star Trek), through a lightning storm no less, just to land on the roof of a Parisian building they could’ve gained access to with a proper disguise? Maybe it’s because we get a show-stopping stunt sequence out of the deal or because the rapid plummet ties in with the movie’s title—the theme of personal and physical descent permeates the story. All things considered, MI6 is a decent actioner with solid performances, stellar directing and mind-blowing cinematography. The location work, particularly the scenes shot in London, Paris and the United Arab Emirates, is truly exceptional and effectively simulates the continent-hopping narrative of a James Bond film. The one thing the MI films have consistently done right, and probably one of the major reasons why people keep turning out to see them, is that each new film ups the ante with its jaw-dropping, gravity-defying stunts and action scenes (like a modern-day Houdini, Cruise is a magician who keeps topping his previous death-defying feats). The last half hour of this film contains a chain of top-notch, heart-stopping action beats that will literally leave you gasping for air. If you can get past the “same ole” plot elements, MI6 is a riveting, thrilling popcorn flick that ends with a cliff-hanger and seems destined to be followed by another sequel.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

Three Identical Strangers (PG-13)

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Directed by: Tim Wardle
Starring: Silvi Alzetta-Reali
January 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The saying “the truth is stranger than fiction” certainly applies to director Tim Wardle’s documentary Three Identical Strangers, which chronicles the incredible true story of how triplets, who were separated at birth and raised by three different families within a 100 mile radius, meet under rather unlikely circumstances. The remarkable story made national headlines in 1980 and transformed the trio into an overnight sensation. The three 19-year-olds appeared on a host of news shows and TV talk shows like “The Phil Donahue Show.” The three brothers leveraged their newfound celebrity into owning and operating a NYC restaurant, appropriately named Triplets. But things took a dark turn when the siblings learned that they were part of an unethical study. Although the ostensibly outlandish premise initially grabs our attention, it’s the judiciously inserted interviews of the brothers, their parents and friends that holds our interest throughout the 1 hour and 36 minute film. The only downside here is that the movie overstates its case; certain archival clips are shown three times, which makes it feel like the story is being stretched out to fill a feature length movie. Also, significant screen time is dedicated to adoption agency insiders who, sadly, offer scant insight into the illegal “twin study.” Although the film’s resolution isn’t very satisfying, Strangers broaches some important topics, such as: nature vs. nurture, our irresistible need to play God, sibling bonding and the vitally important role parents play in the development of their kids. The movie is equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking. Even though it focuses on three different people, Strangers is one of a kind.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

Won't You Be My Neighbor? (PG-13)

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Directed by: Morgan Neville
Starring: Joanne Rogers
June 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The documentary spotlighting the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, entitled Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, takes us on a journey from Rogers’ humble beginnings as “Fat Freddy” all the way through his career as the host of a children’s variety program on PBS to his death in 2003, plus ruminations and speculations regarding the impact his life had on society. Strewn throughout Morgan Neville’s film are archival clips of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” interviews with Rogers’ family, coworkers, guests on his TV program (Yo-Yo Ma) and selected spoofs (Eddie Murphy) of Rogers, which he took with a gracious sense of humor. Despite the fact that he was captivated by the medium and felt it had incredible potential to educate kids, Rogers hated TV. He took it as a personal challenge to fill the programming gap with quality, substantive and meaningful content that had a positive message and affirmed that all kids…all people, are special. As a Presbyterian minister turned TV host, Rogers regarded kids as his congregation. Although he didn’t proselytize in the conventional sense, Rogers’ positive message of “love thy neighbor” (Mark 12:31) permeated the themes and topics of his show, a message needed now more than ever. In his later years, Rogers produced special shows that dealt with tragedies such as the Challenger explosion in 1986. Rogers never shied away from difficult issues such as divorce, death or unplanned pregnancy and used his child psychology background to soothe the fears of children during traumatic times ranging from Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination all the way up to 9-11. Rogers took flack for being a friend to the gay community and raised eyebrows during one of his shows when he invited a black man to wash his feet in the same kiddie pool where he was cooling off his feet. Also, Rogers’ message that everyone is special has been blamed for producing the narcissistic generations of kids who grew up during the decades his program was on the air. Dubious accusations aside, Rogers was a decent man who genuinely loved kids and, by all accounts, was the same on and off camera—a refreshing role model that stands in direct opposition to the scandalous scoundrels of our modern society (i.e., the Weinstein’s of the world). The only downside here is that, like Rogers’ show, Neighbor is slowly paced at times. On the plus side, the movie gives us generous glimpses into Rogers’ quirky mentality. The numerological significance of 143 in Rogers’ life is a fascinating aside. Times have changed and Rogers now seems like a milquetoast caricature of a 50s dad…and the sweaters do little to discourage that notion. Rogers is an effective barometer for how far we’ve descended from the kinder, nobler and more inclusive world portrayed in his neighborhood. At movie’s end, there’s a profound feeling of sadness; certainly at the passing of a great man, but also at the closing of an era. Will we ever again see such a period of decency and goodwill toward our fellow human beings? All things considered, this is an inspirational, tear-jerking documentary and a nostalgic trip for those of us who were privileged enough to grow up watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” So now the only question is: Won’t you be my neighbor?

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

Leave No Trace (PG)

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Directed by: Debra Granik
Starring: Thomasin McKenzie
June 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


From Debra Granik, the writer/director of Winter’s Bone (2010), comes a father/daughter survival story set in the forests near Portland, Oregon, appropriately named Leave No Trace.  At first we think that Will (Ben Foster) and his pre-teen daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are either running away from something or that they’ve lost everything and found themselves homeless in the sticks instead of the streets.  But we quickly learn that they like living in the forest…it’s their home. We get an insider’s perspective of their daily routines; the many little things they must do in order to survive out in the wild.  They clearly have a love and healthy respect for nature. But nature abhors a vacuum, and one day a jogger spots Tom through a patch of foliage. The park rangers and police show up a short time later and haul Will and Tom back to civilization.  The process of readjusting to “normal” life—staying in a house, attending church and eating casseroles—proves to be a significant challenge for Will and Tom.  After taking some academic tests, it’s discovered that Tom, whose teachers are her father and a handful of books, is “quite a bit ahead of where” she needs to be (an obvious indictment against our dumbed down education system).  Tom makes the most of their situation, but Will is clearly struggling.  Tom tells her dad, “It might be easier on us if we adapt.”  But, after a few weeks it becomes obvious that Will can’t adjust to the vagaries of modern living.  It’s bitterly ironic that Will, who recently lived among the trees, now works a job where he cuts them down and packages them for shipment to California as Christmas trees. As Will stares longingly at the forest, we can almost hear the trees calling out for him to come home.  Fortunately, that isn’t how the story ends, as you’ll see when you watch the movie. And you must watch this movie; not only because Foster delivers a pitch-perfect, understated performance and McKenzie is a startling, wide-eyed revelation, but because Trace is a powerful human drama that asks some unsettling, poignant questions about the price of progress and what our modern conveniences have extracted from our souls. Trace subtly depicts how PTSD (which is never directly mentioned in the movie) can have a devastating effect on the sufferer and others in the family.  Ultimately, Trace is a heartbreaking tale of how life can gradually pull us in a different direction from the ones we love.  The extensive location filming gives Trace a strong sense of place: it’s a wholly immersive cinematic experience where you can smell the morning dew on the pine needles and feel the dampness in your bones as you join a rain-soaked Will and Tom on their quest to find shelter on a frigid night (a psychological stimulus that becomes a physical one when the theater’s AC kicks in).  But don’t worry, unlike the adverse conditions the movie subjects its characters to, Trace won’t leave you out in the cold. 

Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars

Hearts Beat Loud (PG-13)

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Directed by: Brett Haley
Starring: Nick Offerman
June 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman), a self-professed “purveyor of pressed vinyl,” is going through a rough patch. Not only is Frank faced with closing his record store and starting a new career, his daughter, Sam (Kiersey Clemons), will soon be heading off to college on the other side of the country.  Frank’s bartender buddy, Dave (Ted Danson at his most witty and wise), tells him life is about adapting to setbacks, something Frank knows all too well since his wife was killed by a car while riding her bike.  Back in the day, Frank and his wife were part of a reasonably successful band.  Even though the music gene has been passed on to Sam, she’s more interested in becoming a doctor.  A family tradition that Sam has outgrown but Frank insists they keep observing is the “Jam Sesh,” where Frank plays guitar and Sam plays keyboards and sings (Frank’s “Jam Sesh Dance” is one of the movie’s more amusing moments).  One such session results in the titular song, which Frank uploads on Spotify. As fate would have it, the song ends up on a new artist playlist, which catches fire and generates interest from a music label.  At this point, most films would veer toward the sentimental and conclude with Sam putting her education on hold, Frank getting a second chance at making it big in the music biz and the duo releasing several records and racking up a handful of #1 billboard hits.  Fortunately, director Brett Haley (The Hero) pulls back the reins on that schmaltz stallion and resolves the film in a realistic manner.  Music is central to the film, and the songs (written by Keegan DeWitt) are deeply affecting.  The musical/vocal performances by Offerman and Clemons really sell the songs; the actors also sell their characters and their relationship as father and daughter.  The supporting players are wonderful as well: Blythe Danner plays Frank’s frequently incarcerated mother, Toni Collette is Frank’s landlady and “friend,” and Sasha Lane is delightful as Sam’s supportive girlfriend.  In the end, Hearts is so much more than a follow your dreams, father/daughter music movie.  It’s a lamentation for the heartfelt and finely crafted music of a bygone era.  Not only have we lost record stores to the likes of Amazon and eBay, but we’ve also lost the knowledge of the albums and artists themselves—anecdotes and trivia now retained only by diehard fans and a handful of aging radio DJs who were groupies when the artists were in their prime.  Sure, you can Google CCR and get plenty of facts about the group, but Siri isn’t going to reveal fascinating stories, deep cut knowledge and firsthand accounts of such artists like the Frank Fisher’s of the world can.  Another challenge to the artistry of the past is that, due to the availability and affordability of home studio equipment, anyone can make a record now.  Is that a good thing or a bad thing?  Time will tell.  The only thing we can do is adapt to the times…and follow the beat of our heart.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

Tag (R)

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Directed by: Jeff Tomsic
Starring: Jeremy Renner
June 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Based on the true story (which was published in The Wall Street Journal) of how a group of grown men played a full-impact game of tag for 23 years, Tag is an unconventional comedy brought to us by virgin director, Jeff Tomsic. Each year during the month of May, five lifelong friends risk their careers, relationships, and life and limb to say “You’re it!” to a buddy...and then learn how that friend has been doing over the past year. The men use the game as a means of keeping in touch with each other, which is the only redeeming aspect of the game/movie. The story begins with Hogan “Hoagie” Malloy (Ed Helms) tagging Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm) during a business meeting. Hoagie tells Bob his plan for how to get the whole gang back together again for a special mission. The big news is that Jerry Pierce (Jeremy Renner) is getting married, which will make him a sitting duck. Jerry, who has the instincts and reflexes of James Bond (or, more appropriately, a Kingsman) has never been tagged; he always manages to dodge, trip or butt-punch the other players before making his escape through a prearranged egress. To ensure that her dream wedding won’t be disrupted by childish shenanigans, Jerry’s bride-to-be (Leslie Bibb) makes the other players sign a contract, which stipulates that they will suspend their competitive tagging until after the ceremony. But this doesn’t dissuade the players from attempting to find a loophole in the contract. Sound silly? It is. Tomsic stretches this thin premise so far you can read this review through it. After two hours of watching inane pranks and pratfalls, you’re ready to say, “Fine, just tag me already!” Aside from its Three Stooges style antics and potty humor, the movie seems to condone the destruction of property since multiple windows are broken, the roof of a car is smashed by a falling idiot (and, strangely, no alarm goes off on impact) and a golf cart is rammed into a tree. No apology is offered or restitution made for these blatant acts of vandalism. What a wonderful world to live in where there aren’t any consequences to such flagrant actions. No wonder these men have never grown up. The most reprehensible of these sequences is the free-for-all in the hospital, where injured and sick patients get caught in the middle of the rampant roughhousing. Wasn’t there a different, more appropriate, venue Tomsic could’ve chosen for the no-holds-barred finale? The sequence is disrespectful and models bad behavior for impressionable viewers…some of whom might end up being the next generation of taggers. Much of the dialog consists of inspirational quotes from dubious sources delivered with all the subtlety of a chair being thrown up against bulletproof glass. In the end, Tag is a mildly amusing buddy story that somehow manages to convey an important message—the value of friendship—amid a crass and silly story. Though not a top-tier comedy, Tag boasts a solid cast and offers a few good laughs. Will there be a Tag 2? We’ll have to wait and see how this film does first. Until then…you’re it!

Rating: 2 out of 4 stars

Ocean's 8 (PG-13)

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Directed by: Gary Ross
Starring: Sandra Bullock
June 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Did you know that Ocean’s 8 is the fifth movie in the franchise? The original Ocean’s 11 (1960) starred the Rat Pack and centered on a casino heist in Vegas. George Clooney’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001) was similar to its progenitor but upped the ante by hitting multiple casinos at once. Ocean’s Twelve (2004) took place in Europe and was largely forgettable (other than the cameos by Bruce Willis and Topher Grace…as themselves). Ocean’s Thirteen (2007) was a return to form (Vegas casino heist) but proved to be one trip too many to the well. Confusingly, even though 8 is a sequel, its number would indicate that it’s a prequel. As with the new Ghostbusters (2016), 8 features an all-female cast. A female heist film? When women can pull off an elaborate crime just as well as men, it’s just another sign of our emasculated times. The movie opens with Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the deceased Danny Ocean (Clooney), being released from prison. Debbie soon hooks up with gal pal Lou (Cate Blanchett) and they hatch a plan to steal the priceless Toussaint diamond necklace at NYC’s annual Met Gala. The rest of the team is comprised of a potpourri of top-tier performers including: Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna and Helena Bonham Carter. Anne Hathaway plays a self-important actress who serves as the movie’s wild card. The only tether between this film and the Steven Soderbergh films is Elliott Gould, who reprises his role as Reuben Tishkoff in a brief cameo. Like a three-act play, 8 can be cut into thirds. After the initial excitement over watching Debbie do her thing (scheming and stealing), the movie takes forever to get going. The assembling of the team is flat and rote and the planning phase is belabored and overly methodical. The middle of the movie (the actual heist) is a high-stakes, fast-paced feat of cinematic chicanery—an enjoyable lark that singlehandedly redeems the movie. Most of the post-heist action is unnecessary and is tantamount to a bad magician explaining his trick…nothing is left up to the spectators to figure out on their own. This narrative inconsistency, between its three segments, is the movie’s biggest drawback. The directing by Gary Ross (The Hunger Games) is sure-handed but is surprisingly low energy at times. The cast is as dazzling as the MacGuffin necklace. In particular, Bullock and Blanchett have excellent screen chemistry. However, I never got the same sense of synergy among this cast that I did from the ensembles in the Soderbergh trilogy. In the end, 8 is a diverting film that has none of the panache, or humor, of the Clooney capers. The stellar cast suffers at the hands of a standard story that offers nominal thrills and twists and has a denouement that overstays its welcome. Still, future films seem to be in the cards. But what will the franchise do when it gets back to 11?

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

Adrift (PG-13)

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Directed by: Baltasar Kormakur
Starring: Shailene Woodley
June 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Based on an incredible true story, Adrift recounts the harrowing tale of how Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) kept herself alive for 41 days on the open sea. A romance/survival movie, the story bounces back and forth in time between terrifying present and torrid past. Months before she finds herself stranded at sea, Tami meets and falls in love with Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin). The two adventure-seekers decide to sail around the world together and unwittingly steer right into one of the worst hurricanes in recorded history—the shot of the small boat climbing the giant wave looks like it was borrowed from The Perfect Storm (2000). Woodley excels in a physically and emotionally demanding performance. It’s been reported that she subsisted on just 350 calories a day in order to look the part of an emaciated sea storm survivor. Whereas Woodley’s acting can’t be faulted, the screenplay by Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith didn’t give the star much to work with. Even though most stories of this kind, i.e. Cast Away (2000), have a dearth of dialog, Woodley’s lines largely consist of “Woo hoos!” or “No, no, no, @?&!” for the majority of the film. The biggest problem with the movie is that the romance subplot feels foisted on the audience and isn’t nearly strong enough to support this kind of lost at sea tale, which has been done many times before in cinema history: Lifeboat (1944), The Old Man and the Sea (1958), Life of Pi (2012) and Unbroken (2014) to name just a few. One disaster movie where the romance did effectively anchor the story was Titanic (1997). There’s an indirect reference to that film when Tina delivers a line that’s the reverse of Rose’s (Kate Winslet) “I’ll never let go, Jack.” In the end, the movie’s predictability holds it back from having a greater impact. As things stand, Adrift has joined the ranks of inspiring, yet standard and safe, biopics.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

Avengers: Infinity War (PG-13)

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Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring: Robert Downey Jr.
April 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The old adage about the third time being the charm certainly holds true for Avengers: Infinity War, the third film in the series and arguably the finest Marvel film to date. So what was the difference-maker here? Story. The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely pulls together the threads of myriad storylines from the back catalog of Marvel films and manages to give each of the heroes a piece of the narrative pie amid a sprawling, planet-hopping adventure. Although character development (which was at least attempted in the individual spotlight films) is tenuous in most cases, the one individual who is fleshed out is villain Thanos (Josh Brolin). Due to his formidable physique, Thanos is an intimidating antagonist in the mold of Darth Vader. However, what makes Thanos a fully-realized villain is that he has genuine motivations stemming from a surprisingly sympathetic backstory. From the moment his home planet was ravaged, Thanos has been desperately searching for the six Infinity Stones, which will give him the ability to regenerate his world. The bad news is that Thanos’ plan will wipe out half the life-forms in the universe. This wide-scale culling has some shocking repercussions at the end of the film, which contains a heart-stopping The Empire Strikes Back (1980) style cliffhanger. Thanos’ galactic scavenger hunt provides an engaging story structure that makes the sundry action scenes and character moments cohere. Many of the film’s passages approach epic status; proof positive that Marvel has perfected the formula for its flagship property. However, for all its achievements, Infinity certainly has its fair share of flaws. For starters, Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is completely out of character in the movie (that ridiculous mustache means he’s from the Mirror Universe, right?) and squanders the team’s best chance at defeating Thanos with his thirst for revenge. Also, Vision (Paul Bettany) is a total wuss—isn’t he supposed to possess god-like powers? Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) is far more powerful in the film and ends up saving Vision on countless occasions. And where’s Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)? Or Everett Ross (Martin Freeman)? Granted, with the ever-expanding stable of Marvel heroes, it’s nearly impossible to service everyone. Although the story is a fairly strong chain, there are a few weak links. For instance, wizard Wong (Benedict Wong) magically transports a gigantic assailant to a glacial wasteland at the end of a massive melee. So why didn’t he just do that at the beginning of the battle to forestall the large-scale destruction and to prevent Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) from being abducted? Contrived! Another bit of weak scripting involves the Wakanda storyline when Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) orders the shield to be opened, which allows an army of creatures to flood inside the dome. Panther does this to prevent the creatures from overloading the wall near Vision’s position, which is flawed logic. Why not just redeploy troops to defend that part of the wall? Since a percentage of the creatures are being cut in half by the dome, it doesn’t make sense to open the door and let them all in. Fighting part of an army is better than fighting all of the army, right? Somehow this basic logic escaped the writers. The introduction scenes are a lot of fun, especially the meeting between Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Strange. It’s gratifying to see how their instant antipathy gradually morphs into “professional courtesy.” Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is handled masterfully in the movie. Banner is constantly at odds with himself and his alter ego. The question of who’s controlling whom takes a fascinating twist here: up to this point, Banner has had a hard time turning Hulk off, now he struggles to turn him on. Infinity is one of the rare Marvel experiences where the story holds its own against the top-notch, mind-blowing FX. This has created a serious challenge for the sequel, which will have to find a way to live up to this film. If IW2 is anything like this movie, we’re in for a treat.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (PG-13)

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Directed by: J.A. Bayona
Starring: Chris Pratt
June 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


What we witnessed in Jurassic World (2015) was the fruition of John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) and Benjamin Lockwood’s (James Cromwell, who is egregiously underserved in this film) dream—a functioning dinosaur park filled with attractions, rides and, of course, gift shops. But midway through that movie, life found a way and the dinos started eating the tourists. At the beginning of the sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the park lies in ruins and the remaining dinos are being threatened by a violent volcano that will soon incinerate the island. As experts on the dinos, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) are prevailed upon to help with the rescue effort. But the dino extraction goes south when a joint military (led by Ken Wheatley, Monk’s Ted Levine) and scientific (funded by greedy industrialist Eli Mills, played by Rafe Spall) operation brings the animals back to the mainland in a storyline that has far too many similarities to The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997). The caged dinos are auctioned off (quite expertly by Toby Jones) to extremely rich and “discriminating” buyers. When a new hybrid species is introduced, the Indominus Rex crossed with Raptor “Indoraptor,” the bidders leverage their fortunes to own the priceless prototype dino. Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong) protests, stating that the creature isn’t for sale, but Eli arrogantly quips, “Relax, we’ll make some more.” Of course, this “lack of humility before nature” is the cue for all hell to break loose…as it always does in the Jurassic films. JW2 retains many “popcorn” elements and actually has a plot…and message. Though the animal trafficking (and human/sex trafficking by extension) subplot is drilled home pretty hard, there’s also a subtle warning about how the dinos might be used for their biopharmaceutical properties. This opens up some fascinating and frightening possibilities. Could we discover new cures to diseases and make major advancements in medicine by studying the dinos? Could such knowledge also lead to the creation of virulent stains of chemical and bioweapons? As Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, who makes a brief cameo here) states in the film, “We’re causing our own extinction.” In an unexpected twist, Eli refers to Owen and Claire as the “parents of the future” since Claire authorized the creation of the Indominus Rex and Owen successfully trained raptors. This is a compelling outsider’s perspective on how their actions have unintentionally produced results antithetical to their beliefs. In essence, they’ve created their own monster. There are numerous allusions to the earlier films here, like the helicopter’s journey to the island, the side view mirror etched with “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear” (though, symbolically, the words are upside down this time) and the T-Rex’ triumphant bellow. There’s also a clever series of shots where the camera focuses on a character’s feet and then pans up. The first instance is when Claire is wearing high heels and the next is when she arrives on the island in boots. This corrects a major criticism of the previous film which had Claire running around the park in high heels. There are some fun scenes, like when the head-butting Stygimoloch sends party guests flying through the air as if they were gored by a bull, and some terrifying moments, like the Nosferatu (1922) style shot of the Indoraptor’s claw slowly reaching for the little girl hiding in her bed. In the end, JW2 is a surprisingly poignant chapter in the Jurassic saga that features far fewer gratuitous dino chases and more meaty and thought-provoking examinations of human greed and our irresistible need to play god. The way things end in JW2, JW3 may take place in your neighborhood.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

Deadpool 2 (R)

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Directed by: David Leitch
Starring: Ryan Reynolds
May 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


In Deadpool 2, the eponymous foul-mouthed superhero has returned to bring us a family film, or so he claims at the beginning of the movie. Don’t believe him. Even though writers Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and some douche named Ryan Reynolds have toned down the violence and double entendres, the movie is still a bloody, crass, irreverent wad of inappropriateness. An early romance storyline quickly yields to a series of action sequences as the movie struggles to find its narrative footing. It isn’t until the Mystery Men (1999) style superhero tryout that the film begins to come into focus. The sequence is an absolute hoot, especially the heated exchange over whether or not luck should be considered a superpower. The debate is soon settled when Domino (Zazie Beetz) assists Deadpool in fending off some thugs…an amusing and unique action sequence which is basically Murphy’s Law in reverse. Josh Brolin, fresh off his stint as villain Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, is the movie’s wild card and adds some much-needed heft and complexity to the film. Another pivotal character is Firefist (Julian Dennison), a young orphan who possesses powers he can’t control; which makes him equal parts innocent kid and unpredictable threat. In an obvious indictment against the Catholic Church, Firefist has been taken advantage of by the religious headmaster (Eddie Marsan) at a school for boys. Though you have to dig through the rubble to find it, this is the only real message in the film—i.e. the heinous sexual abuse of minors at many such institutions. Of course, there are plenty of humorous scenes in the film, like the fate of Wade’s new team on their first mission and when Wade grows back his legs after being ripped in half by Juggernaut. The action scenes, filmed with numerous Matrix-style slo-mo sequences, are well executed by director David Leitch. In particular, the sequence where Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) and Juggernaut slug it out reaches near epic proportions. The end credits scenes, where Wade uses a time machine to rectify the mistakes of the past (like when Reynolds first picked up the Green Lantern script) are the highlight of the film. Final analysis: D2 isn’t as crass or graphic as the first film, but isn’t as funny or clever either. Reynolds’ shtick is wearing pretty thin at this point (especially the VO narrations and frequent instances of breaking the fourth wall). The series needs to evolve; otherwise it might end up resembling its title. Not the pool part.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

American Animals (R)

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Directed by: Bart Layton
Starring: Ann Dowd
June 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


American Animals is the story of how four college-age men bungled their plan to steal some rare bird books in Lexington, Kentucky’s Transylvania University library. The premise sounds outlandish and fictitious. However, as the opening text emphatically states, the movie isn’t “based on” the real story, it is the real story. To ensure validity, director Bart Layton weaves canned interviews throughout the tapestry of the film. This creates a strange narrative flow between the documentary style interviews with the real-life criminals and the dramatized action with the actors portraying them. Other drawbacks are slow pacing and an initially confusing plot…interviewees reference the incident long before we learn the details of what happened on that fateful day in 2004. The film is packed with allusions to other movies, including the “bigger boat” quote from Jaws (1975) and the characters’ assumed aliases (Mr. Pink, etc.) which were inspired by Reservoir Dogs (1992). When things start to unravel during the heist—i.e. incapacitating the librarian and the plan B exit through the first floor stairwell—the film finally finds some energy and urgency. Much like the early stages of the movie however, the denouement is dragged out and many of the silent reaction shots, though emotionally impactful, are painfully long. The movie boasts a cast of talented young actors, headlined by Evan Peters, who plays Quicksilver in the newer X-Men movies. The only other recognizable face in the cast is Ann Dowd, who is best known for her work on TV’s The Leftovers and The Handmaid’s Tale. The most striking sequence in the film comes during the disguise prep scene when a close-up shot of one of the young men creating wrinkles around his eyes cuts to a painting of an owl (and how fascinating that a synonym for thief is owl). It’s a jarring, disturbing cut that hints at the animalistic impulses that are driving these characters toward baser behaviors. There’s a subtle inference that this transformation is also a psychological one (i.e. assuming the traits of different animals), but this potentially fascinating storyline is never explored. The film is a mishmash of themes including: youth is wasted on the young, anything that can go wrong will go wrong and crime doesn’t pay. The movie is also a conglomeration of many different plot elements like: art, crime, college life, documentary filmmaking, etc. This reveals the movie’s narrative indecisiveness—much like the young men it focuses on, the story is in search of an identity. In the end, AA is a unique film both in terms of its subject matter and story structure. If you’re looking for something different, this is it.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

Incredibles 2 (PG)

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Directed by: Brad Bird
Starring: Craig T. Nelson
June 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


While waiting to watch Incredibles 2, I detected an insidious pattern in the previews. For The Lego Movie 2, Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) admits that she almost singlehandedly saved the world in the first movie, but that Emmet (Chris Pratt) took all the credit. The next trailer was for Wreck-It Ralph 2. In a telling scene, Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) stumbles into a room full of Disney princesses who initially question her right to join them until they identify with her plight; people always assume that all of Vanellope’s problems will be solved as soon as a big, strong man shows up. When the feature presentation finally started, I thought for sure the anti-male bias was over—surely Pixar wouldn’t stoop to such shameless sexism, right? Wrong. It would appear that the sentiments behind the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have now infiltrated kids’ movies…and that makes me mad. For a detailed diatribe of my stance against movies that seek to indoctrinate children with partisan political views, read my review of Happy Feet. Suffice it to say, unhealthy stereotypes of men are everywhere now, even in typically high-quality, high class Pixar pics. Case in point is Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson). If we thought Bob was emasculated at the beginning of first film as the deskbound, pencil pushing cube dweller, imagine how worthless he feels when his wife Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) gets a crime fighting gig and he’s left at home to raise the kids Mr. Mom style. When Bob’s efforts to take care of his three kids go up in smoke (as a former accountant, he can’t even teach his son math because it’s “new math”), he reaches out to friend Frozone (Samuel L Jackson) for advice and prevails upon costume designer Edna (Brad Bird) to babysit Jack-Jack. Particularly disturbing is the cost analysis scene, which flags Mr. Incredible as an extreme insurance risk. The analytics reveal that Elastigirl (woman) completes her missions without bending a blade of grass, while Mr. Incredible (man) inflicts massive damage while attempting to defeat villains. Men are characterized as blundering buffoons who just can’t help but destroy everything in their path (much like Wreck-It Ralph or Hulk). So then, if Bob is a failure as a father and a superhero, what good is he? The last player in the NFL draft is referred to as Mr. Irrelevant. In I2, Bob Parr isn’t Mr. Incredible, he’s Mr. Irrelevant. Bob is the exemplar of the scores of men who’ve been sidelined and debased. Will it get to the point where men are nothing more than laborers and lovers in a matriarchal society, as was depicted in Gene Roddenberry’s Planet Earth (1974)? Time and societal evolution will tell, but as for now, we’re on the verge of the systematic censure, deconstruction and endangerment of the male of the species. Aside from gender roles, the movie also gets political when it deals with the integration of the Supers back into society; a topic that could relate to refugees from the Middle East, illegals pouring over the border from Mexico or even the way the LGBT community is being assimilated into the broader populace. The movie also makes thinly-veiled commentary about our growing screen obsession. Staring at one of villain Screenslaver’s hypnotic patterns can override a person’s will and make them highly susceptible to committing evil acts. Walk into any public place and you’ll see people with their faces buried in screens, in essence hypnotized by onscreen content and completely oblivious to what’s going on around them. The parallel is obvious; the solution isn’t. It’s ironic that this problem was in its initial stages when The Incredibles was released in 2004. Despite its broad spectrum of commentary, the film does have some fun, although not nearly as much as the original. Even though the scenes with Jack-Jack are the highlight of the film, the tyke is given far too many superpowers and the various applications of those powers are way overplayed, usually to generate laughs. Syndrome (Jason Lee) is a far superior antagonist to Screenslaver, whose identity is obvious from the start. There are several new characters here including: salesman Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), inventor Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener), Voyd (Sophia Bush), Krushauer (Phil LaMarr), Reflux (Paul Eiding), Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks) and Ambassador (Isabella Rosellini). As with the first movie, Brad Bird wrote and directed I2. So is I2 worth the wait (14 years)? It pains me to say that I2 fails to capture the first film’s unbridled creativity and off-the-wall exhilaration…and fun. Though I2 is entertaining, it certainly isn’t incredible.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

Solo: A Star Wars Story (PG-13)

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Directed by: Ron Howard
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich
May 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise
:

While trying to find his long-lost girlfriend, a brash, young pilot falls in with a band of thieves, a self-styled gambler and a gigantic shaggy creature.

The Evaluation:

In the wake of the polarizing debacle known as
The Last Jedi (2017), Star Wars fans from Coruscant to Tatooine were filled with trepidation over the new character spotlight film, Solo: A Star Wars Story. Those concerns were certainly justified in light of Solo’s turbulent genesis; directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie) were replaced by Ron Howard six months into the production. Also tempering fan expectations were pre-release rumors that Disney had already written the film off as a loss. Tremors in the Force notwithstanding, the resultant film is a well-acted, well-directed tale that somehow manages to underwhelm despite its lavish ($250 million dollar) production. Not only is Solo a return to the universe we know and love, it’s also a radical departure from the timbre, texture and tropes of every other cinematic SW adventure. First and foremost, Solo is an origin story for one of the most popular characters in the SW panoply, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich). We witness Han’s heartbreaking separation from the love of his life, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). We have a front row seat for the initial meetings between Han and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), a scene that echoes their reunion in Return of the Jedi (but is far more violent), and Han and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). We get to see how Han makes the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs and it makes sense…sort of. We also see how Han wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando in a game of sabacc during the anticlimactic denouement. During this disingenuous scene, Han claims that his victory is “fair and square” despite the fact that he owes Lando a ship from when he lost a game earlier in the movie. But perhaps Han’s debt is cancelled after he repeatedly saves Lando’s life. At its core, Solo is a heist movie. Some of the action set pieces are spectacular, like the freight train caper on arctic planet Vandor 1, and the teeth-jarring journey through the Kessel maelstrom, which looks like it was borrowed from the “final frontier.” As a story centered on smugglers, pirates and sinister syndicate tycoons, the look of the film is appropriately grimy, gritty and seedy. Howard takes a bulldozer to Lucas’ “lived-in universe” and then covers it in mud, snow and sand. Though Howard’s monochromatic palette is a sly way of matching style with subject matter, the movie is drab for the sake for being drab. Character’s faces are flat and washed out (with low saturation and little if any contrast) throughout the entire movie and even outdoor scenes are shot during overcast conditions. This dim and dreary aesthetic, which will surely be lauded by critics as a triumph of formalism, actually detracts from the film’s enjoyment since it requires spectators to squint through long stretches of the movie just to make out what’s transpiring onscreen. Still, the directorial virtuosity on display here is astounding, and, in many respects, surpasses the finest efforts of the franchise’s stable of high-profile directors. Though it blazes a bold, new trail for the saga, Solo will go down as more of a miss than a hit. Ironically, as a movie riddled with obligatory allusions, Solo is a heist yarn where the story sabotages itself.

The Breakdown:

Directing- Howard’s insight serves him well in his first foray into the SW universe. His direction is sure-handed and reveals a sensitivity and reverence toward the existing canon that was largely missing from Last Jedi. As an Academy Award-winning director, Howard’s acumen, experience and vision are evident in every frame of the film. Other than the movie’s lighting (see: Cinematography), I have no qualms with Howard’s direction. You might say that the circle is now complete since Howard, who was but a learner in Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), has taken his first step into Lucas’ much larger world as an undeniable master of his craft. One wonders if the director had a hand in casting Paul Bettany (who co-starred in Howard’s A Beautiful Mind) to play villain Dryden Vos. There can be little doubt that he was involved in casting his brother, Clint, to play Ralakili.

Acting- While on the subject of casting, each actor perfectly embodies the part they were selected to play. Ehrenreich has Han’s insouciant, devil-may-care attitude down pat. Glover, however, pushes his portrayal of Lando too far—Billy Dee Williams was charming and confidant while Glover has too much swagger and is frequently annoying. Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett is one of the most complex and refreshingly realistic characters in any SW film. Clarke also delivers a well-measured performance as a misfortunate young woman forced into servitude by nefarious criminals. Sadly, Thandie Newton’s Val is a disposable side character who has little impact on the story. Another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part is Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt), who looks like a supersized version of an Alien chestburster. Longtime SW performers, Warwick Davis and Anthony Daniels (trivia: this is the first SW film sans droids R2-D2 and C-3PO), have brief cameos here. The most interesting new face in the cast is Erin Kellyman, who plays the leader of the Cloud-Riders, Enfys Nest.

Story- Even though Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan have delivered a unique vision of the SW universe, their script contains some significant problems. Solo is so preoccupied with cramming quotes and references from the earlier (later chronologically) movies into its narrative that the paint-by-numbers plot (i.e., “and here’s where Han meets Chewie,” etc.) consistently upstages the original story concepts. Some elements work well, like the significance of Han’s dice (which is a nice tie-in with Last Jedi), and others don’t, like how Han comes by his last name. It’s clear that the Kasdan’s have a firm handle on both SW lore and crime films. However, their twisty plot is as clear as Mimban mud and the ending is far too obtuse and protracted. And speaking of protracted, the film (which runs 2 hours and 15 minutes), is way too long. Cutting some of the chatting and gambling scenes would’ve shortened the film and made it tighter all at the same time. The gasp-inducing cameo after the final confrontation is the highlight of the movie—the only time we feel any genuine terror. But the thrill quickly abates and the potentially exhilarating storyline goes absolutely nowhere…a microcosmic description of the entire film. Still, Solo is an enjoyable respite from Jedis, lightsaber battles and the Force. There’s more to the SW universe than these elements, as Solo ably demonstrates.

Costumes/Make-up- The costumes are well-tailored, particularly those seen at Vos’ reception and inside the various gambling establishments.

Cinematography- Bradford Young does fine work for the action sequences and establishing shots on the various planets, especially the Falcon’s bumpy landing on Savareen. However, the overall look of the film is bland and lacks color and saturation (see: The Evaluation), a stylistic decision that also falls at the feet of Howard. None of the characters are lit by direct sunlight or any kind of fill light (reflectors) during the entire movie. This flat lighting scheme is unwittingly the perfect choice for a movie almost entirely populated with cardboard characters. And like the characters themselves, the film has no light or dark side…only shades of gray. The lighting design is tantamount to a dimly-lit smuggler’s den, which is fitting when considering the movie’s milieu.

Music- One of the highlights of the film is John Powell’s (Jason Bourne) soundtrack, which is filled with several beautiful, sweeping melodies and makes judicious use of the existing back catalog of SW themes.

Visual FX- Exceptional, as would be expected. The sequence where the squid-like creature is slowly sucked into the maelstrom’s maw is breathtaking. The train hijacking scenes are extremely well storyboarded and executed. In a franchise first, we’re treated to a really nice POV shot from the back seat of the Millennium Falcon as it enters hyperspace. The tableau of a star destroyer surrounded by the maelstrom’s swirling gases is another strong visual composition.

Production Values- Top-notch and top dollar, as would be expected for a Disney tent pole. No problems here.

Movie Magic- Though certain aspects of Han’s origin story and some of the action sequences are thrilling, much of the movie is plodding and dull. Solo’s serious tone makes it a respectable film, but certainly not a fun one. But that’s okay, because this is just A Star Wars Story, not a major trilogy film. As such, Solo has successfully expanded the saga while tiding us over until Episode IX.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

Show Dogs (PG)

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Directed by: Raja Gosnell
Starring: Will Arnett
May 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise:

In order to track down a gang of animal smugglers, a macho police dog must go undercover as a contestant in a prestigious dog show.

The Evaluation:

The movie opens in NYC, as police dog Max (voiced by rapper Ludacris) prepares to pounce on some animal thieves and rescue a caged panda. A FBI agent named Frank (Will Arnett), who is also working on the case, accidentally thwarts Max’ plan, which allows the criminals to escape. After the botched bust, Max and Frank get thrown together
Turner & Hooch (1989) style and are tasked with tracking down the robbers and rescuing the panda. Turning rough-and-tumble Max into a well-groomed, well-mannered canine is just one of the many challenges this unlikely duo must face as they attempt to take a bite out of crime. If the plot sounds familiar, it is. Show Dogs is, at its core, a talking animal version of the Sandra Bullock vehicle, Miss Congeniality (2000). However, whereas Congeniality was a crowd-pleasing romp, Dogs is a witless dud…and that’s putting it mildly. Somewhere along the way, writers started working adult jokes into kids’ movies in order to hold the attention of the parents in the audience. Their justification for employing these guised gags is that they sail right over the heads of younger viewers. This deplorable strategy is a gross underestimation of the impressionable and increasingly savvy children in our society. The truth is, young people are assimilating these crude references whether they completely understand them or not. So here we have a litany of adult jokes shrouded in seemingly innocuous moments of levity. Though subtly delivered in most cases, the movie is filled with double entendres. The movie is also inundated with potty humor, suggestive dialog and even hints of bestiality (Frank engages in a ballroom dance with Max, who stands on his hind legs, and sleeps on the same bed with Max and a Papillon, who remarks that it’s “what nature intended.”) A whole section of the film deals with preparing Max for when the judge will inspect his private areas. As would be expected, this part of the movie generates many unnecessary comments, especially during the bikini wax sequence. And who decided to set this supposedly family film in Las Vegas? Is there a more family unfriendly location the writers could’ve chosen? One character observes that Vegas is marked by luxury and excess, which would seem to indicate how unsuitable it is as the location for a kids’ movie. As the main character, Max is a terrible role model. A fellow contestant sums up the Rottweiler perfectly by stating that Max is cynical, overbearing, can’t work in a team and doesn’t trust anyone. Max’ dialog consists of rude one-liners and inappropriate comments like: “You run like a wiener dog” and “Ah, grow some balls.” Hopefully these examples will serve as a deterrent for those considering this film for their next family night. Parents are strongly cautioned to steer their kids away from this movie and toward more wholesome entertainment. Don’t let anyone fool you…Dogs isn’t a family film.

The Breakdown:

Directing- The movie’s director, Raja Gosnell, is no stranger to the genre (or canines), having helmed Scooby-Doo, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, and Beverly Hills Chihuahua. The style and lowbrow fare on display here is pretty much the same as in Gosnell’s earlier flicks.

Acting- Despite its pedestrian plot, the film has attracted an array of top-tier talent. In addition to human characters like Mattie (perfectly played by Natasha Lyonne from Orange is the New Black), the movie’s various talking animals are voiced by notables from a number of different entertainment segments, including: actors (Alan Cumming and Stanley Tucci), athletes (Shaquille O’Neal), singers (Jordin Sparks), comedians (Gabriel Iglesias) and reality TV show hosts (RuPaul).

Story- The screenplay, written by Max Botkin and Marc Hyman (not to be confused with wellness physician, Mark Hyman), is mind-numbingly inane, even by talking animal movie standards. The story is merely a loose assemblage of cheesy one-liners (“I knew I smelled bad attitude.”), hyperreal high jinks (like Max bending his way around a moving car Matrix style) and disgusting images (like the spinach, egg shells and whole raw fish smoothie) held together by a contrived plot. From one set of credits to the other, there’s no stoppage of dialog. These characters (mostly animal) just never shut up. Sadly, much of what they say is offensive and doesn’t have any substance whatsoever.

Costumes/Make-up- The NYC and Vegas costumes are appropriate to their settings. Thankfully, dancers and other Vegas performers are adequately clothed in most scenes. The animal costumes, which are difficult to tailor, are also well crafted.

Cinematography- One of the brighter spots in the film is David Mackie’s camera work. The action sequences are well filmed and the pageant scenes, though indebted to the brilliant competition scenes in Best in Show (2000), are enjoyable and lend the movie a measure of reality. Kudos to Mackie for his extensive work with the movie’s many animals, which are never easy to film.

Music- The movie doesn’t really have a score, at least not in the traditional sense—just a lot of up-tempo beats and rap music for the action sequences.

Visual FX- Mostly CGI of dogs talking, making faces and doing unrealistic feats. Nothing groundbreaking.

Production Values- For a supposed kids’ movie, the film has surprisingly high production values. The film makes good use of its locations and appears, in most respects, to be a major studio film even though it was produced by Global Road Entertainment.

Movie Magic- Unless you’re a 6-year-old, you’ll probably find this film unbearably silly.

Rating: 1 ½ out of 4 stars

Ready Player One (PG-13)

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tye Sheridan
March 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise
:

A young man attempts to win fame, fortune and the affections of a young woman by solving the mysteries of a virtual reality game.

The Evaluation:

Seems like it’s been ages since Steven Spielberg directed a live-action action movie—since mo-cap
The Adventures of Tintin (2011) doesn’t count, the last such film was Indy IV, which was released a decade ago. Based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One taps into our society’s obsession with video games and genre entertainment. The plot revolves around a VR game called the OASIS, which was created by eccentric game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance). As with computer games like Second Life or Turf Wars, real-world money can purchase loot (weapons and equipment) inside the OASIS. And just like in a video game, when you run out of lives the game is over. In the OASIS, however, you also lose all of your currency, which other players can scoop up. In a riff on Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’s Golden Tickets, Halliday concealed three keys inside his VR world. Once discovered, these keys will help one player unlock the secrets of the OASIS, become the envy of millions, and, of course, earn a boatload of cash. Parzival/Wade (Tye Sheridan), the common denizen of a Columbus, OH “stacks” (mobile home towers), has aspirations of being the winner. But in order to achieve that goal, he’ll have to enlist the support of other skilled players, like Art3mis/Samantha (Olivia Cooke) and Aech/Helen (Lena Waithe). More importantly, he’ll need to look at things in radically different ways than any other player who’s ever played the game. Despite its promising premise and cornucopia of creativity, RPO never exceeds its YA trappings or overdetermined themes: rags-to-riches idealism and little guy vs. corporate overlord populism. There are plenty of nitpicks here too…since the OASIS is populated with millions of players from all around the world, how is it possible that Wade’s team of five players all live in the same neighborhood in Columbus? Character complexity, even for adults like Wade’s deadbeat guardians and lispy villain Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), is egregiously pedestrian in the movie and the jeopardy never reaches a level of intensity above standard teen peril. The action sequences are overblown and appear as if they were designed solely for the purpose of conveying the adrenalin-pumping exhilaration of a video game to the big screen, which they’re only marginally successful at doing. RPO is afflicted by a debilitating dichotomy—the teen characters and pulse-pounding action sequences are intended to attract a younger crowd, while the ubiquitous allusions to 80s pop culture are meant to reach an audience 40 and above (their parents). Since the film fails to fully connect with either generation, it might be disregarded on that basis, even by those who would normally enjoy this type of film. As a mash-up of the sci-fi, fantasy and gaming genres, you’d expect far more imagination than what’s on display here. The Doom environment, where two sprawling armies (comprised of every type of avatar, creature or character imaginable—including the Iron Giant) charge each other on a verdant plain, is like a massive Hobbit-style melee. However, the battle sequence is all eye candy and fails to build any genuine suspense since we know none of the main characters will die (not in real-life anyway). The movie isn’t completely devoid of innovation, though. One clever creation is the Zemeckis Cube, which looks just like a Rubik’s Cube and is named after the director of the Back to the Future movies, Robert Zemeckis. When solved, the eponymous cube resets the clock 25 seconds so that you can go back in time and undo a catastrophic event (of course, this creates a snafu since how many people can solve a Rubik’s cube that quickly, especially when caught in the middle of a firefight?). Even though it’s a frequently employed in sci-fi stories—ranging from Galaxy Quest (1999) to a recent episode of Star Trek Discovery where Mudd keeps looping time—the time rewind gag still provides a fun moment here. It’s ironic that a movie focused on an Easter egg is filled with them. From the Buckaroo Banzai costume to a toy model of the original Battlestar Galactica, and the ST:TMP poster in a window to the life-sized model of Robby the Robot from Lost in Space in the corner of a room, the movie is packed with enough pop culture references to overload your flux capacitor. The movie’s resolution contains another quotation of Wonka (inheriting the company), but the denouement is overlong and overplayed. Though this is a return to form for Spielberg, the movie is a shallow, and occasionally self-referential, pastiche. RPO is full of empty mind calories and is, sadly, devoid of heart. In the end, the only relevance the movie has is that it’s a cautionary tale regarding the frightening implications of our impending VR existence. So, will there be a Ready Player Two? As a hero of mine (James T. Kirk) once said, “I certainly hope not. I found one quite sufficient.”

The Breakdown:

Directing- After a string of historical dramas—War Horse (2011), Lincoln (2012), Bridge of Spies (2015) and The Post (2017) (with 2016’s kiddie pic The BFG thrown into the mix)—Spielberg has returned to his action/adventure roots. But has he matured beyond this type of film? No one can fault his craftsmanship here, but the movie just seems incongruous with his recent works and is completely beneath him. Still, RPO must’ve been a nostalgic trip for the director since it contains many references to his early life and career.

Acting- Sheridan is decent as the hero, but it’s Cooke who shines as the worldly-wise, no-nonsense sidekick. Mendelsohn, who was serviceable as the villain (Krennic) in Rogue One, is utterly laughable here as a greedy, selfish tycoon who pays his employees to find the three keys just like Mr. Salt (Roy Kinnear) pays his factory workers to unwrap chocolate bars to obtain a Golden Ticket for his daughter in Wonka. Rylance, Spielberg’s touchstone of late, is the backbone of the story and conveys the only genuine emotions in the film as the lovelorn programmer who just wants to go back to when games were fun…before designers ruined them by making the graphics so realistic that nothing was left to the imagination. Simon Pegg underwhelms in a role that neither suits his energetic personality nor his comedic sensibilities. Maybe he accepted the part just to work with Spielberg.

Story- The story by Zak Penn and Cline is a mixed bag. The way they introduce the OASIS is extremely odd—it’s like a documentary/infomercial about the history and conventions of the VR world. The intro contains way too much preamble…we just want to watch the movie/play the game. Plus, the writers need to show us, not tell us what’s going on in these scenes. Case in point, instead of mentioning the option to climb Mt. Everest with Batman, the writers’ should’ve incorporated that plot possibility into the story (and if licensing was an issue, they should’ve selected a different hero). These amazing concepts feel like secondhand descriptions rather than firsthand experiences. RPO’s expositional opening is like playing the demo of a video game and getting enough of a feel for it that you get bored at the thought of playing the actual game. Some of the challenges are far too easy for the characters to solve and many of the clues are telegraphed (like the ones obtained while watching just the right moment of Halliday’s expansive video library). In short, the writers try to cram too many characters and too many action sequences into a story that’s overstuffed with iconography, styles and themes from the pop culture grist of a bygone era.

Costumes/Make-up- Though diverse and colorful, many of the stylish outfits seen inside the OASIS are rendered on a computer, which means they qualify more as FX than physical costumes. The VR bodysuit is an impressive creation and is destined to be a household item in the future.

Cinematography- Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan) is as masterful as ever. However, since the majority of the film is composed of CGI characters and environments, the visuals grow tiresome after a while (like watching a feature-length podrace). The epic battles are well staged and filmed, but come off looking like a LOTR-style fracas with cosplayers subbed in for orcs and trolls.

Music- Alan Silvestri’s score is full of energy and whimsy and hearkens back to his work on the Back to the Future movies.

Visual FX- Mind-blowing CGI that, unfortunately, equates to empty calories for the brain…like many video games. The OASIS is pure artifice. The CG never slows down long enough for your eyes to assimilate the many details inside the VR world. Is that because the CG artists cut corners? Though they serve as the actual star of the movie, the FX aren’t nearly as impressive as those seen in last year’s Valerian—another action-packed, teeny sci-fi adventure.

Production Values- Unquestionably a top-dollar production. The film attempts to create a cinematic video game experience. It achieves just that…for better or worse.

Movie Magic- Totally subjective. Teens may like the action and video game aspects and adults may like all the references to 80s pop culture. Many people will dislike the movie for either or both of those reasons.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

The Miracle Season (PG)

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Directed by: Sean McNamara
Starring: Helen Hunt
April 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise:

A high school volleyball team must overcome the loss of their team captain in order to repeat as state champions.

The Evaluation:

“Have you ever met someone who could make anything into an adventure?”

The movie’s opening line is the perfect introduction to its central character, the vivacious captain of a women’s high school volleyball team, Caroline “Line” Found (Danika Yarosh). Caroline’s ebullient personality is infectious; she makes friends with everyone she meets, even players on opposing teams. Coming off an emotional state championship win the year before, Caroline and her teammates have aspirations of repeating. After rolling past their first opponent, another championship seems all but assured. Then comes the tragic night when the news of Caroline’s fatal driving accident sweeps through the community like wildfire. The grief-stricken volleyball team’s hopeful quest for a second state championship comes to a devastating standstill. But with motivation from their inspiring coach and a resolve born out of their desire to honor their fallen friend, the players channel their anger and guilt into one all-consuming goal: “Win for Line.” Based on the true account of how the Iowa City West High School women’s volleyball team won the state championship against all odds in 2011,
The Miracle Season is a strong character piece that also features some pulse-pounding action during several volleyball tournaments. Season is a deeply moving story about finding the courage to carry on after a tragic loss. Despite its similar theme to We Are Marshall (2006) and similar plot to Hoosiers (1986), Season is an inspirational sports movie where the miracle on the court pales in comparison to the one that takes place inside the hearts of the grieving players and community.

The Breakdown:

Directing- The man responsible for keeping the character moments meaningful and the volleyball game sequences taut with excitement is director Sean McNamara, who also helmed the tragedy-turned-victory sports film Soul Surfer (2011).

Acting- The cast is an eclectic mix of established and new actors. Big screen notables like Helen Hunt (who also starred in Surfer) and William Hurt are joined by some truly fine young actors like Yarosh (Heroes Reborn) and Erin Moriarty (Jessica Jones). Jason Gray-Stanford (Monk) also delivers a memorable performance as assistant coach, Scott Sanders.

Story- Ensuring that the sports elements didn’t run away with the story are screenwriters David Aaron Cohen and Elissa Matsueda. Cohen was already familiar with the genre, having co-written Friday Night Lights (2004).

Costumes/Make-up- Standard, skimpy volleyball outfits, but the rest of the movie’s wardrobe is appropriate.

Cinematography- The locations surprisingly resemble the Iowan countryside even though the movie was filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. These locations add a great deal to the team’s road trips, especially during the snow angel scene.

Music- The evocative trumpet arrangement in Roque Banos’ score perfectly captures the film’s bittersweet aspects. The crowd singing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” at the end of the movie is a nice touch.

Visual FX- NA

Production Values- The various production elements are respectable, especially when considering the movie’s modest budget. The school/gym interiors are authentic and the Found’s house and barn sets are functional and homey.

Movie Magic- If you enjoy high-energy sports flicks with quick cuts that amp up the action, this movie is for you. Although the story does get a tad Hallmark-y at times, it’s a clean, inspirational film that spotlights one of the more remarkable stories to have come out of the world of high school sports in recent years.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

A Quiet Place (PG-13)

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Directed by: John Krasinski
Starring: Emily Blunt
April 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise:

A family struggles to survive in a post-apocalyptic world where making the slightest noise can attract the attention of carnivorous creatures.

The Evaluation:

Normally a movie inundated with this much hype would collapse under the weight of the insurmountable expectations placed upon it. Since the trailer looked so intriguing, it comes as a great relief that
A Quiet Place delivers on its promise—it’s a thought-provoking, spine-tingling good time. John Krasinski does triple duty (actor, writer and director) on this horror/thriller/sci-fi hybrid. The linchpin to the film’s success is its premise. In a dystopian world, aliens have invaded Earth and wiped out a large percentage of the human population. The good news is that the creatures are blind. The bad news is that they have super-sensitive hearing. To safeguard against being attacked, the Abbott family learns to communicate by speaking in hushed tones or using sign language. Though the movie is disciplined at following the strictures of its self-imposed rules, the concept certainly has its fair share of nitpicks. First, how is it possible to run a farm without making any noise? Also, when approaching humans, wouldn’t the creatures hear breathing, however controlled, or a rapidly beating heart (yes, what we learn during the waterfall scene significantly weakens this argument, but the criticism holds up when the creatures are at close range)? Raising kids under such strict conditions would be a monumental task—no frolicking in the front yard or roughhousing in the living room. And, as if that wasn’t hard enough, how in the world would you bring up a baby in such an environment (a similar grievance was raised by fans of The Walking Dead over Rick’s baby, Judith, being raised during the zombie apocalypse)? As the creature closes in on Blunt and her baby, and later, Blunt and her daughter, it can’t quite locate the humans in either instance. So then, are we to believe that these blind creatures also have no sense of smell? These minor gripes are forgivable. What mars the movie most is the climactic sacrifice, which could’ve been prevented if one of the characters had been as quick on the uptake as the audience. Fortunately, this is the movie’s only instance of flaccid plotting. There are many parallels between this film and Signs (2002). Aside from both movies featuring an alien invasion storyline, cornfield encounter and farmhouse showdown, the aliens in both movies have one fatal weakness—a plot device borrowed from the original The War of the Worlds (1953). Also pilfered from Worlds is the “aliens travel in trios” concept, which is particularly relevant here since the minimum number of points required to triangulate the location of a sound is three. Though the movie’s creatures are reminiscent of the ones in Alien (1979), they do have a unique design (See: Visual FX). Despite its many similarities to other horror films, Quiet features one of the most clever and original concepts in the history of the genre. So, will this Signs meets Aliens post-apocalyptic chiller stand the test of time? Time will tell. One thing’s for certain, in Krasinski’s world, everyone can hear you scream.

The Breakdown:

Directing- Krasinski’s craft is impeccable—he channels Hitchcock and Shyamalan to great effect. Some of the moments Krasinski creates are utterly terrifying, like the baby in the basement sequence.

Acting- Emily Blunt mesmerizes in a physically demanding role—she had to stand in water for a good portion of the movie. Blunt effectively conveys a range of emotions without speaking for most of the movie. Likewise, Krasinski delivers a marvelously measured performance—the scene where he slowly raises his finger to his lips, signaling others to remain silent, will go down as an iconic image in cinema history. He’s come a long way from his days as Jim Halpert on The Office. The child actors (Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe) also do excellent work in challenging, largely non-speaking roles.

Story- A difficult screenplay to write and execute, but handled with expert skill by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck and Krasinski. With a dearth of dialog, most of the action had to be described in detail in the script or storyboarded.

Costumes/Make-up- Functional and appropriate for the world the characters live in.

Cinematography- Charlotte Bruus Christensen does a superb job of capturing the pastoral landscape and the action sequences inside and outside the farmhouse. There are many memorable scenes in the movie, particularly those involving the bridge, silos, fields and basement. The sweeping shots atop the silos help to establish the terrain and atmosphere of the agrarian world the characters have been relegated to. The rows of white or red lights also make a striking visual.

Music- The film’s eerie mood is further enhanced by Marco Beltrami’s ethereal score which, like the characters for most of the movie, goes largely unnoticed.

Visual FX- Truly astounding creature FX—the next iteration of the Alien creature is jaw-dropping, literally. The design of the creature’s malleable head is ingenious and sets up the movie’s most memorable visual during the climactic confrontation. These FX should be a shoo-in for an Oscar nod.

Production Values- Certainly not a lavish production, since most of the movie takes place in or around the farmhouse. However, the set design for the plundered general store, work station inside the basement and silos is truly exceptional.

Movie Magic- Off the charts. This is a wholly immersive experience that draws you into the movie’s terrifying reality and thoroughly enthralls you with one thrilling sequence after the next. Quiet is a high art horror flick that will be certified as an instant classic.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

I Can Only Imagine (PG)

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Directed by: The Erwin Brothers
Starring: Dennis Quaid
March 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise
:

While dealing with his traumatic past, a young man pursues his dream of becoming a professional singer.

The Evaluation:

Based on the life of Bart Millard (J. Michael Finley), lead singer of the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) group MercyMe,
I Can Only Imagine tells its story by time-shifting between Bart’s abusive childhood and his turbulent journey to becoming a professional singer. Bart’s estranged relationship with his short-fused father, Arthur (Dennis Quaid), begins to change when Arthur is diagnosed with cancer. Bart and Arthur are able to repair some of their emotional and relational damage during the brief time Arthur has left. After Arthur’s passing, Bart doubles down on establishing his career and meets a talent agent named Brickell (Trace Adkins), who introduces him to two superstar CCM artists: Amy Grant (Nicole DuPort) and Michael W. Smith (Jake B. Miller). Amy is blown away by Bart’s heartfelt song (dedicated to his departed dad) and makes a deal to record it on her next album. But as Amy prepares to world premiere the song, something remarkable happens that has huge ramifications for Bart’s future. It’s a tearjerker ending that’s just as inspirational as the titular song.

The Breakdown:

Directing- The Erwin Brothers (Woodlawn) do a fine job of establishing the correct tone and evoking the right emotions from the actors, especially during the well-handled redemption scenes between Bart and Arthur. The film’s editing is exceptional—the constant jumping back and forth in time could’ve become tedious and confusing in less skillful hands.

Acting- Finley turns in an impressive and spirited performance in his film debut. He deftly layers on the pathos and carefully avoids any hint of schmaltz. As would be expected, Quaid turns in a consummate performance. He expertly modulates between abusive father and proud dad with a new perspective on life due to a terminal illness. Adkins is sheer perfection as the gruff agent with a big heart and delivers some of the funniest lines in the movie. Whereas DuPort favors Amy Grant (and has a strikingly similar smile), Miller looks nothing like Michael W. Smith. Though her scenes are few, the legendary Cloris Leachman adds some additional star power to the film as Bart’s Memaw.

Story- Even though the story by Alex Cramer, Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle, based on Bart’s memoir, is an accurate account of Bart’s life, the script does take a few liberties with actual events to make them work for the big screen. For instance, the jeep that Bart works on with his dad in the movie was a truck in real life. Also, according to the book, Arthur attended Bart’s “Oklahoma!” performance, but in the movie, Arthur doesn’t even know Bart is in the play until he sees a handbill while eating at a local diner. Despite other minor variations such as these, the movie is a faithful portrait of Bart’s life.

Costumes/Make-up- Authentic to the period.

Cinematography- The location work, shot almost exclusively in Oklahoma, gives the movie a sense of grounding—Bart’s roots come into sharp focus during the Texas farm scenes.

Music- McCorkle’s soundtrack is bolstered by several source tunes, including U2s “Into the Heart.”

Visual FX- NA

Production Values- Though a fairly low budget film, Imagine never comes off as cheaply made. Aside from last year’s The Case for Christ, Imagine is one of the finest Christian movies ever made.

Movie Magic- Although the domestic abuse elements may be difficult to watch for some audience members, the movie’s themes of relational reconciliation, emotional healing and succeeding against long odds make Imagine a winning, faith affirming film. It’s a heartfelt true story that reveals the beauty that can come from tragedy. Imagine that.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

A Wrinkle in Time (PG)

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Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Starring: Storm Reid
March 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise:

With the assistance of three mystical women, a teenage girl embarks on a dangerous journey through time and space to rescue her father from an evil entity.

The Evaluation:

Having recently read Madeleine L’Engle’s Newbery Medal winning book,
A Wrinkle in Time, I watched the film with a wary eye toward any divergences from page to screen. Though remaining faithful to the source material in most respects, the movie has made some modifications, and in each instance those changes were poorly considered and executed. From a diversity standpoint, the film is an unqualified success. Director Ava DuVernay is an African American woman—double diversity points. The cast of characters from the book has undergone a significant shakeup in the movie, which was to be expected since the world today is much different than it was when Mrs. L’Engle wrote the book in 1962. Half of the characters have switched races and one (Zach Galifianakis’ Happy Medium) has changed genders. Though it’s clear that Disney was out to make a statement with this affirmative action character mash-up, the diversity here seems like a political and media stunt. After all, it’s one thing to create diversity naturally and quite another to go about things in such an obvious and overdetermined manner that your political bias bleeds though the onscreen action like a copyright watermark. Though the casting was excellent for all of the young actors, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and Calvin (Levi Miller) come off far better than Meg (Storm Reid). Overall, Meg is much more brooding and contrary here than in the book, which is a tremendous letdown since she’s the main character. Even though all of the magical “Mrs.” are well cast, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) is too annoying, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) is too esoteric and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) is too…big. The image of the colossal Mrs. Which is preposterous, but her immense size can be taken as a clever metaphor for the status of the actor portraying her—Oprah is, unquestionably, a media giant. The screenplay by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell starts out well by hewing closely to the book’s plot and dialog, while updating it to reflect the sensibilities of kids in a modern school. Everything is smooth sailing until the kids Tesser (beaming through space/time at warp speed, to employ Star Trek parlance). The planet concept for Uriel is far too grandiose; it takes the book’s description of a verdant paradise and turns it into a CG video game landscape. The scene where Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) transforms herself into a giant flying leaf is unexpected, yet utterly ridiculous. Though exhilarating, the ensuing magic carpet ride sequence is gimmicky and seems like it was included just to give the leisurely story a much needed adrenalin boost. The whole sequence is oversaturated and overblown and looks like the trailer for Avatar 2. The kids’ arrival on dark world Camazotz (dumb name that’s hard to pronounce), cues another action sequence that wasn’t in the book—the cracking landscape and violent windstorm sequence is just another whiz-bang action scene that adds absolutely nothing to the movie. The suburban cul-de-sac scene, where kids bounce red balls in perfect unison, is one of the creepier visuals in the movie and is well executed. The rest of the movie is pretty much a disaster. We never get to see the business district on Camazotz, nor the CENTRAL Central Intelligence Building. Disney should’ve spent less of its budget on meaningless action scenes and more on decent sets for the back half of the movie. Although the invisible architecture superimposed over the bright, sleek antechamber walls (which requires Mrs. Who’s glasses to see) is cleverly realized, the interior of Mr. Murry’s (Chris Pine) prison chamber is something out of a 60s drug trip and isn’t utilitarian in the least (it has no bed, sink, etc). The entire section of the book where Meg convalesces under the magical ministrations of aliens with tentacles doesn’t appear in the film—a significant loss. The final confrontation with IT has overwrought FX and is storyboarded like one of the protracted battles in the LOTR films. And speaking of protracted, the movie’s denouement is painfully long. The book ends before the characters return home, which was a wise choice. In the movie, Mr. Murry apologizes to Meg for putting his career before her; it’s a sequence that feels forced and unfounded and is made worse by Pine’s awkward acting. The many reunions and embraces at the end of the movie are overboard and uber-schmaltzy. The movie wraps up just as a Hallmark movie would—happy ending writ large. Bottom line: Disney’s Wrinkle freelances when it shouldn’t and skips some key material from the book. This big screen treatment of L’Engle’s book goes too big in many places and fails to capture the tangible magic and unbridled creativity that permeates every page of the book. L’Engle’s masterwork deserved a far better fate than this uninspired effort. Though it pains me to say, Disney’s Wrinkle is a miss…so miss it.

The Breakdown:

Directing- It’s bitterly ironic that DuVernay, a female director, consistently eschewed character development in favor of big budget action sequences that amount to little more than visual fluff. The emotions at the end of the movie are downright mawkish. A disappointing effort.

Acting- Due to the writing, most of the characters are cardboard cutouts of living, breathing characters. This is particularly true of Witherspoon’s portrayal of Whatsit, which blends her characters from Legally Blonde and Big Little Lies into an overly perky, yet ultra-critical, caricature. I would’ve expected Pine to bring more to his role; his performance is off-kilter and cursory. Surprisingly, the kid actors deliver better performances than the film’s many seasoned stars.

Story- The story has too many action scenes, too few character scenes and the ending is a maudlin mess. The film’s lack of magic starts with the script. It baffles the mind, and breaks the heart, to consider how Disney has perverted L’Engle’s timeless fantasy tale into pedestrian drivel with scant imagination and magic.

Costumes/Make-up- The outfits for the three “Mrs.” are well done, especially Whatsit’s flowing gowns.

Cinematography- The gorgeous framing on Uriel is the movie’s high point visually; everything else is fairly standard.

Music- One of the highlights of the movie is Ramin Djawadi’s fanciful and cheery score. The gorgeous orchestrations with accompanying choir during the Uriel scenes add immeasurably to the magic of this section of the film.

Visual FX- Top dollar, but overdone. See review.

Production Values- A lavish Disney production, but too much of its budget was spent on eye-candy visuals rather than on convincing sets. See review.

Movie Magic- Depends. Young kids, 10 and under, may enjoy the movie. However, judging from the reaction of the teens in the theater I attended, they thought it was pretty lame. With tenuous characterizations and oversimplified situations rife with teen peril, adults will probably find the film insufferable—even those who grew up reading the book, which is a real shame. An even bigger shame is that the movie focuses too much of its attention on jaw-dropping visuals rather than on human qualities like courage, faith and love. As such, the film will have no relevance or staying power.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

The Shape of Water (R)

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Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins
December 2017


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise:

While American and Russian agents seek to exploit a recently discovered aquatic life form for their own purposes, a lonely mute woman falls in love with the creature.

The Evaluation:

Del Toro, who brought us
Pan’s Labyrinth, two Hellboy films and Pacific Rim, has perfected his craft with The Shape of Water (easily one of the most evocative movie titles ever), a Cold War, trans-species love story told through a skewed filter and delivered with a visual brilliance nearly unparalleled in recent cinema history. So let’s dive right in…Shape has many layers. If you think you’ve figured out what’s going on in the film’s text, there’s always the subtext to consider. The movie uses symbolism, thematic echoes, unexpected reverses, inverted stereotypes and modern parallels to great advantage. One conspicuous bit of symbolism involves eggs. Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins) uses an egg timer (in the shape of an egg) when boiling eggs and timing her activities in the bathtub, which also deals with reproduction (female eggs). When Eliza makes first contact with the creature, she gives it a hard-boiled egg as a gesture of friendship. Later, when she copulates with the dubiously compatible creature, Eliza consummates (literally and figuratively) the egg subplot, since having her physical needs met by another has freed Eliza from her tub prison (more symbolism). Eliza’s water habitat is the tub; the creature’s water habitats are the tube and pond. Eliza and the creature merge in three other bodies of water: her tub, her flooded bathroom and the bay of the ocean. Before we leave the egg timer metaphor, it’s worth mentioning that Eliza’s regimented existence is a reflection of our own in many respects, since daily routines and responsibilities (chores, shopping, cooking, working, paying bills, etc) can be their own special form of incarceration. Ironically, Eliza is just as much a prisoner as the creature is—freeing the creature will free her from her self-imposed prison of loneliness. There’s overt symbolism in the various reactions to the creature…when faced with the unknown, some will be filled with curiosity and others with fear (fight or flight). The conservative vs. liberal reactions to the creature are fairly transparent (and oversimplified) and reveal a clear bias against one of those political worldviews. Also clear is the movie’s pro-Russia, anti-America sentiment, which turns the Cold War on its head. American agents (particularly Michael Shannon’s Colonel Strickland) are loud, crass and aggressive, while the Russian agent (brilliantly underplayed by Michael Stuhlbarg, who, along with Shannon, was a cast member of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) is reserved, calculated and sympathetic toward the creature. Strickland’s racist, nationalist, isolationist agenda is abhorrent and is a little too on-the-nose in its portrayal of adherents of the political party in question. Strickland is an angry man who’s in a loveless marriage; contrast his angry and messy love-making with the beautiful bathroom coitus between Eliza and the creature. Strickland also makes inappropriate advances toward Eliza, racist comments about Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) and tortures the creature in his own, private Guantanamo (another political parallel). When the creature bites off Strickland’s fingers, the military man is more concerned with retrieving his severed digits than his wedding ring. His ring, and marriage by extension, isn’t precious to him (LOTR’s Gollum in reverse). All of this reveals Strickland, not the creature, as the movie’s bona fide monster. One curious side story involves Giles’ (Richard Jenkins) desire to matter in a world that’s passed him by. Giles painfully learns that he’s lived past his shelf date relationally (his attempts at wooing a young waiter implode) and occupationally (the sensibilities of his ad artwork have become outdated). This subplot touches on the ageism that exists in today’s job market and how marketing typically targets the youth of our society. As Eliza’s friend/neighbor/mentor, Giles serves a key role in the plot to extricate the creature. The message is clear; everyone has a part to play in the unfolding human drama. Though there are deeper zones to be explored in the film, this brief overview of the movie’s many layers of meaning should suffice in recommending it as an instant classic…and frontrunner for Best Picture.

The Breakdown:

Directing- Del Toro has delivered a visual masterpiece, which effectively combines a Cold War thriller with a fantasy romance. The formalism on display here is truly staggering.

Acting- The eclectic cast of top-tier performers (Shannon, Stuhlbarg, Jenkins, Spencer, David Hewlett and the brilliant Doug Jones) are completely upstaged by Hawkins’ mesmerizing, deeply-affecting portrayal of the lonely, lovelorn lead character.

Story- The script by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor is equal parts fantastical, historical, meaningful and magical. The allusions to classical Hollywood movies are a nice touch; they tangibly tap into feelings of nostalgia for that era. When taken at face value, Shape is just a fantasy film. However, the story’s many aspects contain plot points that the viewer might not even be aware of—which makes the film such an enjoyable, and immersive, experience.

Costumes/Make-up- The period appropriate costumes are well designed. The style of the creature’s costume hearkens back to the titular monster in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and is brilliantly realized.

Cinematography- While it’s del Toro’s vision that makes the film cohere, it’s Dan Laustsen’s brilliant framing that provides much of the movie’s visual wonder and beauty. Who will ever forget the flooded bathroom love scene?

Music- Another exceptional score by Alexandre Desplat. Many of the cues written for Eliza’s character are whimsical and sublime. The underwater passages, where several flutes combine to produce an otherworldly effect, are moody and moving.

Visual FX- Other than the underwater scenes there are very few visual effects in the movie.

Production Values- Top-notch. Real world elements (with historically accurate detail) are seamlessly juxtaposed with fantastical elements (and even flourishes of the absurd like the refrigerator filled with slices of Key lime pie) to forge a wholly original world.

Movie Magic- Immeasurable. The brilliant visuals, pitch-perfect performances, superlative directing, affecting accompaniment, multivalent story and period appropriate production elements all make for an unforgettable viewing experience.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars

Call Me by Your Name (R)

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Directed by: Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Armie Hammer
November 2017


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise
:

While on a summer internship in Europe, a young doctoral student falls in love with the professor’s son.

The Evaluation:

Based on the novel by Andre Aciman,
Call Me by Your Name is a coming-of-age gay romance story set in Lombardy, Italy in 1983. The cinematography is gorgeous and is, along with the performances, the highlight of the movie. The downside here is a slowly paced film that has no antagonist, no major obstacles to overcome, no MacGuffin or overarching goal. The story meanders from one scene to another without really building tension, except for sexual tension between Oliver (Armie Hammer) and Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet). The only plot device that gives the film any urgency is the time constraint imposed on it from the beginning—Oliver’s internship is only for six weeks. The monologue at the end of the film, delivered with measured sagacity by Michael Stuhlbarg, brings the story into focus—if the movie has any meaning, it can be found in this brief heart-to-heart sequence between father and son. In the end, this is an art film in the purest sense. Its unconventional love story and controversial peach sequence will be the only things most people will remember about this film. And in case anyone cares, I prefer to be called by my own name. Thank you very much!

The Breakdown:

Directing- Luca Guadagnino makes the most of limited sets and locations and elicits fine performances from his cast.

Acting- The performances here are subtle and naturalistic. Chalamet’s brooding melancholy is a perfect counterpoint to Hammer’s existential insouciance. Stuhlbarg is the glue that holds the whole company together; his character serves as supportive father and inspiring mentor to the two leads.

Story- A fine script by James Ivory, based on Aciman’s book of the same name. Characters are finely drawn and the subtle subtext that reveals the inner motivations and desires of those characters is what sustains viewer interest in a story that has no real action or conflict.

Costumes/Make-up- Period appropriate.

Cinematography- Rather than employing aerial establishing shots of the Italian countryside, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom keeps everything close and intimate. The lens is kept tight on the performers, placing the burden on the cast to tell the story rather than on sweeping visuals, which, most likely, was dictated by the budget. The footage of the village captures its inherent European charm, and the interior shots of the house and exteriors of the backyard tether our thoughts and emotions to that one locale…like Oliver, we’re also sad to leave the house when he heads back to the States.

Music- The score is an eclectic collection of songs by various artists. The soundtrack also includes originals by Sufjan Stevens, who seems to whisper his songs rather than sing them. “Mystery of Love” is highly evocative and perfectly captures the film’s bittersweet ending.

Visual FX- NA

Production Values- An indie film that, fortunately, doesn’t feel cash-strapped.

Movie Magic- Depends on your preference of gender, genre and subject matter. Call Me doesn’t set the world on fire, but is a well made slice-of-life tale that’s festooned with beautiful locations and mesmerizing performances. However, its inclusion in the Best Picture category seems political since there are many other worthy films to consider this year, such as: Molly’s Game, The Florida Project, The Disaster Artist, Last Flag Flying and I, Tonya.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

Hostiles (R)

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Directed by: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale
January 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise:

A soon-to-retire Army captain must deliver his sworn enemy, a murderous Indian chief, back to his tribe.

The Evaluation:

The movie opens with natives ambushing a homestead and killing an entire family, except for the wife/mother Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), who cleverly evades the band of bloodthirsty Apache warriors. While en route to Montana, Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) comes upon the Quaid’s charred cabin and offers to escort Rosalie to the nearest fort.  The intrepid sojourners encounter extreme weather, aggressive natives and trigger-happy settlers (but surprisingly, no bears) along the way. All of this is standard fare for a Western film.  Gorgeous southwestern mountain vistas, like the ones seen here (filmed in New Mexico), are also a staple of Western movies.  In short, there really isn’t anything revolutionary about
Hostiles.  However, it’s the efforts of director/writer Scott Cooper and the exceptional performances by Bale, Pike and Wes Studi, as Chief Yellow Hawk, that make this a noteworthy entry into the genre.  The movie is gritty without being graphic; though there’s some violence (scalping), this isn’t Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015).  Cooper’s story deftly builds jeopardy as the group endures one threat after the next, culminating with a rather unpleasant confrontation with the greatest hostiles of all…the White Man.  Though the film never plumbs the depths of human emotion like Unforgiven (1992), it effectively shows the plight of those struggling to navigate the savage architecture of the wild frontier. Though not the best Western to have trotted along in recent years (2015’s Bone Tomahawk holds that honor in my estimation), Hostiles is a well written, well acted survival yarn that confronts the ugliness of racism while extolling the virtues of love and courage. In short, Hostiles is a journey well worth taking.

The Breakdown:

Directing- Cooper’s (Black Mass) direction is sure-handed, if not stellar. He makes good use of his locations, but fails to create any splendor or atmosphere with his establishing shots. On the flipside, Cooper evokes tremendous performances from his actors, particularly the stars.

Acting- Bale and Pike are astounding in their roles…there isn’t a single false note between them. Bale beautifully underplays his part and Pike expresses the right emotion at the right time every time. The supporting cast members were chosen with great care and seem as if they drifted right out of the prairie and into the story. Stephen Lang is pitch-perfect as Colonel Biggs. Bill Camp (The Night Of), Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights), Q’orianka Kilcher (Princess Ka’iulani), Scott Wilson (The Walking Dead) and Ben Foster (Lone Survivor) all bring their parts to life with startling realness.

Story- Cooper relies too heavily on Western movie tropes while offering very few variations on the theme. I’m also conflicted about the ending, which is gimmicky and played for emotional effect. Does a film this harshly realistic need a happy ending?

Costumes/Make-up- Period appropriate down the line.

Cinematography- An excellent job overall by Masanobu Takayanagi, but the establishing shots of mountain vistas don’t really stand apart from those in any other modern Western.

Music- Max Richter’s score doesn’t draw attention to itself, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Visual FX- NA

Production Values- The Western elements (sets, props, etc.) are authentic and finely crafted. The military fort and frontier town are particularly impressive.

Movie Magic- Though an unapologetically bleak tale, Hostiles succeeds at highlighting some of the beauty amid the brutality of the Old West.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

The Post (PG-13)

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Meryl Streep
December 2017


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise
:

The Washington Post threatens to expose a government cover-up involving inaccurate reporting about the Vietnam War.

The Evaluation:

Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Meryl Streep as the owner of
The Washington Post, Kay Graham, and Tom Hanks as her “pirate” editor, Ben Bradlee, The Post is based on actual happenings and readily recalls such expose films as All the President’s Men (1976) (ironically, this film ends with the events of Watergate…the subject of President’s Men) and Spotlight (2015). Spielberg’s direction is nearly invisible, which is a supreme compliment. He uses a classical style of directing, which is period appropriate and places the burden on his performers to carry the film rather than on elaborate camera setups, highly stylized shots or flashy editing (all of which were staples of Spielberg’s early career). Unless you spotted Spielberg’s name in the credits, you probably wouldn’t know he directed this film. Over the years, Spielberg’s collaborations with Hanks have been legendary…and lucrative. Adding Streep to the mix almost seems like too much talent for one film—after all, how many Academy Award nods and wins are represented by this trio? The chemistry between Hanks and Streep is undeniable and inestimable. The easy exchanges between these movie maestros makes it appear as if they’ve been performing together for years. However, as unbelievable as it seems, this is the first time these two top-tier actors have appeared in a film together. The supporting cast is also impressive. Curiously, Spielberg tapped some of TVs top talent for the side characters. Matthew Rhys (The Americans), Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul), Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights), Tracy Letts (Homeland), Bradley Whitford (The West Wing), Carrie Coon (The Leftovers), Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story), Zach Woods (Silicon Valley), Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire), Dan Bucatinsky (Scandal), David Costabile (Billions), Alison Brie (Mad Men), Bruce Greenwood, (American Crime Story), Johanna Day (Madame Secretary) just to name a few. Writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer do a remarkable job of servicing the stars as well as the many ancillary characters. If the story has a weakness, it’s the lack of action. The movie’s narrative is largely composed of characters standing around and carrying on conversations about things that might not be readily apparent to audience members who weren’t alive during the period in question. In the end, this film is a sobering reminder of the pervasive and persistent nature of government corruption, a message that’s just as (if not more so) salient today as it was in the early 70s. With a timely theme and superlative acting and directing, The Post should be a strong contender for Best Picture. Maybe the headline on March 5th will read “The Post Nabs Best Picture Oscar.”

The Breakdown:

Directing- See review

Acting- See review

Story- See review

Costumes/Make-up- Authentic and period appropriate.

Cinematography- Less is definitely more in a film with such fine actors. Just roll the camera and let them do their thing.

Music- Another stellar score by John Williams, who, at age 85, is still composing vital and transcendent music. There’s an occasional hint of the main title from Lincoln (2012) here and the overall style resembles the many jaunty, jazzy refrains in Catch Me If You Can (2002). The soft piano pieces played during the restaurant scenes seamlessly blend into the action and the sprightly cues when the presses start rolling are vintage Williams.

Visual FX- NA

Production Values- Top-notch. I only wish we could’ve seen more of the world during this time period since most of the movie takes place indoors.

Movie Magic- There are a few tense scenes throughout and a rousing climax, but much of the movie is political and procedural. And dry.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars

Darkest Hour (PG-13)

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Directed by: Joe Wright
Starring: Gary Oldman
December 2017


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise
:

In the wake of Neville Chamberlain’s failed policy of appeasement, which has unwittingly abetted Hitler’s aggressive advance across Europe, Winston Churchill is enlisted to stem the tide of evil and help end WWII.

The Evaluation:

Darkest Hour is an immersive period piece with authentic, and finely mounted, production elements. The film’s success or failure largely depended on its casting. Fortunately, the actor chosen to inhabit the central role was more than up to the task. Gary Oldman delivers a career turn here as Winston Churchill. Could another actor have pulled off the part? Perhaps. But sometimes roles are tailor-made for a performer and such is the case here as the melding of character and actor was a feat of cinematic alchemy. Writer Anthony McCarten opens the movie with typist Elizabeth Layton’s (Lily James) first day on the job. McCarten introduces Layton and the audience to Churchill at the same time; an effective decision that thrusts us right into the heart of the action. Darkest Hour references the events portrayed in Dunkirk (2017); it was Churchill’s Operation Dynamo that mobilized a flotilla of 800 boats to rescue the 338,226 Allied soldiers who were surrounded by German troops on the infamous French beach. Also mentioned here is Churchill’s earlier failure (yes, this is a redemption story) at Gallipoli, which is chronicled in the fine 1981 film of the same name starring Mel Gibson. The sequence where Churchill rides the underground (subway) with commoners is the film’s standout moment as it serves to humanize Churchill while also fortifying his resolve to reject Hitler’s demands. Since the movie ends in the middle of the war, there’s still plenty of material to support a sequel. Maybe it will be called Darkest Minute, to be followed by Darkest Second to round out the trilogy. Sorry, just trying to lighten the mood.

The Breakdown:

Directing- Joe Wright (Atonement) does yeoman’s work here and evokes dazzling performances from his cast. The overall style is effective, but the interiors are exceedingly colorless and drab. However, it could be argued that such an aesthetic is the perfect accompaniment to the movie’s sullen subject matter.

Acting- An astounding performance by Oldman, who should be a strong contender for the Best Actor Oscar.

Story- A terrific screenplay by McCarten. The only drawback is that sometimes descriptions of off-screen actions are unclear and the pacing is a tad slow.

Costumes/Make-up- The costumes are well crafted and are period appropriate. The make-up (including latex appliances and torso padding to help Oldman resemble portly Churchill) is truly exceptional.

Cinematography- Limited to building interiors and claustrophobic corridors for much of the action, the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel succeeds despite its limitations.

Music- Dario Marianelli delivers a solid score that supports the film without distracting from the action.

Visual FX- NA

Production Values- The limited sets are a drawback, but everything else is top-notch.

Movie Magic- Slow pacing and familiar subject matter are minuses, but the powerhouse central performance and rousing ending are huge pluses.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (PG-13)

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Directed by: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daisy Ridley
December 2017


What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The first post-Lucas, Disney owned Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens (2015), was a smashing success.  J.J. Abrams, a self-proclaimed diehard SW fan from his youth, did more than just direct the film; he established the look, feel, tone and style for the new trilogy.  Awakens was reverent to the original trilogy (although it tapped the tropes, themes and events of A New Hope with abandon), and carved out its own unique corner of the SW universe.  With such solid footing and a literal handoff of the baton (lightsaber) from Abrams to the new director (the barely-established, virtually unknown Rian Johnson), Star Wars: The Last Jedi was destined to be a surefire hit.  However, even though the movie will make bank at the box office (as all SW movies do), Last Jedi is a galactic disappointment.  To temper that caustic contention, let me first say that the film’s production elements are stellar across the board.  Sets, costumes, FX, makeup, sound, etc. are all top-notch and should be serious contenders come awards season.  Although we get some occasional stiffness (acting arthritis) from Mark Hamill and the sadly departed Carrie Fisher, the performances are solid enough, especially from the younger actors, to service this action/adventure space opera.  So where did the movie go wrong?  There’s only one area of the movie, indeed only one person, that made this movie fail…Rian Johnson.  Whereas Johnson’s directing choices are satisfactory (save for the scene where a frosted over General Leia (Fisher) floats through space like Mary Poppins without an umbrella), his writing reveals a significant lack of understanding regarding pacing, structure, tone and especially dialog.  Last Jedi features an extremely simplistic and straightforward storyline.  For nearly half the movie, the rebel fleet crawls along at sublight speed (a term borrowed from Star Trek), and the plodding plot perfectly matches its pace.  Much of the story goes absolutely nowhere.  Even worse, it goes in circles without achieving anything at all.  Case in point, when the story becomes mired in a series of scenes involving Star Destroyers taking potshots at the rebel flotilla, Johnson has Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) take us on a side trip to a resort planet (Canto Bight).  This boomerang subplot, which includes a couple of action sequences, a herd of animals, a handful of kids and a new side character, achieves absolutely nothing since the two rebels end up in the clutches of the enemy.  It’s utterly laughable that Finn and Rose are actually surprised when their new friend, DJ (Benicio Del Toro), turns out to be a scoundrel (shades of Lando’s betrayal in The Empire Strikes Back), even though they never make contact with the rebel spy they were sent to meet—the code breaker with the red flower brooch (Justin Theroux).  At the heart of the movie’s narrative ailment is a profound and pervasive identity crisis.  What’s its theme?  What’s its message?  What’s its objective?  One of the major problems with the story is that it has no MacGuffin, save for survival.  With no overarching goal or purpose, the plot casts about in search of some kind of meaning, but since it never finds any, the movie settles for a string of action sequences just to keep the story moving forward.  Ironically, the film is a reflection of its own weaknesses: conflicted characters mirror a conflicted story.  Johnson clearly intends to keep the audience guessing as to the loyalties of the main characters, but while attempting to psych us out, he muddles character motivations and muddies the narrative waters.  Ultimately, the joke is on Johnson since we’re way ahead of him (I mean, Rey actually being tempted to join the Dark Side?  C’mon!).  The story works overtime to depict the inner conflict of several characters.  Is Luke (Hamill) good or bad?  Is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) good or bad?  Is Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) good or bad?  Johnson exerts so much effort on these questions that it becomes exhausting, doubly so since the answers are so painfully obvious.  The mutiny subplot, where Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) defies Holdo and does what he thinks is best for the survival of the rebel remnant, is utterly distasteful and only provides momentary tension in the plot.  Dissension in the ranks doesn’t really suit SW …it’s more of something you’d see on Battlestar Galactica (2003).  Holdo’s character arc is particularly vexing due to her vacillating likeability and consistently illogical command decisions.  Though she makes the right choice in the end, Holdo should’ve taken action much sooner, before so many of her people were killed (plus, a quicker reaction would’ve moved the story along faster and shaved off a few minutes of the film’s too long 2 ½ hour screen time).  At least something good comes from Holdo’s desperate act; besides providing a momentary escape for the rebels, we’re treated to the film’s finest visual effect—a weaponized hyperspace jump.  Speaking of FX, two of the mo-cap characters from Awakens have returned here, with less than impressive results.  Again, we can’t fault the performers or the visual effects artisans for their efforts; the blame lands squarely on Johnson’s shoulders.  The story beat where we get glimpses of Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) fighting some far-off war via a choppy video transmission is a total throwaway scene which is shamelessly shoehorned into the story just to remind kids to buy action figures with her likeness.  The bigger disappointment is Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), who was portrayed as a towering, malevolent shadow lord in Awakens, but actually turns out to be far less physically intimidating and even less sinister than we were originally led to believe (and what’s with that bland, red background in his throne room?).  Johnson wrote stilted, simpleton and self-aggrandizing dialog for Snoke, and one wonders if Snoke’s characterization here is a thinly-veiled dig at President Trump.  Snoke is far too overconfident in his abilities in the Force (and who trained him?) and loves “dialoging” (The Incredibles).  Besides plagiarizing the Emperor’s (Ian McDiarmid) talk track wholesale, Snoke also enjoys playing with his captive (like a cat toying with a mouse) a little too much.  Plus, even though he claims to see everything, he can’t even sense a threat sitting right next to him?  Weak!  Like Boba Fett and Count Dooku before him, Snoke is dispatched far too easily.  Snoke is a poor man’s Emperor.  He’s all bluster with none of the menace.  In short, Snoke is a joke.  Snoke’s Ninja guards are like highly trained Imperial Guards from Return of the Jedi (1983).  This is just one of many callbacks to the original trilogy.  Judging from Johnson’s rigid insistence on rehashing themes, settings and dialog from the earlier SW films, it could be argued that the entire narrative of Last Jedi is one giant pastiche.  Here are just a few examples…  The rebels have to evacuate their base and get past an Imperial blockade (Empire).  Ships that engage in evasive maneuvers to avoid capital ships because they can’t enter hyperspace (Empire).  Luke trains Rey, just like Yoda trained Luke in Empire—and it’s amazing how well Rey fights after just a few lessons.  Near the middle of the movie, Rey enters an obsidian land anus to learn the identity of her parents. Disappointingly, Rey steps into a celestial fun house where she sees countless copies of herself in mirrors that taper to the vanishing point—an utterly superfluous sidebar, and more wasted screen time.  This sequence is similar to when Luke sees his face in Vader’s shattered helmet inside the Dark Side cave in Empire.  Gigantic walkers on a white plain (this time it’s salt, not snow) and rebel troops in trenches defending a base (Empire).  The image of a kid holding a broom like a lightsaber closes out the movie, and he stands in an archway that’s shaped just like the one inside the rebel medical frigate at the end of Empire.  These instances are just a few of the many allusions found in the story.  This doesn’t even include the many shots and lines of dialog that were lifted right out of the seminal trilogy.  Strangely, the ubiquitous gag line in every SW film: “I have a bad feeling about this,” isn’t uttered here.  The oft-repeated opening crawl phrase “spark of hope” is an insipid bromide that’s too reminiscent of A New Hope.  Another area of the film that’s derivative is John Williams’ score, which is a Greatest Hits compilation of his music for the original trilogy.  The quality of the music is predictably excellent, but it’s unacceptable that only about half of the score contains original music.  The post-crawl piccolo solo is identical to the opening of New Hope and signals the banal plot to come.  Though the movie’s shortcomings are many, perhaps the greatest is the horrendous depiction of Luke (I can’t fault Hamill’s acting—he does the most he can with a poorly conceived and written part). For his ham-handed handling of Luke, Johnson should be taken out and tarred and feathered.  Actually, Disney should be baptized in Bantha poodoo for green-lighting this hack script in the first place.  Johnson’s characterization of Luke is an abomination.  Luke is a jaded bully in most of his scenes.  He isn’t likable in the least and is a far cry from the hero we once knew.  Look no further than the Jedi Academy flashback sequences for evidence of this.  First we see the events of that fateful night through Luke’s memory and then through Kylo Ren’s (back to when he was still Ben Solo).  Aside from wasting precious screen time on Rashomon (1950) style he-said-she-said sequences that contain only minor variations, these scenes feature a flawed aspect of Luke’s character.  Let’s apply some logic to these fallacious back stories.  Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader committed countless murders (including the slaying of an entire school of kids, as seen in 2005’s Revenge of the Sith) and yet his son, Luke, can still sense good in him in Jedi. An older Luke senses evil in Ben Solo, who, at that point hasn’t killed anyone (that we know of).  As such, how can we reconcile the fact that young Luke’s steadfast objective is to redeem his genocidal maniac father, while old Luke’s first instinct is to kill his innocent nephew?  This is an emotional knee-jerk of epic proportions.  How could a Jedi Master act in such an irrational manner?  Since he was able to restore his father (Vader), shouldn’t Luke be able to prevent Ben Solo from going down the dark path and becoming Kylo Ren? Have his powers become that weak? Or his mind that feeble? Although Luke finds redemption in the end, the fact that he doesn’t “physically” come to the aid of the rebels cheapens the multigenerational dual and is a significant cheat on the part of Johnson (despite the dramatic mileage and plot twist he gets out of the climactic battle).  The much anticipated showdown between Luke and Kylo Ren features gaps in logic large enough to march a fleet of walkers through.  As someone adept at using the Force, shouldn’t Kylo be able to sense that Luke isn’t quite what he seems when peering down at him from the bridge of his ship (or to put it a different way, shouldn’t Kylo be able to detect Luke’s life force/energy, or the absence of it)?  Further, when face to face with Luke on the battlefield, shouldn’t Kylo question why his old mentor looks exactly as he did while teaching at the Jedi Academy (an estimated 10-15 years earlier)?  Luke’s black beard should be a dead giveaway, to Kylo and the audience, that Luke looks younger than he really is at present.  Also, Kylo knows Luke’s lightsaber is green. And yet, during the confrontation, Luke is wielding a blue lightsaber, which also has a hilt that looks just like the one Kylo and Rey recently ripped in half during their Force tug-of-war. With all of these visual clues, it’s inexplicable that Kylo could’ve fallen for Luke’s chicanery. Again, Johnson’s inexperience shows through during this sequence because his attempt at misdirecting the audience backfired with the creation of these major nitpicks.  Another of Johnson’s mishandled moments is the brief cameo by Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz).  At first we’re elated to see the diminutive Jedi master and then we’re puzzled when he displays an antagonistic attitude toward Luke.  Then we’re befuddled when he calls the sacred Jedi texts a dull read and condones Luke’s desire to burn them.  Yoda is completely out of character in this sequence (as is Luke). Not only does this sadly superfluous scene fail to significantly advance the plot, it squanders the appearance of one of the most beloved characters in the SW mythos.  Plus, it wastes even more screen time and seems positioned just to sell another toy version of Yoda.  Another character that was planted in the movie just to sell toys is new droid BB-9E.  The black robot has less than two minutes of total screen time and only has one pivotal scene. Though not nearly as annoying as the Ewoks (Jedi), the puffin-like porgs are shown squawking far too often in the film and are included here only to generate laughs from the kiddies so that they’ll run out and buy the toy version of the birds.  The porgs, which hail from planet Ahch-To (gesundheit), are certainly cute, but they’re overused in the movie.  In fact, the film is overloaded with creatures, including the large horse type creatures (fathiers) from Canto Bight and the crystal foxes (vulptex) on Crait (again, you can bet that each of these animals will be included in their own toy play set).  You would think that a movie so geared toward kids would be non-stop fun, but such is not the case.  In actuality, the movie has very little humor.  Most of the jokes, like Luke tossing a weapon over his shoulder in a screwball comedy flourish, are forced and fail to strike anywhere near the funny bone.  Worse still, the movie has no heart.  There are very few genuine emotions in Last Jedi. Also, as absurd as it sounds, the only natural acting in the entire film is when the rebel officer touches the white surface and dabs the substance on the tip of his tongue and says, “Salt.”  Everything else is hyperreal and put on for effect.  To be fair, the film succeeds in a few key areas.  Mentioned earlier, the cataclysmic hyperspace jump represents the film’s creative zenith.  The hyperspace tracker, though pilfered from New Hope, is a clever piece of technology that adds some much needed dramatic tension to the film.  On Crait, the red dirt under the surface of salt sets up some brilliant visuals when the rebel ships and walkers engage in combat—the vehicle movement patterns are like an elaborate Etch A Sketch drawing.  One clever character device is the Jedi Link (my appellation), which allows those with Force abilities to establish mental communication over vast distances of space.  The concept does have precedent in New Hope, when old Obi-Wan senses the deaths of scores of people on Alderaan, and at the end of Empire when Luke responds to Vader’s mental projections.  Though unsettling at first, the way one character can engage in a casual conversation with another person who’s standing in front of a contrasting background, is extremely effective visually.  These sequences are well executed and add a psychological dimension to the scenes between Rey and Kylo Ren (and are they related, since their connection is so strong?).  From the outset, it seems as if Johnson’s main objective was to confound the audience at every turn.  However, the employment of a constant string of plot twists for the sole purpose of catching the audience off guard can make a story not only tangential, but ultimately, inconsequential.  As the movie’s sole scribe (and why no assist from a veteran, proven screenwriter, like Lawrence Kasdan?), Johnson proves to be too slick for his own good by focusing on surprise over substance.  Unfortunately, the biggest surprise in the movie is how spectacularly Johnson failed.  In the final analysis, Last Jedi is a parade of disfigured character portraits, haphazard and hackneyed writing and plot holes big enough to fly a dreadnought through. If Last Jedi was converted into a mathematical proof it would be: flawed characterizations plus a flawed narrative equals a flawed film. After this middling effort, there can be no doubt that the Force is in flux.  Will the series pull out of its tailspin for the trilogy capper or will it continue its precipitous descent into the Sarlacc Pit of movie mediocrity (like the prequels, which Last Jedi resembles in many respects)?  That brings up another burning question…is this the worst SW movie ever made?  Actually, does Last Jedi even qualify as a SW film since it feels more like a high budget fanboy film than an authentic entry into the mythos?  Perhaps, due to some cosmic mix-up in The Twilight Zone, we ended up with an alternate Earth’s Last Jedi and they got ours.  Whatever the explanation is for Last Jedi’s myriad missteps, one thing is abundantly clear…the Force is not strong with this one.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

Coco (PG)

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Directed by: Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez
November 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

For their latest animated adventure, Disney/Pixar has selected main characters of a different kind.  Instead of focusing on toys, cars, fish, robots or insects, they’ve returned to the world of people.  However, not all of these people are alive.  No, the animation studios haven’t gone all zombie on us (although, how cool would that be?).  Focusing on the Mexican people and their Day of the Dead holiday (Nov. 1&2 annually), the studios have given us a glimpse of what life is like in the Land of the Dead.  The story focuses on Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy who wants to be an entertainer like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).  Performing at the local talent show can help launch Miguel’s career, but first, he must borrow a guitar.  But not just any guitar…the signature guitar that Ernesto played during his heyday, before the bell tolled and he met an early demise.  Since he must ask for permission to play Ernesto’s guitar, Miguel embarks on a journey to the other side.  Once Miguel has crossed the petal covered bridge that connects both worlds, he sets out to find Ernesto among the teeming masses of the macabre metropolis.  As he navigates the Land of the Dead, Miguel encounters Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a lanky, fun-loving skeleton man who serves as both humorous sidekick and voice of reason for Miguel.  Despite his seemingly silly persona, Hector holds a secret that literally busts open the story like a smashed piñata.  Coco’s explosion of color rivals the visual vibrancy of the Finding films.  Though certainly a marvel in its own right, Coco’s prismatic palette pales in comparison to its brilliant plot, which is chock-full of colorful characters and meaningful moments.  This is the studios’ first attempt at spotlighting the customs and values of a minority culture.  Director Lee Unkrich and his team of writers wisely avoided populating the story with clichéd characters and worn-out stereotypes.  This is a deep dive into the hearts and minds of a people devoted to artistic expression, exuberant celebrations, fervent spirituality and, above all, the love of family.  We’re treated to some traditional and modern Latin music including “Remember Me,” a top-tier, tear-jerker that should be a shoo-in for Oscar’s Best Song.  Despite the fact that most of the movie works like magic, Coco has a fatal flaw—it borrows too heavily from other sources.  The film mirrors Back to the Future in several key areas.  Like Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), Miguel wants to be a famous guitar player.  Another point of comparison is that Marty and Miguel both travel through time (actually, the Land of the Dead probably exists outside of time, but close enough).  Also, Marty and Miguel frequently reference family photos to learn clues about their family history and identity…and very existence.  Ironically, the most obvious instance of plot theft in the story involves another Pixar movie.  The trajectory of this film’s villain is so similar to that of Up’s Muntz, the only word that comes to mind is derivative, which I never thought I’d use to describe a Pixar movie.  The film has problems with its premise too. For instance, is it really necessary to travel to the world beyond just to borrow a guitar?  Admittedly, these are minor grievances in a movie that thoroughly entertains.  The film subtly tempers its follow-your-dreams theme with a cautionary tale regarding the dangers of hero worship.  Unkrich does a remarkable job of making morbid subject matter relatable and even, at times, humorous (e.g. the nude skeleton portrait scene).  In the final analysis, Coco is rich in culture and character, sight and sound.  It’s also a heartwarming tale of multigenerational connection between a young boy and his grandparents.  Coco delivers an emotional wallop at the end, just to remain consistent with Pixar’s MO of leaving its audience in tears.  But this time they’re tears of joy. Over a family reunion.  Over fulfilled dreams.  And over a young boy returning home…to the Land of the Living.

Justice League (PG-13)

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Directed by: Zack Snyder
Starring: Ben Affleck
November 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Though there are many comic book companies these days, the big two are DC and Marvel. In addition to producing comic books, both companies offer an array of entertainment on the small and big screens. Though achieving parity (in output and quality) has been a constant struggle for DC, the studio has, at long last, launched a cinematic version of its Justice League property—their answer to Marvel’s Avengers series. Aside from being five years behind their rival studio, DC also failed to properly establish all of its team members in solo movies as Marvel did for the Avengers (heck, they even stuck their neck out with Ant-Man, which turned out to be a crowd-pleasing success). JL members The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) all make their first appearance in the franchise here, sans a cinematic origin story. Rounding out the super group is: Ben Affleck as Batman, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and…surprise, Henry Cavill as Superman. I made much of Superman’s absence from the JL poster in my review for Wonder Woman, which I now regret. I should’ve known that the indestructible Man of Steel would emerge just in the nick of time to mete out his particular brand of justice on the bad guys. It would’ve been senseless to exclude Superman from a JL movie since he’s the most recognizable superhero in the world. However, the way Superman is used in the movie is a whole other matter; his limited screen time and inconsequential involvement in the story is a super…uh, supreme disappointment. The story itself, written by Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon and director Zack Snyder, is one of the movie’s biggest drawbacks. The plot is a sprawling mess…it juggles multiple storylines and takes forever to get out of the starting gate. The action sequences are protracted and dizzying, yet are strangely absent of peril. Steppenwolf (the 70s called and want their rock band back) is a serviceable villain, but we already know he will be no match for Superman during their inevitable, climactic showdown. Steppenwolf’s (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) insectoid minions’ only function is to prevent the team from joining forces…because if that happened, the movie would be over in five minutes. The MacGuffins in this film are the three Mother Boxes (dumb name), which serve a similar function as Marvel’s Infinity Stones. Nothing new here. The movie makes an attempt at providing some personal background for each of the JL team members as well as some meaningful exchanges between the characters, like the lakeside chat between Bruce Wayne (Affleck) and Diana Prince (Gadot), but such efforts are still insufficient and perfunctory amid the rapid succession of action sequences. Other ancillary characters, like Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons), are given ridiculously little to do in the film. Likewise, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is called upon to be a Superman whisperer when her buffo boyfriend goes off the rails. Cyborg’s father, Silas Stone (Joe Morton), also has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part. The film’s tone is its Kryptonite. Much of the color has been removed from the picture so that the overall aesthetic is dismal and seedy, like a Batman comic book, but certainly not like a colorful Superman book. The story perfectly mirrors the tone…everything is done in earnest with a level of seriousness that allows only the occasional joke to penetrate the movie’s hard-boiled, world-weary exterior. By way of comparison, JL is less like Wonder Woman and more like Batman v Superman. In that regard, the studio is moving in the wrong direction. Bottom line: JL is a bleak blunder. It’s case in point for why Marvel is winning the comic book war, at least on the big screen. Marvel’s movies have become more colorful and humorous, while DCs have become increasingly dire, drab and dreary. DC’s gloomy outlook may be an accurate reflection of the world we live in, but Marvel’s optimistic, fun-filled adventures perfectly portray the world we want to live in. Is there any question why Marvel’s films continue to be more financially, commercially and critically successful than DC’s? If DC doesn’t step up its game, it will continue to Marvel at the success of its competitor.

Murder on the Orient Express (PG-13)

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Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Kenneth Branagh
November 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The standard opening would say something like: “Based on the novel by Agatha Christie…” In this case, it’s more accurate to say: Loosely based on the novel of the same name by Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express is a modern retelling of Christie’s seminal mystery yarn. Much to its detriment, this version of Christie’s magnum opus is more concerned with casting Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) as a superstar sleuth in the mold of Sherlock Holmes than as the humble, working man’s detective from the source material. The “loosely” argument is bolstered by the fact that director Branagh makes several significant alterations to the literary classic, the first of which comes during the movie’s opening when Poirot solves a mystery in the style of Holmes. Unfortunately, the case is exceedingly conventional and the specifics are muddled. We have no interest in the people involved in the whodunit since we just met them and could care less about the caper itself because we have no investment in its outcome. The whole sequence is gratuitous since it was designed solely for the purpose of demonstrating how marvelous a detective Poirot is…which we’ll figure out anyway once the titular murder has been committed. These are wasted minutes that could’ve been used for developing back stories or laying out the details of the homicide—both of which are cursory to the extreme in Branagh’s Murder. The procedural elements are breezed through—the clues (handkerchief with an embroidered H, pipe cleaner, broken watch and, later, scarlet kimono) are discussed in less than 30 seconds and the specifics of the murder (i.e., number of stabs, where and how severe the blows were, etc.) only take up about a minute of screen time. So what does Branagh spend the balance of the film on? Good question. It certainly isn’t on character development. Indeed, we get to know these train passengers far less than their counterparts in Sidney Lumet’s version of Murder (1974). That iteration of Christie’s book also had a decorated cast (Albert Finney, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, Ingrid Bergman, et al.), but it could be argued that individuals in that movie were two-dimensional too. Branagh spends a few minutes of screen time on establishing shots of the train rolling along the European countryside. It’s a nice add since the technology didn’t exist in the 70s to create these sweeping, aerial landscape shots. However, the double-edged sword of technology is that it draws attention to itself. Here, our first impression is, “Wow, gorgeous vista,” and then our second thought is, “And it’s been rendered to death by CG artists.” As for the cinematography, Branagh makes the most of the cramped train set by using clever camera angles. Branagh employs a high angle shot twice—once when the body of loathsome Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is discovered and then during the examination of the corpse. One instance would’ve been sufficient, twice is overkill. Plus, both shots are long takes, which are more enjoyable for their artistic achievement than for their viewing pleasure. Another “loosely” item is the scene where Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), who’s a doctor instead of a colonel in this rendition, shoots Poirot. Though his motivation is to protect Mary (Daisy Ridley), the good doctor earlier averred that he couldn’t harm a fly. This is the kind of inconsistency that drives Poirot, and savvy spectators, mad. Of course, the shooting serves the story as both a red herring and an action interlude, so its inclusion is understandable, if unacceptable. The next scene also has plenty of new material in it. For starters, none of the characters leave the train in Christie’s book. Here, all of the suspects sit at a table (where did it come from?) inside a train tunnel: the obvious visual antecedent here is da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” This is the setting where Poirot solves the case, albeit in a less streamlined and cogent manner than in the book and earlier film. In particular, the two possible solutions aren’t explained very clearly. A compelling new scene involves Poirot offering himself up as a sacrificial lamb so that the guilty parties can go free. Poirot places a gun on the table, which affords the conspirators an opportunity to silence him. In a shocking twist, Mrs. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) grabs the gun and tries to off herself. Though not without entertainment value, this story embellishment falls flat when we learn that the gun is empty, making the whole sequence a pointless exercise, other than to generate some faux tension. Once the case has been solved and the train freed from the snow drift, the movie should come to an end. But the denouement is dragged out so that we can observe Poirot heading off to his next case—again, it’s obvious, and somewhat pathetic, that Branagh is so determined to portray Poirot as an in demand, top-shelf detective when he knows that the Belgium sleuth carries none of the clout or name recognition (at least in America) as Holmes, Spade, Marlowe or Hammer. Michael Green’s adaptation of Christie’s book is disappointing on so many levels there isn’t even a word to describe how poor his efforts are. Everything in the plot is done hastily. Like a runaway train, the story steamrolls along to its inevitable, predictable resolution. The elegance of Christie’s tale is in how it selectively dispenses clues and gradually reveals the motivations of its diverse, yet unified, characters. All of this is lost in Branagh’s Murder, which, in the end, is just a Reader’s Digest version of Christie’s masterwork. Murder’s expedience is its undoing. That’s a bitter reality since the film wastes a fine central performance by Branagh (which is much more enjoyable to watch than Finney’s, in my opinion). It’s also sad that the considerable talents of the rest of the spectacular cast were wasted on such perfunctory material. Ironically, that’s an even bigger crime than the one committed in the movie.

Blade Runner 2049 (R)

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Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Ryan Gosling
October 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

A sequel 35 years in the making, Blade Runner 2049 is a respectable, if not orbit-altering, follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult classic, Blade Runner. There are several key production aspects to discuss right up front: First, even though Scott is a producer on the film, he didn’t direct it. That honor fell to Denis Villeneuve, who helmed the visually stunning, style-over-substance Arrival last year (more on the movie later). So why didn’t Scott direct the sequel himself? Unknown. What is known is that Villeneuve does a remarkable job of marrying his visual style to the aesthetic Scott established in the first film. The latest iteration of Runner’s future shock society is both a logical extension of the original’s style and a tribute to the cosmopolitan, seedy, neon world brought to life by Scott and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth. Another keen production decision was to show a progression of design elements to reflect the sensibilities of the era—the first film was set in 2019, thirty years earlier than the sequel. If possible, things are even more dingy and rundown in the new film. Also, the showgirl sexploitation in the original has been digitized and supersized—a ten story tall nude woman interacts with oglers on the street. Just as our society has made a giant out of the porn industry since 1982 (due in large part to the internet), so too have the inhabitants of Runner’s neo-noir dystopia. Another scene depicts huge hovering trash trucks dumping garbage onto a vast plain, filled with segregated piles of trash a la the opening of WALL-E (2008). The environmental message here is clear. This setting becomes the locus of a brief, yet intense, action scene involving Ryan Gosling’s Officer K (not to be confused with Agents J and K from the Men in Black movies). Ironically, Gosling’s co-star had a memorable trash sequence of his own forty years earlier in Star Wars (1977). That co-star, of course, is Harrison Ford, who reprises his role as Rick Deckard, the central character from the first film. There’s good and bad news here. The good news is that Ford is extremely effective in his scenes, especially during the denouement (see below). The bad news is that Ford doesn’t show up until the movie’s halfway mark. Gosling and Ford appear to have good screen chemistry, but the sample size of their shared scenes is so small, it’s difficult to positively affirm that observation. Another original cast member, Edward James Olmos, appears here too. Sadly, Olmos is only in one scene and looks like Colonel Sanders with his gray mustache and pointed goatee. Other cast members shine in limited roles, such as: Dave Bautista, Jared Leto, Robin Wright and Mackenzie Davis. The production elements are finely crafted and are wholly immersive. Particularly eye-catching are the interior sets, which are lit with otherworldly hues or mesmerizing water ripple effects. If there’s one area of the movie that doesn’t succeed it’s the overlong, onerous, obtuse screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green (based on the story by Philip K. Dick). In general, the “show-don’t-tell” cardinal rule of writing should be followed to the letter. Here, that maxim is taken to the extreme as characters are often shown in contemplative poses or gazes for so long, you can get your popcorn refilled and still not miss anything. True, a plot should never be spelled out, but the audience needs something to go on. A string of scenes that “show-show-show” with no dialog, exposition or contextualization, can become tedious, as exemplified by this film. Granted, the pressure to follow up the original film with another instant classic must’ve been oppressive for the writers, but the insistence on skewing so far to the art side of the spectrum, while forgetting that a broad swath of the audience was drawn to the film for its commercial elements, was a serious miscalculation. Much like Villeneuve’s Arrival, Runner 2 has sacrificed meaning and accessibility for style points. Was the tradeoff worth it? Time, and ticket stubs, will tell. The seaside struggle is an intense sequence, but certainly isn’t the nail-biting climax the film needed to drive the story home. However, the final series of scenes are the finest in the film and help to boost its rating far above that of the refuse heaps of standard movies. Villeneuve stages some symbolic and synergistic parallel action sequences between Officer K and Deckard at movie’s end. K lies back on concrete steps as snow (in L.A.) sprinkles down around him. It’s a gorgeous shot, but I half expected Gosling to make a snow angel—perhaps he did in an outtake. The scene inside the building, where Deckard meets his daughter, Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), for the first time, is much more meaningful. Deckard places his hand on the glass wall that separates him from his daughter. It’s a moving scene of connection despite the division of walls and years. Ironically, we saw this same pose in another 1982 sci-fi release, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, when Kirk holds his hand against the Plexiglas wall that isolates him from a dying Spock. Now would be an appropriate time to mention that Ford is a tremendous “hand” actor. He channels enormous energy into scenes where he points an accusatory finger at someone (The Fugitive and Clear and Present Danger) and is also marvelous at grabbing and using objects around him (numerous instances in the Indiana Jones films, especially the idol scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark). Here, the simple action of placing his hand on a translucent wall carries with it tremendous power—the scene literally sent chills up my spine. It was the first time in the film I felt any kind of emotion. Sadly, it was the final shot of the movie. In the end, there can be no doubt that Runner 2 is a worthy film in its own right and that it has moved the series forward without being an embarrassment to the original. However, Runner 2, like its robotic replicants, has little emotion and heart. Still, Runner 2 is a beautiful film that bears repeat viewings to uncover all of its hidden meanings and Easter eggs. Speaking of which, Ana is creating snow with her hands when Deckard walks in to meet her. Is this the same snow that’s drifting down onto Officer K? And if so, is his character real? Or just dreaming? Of electric sheep?

Only the Brave (PG-13)

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Directed by: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Josh Brolin
October 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Like many based-on-a-true-story films, Only the Brave suffers from an ironic dichotomy—our familiarity with the firefighter film (Backdraft, Ladder 49, etc.) ignites our interest in seeing it, but our knowledge of the actual account (or educated guess based on viewing the trailer) renders the story more than a little predictable. However, there are some decent character moments in the film: particularly Brendan McDonough’s (Miles Teller) inspirational recovery from a drug addiction and Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) and Amanda Marsh’s (Jennifer Connelly) struggles in dealing with Eric’s dangerous job and his unwillingness to have kids. The subplot of how Eric’s crew becomes (through rigorous training and physical fitness) the first municipal fire department in the U.S. to be certified as Hotshots is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the film. Sadly, most of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, save for James Badge Dale’s Jesse Steed and Taylor Kitsch’s Christopher MacKenzie, are given cursory character development (aside from cursing a blue string and making crass jokes) and are nothing more than set dressing. Jeff Bridges and Andie MacDowell have a few meaningful scenes but, sadly, only serve an ancillary function in the story. The blazing infernos are both star of the movie and unpredictable, all-consuming villain. The movie’s visual effects are exceptional—never do we sense that we’re looking at CG flames or plumes of smoke. Though purely perceptual, it’s almost possible to feel heat radiating from the screen when a wall of flame rapidly advances on the firefighters. These scenes are terrifying and trilling all at the same time. If the film has a downside it’s the ending, which stays just this side of being schmaltzy. Some scenes are played for emotional effect, like when Brendan insists on going to the gym after the fateful fire. Since the word has gotten out that there was only one survivor, Brendan’s appearance effectively crushes the hopes of the other Hotshot wives (and Brendan’s wife isn’t even among the community members keeping vigil for the firefighters…contrived). Despite its inevitable outcome, shallow characterizations and miscues during the denouement, Brave is a quality entertainment and a sobering reminder of how selfless firefighters throw themselves into harm’s way to protect us and nature. May we never forget the sacrifice of these fallen heroes.

The Dark Tower (PG-13)

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Directed by: Nikolaj Arcel
Starring: Idris Elba
August 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Having read the first book of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower novel series in advance of viewing the film of the same name, I’m disappointed in director Nikolaj Arcel’s efforts on several levels. First, only about ten minutes of the movie comes from the first book (primarily the Western scenes). Second, none of the atmosphere (“They could see the smooth, stepped rise of the desert into foothills, the first naked slopes, the bedrock bursting through the skin of the earth in sullen, eroded triumph”), poetry (“Time’s the thief of memory”) or visual vitality (“The guns did their work, stitching the darkness with red-white lances of light that pushed needles of pain into the gunslinger’s eyes”) of King’s book has been translated onto the big screen. Third, in the mold of Percy Jackson & The Olympians (2010) and The 5thWave (2016), The Dark Tower is told through the eyes of a young teenager and has that family-friendly, teen peril vibe to it that belies the book’s somber, sullied soul. Indeed, the book is much more adult (bars, brothels and bullet storms) than the movie and focuses on the exploits of the adults: Roland/the Gunslinger (Idris Elba) and Walter/the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey). Although the stars are well suited (and enjoyably cast against type) to their roles, they both seem bored with the material. Much like his stiff portrait in Pacific Rim (2013), Elba turns in a one-note performance here. McConaughey, who is supposed to be playing a latter-day grim reaper, is not nearly as menacing as he should be in the role. Case in point: Walter verbally abuses one of his minions for having a rat face. By contrast, Darth Vader would’ve just Force choked the offensive underling and signaled for the body to be dragged off. The best part of the film is Tom Taylor as Jake. Jake, who has visions and powers (chief among them is his skill with a pencil and art pad), is an interesting character that, due to the uninspired writing by Akiva Goldsman, et al., never develops into anything more than Roland’s 2D sidekick. In the end, the film’s commercialized story is its Achilles’ heel, since adherence to the source material would’ve made for a subtly nuanced, psychologically complex pursuit film. The end result here is a glorified teen film that attempts to emulate the visual ingenuity of The Matrix (1999) and Doctor Strange (2016), but ends up resembling (in quality if not movie magic) Tomorrowland (2015). King’s early masterwork deserved a much better cinematic fate.

Dunkirk (PG-13)

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Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead
July 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Who else but Christopher Nolan (Inception) would be ambitious, or insane, enough to helm a film that depicts one of the worst military defeats in history? Based on the true account of how British and French forces were cut off and surrounded by the German army with their backs to the sea, Dunkirk is a prime example of how military intelligence often lives up to its reputation as an oxymoron. With the large troop transports blasted into flotsam, a flotilla of fishing boats and pleasure yachts was mobilized to rescue the 330,000 soldiers stranded on the beach at Dunkirk, France. But with enemy planes bombing the beachhead, the stranded soldiers were the very definition of sitting ducks. The film’s action takes place in three different arenas: land (getting off the beach), sea (boarding boats and evading enemy bombs) and air (destroying inbound enemy fighters and bombers). As would be expected with a Nolan film, the action sequences are absolutely mind-blowing and the cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema is meticulously crafted. Some of the finest sequences in the film are the dogfights, which effectively meld newer camera techniques with the shuddering, metal shearing, bolt-popping rawness of a classical Hollywood war film. The performances are adequate to the task, but there’s a dearth of dialog and a surfeit of long, penetrating gazes in the film. Case in point, the great Kenneth Branagh (as Commander Bolton) is reduced to a series of slow zoom close-ups that make him appear as if he’s struggling to hold in a suppository. Likewise, James D’Arcy (as Colonel Winnant) does little more than pace back and forth in a state of perpetual agitation, fretfully delivering the same line a dozen different ways over the course of the film. Young performers Fionn Whitehead and Damien Bonnard do the majority of the physical acting, but really aren’t given much to say either. Ironically, the character we are most drawn to is ace pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy), whose face is partially concealed for the majority of the movie. Also ironic is the fact that the film’s biggest drawback is Nolan’s writing. The cause and effect narrative takes us from one event, happening or action scene to the next with very little, if any, character moments in between. Dunkirk’s narrative is comprised of a series of storyboarded sequences and, as such, plays like a cinematic comic strip. The lack of character development leads to a disinterest in the few characters that actually have lines in the film. Indeed, due to the dearth of emotional investment in the characters, we don’t really sympathize with them at all. Though vastly different in theme and tone, Dunkirk is exactly what Titanic would’ve been without the love story. The reason Titanic was a titular success is that James Cameron crafted real characters that we could identify with so that when the inevitable disaster struck we were right there with them, in essence inhabiting their bodies and experiencing the tragedy with them firsthand. Aside from its marvelous acting, directing, detailed period elements and high production values, it’s that immediacy, that soul-possessing intimacy, which made the movie resonate so powerfully with audiences. In Dunkirk, we never get under the skin of the characters…everything is external. Because Dunkirk is so well made, scores of people will disagree with my assessment of the film. However, how much more powerful would the film have been if our connection with the characters was so strong that we could feel the sand between our toes as we stood beside the soldiers or felt the bone-jarring concussion of the bombs impacting on the beach? Taking nothing away from Nolan, who is a fine director in his own right, but in the hands of Steven Spielberg, who would’ve sent the script back for a massive rewrite insisting on richer back stories and more poignant character moments, Dunkirk would’ve been a four star film and Best Picture nominee.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (PG-13)

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Directed by: Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland
July 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Sam Raimi helmed the three numbered Spider-Man films spotlighting Tobey Maguire, Marc Webb directed the two Amazing Spider-Man flicks featuring Andrew Garfield and Jon Watts is the shot caller behind the new subtitled wall-crawler series starring Tom Holland. Despite the changing faces on both sides of the camera, Spider-Man has remained a juggernaut at the box office over the past fifteen years. This sixth Spider-Man film makes a wise decision right out of the gate—it skips the spider bite origin story, which we’ve seen ad nauseam by now, and instead gives the movie context by cleverly showing a POV camcorder recording of Spider-Man’s derring-do during the climactic battle in Captain America: Civil War (2016). Kudos to Watts and his team of five writers for electing not to waste an hour of screen time on Spidey’s back story before initiating the actual story. The film opens eight years in the past and shows foreman Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) losing a contract to the government while cleaning up the debris after the NYC alien invasion as depicted in The Avengers (2012). Toomes discovers some alien technology in the rubble, fashions it into a bird suit and becomes villain Vulture (to remain consistent with Keaton’s other avian themed characters in Batman and Birdman). Meantime, Peter Parker (Holland) is desperately trying to impress a girl he’s crushing on at school while keeping up his grades and maintaining an internship (wink, wink) with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) can tell Peter is going through some difficulties, but chalks it up to normal teenage changes. Peter’s friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), provides some comic relief, and becomes trusted assistant (like Stark’s Happy Hogan) when he accidentally stumbles onto the secret of Peter’s alter ego. The story heats up about halfway into the film when Spidey spies on an illegal weapon’s exchange one night. After clumsily blowing his own cover (the fiery red suit certainly doesn’t help on recon missions), Spidey unwittingly interrupts the shady dealings of Vulture’s men, which sets off a chain reaction that eventually pits Spidey and Vulture in mortal combat. The film’s resolution pretty much dictates itself from there. There’s a good deal of high school angst in the movie, especially in the early goings, which hearkens back to the very first film. These scenes establish the setting and characters, provide background for Peter and are effective in showing the exigencies of his daily life, which, of course, is a stark contrast to his life at night. Although necessary for grounding the film and giving us a glimpse into the struggles of the real person behind the mask, these school scenes, particularly the prom proceedings, feel like they were lifted right out of an ABC Family or CW drama. However, more so than McGuire and Garfield, Holland nails Peter’s wide-eyed, overly idealistic and adorably naïve characteristics. Peter’s two caring, if absentee, guardians—May and Stark—offer him drive-by advice, but never when he needs it most…like when he discovers the identity of his archnemesis. As for Vulture, Keaton delivers an exceedingly restrained performance, especially when compared to the prototypical Marvel antagonist. We can identify with Toomes because he’s just an ordinary guy who makes a bad decision for the right reason…to provide for his family (and stick it to the government). Refreshingly, Keaton’s voice doesn’t change for effect, nor does he become more bombastic in speech and manner while inhabiting Vulture’s wing suit. As such, Vulture is one of the most realistic comic book movie villains ever (ironically, the runner-up is Spider-Man 2’s Alfred Molina as Doc Ock). Sadly, Vulture never strikes fear into the viewer and doesn’t really test Spidey’s mettle, which is a significant narrative misfire. This Spidey outing avoids many of the gimmicks employed in the earlier movies, i.e. rescuing cats in trees, etc, and offers some humorous asides, like when Spidey runs out of buildings to sling webs from and must jog a mile across a golf course in order to respond to an emergency. Though slow in developing, Homecoming is an exciting superhero action film once the plot kicks into high gear. If the movie has any weak spots, it’s that the story is surprisingly light-weight and that Spidey can never truly spread his wings and fly due to the intermittent avuncular advice and canned wisdom from Iron Man and Captain America (Chris Evans), respectively. Expanding on that analogy, it’s time for Spidey to fly solo in the next film. Like its young star, this third attempt at launching a Spider-Man franchise has loads of potential. Now it’s time to see if the series can live up to that potential or collapse under the weight of it.

Cars 3 (G)

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Directed by: Brian Fee
Starring: Owen Wilson
June 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The first Cars (2006) won over audiences with its charm, palpable nostalgia and pulse-pounding action. Cars appropriated the talking toys concept from Toy Story (1995) and built an entire world out of vehicles, including: semi trucks, helicopters, buttes that resemble vintage cars, tiny VW Bug flies and cow tractors (who could forget the “tractor tipping” scene?). The sequel, Cars 2 (2011), was an ambitious but ultimately disappointing effort that took the action overseas to Europe and featured a story that was overstuffed with the exploits of superspy Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and an international scheme to rid the world of old or lemon cars—a subplot that was a little too on the bumper. Fortunately, the franchise is once again in pole position thanks to writer/director Brian Fee’s high octane and heartwarming story, which has returned the series to what made it such an enjoyable romp to begin with…meaningful themes couched in good old-fashioned fun. Lightning McQueen’s (Owen Wilson) career has come full circle: in the first film he was a self-centered rookie, but now the veteran racer is one loss away from forced retirement, which will doom him to pitching mud flaps for the rest of his rusty existence. When McQueen suffers a catastrophic accident, his future in the sport is placed in serious jeopardy. This tragedy recalls Doc Hudson’s (Paul Newman) similar career ending crash in the original Cars. How McQueen reacts to his situation will determine his fate: will he retire, as Doc did, or will he get back into shape and acquire the eye of the tiger? Yes, that was a Rocky reference. And yes, Cars 3 is replete with Rocky allusions, like the beach race between trainer and trainee as seen in Rocky III (1982). Also, there’s a conspicuous evocation of Rocky IV (1985) in the way upstart rookie Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) uses the latest virtual technology to train while McQueen, under the tutelage of Doc’s former trainer Smokey (Chris Cooper), gets back to the basics by driving on dirt tracks and practicing “sneak through the window” agility tests, which require him to weave in and out of a herd of meandering cow tractors on a highway. Fortunately, this subplot is skillfully and judiciously woven into the narrative so as to avoid being a blatant rip-off of Rocky. Another carefully measured story element is McQueen’s yellow training car Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). Even though Cruz, the only female lead (Bonnie Hunt’s Sally only appears when McQueen needs a pep talk or swift kick in the fender), isn’t introduced until about halfway through the film, she has the most compelling story arc. Insidiously, Pixar tricks us into thinking the movie’s main character is McQueen when it’s really Cruz. Did I say insidious? I meant ingenious. While most of the characters from the earlier films have bit parts here, there are a few new side characters worth mentioning, including: Nathan Fillion as duplicitous tycoon Sterling, Kerry Washington as overconfident sports commentator Natalie Certain and Lea DeLaria as terrifying, bull-like school bus Miss Fritter. Aside from all of its kid-friendly silliness, i.e., the demolition derby at the Thunder Hollow speedway, there’s also plenty here for adults, particularly for those who have entered middle age or have felt the sting of being replaced by a young, ambitious hotshot at work. On the bright side, this film is a beautiful example of how a torch passed from generation to generation (Smokey to Doc to McQueen to Cruz) can pave the way to a lasting legacy far more lustrous than a showcase full of Piston Cup trophies. It’s like the “circle of life” with cars and trucks instead of lions and warthogs. So where does the series go from here? Can one-note Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and a doting McQueen sustain another movie? Is it time to turn things over to Cruz and a younger generation of race cars (which will inspire a whole new line of toy cars for kids to blow their allowance money on)? Regardless of whether it takes another lap or makes a permanent pit stop, the Cars series has been one wild ride.

Wonder Woman (PG-13)

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Directed by: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Gal Gadot
June 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Let’s face it, the best part of last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was the arrival of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) during the epic confrontation. Providing some much needed vitality and panache to a mostly ponderous and lackluster film, Wonder Woman’s presence served the dual function of saving one film and instilling confidence in her ability to carry another. As it turns out, that confidence was well-placed since Wonder Woman is a far better film than that other one where the two squabbling male heroes needed the feminine touch to avert Doomsday. The first film to feature a female superhero opens with an elegant back story that gives us a glimpse into the early years of clay-made Diana (Lilly Aspell), who is raised on a paradise island among Amazon women—governed by Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright. We’re treated to a montage of well-choreographed training scenes, and then, quicker than you can yell “Princess of Themyscira,” Diana (Gadot) has transformed into an adult. Diana’s tranquil, idyllic life is suddenly disrupted by the arrival of a German plane that crashes into the ocean inside the protective dome created by Zeus (isn’t it supposed to be impenetrable?). Diana rescues the pilot, Captain Steve Trevor (not James Kirk), who is played by Chris Pine. Steve, a British spy who speaks with an American accent, is in possession of information that could prove instrumental in ending the war. Diana is also invested in the cessation of hostilities and assigns herself the task of destroying Ares, the god of war. But will their opposing views on how to stop the bloodshed create its own conflict between Diana and Steve? Set during WWI, WW is a curious cross-universe twin of Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), which took place during World War II and also featured a super-strong hero armed with an impervious, circular shield and an unerring moral compass. Was setting WW in 1918 instead of the post-Doomsday present a misstep? Hard to say, but the film’s quality certainly doesn’t suffer from the decision over its milieu. Gadot and Pine have excellent chemistry together and the other performers offer stellar support, especially Danny Huston and David Thewlis. WW contains the optimal balance of story to action…let’s hope the upcoming Justice League follows that same formula. And why no Superman in JL? Wasn’t DC’s long game with Man of Steel (2013) and BVS to have Henry Cavill, along with Ben Affleck and Gadot, headline JL—a strategy filched wholesale from rival Marvel, which set up The Avengers franchise with its raft of stand-alone superhero showcases? Superman’s conspicuous absence from JL not only squanders Cavill’s talents, but also sidelines one of the most recognizable superheroes in the world from anchoring a film that’s been in the planning stages for years. Well, at least Wonder Woman will appear in JL. She’s proven herself to be a solid reliever as well as a dependable starter. WW is the best DC movie since Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Will wonders never cease?

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (PG-13)

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Directed by: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt
May 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The first Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) seemed to come out of left field—some obscure corner of the Marvel universe where the studio’s typical mock earnestness and platitudinous dialog was hastily jettisoned out the nearest airlock in favor of irreverent jibes and free-flowing wisecracks—and was wildly successful due to its star power and effective mixture of laugh-a-minute antics and mind-blowing action sequences. Sadly, that approach hasn’t been altered even one iota in the sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. It’s hard to believe that such a successful formula could become outdated so quickly, but this follow-up film suffers from a severe case of sequelitis. Though GOTG2 isn’t quite perfunctory, the story feels rushed along…it’s as if director/writer James Gunn, in his haste to return to this hugely popular and financially lucrative franchise, forgot to develop a plot and simply reheated the leftovers from the first film. Rocket (Bradley Cooper) generates a few laughs, but his shtick is predictable and almost annoying this time around. Although sapling Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is absolutely adorable, the bits where he fails to deliver what Rocket wants are also worn from repetition by now. Drax’ (David Bautista) ego is as enormous as his pecs and his superpower is his ability to simultaneously annoy Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and the audience. The movie’s saving grace (aside from the brief cameo by Sylvester Stallone), is its writ large theme of reconciliation. The temporary truce between warring sisters, Gamora and Nebula (Karen Gillan), makes for a mildly diverting subplot. Yondu (Michael Rooker), minor antagonist in the first film, finds redemption (albeit on a false note) here as Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) surrogate father. Peter’s real father arrives on a ship that looks like a gigantic egg, introduces himself as Ego, claims to own a planet and is played by none other than Kurt Russell…how ironic that Russell’s career started with goofy Disney movies and that he’s returned to the fold now that the Mouse House owns Marvel. The circle is now complete. And speaking of Star Wars, there’s a palpable Vader/Luke vibe going on when Ego tries tempting Peter into turning his back on his friends and accompanying him on a quest to rule the universe (Russell and Pratt have excellent chemistry in these scenes). It would’ve been a clever twist to show Peter testing out his newfound abilities—reveling in the unlimited power at his disposal to create whatever his heart desired—just to make us think that he might follow his dad to the Dark Side. But this film wouldn’t know what to do with that kind of subtlety, intrigue or complexity. For better or worse, GOTG2 is a straightforward action piece. Though this sequel will be a disappointment to many, there’s enough overblown action and overstated jokes to appeal to the popcorn set. Here’s hoping the eventual sequel will bring back the thrill ride exhilaration of the first film and replace these cardboard characters with the genuine articles from the original. And where is John C. Reilly?

The Case for Christ (PG)

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Directed by: Jon Gunn
Starring: Mike Vogel
April 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Based on the true story of how Chicago Tribune reporter, Lee Strobel (Mike Vogel), set out to debunk Christianity in the early 80s, The Case for Christ is a challenging biopic that proceeds in an investigative manner and delivers its evidence fairly and without being overly preachy. As a stone cold atheist, Lee launches into a zealous, one-man crusade to discredit Christianity when his wife, Leslie (Erika Christensen), starts attending church and becomes a follower of Jesus. Lee embarks on a cross-country trek to discover the truth, interviewing experts on both sides of the argument. In the end, Lee comes to the realization that either way, believing or not believing in Christ, requires a leap of faith. Vogel (Under the Dome) and Christensen (Parenthood) are effective in their leading roles as a couple struggling to reconcile their divergent worldviews. Robert Forster, as Lee’s estranged father, and Faye Dunaway, as a professor of psychiatry at Purdue University, are dependably good in their ancillary roles. The coifs and costumes are all appropriate to the milieu, as are the product placements, i.e., the yellow bottle of Joy dish soap and Lee’s Motorola pocket pager. For a pro-faith film, this is an impressive production, especially when considering the quality of the typical Christian film. In the end, no matter which side of the argument you’re on, you must admit that this movie makes a compelling case.

Life (R)

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Directed by: Daniel Espinosa
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal
March 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

It’s very tempting to call Life a cheap knockoff of Alien and just leave it at that. Actually, Life pilfers from other sci-fi movies too, like the recent Passengers. Both films open with a meteor shower wreaking havoc on a spaceship and end with one male and one female survivor who must save that ship and humanity as we know it. Granted, what lies between those narrative bookends is divergent to the extreme. The Alien comparison is more apropos since the bulk of Life’s story deals with a too strong, too fast and too smart creature that slinks about the ship picking off one cardboard character at a time. Like so many sci-fi and horror creature features these days, there’s no emotional impact when characters die because we have no personal connection to them—a failure on the part of the writers to customize personality traits and construct compelling back stories. But character development isn’t the only area of the movie where screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick were derelict. Plot holes large enough to fly a Soyuz spacecraft through bedevil a story that already has problems with pitch and yaw thanks to its derivative storyline and plot contrivances. These contrivances, designed to keep the thrills coming at a rapid pace, are so daft they make you want to throw your bucket of popcorn at the movie screen. Chief among these inanities is the poorly designed exhaust manifolds (or some other such technobabble) on the ship’s thrusters. The creature will enter the ship unless the crew engages the thrusters to flush it out of the engines, but commencing a burn will put the ship on a collision course with Earth’s atmosphere. So the lesser of two evils is to let the creature back into the ship where they hope to kill it, despite the fact that they didn’t even come close to doing so earlier. Utter tripe! The creature design and FX that brought it to life are absolutely spectacular. As such, the creature’s greatest flaw doesn’t come from the drawing board but from the script. Rhett and Wernick, along with director Daniel Espinosa, made the creature too indestructible. The fact that a Martian creature can thrive in an oxygen environment is dubious from the start, but when that squid-like blob can outsmart humans at every turn…on their own turf? C’mon! At the very least, you’d expect the stellar cast to be able to pull the story out of its tailspin, but due to the poorly drawn characterizations, such is not the case. The fact that Ryan Reynolds’ wise-cracking character (a slightly toned down version of the titular antihero in Deadpool) can never keep his mouth shut is ultimately his undoing. Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson make the most of what they’re given, which isn’t much aside from running and shouting. One of the only things the film gets right is that the black guy (Ariyon Bakare) isn’t the first character to die. However, this one eschewed stereotype doesn’t make up for the virtual procession of tired thriller tropes employed by the movie. Well, there you have it—this is Life or something like it. Actually, due to its hunter/hunted plot, this movie should’ve been called Death. Unless you’re pulling for the Martian creature, in which case the current title works just fine.

Logan (R)

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Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Hugh Jackman
March 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Logan is Hugh Jackman’s ninth X-Men film and his third solo outing as Wolverine. Sadly, after seventeen years of portraying feral mutant, Logan marks Jackman’s final appearance in the franchise. Just as attrition has finally set in for the 48-year-old actor, Logan can no longer heal as quickly as when he was younger and feels the sting of every bullet that impacts on his adamantium exoskeleton more acutely than in his prime. Whereas Logan’s pain is physical, Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) is mental. In fact, the usually well composed Professor X, Logan’s longtime mentor, is losing his mind to the ravages of dementia. If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if Professor X got really mad and unleashed all of his mental powers into one furious barrage (like Cyclops without his shades), you’ll definitely want to keep an eye out for the movie’s psionic blast sequences…amazing FX. For two characters who started off on rough footing, Charles and Logan have become good friends; you might say they’re almost like a non-related father and son. The scenes where Logan, dutiful son, takes care of Charles, aging parent, are genuinely moving. It’s profoundly sad to see such a brilliant a mind wasting away, but Father Time eventually catches up to everyone, even mutants it would seem. The film’s family connection extends to Laura (Dafne Keen), a young girl who exhibits Logan’s ferocity while fighting and possesses his ability to rapid heal. Logan, directed by James Mangold (Walk the Line), is essentially a pursuit film with Logan attempting to outrun his past so that he can simply fade into obscurity. Although there are plenty of elaborately choreographed action sequences, the story occasionally stops to corral stray horses, which detours the through-line and delays the film’s mission. These scenes are a double-edged sword since they slow down the action in order to provide meaningful character moments, which effectively ground the story and prevent its more spectacular elements from running away with the show. Still, without episodes like the dinner at the farmer’s house, the film would have far less heart. Once the “special” bullet (similar in concept to a silver bullet for a werewolf) is introduced we have a pretty good idea of how it will be used—and, indeed, the ending is painfully obvious. Even though Wolverine’s demise is precipitated by a pulse-pounding fight sequence, he still deserved a more spectacular, more heroic sendoff. However, the scene where Logan passes the torch to the next generation of mutant heroes is heartwarming. So where does the franchise go from here? Will Marvel bestow Wolvie’s claws, laconic speech and rugged mien on a younger actor? Will Laura lead a whole new team of mutants? One thing’s for sure, the X-Men franchise will never be the same. But we can take solace in knowing that Logan/Jackman went out on top in, arguably, the first mature superhero movie ever made.

La La Land (PG-13)

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Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling
December 2016

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

During the opening musical number in La La Land, appropriately staged on a L.A. freeway, I thought: “Dear God, what have I gotten myself into?” Based on that intro, I thought the remainder of the movie would be comprised of similarly elaborate musical numbers performed at regular intervals throughout the film. Much to my relief, I was wrong. The movie quickly transforms into an engaging romance/drama with only the occasional song and dance number interspersed throughout the narrative. What ensues is a follow-your-dreams tale where Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling piano player, wants to open his own jazz club and Mia (Emma Stone), a frustrated barista, wants to become a famous actress. Writer/director Damien Chazelle cannily delays the romance between Sebastian and Mia by arranging a series of anti-meet cutes, which should be a sign to the couple that their love affair is destined to be ill-fated. Casablanca (1942) is referenced a few times in the film and holds obvious significance for the star-crossed couple, particularly in how both films end. LLL seeks to tap into the brilliance of such masterpieces as Casablanca for its dramatic passages and Singin’ in the Rain (1952) for its musical routines. The film is brimming with classical Hollywood nods like the old film posters that adorn the walls of Mia’s bedroom and the Sebastian and Mia’s screening of Rebel Without a Cause (1955) at the Rialto Theater. As such, LLL is a reimagining of the Hollywood musical, a largely retired genre. Ironically, relying so heavily on Golden Age Hollywood themes and iconography has proven to be a double-edged sword for the film. On the one hand, the heavy quotation of vintage films has established the film’s look, mood and atmosphere as well as produced feelings of nostalgia in viewers enamored with such films. On the flip side, it could be argued that the film relies too heavily on early Hollywood tropes and that such an effort was done intentionally, to play on viewer’s emotions and to pander to those in the industry, particularly Academy members. Either way, LLL fails to achieve its goal since it doesn’t adhere to classical modes of storytelling. Indeed, the movie is a mélange of genres (comedy/drama/musical/romance) and is, perhaps, too ambitious for attempting to combine so many disparate story elements. One of those aspects is the jazz appreciation subplot. Whereas keeping the arts alive is an important endeavor, the obvious validation of jazz as an essential, vibrant art form is foisted on the audience and such advocacy is just one more objective the film tries to accomplish. Though many of the film’s romance scenes feel trite, Chazelle’s concluding “the life that would have been” parallel action device is brilliantly executed and infuses the film with an unexpectedly bittersweet resolution. In the end, LLL’s story is the only thing that holds it back from becoming an instant classic. The film’s directing, acting, production values, locations, cinematography and music (especially Justin Hurwitz’ “City of Stars,” which has a wistful “Moon River” quality) are all off the charts. Gosling and Stone’s (in their third movie collaboration) screen chemistry is so searing it nearly makes the film melt, something that actually happens during Sebastian and Mia’s screening of Rebel. There’s far more that works here than doesn’t, and at the end of the day, the film’s unique vision has broadened the appeal and potential for the modern musical. LLL seems to be a strong contender to win Best Picture. It just depends on what Academy voters are in the mood for this year: depressing drama (Hell or High Water, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight), historical biopic (Hacksaw Ridge, Hidden Figures), inspiring true story (Lion), space invasion flick (Arrival), converted stage drama (Fences), or this film. We’ll find out soon enough.

Hacksaw Ridge (R)

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Directed by: Mel Gibson
Starring: Andrew Garfield
November 2016

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

There are a number of similarities between Mel Gibson’s new World War II story, Hacksaw Ridge and the WWI set Sergeant York (1941). Hacksaw’s Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) and York’s Alvin C. York (Gary Cooper) are both devout Christians and conscientious objectors. Due to the sixth commandment in the Bible, both men object to war since war is killing. Both men face heat for their beliefs from their families, friends, fellow soldiers and commanding officers. However, the persecution is much more severe for Doss, who is berated and beaten by the men in his barracks for his refusal to bear arms. Ultimately, both men join the service, but for completely different reasons: Doss, who wants to heal people rather than kill them, becomes a medic while York, an expert marksman known for blasting his initials in trees and winning a local turkey shooting contest, decides to use his skills to protect the lives of his loved ones and to defend American freedom. The heroic actions of both men defy the conventions of reality and are two of the more inspirational stories in the annals of war. And both stories have been adapted into top-tier films. Hacksaw’s narrative is divided into thirds: the early stages are dedicated to Doss’s boyhood, where he roughhouses with his brother and is raised by a long-suffering mother, Bertha Doss (Rachel Griffiths), and ex-soldier alcoholic father, Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving), and his late teen years when he meets and marries Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). The middle of the film deals with the adversity Doss faces at boot camp and the ensuing court martial. The movie’s concluding chapters focus on Doss’s exploits in the war, specifically the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, one of the bloodiest struggles of WWII. During lulls in the action, Doss crawled over the corpse-riddled battlefield searching for survivors while evading Japanese patrols whose objective it was to kill any American soldiers still clinging to life. Doss devised an ingenious way of lowering casualties down the side of a cliff to safety—easily the most awe-inspiring, heart-stopping sequences in the film. In the end, Doss saved 75 lives without firing a single shot at the enemy. As such, Doss was the first ever non-combatant soldier to receive the Medal of Honor. Garfield is pitch-perfect in his portrayal of Doss; his flat affect and aw-shucks demeanor hasn’t been a natural fit for many of his roles, i.e., The Amazing Spider-Man films, but works wonders here. Weaving, best known for his roles in The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings films, paints a tragic portrait of a once-heroic man now controlled and triggered by the bottle. Vince Vaughn is a laugh-a-minute drill sergeant who injects some much needed comic relief into the story to counterbalance the movie’s horrific and grisly scenes. Griffiths is effective in an ancillary role and Palmer is delightful as the sweetheart nurse who first inspires Doss to become a healer. Sam Worthington plays one of Doss’ superior officers, Captain Jack Glover, a man who initially distrusts Doss but comes around when Doss heroically sacrifices himself for his squad mates. The biggest name in the film, of course, is director Mel Gibson. Gibson’s anti-Semitic remarks and longstanding troubles with alcohol have kept him on the outs with Hollywood for the better part of a decade now. Tom Doss’ character reflects some of Gibson’s struggles, so you can tell that this project was personal for the director. Those who are turned off by the non-stop action of the typical war film will find plenty of character scenes to offset the onslaught of action in the latter stages of the film. At its core, this is an anti-war war film. Hacksaw boasts fine performances, tremendous production values and an incredible true story. Just as Doss’ acts of valor redeemed him in the eyes of his fellow soldiers, hopefully Gibson’s efforts here will help him to regain a measure of respect from his Hollywood peers. We’ll see come awards season.

Moonlight (R)

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Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Mahershala Ali
November 2016

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Told in a Boyhood (2014) style, multi-decade storyline, Moonlight follows nine-year-old Chiron (Alex Hibbert) through his tumultuous teenage years (Ashton Sanders) and into his early adulthood (Trevante Rhodes). Chiron’s life is shaped by his home environment growing up; his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is strung out on drugs most of the time and his self-appointed mentor Juan (Mahershala Ali) is a drug dealer who, ironically, sells drugs to his mother. Since drugs have been such a big part of his life, Chiron chooses the only thing he’s ever known as an occupation: as a successful drug dealer, Chiron becomes the same kind of soulless monster that kept his mother sick and broke. Gender confusion plagues Chiron during his formative years but he eventually discovers that he’s gay, something others have known all along and have teased him about since he was a kid. Chiron tries to hook up with Kevin (Andre Holland), a friend he had created a memory with on a beach (under the moonlight) one night when they were teens. Kevin, who was recently released from jail, has a wife and kid and is happier than he’s ever been. So why would Kevin risk that hard-fought happiness on a one-night stand with Chiron? He wouldn’t. Yet, that’s how the movie ends…on a completely farcical note. Faulty motivations and gaps in logic like these adversely affect the film; an indie pic that, despite delivering a compelling character study, is a drab, glum and relentlessly bleak vision of growing up in our nation’s inner cities. The movie’s performances are excellent throughout, especially Harris and Ali. Harris’ portrayal of a mother addicted to sex and drugs is deeply disturbing but also startlingly realistic. Even though director Barry Jenkins makes the most of limited locations—shot in and around Miami, FL—the movie still ends up looking low budget. Moonlight’s unflinching examination of the exigencies of life in one impoverished region of the U.S. makes for a searingly poignant tale, if not an enjoyable entertainment. Authentic characterizations and graphic, gritty story notwithstanding, it’s hard to see how this film was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar with other more deserving films, like Sully and Allied, waiting in the wings. Coming off a polarizing election season and last year’s racially charged Oscar’s ceremony, Moonlight’s inclusion among the elite films for 2016 seems like a makeup call. After all, the Academy is nothing if not political.