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

2018

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

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