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

2019

Ford v Ferrari (PG-13)

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Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Matt Damon
November 2019


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 actual events that took place at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1966, Ford v Ferrari sets up a David v Goliath scenario where an American driving car brand (Ford) tries to dethrone the perennial champion Italian race car brand (Ferrari). To mix sports metaphors, if this sounds like the “Miracle on Ice” for the racetrack, you’re in the ballpark.

The movie opens at the 1959 Le Mans, where bleary-eyed Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) pushes through fatigue and rainy weather to win the famed European car race. Jump forward a few years to a board room meeting at the Ford Motor Co. Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) wants some new ideas to move the company forward. A member of the marketing team, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), comes up with a wild idea…a Ford race car.

Ford PR specialist, Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), enlists the aid of Shelby and his team of engineers to build a prototype car for the express purpose of defeating Ferrari at Le Mans. Though designing and building the car proves to be a colossal effort (especially since they’re only given 90 days), an even greater challenge is getting everyone to agree on who should drive the car. Shelby wants his long-time friend, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), but the Ford team wants anyone but the abrasive, hotheaded speedster. The drama that ensues has just as many treacherous turns as the legendary racetrack.

What initially attracted me to this film, after seeing the trailer, was the winning combination of Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Here are two A-list actors at the top of their game in perfectly-cast roles delivering pitch-perfect performances. Acting of this caliber is a joy to behold and screen chemistry this refined is a true rarity.

Fortunately, the great performances don’t end with Damon and Bale. The movie is chock-full of terrific supporting actors like Letts (
The Post), Lucas (Glory Road) and Bernthal (The Walking Dead). Other memorable performances are turned in by Caitriona Balfe (Outlander) as Miles’ wife Mollie, Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place) as Miles’ son Peter, and Ray McKinnon (Fear the Walking Dead) as Shelby’s reliable and wise assistant, Phil Remington.

Director James Mangold (
Walk the Line) strikes the perfect balance between character moments and action scenes, lest one or the other should drive away with the movie. Mangold captures gritty, organic performances from his actors. One of the most remarkable bits of acting is when Ford II breaks down after Shelby takes him on a test drive in the new race car. Letts masterfully modulates (gear shifts) his emotions to the point where we’re not quite sure if he’s laughing or crying. An unforgettable scene.

Although all of the movie’s race sequences are spectacular (like the unforgettable “brake fade” scene), the start of the Le Mans race is a ferocious, frenetic experience, especially the images shot from Miles’ POV, where cars spin out of control or shatter into mounds of debris right in front of him. Thanks to Mangold (and his cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael), the race scenes aren’t overly jarring or one big motion blur as seen in many action movies today. Also effective is the way Mangold crosscuts action on the track to drama (or comedy) in the pit.

The movie perfectly captures the milieu of the 60s. From clothes, coifs and cars, to products (sodas in glass bottles) and advertisements (a giant billboard of the Coppertone girl), the attention to historical detail in the film is remarkable.

Though all the main characters are well-drawn, Miles is a particularly fascinating character study. Despite his propensity to spout off about whatever’s on his mind (his critique of the new Ford Mustang is priceless), Miles has trouble communicating with his wife. Miles initially keeps her in the dark when he’s approached by Shelby to help design the new Ford race car. Later, when Mollie drives recklessly down the road (in a humorous role reversal, the race car driver has fits of anxiety over his wife’s driving), he finally confesses that he might be in line to drive at Le Mans. Interestingly, Miles’ Le Mans experience begins and ends with the words “slow down.”

Unlike with his wife, Miles has no problem talking with his son. There are two beautiful father/son scenes in the movie. The first is when Miles takes Peter out to the racetrack at night. Miles envisioning the “perfect lap” is a magical moment. On the eve of his departure to France, Peter shows his father a hand drawn map of the Le Mans race course. In another teary moment that reveals the special bond between father and son, Miles describes to Peter how to handle each part of the track.

The political tension between the suits and the grease monkeys is a diverting story element and serves a necessary role since there isn’t an actual villain in the movie. If there’s a downside to the constant friction between the pit and the box seats, it’s that it takes our attention away from the race. As a result of the political sidebars, the movie never quite captures the war of attrition that’s waged on the racetrack as was convincingly portrayed in Steve McQueen’s
Le Mans (1971).

In the final analysis,
Ford v Ferrari is a high-octane biopic fueled by sure-handed directing and top-tier acting. Though not an overt “buddy movie,” Damon and Bale deliver stellar performances as loyal friends who have a need for speed.

Ford v Ferrari is a long film that never feels long thanks to its bracing drama and pulse-pounding action sequences. The movie should receive nods in many categories come awards season.

Ford v Ferrari is a fairly clean and wholesome movie. The movie’s major blemish (grease stain) is that it’s inundated with unsavory dialog, specifically expletives and crass speech. Other than that caveat, the film is recommended for history buffs, gearheads or lovers of well produced films.

The most accurate description of the film comes from one of its most amusing lines…
Ford v Ferrari is “finer than frog fur.”

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4

Joker (R)

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Directed by: Todd Phillips
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix
October 2019


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!


If somebody said “Joker” in the 60s, the name Cesar Romero (from the
Batman TV show) would immediately come to mind. In the 80s, the Clown Prince of Crime received a sinister facelift from Jack Nicholson (in Tim Burton’s Batman movie). In the 90s, Joker was brilliantly voiced by Mark Hamill (in Batman: The Animated Series).

Of course, since 2008, the name Joker has become synonymous with Heath Ledger’s mesmerizing portrayal of the anarchic antagonist in
The Dark Knight (yes, Jared Leto played Joker in 2016s Suicide Squad, but his take on the madcap villain had neither the cultural relevance nor the staying power of Ledger’s). Even though it’s been over a decade since TDK captivated audiences worldwide, Ledger’s Academy Award-winning performance still looms large in people’s minds. In fact, many still struggle with accepting any other actor in the role.

But if anyone could pull off Joker, it would be Joaquin Phoenix…and he does, to a superlative degree. With all due deference to director Todd Phillips (
The Hangover) and the army of artisans who crafted this astounding cinematic achievement, what would Joker be without Phoenix? His performance is the very definition of what it means to chew scenery (in the positive sense). I could gush about Phoenix’ refinement as an artist ad nauseam, as every other reviewer will from here to Arkham, but there are many other worthy aspects of the film to assess as well.

Just as Phoenix’ acting choices will be analyzed by fans and film students for years to come, so too will the movie’s directing, cinematography (Lawrence Sher), and story (Phillips and Scott Silver). The film evokes the gritty NYC milieu of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterwork,
Taxi Driver, which starred Robert De Niro (who co-stars here as Murray Franklin, a Johnny Carson style late-night TV host) as Travis Bickle, a mentally ill working stiff who tries to assassinate a political candidate.

If there’s a knock on
Joker, it’s lack of originality. Not only does Joker hearken back to Driver, it also wholesale borrows its premise from Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982), which starred De Niro as wannabe stand-up comic Rupert Pupkin. Pupkin is unemployed, lives with his mother, fantasizes about becoming famous, commits criminal acts and appears on a late-night show. Joker’s Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) has a similar journey, but whereas Pupkin’s mother always yells at him from off-screen, we actually get to see Fleck’s mother, Penny (Frances Conroy).

Penny claims to have had an affair with Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) in the past, which, in Fleck’s mind, makes him the son of a multimillionaire. Fleck visits Wayne Manor in an attempt at cutting in on his perceived inheritance and meets a young Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson). This is the closest the film comes to the world of the comic book. Thankfully, the movie contains no characters with capes, cowls or names that begin with Bat or Cat.

If the film loses points for being derivative, it makes them up (in spades) with execution. The cast is solid from top to bottom and boasts some truly fine talent in tailor-made roles. Shea Whigham and Bill Camp shine as hard-boiled detectives who smell a rat with Fleck. Zazie Beetz is also perfectly cast as Fleck’s love interest—a kindred spirit who brings a measure of sweetness to his otherwise bitter life.

Joker would’ve fallen flat (like Pupkin’s comedy act) had it failed to engender sympathy for Fleck, whose uncontrollable fits of laughter are based on a real condition called Pseudobulbar affect (PBA). Due to these often untimely outbursts, Fleck is taunted, bullied and beaten. Although this inhumane treatment doesn’t forgive the heinous acts Fleck commits later in the film, it does produce pathos in the viewer and adds to the character’s complexity.

Phillips does an exceptional job of creating atmosphere in the film (although I wish he would’ve held his establishing shots a few seconds longer…to let them breathe a bit). The movie’s showcase sequence, where Joker dances his way down several flights of stairs, is exquisitely lensed and choreographed (and acted). The scene takes place 3/4ths of the way through the movie and marks a defining moment for the character. Even though it may seem like a strange comparison, those same criteria apply to the iconic scene in
Rocky when Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) runs up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. However, the sequences are polar opposites both directionally and thematically (Joker’s giddy descent into evil is contrasted by Rocky’s arduous ascent to glory). Coincidentally, both characters have a five letter name. Curiously, Joker was inspired by Driver, which was released the same year as Rocky (1976).

In selected scenes, Phillips employs a filming technique that’s been used throughout motion picture history—particularly during the film noir period—where the camera frames a character through bars, window panes, chicken wire, grates, etc. Symbolically, this conveys that the character is trapped in some way, or is destined to be incarcerated. Cannily, whenever Phillips shoots his main character through wire glass (records room at the hospital) or metal bars (the front gate of Wayne Manor), Fleck is always on the outside where he’s able to walk or run away to maintain his freedom. When Fleck is finally captured and tossed into the back seat of a police cruiser, we expect the payoff of these visual cues to be Joker in jail. But Phillips shatters our expectations of Joker’s fate with a twist ending.

That controversial coda presents an interesting theory: what if the Joker in Joker isn’t our Joker (the one we know from comic books and other DC TV series/movies)? What if he’s merely a type of Joker, like the many people who wear clown masks and riot against the police near the end of the movie (such images recall the army of citizens taking to the streets wearing Guy Fawkes masks in V for Vendetta)?

Evidence to support this theory: 1. Arthur doesn’t kill the Wayne’s (admittedly, this is a weaker point since Joker isn’t always the perpetrator of the Wayne murders in the various versions of the Crime Alley vignette). 2. The name Arthur has never been one of Joker’s aliases (Jack or Joe are the most common). 3. There’s an age disparity in the film: Pereira-Olson is 9, Phoenix is 44. If the character’s ages are the same as the actor’s, Joker is 35 years older than Batman.  That means by the time Bruce returns to Gotham (after training abroad) to take up the mantle of Batman, Joker would be headed toward retirement.  That math doesn’t jibe with all other versions of the Batman/Joker mythos. Regardless of whether this theory holds water, only a psychological thriller this rich with meaning and nuance could produce such a mind-bending possibility in the waning seconds of the film.

In the final analysis,
Joker is a masterfully macabre origin story of one of the most colorful and enduringly popular villains in all of fandom. Peerless directing and acting mark this frightening portrait of psychological derangement.

Joker is the least cartoony, most artistic comic book film ever made. Despite the jocularity of its lead character and its moments of black comedy (the hilarious “punch out” scene), Joker is a serious film about serious issues (cynicism, mental illness, class inequality, and the rise of anarchy). Due to its uber-graphic slaughter scenes, Joker is also the most mature superhero (or supervillain) movie ever made.

The sad reality is that the film will probably inspire mentally ill members of our society to attempt acts of violence similar to the ones portrayed in the movie. It’s also profoundly tragic that such little progress (socially and in the field of mental health) has been made in the intervening years between
Driver and Joker.

The movie’s ending leaves things open to interpretation. It also leaves things open for a sequel. Unless it’s destined to become a landmark film like
The Godfather Part II (1974), I say leave this modern masterpiece well enough alone.

I’m not joking.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4

Rambo: Last Blood (R)

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Directed by: Adrian Grunberg
Starring: Sylvester Stallone
September 2019


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!


Rambo: Last Blood is the fifth film in the series and is the continuation of the John Rambo saga, which last graced theaters eleven years ago with the generically titled Rambo. From the title, it’s clear that this film is intended to be the final in the franchise. However, as we’ve seen many times before, if a studio is prepared to back a sequel, writers have clever ways of bringing back action heroes. Last Blood cannily plays off the title of the first film, First Blood (1982), and denotes the completion of a cycle.

The movie opens on Rambo’s (Sylvester Stallone) ranch in Arizona, where he trains horses, sharpens weapons, and changes light bulbs in the subterranean tunnels he’s burrowed beneath his property. Though we aren’t really told how they came to know Rambo, college-aged Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal) and her grandmother live in the farmhouse. Rambo has become like a father to Gabrielle, who was abandoned when she was young.

The plot finds some traction when one of Gabrielle’s friends locates her long-lost father in Mexico. Unfortunately, the reunion with her father ends on a sour note. To clear her head, Gabrielle accompanies her friend to a nightclub. Soon after, she’s drugged and is taken by a group of sex traffickers. When Gabrielle doesn’t return home the next day, Rambo goes in search of Gabrielle’s abductors. Cue the bloodletting.

As can be gleaned from that nutshell overview, the story, by Stallone and Dan Gordon, is fairly predictable and uncomplicated. The movie is also slowly paced…nothing of import happens during the first half hour. The dialog, by Stallone and Matthew Cirulnick, is trite (“Feel my rage, feel my hate!”), but is actually a good fit for the laconic hero.

The direction by Adrian Grunberg is solid during the action scenes, but unimaginative for the bulk of the film. In his defense,
Last Blood looks like a low budget production—the same half dozen sets/locations are repeatedly revisited throughout the movie, i.e. Rambo’s farm/tunnels, the nightclub in Mexico, the stoop of Gabrielle’s father’s house, Gabrielle’s friend’s house, etc.

Last Blood is a bit deceptive with respect to its action: the first half of the movie is pretty low-key, but the second half is an all-out splatter-fest. During the climatic showdown, Rambo sets a series of booby traps around and below his house: mercenaries fall into spike-pits, trigger wall-mines and trip wires that bring down logs with metal spikes in them, etc. The entire tunnel assault plays out like a more lethal, less light-hearted variation on the well-executed standoff in Home Alone.

For a mostly mindless revenge film,
Last Blood has several salient messages (whether intended or not). One of the movie’s ongoing themes deals with the heart. Gabrielle has a hole in her heart from being orphaned. After suffering a loss, Gabrielle’s grandmother says she feels like her heart’s been cut out. The grief in Rambo’s heart drives him to literally rip out his enemy’s heart.

To its credit, the film raises awareness of the horrors of sex trafficking. Young women are shown being beaten, abused and treated like animals. In a scene reminiscent of Bryan Mills’ (Liam Neeson) rescue of his daughter in
Taken (2008), Rambo enters a brothel, frees the other girls and extricates Gabrielle.

Though it has pieces of a relevant story (subplots involving sex trafficking, PTSD and abandonment),
Last Blood never really coalesces into a complete film. The story is also extremely uneven; a slow start gives way to an uber-bloody climax. At just over an hour and a half, Last Blood doesn’t overstay its welcome, so that’s a plus.

Though Stallone is a bit stiff at times, he’s ended the franchise on his own terms and even gets to ride off into the sunset. However, this isn’t the send-off this beloved action hero deserved. Now that we’re done with
Last Blood it’s time for some new blood (which will come next year in a remake with young actor Tiger Shroff).

The best part of the movie is a series of clips from the earlier
Rambo films that play during the end credits.

Rating: 2 out of 4

Overcomer (PG)

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Directed by: Alex Kendrick
Starring: Alex Kendrick
August 2019


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 Kendrick Brothers (Alex and Stephen) have delivered a string of family-friendly, faith-affirming films over the years, including: Fireproof (2008), Courageous (2011) and War Room (2015). As with many of the Kendrick’s earlier movies, Overcomer uses sports as a vehicle for telling a tale of hope, faith and courage.

As the story opens, successful high school basketball coach John Harrison (Alex Kendrick) learns that the town’s manufacturing plant has closed its doors. John’s hopes of winning a state championship are dashed when many of his players are forced to move away with their families. Pressed into service as a long-distance running coach, John’s team consists of one runner, Hannah Scott (Aryn Wright-Thompson). In a cruel twist of fate, Hannah has asthma.

Through pure coincidence (or a Godincidence), John meets Thomas Hill (Cameron Arnett) when visiting someone else at a hospital. After striking up a conversation with the blind, bedridden man, John discovers that Thomas is Hannah’s long-lost father. The family drama heats up when Hannah meets Thomas for the first time and when her guardian grandmother (Denise Armstrong), who has intentionally kept Hannah from learning about her former drug addict father, finds out that Hannah’s been sneaking out to meet with Thomas.

Overcomer sets up in a similar manner to Disney’s McFarland, USA (2015), which chronicles the true story of high school track coach Jim White (Kevin Costner), who relocates to the titular town to become a cross-country coach. In this film, John doesn’t have to move, but the school’s principal (Priscilla Shirer) coaxes him into coaching a sport he knows next to nothing about. In both movies, unlikely athletes make it to the state championship, which results in a highly improbable, yet wholly satisfying story payoff.

Admittedly, the plot is oversimplified and idealistic to the extreme. Though the film has many saccharine moments, and even a few unnecessary scenes (the knee-slapping drama auditions, for instance), it has several salient themes, like: finding redemption, making amends (the movie cleverly avoids sermonizing by resolving the kleptomania subplot with a montage) and learning how to forgive.

Another theme that’s subtly woven into the fabric of the film is the discovery of identity. In a world where identity is confusing, complex and constantly in flux,
Overcomer presents an extremely simple definition of identity that’s as counter-cultural as you’re likely to find. The movie’s core audience will embrace this interpretation of identity, but will it make an impact on the broader populace?

The film contains a number of nitpicks. For instance, in real life, people (especially non-relatives) wouldn’t be allowed to just stroll into a hospital (without visitor’s tags, no less) whenever they feel like it. Also, a cross-country team consists of seven runners, so Hannah wouldn’t be allowed to race by herself. Fortunately, these peccadilloes don’t significantly detract from the movie’s overall message or entertainment value.

In the final analysis,
Overcomer is an inspirational story with heartfelt performances and pulse-pounding race scenes. Are you an Overcomer?

Rating: 3 out of 4

Crawl (R)

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Directed by: Alexandre Aja
Starring: Kaya Scodelario
July 2019


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!


Fact: basements are very rare in Florida since most of the state is at or below sea level.

But why should facts ruin all the fun that can be had when alligators hunt people in the basement of their Florida home during a hurricane? Even though that scenario may sound completely outlandish, the new creature feature/disaster movie mash-up
Crawl allegedly was inspired by similar happenings during Hurricane Florence in 2018.

The movie opens with Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) competing in a swim meet as storm clouds loom in the distance (in a prescient gag, her team’s mascot is the Gators). Haley becomes concerned when the storm is upgraded to a hurricane and her father, Dave Keller (Barry Pepper), isn’t answering his phone.

Driving into the storm, Haley defies an evacuation order and pushes through the flood waters to her childhood home. Entering the house, Haley calls out for her dad, but all she hears is pounding rain and wind-blown debris crashing into the house. The search for her father eventually leads Haley to the basement, and anyone who’s seen this movie’s trailer, or any other creature thriller, can pretty much guess what happens from there.

Crawl is one of those movies that only works after you’ve suspended your disbelief. Failing to do so will leave you out in the rain (sorry, #HurricaneHumor).

The story by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen starts off on solid ground, but, like the costal Florida location featured in the movie (which was actually filmed in Belgrade, Serbia), quickly bogs down once the rain starts falling and the flood waters start rising. Whether due to the unreality of the situation or the shoddy CGI, the movie loses much of its credibility when the first gator appears. From that point on, the story gets more and more ridiculous—the Rasmussen’s stretch the thin premise for all it’s worth.

Embracing the tropes of scads of horror movies,
Crawl is brimming with inadvisable decisions that place characters in perilous situations…just to create a scare. The movie employs a series of contrivances to move the story along, like: well-placed pipes that protect characters from the gaping jaws of ferocious gators or a gator stepping on and breaking a cell phone before a 9-1-1 call can be placed.

Nitpicks abound in the film as well, like how can someone fire a gun when their arm is being chewed off by an alligator? For that fact, how many times can people be bitten by a gator before they pass out from blood loss and shock (Dave is bitten twice and Haley is bitten three times, yet somehow both are able to keep going)?

There’s a random sequence near the middle of the movie that shifts the focus from Haley and Dave to three foul-mouthed looters, who hoist a convenience store ATM machine into their boat. Though mildly reminiscent of the extreme weather pilfering in
The Hurricane Heist (2018), this scene is really just filler since it doesn’t advance the story in any significant way, aside from showcasing more gratuitous carnage. This is just another indication that, when it comes to plot, the Rasmussen’s script has no teeth.

Director Alaxandre Aja, who’s no stranger to creature flicks (
Piranha 3D), establishes a strong sense of place and creates a foreboding atmosphere throughout the film. There are some gorgeous shots in the movie, like the skin-crawling scene where alligators swim right past our heroes in the muddy water.

Aja’s character scenes are taut and his action sequences are frenetic without being jarring. And, to his credit, Aja only employs a few jump scares, which have become a staple of horror movies. Though most of Aja’s directorial choices are appropriate, the scene where he frames a close-up of an alligator’s eye is needlessly gimmicky.

As can be guessed from its R rating,
Crawl has an excessive amount of swearing, violence and disturbing images. The film features several fierce alligator assaults, most of which result in gory tableaus. Several minutes of the film are dedicated to characters binding up their wounds after these melees, and some of the visuals are downright stomach-turning.

Though the film is dominated by pulse-pounding creature attacks, a few meaningful moments can be detected while sifting through the narrative flotsam. Near the beginning of the movie, Haley is confronted with a moral dilemma: should she leave the area, as ordered by the authorities, or rebel against the evacuation order and attempt to rescue her father? Are there special situations where disobeying an order is permitted, or is that simply “the end justifies the means” mentality? It’s a compelling question that isn’t sufficiently answered by a movie preoccupied with less weighty, more pressing concerns…like survival.

Long before the hurricane arrived, the Keller home was devastated by a different kind of tragedy…divorce. Haley was never close to her dad, and the divorce exacerbated the rift in their relationship. Being trapped in the dank crawlspace forces Haley and Dave to confront their issues and reconcile their differences.

In addition to their physical wounds, the Keller’s are both nursing emotional wounds. In the “memory lane” scene, Dave blames himself for the divorce and says he doesn’t deserve a second chance. Haley has inner conflicts of her own. She’s trying to outrun (or outswim) the expectations her dad has placed on her, as well as those she’s placed on herself.

These few scenes confirm that the movie has more nuance than what’s visible on the surface. You might say its significance creeps up on you.

Though
Crawl aspires to be a top-tier thrill ride, it ends up succumbing to the abject silliness typically found in B movies. Despite its unsavory language and grisly story elements, the film delivers exactly what it promises: a suspenseful action yarn with a few good scares. Also in its favor is that, at an hour and twenty-seven minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Ironically, the film has stumbled into some real-world relevance. At the time of its release, Tropical Storm Barry (which threatens to become a hurricane) is bearing down on Louisiana. Since there’s no way anyone at Paramount could’ve known about Barry when the movie started production, consider its timing an unhappy coincidence.

Rating: 2 out of 4

Spider-Man: Far From Home (PG-13)

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Directed by: Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland
July 2019


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!


If you’ll forgive the pun, there’s a stark tonal shift between Spider-Man: Far From Home and the previous Marvel film, Avengers: Endgame. Endgame was the conclusion of an epic storyline told on a grand scale where the stakes were literally earth-shatteringly high. Here, we have a leisurely-paced, pedestrian story that’s filled with lightweight action scenes—even when characters are placed in harm’s way, the peril just doesn’t seem real. Perhaps the fact that much of the film’s action is illusory adds to its narrative ennui.

The story’s underachievement may be due to the fact that it takes a long time to get going, and that it never goes anywhere when if finally does. Or maybe it’s because Spider-Man doesn’t do anything all that spectacular or amazing in the movie. Or maybe it’s because we really can’t take the film seriously because of its schmaltzy dialog and gooey teen angst. In fact, aside from its postcard-perfect European locations, there’s very little to recommend the film.

Tom Holland may be the best Peter Parker/Spider-Man yet, but his gee-whiz shtick is already getting old. And speaking of shtick, Samuel L. Jackson has played Nick Fury for so long now the character has become a caricature. This brand of cartoony acting afflicts the entire cast; including Marisa Tomei as Aunt May and Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan (the relationship between these characters is painfully awkward).

Perhaps the worst acting in the film is Jake Gyllenhaal’s histrionic portrayal of Quentin Beck/Mysterio. Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio has none of the gravitas or menace of Michael Keaton’s Vulture from
Spider-Man: Homecoming. But to be fair, I don’t even think the inestimable Keaton could’ve pulled off such a two-dimensional heavy as globe-domed Mysterio.

One thing the movie gets right is how it shows what life is like after the “blip” that occurred in
Endgame. Though characters seem sad over the loss of Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), they’re never given enough time to adequately process that loss since the movie never slows down long enough to deal with any genuine emotions.

In the end,
SM: FFH is a flaccid sequel that suffers from horrendous scripting and surprisingly substandard acting. It’s ironic that a movie so focused on the dangers of illusions should contain so many story elements that are shallow and implausible.

The end credits clips are the best part of the movie, so be sure to stick around to the very end.

Rating: 2 out of 4

Toy Story 4 (G)

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Directed by: Josh Cooley
Starring: Tom Hanks
June 2019


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!


Toy Story 4 ends the long string of Disney/Pixar films that have opened with an adorable, often Academy Award-winning, animated short. Unfortunately, this sour note sets the tone even before the movie begins.

From the outset,
TS4 feels like it’s desperately trying to recapture the magic of the earlier films in the series. It spends the first ten minutes recalling a rainy-night misadventure that took place nine years earlier, when Woody (Tom Hanks) was still Andy’s favorite toy. Eventually, the story brings us back to the present, when Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) plays with Jessie (Joan Cusack), but leaves the stalwart sheriff in the closet.

In search of something to move the story along, the writers decide to take us to kindergarten orientation day. The only bright spot in Bonnie’s awkward, disappointing day is during crafts period when she cobbles together bits of trash to create Forky (Tony Hale). Serving as a type of security blanket, Forky becomes the center of Bonnie’s world, much to the dismay of the other toys, particularly increasingly irrelevant Woody.

When the story hits another lull, Bonnie’s family decides to take a road trip—one last hurrah before the school year begins. It isn’t until the family pulls over at a RV park to take a rest that some semblance of a plot finally coalesces. In rapid succession, Woody encounters an old friend and a new nemesis, and we’re off on another wild romp in the wonderful world of toys.

If that synopsis sounds paint-by-numbers, it’s because the movie’s plot is too. Though it’s sad to say, the franchise has finally experienced fatigue with this fourth film.

The story has some salience, though. Aside from showing the difficulties of a child adjusting to school (a major plot point of
Inside Out), the movie has many themes including: you can’t grow by standing still, loyalty can be a crutch, friends sacrifice for each other, trash can have value and nothing is nobler for a toy than being there for a child and belonging to a child.

One element present in every Pixar film is nostalgia. Here, Woody can’t move on with his life because he’s tied to the past…the good ole days in Andy’s room. The antique store is a locus of nostalgia since it’s brimming with novelties and collectibles from bygone eras. Audience members of all ages may also experience nostalgia every time they see a
Toy Story character or movie. In fact, many parents taking their kids to this movie were kids themselves back in 1995, when the first film was released.

Though most of the original characters are sidelined here—surprisingly, even Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen)—several new characters add color and humor to the movie, including: Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key), Bunny (Jordan Peele), Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki) and Evel Knievel knockoff, Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves).

In the final analysis,
TS4 is a mild disappointment. Though arguably the nadir of the series, it’s still a charming tale of courage, loyalty and belonging that’s a cut above the typical animated feature. The movie boasts some frenetic and fun-filled action sequences and a handful of magical moments, like the ending scene at the carnival. Be sure to stay through the end credits to see a clever twist on the Pixar intro.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Tolkien (PG-13)

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Directed by: Dome Karukoski
Starring: Nicholas Hoult
May 2019


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!


Tolkien focuses on the formative years of the eponymous author, who created the races, languages and lands of Middle-earth as featured in, arguably, the finest fantasy books ever written: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The movie begins in the trenches of WWI as Lieutenant J.R.R. Tolkien is searching for his friend while ducking bullets and evading chlorine gas. The narrative crosscuts between these intense action scenes and various points in Tolkien’s past: from when he was a young orphan all the way through to his days at the University of Oxford.

Along the way, Tolkien forms an indelible bond with three other boys (a fellowship that mirrors the four Hobbits in the
LOTR). We’re given glimpses into Tolkien’s inner thoughts; the completely original languages he creates and the dark creatures he draws in notebooks. Of course, we know where Tolkien’s flights of fancy will eventually take him, but it’s an enjoyable journey to see how Tolkien was inspired to write his seminal fantasy saga.

Although the pacing is slow at times and the overall mood is somber, there are a handful of magical scenes in the film. Many of these moments come during the climactic battlefield sequences where we see a dark figure riding a black horse and ethereal wisps of black smoke writhing over the corpse-riddled plain like sinister wraiths.

Nicholas Hoult does a fine job of depicting Tolkien’s real-world challenges and internal struggles. Lily Collins is delightful as Tolkien’s love interest, Edith Bratt; a young woman who somehow manages to ground Tolkien while simultaneously setting his imagination free. The ever dependable Colm Meaney plays Father Francis, Tolkien’s guardian and mentor. The different actors who portray Tolkien’s friends at various ages are solid across the board.

Though it’s a fascinating character study and an effective biopic,
Tolkien isn’t very exciting, which is downright tragic when considering Tolkien’s works. In the end, one wonders why a movie based on the life of this revered fantasy scribe wasn’t more imaginative.

Oh, and since linguistics play such a prominent role in the movie, it’s pronounced “Toll-keen.”

Rating: 3 out of 4

Avengers: Endgame (PG-13)

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Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring: Robert Downey Jr.
April 2019


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, in the strictest sense, Avengers: Endgame isn’t a family film, its central theme revolves around family. Like Shrek’s onion (or Donkey’s parfait), there are many layers of family in this film. In fact, from start to finish, Endgame is all about family.

The movie begins with Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) having a picnic with his family. The film ends with many families and friends attending a gathering. These individuals make up a large family of characters we’ve come to know and love over the course of the twenty-two Marvel (MCU) movies (which comprise an interconnected family of films).

We watched in utter shock as half of this expansive family of superheroes turned to ash in the previous film,
Avengers: Infinity War (2018). In a very real sense, it feels like we’re losing more family members in Endgame, since this is the final Marvel movie for many of the main actors.

The script, by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, places added emphasis on relationships by including a number of rich character moments between the superheroes and their families. In addition to Hawkeye’s family, we encounter several generations of Starks. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), becomes a type of surrogate father to Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is reunited with some of his family and we witness the extreme sibling rivalry between Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) two daughters: Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). These instances, and many others, confirm that the movie’s main priority is family.

In an unforgettable scene, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) chooses family over freedom fighting. It’s a poignant reminder of what matters most in life.

One last aspect of the family metaphor before I completely drive it into the ground; a whole generation of kids (and their families) have grown up watching the Marvel movies. How will these films be viewed by future generations? By focusing on family, the Marvel films, especially this one, will resonate far into the future.

Rating: 3 out of 4

The Best of Enemies (PG-13)

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Directed by: Robin Bissell
Starring: Taraji P. Henson
April 2019


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!


Remember the Titans (2000) tells the true story of how two high school football teams—one all-white and the other all-black—integrated into one team in Alexandria, Virginia, circa 1971.

Though it doesn’t feature any pom-poms or pigskins,
The Best of Enemies has a similar premise to Titans. Also based on a true account and set in Durham, North Carolina in 1971, Enemies concerns a group of black students who are displaced after their school burns down. A two-week community meeting is held to determine if the black students will be allowed to continue their studies at a white school.

The twist is that the co-chairs chosen to ensure a fair vote are Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), an outspoken civil rights activist, and C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), leader of the local Ku Klux Klan. Living up to the movie’s title, the two bicker and scheme, but eventually become lifelong friends.

The downshot here is that the film suffers from slow pacing and is predictable from one set of credits to the other. The upshot is that Rockwell and Henson, along with the rest of the solid supporting cast, maintain audience interest with genuine performances (although Rockwell has become a bit typecast with his recent string of Southern-fried roles).

There isn’t anything revolutionary about the film, but its core theme of racial reconciliation is poignant…and is just as relevant today as it was in 1971. If you can get past the many utterances of the “N” word, you might find
Enemies an enjoyable, even heartwarming, film. At the very least, you’ll learn a new word: charrette.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4

Captain Marvel (PG-13)

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Directed by: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Starring: Brie Larson
March 2019


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!


It was inevitable that, in order to keep up with competitor DC’s femme freedom fighter Wonder Woman, Marvel would feature a female to headline one of their superhero films. That non-drug heroine is Carol Danvers (not to be confused with Kara Danvers of
Supergirl fame), a.k.a. Captain Marvel (Brie Larson). A former Air Force pilot, Danvers is now an intergalactic fugitive who comes to Planet C-53 (some hellhole named Earth) to discover clues about her past. Danvers soon finds herself caught in the middle of a conflict between the Kree and the Skrulls, two warring alien races in search of a blue Rubik’s Cube called a Tesseract. To thwart this cosmic conspiracy, Danvers joins forces with S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Coulson (Clark Gregg).

Marvel isn’t an amazing Marvel movie, but it’s a really good one. The writers spend ample time on character development, which is refreshing for a superhero movie. The plot coheres despite its many time jumps and manages to have a few genuinely surprising twists along the way. Also, the film’s well paced action sequences aren’t overblown like those in many Marvel movies. The way the writers gradually reveal Danvers’ origin story is extremely clever; as the Skrulls (who are somewhat reminiscent of the Goblins from LOTR), scan Danvers’ memories, looking for any hint of the Tesseract, we learn valuable insights into her upbringing and background. We gain firsthand knowledge of the Kree culture from when Danvers lived on their Coruscant-like planet and learned combat skills from expert trainer Yon-Rogg (Jude Law).

Ben Mendelshon, who excels at playing heavies (
Rogue One and Ready Player One) turns in a fairly nuanced performance as a Skrull infiltrator. Kree villain Ronan (Lee Pace), who met his timely demise in the first Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) film, only has a handful of scenes and, sadly, doesn’t significantly factor into the movie’s action.

The CGI on Jackson and Gregg’s regressed visages is quite impressive—it’s amazing how today’s digital artists can remove 20-30 years with the click of a button. Gregg makes the most of his scant scenes as newbie agent Coulson and Jackson effectively provides the bulk of the movie’s comic relief.

There’s also a nostalgia factor here. Typically, time travel movies go “back in time” to the 80s.
Marvel takes us back in the 90s, which, with its boxy cars and Blockbuster Video stores, looks just as old as the 80s at this point…how time flies.

Suffice it to say, there’s a great deal of connective tissue between this film and the Marvel panoply, which is a formula the studio has refined to a science by now. So, will there be a
Captain Marvel 2? If so, it will probably be set in the present (as was revealed during the first end credits clip).

What are the main takeaways of the film? His friends call him Fury. Be double, triple sure you know who your enemies are. And always keep an eye on that darn cat.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Glass (PG-13)

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Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy
January 2019


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!


Glass
cleverly combines characters and events from Unbreakable (2000) and Split (2017) into a modern superhero yarn. M. Night Shyamalan (who writes, directs and makes a brief cameo here) has crafted a dual sequel that focuses on common people who possess superpowers, or at least those who believe they do. That psychosis angle is one of the movie’s more fascinating aspects. Do David Dunn (Bruce Willis), Elijah Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass, (Samuel L. Jackson) and Kevin/Patricia/Hedwig/The Beast (James McAvoy) actually have superhuman abilities, or is it all in their heads?

Unfortunately, just like Dunn’s aversion to immersion and Mr. Glass’ vulnerability to gravity (and everything else), the film’s Achilles’ heel is sameness. One of the movie’s themes, “the strength in brokenness,” is borrowed wholesale from
Split. That film had a great deal to say about the current state of mental health and its implications on the nature and future of humanity. This film eschews those weighty topics in favor of the passé notion that everyday heroes live among us (shades of The Incredibles, Heroes and every Marvel TV show ever produced).

Another measure of sameness is the acting. McAvoy is just as brilliant here as he was in
Split, but that’s the problem; he’s just playing the same personalities in the same ways. We hang on his every word, anticipating some new quirk or deviation to occur, but there’s nothing different about Kevin’s personality pantheon in this movie. Shyamalan should’ve added a 25th personage to Kevin’s mental stew, someone who could provide a wild card element to the warring factions inside Kevin’s mind. Although it’s nice to see Willis and Jackson again, they’re monstrously underserved in the film.

Slow pacing is another drawback—Mr. Glass doesn’t have any significant scenes until halfway through the movie. Much of the film’s action takes place inside or on the grounds of an asylum, which makes it feel insular…and low budget. The promise of a protracted slugfest atop a newly erected skyscraper is downgraded to a parking lot brawl, which is profoundly disappointing.

Glass has a few minor twists, but doesn’t have that big A-ha! moment we’ve come to expect from a Shyamalan film. Though the movie makes us second guess ourselves for about three and a half seconds, it needed a more complex and convoluted (like Kevin’s mind) plot to set up a compelling and mind-bending climax.

Despite an intriguing concept, fine direction and tremendous performances,
Glass still manages to underwhelm. Sorry to shatter your expectations, but Glass isn’t as sharp as Split.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4