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


One Life (PG)

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Directed by: James Hawes
Starring: Anthony Hopkins
March 2024

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. 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 Life chronicles the extraordinary true story of Nicholas “Nicky” Winton (Johnny Flynn), a young stockbroker at a London bank, who rescued hundreds of children from the streets Prague on the eve of World War II.

From a young age, Nicky’s mother, Babette “Babi” Winton (Helena Bonham Carter), instilled in him a desire to help those in need. This “If you see a need, lend a hand” mentality compelled Nicky to help the refugees in Prague. All told, his efforts led to the rescue of 669 children who were transported on eight trains—a ninth train, with over 200 children aboard, never arrived because Hitler’s invasion of Poland ignited World War II. The children from the failed mission, many of whom ended up in concentration camps, weighed heavily on Nicky’s conscience for the rest of his life.

Nicky’s nagging melancholia over the people he wasn’t able to save mirrors the titular character’s plight in
Schindler’s List (1993). In a haunting scene at the end of that film, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) laments the fact that he could’ve rescued more people; he calculates how many more lives could’ve been saved had he sold his watch and car. Despite the crushing weight of underachievement, both men secured a lasting legacy, namely the descendants of the people (largely Jewish) they saved.

Fifty years after the rescue effort, old Nicky (Anthony Hopkins) reflects on his earlier exploits, which are dramatized in a series of flashbacks. Nicky’s wife Grete (Lena Olin), tells him it’s time to let go of the past. While she’s away on a trip, Nicky drags dozens of file boxes from his study to the front yard, where he turns the mound of historical documents into a bonfire (an ironic twist on Nazi book burning).

The one item from the past Nicky just can’t bring himself to part with is a leather briefcase that contains a scrapbook of all the children he helped rescue. Nicky presents the scrapbook to a local London newspaper, but a decades-old account of Jewish children being rescued from another country fails to pique the editor’s interest.

When Nicky meets with a museum director, she says the scrapbook is too important for her collection, but asks if she can borrow it. That decision creates a chain of events that brings Nicky face-to-face with his legacy.

I must admit, I knew nothing about this film before I went to see it; Anthony Hopkins was on the poster and I’d gladly pay to hear him read binary code (formerly: from a telephone book) for two hours. A consummate craftsman, Hopkins is, in my estimation, the finest living actor on planet Earth. And, despite only appearing in about half the movie, the octogenarian delivers an authentic portrait of a man tormented by the lives he couldn’t save.

Bonham Carter is also impressive. Unfairly typecast for her off-kilter roles in many of Tim Burton’s films, Bonham Carter is a really good dramatic actress. Here, her “Not gonna’ take no for an answer” characterization is finely-calibrated—Babi’s assertiveness could’ve come off as bullying.

The rest of the cast, including Jonathan Pryce as Nicky’s long-time friend, Martin, and Romola Garai as the spirited leader of the refugee committee in Prague, is also excellent. Flynn has the movie’s most pivotal role as the younger version of Hopkins; fortunately, he’s up to the task and credibly, if not slavishly, mimics the speech and mannerisms of the veteran actor.

Despite a slow start, the story begins picking up steam when young Nicky visits Prague. The crosscutting between the movie’s two time periods helps sustain viewer interest; the mostly urgent, mission-driven scenes set in the late 30s serve as an appropriate counterbalance to the largely contemplative, character-driven scenes set in the late 80s.

Director James Hawes makes the most of his UK and Czech Republic locations, but never quite elevates the look of the film above its modest budget. Still, with a story (written by Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake, based on the book
If It’s Not Impossible…: The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton by Barbara Winton) this strong and performances this good, a bigger budget and more lavish production would’ve upstaged the film’s poignant message.

Though set decades in the past, the movie has more than just a little relevance to current events. With antisemitism on the rise and wars raging in Ukraine and Israel, this film is a timely reminder of the dangers of placating evil and vilifying any race or group of people.

One Life boasts tremendous performances and a riveting true story of courage in the face of unspeakable evil. It’s also a powerful reminder of how many people can be positively impacted by just one life.

Despite its disturbing themes and images,
One Life is an inspirational movie that should be seen by everyone…lest we forget the horrors of war and repeat the mistakes of the past.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Dune: Part Two (PG-13)

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Timothee Chalamet
March 2024

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. 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!

Previously on Dune: Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) and his mother Lady Jessica Atreides (Rebecca Ferguson) set out across the deserts of Arrakis with Stilgar (Javier Bardem), Chani (Zendaya) and a host of nomadic Fremen.

Dune: Part Two picks up where the first film left off, with Paul and Lady Jessica learning the ways of the Fremen culture. One by one, Paul fulfills each part of an ancient prophecy, and though he’s reticent to accept such a mantle, the Fremen people revere him as their messiah (“Lisan al Gaib”). Things are also looking up for Lady Jessica, who becomes the new Reverend Mother for the Bene Gesserit sisterhood.

Meanwhile, the nefarious members of House Harkonnen are scheming to control all spice (mélange) production on arid Arrakis. When Rabban (Dave Bautista) fails to rout the Fremen, who are blowing up Harkonnen harvesters and spice depots with terrorist-style sneak attacks, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) commissions his brash nephew, Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen (Austin Butler), to find and destroy the Fremen stronghold to get spice production back on schedule.

When Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken) and his daughter Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh) arrive at Arrakeen, the major city on Arrakis, the board is set for a catastrophic battle between the Emperor’s Sardaukar soldiers, the Harkonnen army and the Fremen freedom fighters (and let’s not forget the giant sandworms).

So, who wins the massive melee? Do Paul and Chani tie the knot? Does Paul get revenge for the murder of his father, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac)?

Well, you don’t expect me to ruin everything do you? (Of course, if you’ve read Frank Herbert’s titular tome, you already know the answers to these questions.)

As you’ve probably guessed from the title, this is the second movie based on Herbert’s sci-fi masterwork, which was first published in 1965. With the smashing success of the first
Dune (2021), this sequel was all but assured. But does Part Two live up to the previous film?

Some of my main criticisms of the first film were that it’s expansive sets and gigantic ships made the characters seem insignificant by comparison and that the many frenetic ground battles felt impersonal since we really knew nothing about the soldiers charging into the fray. In
Part Two, director Denis Villeneuve corrects these complaints by utilizing more closeups of the characters (especially the comely Irulan/Pugh) and by thrusting characters we’ve come to know (Paul, Stilgar and Chani) into the cataclysmic conflagrations. Villeneuve flips the script in several other key ways in the sequel.

For instance, much of the first film took place in and around Arrakeen (indoors). In this movie, most of the action transpires in the planet’s deserts (outdoors). In a similar vein, the first
Dune focused on the Atreides family, while Part Two centers on the Fremen people (and Paul and Lady Jessica’s rise among their ranks).

Another contrast is that the first film’s narrative was infused with Machiavellian machinations (a few instances remain here, like when Baron Harkonnen plots his nephew’s demise, or when Princess Irulan manipulates her father into saving Paul’s life), while this film is more concerned with the Fremen culture and how they seek to become “one with the desert.” In essence, the political intrigue of the first film yields to the religious fervor of the second film.

The new cast members shine, especially Pugh and Butler. Walken, however, seems weak and doesn’t have the bearing of a galactic ruler. Bautista, who reprises his role as the Harkonnen henchman, continues to be underserved. In a paper-thin characterization, Rabban does little more than bark orders (“Kill them all!” and “Strike!”) and take out his frustrations on unsuspecting servants (a la Vader). Disappointing.

For all its divergences with the first
Dune, this film shares some similarities as well. The movie’s design elements (ships, costumes, weapons, etc.) are all finely-crafted. Also, as with the former film, Part Two boasts some gorgeous sets and captures some stunning desert vistas.

Dune won six Academy Awards (for Best Cinematography, Editing, Score, Visual Effects, Production Design and Sound), the sequel seems poised to match or supersede that statuette haul.

At nearly 3 hours in length,
Dune: Part Two is a protracted yarn that skillfully builds to the climactic battle, but disappoints with an abrupt ending.

The sequel is more intimate, yet less epic than the first film. Ironic!

Though this movie wraps up Herbert’s first book, will this be the last
Dune adventure to grace theaters? Not if Villeneuve has any say in the matter. He’s expressed interest in adapting Herbert’s Dune Messiah for the big screen.

So, is a trilogy in the offing?

Keep your ear to the sand.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4

American Fiction (R)

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Directed by: Cord Jefferson
Starring: Jeffrey Wright
December 2023

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. 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 Fiction is just that…a work of fiction. And, as with any decent work of fiction, it weaves many themes into its narrative tapestry.

It’s a coming home story; a plot device that always yields dramatic tension and character conflict.

It’s the story about the loss of a sibling and the slow decline of an aging parent in the advancing stages of Alzheimer’s.

It’s also a canny examination of the current state of book publishing, which, according to the movie, is shamelessly imitative, hopelessly addicted to virtue signaling and solely focused on the bottom line (what else is new?).

The most obvious, and potentially controversial, theme here is the dangers of racial stereotypes.

Professor/author Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) tells his sister over the phone that he doesn’t see things in terms of race. That claim is immediately tested when a white man takes the taxi he was hailing.

While visiting a local bookstore, Monk rails at an employee for placing his book in the African American Studies section. “The blackest thing in this book,” Monk tells the frazzled young man, “is the ink.”

Monk’s guiding philosophy, which is overtly stated in the early stages of the film, is that the “black experience” in America isn’t solely characterized by gangster rap and kids raised by a single mom or grandparents. But his worldview is challenged at every turn, by his family, colleagues, and even one of his white students who takes offense when he writes the “N” word on the whiteboard. Monk tells her, “If I can get over it, so can you.”

Such statements land Monk in hot water with the school board, which forces him to take a leave of absence. This turns out to be a blessing in disguise as it allows Monk to focus on his fading mother. Another unexpected boon comes when Monk meets his mother’s neighbor, Coraline (Erika Alexander). He starts dating Coraline, but as with every relationship in Monk’s life, things get complicated.

Putting his time off to good use, Monk churns out a book. Written on a lark, Monk sends his book—a derivative, pandering tale of a black ex-con who guns down his own father (Keith David)—to his agent, Arthur (John Ortiz). After reading the manuscript, Arthur doubts he’ll be able to find a publisher for the book. He’s proven wrong when one publisher offers to pay handsomely for rights to the book.

Now Monk is caught in a moral dilemma: will he hold firm to his convictions and turn down the deal, or sell out to make bank, which will help defray the exorbitant costs of his mother’s nursing home? This is yet another of the movie’s many themes: how unforeseen circumstances can force us into becoming the very thing we despise (often for financial gain).

Monk’s younger brother, Clifford Ellison (Sterling K. Brown), recently divorced his wife and now dates men. Cliff is a plastic surgeon who claims to be cash-strapped, yet always seems to have as much blow as he wants. It’s ironic that all the money he makes from fixing noses goes up his own. If there’s such a thing as a “functional deadbeat,” Cliff would definitely qualify.

Though he plays a fairly unsympathetic character, Brown gives a terrific performance (and wow is he cut). His character is redeemed during a wedding reception scene when Cliff tells Monk that people want to love him. It’s a touching scene between two brothers whose personalities are as diametrically opposed as Earth’s poles.

Ortiz infuses some much-needed levity into the largely glum proceedings. The scenes where Arthur and Monk talk to the book editors via speakerphone are uproariously funny. The movie boasts fine acting all around, and Wright is the glue that holds everything together. He delivers a finely-modulated, Oscar-worthy performance.

There are other pluses here too: the beautiful Atlantic coast locations, the brilliant light jazz score and the “choose your own ending” story device.

So, amid its many themes, what does the movie really tell us?

Perhaps that many modern black families are different than the stereotypes often portrayed in movies, TV shows, books and the media?

Perhaps that some black people don’t see their lives, or even society as a whole, through a racist lens?

Perhaps that our nation isn’t as divided as some would have us believe?

If you find any of these statements offensive, don’t worry.

It’s all just fiction.

Rating: 3 out of 4

A Haunting in Venice (PG-13)

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Kenneth Branagh
September 2023

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. 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!

Master detective, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), is settling into his post-retirement life when an old friend, Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), visits him at his exquisite residence in Venice, Italy. In an attempt at snapping the detective out of his funk, Ms. Oliver tells Poirot she’s arranged for him to attend a séance with the sensational spiritualist, the “Unholy” Mrs. Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh). Confident he can expeditiously expose Mrs. Reynolds as a charlatan, Poirot accepts Ms. Oliver’s invitation.

Arriving at a large mansion (which has all the hallmarks of a haunted house) on Halloween night, Poirot is introduced to Mrs. Reynolds. The detective is in the process of explaining his distrust of the supernatural when a giant chandelier crashes to the floor behind him. When Poirot begins hearing and seeing things that aren’t there, a fascinating question arises: are these paranormal occurrences part of an elaborate ruse, or is Poirot losing his mind?

Based on Agatha Christie’s 1969 novel
Hallowe’en Party, A Haunting in Venice is Branagh’s third outing as renowned Belgian detective Poirot, the central character in many Christie mysteries. Unfortunately, the third time isn’t the charm for Branagh, who also serves as the film’s director. In addition to Branagh, Fey and Yeoh, the cast is rounded out by some fine actors including Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey), Kelly Reilly (Yellowstone) and Camille Cottin (Killing Eve).

The opening sequence of establishing shots—which focus on such subjects as ancient statues, quaint European alleys, and pigeons pecking away at stray seeds lost among the cobblestones—are artfully framed and help to establish the film’s melancholic atmosphere. Also, several gorgeous Italian vistas (as seen from Poirot’s expansive rooftop) bookend the film. Sadly, there’s far too little of this excellent location work in the film.

The bulk of the story takes place in the ominous mansion (palazzo) with events transpiring over the course of one night. With such confined action, the story feels like a glorified stage play—Christie’s penchant for stuffing a large ensemble of characters into a claustrophobic setting was also on full display in Branagh’s earlier two movies in the series,
Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and Death on the Nile (2022).

Haunting is a dark film, both artistically and spiritually. Symbolically, the middle (heart) of the movie is saturated with evil. It’s filled with scary tales, a séance, murders, and a creepy imaginary kid…the only thing missing is a black cat.

The lighting and cinematography combine to create a moody environment where dim-lit faces float in front of indistinct backgrounds and characters are dwarfed by expansive halls with vaulted ceilings. Branagh’s work behind the camera is meticulous, but he employs high angle and canted shots a bit too often.

Though appropriate to the story, the movie’s relentlessly bleak atmosphere may detract from the enjoyment of the film for some, and may be inappropriate for younger viewers. To wit, while watching a shadow puppet show about kids killing their parents, Poirot asks if the presentation is too frightening for children. An ironic question that also applies to the movie’s malicious and macabre subject matter.

Haunting is the worst of Branagh’s three Christie movies, which is disappointing since it squanders superb performances and excellent production values. Though the psychological thriller aspects are intriguing, the steady stream of cheap horror movie gimmicks (shattering saucers, slamming doors, bursting lightbulbs, squawking parrots and bees flying out of a skeleton’s mouth) fail to frighten…or entertain. Bottom line: Haunting is too drab and dire, without a hint of fun.

In one scene, Ms. Oliver quips that a brooding young boy has “all the charm of chewing tin foil.” Sadly, the movie has a similar appeal.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4

Oppenheimer (R)

Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Cillian Murphy
July 2023

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. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

A while back, I blasted director Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) for being an all action/no story WWII tale. Though set on another continent, and radically different in theme and tone, Oppenheimer also focuses on an inflection point in the war. However, Oppenheimer is the mirror image of Dunkirk; it’s all story with no action.

The film’s nonlinear story crosscuts between J. Robert Oppenheimer’s (Cillian Murphy) rapid ascent during his collegiate years, his shepherding of the teams developing the atomic bomb in New Mexico, and his appearances at two governmental inquiries years after the war had ended. Keeping all the various storylines/timelines straight might be a challenge for some audience members. Wading through stretches of dense dialog dealing with physics or quantum mechanics also may be a challenge for those who just squeaked by in high school Science classes. However, the greatest challenge facing the film’s spectators, especially those approaching middle age, is the three hour running time.

So, the big headline leading up to the film’s release is that this is the first Nolan film to contain sex scenes. Unfortunately, they’re completely unnecessary. As with any sex scene in any movie or TV show, it’s possible to show the act without showing the goods. Here, Nolan flaunts his new-found filmic freedom by staging a naked couple sitting in facing armchairs as they carry on a post-coital conversation, or, far worse, by showing the same couple in the throes of passion during an official state meeting. The latter is a very inappropriate, very unsexy sex scene.

But enough about butts; let’s talk about the eponymous figure. Murphy was perfectly cast and his performance doesn’t hit a single false note. The actor deftly modulates between science professor, pick-up artist and tortured soul post-bomb drop. But this portrait is the first area where the film is disingenuous.

The movie, written by Nolan, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, exalts Oppenheimer as the “father of the bomb,” a man whose brilliance brought about the end of WWII. In contrast, the real Oppenheimer, according to many accounts, was a womanizer and glory hog.

Buttressing this opinion is the fine TV series on WGN America,
Manhattan, which portrayed Oppenheimer as a creepy weirdo who did none of the work but took all the credit for creating the bomb. The latter point is obliquely verified by Nolan’s film, which doesn’t give any credit for the bomb to the other teams operating around the country, or to the army of scientists, physicists and engineers tirelessly laboring at the NM facility. The movie focuses on Oppenheimer and his contributions to the project to the virtual exclusion of everyone else’s (even Einstein (Tom Conti) is a mere footnote in the story). It’s as if Oppenheimer did all the work himself. Ridiculous!

The movie’s other, major disingenuous note deals with the bomb itself…and there’s a lot to unpack here. In short, while the movie lionizes its hero, it sanitizes the bomb. To its eternal discredit, the movie only briefly mentions Hiroshima and Nagasaki and fails to show even one still image (much less archival video clips) of the unimaginably devastating results of the atomic bombs: cities blasted to rubble and, most importantly, innocent souls being turned to mounds of ash. That’s the lasting legacy of Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project.

Downplaying the significance of the bomb drops in Japan is a tremendous disservice to future generations—who otherwise may be doomed to repeat such atrocities. Indeed, merely quoting statistics of the deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is tantamount to saying Hitler killed lots of Jews without showing the ghastly, gut-wrenching images of Auschwitz, Dachau, or other concentration camps. It’s a rated R movie, so why not show the horrors of war?

But Nolan eschews such horrific realities in favor of a bloodless retelling of one of the most heinous chapters of human history. In that regard, how much of what we’re seeing is the truth? Since Nolan omits such a crucial part of the story, can we really trust anything else in the film?

To whit, after the successful detonation of the Trinity bomb (a rather unspectacular explosion compared to the one in
Manhattan, or the haunting, mesmerizing slow push in of the mushroom cloud in an episode of the 2017 revival of Twin Peaks) in a remote region of NM, and after Germany has surrendered, some scientists in the movie question the need to use the bomb against Japan. The subtext is that to do so would be inhumane (true) and a show of wanton aggression (false). Anyone in favor of bombing Japan is portrayed as a warmonger.

Did Nolan forget the predicate for U.S.’s involvement in the war; namely, Pearl Harbor? Apparently so, because there’s no mention of Japan’s devastating sneak attack in the movie. So yes, without Pearl Harbor, dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki seems like unmitigated savagery on a grand scale. The bittersweet calculus of dropping the bombs in order to end the war and, thereby, save millions of lives, is brushed over in a line or two of dialog. Again, there’s a clear agenda at play here.

Final bit about the bomb: is it significant that the only atomic bomb explosion we see in the movie is on American soil? Could it be that Nolan planned it this way to give his America-hating liberal friends something to get off on (other than Florence Pugh’s tatas)? Also, consider the many foreign nations that would love to see the demise of America. Will they be emboldened (and titillated) by this terrifying tableau?

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but you can’t argue the fact that the only giant plume of smoke and debris audiences (both foreign and domestic) will see in the movie is the one violently expanding above the desolate NM plain. The film’s lasting image will be of America burning, not Japan. Subliminal propaganda?

The most distressing aspect of Nolan’s revisionist history is the impact it will have on the youth of today/leaders of tomorrow. As a highly anticipated film with a wide release, many people who aren’t familiar with the actual events the film is based on may fall prey to Nolan’s agenda-laden interpretation of history.

When I screened
Oppenheimer, I was in a row with a surprising number of teenagers. As the credits rolled, I wondered what they would take away from the film. Conflicted hero? Heartless president (Truman, unexpectedly played by Gary Oldman)? Lots of talking? Not much action?

My greatest fear is that people, especially young people, will draw all the wrong conclusions from this flawed portrait of a flawed man. With the willful omission of the tragic events that preceded and succeeded the Trinity test, Nolan’s
Oppenheimer is much ado about nothing—just like Dunkirk.

But at least that Nolan debacle delivered some good action scenes.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4

Sound of Freedom (PG-13)

Directed by: Alejandro Monteverde
Starring: Jim Caviezel
July 2023

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. 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!

Heavy! If I only had one word to describe Sound of Freedom—the new film from Angel Studios, producers of the popular Biblical web series, The Chosen—that’s what I’d choose.

From the opening montage, which features real security camera footage of child abductions, to an early scene where traffickers use a faux talent photo shoot to exploit and abduct young kids, the mood is set for a horrific, heart-breaking film.

The story is based on the actual experiences of Homeland Security Investigations agent, Tim Ballard (Jim Caviezel). Near the beginning of the movie, Ballard earns the trust of convicted pedophile, Ernst Oshinsky (Kris Avedisian), who eventually divulges the location of Miguel (Lucas Avila), a young boy who was taken from his parents. Oshinsky is shocked when he learns he’s been betrayed. As the police arrive, Ballard tells him, “Never trust a pedophile.” The win feels good. Then, a short time later, a nurse tells Ballard that 8-year-old Miguel has lesions which indicate he’s been violated…words just fail.

Events escalate when Ballard meets former cartel accountant, Vampiro (Bill Camp), and they hatch a plan to locate Miguel’s sister, Rocio (Cristal Aparicio). When they learn Rocio has been sold to a drug lord who operates deep in the jungles of Cambodia, Ballard’s resolve is tested. To rescue Rocio from a life of slavery and prostitution, Ballard will literally need to go to the ends of the Earth.

Writing about a movie that deals with such topics as child exploitation, child sex trafficking, and pedophilia is exceedingly difficult. With such graphic, adult subject matter, this movie certainly isn’t recommended for anyone under 18. However, every adult on the planet should see this film—to be confronted with the ugly reality of the fastest-growing form of illegal trade today and made aware that the biggest perpetrator of this vile practice is America.

And where is Hollywood, the supposed purveyors of truth and exposers of injustice in our society? Gone are the days of films like
All the President’s Men (1976) which blew the lid off the Watergate Scandal (but maybe the only reason that movie was produced was because Hollywood is liberal and Nixon and his top men were conservative, revealing partisan hypocrisy even back then). Hollywood is all too happy to champion causes near and dear to its heart, like awareness of climate change or advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community. But where are they on the issue of child sex trafficking? Crickets.

It doesn’t further their liberal agenda to take sides on this extremely black-and-white (ethically, not ethnically) issue, so they turn a blind eye on it, along with the open border crisis, which is causing ballooning increases in sex trafficking, drug (especially Fentanyl) trafficking, known terrorists entering our country, and illegals crossing the border, many of whom have diseases and/or no practical work experience and have selfishly jumped the line in front of people who are legally seeking entry into the U.S. So, why do cowardly liberals remain silent on the issue of child sex trafficking? The border must stay open so that they can recruit a cheap labor force, which also will double as a new voter base for the Democrat party.

Keep in mind, these liberals belong to the political party that used to be inundated with bleeding hearts. No longer. Today, they don’t seem to care about any of the above issues and are collectively in denial that such existential crises exist. Their hearts are callous to anything except that which keeps them in power and keeps their bank accounts flush with cash.

These abused, endangered and sexually victimized kids, plus anyone who dies from a Fentanyl overdose, are just collateral damage to those who scheme to remain in power. That makes many political animals, power brokers and unscrupulous billionaires just as complicit as the traffickers and pedophiles. We would surely be revolted if we knew how many people in our country condone, profit from, or commit sexual acts with young children (as young as 6-years-old according to one of the characters in the movie). And that’s why Hollywood won’t touch this topic; they’d fall out of favor with those in power. So that makes Hollywood complicit too.

The number one job of any nation is to protect its citizens. When a government fails to fulfill that basic task, such dereliction can give rise to vigilantism and anarchy. As has happened repeatedly throughout history, people will take matters into their own hands if their security is threatened. But when the cause is just, as Ballard’s actions are in the movie, is it really vigilantism or just doing what’s right? And why should doing the right thing come at such a high price? As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” Thank God for good people like Tim Ballard, who are willing to risk their life to save others.

For an independent film,
Sound is surprisingly well produced. Director Alejandro Monteverde does a fine job of utilizing his locations, especially the island and jungle environs. Caviezel delivers an intense, well-modulated portrayal of Ballard, a man whose soul is weary from slaving away in a system where perpetrators frequently slip though the cracks and innocents are victimized en masse. Caviezel is surrounded by some really fine actors including Mira Sorvino, who plays Ballard’s wife, Katherine; Kurt Fuller as John Bryant, Ballard’s sympathetic but by-the-book boss; and Camp, who steals the show as Ballard’s sidekick—he earns some of the biggest laughs and delivers some of the best lines in the movie, including one that contains the titular phrase.

Sound beat Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny on its opening day. Hopefully grassroots support and strong word of mouth will keep this film in theaters for several weeks…if not months. The film exposes the ugliness of the human condition and presents a message that must be heard, lest the immoral malignancy of child sex trafficking forever malign the soul of our nation.

Sound has put a human face on the issue of child sex trafficking. You can’t unsee the horrific tableaus in the film; the images, particularly the visages of the young children, are indelible. Unless you’re a perpetrator of the crimes the film exposes, it’s impossible to walk away from the movie unmoved.

Sound is one of the most important films I’ve ever seen, and certainly the most urgent.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Jesus Revolution (PG-13)

Directed by: Jon Erwin, Brent McCorkle
Starring: Joel Courtney
February 2023

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. 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 true events, Jesus Revolution chronicles the early days of a spiritual movement that started in California and swept across the U.S. in the early 70s.

The film opens with aging pastor, Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer), shepherding aging parishioners; they sit like statues, uninspired by his passionless homily. While watching TV at home, Chuck makes a negative remark about the sea of longhaired youth at a protest. His daughter says he shouldn’t pass judgment on the hippies. The next day, she brings one home to confront her father with his own prejudice. The Jesus-looking hippie is named Lonnie (Jonathan Roumie).

Lonnie invites his friends over to Chuck’s house, and soon, the church is overrun with the barefoot brigade. On the plus side, Lonnie and his lot breathe life into the church, bringing lively music, excitement and a hunger for the truth to the calcified congregation. Now Chuck is faced with a difficult decision: should he embrace these colorful newcomers and risk losing his members, or send the hippies packing and return to business as usual?

The second word in title might give you a hint as to what Chuck did.

Not only does the movie center on an inflection point in our nation’s history, it also dramatizes a major turning point in the lives of three prominent ministers—Chuck Smith from Calvary Chapel, evangelist Lonnie Frisbee and Greg Laurie (played by Joel Courtney) of Harvest Christian Fellowship. Each of these men has made an indelible impact on the way countless Protestant churches operate, serve and worship today.

Co-directed by Jon Erwin (
I Can Only Imagine) and Brent McCorkle, Jesus Revolution perfectly captures the look and feel of the late 60s and early 70s. From the shaggy coifs and grubby duds to the psychedelic “Magic Bus,” every frame of the film feels true to the period. Another layer of authenticity is the washed out, “old film stock” look; a visual style that’s effective in many of the movie’s outdoor scenes, particularly those shot at the “Pirate’s Cove” location.

The movie boasts many fine young actors, particularly Courtney and Anna Grace Barlow, who plays Cathe, Greg’s girlfriend. Headlining the cast is Grammer, who deftly negotiates the emotions of a man caught between two worlds: traditional Christianity and the new movement embraced by the youth of the era. Kudos to Grammer for choosing to be involved with this project and for being so outspoken about his faith. Many have been cancelled for less.

The other veteran actor in the movie is Kimberly Williams-Paisley, who plays Greg’s mother in a minor and fairly unsympathetic role. Of course, Roumie is a major draw for many in the audience since he plays Jesus in “The Chosen.” Tough his wardrobe is different here, Roumie retains his messianic appearance from the Biblical series. However, fans of the series might be thrown for a loop the first time they hear him speak.

Aside from its terrific cast, historical accuracy and excellent production elements, the movie has a lot to say about our culture, both then and now.

For a Christian film, there’s a surprising surfeit of drug content here, although most of the drugs are mentioned, not shown. Speaking of his generation, Lonnie says, “Drugs were a quest…for God.” Though many claimed “acid would save the world,” it was a lie; there was “still a void.” He admits that his contemporaries were “searching for all the right things in all the wrong places.”

This highlights one of the movie’s main themes—the search for truth. The youth of the 60s and 70s were tired of being lied to by parents and a corrupt government, and turned to sex, drugs and rock and roll to try and escape a world gone mad.

Ironically, what the youth of that period were searching for, “Peace and Love,” are hallmarks of Christianity (Galatians 5:22-23). Observing the similarities between the rallying cry of the countercultural youth of the day and the mission of the church, Chuck’s daughter wisely asks him, “Don’t you want the same thing?”

In one scene, Cathe says, “What if there is no truth?” Greg picks up on her reference to one of the popular philosophies espoused by Allen Ginsberg. Greg rejects this notion: “Some things are absolutely true.” Even before his conversion to Christianity, Greg believed that there’s one objective truth.

Chuck’s wife Kay (Julia Campbell) makes this profound statement, “The truth is always quiet; the lies are always loud.” She buttons up her point with, “The truth is simple.”

I sincerely hope our politicians are reading this.

Jesus Revolution is much more than a religious biopic. It’s a heartfelt drama that also has comedic and romantic elements. It’s a story of renewal and redemption. A tale of faith and friendship.

It’s been said that with God there are no coincidences. So then, it’s no coincidence that just before the release of
Jesus Revolution, a revival broke out at Asbury University in Kentucky. Perhaps what’s started there will be the beginning of a new Jesus Revolution. And considering the fact that this movie opened the same weekend as Cocaine Bear, boy do we need it!

Rating: 3 out of 4

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (PG-13)

Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Letitia Wright
November 2022

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. 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 sequel to Black Panther (2018) opens with T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman, a fine actor who left us far too soon) funeral. Though appropriately somber, the sequence is beautifully filmed.

Sadly, the melancholic opener permeates the entire film. Much of the movie is bleak and dark—director Ryan Coogler carried the theme of mourning too far by shooting most of the first hour at night. These scenes include an assault on a deep sea drill platform, a showdown on a city bridge and Shuri (Letitia Wright) and Ramonda’s (Angela Bassett) first encounter with Namor (Tenoch Huerta).

For those unfamiliar with that name, Namor (aka The Sub-Mariner) is to Marvel what Aquaman is to DC. One twist with the Marvel character is that he can achieve flight with the assistance of tiny flapping wings on his ankles…why not? A curious decision by the studio was to make Namor of South American descent (a decision based on diversity?). Another unexpected twist is when Namor reveals his true identity as a Mayan god.

Many of the movie’s scenes take place in Namor’s underwater kingdom or in/around water. Is there a theme here, or just a plot device to keep the audience feeling the pressure and gasping for air (psychologically)? One wonders if the extensive water scenes were a conscious decision to contrast the action here with the largely landlocked original film.

One also wonders if the epic battle at the end of the film is symbolic. Namor’s soldiers of South American descent and Wakanda’s warriors of African ancestry battle it out with nary a Caucasian in sight—Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), the token white guy, has a few scenes in the movie but nothing substantial. Though white people, typically vilified as warmonger colonizers, aren’t directly involved in the conflict, some of them are the instigators of the massive melee; they’re mining a recently-discovered vein of vibranium, the mineral that allows Wakanda to remain a hidden, technologically-advanced society.

It never dawns on Namor’s brackish brawlers or Wakanda’s fierce fighters that they should join forces against their true enemy…the American government, which seeks to exploit vibranium for its own nefarious purposes. Namor and Shuri finally come to an agreement, but only after thousands have died; the resolution itself is so obvious, any simpleton could’ve come up with it at least an hour earlier in the story.

Shuri’s character arc is similar to T’Challa’s in the first film—a journey of loss and self-discovery that eventually leads to the fateful decision to accept the mantle of Black Panther. These character moments help to ground a film that lists on the ocean of story possibilities, casting about until it settles on the clichéd climactic conflagration. In the end, I’m really not sure what message the film seeks to impart or what it accomplishes, other than to anoint another eponymous hero to fight evil and defend Wakanda…in yet another sequel.

Marvel’s end credits bonus scenes are typically “Ah ha!” moments for comic book junkies; revealing some object, character or story point to tease a future film. In
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the coda is a really good character scene (perhaps the best in the film) that features some real emotions and answers a nagging question posed earlier in the story.

This Hallmark moment is a radical departure from the standard tag scenes and is a welcome change for anyone like me, who long ago succumbed to Marvel Fatigue.

Rating: 2 out of 4

Lightyear (PG)

Directed by: Angus MacLane
Starring: Chris Evans
June 2022

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. 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!

Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans), Commander Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) and Rookie Featheringhamstan (Bill Hader) explore an unknown planet, but are forced to make a hasty departure when they’re attacked by vine creatures. Buzz can’t quite steer the ship over the top of a jagged peak and the vessel crash lands on the inhospitable world.

One year later, a small base has sprung up around the ship, constructed by the ship’s crew who’ve been roused from their suspended animation naps. These industrious colonizers also have designed an experimental spaceplane that might be able to achieve hyperspeed, which will allow Buzz to bring his crew home and complete his mission.

With each unsuccessful mission, Buzz returns to the base to find that everyone has grown older. When Buzz finally achieves hyperspeed, he comes home, not to pomp and circumstance, but to the grim reality that the descendants of his original crew have been wiped out by an army of malevolent robots.

Does that synopsis make
Lightyear sound kinda’ ho-hum and hard to follow for a kid’s movie? It is.

If you find the story difficult to track, try to understand the reasoning behind the movie’s “meta” introduction, which tells us that young Andy from
Toy Story (1995) first idolized his favorite toy (Buzz, not Woody apparently) by watching a movie starring the Space Ranger, and that “This is that story.” So, just to be clear, we’re watching an animated movie about an action hero that a kid in another animated movie once watched; and his toy, based on that action hero, becomes the co-star of four films. Somebody pass the Advil.

The opening sequence of
Toy Story 2 (1999) features a brief episode where Buzz takes out an army of robots and encounters the villainous Zurg. The action-packed sequence cleverly sets up the climactic confrontation and starts the movie off with a bang.

As exhilarating as the pulse-pounding preamble is in
Toy Story 2, I couldn’t have handled an entire movie in the same format and style. Though the story here isn’t nearly as pedestrian as the breakneck pace of the dramatized video game in Toy Story 2, there’s an overall campiness the film’s handful of decent character moments can’t quite overcome.

Lightyear serves as an origin story for Buzz Lightyear and a loose prequel to the Toy Story movies. It gives us more details about the way Star Command and its Space Rangers operate. However, despite some nifty weapons, like the laser blade, and sweet-looking ships, like the XL-15, much of the movie is a pastiche of other sci-fi franchises, particularly Star Wars and Star Trek.

Buzz’ mission logs are an obvious rip-off of the captain’s log in
Star Trek. Also, the visuals when the XL spaceship attempts to slingshot around a sun are remarkably similar to the slingshot sequences in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986).

Other than their bright yellow paint-job, the hulking Zyclops robots bear more than a passing resemblance to the super battle droids in the
Star Wars prequels. The capital ship Zurg commands is reminiscent of an Imperial Star Destroyer (the Arquitens Class command cruiser in particular). Buzz and his team come up with a plan to destroy the mother ship, which will deactivate all the robots. This plan is virtually identical to the one hatched by the Gungans and the Naboo to destroy the Trade Federation ship, which deactivates all the battle droids in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999).

Aside from leaning on well-worn sci-fi tropes, the movie attempts to explore some adult themes, with varying degrees of success. The challenges inherent in colonizing an alien planet are addressed obliquely and the dome-like protection, called “Laser Shield,” prevents a lot of dramatic tension and potential action scenes.

Adding some literary heft, the movie weaves an allusion to
Moby Dick into its plot. After repeated failed attempts to reach hyperspeed, Buzz realizes his friends are getting older and are having kids and grandkids. At some point you’d think Buzz would stop, turn the mission over to a younger pilot and spend some quality time with his aging friends. But no, Buzz’ pride won’t allow that.

Breaking the hyperspeed barrier in his spacecraft is Buzz’ white whale. He risks everything to reach that goal. In the end, his obsession blinds him to what’s most important in his life.

Sadly, Buzz never gets to say goodbye to Hawthorne and his other friends because he’s off flying a mission when they pass away. It’s a poignant moment for the audience, as we place ourselves in Buzz’ boots and consider the brevity of life—if the movie has an emotional core, this is it.

Other than the secondary themes of obsession and growing old, the movie’s main theme, which is hammered home over and over again in the dialog, is Buzz’ independence.

Buzz isn’t very likable at the beginning of the film. He’s arrogant, controlling (he resists turning things over to an autopilot) and overconfident (Buzz’ overestimation of his piloting abilities is what causes the ship to crash, which is the inciting incident for the movie’s many complications). He makes condescending remarks about the rookie and ignores the young man’s frequent offers to lend a hand. In essence, Buzz is John Wayne in space.

Buzz’ narcissism is on full display when he makes mission logs. Dictated like a dramatic reading, these oft-embellished recordings are just to make him look good in the eyes of his superiors. Hawthorne calls out Buzz’ compulsion to record their missions and refers to his habit as “narrating” (not to be confused with “monologuing” in
The Incredibles). The fact that Hawthorne tells him no one listens to his recordings fails to dissuade Buzz from making log entries throughout the rest of the movie. Add stubbornness to Buzz’ list of negative character traits.

As was mentioned earlier, the movie’s writers work overtime to highlight Buzz’ independent nature. At one point, Buzz says, “I’m better off doing the job by myself.” Later, he says, “I’m always sure.”

Fortunately, Buzz comes to see the value of team. He gradually abandons his desire to control everything. He learns to accept the ideas of others and even delegates responsibilities he’d normally shoulder himself. Buzz’ loner leader turned team player story arc culminates with this admission, “I can’t do it alone. I need help.” Buzz’ transformative realization is also germane for the audience; we all need others in our life.

Lightyear is a disappointment on many levels. It contains the merest fraction of the movie magic that made the Toy Story franchise so wildly popular with kids, parents and critics alike.

Thematically, the movie is very adult; aesthetically, it’s very dark. There’s little levity, and only a few funny lines, in the movie. Plus, the hero isn’t very heroic for the first half of the film.

Though the production elements are top-notch, the story is lacking. I expect much more from Pixar (the quality of their movies has steadily declined since Disney bought the animation studio).

Lightyear is educational. It teaches us the proper way to make a meat sandwich. It references some real science too, like relative velocity and time dilation…pretty ambitious for a kid’s movie.

It also leaves us pondering the big questions about life and the universe.

Like, what’s beyond infinity?

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4

Top Gun: Maverick (PG-13)

Directed by: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Tom Cruise
May 2022

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. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

For anyone who’s seen Top Gun (1986), this film’s opening sequence will be an exhilarating blast from the past.

We witness jets landing on an aircraft carrier, tailhooks snagging arresting wires to bring the planes to a screeching halt. Then we see airplanes launching from the carrier; pilots are given the go-ahead hand signal by members of a highly-skilled group of technicians who serve as a pit crew for the jets. A triumphant fist pump accompanies each successful takeoff.

Then we hear the haunting strains of an electric guitar, which propels the regal power ballad “Top Gun Anthem” from the OG movie. Cue the goose bumps. The nostalgic opener culminates with a short sampling of Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone,” a song synonymous with the 80s movie.

The story begins with Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) working on a P-51 Mustang in a hangar in Mojave, CA. Living up to his name, Maverick has nearly been discharged from the Navy several times for insubordination, but he receives orders from his friend, Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), to return to the Top Gun flight school in San Diego, CA. In a top secret meeting with Admiral Simpson (Jon Hamm) and Admiral Bates (Charles Parnell), Maverick is informed that he’s been tasked with leading a mission into enemy territory to blow up an underground uranium enrichment facility.

Surprise #1: Maverick learns that his role on the mission is to teach it, not fly it.

Maverick is introduced to the elite pilots he’ll be training.

Surprise #2: One of the young men is Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of Maverick’s wingman Goose (Anthony Edwards), who died in a training accident in the first film.

As Maverick puts the pilots through grueling training, with occasional breaks for teambuilding fun, Navy Intelligence learns some distressing news…

Surprise #3: The enemy facility will be operational sooner than anticipated and the mission has been moved up—ready or not, the pilots will be wheels up in seven days.

So, will Maverick’s young pilots have the right stuff to complete an impossible mission (Cruise’s other alter ego, Ethan Hunt, could do it without breaking a sweat), or will they crash into a mountain or be shot down by sleek fifth-generation fighters? Buckle up! There are plenty more surprises on this wild ride.

A number of elements made the original film a crowd-pleasing classic. A callow, cocky Cruise was certainly a box office draw for many. The realistic dogfights between U.S. F-14 Tomcats and Russian MiGs created an immersive experience that appealed to the arcade/Atari crowd. The ubiquitous soundtrack generated excitement for the movie all summer long, and even people who hadn’t seen the movie (like me…I wasn’t allowed to see it) could identify the film by its chart-topping hits.

Top Gun: Maverick has plenty of things going for it as well. For starters, its storyline is a bit more complicated than the straight shot plot in the original film. A more seasoned Maverick struggles to find his place in the new Navy; hotshot young pilots and modern fighter planes threaten his obsolescence.

Rooster’s inclusion in the team of fighter pilots forces Maverick to confront the lingering ghost of Goose’s tragic death. The young pilot bears a grudge against Maverick for delaying his entry into the Naval Academy; unbeknownst to Rooster, it was his mother’s dying wish. The movie gets ample dramatic mileage from this estranged relationship.

And speaking of relationships, Maverick is reunited with long-lost love, Penny (Jennifer Connelly). Though underdeveloped, their relationship is sweet without being saccharine. Also, Cruise and Connelly have far better screen chemistry than the dubious pairing of Cruise and Kelly McGillis in the original film.

The movie’s attractive young actors deliver fine performances. Of note are annoyingly overconfident Hangman (Glen Powell), quietly confident Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), and silent techie Bob (Lewis Pullman). And what highflying film would be complete without Ed Harris? He plays Admiral Cain in a scanty, yet significant role.

Aside from its star-studded cast, the movie’s success rides on its aerial combat sequences. The visuals in
Maverick far surpass those in the original film, and some of the aerobatic stunts literally take your breath away (with apologies to Berlin). But in the age of CGI, how real are the dogfights?

Much like Maverick, Cruise is well-known for pushing the limits. From the outset, Cruise insisted that the sequel should contain no green screen or CGI shots. It would be easy to cheat on the close-up cockpit shots, but even those were captured in-flight during real aerial filming sessions.

In addition to enduring a three month boot camp designed by Cruise, the young performers involved in flight scenes had to undergo g-force training to prepare them for the incredible pressures they’d experience when filming aloft. Added pressure was placed on the actors when, out of necessity, they became active participants in the filmmaking process.

According to producer Jerry Bruckheimer, “The actors also had to learn how to run the cameras because when they’re up in the jet they have to direct themselves essentially. They also needed to be taught about the lighting, cinematography and editing, as it is the once-in-a-lifetime experience.” Now that’s how you take amateur filmmaking to new heights.

Not every aspect of the film soars, though. Many could justifiably argue that the opener is a rip-off of the original and that the entire movie is a redux of
Top Gun.

As with the first film, character development in
Maverick is fairly shallow; other than Maverick, Rooster and Penny, most of the characters are cardboard cutouts with call signs. Also, with very few exceptions, the plot is patently predictable.

The movie’s theme of “old vs. new” is delivered with all the subtlety of an exploding rocket. In the words of Admiral Cain, pilots like Maverick are “headed for extinction.” Maverick is frequently referred to as “old man,” and one of the younger officers calls F-14s “old relics”—the inference is that Maverick resembles the planes he used to fly.

There are plenty of worn-out tropes here too, like when the motorcycle-riding Maverick races alongside a jet hurdling down a runway; a callback to a similar scene in the original movie. Another allusion is when Rooster sits down at a piano and bangs out Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” something his father had done, with him sitting on top of the piano, in the first movie.

Then there’s the slogan-happy dialog, i.e. the oft-quoted, “It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot.” Or the Yoda-esque, “Don’t think, just do.”

One of the movie’s strangest story points is that the enemy remains unidentified. Apparently in today’s political climate, Russia and China are off-limits when selecting bad guys for a story. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised since this movie was co-funded by Tencent, a Chinese company.

In a movie focused on fight and flight, character moments often take a back seat to action sequences. An exception is the touching reunion scene in the middle of the story; it’s one of the only moments where the film slows down long enough for a meaningful conversation to take place. Iceman invites Maverick to visit his home; the latter is greeted at the door by Iceman’s wife who says, “It’s come back.”

When Maverick enters Iceman’s home office, his rival-turned-friend is having a coughing fit. Iceman can’t speak; he must express his thoughts with the assistance of a computer. Iceman inquires about Rooster. When Maverick admits he’s at wits’ end with how to deal with the young man, Iceman types, “It’s time to let go.”

This sage and selfless advice, coming from a man battling a terminal illness (the fact that Kilmer has throat cancer lends the scene added poignancy), is the heart of the film. It’s a stark reminder of the brevity of life, something the pilots in the film are all too aware of, and an admonition to make the most of every moment.

Top Gun: Maverick is a dazzling roller coaster of a movie. It’s a worthy successor to the original film and has pushed the technology and aerial acrobatics to the next level. The gravity-defying, death-daring stunts should make this a crowd-pleasing, summer popcorn flick.

It’s regrettable that the pervasive swearing detracts from what otherwise is a pretty clean film. Despite its heavy dose of foul language, the movie is an entertaining thrill ride that should appeal to a wide audience, especially those with a need for speed.

The final scene shows Maverick and Penny flying off into the sunset. Is this symbolic? Will this be the end of Maverick’s story, or will he be back in the sequel…

Top Gun: Rooster?

Rating: 3 out of 4

Dune (PG-13)

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Timothee Chalamet
October 2021

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. 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 Padishah Emperor has ordered House Atreides to pack up and move from temperate timberland, Caladan, to arid sandbox, Arrakis. The cosmic house swap is completed when rival House Harkonnen abandons Arrakis for the incoming House Atreides. And so begins an era of peace and prosperity on the Atreides-ruled Arrakis. Guess again!

A member of the Atreides’ inner circle is a traitor. The conspirator arranges for a combined Harkonnen and Sardaukar (Imperial elite soldiers) army to slip into the capital city, Arrakeen, at night. Many Atreides warriors are lost in the battle. Those who survive learn, too late, that they were set up from the start.

That bare bones description of
Dune, the latest cinematic envisioning of Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction novel, is only half of the overall story since this film is the first of two parts.

If you struggled to digest the above synopsis, know that it was even more challenging to summarize Herbert’s sprawling epic. Aside from its Machiavellian intrigue, planet-hopping plot, coming-of-age subplot and pseudo-religious underpinnings, the story’s expansive glossary of terms (ornithopters, hunter-seekers, stillsuits, in addition to all the proper nouns listed above) is enough to give you a brain freeze…even on Arrakis.

A world (universe) so rich in different races, beliefs, creatures, weapons and cultures brings to mind another fictional masterwork, J.R.R. Tolkien’s
The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In fact, it isn’t much of a stretch to say that Dune is to science fiction what The Lord of the Rings is to fantasy. They’re the high-water marks of their respective genres.

For all the diehard, deep cut
Dune fans out there, I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject. However, I’ve seen David Lynch’s 1984 film (several times), the mini-series that aired in 2000 on the Sci Fi Channel (now Syfy), and have listened to the unabridged audiobook. That said, take my comments with a grain of sand…or salt.

Director Denis Villeneuve (
Blade Runner 2049) has assembled an impressive ensemble of performers. Yet, some of the parts seem miscast. For instance, Timothee Chalamet (Paul Atreides) is ten years older than his character and seems too brooding for the part. Oscar Isaac (Leto Atreides) is too hard-edged and fails to capture the world-weary aspect of the character, as portrayed in the book.

In my opinion, Jason Momoa and Dave Bautista don’t fit their parts and were brought in merely to shore up the movie’s action scenes (and to attract fans of their other movies). I’m conflicted about Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck. Javier Bardem and Stellan Skarsgård are perfect in their roles. The women are fabulous, especially Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica and Charlotte Rampling as the Reverend Mother.

Dune is a visually breathtaking film. The set design, particularly the interiors of the Arrakeen buildings, is nothing short of inspired and lends the film an aesthetic that’s familiar (based on human architecture), yet otherworldly. The costumes, weapons and technology are all well crafted and seamlessly blend into the story’s milieu.

Particularly striking is the film’s array of surface and space-faring ships. The dragonfly-like ornithopters are fun to watch as they flit over dunes and mountains. The harvesters fit the bill as large cargo vessels with tank treads to help them slowly amble across the desert terrain.

With their immense size and angular designs, the capital ships are utterly jaw-dropping. They have an almost physical presence when ominously hovering above the surface. The surreal atmosphere created in these scenes is similar to the effect Villeneuve achieved in
Arrival (2016) with his massive, obsidian, contact lens-shaped alien ship.

Despite its stellar production, this film isn’t everything I’d hoped it would be. Compared to the film’s massive scale, the characters seem small and insignificant. Indeed, the characters are swallowed up (as if by a giant sandworm) by the expansive sets and the sheer magnitude of the story. Character moments are few and seem insignificant against the backdrop of interstellar war.

Even the action sequences are uninvolving and (here’s something I never thought I’d say) too short. To provide an omniscient view of the battles, many of the scenes were filmed from a distance. As a consequence, the audience doesn’t get to feel the pulse-pounding intensity of close combat or experience the jeopardy that comes with following the main characters through the battle (e.g., the melees in
The Lord of the Rings). The notable exception is when Momoa’s Duncan Idaho sacrifices himself Boromir-style to give his friends time to flee the rapidly approaching Sardaukar.

As with many movies, the biggest drawback here is the story; the screenplay was adapted by Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth. Though their script remains faithful to the source material (in most respects), the writers focused their attention on servicing the fans more than clarifying story elements for the newcomers. Granted, the narrative can be confusing, even to the initiated, but the writers failed to provide adequate context for the story’s plethora of planets and peoples. They dole out bits of exposition at a pace that might lose some spectators. If I wasn’t already familiar with the world of
Dune, I would’ve been thoroughly confused by this presentation of Herbert’s novel.

One element that should remain invisible in any movie is the score. As a rule, noticing the music isn’t a good thing, because it can pull you out of the reality of the film. Much of Hans Zimmer’s score for
Dune is like listening to an army of rhythmically-challenged people pounding on metal garbage can lids with turkey legs. This type of grating, banging, industrial sounding accompaniment, complete with screaming electric guitars, is fitting for the handful of Harkonnen scenes, but not for the bulk of the score.

Some of the music is noteworthy; Middle Eastern sounds are used for the Fremen scenes and there’s a beautiful passage with a soprano during one scene. But overall, the word I’d use to describe Zimmer’s score is “obnoxious” (or perhaps just “noxious”). I recently purchased his soundtrack for
No Time to Die which is way, way better (and far more listenable) than this effort.

Despite being the best visualized version of Herbert’s classic, this presentation of
Dune is a mild disappointment. Unlike its scorching hot environs, the story is cold and aloof, offering insufficient context and scant character development. In a strange paradox, the film manages to be both awe-inspiring (production) and uninspiring (story).

The ending leaves the audience lost in the desert. We’ll see if they find their way back to the theater for
Dune, Part 2.

Rating: 3 out of 4

No Time to Die (PG-13)

Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Starring: Daniel Craig
October 2021

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. 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!

Bond is back (after a long delay due to COVID)! No Time to Die is Daniel Craig’s fifth and final James Bond film. The movie brings back many characters (Ralph Fiennes as M, Ben Whishaw as Q, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny and Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter) and story elements from Craig’s earlier films and picks up a short time after the events of the previous film, Spectre (2015).

A staple of every Bond movie is the “Bond Girl.” Since Bond is a “girl in every port” kind of guy, it’s unusual to see the same love interest in consecutive movies. Some early scenes focus on Bond and Madeleine’s (Lea Seydoux) honeymoon afterglow. The couple enjoys a few fleeting moments of happiness before their pasts come back to haunt them, shattering the illusion of marital bliss.

The only other Bond film that featured a retired Bond settling down with a new wife was
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). Cleverly, composer Hans Zimmer includes a slower-tempo version of a prominent theme from that movie in his score (track 11, “Good to Have You Back”). That earlier Bond film ended in tragedy and so does No Time to Die, but with a twist.

This movie is the culmination of Craig’s Bond films and marks a bold new direction for the franchise. Will we see our first female Bond in the next film—perhaps Lashana Lynch, who plays Bond’s replacement in this film?

Director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, makes excellent use of several gorgeous locations (the movie was shot in Italy, Norway, Jamaica, the UK and other regions) and stages some heart-stopping action sequences (especially the climactic FPS-style charge up the stairway to the tower). The writers, including Fukunaga, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and others, do an excellent job of working within the well-established tropes of the franchise without being overly rote or formulaic.

Of course, when discussing narrative conventions, a Bond film wouldn’t be complete without a villain bent on destroying the world. This film features two villains: Christoph Waltz as Blofeld (held over from the previous film), and Rami Malek as Lyutsifer Safin. Blofeld is the nemesis from Bond’s past, while Safin is a haunting figure from Madeleine’s childhood. In the end, Bond must defeat both antagonists. But at what price?

The Bond films have always done an excellent job of projecting possible anarchist plots based on emerging technologies. In a ripped-from-headlines scenario, Safin intends to wipe out the majority of humanity with designer viruses that can target an individual’s specific DNA. It’s a frightening doomsday scenario that taps into pandemic fears and recent reports that U.S. medical databases have been hacked by a foreign government.

The film’s harrowing resolution is a gut-wrenching exercise in inevitability. While some will be satisfied with the ending, others will judge it as an emotionally overwrought and egregiously protracted denouement. In the defense of the latter argument, why does it take so long for the missiles to reach their target (they could’ve gotten there quicker if they’d been launched from the moon)? Others might gripe that the story is torn between a romance and an actioner, and that the movie’s nearly three hour running time taxes the bladder. All valid points.

On the flipside, the stakes are higher and the emotions run deeper here than in many other Bond films. It’s hard to imagine a future Bond installment eclipsing this film in dramatic depth and intensity, or in producing a finer title. Although, for the sake of accuracy, this movie should’ve been called
Bad Time to Die.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Stillwater (R)

Directed by: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Matt Damon
September 2021

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. 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 movie is named after the Oklahoma town which serves as the bookend location in
Stillwater. As opposed to its eponym, the dramatic waters in this film are anything but still.

Matt Damon plays Bill Baker, a divorced oil-rig driller whose daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin) has been accused of a murder and is languishing in a French prison. Between jobs, Bill manages to scrape enough cash together to visit Allison and bring her gifts, like an Oklahoma State Cowboys hoodie. Sadly, Allison sees her former alcoholic dad as a mess up and her relationship with him is estranged, despite his best efforts to patch things up.

On his most recent visit to Marseille, Bill is assisted by Virginie (Camille Cottin). Bill forms a close bond with Virginie’s young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), and eventually falls in love with Virginie…at which point his life begins to implode.

The movie is about choices and how people tend to go to extremes when protecting the ones they love. Bill makes a series of bad decisions that threaten his newly-formed French family and nearly land him in jail. The climactic bombshell revelation, that Allison might not be as innocent as she claims, sets up a bittersweet denouement and a downer ending.

Director Tom McCarthy does an excellent job of contrasting the U.S. and French locations. The cinematography serves a double purpose of capturing the character of these two worlds while revealing how these two worlds impact the characters.

It’s hard to imagine a more fish-out-of-water scenario then dropping someone like Bill into a bustling French city. His attempts at learning to speak French are amusing; especially his comment about how many syllables it takes to say “chisel.”

Damon deftly inhabits his character and is thoroughly convincing as the rough-living roughneck trying to do right by his daughter. As good as Damon is, the supporting cast is excellent, especially Cottin, who grounds the story’s more contrived elements in reality. Siauvaud is cute as a button.

In the end, this family drama with crime elements and Parisian flair won’t be everyone’s cup of joe. Though it has shades of
Taken (2008), this well written clash of cultures tale will inhabit a unique corner in the “intercontinental, daughter in trouble, father takes matters into his own hands” genre.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Old (PG-13)

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal
July 2021

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. 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!

Director M. Night Shyamalan is back with a new thriller, Old.

The story opens with a vacationing family driving through a tropical paradise. After checking into an opulent seaside resort, the hospitality manager invites the family to visit a private beach. They’re joined by two other families; a mysterious man, who lingers like a statue near the rocky cliffs, was already on the beach before they arrived.

The first clue that everything isn’t okay comes when one of vacationers finds a dead body. Then, the adults are shocked when they discover their kids are growing older by the hour. Every attempt to leave the beach is met with failure or death and, judging from how fast their children are growing, the adults estimate they’ll die of old age within twenty-four hours.

A mystery coupled with a ticking time bomb plot device is usually an effective combination, and so it is here. But, before we’ve gone too far down the slot canyon of analysis, I want to make an admission that might make some scoff. I admire Shyamalan.

His early successes,
The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000) and Signs (2002), put Shyamalan on the fast track to becoming the next Alfred Hitchcock. Praise turned to ridicule with the release of a middling rash of films, including The Village (2004), Lady in the Water (2006), and The Happening (2008). Ironically, Shyamalan created his own monster when (ever smarter) audiences came to expect, and quickly deduce, his patented twist endings.

Shyamalan’s name became synonymous with box office flops and for a season it looked like his career was finished. But to his credit, Shyamalan took the criticism and failure in stride and kept trying (hence my admiration). In recent years, he’s delivered several modest successes, including the thought-provoking psychological thrillers
Split (2016) and Glass (2019).

Shyamalan, who also wrote the story (adapted from the graphic novel
Sandcastle by Pierre-Oscar Levy) and appears in a cameo role, delivers some skillful and inventive directing in Old. The unsettling vertigo effect inside the canyon is highly effective and the shots of kids freezing in place when playing a game of tag are downright creepy. Thankfully, he takes a minimalist approach when showing gory or graphic action; many of these incidents take place off-screen, with a few notable exceptions.

With the assistance of his crew, Shyamalan makes the plight of his aging characters an immersive experience for the audience. A blurry filter is used to depict a man’s failing vision. A woman covers her right ear and everything in the theater goes silent…a dramatic way to reveal that she’s deaf in her left ear. Even in the CG era, these old-school tricks still work like a charm.

As brilliant as his direction is, Shyamalan’s dialog is wanting. In the first few minutes of the film, the themes of aging and time are delivered with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Such contrived lines include: “I can’t wait to hear it when you’re older,” “You’re too young,” “Don’t wish away this moment” and “Sit up, you don’t want to be hunched when you grow up.” These, and many other, examples reinforce my opinion that Shyamalan should’ve hired a professional scribe to co-write or, at the very least, polish his script.

Soliciting help from an established screenwriter would’ve benefited the narrative, too. The story’s structure is fairly taut until the very end, when the plot takes a sharp left turn and the audience goes “Ahh!” Shyamalan should’ve wrapped things up right there.

Instead, he takes extra time to explain what the audience has already figured out. Shyamalan ties up every plot thread, but he should’ve left a few details untidy…to preserve the mystery and allow the audience to fill in some of the gaps. Aside from a few obvious nitpicks (wouldn’t nails, hair/beards grow quicker in an environment with rapidly advancing time; wouldn’t the aging adults have more gray hair and wrinkles; and why don’t the older and younger actors playing the same person look anything alike?), the movie’s ending is its only significant misstep.

Though lacking in star power, the movie features solid performances from an ensemble of established adult actors (Gael Garcia Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Ken Leung and Embeth Davidtz) as well as some fresh faces (Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie and Alexa Swinton). The multi-generational (and racially diverse) cast not only serves the story, it gives each member of the audience someone to identify with, which is also true of the movie’s themes (aging and relationship issues will resonate with adults, while teen romance and thriller sequences will appeal to younger audience members).

The film’s tropical vistas, shot in the Dominican Republic, are absolutely gorgeous. It could be argued that the beach, as the central locus of action, is the “main character” of the movie. Perhaps this is why Shyamalan didn’t hire superstars…he didn’t want his location to be upstaged.

Old is one of Shyamalan’s only films not to be set in his hometown, Philadelphia (however, the story’s main family says they’re from Philly). Though an unintended analogy at the time of filming, Shyamalan has keenly noted that this story, which involves characters trapped on a beach, is reminiscent of the way many people have felt stuck during the COVID-19 lockdown.

The movie
The Missouri Breaks (1976), starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, is mentioned twice by Sewell’s character. Since the plot of that film doesn’t resemble the story in Old in any way, it’s a curious and esoteric reference.

Playing an overconfident swimmer in
Old, Leung is perhaps best known for his role in another tropical island mystery, TVs Lost. One young boy says he collects conch shells. This may be a reference to Lord of the Flies, yet another island survival tale/morality play.

In addition to its main theme concerning the fear of growing old and dying, there are several ancillary themes in the movie, including anxieties surrounding chronic illness and loss (of physical abilities, mental health, memory, cherished people and pets).

The movie also has a lot to say about time and how we choose to use it. With only thirteen hours to live, two characters decide to make a sandcastle on the beach. Some would view this as a waste of precious time. Others might see it as a shared experience providing an enjoyable distraction from the crushing reality of their impending doom. The scene posits an important message: no matter how bad things get, always take some time to have fun and enjoy the moment.

Old is a thriller wrapped in a mystery and tied together with a universal theme: the fear of growing old and dying. It’s man vs. nature stuck on fast-forward.

Old isn’t top-shelf Shyamalan, nor does it need to be. That seems to be one of the main ingredients in Shyamalan’s resurgence; he isn’t trying to make the next Signs. He’s just trying to make films with an intriguing premise and relatable characters rather than a thrill-fest with a trick ending. It’s a formula that seems to be working.

In the end, this isn’t a great film, but it’s a well-constructed mystery with a few good scares and some food for thought you can snack on after you’ve left the theater.

Parting tip: When someone invites you to a private beach, go snorkeling.

Rating: 3 out of 4

The Courier (PG-13)

Directed by: Benedict Cumberbatch
Starring: Dominic Cooke
March 2021

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. 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 Cold War heats up in this political thriller from director Dominic Cooke (
On Chesil Beach).

A Russian spy, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), secretly believes Soviet leader Khrushchev’s (Vladimir Chuprikov) policies and rhetoric have become too aggressive (“…we…will…bury them!”), and that he shouldn’t be in control of an arsenal of nuclear weapons. Penkovsky sends a message to MI6 in London, outlining his plan to relay top secret information to British Intelligence in exchange for extraction from Russia.

In a bold move, MI6’s Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and CIA agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) recruit a British businessman, Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), to establish contact with Penkovsky. Wynne flies to Russia on a business trip to meet Penkovsky, and the two men begin an association that will lead them into ever greater intrigue and danger.

I’d love to tell you more of the plot, but then I’d have to kill you…and I like you. So I won’t.

There are two reasons I wanted to see this film:

1. Though it doesn’t directly deal with the conflict, the subject of the movie is the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. This is a personal historical event for me since my father served aboard a destroyer that was part of the blockade (his ship turned its large deck gun on a Russian U-boat, which promptly tucked tail and headed back to the U.S.S.R.).

2. The movie stars Cumberbatch, whom I esteem as one of the finest actors of our generation. His acting in the film has further reinforced that opinion. Not only is Cumberbatch’s performance finely-nuanced, his Tom Hanks (
Philadelphia and Cast Away) and Christian Bale (The Machinist) style emaciation is startling.

So, have you seen this movie before under different guises? Yes.

Penkovsky’s plan to leave Russia is reminiscent of Marko Ramius’ (Sean Connery) intention to defect from Russia to the U.S. on the eponymous nuclear submarine in
The Hunt for Red October (1990). Another similarity between these films is Penkovsky’s desire to live in Montana; the same state Captain Borodin (Sam Neill) wants to live in after he’s defected from Russia in the Red October.

Of course, a more recent touchstone for this film is Steven Spielberg’s
Bridge of Spies (2015). In that movie, American insurance lawyer, Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) is sent to Berlin to mediate the exchange of an American pilot for a captured Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance).

There are many parallels between
The Courier and Bridge of Spies. Both films are set during the Cold War and both are based on real events. Also, both Wynne and Donovan are hardworking everymen with no prior espionage experience. They both befriend a Russian spy, albeit for completely different reasons. Both men step up to the challenge (lesser men simply wouldn’t have gotten involved) and exhibit courage in the face of danger.

The entire thrust of the movie is about spying. Not only are Penkovsky and Wynne spying against the Russians, the Russians are spying on themselves. This fills the film with a pervasive paranoia.

It also provides a stark contrast with the scenes in London, where there isn’t the same feeling of anxiety that’s present in the scenes that take place in Russia. It’s the difference between a nation spying on its enemies (Great Britain) versus a country spying on its enemies
and it own citizens (Russia).

Sadly, we’ve had a long litany of spying in America. We’ve gone from spying on our neighbors (the Red Scare), to spying on political adversaries (the Watergate scandal), to spying on terrorists in our midst (the Patriot Act), to spying on individuals (Carter Page), to spying on the masses (hackers and social media platforms).

The script by Tom O’Connor is a slow-boil political yarn in the vein of
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), which also featured Cumberbatch in its cast. For those who enjoy a well-structured plot with riveting intrigue and mild action, this film is for you. Those who prefer more action in their spy film (a la James Bond) might be disappointed by this movie’s slow start and deliberate pacing throughout.

Cooke’s sure-handed direction is further abetted by Sean Bobbitt’s crisp, moody cinematography. Though many of its scenes take place indoors, the film makes excellent use of its Prague and London locations. Most of the on location work was shot under overcast skies, which further enhances the film’s melancholy mood.

At first glance, you probably wouldn’t consider this is a buddy movie, but Penkovsky and Wynne (just like Donovan and Abel in
Bridge of Spies) forge an unlikely partnership that leads to a sacrificial friendship.

When the KGB begins to close in on Penkovsky, Wynne tells Franks and Donovan, “I’m not leaving him.” Wynne flies to Russia to help extract Penkovsky at great personal risk. Penkovsky and Wynne are willing to die in order to protect the secrets that can save millions of lives.

In the final analysis,
The Courier features deft direction, top-shelf writing and fine performances. It’s a finely mounted period piece that superbly captures the Cold War milieu.

Aside from these artistic considerations, the film recalls one of the most dangerous periods in history and leaves us with some nagging questions regarding the nature of spying.

It also spotlights courage and friendship. Penkovsky tells Wynne, “Maybe we’re only two people…but this is how things change.”

That haunting line is the heart of the film and begs the question: If these two men from enemy countries could work together for the common good, why can’t our politicians find consensus to solve the many pressing challenges currently facing our nation?

Rating: 3 out of 4

I Still Believe (PG)

Directed by: Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin
Starring: Britt Robertson
March 2020

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 real-life experiences of singer Jeremy Camp, I Still Believe is a unique film in that it’s both heartbreaking and inspiring. That bittersweet dichotomy permeates every moment of this tragic love story, which also focuses on faith and family.

Jeremy Camp (K.J. Apa) and Melissa Henning (Britt Robertson) meet at a concert and it soon becomes apparent that their love is written in the stars. But the universe throws the young couple a curveball when Melissa is diagnosed with cancer.

To its credit, the story doesn’t degenerate into a melodrama when depicting its tragic events. There isn’t a false note during the film’s emotionally gut-wrenching passages, particularly those that take place in the hospital.

The film benefits from some superb acting. Though Apa and Robertson scintillate as the movie’s central couple, the supporting cast is equally impressive. Jeremy’s parents are portrayed by Gary Sinise and Shania Twain. One of Melissa’s sisters is played by Melissa Roxburgh, the star of TVs
Manifest. In an ironic bit of casting, Cameron Arnett, who played a terminal patient in last year’s Overcomer, appears here as Melissa’s doctor.

The film is directed by the Erwin Brothers (Andrew and Jon), who also helmed last year’s surprise hit
I Can Only Imagine; another biopic about the life of a musician, Bart Millard. In a refreshing gesture of paying it forward, Millard serves as one of this movie’s producers.

The Erwin’s have done an amazing job of making a modestly budgeted film feel like a prestige studio drama. Aerial shots, like the ones at Camp’s beachside concert, are impressive and surely weren’t cheap to film. The movie also boasts a diverse soundtrack and an affecting score by John Debney (
The Passion of the Christ).

A two-hanky tearjerker, this film will have added significance for anyone who’s lost someone. It’s an eternally hopeful love story filled with music and more than its fair share of genuine, human moments.

In the end,
I Still Believe is a moving true story of true love. It’s anchored by superb performances and features a story unafraid to ask some of the big questions about life…and death. And what it means to really believe.

Rating: 3 out of 4

The Call of the Wild (PG)

Directed by: Chris Sanders
Starring: Harrison Ford
February 2020

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 Jack London novel of the same name, The Call of the Wild feels like a Disney movie, but isn’t (the movie was produced by 20th Century Studios).

Harrison Ford cuts a rugged figure as old-timer John Thornton. Ford certainly looks the part; he grew a bushy prospector’s beard in three and a half months. Ford’s performance is predictably strong as a man with vastly different priorities than most of his contemporaries. Unlike everyone else headed “North to Alaska,” Thornton’s goal isn’t gold nuggets, only solitude.

Ford anchors a cast that features oddly checkered acting. Bradley Whitford is solid in his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part as Buck’s (Terry Notary) former, forbearing owner. Buck’s dogsled masters, played by Omar Sy and Cara Gee, are superb in physically demanding roles. It’s fitting that Sy and Gee’s characters deliver the mail since they deliver strong supporting performances that keep the story zipping along during the film’s early passages.

Ironically, the weakest performance comes from one of the finest actors in the cast…Dan Stevens. The one-note heavy Stevens portrays makes a Disney villain seem complex by comparison. Witness Stevens’ face when he enters Thornton’s cabin. His maniacal mask is so inhumanly contorted that I actually thought the movie had switched to an animated feature for a few beats.

This kind of melodramatic and megalomaniacal part is a tremendous disservice to Stevens, who, in other contexts (
Downton Abbey), has proven himself to be a fine actor. Here, he plays a greedy, cruel (especially to animals), unreasonable opportunist who wouldn’t last five minutes out in the wild.

Set in the Yukon in the 1890s, the locations (many of which were filmed in British Colombia and Yukon, Canada) are mind-blowingly frigid (winter) and lush (summer). While director Chris Sanders (
How to Train Your Dragon) does a fine job of creating the look and feel of London’s pioneer world, it’s Janusz Kaminski’s (Schindler’s List) cinematography that helps capture the alternatingly breathtaking and terrifying majesty of the Great White North.

The only knock on the visuals is that the saturation is really augmented during the summer sequences and the aurora borealis shots were quite obviously created with CGI. While on the subject, why was it necessary to CG animate Buck, the St. Bernard/Scotch Shepherd mix? Sure, the process of filming a live animal can be a bear (especially when it is one), but there’s just no replacing the genuine article.

Having a human inside a mo-cap suit mimicking the motions of a dog is preposterous (as it must’ve seemed to Ford when he had to pet Notary’s head). Although the final result isn’t embarrassing, there are moments when we can see right through the CG veneer, especially when, in an anthropomorphic display, Buck tosses Thornton a sideways glance. My preference would’ve been for real, rather than mo-cap and CG, animals in the movie. Featuring the latter was a major impediment to my enjoyment of the film.

In the end,
The Call of the Wild is a crowd-pleasing retelling of London’s classic adventure yarn. Excellent production values and gorgeous locations greatly add to this family-friendly tale of adventure and companionship between a man and his dog. For better or worse, the movie is exactly what you expect it to be.

So, will you answer the call?

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4

1917 (R)

Directed by: Sam Mendes
Starring: Dean-Charles Chapman
January 2020

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 movie’s serene opening is completely unexpected…two British soldiers are napping in a field in northern France during the height of WWI. Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is roused by a superior officer and told, “Pick a man. Bring your kit.”

Before Blake’s waking friend, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), can protest, the two young men are trudging through a winding labyrinth of trenches. After several minutes of maneuvering down narrow passageways, the soldiers finally arrive at General Erinmore’s (Colin Firth) command bunker.

Erinmore wastes no time in outlining Blake and Schofield’s assignment—they are to cross over into enemy territory, rendezvous with a British battalion and deliver a letter which warns of a German trap. Failure to deliver the message will jeopardize 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother. This is one impossible mission even Ethan Hunt wouldn’t accept.

The movie’s premise is simple enough and, barring a few twists along the way, the plot is fairly straightforward too. But story (director Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns wrote the screenplay) isn’t the movie’s strong suit. Even though the film features excellent performances from Chapman, MacKay, Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch, acting isn’t its strong suit either. (Fans of BBC’s
Sherlock will note that the series’ hero and chief villain are both among this movie’s cast).

So why is
1917 causing such a stir (many top critics have lauded the film and it just won Best Motion Picture at the 2020 Golden Globes)? In short, 1917 is a cinematic achievement. Though that phrase is employed far too frequently these days, it’s wholly justified in this case.

1917, Mendes (Skyfall) has attempted the seemingly impossible. Mendes’ original concept, which was inspired by his eight minute sequence at the beginning of Spectre (2015), was to film his WWI epic as a single shot in real time. Alas, unlike TVs 24, the movie doesn’t occur in real time, nor was it shot in order (a few scenes were shot out of sequence). However, the film does achieve the feeling of one long, continuous shot.

This certainly isn’t the first war movie to employ uber-difficult long takes. Many will point to the frenetic, bone-jarring long take in Stanley Kubrick’s
Paths of Glory (1957)—where Kirk Douglas leads his men on a writhing, weaving course along a bomb-blasted battlefield—as the finest of its kind. Others could make a strong case for the extraordinary long takes in The Longest Day (1962), Atonement (2007) and, of course, Saving Private Ryan (1998). While those films featured one significant long take each, 1917 is comprised of a series of extended takes, the longest of which is nine minutes. There’s no overstating the magnitude of what Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins (along with the alchemic editing team) have achieved here.

The film took extensive planning and execution to pull off. The sets were constructed in an almost storyboard fashion. The movie proceeded scene by scene, station to station, and through trenches, mud pits and tunnels. If it rained, the company shut down (but continued to rehearse) until the weather cleared. Conversely, if the previous scene was shot under an overcast sky and the sun peaked through the clouds, they had to wait for the sun to go back in. The sheer logistics of producing such a project (constructing 5,200 feet of trenches, filming in the mud and elements for 65 days, etc.) are mind-boggling and exhausting to consider.

Most war movies contain similar themes, such as bravery, courage, sacrifice and friendship. Blake and Schofield exhibit excellent teamwork as they work in tandem to overcome the many obstacles thrown in their path. Their training is evident and their dedication to the mission is admirable.

At one point, Schofield asks Blake why he was chosen for the mission. Blake asks Schofield if he wants to go back. Schofield proves his loyalty as a friend and fellow soldier by remaining at Blake’s side.

This degree of loyalty and companionship is reminiscent of Frodo and Sam’s in
The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Similar to Blake and Schofield’s trek, the Hobbits are required to traverse inhospitable regions filled with untold dangers in order to accomplish their objective. At one point, Schofield tries to pick up Blake, just like Sam did with Frodo. As sidekicks, both Sam and Schofield are willing to sacrifice themselves for their friend.

There are many unforgettable visual compositions in the movie. In one scene, a crashing German plane rapidly approaches Blake and Schofield from behind as they run straight toward the camera. The shot recalls Cary Grant sprinting away from the low-flying crop duster in
North by Northwest (1959).

In another scene, Schofield exchanges fire with a German sniper and ends up falling down a flight of stairs. After an undetermined span of time (brilliantly, the film fades to black for a few moments), Schofield finally regains consciousness.

Despite its unqualified brilliance, the movie surely will have its naysayers. Some may feel the movie’s progressive plot and filming technique have detracted from the overall viewing experience while simultaneously distracting many from realizing that the cause and effect story could’ve been written by a 10-year-old (with all due deference to today’s savvy young people). Others may criticize the movie for being enamored with its own style. All are valid arguments. Normally I grade down for “style over substance” spectacles (like
Dunkirk), but 1917 is a landmark effort that deserves nothing less than top marks.

In the final analysis, Mendes has achieved a staggering feat of cinematic wizardry with his ambitious one-shot filming. The movie is bolstered by stunning cinematography, astounding production elements, a beautifully restrained score by Thomas Newman and superb performances from its cornucopia of a cast.
1917 is an immersive, visceral and unrelenting journey through claustrophobic trenches, sodden plains and hellish landscapes…with cat-sized rodents and corpses to spare.

1917 is an unparalleled cinematic achievement unlikely to be outdone in our lifetime. Above all, 1917 has pushed the art forward. Regardless of its many accolades, that will be its lasting legacy.

Rating: 4 out of 4

Richard Jewell (R)

Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Paul Walter Hauser
December 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 horrific events that transpired at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, GA during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, Richard Jewell tells the true account of how the right security guard at the right time saved countless lives, but then went from hero to prime suspect in a matter of days. The movie is based on the book The Suspect by Kent Alexander & Kevin Salwen and the Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” by Marie Brenner.

The movie begins with Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) delivering mail (and Snickers bars) to his new boss, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell). Jewell soon leaves that job to pursue a career in law enforcement. Years later, after being fired from his security position at Piedmont College, one of Jewell’s friends recommends that he try getting on one of the security crews at the Olympic Games.

We jump forward to when Jewell is working security for AT&T during the Olympics’ nightly concert series. One night, Jewell sneaks up behind his mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates), and joins her in singing the chorus to “The Gambler” as Kenny Rogers performs it live on stage. The following night isn’t as festive. Backpack. Explosion. And the rest is history.

Whereas the film’s central event is explosive, the story isn’t. Billy Ray’s (
Captain Phillips) screenplay is extremely slow out of the starting gate. We follow Jewell as he bounces from job to job before finally getting hired on at the Olympics. Though we learn a good deal about Jewell’s personality and eccentricities during these preliminary scenes, it would’ve been nice if the early stages of the movie had been more intentional.

Much of the movie’s geriatric pacing can be attributed to the octogenarian director’s filming style. With a few exceptions, the majority of Clint Eastwood’s recent films have lacked urgency. He tends to capture the reality of a story in a very deliberate manner. Here, that purposefulness almost works in his favor, since the film is set in the Deep South, a region known for its slower pace. Negative critiques aside, after a series of average (
The Mule) to awful (The 15:17 to Paris) films, this is Eastwood’s best effort in years.

Eastwood has tapped some fine talent for his biopic. Simply put, Hauser (
I, Tonya) makes this movie work. You can’t help but feel pity for the quirky, vigilant and by the book security guard.

There’s a great scene where Bryant accuses Jewell of not being mad enough about what’s happening to him. The remark succeeds in triggering Jewell’s indignation. Jewell tells Bryant he can’t react the way the lawyer would and that he has to be true to himself. Even when provoked to anger, Jewell still had integrity.

Rockwell is flawless as Jewell’s “loud lawyer.” Bryant repays Jewell’s loyalty by sticking with him through the media circus that ensues after Jewell becomes the assumed perpetrator of the bombing. Bryant’s hard-nosed approach is a huge asset in preventing the FBI agents from intimidating Jewell and coercing him into surrendering his rites.

Though she only has a handful of scenes, Bates is exceptional as Jewell’s mother. Her impassioned speech at the end of the film is deeply moving and shows her range as an actor. Jon Hamm perfectly plays Tom Shaw, the FBI agent who continues building his case against Jewell even after it becomes obvious the security guard is innocent. Rounding out the cast is Olivia Wilde, who plays Kathy Scruggs, an unscrupulous journalist more interested in grabbing a headline (and Shaw’s crotch) than telling the truth, regardless of how such falsehoods might destroy the reputation of an innocent person.

And therein lies the crux of the story. Jewell was falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Though the judicial bedrock of our nation has been eroding for decades now, it’s clear that the time-honored standard “innocent until proven guilty” was tenuous even at this point in our history.

Indeed, more than ever, people are rushing to judgment and vilifying perceived offenders before they’ve been sentenced, tried or convicted. This type of trial by media is incredibly dangerous to individual rights. Though the media scrutiny was unbearable in 1996, can you image the living hell Jewell would’ve endured if the bombing had occurred during the age of social media?

Despite the fact that his reputation was besmirched by an overeager reporter and an overzealous federal agent, Jewell is one of history’s greatest unsung heroes since the bombing would’ve claimed many more lives were it not for his training, awareness and aggressive evacuation of the concert venue. Even though Jewell fits a certain profile (gun owner, lives with his mother, knows how to make a pipe bomb, wants to be seen as a hero, etc.), estimations of his character, by various news outlets and key law enforcement officials, couldn’t have been further off base. Using Jewell as a case study, one wonders how many others in our society are just like him…misunderstood heroes in the making?

Ironically, the real Olympic bomber, Eric Rudolph, confessed to the crime in 2005. Two years later, Jewell died of heart failure at age 44.

In the end,
Jewell is a bittersweet tale that illustrates just how quickly someone can go from being lionized to villainized. The movie is a sobering reminder of the media’s prevalence and the government’s ostensible omnipotence.

Jewell is a cautionary tale of how easily lives can be destroyed when powerful institutions succumb to knee-jerk reactions and turn public opinion against innocent citizens. It’s a lesson that’s just as salient today as it was in 1996.

Rating: 3 out of 4

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (PG)

Directed by: Marielle Heller
Starring: Tom Hanks
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!

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the biopic based on the life of Fred Rogers (better known as Mister Rogers), features a casting coup. Tom Hanks is astounding as the soft-spoken, affable creator of the children’s educational program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which aired on PBS from 1968 to 2001. Even though he isn’t a dead ringer for Rogers in appearance, Hanks nails the TV host’s mannerisms and speech patterns…and he rocks the red sweater.

The story takes place in 1998, when struggling journalist, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), is handed an assignment to write a piece on Rogers. After conducting his initial interview with Rogers, Vogel walks away with more questions than answers, largely owing to the fact that Rogers is much more interested in learning about Vogel than talking about himself. After witnessing Rogers preempt filming to talk to a disadvantaged child, the jaded journalist is left to wonder if it’s all part of an act.

Rogers takes a liking to the “broken” writer and tries to get Vogel to open up about his past, specifically his strained relationship with his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper). With Rogers’ wise council, Vogel attempts to patch things up with Jerry, who has fallen ill and is nearing death.

For those who grew up watching Mister Rogers on TV, the film will be a nostalgic trip. The show’s opener, where Rogers changes into his sweater and exchanges his tennis shoes for slippers (with the iconic slipper toss from one hand to the other), is an indelible sequence. The miniature sets, replete with tiny homes and moving trolley cars, will be a stroll down memory lane for many in the audience.

Speaking of those scaled-down sets, the movie’s art department cleverly constructed several Rogers-esque neighborhoods to stand in for real housing developments in the movie. City skylines, like Pittsburgh and pre-9/11 NYC, are brilliantly realized and come complete with blinking lights at night. The shot of a toy plane taking off from a play-set airport is also amusing.

Though nothing alike thematically,
Beautiful reminds me of Julie & Julia (2009) structurally. That story bounced back and forth between Julia’s (Meryl Streep) experiences in a Parisian culinary school in the past and Julie’s (Amy Adams) blog challenge in her NYC flat in the present. Even though it doesn’t involve any time jumping, Beautiful splits its focus between Vogel and Rogers, with their shared scenes serving as the heart of the story.

Disappointingly, Rogers’ story doesn’t exist apart from Vogel’s, except during the reenactment of various scenes from Rogers’ show. Lest we forget (and the savvy audience surely hasn’t), this is supposed to be a movie about Rogers, not the troubled journalist who writes an article about him—in real life, Tom Junod’s article “Can You Say…Hero?” appeared in
Esquire. Though not without magical and memorable moments, the movie could’ve used a lot more Rogers and a little less Vogel.

That isn’t to say the Vogel storyline is devoid of meaning or relevance.
Beautiful’s father/son estrangement subplot would feel right at home in many other movies dealing with familial strife. Here, the Vogel family drama consistently upstages the movie’s main storyline and its central figure.

The Rogers/Vogel pairing is an intriguing juxtaposition of attitudes and worldviews. Theirs is truly a tale of two eras.

Rogers represents the past—the early to mid-20th century, an era when people treated each other with decency, civility and respect. It also was a time when people placed an emphasis on hard work, family, community and faith. Fittingly, Fred Rogers had a very Will Rogers perspective on people (apparently, the latter once remarked that he never met a person he didn’t like).

In a similar vein, Rogers believed that everyone is precious. As portrayed in the movie, Rogers spoke kind and wise words in near-hypnotic tones. Then he would look into a person’s eyes, listen to them intently and remember what they said…an interpersonal skill set that eludes many members of today’s perpetually distracted society.

By contrast, Vogel represents the late 20th century (and opening 1/5
th of the 21st century). He’s angry, cynical and self-important. If Vogel doesn’t want to talk to someone, he just walks out of the room (or kicks them out of his house). He’s skeptical of genuine kindness and often struggles to express his emotions.

Vogel won’t let anyone get too close to him, which is why it’s remarkable that Vogel eventually opens up to Rogers. The fact that Rogers and Vogel become friends proves that the generation gap can be bridged. Rogers becomes a type of surrogate father to Vogel.

Vogel and his real father eventually find common ground too. Vogel’s decision to forgive Jerry, despite his past mistakes, is a beautiful moment. The movie’s recurring theme of relational reconciliation finds its fullest expression during the deathbed scenes, which, despite their inherent solemnity, initiate a heartwarming, crowd-pleasing resolution.

In the end,
Beautiful is an uplifting tribute to a truly kind and caring soul. Even though this slice of life spotlight on Rogers is inspiring, it would’ve been nice to see the full sweep of his life and career. The movie barely scratches the surface of who Rogers was as a person (like the fact that he was a Presbyterian minister and attended the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Child Development). For a well-orbed portrait of Rogers, watch the superb documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018).

Let’s all follow Rogers’ example and share some kindness with others today. It’s a beautiful day for it.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Motherless Brooklyn (R)

Directed by: Edward Norton
Starring: Edward Norton
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 novel of the same name by Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn is a neo-noir set in NYC during the 1950s. It’s a tale of murder, greed, scandal and political corruption. Some things never change.

The film opens with Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton), a private detective afflicted (or blessed) with Tourette’s Syndrome, assisting his boss, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), with an important case. Things go sideways when Frank is taken for a ride, shot in the stomach and dumped in an alley. Frank’s final words not only hint at the identity of his murderer, they also blow the lid off a high-level political scandal.

As he begins unraveling the tangled web of graft, Lionel meets Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an attorney who’s advocating for the scores of minority families that are being forced out of their homes to make way for new housing developments. Lionel also encounters Paul Randolph (Willem Dafoe), a disgruntled engineer who implicates his brother, Moses (Alec Baldwin), as the chief architect of the unlawful land grab. These clues edge Lionel ever closer to the truth behind Frank’s death…and, as we learn in the opening sequence, once Lionel starts pulling on a loose string, he just can’t stop.

Due to the movie’s excesses, it’s difficult to remain impartial while evaluating it. On the one hand,
Motherless is a gorgeous film (Norton’s deft direction beautifully captures the look and feel of the 50s milieu) with superb acting from its scintillating cast and period appropriate production elements—sets, props, clothing and coifs are all crafted with excellence. On the other hand, the movie is loaded with foul language (including over 60 F-bombs) and crude speech from one set of credits to the other.

It’s unfortunate that the movie’s unsavory dialog sullies the worthwhile facets of its story. Its R rating also prevents a broader audience from experiencing the movie’s remarkable central performance. Norton’s neck snaps and sudden outbursts never feel forced or rehearsed and are thoroughly convincing…an Oscar-worthy turn.

Lionel’s condition serves as a wild card element and produces sympathy in other characters (and the audience) when he apologizes for his behaviors (“I’ve got a condition…makes me say funny things”). Lionel’s ticks and quirks are the most interesting part of the movie. The same story with an average Joe detective would’ve made for a much duller film.

In adapting the screenplay, Norton borrowed story devices from two of the finest movies ever made:
Chinatown (1974) and Citizen Kane (1941). Even though they take place on opposite coasts and are separated by a couple decades, Chinatown and Motherless both feature subplots involving political malfeasance. However, while the dispute in Chinatown concerns the theft of water, the civic upheaval in Motherless centers on the illegal appropriation of land.

Chinatown, there’s a racial element in Motherless, since the people being forced from their homes are largely Blacks and Latinos. One character refers to the city’s renovation efforts as “a program for Negro removal,” which hints at a systematic relocation (and perhaps even genocide).

Norton added the character of Moses Randolph to Lethem’s original cast of characters. Randolph is based on Robert Moses, a controversial city planner who lived in NYC during the mid-20
th century. Orson Welles also modeled his main character in Kane after a real-life figure: many feel that Charles Foster Kane was a thinly-veiled analog of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. Norton’s use of the name Randolph would seem to be a tip of the hat to Kane.

One of the most poignant scenes in the movie is when Paul tells Lionel that his brother, Moses, is part of a “shadow branch” of our government—no one voted him in and no one can vote him out. Moses is the exemplar of the type of unelected bureaucrat that’s ruining our country. He’s completely remorseless over uprooting communities and honestly thinks his efforts are going to make things better for future generations.

Moses believes that real power is when “not one person can stop you.” This proves, beyond question, that Moses has no compunctions about operating above the law. So steeped in narcissism and egomania is Moses, that he just gives a haughty smirk when someone burns an effigy of him at a rally with a sign that reads “Moses the Dictator!”

Paul is a man of good conscience, but he’s afraid of his brother. In the end, only Lionel has the fortitude to confront Moses. A person willing to stand up for what’s right also describes J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in
Chinatown, as well as Will Kane (Gary Cooper) in High Noon (1952).

In the end, the movie is a well produced period piece with superb acting and directing.
Motherless is a slow boil, hard-boiled crime yarn with flourishes of high art (the movie’s climax crosscuts between action in a taxi, a subway and a jazz club, where the band provides vigorous accompaniment for the entire sequence). It’s also a story that’s uber-salient with what’s transpiring in our government at present.

Early buzz for the film seems to indicate its potential to be in the hunt for Oscar’s top prize. Sadly, any accolades or awards the film receives will only perpetuate its objectionable content.

Lionel describes his condition as having glass in his brain. After enduring nearly two and a half hours of slow pacing, murky plotting and incessant swearing, I know exactly how he feels.

Instant classic or instantly forgettable? The jury is out.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4

Ford v Ferrari (PG-13)

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)

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

Overcomer (PG)

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)

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.

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

Tolkien (PG-13)

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

The Best of Enemies (PG-13)

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

Glass (PG-13)

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!

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

Green Book (PG-13)

Directed by: Peter Farrelly
Starring: Viggo Mortensen
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!

Inspired by a true account,
Green Book tells the story of an Italian driver (Viggo Mortensen) and a black piano player (Mahershala Ali), who embark on a concert tour to the Deep South in the 60s. Book is a poignant snapshot of the attitudes and mores of the period in focus. It’s also a road trip/buddy film that deals with racism in powerful, yet unexpected ways. The image of a white man driving around a black man makes many people stop and gawk; this role reversal stands out as one of the movie’s more ironic elements. Book has some magical moments, like: the chicken bone toss, lucky rock, confession in the rain and Christmas dinner scenes. The movie’s production is sensational, especially its period appropriate coifs, costumes and cars. Book also boasts tremendous acting from its two top-tier stars. Mortensen (virtually unidentifiable from his role as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings films) and Ali (Moonlight) deliver extraordinary performances that should garner Oscar attention. Though Book is a tad idealistic, it contains a powerful central theme: namely, that reconciliation can win out over racism when people from different cultures choose to see things from the other’s perspective. Equal parts humorous and bittersweet, Book never sermonizes as it spotlights this less enlightened period of U.S. history. As a kicker, Book features one of the most heartwarming resolutions in recent film history.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4

The Girl in the Spider's Web (R)

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

Indivisible (PG-13)

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)

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)

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

Leave No Trace (PG)

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)

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

Adrift (PG-13)

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

American Animals (R)

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

The Miracle Season (PG)

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)

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)

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

The Shape of Water (R)

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

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

The Premise:

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

The Evaluation:

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

The Breakdown:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars

Call Me by Your Name (R)

Directed by: Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Armie Hammer
November 2017

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

The Premise

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

The Evaluation:

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

The Breakdown:

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

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

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

Costumes/Make-up- Period appropriate.

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

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

Visual FX- NA

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

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

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

Hostiles (R)

Directed by: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale
January 2018

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

The Premise:

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

The Evaluation:

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

The Breakdown:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visual FX- NA

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

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

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

The Post (PG-13)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Meryl Streep
December 2017

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

The Premise

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

The Evaluation:

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

The Breakdown:

Directing- See review

Acting- See review

Story- See review

Costumes/Make-up- Authentic and period appropriate.

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

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

Visual FX- NA

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

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

Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars

Darkest Hour (PG-13)

Directed by: Joe Wright
Starring: Gary Oldman
December 2017

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

The Premise

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

The Evaluation:

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

The Breakdown:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visual FX- NA

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

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

Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars

Murder on the Orient Express (PG-13)

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Kenneth Branagh
November 2017

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

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

Only the Brave (PG-13)

Directed by: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Josh Brolin
October 2017

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

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

Dunkirk (PG-13)

Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead
July 2017

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

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

The Case for Christ (PG)

Directed by: Jon Gunn
Starring: Mike Vogel
April 2017

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

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

Logan (R)

Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Hugh Jackman
March 2017

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

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

La La Land (PG-13)

Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling
December 2016

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

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

Hacksaw Ridge (R)

Directed by: Mel Gibson
Starring: Andrew Garfield
November 2016

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

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

Moonlight (R)

Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Mahershala Ali
November 2016

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

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

Lion (PG-13)

Directed by: Garth Davis
Starring: Dev Patel
January 2017

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

What could be more frightening for a five-year-old boy than being separated from his family and not knowing how to get home? Such is the premise for Lion, the alternatingly heartbreaking and heartwarming missing person’s story which is based on true events and stars Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham and Nicole Kidman. The story begins in India, moves to Australia in the middle and then returns to India for its stirring conclusion. The film’s exotic locations (which include West Bengal, India and Tasmania, Australia) are absolutely breathtaking and are wholly immersive—it’s almost as if we can feel the pebbles under characters’ sandals as they walk on gravelly paths, or get a chill from the cold, hard train station floor as Saroo (Sunny Pawar) sleeps alongside other indigent kids, or taste the sweet flavor of the bubbly orange soda offered to Saroo by a seemingly helpful woman. Though the film certainly engages the senses it also stimulates the mind and accesses the emotions in powerful and profound ways. The early stages of the movie detail the traumatic events of Saroo’s separation from his family, the hair-raising episode where he narrowly avoids being sold as a sex slave, the brief passage where he is taken to an orphanage and then finally, the life altering transition and subsequent ambivalent reaction to being adopted by a couple (Wenham and Kidman) from Australia. After a few scenes depicting his difficulties adapting to a new family and culture, we jump forward twenty years in Saroo’s (Patel) life to 2008, where he now speaks English and is a reasonably well-adjusted adult. A chance encounter at a party brings Saroo and Lucy (Kate Mara) together and they fall madly in love. After learning about Saroo’s tragic past, Lucy introduces Saroo to a new computer application named Google Earth. With the assistance of the program’s aerial and topographical features, Saroo starts to reconstruct the ill-fated journey that took him away from his loved ones with the hopes of being able to identify his hometown. However, Lucy soon realizes that she’s created a monster when Saroo’s obsession with finding his family consumes his every waking moment and strains their relationship to the breaking point. Revealing the movie’s ending would be a tremendous disservice, but suffice it to say, Lion contains a powerhouse payoff that satisfies without being overly sentimental. The performances are pitch-perfect across the board, especially Patel (Slumdog Millionaire), who is emerging as a tremendous A-list talent. The soundtrack by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran is also very good and contains an eclectic mix of Indian flavored tunes along with beautifully intimate piano pieces. I always get a rush of elation when a movie’s meaning is preserved to the very end, like Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud.” The explanation of the movie’s title here is a tremendous emotional kicker. Be sure to stay through the ending credits for footage of the real Saroo, who wrote the book “A Long Way Home,” which was adapted for the big screen by Luke Davies. Most movies leave audiences feeling thrilled, haunted, entertained, challenged or, at best, inspired. Lion leaves its audience feeling transformed. This isn’t merely a physical or emotional journey…it’s a spiritual one. So, if you’re ready to take the trip of a lifetime, jump aboard. When I say this movie will change your life, I’m not Lion.

Fences (PG-13)

Directed by: Denzel Washington
Starring: Denzel Washington
December 2016

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

“Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in.” That line, delivered by Troy Maxson’s (Denzel Washington) best friend, Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson), is the crux of the new stage-to-screen drama, Fences. Indeed, the entire narrative is an extended metaphor for the titular boundary and we rarely ever leave the Maxson property—one scene takes the action out into the street and it just feels awkward, like at any moment an ankle bracelet will start beeping, indicating that we’ve roamed too far from the house. Some individuals are admitted inside Troy’s home and others aren’t. Troy’s wife Rose (Viola Davis) is always welcomed into his home…and bedroom. His stepsons, Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and Cory (Jovan Adepo), are little more than mouths to feed to Troy (especially Lyons, who shows up every payday looking for a handout), and are tolerated more than accepted in Troy’s house. By contrast, Troy’s mentally challenged brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), can waltz right into the house and grab something out of the refrigerator—ironically, an earlier scene shows Rose shooing Cory away from the very same fridge. The relationship between Troy and Gabe is similar, yet thankfully less tragic, than that of George and Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Bono is always warmly received into Troy’s home, but is quick to vacate the premises whenever Troy gets sauced and launches into an anger-filled rant. Sadly, Troy goes outside of his fences for pleasure and brings a lovechild inside the walls of his house. One of the story’s ironies is that Troy raises Rose’s two sons from a previous marriage, but she raises his daughter from another woman. The ramifications of Troy’s extra-marital affair is that he is no longer honored or respected inside his own home by his jilted wife and estranged sons. Troy’s licentious behaviors also place a strain on his friendship with Bono…decisions have consequences. If Troy isn’t drinking or swearing, he’s talking about sports; baseball metaphors are like a second language to him. At one point, when Rose has had enough of Troy’s baseball analogies, she reminds him that this is real life, not baseball. But to Troy, life is baseball. It’s the only thing he ever excelled at, the only thing that ever fulfilled him in life aside from the bottle and his various trysts. An ongoing theme in the film, which is expressed through Troy’s self-pity and regret, is lateness. On several occasions, we’re told that Troy is too late, meaning he’s too old to play in the major leagues, which are finally starting to accept black athletes at this time (the 1950s). Troy might be too old to play professional baseball but he isn’t too old, as Rose is quick to point out, to go off philandering or to sire a child. Although the fence analogy binds the movie’s narrative together, it’s August Wilson’s writing (based on his stage play), Washington’s directing and acting and the superb performances from the entire cast that makes Fences a noteworthy entertainment. Unfortunately, due to its long, chatty scenes, limited locations and claustrophobic settings, the movie never really breaks free from its theatrical moorings. If you can get past its sedentary staginess and its excessive use of the “N” word, Fences is a superb period piece that illuminates the struggles of one mid-century black family. The film is also a microcosm of the exigencies of the human condition—the challenges and successes that define us all, regardless of gender, race, religion or creed. Here’s a thought: Let’s tear down the fences and build bridges instead.

Manchester by the Sea (R)

Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck
December 2016

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

Just so there’s no confusion, Manchester By the Sea, the saltwater drama starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler, is most certainly not an upper. The film’s slice-of-life story focuses on Lee Chandler, a low ambition, short fused fixit man who has lost just about everything in life but now, unexpectedly, gains something…his dying brother’s will stipulates that Lee is to raise his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The balance of the movie focuses on Lee’s wildly inconsistent parenting style and his frequently unsuccessful attempts at putting the pieces of his life back together again. From the outset we can tell that something is seriously wrong with Lee—he has near catatonic pauses in the middle of phone conversations, starts bar fights when people look at him the wrong way and can’t engage in small talk with women who are interested in him—but can’t quite put a finger on what plagues this thirty-something New Englander. Another clue that all is not well with Lee is that other denizens of the titular seaside community look at him with askance or outright loathing as he drifts down city streets like a wraith, fitting since he’s little more than the shell of a man. In answer to our silent demands to know what turned this loving husband and father into an emotionless drone, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan slowly unveils the consequential episodes of Lee’s life in a series of flashbacks, which, in time, disclose the horrific event that extracted the majority of his humanity. These glimpses into Lee’s past modulate between the mundane and the traumatic and are successful at garnering spectator sympathy for Lee. Despite his many flaws, Lee is a character we just can’t help but root for; mostly because we know we’d be just as messed up had the same tragic events happened to us. One of the movie’s most memorable moments is the reunion scene with Lee and Randi (Williams): the surprise encounter between the divorced couple is squirm-in-your-seat awkward but contains Oscar-caliber performances from the lead actors. Chandler, who plays Lee’s brother Joe, is influential and memorable in his ancillary role. Hedges, C.J. Wilson, Tate Donovan, Susan Pourfar, Gretchen Mol and Matthew Broderick are all superb in their supporting performances. The gorgeous seaboard vistas (filmed at various locations in Massachusetts) provide context, atmosphere and a nearly palpable sense of place. These establishing shots are skillfully woven into the action by Lonergan and his editing team and serve as the unbilled star of the movie. One repetitive, static shot, which captures images of Lee shoveling the same patch of sidewalk on successive days, depicts the harsh conditions and tedious sameness of winters in the Atlantic Northeast. Such creative flourishes are a double-edged sword, however, since they lend the film an art house aesthetic while also detracting from its overall commercial appeal. In the end, Manchester is a movie about personal struggle and the journey to find a measure of sweetness in an otherwise bitter life. The film’s somber mood and slow pacing won’t be a winning combination for many viewers, but those who enjoy rich characterizations and nuanced storytelling will embrace the film. The critical buzz surrounding Manchester substantiates its status as a frontrunner for Best Picture. However, with the recent groundswell of support for the Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone dance film, Oscar’s top prize might be headed to the other coast…to La La Land.

Hidden Figures (PG)

Directed by: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Taraji P. Henson
January 2017

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

Hidden Figures is an inspirational biopic that transports its audience back to a less progressive, yet more purposeful, period in American history. The story centers on three African American women who make substantial contributions to NASA’s rocket program during its most crucial decade, the Space Race 60s. Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine G. Johnson, a human “computer” with mad math skills. Octavia Spencer depicts Dorothy Vaughan, a mechanical genius who becomes an expert at operating the newfangled mainframe computers manufactured by some company named IBM. Janelle Monae portrays Mary Jackson, an ambitious young mother of two who wants to become an engineer. Each of the women is faced with significant obstacles along the way which threaten to sabotage their dreams. Johnson, who is treated with barely concealed hostility by many of her white coworkers, must run fifteen minutes in heels just to get to the closest “colored” bathroom and is eventually replaced by a real computer. Vaughan does the work of a supervisor but doesn’t receive the recognition or compensation for it. In order to be considered for an engineering position at NASA, Jackson must augment her Bachelor’s degree with extension courses which, as fate would have it, are only offered at night at an all-white high school. Although most of the story’s depictions are skin-deep, the acting elevates the cursory character development and the Caucasian co-stars certainly assist in that regard. Jim Parsons, in a very un-Sheldon like role (The Big Bang Theory), plays Paul Stafford, an arrogant, prejudiced physicist who seeks to undermine and discredit Johnson at every opportunity. In a similar role, Kirsten Dunst plays Vivian Mitchell, a persnickety boss who keeps Vaughan under her thumb and constantly quashes her ambitions for advancement. The closest thing we have to a decent white person in the film is Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison. What makes Costner’s performance here stand out from his typical role is that he isn’t portraying a hero or a villain…Harrison is a beleaguered supervisor tasked with putting a man in space and is simply trying to do that job to the best of his ability. One of the most refreshing aspects of Harrison’s character (a fictitious composite of three different directors at NASA Langley Research Center during Johnson’s tenure at the facility, according to is that he utilizes the best person for the job, regardless of race or gender—an admirable quality when considering the period when this movie was set. Although Costner has always looked at home in films (like JFK) set in the 60s, his appearance in Figures, which comes complete with horn-rimmed glasses, white dress shirt with thin tie and short cropped coif, is so authentic to the period that the line between actor and character becomes exceedingly blurred at times. The storyline is bifurcated between Civil Rights issues and a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the riveting operations inside NASA’s Space Task Group during Alan Shepard’s and John Glenn’s landmark missions. Unfortunately, the plot is fairly predictable, especially for those knowledgeable about these historical happenings, but credit goes to screenwriters Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi (also the film’s director) who have adapted Margot Lee Shetterly’s book into a compelling yarn that adroitly modulates between the home and work struggles of its three main characters. The addition of archival footage of various rocket launches and the newscasts that covered them also lends credibility and aids in maintaining viewer interest throughout the film. In the end, the movie’s objective was to raise awareness that there were many capable women, and what’s more African American women, working at NASA during the 60s. The film certainly succeeds on that front but also excels at being an enlightening endutainment. In addition to containing a first-rate double entendre in its title, Figures is a crowd-pleasing true story that underscores just a few of the myriad issues that faced our nation during one of its most turbulent decades. Figures affirms that it’s possible to reach the stars if we shoot for them.

Passengers (PG-13)

Directed by: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence
December 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Pod 1498 contains some guy named #Starlord. #Avalon #HomesteadII
“Just own it, Jim.”
A lot of similarities to
#WALLE, especially the score by #ThomasNewman. #Autopilot #Axiom #Avalon
“I woke up too soon.” Jim is a bit of an
#EarlyBird. #Avalon
“It’s not possible for you to be here.” That’s the point,
#RoboTender. #Glitch
#PumpkinSpice on the #Avalon? There goes the future.
#SpaceLeap scene is absolutely breathtaking.
Jim trips on a’s been the downfall of many men.
“It sure has a nasty sense of humor.”
#Aurora Overdetermined sci-fi name?
“The ultimate geographical suicide.”
#SpaceHibernation #Avalon
Most amazing swimming pool in the universe.
Holding hands among the first date ever.
“You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” Every man left on Earth agrees with you, Jim.
Loose-tongued bartender ruins Jim’s proposal.
Public Service Announcement: Never go swimming in
#ZeroGravity. #Avalon
612 physical disorders. Oh Frack!
#Avalon is supposed to be #Meteor proof. Yeah, and the #Titanic was supposed to be iceberg proof.
Those last ten minutes were heart-stopping.
Final analysis: a
#Titanic meets #WALLE lost in space yarn with scintillating central performances.
The only drawback here is its derivative plot.
3 1/2 out of 4. #JenniferLawrence and #ChrisPratt have tremendous chemistry in this space survival story.
Freebie: the 3 dits, 3 dahs and 3 dits on the poster is
#MorseCode for #SOS.

What if a man was accidentally awakened from a suspended animation nap ninety years earlier than planned? What if that man, the only conscious person aboard a gigantic spaceship headed for a distant planet, went bat guano crazy from being alone all the time? What if the man watched the video profiles of the 5,000 passengers on the ship and fell in love with one of the women? And what if that man, in the throes of loneliness and boredom, decided to rouse that sleeping beauty from her pre-programmed slumber? Such is the set up for the new sci-fi/romance movie, Passengers. Starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt as star-crossed lovers who must negotiate the bitter realities of premature reanimation, the film is a master course in male/female relational dynamics in survival situations. The two stars have tremendous screen chemistry and nearly carry the entire movie by themselves—nearly. Michael Sheen and Laurence Fishburne play side characters who offer stellar support to the central couple, providing them with much needed advice and experience…and bridge access. There really aren’t enough superlatives to describe Lawrence and Pratt’s performances, so I’ll move on to an area of the movie I can critique. As is the case with many movies these days, the writing here is a mixed bag. Screenwriter Jon Spaihts is exceedingly adroit at evincing character motivations and habits and has skillfully infused the film with a tremendous amount of humanity despite its sterile, mechanical trappings. There’s a firm grasp of human relationships in the movie and the characterizations are flawless down to the most infinitesimal nuance. The romance subplot is sweet without being saccharine—the scenes where Aurora (Lawrence) and Jim (Pratt) have their first breakfast and first date are real gems. Commentary on class structure is cleverly woven into the narrative, like when we see Jim’s standard breakfast placed alongside Aurora’s Gold Star breakfast. The fact that Jim is an engineer and Aurora is a writer who comes from a family with means and status also addresses the inequities of humanity’s current caste system. Arthur (Sheen), the robot bartender, dispenses many keen observations on the human condition along with clever quips which add the appropriate amount of humor to this mostly serious film. Whereas Arthur brings the comic relief, Gus Mancuso’s (Fishburne) tragic sidebar furnishes the film with poignant pathos. The scenes where Aurora gives Jim the silent treatment are deftly crafted by Spaihts and expertly acted by Lawrence, who brings these scenes to life with startling realism (as any man who’s ever been spurned by a woman can attest). The prospect of dying alone in space versus the ethical dilemma over reviving a potential companion (which will consign her to a life of isolation) is the crux of the film and the implications of Jim’s fateful choice have profound ramifications on the entire story. One of the movie’s subtly stated motifs suggests that when our life’s aspirations go unrealized it’s how we choose to cope with our Plan B existence that defines us as individuals. Ultimately, Aurora (an overdetermined sci-fi name?) gets to write an exclusive, historic story, but it isn’t the one she had originally envisioned. Sadly, powerful takeaways like this one are overshadowed by contrived crises (like the escalating calamities that comprise the film’s conclusion), plot inconsistencies (Jim can browse personal personnel files and borrow a space suit, but is denied access to the bridge and can’t order a decent breakfast) and the movie’s Achilles’ heel…derivative storytelling. Aside from its “Adam and Eve in Space” premise, Passengers weaves elements from many other movies into its narrative tapestry. The most obvious thematic antecedent to this film is Titanic (1997). Both stories feature an upper class woman and a lower class man who fall in love on their way to a new world, but their ship encounters a dangerous obstacle along the way which threatens their survival. The obstruction in Titanic is an iceberg; here it’s an asteroid field. Perhaps the biggest source of inspiration for this film is WALL-E (2008). Both films feature long-range, resort style space vessels (with similar names—Axiom in WALL-E and Avalon here) which are conveying humans to a new planet since Earth is in a state of decay. These movies also employ an antagonistic autopilot which serves as a hindrance to our heroes. Additionally, Jim’s thrilling leap into space is reminiscent of WALL-E’s frolic among the stars. The final point of comparison between these films is that their scores have a similar style, which is fitting since the composer for both films is Thomas Newman. In addition to its pastiche plot, Passengers has an overwrought resolution, which is merely a series of near-death scrapes designed to produce a heart-pounding climax. This gimmicky ending is unnecessarily commercial and is incongruous with the rest of the film, which is essentially a big budget art film. A more contemplative denouement was in order here—one where we meet Jim and Aurora’s progeny and where we hear Aurora reading an excerpt from her book in a V.O. narration as the Avalon arrives at Homestead II. This emotionally complex and thought-provoking yarn deserved that kind of powerhouse finale—the extant epilogue is pat and merely satisfactory. Final thought: have you ever seen a more breathtaking pool? Or swimmer?

Arrival (PG-13)

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams
November 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!
“We are so bound by its order.” Like it or not. #Time
A sad departure at the film’s outset.
“I would need to be there.” Congratulations, you just volunteered.
#Sanskrit word for war? It’s all #Greek to me.
“Dazzle them with the basics.” Standard methodology.
“Maybe we should try talking to them before throwing a math problem at them.” Ha!
This gigantic obsidian spheroid puts #
2001’s #Monolith to shame. #2001ASpaceOdyssey
This gravity switch is a
#Kangaroo story is amusing.
“What is your purpose on Earth?” Love the way she teases out this sentence. Good
“Now that’s a proper introduction.” I’ll say.
#TentacleTouch #GreatLine
This smoke ring language is fascinating.
“A logogram is free of time.”
#Heptopod language.
“Are you dreaming in their language?” Conversation starter.
“Use weapon.” Uh-oh!
#Logogram #Heptopod
“Many become one.” The nations must unite.
“Louise sees future.”
Hannah is a
#Palindrome. So is radar. #Linguistics
“It was meeting you.” Ian scored major points with that line.
Final analysis: a thought-provoking “first contact with aliens” yarn that reveals the best and worst in humanity.
3 out of 4. A visual marvel with solid acting. The atmospherics trump character development. Trite ending.

If a movie is only satisfactory for three-fourths of its running time, is it still a quality entertainment? Sure, but it’s also an egregious waste of potential. That last phrase perfectly describes Arrival since the first three-fourths of the film are taut, thrilling and saturated in mood and mystery, while the last quarter is an unwieldy, uninspired mess. To its credit, the movie doesn’t waste its time on drawn-out alien vessel appearances or FX fanfare sequences, like many alien assault flicks in the mold of Independence Day (1996). It’s clear from the outset that Arrival is a different kind of space invader film since it eschews the traditional action-packed opener in favor of a more moody and intimate prelude, introducing the first glimpses of the alien ship not in big budget special effects shots, but in streaky news footage airing on a living room TV. The story is infused with palpable tension as the military and scientists (never a good combination) scramble to determine if the recently arrived mother ships, which are presently stationed above a dozen random positions around our planet, are friendly or malevolent. Vital to the Save the Earth campaign is the inclusion of a communications cognoscente, but the world’s foremost authority on the subject has unceremoniously quit the project, presumably because his insurance doesn’t cover “Accidental Death by Space Aliens.” Rather than call or Skype the next qualified person on the list, Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker, who is little more than set dressing in the movie) flies out for a face to face with the possible replacement and requests, rather than demands, that individual’s participation—apparently the fact that our planet can be blown to bits at any moment has no effect on the nerves-of-steel war dog. Fortunately for us, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is available to join the global coalition of experts as her students haven’t attended her Linguistics class at the university ever since the aliens arrived (no dedication to higher education these days). Louise meets theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and the sparks immediately start flying, triggered in part by their English versus Math verbal sparring match and in part by their obvious attraction to each other. Louise and Ian are tasked with establishing communications with the aliens, a tall order since neither of them remembered to pack a universal translator. The team’s initial visit to the alien ship (a colossal, obsidian spheroid hovering vertically in midair like a supersized version of 2001’s monolith) is a mind-bending, nape-prickling affair that effectively captures what it must feel like to make first contact with a bizarre alien species—this movie features gigantic heptapods with petal-like proboscises that emit puffs of black soot which congeal into circles a la Gandalf blowing smoke rings in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). The novelty of these alien encounters wears off with successive visits (why so many?), but the intrigue heightens when our heroes learn the nature of the alien circles. So far, so good. Arrival, especially in the early goings, is reminiscent of The Day the Earth Stood Still (the original from 1951, not the schlocky remake with Keanu Reeves in 2008), which is widely regarded as one of the finest—and highly evolved—sci-fi pictures ever made. Though certainly in good company there, Arrival squanders its sure-footed setup with a standard, schmaltzy ending, particularly in how the earlier sparks between Louise and Ian are kindled into a full-fledged romance. This storyline feels rushed since the characters graduate from arguing co-workers to loving, dedicated parents in one convenient leap into the future. The jump in time is jarring and is further exacerbated by the fact that we learn very little about the star-crossed couple since the film’s otherworldly cinematography and alien atmospherics constantly overshadow what little character development can be found here (after all, the alien vessel is the star of the show). The flash-forward flubs also extend to the movie’s gimmicky resolution: side character General Shang (Tzi Ma) provides Louise with the solution to the alien riddle in a sequence so ridiculous it recalls the antics in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) where the titular twosome merely think of an action in the past that will thwart their adversary in the present. However, as awful as that story device is, the mishandled ending isn’t the only problem with the film. For instance, the aliens seem to comprehend concepts far more complex than “weapon,” so their nearly disastrous misunderstanding of the word seems more than a little contrived. Another narrative misstep is Ian’s out-of-the-blue voiceover narration midway through the film. Besides being overly expository, this narrated section is incongruous with the rest of the film and just feels odd since it shifts the POV away from the main character (Louise) and toward the secondary character (Ian). And then, to get really nitpicky, there are several story snafus, such as: how can a non-linear alien species know that humans will assist them 3,000 years into the future? Are they sure it isn’t 2,999 years from now? Or 3001? Further, why would these aliens even need our help since they’re so technologically advanced from us? Also, why do the creatures communicate with circles…seems a tad trite since we already associate (crop) circles with aliens, right? And how can Louise’s vision at the beginning of the film even occur since she doesn’t possess the capacity to look into the future at that point? Louise’s ability to gain knowledge from the future that will help us in the present which will preserve our future is a time paradox so convoluted it would give John Connor a migraine. These are niggling details, to be sure, but the sheer number of them reveals just how porous the plot is and prevents the movie from achieving maximum liftoff. Like a skilled magician, director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, 2013) has cleverly disguised his tenuous story with a style over substance sleight of hand along with an obfuscating display of temporal razzle-dazzle (in the Chicago sense of the word). In the end, Arrival’s arrival is well executed, but its departure needs some work. Good thing we have the next 3,000 years to get the sequel right.

The Girl on the Train (R)

Directed by: Tate Taylor
Starring: Emily Blunt
October 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Girl on the Train
Rachel drawing in a notebook is different than in the book.
I applaud the writer for maintaining the POV juggling from the book. We’ll see how well it’s executed.
Rachel’s hands shake while applying lipstick.
Powerhouse monologue in the bathroom.
An actual AA meeting...merely referenced in the book.
“I ride the train.” Unusual occupation.
Bizarre depictions of people in the gallery paintings.
“Don’t make it impossible for us to work together.” Too late.
“Your wife hit me on Friday night.” That’s different from the book.
“I’m afraid of myself.” With good reason, Rachel.
“I fell asleep. I let her go.” Horrific!
“Rachel is a sad person.” Not as sad as you, Tom.
#LisaKudrow holds an important key to Rachel’s blackouts.
Megan wants to go to the woods with Tom. Bad choice.
“In a way you killed her.” Nice try, Tom.
Anna has a heart shaped blood stain on her white sweater. Ironic.
Final analysis: a faithful adaptation that gets the broad strokes right, if not the fine details.
“There’s nothing so painful, so corrosive, as suspicion.” My favorite line from the book.
3 out of 4. Solid acting and writing are squandered by middling direction. Such potential here.

Based on the popular book of the same name by Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train tells its sordid story from the perspectives of three women whose lives are intertwined in ways that could only be feasible in a novel…or Hollywood production. The movie arrives less than two years after the book was published (January of 2015) and comes courtesy of screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson and director Tate Taylor. Sparing you a long litany of book-to-movie comparisons, I’ll just say that despite numerous narrative alterations (like the accelerated revelation of Rachel’s employment status), the story remains fairly faithful (unlike its characters) to the source material. Some changes work extremely well: the decision to omit the physical relationship between Rachel (Emily Blunt) and Scott (Luke Evans) is a plus since the mere implication of impropriety works wonders dramatically and since the two of them hooking up was dubious from the start. On the flip side, there are several plot breakdowns in the film, most notably the scene where we learn Megan’s (Haley Bennett) fate, which is bracketed by Rachel losing and regaining consciousness. Is this climactic moment a dream, a hallucination or some mental reconstruction of how Rachel thinks the murder occurred? Since the answer is none of the above, this deviation from the POV structure that was established from the opening moments of the movie, muddies the plot stream and creates confusion during the most crucial scene in the film. It’s precisely this sort of story inconsistency that prevents the cinematic Train from achieving what Hawkins did so masterfully in her novel, which only reinforces the long maintained sentiment that the book is always better than the movie. So then, just as the characters attempt to learn the identity of the murderer in the movie, let’s seek to discover who’s at fault for the film’s flawed execution. We certainly can’t point a finger at the acting. Blunt (though far more petite than the novelized Rachel) delivers an authentic portrayal of the low ambition alcoholic, whose frequent blackouts makes her testimony of a perceived crime dubious at best. The supporting players—Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Laura Prepon, Allison Janney, Lisa Kudrow, etc—all deliver fine performances too. Wilson does an admirable job of adapting Hawkins’ novel—no small task with its large cast of central characters, multiple perspectives, jumping timelines and carefully constructed, time-released revelations—so her efforts can’t be criticized either. Although the action moves from England in the book to the northeastern U.S. in the movie, the story works well enough in either setting, so no drawback there. Ultimately, the culprit for the film’s underachievement is its directing. One wonders why such a high profile, and potentially highly lucrative, property was turned over to a virtual unknown (Taylor’s only prominent films are 2008’s The Help and 2014’s Get on Up)? Why wasn’t David Fincher (Gone Girl), Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) or another proven director tapped to helm such a multivalent, psychologically complex thriller? Taylor’s direction fails to plumb the depths of Hawkins’ nuanced characters and, instead, settles for a perfunctory, skin-deep methodology. This inability to tap into genuine human emotions and motivations is a massive missed opportunity since Hawkins’ yarn is so immediate and so rich in character…and so Hitchcockian (the story’s inciting incident is essentially Rear Window on a train). As was conveyed in many of Hitchcock’s films, all spectatorship is voyeuristic in nature. As such, we’re equally complicit in Rachel’s transgressive meddling when she peers out the train window and when she inserts herself into the lives of complete strangers. The film’s saving grace is its ability to confront us with this key concept from the book. However, in the end, Train is merely an adequate adaptation of the novel and will underwhelm its audience, especially those who’ve read the book. Well, I’d love to stay and chat some more about this film, but this is my stop.

Sully (PG-13)

Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Tom Hanks
September 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The opening scene is intense. #PilotsNightmare
“Forced water landing,” not a crash.
“Everything is unprecedented until it happens for the first time.” Tell him, Sully.
Headline: “Heroism on the Hudson.”
“The right man for the job at the right time.”
Sully hallucinates a plane crashing into a building. #PlaneCrashPTSD
“Porterhouse will stop your heart.” Ha!
Airplane safety instructions...the one time people need to be paying attention.
“Brace, brace, brace. Heads down, stay down.” Words you never want to hear.
“People don’t survive water landings.” Wrong.
“I had to land in the Hudson.” Sully says it like it’s an everyday occurrence.
“I’ve never been so happy to be in New York in my life.” LOL
155. The number Sully was hoping to hear.
“A delay is better than a disaster.” Timely #FortuneCookie message.
“You’ve taken all of the humanity out of the cockpit.” You got ‘em there, Sully.
“Does anyone need to see more simulations?” Yes!
“We did our job.” Yes you did, Sully. And you saved everyone’s life.
“I would have done it in July.” Ha!
Final analysis: a powerful testament to human ingenuity and courage.
3 1/2 out of 4 stars. Peerless acting and directing in this incredible true story of uncommon heroism.

In the hands of less skilled artisans, this film could’ve been a methodical, mediocre mess. By artisans, of course, I’m referring to the dedicated cast and crew of Sully, along with the dream team of director Clint Eastwood and actor Tom Hanks in their first cinematic collaboration. Having helmed Changeling (2008), Invictus (2009), J. Edgar (2011) and Jersey Boys (2014), Eastwood is no stranger to films based on true stories. Whereas his style in the past was marked by a formal stiffness, his direction here is steady and fluid, like a jet cruising at 30,000 feet. It would be unfair to label Eastwood’s earlier directorial efforts as boring, but other, more euphemistic words could certainly be employed, like: conservative, deliberate and restrained. In this film, purposeful pacing has been replaced with a sense of urgency rarely witnessed in an Eastwood picture, a change in style necessitated by the story itself—a pseudo-disaster movie mixed with a docu-drama with a twist of a legal procedural. Much like the subject matter itself, Eastwood’s direction is taut, terse and sufficiently streamlined…the film’s running time is a lean 96 minutes. Amid plane safety checks, aviation emergency procedures, media oversaturation and review board regulations, Eastwood keeps his finger firmly on the pulse and purpose of the film—the 155 lives that were saved by the instinctual, heroic actions of an experienced airplane pilot. It’s to his credit that Eastwood never loses sight of the human factor while regaling the terrifying events from the headline-dominating story from January 15, 2009. This is as complete a film as Eastwood has delivered and, as such, should garner attention from Academy voters, something he’s failed to seize since winning Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for Million Dollar Baby in 2004. Eastwood has always tapped top tier talent for his films and actors don’t come any more highly sought-after than Hanks. As would be expected, there isn’t a single false note in Hanks’ brilliantly multilayered and underplayed portrayal of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. From his reactions during the actual plane crash (as well as the PTSD fantasy of a plane colliding with a NYC building), to interactions with his screen wife (Laura Linney), co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart), members of the media (including Katie Couric in a choice cameo) as well as the board of inquiry (Mike O’Malley, Jamey Sheridan and Anna Gunn), Hanks is simply masterful here, effortlessly conveying Sully’s dignity and sagacity. One look at Hanks in the captain’s uniform and it’s clear that he was born to play an airplane pilot…and just as with his costume, the role was tailor-made for him. Will this superlative effort generate another Oscar nod for Hanks? Also worthy of Oscar consideration is Eckhart, who plays co-pilot Jeff Skiles. Though it isn’t a colorful, edgy or overly nuanced part, Eckhart perfectly captures Skiles’ unwavering loyalty to Sully in an expertly measured performance. Ultimately what helps this movie achieve liftoff is the harmonic prosody between writer Todd Komarnicki and the editing team. Komarnicki’s screenplay is based on the book Highest Duty, written by Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow. If told in a straightforward manner, this story would’ve never left the tarmac. Komarnicki’s effective use of wistful memories back to Sully’s early days as a pilot (a la 1957’s The Spirit of St. Louis), dream and daydream sequences and non-linear plotting all prevent this film from becoming a prototypical biopic. Likewise, the way Komarnicki breaks up the procedural portion of the film with character sidebars, video simulations and flashbacks is also flawlessly executed. Unlike the balance of the action, which is dominated by weighty life-and-death matters, the film ends on a humorous note—another indication that Eastwood has finally learned how to loosen up in his dotage. All in all, this is a first-rate true story adaptation that soars despite being grounded for most of the film. Be sure to stay through the end credits for clips of the real Sully along with the crew and passengers from US Airways Flight 1549. Tissues required.

Bonus material:
By some strange coincidence, Hanks’ career has been punctuated by plane crashes and water landings: his characters have survived two plane crashes in
Cast Away (2000) and Sully and three water landings including those two films along with Apollo 13 (1995). Additionally, many of Hanks’ films have centered on similar settings and situations, including: a whole other kind of water landing in Saving Private Ryan (1998), the stranded in an airport character study in The Terminal (2004), a boy coping with his dad’s death in the 9/11 plane attacks in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011) and terror on the high seas as a cargo ship is besieged by pirates in Captain Phillips (2013). Incidentally, Hanks played a courageous captain in that true story too.

Hell or High Water (R)

Directed by: David Mackenzie
Starring: Jeff Bridges
August 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Hell or High Water
The “no bailout” graffiti is telling. #NoBailout
“All you’re guilty of right now is being stupid.” Ha! #BungledHeist
Bury the car, bury the evidence. Clever.
“Tweakers don’t sleep, they just...tweak.” LOL.
“Ain’t one drill the same as the next?” #ThatsWhatSheSaid
Second car buried. How many vehicles do these guys have?
“Kicking around skulls.” The origins of #Soccer.
“What don’t you want?” This waitress is a hoot.
Large crowd in the Post bank. This can’t end well.
Roadblock. Intense scene.
“Lord of the plains.” #FamousLastWords
Great acting in the final scene with Pine and Bridges.
Final analysis: though the premise is well worn, the acting is superb & the cinematography is gritty real.
3 out of 4. A dusty drama with a strong sense of place and an Oscar worthy performance by Bridges.

As exemplified in silent masterpieces like The Great Train Robbery (1903), heist films have been with us since the inception of cinema. The tone of such films can be elaborate, like in The Italian Job (1969, 2003) and Ocean’s Eleven (1960, 2001), intricate like Mission: Impossible (1996) and Entrapment (1999) or intimate like Thelma & Louise (1991) and Drive (2011). This offshoot of the thriller genre has remained popular throughout the decades and seems to find new scenarios despite its well established conventions. The new bank robbery movie, Hell or High Water, resembles the buddy movie model in Thelma more than the team approach featured in the Ocean’s series. This movie’s pilfering partners happen to be brothers, Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster). What incites the film’s robbing rampage is twofold: 1. Toby’s pressing need to support his family, and 2. Toby and Tanner’s desire to buy back the family farm from the bank after their mother dies. On the right side of the law is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a Southern fried law enforcer who talks like he’s got a perpetual wad of chaw in his mouth and who walks around like he’s got a load in his pants (witness him running toward the motorcade during the movie’s climactic action scene for a prime example of this). Though a bit of a fuddy-duddy (with racist tendencies) Marcus is a shrewd old agent, skilled at anticipating the next move of the perpetrators he’s pursuing, which sets up a rather riveting game of cat-and-mouse with the Howard boys and serves as the backbone for the film’s narrative. Bridges has tapped into some of his recent roles for inspiration for his character here: Marcus is roughly 80% Rooster Cogburn from True Grit (2010) and 20% good ole boy Roy from R.I.P.D. (2013). This is a measured performance that only misses fully realized status due to the screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s negligence in providing Marcus with a substantial back story. Still, Bridges’ acting is utterly captivating and should garner a serious look from Oscar voters. Pine and Foster are also very effective at bringing their respective roles to life as two brothers on completely different life journeys—Toby turns to a life of crime for the sake of his family, Tanner engages in illegal activities simply for the thrill of it. In the end, each of the brothers gets exactly what he deserves. Also serving as inanimate characters in the film are the authentic looking Texas towns and landscapes (which were actually shot in New Mexico) and the skillful way such stark, yet strangely beautiful, locations are framed by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens. Director David Mackenzie has presented a somber and atmospheric on-the-run adventure that’s enjoyable as much for its acting as for its story and settings. The straightforward storyline is extremely deceptive since it contains a good deal of character subtext and several unexpected turns along the way, especially the ironic coda, which reveals that a greater fortune than the one the Howard’s stole has been right under their noses all along. Ultimately, the film isn’t earth-shattering, but, as a hayseed heist film populated with superb performances and gritty real locales, it certainly isn’t a bad way to spend two hours.

Money Monster (R)

Directed by: Jodie Foster
Starring: George Clooney
May 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Money Monster
“You don’t have a clue where your money is.” Scary reality.
“Glitch.” Is it possible this movie is unintentionally timely, i.e. the edited #Iran video?
#ErectileCream on a news set. #Random
“We don’t do journalism period.” Does anyone anymore?
#LeeGates has some decent dance moves.
Most lax security on a set ever. #Nitpick
“It’s all rigged.” Not exactly a news flash.
“Start hosting.” Way to turn the tables.
Shoot the star of a news show live on TV? Shades of #Network.
Buy #IBS, save a life. #TripleBuy
“You believe in money, not people.” #ShallowExistence
Who needs enemies with a girlfriend like that?
“It’s not the computer’s fault.” Sure, buddy.
“We have an 80% chance of an 80% chance.” Hilarious!
Talk with the weapons up. Negotiation at gunpoint.
“What’s wrong with making a profit?” Plenty if people are made to suffer for it.
Final analysis: a message film wrapped in a thriller built on a farce. Entertaining but not earth-shattering.
2 1/2 out 4. Nice to see Clooney and Roberts together again even though they only share one scene.

If money is the root of all evil, Lee Gates (George Clooney), a Jim Cramer style stock tip show host, is desperately wicked. As the movie opens, Gates and his producer, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), are engaging in some good-natured banter as they prep for another episode. But as filming commences, an unexpected visitor drifts onto the set and sends the plot veering in a different, unexpected, and ultimately, less interesting direction. It’s rare that such scintillating stars (Clooney and Roberts in front of the camera and Jodie Foster behind it) should be attached to such a banal, lackluster film. What starts off as a compelling The Newsroom style TV studio drama rapidly morphs into a high stakes thriller with Gates doing his finest fast-talking to avoid being blown to bits by a suicide vest on national television (a knowing riff on Sidney Lumet’s prescient 1976 film, Network). The movie’s tonal shift is jarring and really detracts from what sets up as a dramatic edutainment centered on the turbulent world of finance. This bait-and-switch narrative choice may annoy or confuse some audience members since the genre at the beginning of the film isn’t the same as when it ends. Sadly, the more the thriller storyline progresses, the daffier the movie becomes and the more we don’t care who comes out alive…or who doesn’t. It’s a shame that such tremendous talent was squandered on such mediocre material and that the movie’s intriguing premise, which contains a salient message about the current state of our economy and its effect on the scores of struggling citizens in our society, is thrown away in favor of the kind of remedial fare you can find on any run-of-the-mill TV procedural. So what did the actors see in this script that made them want to sign up? Maybe it had nothing to do with the script and everything to do with Clooney and Roberts jumping at another chance to perform together (this is their fourth big screen collaboration). Or maybe their decision was simply based on a desire to work with Foster. Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong and their true motivation for making this movie wasn’t camaraderie or artistic integrity…just the money.

The Jungle Book (PG)

Directed by: Jon Favreau
Starring: Neel Sethi
April 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Jungle Book
The opening reminds me of the #JungleCruise ride at #Disneyland.
“Wolves don’t hide in trees.” Good to know.
Nice #TimeLapse photography of the canyon transitioning into its dry season.
“In some packs the runt gets eaten.” Survival of the fittest.
The animals give Khan a wide berth. Not the one from #
StarTrek. #ShirKhan. #WaterTruce
“You will always be my son.” #WolfHug
I love seeing the respect for #Elephants. Magnificent creatures.
#BlackPanther vs #Tiger. Which will win? #Catfight
That molting is as big as a tent. #Kaa is near.
Beware the #RedFlower.
“Trust in me.” When someone says that you normally can’t.
“That’s not a song, that’s propaganda.” Ha!
#ShereKhan’s object lesson of the deceptive #CuckooBird is quite the traumatizing #BedtimeStory.
One of #MowglisTricks saves a young elephant. Touching scene.
#KingLouie really knows how to bring the house down.
#Bear vs #Tiger. Now we’ve got a fight. #ShereKhan #Baloo
#ShereKhan is engulfed by the #RedFlower. Good riddance.
Final analysis: a modern take on #Kipling’s classic with superb voice performances and jaw-dropping #CGI.
A decent family film that sadly lacks the charm of the 1967 cartoon and the magic of the 1942 #Sabu classic.
2 1/2 out of 4. The target audience won’t be disappointed but adults may find fewer pros than Khans.

Director Jon Favreau’s (Iron Man) reverent riff on Rudyard Kipling’s adventure classic The Jungle Book is a virtual remake of Disney’s 1967 kiddie feature only with blended live action and computer effects standing in for animated characters and locations. Though this film isn’t the sing-along sensation that the cartoon version is, a couple of the original songs can be heard here (“The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You,” which is sung by Christopher Walken). However, the musical element is toned down and the action is ratcheted up in this particular Kipling outing. The film is also noticeably more adult than its pedestrian predecessor: both Shere Khan (Idris Elba) and King Louie (Walken) are far more menacing here. Although much of this film’s storyline was lifted right out of the 60’s flick, some story elements have been altered and/or new ones added to stretch out the action to a full-length feature. To whit, the Red Flower line in the “I Wan’na Be Like You” lyric is expanded into an entire subplot in this movie. Another new passage is where Baloo (Bill Murray) convinces Mowgli (Neel Sethi, who not only looks the part but delivers a pitch-perfect performance) into knocking down some large honeycombs to sate the bear’s enormous appetite. It’s an amusing sidebar, but is a poor substitute for the scenes where Baloo teaches Mowgli how to spar and when the two new friends float down the lazy river in the original. Those scenes were charming; the ones in this film are merely amusing. While contrasting the films, there’s no doubt that the gold star for visual splendor and pulse pounding action scenes goes to this film, due in large part to the eye-popping computerized renderings of the menagerie of jungle creatures. The catfight between Shere Khan and Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) is appropriately feral and frenetic and the scenes with giant python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) are effectively hair-raising. Sequences like the water buffalo stampede couldn’t have been achieved with such proficiency even a few years ago, much less with hand drawn animation techniques from the 60s. However, the superior visuals actually invite a possible criticism of this film. Since its narrative is so similar to the 60s animated feature, one wonders if this release was just an excuse to showcase the latest CGI—essentially a technical vehicle for the film’s FX. We’ve seen how green lighting a movie for the sole purpose of showcasing the latest visual effects has produced uneven or outright awful results, a la Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999). This movie certainly isn’t that bad, but it is a tad perfunctory, what with its stock characters and connect-the-dots plot. The finest aspect of the film is its ending, which is a radical departure from the 60s movie and actually has more in common with the 1942 Sabu classic since animals must flee the devastating advance of the Red Flower in both versions. Unfortunately, the new nail biting climax can’t remedy this rote remake. All of this analysis is moot, of course, since the movie’s target audience will embrace the film regardless of the fact that it can’t stand up to the quality of its forebears. And is that such a bad thing? This film has updated the brand and introduced this timeless tale to a whole new generation of potential fans. There’s no downside there. Hardened critics and Baudrillard can go take a hike…or get lost on a jungle cruise.

The Young Messiah (PG-13)

Directed by: Cyrus Nowrasteh
Starring: Adam Greaves-Neal
March 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Young Messiah
How to draw a camel in the sand.
Death by apple.
Early miracle. #BirdResurrection
“Cavemen in Britain.” Was Britain even around back then?
“Destined to wander.” Israel has a history of wandering.
“How do you explain God to his own son?” #Dilemma
“Next time there will be no mercy.” True. #Crucifixion
Dreams run in the family. Keen observation.
“The boy must die.” Good luck with that...he dies at 33.
“He is not just a child.” Amen.
A glimpse of the future. #CrucifixionRoad
“The Romans fear the young.” With good reason.
“I like this child.” Me too.
The #AngelChild tells #Satan to keep his hands to himself.
Don’t say the word rain around #Jesus or it’ll start raining.
“She’s just a woman.” Show more respect for Mary.
Romans in the temple. Oh my!
“God is your father.” A big question is answered for #Jesus.
Final analysis: a unique telling of #Jesus’ early years with some beautiful locations and a solid cast.
2 1/2 out of 4. Perfect casting of the central role infuses the film with joy and compassion.

A host of films have focused on the life of Jesus, and the vast majority of those have included the same basic story elements, i.e.,: his birth, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, etc. Since the entire film focuses on the titular savior at age seven (even though the temple scene actually took place when he was twelve), The Young Messiah is an exception to the typical theological presentation. But with little to no Biblical backing for many of the events in the film, what Messiah gains in originality it loses in authenticity. Taking its cue from the recent Roman soldier spotlight film Risen, Messiah applies the 80/20 Rule to its narrative structure, with 80% of the story extrapolated from recorded history and dramatized for a mass audience and only 20% coming directly from passages in the Bible. The most noticeable deviation from the holy text is when young Jesus (Adam Greaves-Neal) performs miracles while he’s a boy living in Egypt. There’s no scriptural support for this plot point, and to the contrary, the Bible records Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11) when he was thirty. Be that as it may, the young lad having to conceal or constrain his supernatural powers is an interesting plot point that’s analogous to many comic book yarns where the hero tries to hide his abilities in order to blend in with the general populace (Superman being chief among these archetypes since, as many have noted, the Man of Steel’s messianic origin story and miracle working abilities directly parallel Christ’s). However non-canonical this subplot is, it does create tension and intrigue, especially in the early passages of the film (although I could’ve done without the gimmicky bird resuscitation scene). Also, like in Risen, Messiah features several new story elements that work quite well, including: Sean Bean as Roman centurion Severus, a conflicted soldier who is tasked with killing the young healer, and the Spartacus (1960) style Roman road flanked with crucified Jews. I was hoping that young Jesus would look up and knowingly stare at a cross…a foreshadowing of his impending demise. But alas, this is just one of many examples in the film of how an opportunity to create art was passed over (pun intended), which might speak to a lack of vision on the part of director Cyrus Nowrasteh or a shortage of shekels which shackled the production. All is not lost artistically though, since there’s a really nice aerial shot of Jesus’ family traversing the serpentine road lined with crosses at the end of the sequence. Despite period appropriate costumes and a handful of decent location shots, the film has a decidedly cash-strapped appearance. Sometimes acting can help elevate a budget-challenged picture (like Ben Kingsley in Walking with the Enemy), but such is not the case here. Other than Greaves-Neal, Bean and Sara Lazzaro (who plays Jesus’ mother, Mary), the rest of the cast members deliver par or subpar performances. All things considered, this was a valiant attempt at focusing on a brief chapter in Christ’s early years, but the writing, acting, directing and overall production didn’t support its vision or potential. Ironically, Messiah will go down as just another average Bible film that failed to inspire its audience.

Race (PG-13)

Directed by: Stephen Hopkins
Starring: Stephan James
February 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

“God spared you for a reason.” To run like the wind.
Nice to see that Jesse used the envelope system. #FiscalResponsibility
“Can you work?” Love how Jesse throws it back at him with his #CottonPicking story.
Metals not records. Important distinction.
“So long as they’re American citizens, we’ll accept Martians.” #RacialIntegration
“We’re going with the higher time.” #BS
Three #WorldRecords in 45 minutes. Unbelievable.
“You think track and field is hard, you should try marriage.” NK
Close vote, but no boycott.
Out on the track there’s “no black and white, there’s only fast and slow.” You tell him.
“Stop thinking so much, Jesse. It’s not what you’re good at.” Ha!
Luz helping Jesse out on the long jump is a nice moment.
The German crowd chanting “Owens” is a higher honor than the three gold medals.
“Don’t lose.” Don’t worry, he won’t.
The guest of honor has to go through the service entrance. Sad.
Final analysis: a comprehensive look at Owens’ plight as a black athlete during the 30s and his rise to fame.
2 1/2 out of 4. Despite being overlong and slowly paced #Race is an inspirational biopic with an important message.

There’s a double meaning implied in the title of this latest Jesse Owens biopic, Race.  The obvious reference is to the movie’s focus on Owens’ career as a track legend, culminating with his astounding performance (four gold medals) at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany.  The other meaning inferred by the title is Owens’ race—African American.  The bitter irony here is that despite his tremendous athletic talent, Owens was treated with contempt both by Caucasian members of his own team and especially by citizens of the host nation, whose white supremacist ideals sought the eradication of Jews and blacks (ironically, two Jews were bumped from the 4 x 100 meter relay so that Owens could participate, so apparently blacks were a bit better than Jews in the twisted minds of the Aryan adherents).  There was no safe haven for Owens on American or German soil, which makes his courageous story even more remarkable.  Ultimately, this movie isn’t about black and white or fast and slow (as Owens avers in the film), but heroes and villains.  Aside from Owens himself (Stephan James), Owens’ coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), is a driving force for good (and progress) in the film.  Other heroes come from unexpected quarters, such as the appropriately named German long jumper Carl “Luz” Long (David Kross), who helps orient Owens to the course and German film director Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), who dared to defy Hitler by filming the 200 meter dash for posterity, an event Owens was predicted to win.  The movie’s villains are the racist white Americans (like the brutish Ohio State University football players who force Owens to take a shower after them) and the many nationalized and propagandized Germans.  Of course the Kaiser himself is the greatest villain here—besides initially banning Jews and Blacks from the Games, which nearly sparked an international boycott, Hitler refused to shake Owens’ hand in clear defiance of Olympic tradition for gold medal winners.  Granted, there are a few gray characters in the film as well, such as the duplicitous Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and prejudiced Olympic team coaches like Lawson Robertson (Defiance’s Tony Curran).  Race has greater scope than earlier films based on Owens’ life and has the added benefit of CGI as a storytelling tool.  These computer effects are most noticeable in the sweeping crowd scenes when Owens first enters the Olympic stadium in Berlin.  But is the movie better off for all of its technological advances and advantages?  Opinions will vary, but I think CGI was judiciously employed in the film.  The effectiveness of the movie’s broad stroke approach to telling Owens’ story is also a matter of debate.  Some will appreciate the movie’s in-depth history lesson and the many ancillary story lines (Riefenstahl) that are woven into the movie’s narrative tapestry.  Others (like moi) will maintain that the film takes us away from the focal point (Owens) too frequently and tries to achieve too much in the social and political arenas instead of adhering to its core identity as a historical sports movie…unlike the exploits of its main character, the story isn’t very streamlined.  How ironic that a movie about sprinting should be paced like a long distance run and have the running time of an average half marathon.  Race is an educational and inspirational film that ultimately fails to move its audience.  Sad to say, but despite its efforts to decry the injustices of prejudging a person based on their appearance, Race is skin-deep. 

Risen (PG-13)

Directed by: Kevin Reynolds
Starring: Joseph Fiennes
February 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Rolling stones used in combat. Symbolic of the big one later in the story. #RollingStones
“Until then...” #RomanBrutality
“Order...order.” I got it the first time. #BreathMint
Unusual for a #Bible movie to begin with the crucifixion.
“Never killed a king before.” Not just a king. #KingOfKings
“It’s as if he wanted to be sacrificed.” Like a lamb to the slaughter. #NoGreaterLove
“A day without death.” Great dialog during the pool scene.
“We must find a body.” Let the investigation begin. #CSIJerusalem
“Wait ‘till you see combat.” Ha!
“Some say he has risen.”
The scene where #Clavius asks which of his men knows #MaryMagdalene is hilarious.
“This is what you missed.” #RomanNail #Crucifixion
“They’re everywhere!” #Bartholomew is a great character who provides some much needed #ComicRelief. #12Disciples
The sword slips through #Clavius’ fingers. Seeing #Yeshua is a disarming experience.
“No one dies today.” The pursuit by the #Roman soldiers is an exciting sequence.
#CliffCurtis is very good in his portrayal of #Jesus.
The healing of the leper gave me #Goosebumps.
The #Ascension is spectacular!
“I doubt we’ll ever hear from them again.” Wrong!
Final analysis: the #Resurrection story told from a unique POV. Benefits from solid acting and gorgeous locations.
3 out of 4. An original yet reverent #Bible epic with one of the finest #Redemption stories ever told.

Some years ago, back when I had aspirations of plying my acting skills (such as they are) into a career, I had the lead part in an Easter cantata entitled Bow the Knee.  The story focuses on a Roman centurion who has a crisis of conscience regarding the teacher named Jesus.  The play presented a unique story told from the POV of an original character and echoed similar conceits in films like Ben Hur (1959) and Barabbas (1961).  Like in Bow the Knee, Risen narrates the Passion of Christ through the eyes of a Roman soldier, but the twist here is that most of the story takes place after the crucifixion (which occurs early in the film).  The action kicks into high gear when Jesus’ tomb is found empty and Roman Tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) is put in charge of the investigation to find the body.  This procedural element keeps the story rolling along until Clavius has a life changing encounter with the subject of his pursuit midway through the movie.  Clavius falls in with the disciples and, by proxy, takes us on a spiritual journey which is punctuated by several key events from Jesus’ post-resurrection ministry. The 80/20 rule applies to this movie, with roughly 20% of the tale actually based on scripture and 80% extrapolated from the inspired text and presented for dramatic effect.  The end result here is seeker sensitive and palatable for those with an open mind, but will probably frustrate those fundamentalist theologians who maintain that a Biblical epic must be chapter and verse (and has there ever been such a film since none of us where there 2,000 years ago to determine the story’s authenticity?).  One of the most exciting elements in the story is how it weaves in and out of the official New Testament narrative, which provides freshness for those familiar with the actual events from the Bible. Some of those vignettes, extracted directly from the holy book, are extremely well executed, such as: the crucifixion, the fish bounty, the healing of the leper and the ascension. Other sequences, like when Roman soldiers pursue the disciples through tussocks of grass and winding canyons, are nowhere to be found in the Bible, but are visually exciting and help maintain audience interest throughout the story.  Aside from its pioneering plot, the acting is also a boon to the film.  Fiennes is superb in the lead role and plays his character’s gradual shift in loyalties to perfection.  Peter Firth is exceptional as Pontius Pilate, portraying the Roman official as a flesh and blood character rather than an egomaniacal caricature.  Tom Felton is effective as ambitious Roman soldier Lucius and Cliff Curtis (Fear the Walking Dead) delivers an understated, yet deeply affecting, performance as Jesus.  In addition to the movie’s fine production elements, the locations have greatly contributed to the visual veracity of the film.  Shot in Spain and Malta, these exteriors have helped the story come to life by accurately depicting the Holy Land during the First Century.  In the end, this is a compelling story of personal redemption that just happens to be based on the Bible, and as such, should have appeal far beyond the religious set. 

The Revenant (R)

Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio
January 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Revenant
“Keep breathing.” Beats the alternative.
Never seen a river flow through trees like this.
Phantom arrows and friendly fire...they don’t stand a chance.
“Get off the boat.” #Unwise
“I ain’t got no life.” #PeltLife
Two bear cubs. Means momma is nearby. #GetOutOfThere
That #BearAttack is one ferocious sequence.
Leo might be wounded, but at least he has a #BearBlanket.
“Save your boy with a blink.” Intense scene.
Self-cauterizing a neck wound. #Ouch
God is a squirrel. Now I’ve heard it all.
Leo eats that fish #Gollum style.
Glass goes where the buffalo roam and the skies are cloudy all day.
“Your body is rotten.” Thanks for the compliment.
Silly Leo. Horses don’t fly.
Glass does the old #Tauntaun trick with his dead horse. It doesn’t smell good, but it’ll keep him warm.
“I need a horse and a gun.” Yeah! #RunningOnRevenge
Beautiful shot of the #Avalanche.
Final analysis: a cinematic masterpiece with a wholly immersive sense of place.
#AlejandroGInarritu has done for mountain forests what #DavidLean did for deserts in #LawrenceOfArabia.
4 out of 4. A classic tale of revenge with superb acting by #DiCaprio and jaw dropping cinematography.

Ordinarily, a movie with liabilities like a dearth of dialogue, cursory character development and a standard cause-and-effect narrative wouldn’t be considered for Oscar’s top prize.  But The Revenant isn’t an ordinary film.  A good portion of the film’s success derives from its acting, particularly from Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, who play diametrically opposed forces in a revenge yarn set during the frontier period.  While Hardy is sufficiently loathsome as the movie’s treacherous antagonist, DiCaprio steals the show with a finely nuanced and physical demanding performance as Hugh Glass, a fur trapper with a half-breed son from his deceased Pawnee wife. Considering the high degree of difficulty inherent in this role and the fact that he’s long overdue for a win (5 previous nods), DiCaprio appears to be a shoo-in to snag the Best Actor Oscar, which would be justly deserved. Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter also turn in noteworthy supporting performances and the grizzly bear, played by Glenn Ennis in a blue suit, gets props (two paws up) for a solid assist. Another key ingredient in the movie’s winning formula is Alejandro G. Inarritu’s peerless direction; the film’s tone and visual style are directly attributable to Inarritu’s exceptional skills as a film craftsman. Inarritu has evoked incredibly visceral performances from his actors and has done so with minimal takes in arduous outdoor conditions. Having already won Best Director and Best Picture last year for Birdman, Inarritu seems poised to carry away another armful of statuettes at this year’s Oscars.  Acting and directing aside, the production element that has elevated this film above the extant exemplars of woodland Westerns is the utterly mesmerizing lensing by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.  The movie’s dizzying array of POV shots, long takes and elaborate tracking shots have combined to form a type of visual poetry. The variety, complexity and audacity of these filming techniques, which effectively transport the viewer right into the middle of the action a la a FPS video game, is nearly unrivaled in cinema history (the only films that even come close are Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth trilogies, but those movies employed far more CGI).  Whereas a director envisions a shot and the cinematographer frames it, the locations create the look and mood of a film. As such, the reason this film will go down as a masterwork of visual expression is its locations and the exquisite manner in which they were captured—the avalanche scene, filmed in a real-time one take, is a jaw-dropping achievement. Since the vast majority of this movie was shot on location (almost exclusively in the Canadian Rockies), the exteriors play a crucial role in creating the illusion of reality that moors the viewer to the milieu in palpable ways, wholly immersing them in this savage chapter in American history.  The movie’s location scouts did a phenomenal job of discovering picturesque vantages and pinpointing the perfect setting for each camera setup, so kudos to them for their pioneering (sorry, couldn’t resist) work on this film.  If you can get past its occasional brutal passage, this movie is a singular experience that far transcends the highest aspirations of the quotidian film in its genre.  Which is to say, The Revenant is a cinematic marvel.  Go see it or I’ll sick the bear on you.

The Big Short (R)

Directed by: Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale
December 2015

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Big Short
Appropriate quote from #MarkTwain to open the film.
“It all came crashing down.” #Greed #Tragic
“You have a very nice haircut. Did you do it yourself?” Ha! #SocialIneptitude
How to #Hijack a #SupportGroup.
Short the #HousingMarket. #IncitingIncident
I learned more about #SubprimeLoans from @MargotRobbie in a #Bubblebath than any news story...and I liked it.
A #Short deal for 100 million. #GoldmanSachs is laughing now.
“Who bets against housing?”
“No one is paying attention.” #Scary
#CDO is like three day old halibut. Love the visual illustration by #AnthonyBourdain.
Four people per 100 houses in FL. There are more alligators per the one in the swimming pool.
They’re not confessing. They’re bragging. Pride comes before the fall.
“Fueled by stupidity.” The short definition of our entire system.
“A completely fraudulent system.” Imagine that.
The AAs are like Bs. “Kinda brilliant.”
#SyntheticCDO Atomic bomb to the #SubprimeBubble.
“I say when we sell.” Phenomenal acting by @SteveCarell.
Final analysis: a sobering look at greed run amok with amusing direct addresses and educational sidebars.
3 1/2 out of 4. Superb acting with an educational, accessible story from writer/director Adam McKay.

As Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) enthusiastically declared in Wall Street (1987), “Greed is good.” However, when a glut of greed causes an entire financial institution to become fraudulent, which in turn threatens to crash that nation’s economy, greed most definitely isn’t good. The Big Short is based on the book of the same name (subtitled: “Inside the Doomsday Machine”), written by Michael Lewis, and chronicles the events that precipitated the financial meltdown in 2008. Just like other movies that have focused on the subject at hand, i.e., HBO’s Too Big to Fail (2011), Short is less an entertainment than a cautionary tale wrapped inside a biopic. If the movie’s subject matter conjures images of a dry, narrated documentary, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that Short is nothing of the sort. Writer/director Adam McKay (Anchorman, 2004) has done a superb job of describing complex financial concepts in layman’s terms, and has employed luminaries like Margo Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez to explain those concepts in amusing vignettes. As in the similarly themed The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Short allows numerous characters to break the fourth wall and address the audience in supplemental, anecdotal or humorous asides. All of these story devices lend the film a unique narrative flow, which makes it accessible to a mass audience and prevents it from degenerating into a derivative snore-fest. The cast is headlined by Brad Pitt, despite the fact that his character is ancillary to the action and his screen time is far less than many of his co-stars. Christian Bale is extremely effective as glass-eyed, socially awkward hedge fund manager Michael Burry, the first person (according to the movie) to bet against the housing market. The most impressive (and unexpected when considering his typical role) performance is turned in by Steve Carell, who plays Mark Baum, the low empathy, high maintenance ringleader of a small team of renegades inside Morgan Stanley. The freeze-frame shot of Baum’s face when he learns about Synthetic CDOs perfectly mirrors our own expressions of confusion, disbelief and betrayal. For scores of people who were adversely affected by the bursting of the “credit bubble,” it will take the rest of their life to wipe that look off of their face. If Short has done its job properly, you should leave the theater furious over how the banks have destroyed millions of lives and very nearly tanked our economy. Short is an important film, not only as an edutainment, but also as a reminder for us to never again commit this kind of financial blunder…as is hauntingly hinted at in the final scene of the film.

Concussion (PG-13)

Directed by: Peter Landesman
Starring: Will Smith
December 2015

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

“Banging’s not a natural thing.” Sounds like the movie’s central thesis.
“The science of death.” Macabre study. Takes a special person.
“Talk to them in your head.” Ha! #CadaverWhisperer
“Those are my peaches. They should not be there.” LOL!
“I’m dying in here!” Some amazing acting by #DavidMorse.
“One should eat breakfast in this country.” Got him!
“People do not go mad for no reason.” This one did. #MikeWebster
The jar illustration is downright frightening.
“God did not intend for humans to play football.” Scientifically accurate, but not a popular view among fans.
“Uneducated quack.” Idiot!
“The NFL owns a day of the week.” And Monday and Thursday nights too. #NFL
“This does not show up on a CT scan.” Get a #SPECT. #CTE
“They have to listen to us now.” #BurdenProof
“Tell the truth.” #Goosebumps
“If you don’t speak for the dead, who will?” #SpeakerForTheDead
“Please ask him to help me.” Touching scene. #HonestPrayer
Bennett finally gets to speak about concussions.
America’s forensic pathologist. #HighHonor
Final analysis: a sobering look at the dark reality of America’s favorite pastime.
3 out of 4 stars. A transformative performance by #WillSmith in a David vs Goliath tale of courage.

During a conversation focused on the growing problem of head injuries in sports, Alec Baldwin (as Dr. Julian Bailes, former team doctor for the Pittsburg Steelers) makes this statement about American football: “It is a mindless, violent game, and then it’s Shakespeare.” This ironic dichotomy not only serves as the film’s underlying premise, it also effectively expresses the ambivalence felt by many players and fans who must grapple with the bitter reality that the fun and exhilaration they derive from the popular pastime comes with a price. By dint of its classification as a contact sport, you can’t have a high level of excitement without punishing tackles and vicious blows to the head. And yet, most people, especially with what we now know about the sport’s potentially devastating effect on the brain, would agree that we must do more to protect football players from TBIs (traumatic brain injury) or, as Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) discovers in the film, CTEs (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Omalu first encounters the disease while conducting extensive tests on the brain of legendary Steelers center Mike Webster (David Morse). As Omalu continues conducting autopsies on deceased football players, he detects a pattern which becomes the basis for his landmark journal article, which leads to an official diagnosis (CTE), which generates skepticism from many in the medical community and outright hostility from the NFL…after all, it owns a day of the week. As ironic as it seems, discovering the degenerative condition inside players’ brains turns out to be a far easier task for Omalu than convincing the NFL of his findings. What kicks off as a standard sports movie morphs into a medical procedural and ultimately ends up as a David vs. Goliath political thriller. Above all, Concussion chronicles one man’s dogged pursuit of the truth and the considerable diametrical forces that attempt to discredit and squelch his work (this struggle of opposing views is not too dissimilar from the basic arrangement of players on the football field: offense and defense). Smith turns in a remarkable performance as Nigerian pathologist Omalu and absolutely nails the accent. The supporting players are also extremely effective in their roles, especially Morse, whose portrayal of the deteriorating NFL star is heartbreaking and haunting. Honorable mention goes to: Baldwin, Albert Brooks (as Omalu’s supervisor), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (as Omalu’s wife) and Luke Wilson (as NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell). One wonders how much interference director Peter Landesman encountered while spearheading this even-handed effort to expose the ugly truth of the NFL (in specific and football in general). With the considerable connections and bankroll the league has at its disposal, it’s a minor miracle that a movie like Concussion ever made it to the big screen. And the fact that the film was released on Christmas Day, deep into the NFL’s regular season, shows that Columbia Pictures isn’t the least bit intimidated by the institution it’s brazenly indicting. I admire that kind of pluck, and, judging by his onscreen characterization, something tells me Omalu would too.

Spotlight (R)

Directed by: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Mark Ruffalo
November 2015

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Goodbye cake. #Depressing
“Are you familiar with Spotlight?” That’s why I’m watching the movie.
“You wanna sue the church?” David vs. Goliath. #Ironic
“Would you consider picking this one?” A new story for Spotlight.
“Twenty grand for molesting a child?” A pittance for destroying someone’s life.
SNAP. #CrummyAcronym
“Not prayed for, preyed upon.” Utterly reprehensible.
“How do you say no to God?” #AbuseOfPower
“A recognizable, psychiatric phenomenon.” #ProtectedPredators
A break in the case. #SickLeave
“It takes a village to abuse one.” Horrifying.
“Six percent of all priests.” Absolutely frightening!
“I never got any pleasure out of it.” Just when you thought this movie couldn’t get any more shocking.
“It’s like everyone already knows the story...except for us.” #Obstruction
Story runs and the phones start ringing off the hook. The truth finally comes out.
Final analysis: An expose of corruption for the ages. Flawless acting & superb direction bolster this true tale.
3 1/2 out of 4. Deplorable subject matter makes it hard to watch at times, but a vitally important film.

Spotlight dramatizes a watershed event from 2002 when the Boston Globe published a story that blew the lid off of the Catholic Church’s complicity in allowing known pedophile priests to continue serving in parishes. Spotlight is also the name of the small group of intrepid reporters at the Globe who exposed that pattern of corruption and dared to take on the Church. The movie is an ironic twist on the David versus Goliath tale from the Bible with the small team of reporters taking on the centuries-old religious institution. The story is told in a manner similar to that of All the President’s Men (1976), with reporters pounding the streets in order to piece together clues that will eventually aid them in confronting a social injustice. The newsroom dynamic in this film is also echoes President’s Men and other media focused movies of that period like Network (1976). The casting of the Spotlight team is pitch-perfect. Liev Schreiber, as editor Marty Baron, beautifully underplays his role in one of his finest performances. The star of the show is Michael Keaton, who plays Walter “Robby” Robinson, the ringleader of the Spotlight journalists. Each of the supporting actors are superb here, especially Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James and Stanley Tucci. Insuring that everything onscreen accurately reflects the actual events as well as the styles, attitudes and settings of the post-millennial era is director Tom McCarthy. Each aspect of the production feels period appropriate, especially the dimly lit, cluttered office spaces and claustrophobic boardrooms. Writers Josh Singer and McCarthy have done a superb job of taking the morally reprehensible subject matter and making it appropriate for a mass audience. They’ve also skillfully and artfully depicted the actual events without politicizing or bashing organized religion. Just as the Spotlight team treaded carefully as they built their case, so too have Singer and McCarthy walked the tightrope between exposing the heinous behaviors of the outed priests and remaining reverent to the Church. Many have trumpeted this film as the frontrunner for Oscar’s top prize...and it’s hard to argue with such a sentiment. If Spotlight should happen to clinch Hollywood’s highest honor, it would be two Best Picture wins in a row for Keaton.

Creed (PG-13)

Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan
November 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

No. But it is your uncle’s Rocky movie.

Adonis, son of Apollo, fights all the time. #FamilyBusiness
Adonis’ son will be named Agamemnon.

#CreedMansion Movin on up!
This cements the movie’s rags to riches theme.

Fighting without head gear. Duuumb!
Fighting in general…duuuumb. Or at lest tha the wey it meks ya.

“Time takes everybody’s undefeated.” #Rocky
The first great line in the movie and a glimpse of the quality writing to come.

A “self taught” boxer. Good luck with that.
I once read a book about how to become an astronaut. Does that qualify me to go into space?

“What cloud?” Hilarious!
Generation gap.

Old school training. #SlowChickens
A really funny scene that hearkens back to Rocky’s training in Rocky II (1979).

The #ToughestOpponent scene is a nice moment. #ManInTheMirror
This scene underscores the commonly held view that a big part of boxing is psychological.

“Without the name there’s no fight.”
A line that exposes the dark underbelly of boxing…that it’s all about the money.

Adonis is afraid of being the “Fake Creed.”
His opponent, Conlan (Tony Bellew), later calls him a “False Creed.” This strikes at the heart of Adonis’ identity crisis.

Don’t call him “Baby Creed.”
It doesn’t take much to push an angry person over the edge.

“If I fight, you fight.” Yeah!
The line was telegraphed by earlier statements, but it still works.

Creed trunks. Special moment.
The best of both names. A key moment in Adonis accepting who he is and finding his true identity. And not a moment too soon.

“Can he fight?” #LetsGetReadyToRumble
Nice to see legendary ring announcer, Michael Buffer, in the movie. Adds a nice note of authenticity.

“Proud to be a Creed.”
He’s proud to be an American too…just take a look at those trunks.

Final analysis: a meaningful sequel that moves the franchise forward in a bold new direction.
You’ve got to tip your hat to Stallone, who keeps finding new ways to move his franchise forward.

3 out of 4 stars. Superb performances by Jordan and Stallone. The best #Rocky movie that isn’t.

The seventh film in the franchise is actually the first with Creed in the title. As you’ll recall from the first four Rocky films, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) was Rocky’s nemesis turned friend, who met an untimely end in Rocky IV (1985). In the early goings of this film, we learn that Apollo had an illegitimate son named Adonis. Adonis is filled with anger over being raised in a foster home, and over never having met his father, and learns how to brawl at a young age. The adult Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) channels his aggression into boxing, which leads him to discover the identity of his deceased progenitor, which eventually leads him to Rocky (Sylvester Stallone). Initially reticent to get involved, Rocky finally agrees to become Adonis’ trainer, and you can guess where the film goes from here…for the most part. As an origins tale for Adonis, the movie’s rags to riches theme is in full force along with the master/pupil story element that worked so well in the first two Rocky movies with Burgess Meredith’s Mighty Mick. While Jordan’s characterization of Adonis isn’t overly complex, the physically demanding portrayal of Adonis, like Stallone’s punishing performances in his Rocky movies, is to be commended. The movie is all about self-discovery, the courage to keep fighting no matter what, the necessity of having family in your life (whether biological or not) and to always wear head gear when sparring (okay, so that’s not really one of the movie’s themes, but it is an important safety tip). Other than Adonis’ mother’s (Phylicia Rashad) mansion and his boxing trunks, there really isn’t anything glamorous about the film, which is actually a boon. The gritty look and feel of the film, and its inner city locations, resembles the original rather than the many sequels. Despite its fine production, clever premise and raw performances, the story line is fairly uncomplicated and is riddled with boxing movie tropes, i.e., the main character’s rough upbringing, an older/wiser mentor, training sequences/montages, key fight as the climactic event, etc. The twist on the formula is that Adonis is struggling to find his identity in the shadow of his father’s brilliant career. There are some really good character moments in the film, like Rocky’s “toughest opponent” training exercise and the “If I fight, you fight” scene where pupil challenges teacher. The motivational sayings are laid on pretty thick in the movie, which will be inspiring for some and annoying to others. Other than its sound bite dialog, predictable plot, stiff acting by Stallone (which actually fits his character this time around) and oversimplified story, there’s little else to critique here. The movie represents a changing of the guard: Rocky (finally) hangs up his boxing gloves and takes a young fighter under his wing. This symbolic transference of the mantle is nowhere more powerful and painful than in the final sequence, where Rocky struggles to climb the steps that he triumphantly vaulted in the first Rocky film. It’s a bittersweet and uber-nostalgic moment that’s also an extremely effective means of showing Rocky’s entire arc from young fighter to old trainer. The scene is ineffably poignant. So, with the baton securely passed from Rocky to Adonis, will there be a Creed 2? And if so, will Stallone be in it? Something tells me Stallone will appear in these films as long as he’s physically able to amble onto a movie set. Even if you aren’t a fan of his acting, you can’t take away the fact that Stallone is absolutely brilliant at finding new ways to keep his franchise pounding away at that side of beef.

Trumbo (R)

Directed by: Jay Roach
Starring: Bryan Cranston
November 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Love the jazz score for the opener.
The infectiously upbeat music not only sets the tone for the film, it perfectly characterizes Trumbo’s unflagging energy and ambition.

“What writers write, builders build.” #PicketLine
This is an important reminder that no film would ever be produced without an army of people behind the scenes who build and create everything seen onscreen.

Post-movie shower. Sad.
Throwing a cup of water at someone was enough to make a point back in the 50s. Today they just shoot someone they disagree with. Tragic.

“We both have the right to be wrong.”
Trumbo was attempting to take the high road, but his strategy backfired since the person he was addressing had an extreme point of view. There’s nothing more dangerous that someone who knows they’re right.

Trumbo meets the Duke...and promptly insults him on where he was stationed during the war. #Ballsy
A really good scene, but I just couldn’t buy David James Elliott as John Wayne. But really, who else could they have cast in the part? Love him or hate him, the Duke was a true original.

Putting Communists in internment camps. Yikes!
I’m definitely not pro-Communist, but herding people like cattle into camps is morally reprehensible. We need look no further than Nazi concentration camps or US internment camps for Japanese Americans for examples of these atrocities.

Plan implodes when justice dies. Off to the pokey.
“The best laid plans…”

“Spread your cheeks.” How undignified.
Especially for an Academy award winning screenwriter.

“The luckiest unlucky man.” Touching and well written letter.

“No, you don’t want my name on it.” Ha!
Emphasis on the “you.” Having already been blacklisted and imprisoned, it made sense that Trumbo would use a pseudonym when trying to reestablish a career in the industry. While on the subject, many female writers also broke into the industry during this period by using pen names.

“The Alien and the Farm Girl.” Lesson: don’t mix political commentary with schlock.

Too busy for birthday cake. Sad. #SweetSixteen
Amazing how quickly people’s priorities can change. When Trumbo was in prison, his family was his main focus…at this point in his life it’s his work.

Who is Robert Rich? #
The story that kept nagging Trumbo over the years ends up becoming and Oscar winning screenplay. Just goes to show that it’s always best to write from the heart.

“It simply lacks genius.” Preminger was a tough customer.
But he was just as tough on actors, so there’s something to be said for his consistency.

Academy awards: 2. Yes!
Those who have an overdeveloped sense of justice, like me, will revel in this scene.

The scene where Trumbo’s screen credit is reflected on his glasses is absolutely brilliant.
Ingenious cinematography and inspired acting.

“It was a time of fear and no one was exempt.” #Blacklist
No one was exempt because this was such a polarizing issue. There really was no middle ground.

Final analysis: a timely true story of one man’s plight during a dark chapter in American history.
This film is timely because of what’s going on in the world at present. How will we treat the Syrian refugees when they arrive in our country? How will we treat Muslims in light of the recent terror attacks in Paris?

3 1/2 out of 4. Rich in historical detail and social relevance with a towering performance by Cranston.

As a huge fan of Spartacus (1960), I’m very familiar with the name Dalton Trumbo and of his plight during Hollywood’s blacklist phase. However, even with a previous knowledge of his story (anecdotally, at least), there were many aspects of Trumbo’s life and career that I was completely unaware of, like his penchant for writing in the bathtub. Trumbo effectively melds disparate narrative elements—a socially conscious biopic, an enthralling character study, a bittersweet dramedy and an accurate, if abridged, survey of film history—into a cohesive edutainment. As such, there’s something here for everyone. The movie’s big draw, of course, is Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, who is utterly spellbinding as the titular script writer. Like a virtuoso pianist, Cranston hits every note with precision and acumen and mesmerizes with a performance so unique and veracious that at times the line between character and actor is exceedingly blurred. I can gush about Cranston’s portrayal of the eccentric writer for the rest of this review, but in all fairness, the supporting players are dazzling in this picture as well. First of all, Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire) is exceptional as Edward G. Robinson. Though he doesn’t quite favor the diminutive actor, Stuhlbarg makes the part his own without trying too hard to provide a perfect portrait of the Classic Hollywood mainstay. On the flip side of the coin is David James Elliott, whose depiction of John Wayne is, ironically, more wooden than any part the Duke ever played. However, is it really possible for any actor to accurately dramatize Wayne since he was a walking caricature? Although Diane Lane, Alan Tudyk, Roger Bart, Elle Fanning and John Goodman are all superb in their roles, honorable mention goes to Louis C.K. as Trumbo’s writer friend Arlen Hird and Helen Mirren as the Hollywood gossip queen Hedda Hopper. John McNamara’s (Aquarius) script is witty and nuanced and delicately negotiates some rather turbulent political terrain. At its core, this movie is about courage and cowardice. Trumbo goes to jail for his convictions. Both actor Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger fight for Trumo’s name to appear in Spartacus and Exodus, respectively. Standing in stark contrast to the courageous actions of these men are individuals who named names in order to save their own skins, like Robinson. Ironically, as the film aptly depicts, many of the finger pointers also suffered career setbacks due to the very suspicion of their involvement with the Communist party. Director Jay Roach (Meet the Parents) has delivered a conscientious film that, in addition to showcasing the authentic details of the milieu, also captures the moods and attitudes of proponents on both sides of the politically charged issue at the heart of the movie. Inserting the film’s actors into archival footage via CGI, a la Forrest Gump (1994), is yet another of the film’s many masterstrokes. The way I see it, a movie that educates while it entertains is a double whammy winner. And if it also happens to have a message, so much the better. Topical and timely, this film is not to be missed.

Bridge of Spies (PG-13)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks
October 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Bridge of Spies
It is.

Self portrait. Add a few more wrinkles there, buddy.
Being a painter is a nice cover for a spy.

Opening the coin. Intricate work.
Interesting how a different faux coin (silver dollar) also appears later in the movie.

“Not my guy.” Splitting hairs. #LimitingLiabilities
It’s amazing how ridiculous our system has become.  We split hairs so fine that we can’t even see the truth anymore.

Jim gets roped into doing a “patriotic duty.” #IncitingIncident
Alan Alda was the perfect choice for the part of Donovan’s superior…a symbol of the old, male Caucasian leadership of the era.

“Do many foreign agents register?” Good point.
Hi, I’m a spy for an enemy country.  Oops, guess I just blew my cover.

“You don’t seem alarmed.” Ha! #ElectricChair
There’s a man resigned to his fate.  Occupational hazard.

“You cannot be shot down. You cannot be captured.” No pressure.
Your country will disavow any knowledge of you.  Sign me up!

The “duck and cover” film shown in school is horrifying.
With Iran getting nukes, we might want to bring this instructional film back for today’s schoolchildren.

Pariah on a train.
What an awful feeling it would be to have everyone’s disapproving gaze trained on you.

The “standing man” story is a nice moment.
And pays off beautifully later in the movie.

Are there any “bigger issues” than justice?
It’s frightening how often justice is waylaid by misguided ploys or knee-jerk reactions.

If there’s a threat of capture, #SpendTheDollar.
It’s the last one you’ll ever spend.

“Will we stand by our cause less resolutely then he stands by his?” #KillerLine
An elegant line delivered with exceptional precision by Hanks.

The jet explosion scene is intense.
The only bona fide action scene in the movie.  Not nearly as pulse-pounding as the action sequences in this year’s Furious Seven, but it’ll do.

“Indulge their fiction.” #PrisonerExchange
This is where the plot gets convoluted.  Everyone’s angling for something different and it’s up to Donovan to outsmart all parties involved.

Watching the wall as it’s being built is #Historic.
A strange feeling washed over me as I watched this scene—viewing such a historic divide, as it’s being built, is…weighty.

Jim trades his coat for directions...and safe passage through East Berlin.
The expensive coat might have saved his life.  Good thing his passport wasn’t in it.

Jim’s “impatient plan” is the only sensible one.
Our timetable in the US does seem to be much more accelerated than the ones in many other places around the world.

“Every person matters.”
A very positive message that’s reinforced by Donovan’s insistence that Russian spy Abel (Mark Rylance in a terrific performance) be imprisoned, not sent to the electric chair.

“We’re on. Two for one.” Hot dog!
Easier said than done.

“I can wait.” Yeah!
An amazing moment of respect and solidarity.  Most people would’ve run toward freedom.

“This is your gift.” Touching.
Grab a hanky.

“I thought daddy was fishing.” Nope, he was off being a hero.
A stand and cheer moment.

A different kind of train ride this time. #Redemption
This is telling of just how fickle people are—how quickly their opinion can change. Remember High Noon (1952).

Final analysis: a slow-boil political thriller, brimming with historical accuracy and social significance.
And touching humanity.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4. Spielberg has delivered a gorgeous film and Hanks’ performance is Oscar-worthy.

As with any Hanks/Spielberg collaboration (their first since The Terminal, 2004) Spies is sure to be a hit with critics and audiences alike.  Based on the true story of how an insurance lawyer, Jim Donovan (Hanks), got caught in the middle of a political tug-o-war during the height of the Cold War, the film is a timely reminder of our nation’s tensions with Russia in the not-too-distant past.  The age-old adage that greatness is often thrust upon ordinary individuals at unsuspecting times certainly applies here.  Donovan, the very portrait of an unassuming leader, becomes the hero of the hour when his negotiation skills are called upon to secure the release of two American prisoners who are being held in prisons on the dark side (Communist) of Berlin.  Aside from the peerless acting and directing, the high end production is really what puts it over the top for this political potboiler period piece.  Peter Piper agrees.  The attention to detail and historical accuracy evident in every frame of the film is simply awe-inspiring; look no further than the startlingly realistic bombed out sections of Berlin for an example of this. The one possible snafu I have with this movie is that Spartacus appears on the marquee of a German theater in one scene.  Spartacus was released in the US on October 7, 1960.  It’s snowing in Germany, so we can assume that it’s Nov or Dec of 1960 when this scene takes place.  Since it normally takes three or more months for a movie to be distributed overseas, the timing of Spartacus’ release here is questionable. More research is required. If the movie has a downside it’s its length (2 hours, 21 minutes) and slow pacing. It’s unclear whether or not the inclusion of the Coen Bros. on the scripting team helped or hindered in this regard, but I’m reasonably confident, judging from their past work, that they had something to do with the overall quality of the script. Incidentally, the Coens’ are also currently co-executive producing the second season of Fargo on FX. One of the stars of that show, Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights) also appears here in an ancillary, but vital, role. So where’s all of the action we’ve come to expect from the man who brought us Indiana Jones and the first two Jurassic Park movies? The entire subplot involving the shot down pilot could’ve been explained in a couple lines of dialog.  The auteur wisely chose to add this story line (and the storyboarding for the sequence is vintage Spielberg), which provides the only real action in the movie.  However, even though the cross-cutting is nothing short of brilliant, these scenes are ultimately superfluous and don’t significantly move the story forward, and, ironically, only serve to make the film that much longer.  Despite these niggling criticisms, there’s a lot to appreciate here, not the least of which is the film’s humanitarian message and fish-out-of-water tale of courage and honor.  This historical biopic will go down as one of Spielberg’s finest films and should earn a raft of Oscar nods.  Spies is educational and inspirational and will stand the test of time as a top-shelf Cold War yarn.  Parting thought: if you ever visit Germany during the winter season, be sure to pack an extra coat.

Everest (PG-13)

Directed by: Baltasar Kormakur
Starring: Jason Clarke
September 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

If only psychologically. Actually, most SoCal theaters are like ice boxes year-round, so watching a flick is a great way to beat the heat.

20 teams. “A scrum on the ropes.”
Unfortunately, the more people there are on the mountain, the greater the chance of casualties. The grim reality of statistical probability.

“Mailman on Everest.” Long way to deliver a letter.
The Mailman is played by indie actor, John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, 2010 and The Sessions, 2012).

Climber’s memorial. Last chance to turn back.
A graveyard for climbers whose lives were claimed by the mountain.

“The last word always belongs to the mountain.” Know who you’re competing against.
A good reminder to always pay the proper amount of respect to the mountain.

“One pound down here is like ten pounds up there.” #LightAndFast
This is a reference to shedding weight from a backpack, not personal weight. Although, that would factor in as well, one would think.

“Head down, one step at a time.” The only way to attack the mountain.
What a grueling task it would be to climb Everest. It’s not just how cold the air is, but also how thin it is.

“The mountain makes its own weather.” And it can change in an instant.
As the characters in the movie find out…the hard way.

Beautiful night view of the mountain.
There’s nothing like being on top of the world, breathing crisp, clean air and watching the moonlight glistening off of snow peaks. A spiritual experience.

No fixed ropes. You slip you die.
That’s okay. I’ll sit this one out.

Hopefully the call from home gives Rob the motivation he needs to get moving.
Wishful thinking on my part. In my defense, I was unfamiliar with this story before watching the film.

Final analysis: a heart-stopping, man vs. nature tale where respect for the mountain is paramount for survival.
And respect for fickle weather.

2 1/2 out of 4. What the film gains in production it loses in predictability. A true story worth watching.

This type of extreme sports movie has been done many times throughout cinema history. Mountain climbing films like K2 (1991) and Vertical Limit (2000) are presented more as thrillers than man versus nature cautionary tales. Whereas many of those mountain movies are fictional, Everest is based on the horrific events that occurred on the big mountain in 1996. Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) lead a team to the top of Everest, but on the descent, conditions rapidly worsened and many climbers either slipped off the edge of a cliff or became one with the mountain…permanently. Survival thrillers, along with disaster films and murder mysteries, usually employ a thinning of the herd narrative approach, and such is the case here.  As macabre as it sounds, it almost becomes a spectator sport to guess who will live and who will die when things go south, as they always do in this brand of film.  This Darwinian winnowing of characters is much harder to guess in fictional stories, but in true events, like the one featured in this film, anyone familiar with the historical account will know who survives and who doesn’t.  However, the writing here is as taut as a climbing line and should hold the attention of everyone in the audience with its skillful recitation of the harrowing events that befell this particular group of adventurers nearly twenty years ago. Bringing the characters to life is an eclectic cast of fine actors including: Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, John Hawkes, Emily Watson, Robin Wright and Sam Worthington.  If there’s a downside to having such a large cast it’s that screen time is at a premium, especially since personal stories are constantly upstaged by action on the mountain.  Some of the individual episodes are tragic, like when Hawkes’ mailman, Doug Hansen, sends himself express to the bottom of the mountain, while others are heroic, like the subplot focusing on Brolin’s ironically named character, Beck Weathers, who, despite losing his nose, miraculously survives two gelid nights up on the slope.  Although the death scenes aren’t overly graphic, some of them might be frightening for younger kids.  However, despite a handful of death scenes, there really isn’t anything else that’s objectionable in the film.  Indeed, one of the producers of the movie is Walden Media, which is the family friendly company that brought us the Narnia trilogy.  Aside from the decorated cast, the biggest draw here is the gorgeous scenery filmed on location in Nepal and Italy.  As the de facto star of the movie, the mountain scenes had to be spectacular, and they are, thanks in large part to director Baltasar Kormakur and cinematographer Salvatore Totino. All things considered, this movie is exactly what you’d expect from a tragic true tale set on the frozen tundra.  The movie is a humbling reminder of the awesome power of nature.  Moral of the story: don’t play games with Mother Nature.  You’ll lose.

The Martian (PG-13)

Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon
October 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Martian
Not quite. Though not nearly as epic in scale or scope as Interstellar, The Martian is an enjoyable sci-fi yarn in its own right.

Communication is the hallmark of teamwork. Until you close the comm channel.
Can you imagine how much people on a long range space expedition would get on each others’ nerves?

Wicked windstorm. Beware of loose satellite dishes.
And crews that leave their own behind.

“Mark Watney is dead.” The end.
Good thing he isn’t dead or this would be a really short movie.

The press conference puts #JeffDaniels’ news anchor skills from #HBO’s #
TheNewsroom to good use.
If you close your eyes, you can almost picture him at a news anchor’s desk. Daniels excels in this kind of role.

Warning: the #SelfSurgery scene is rough to watch.
Scott featured a self-abortion procedure in his Alien prequel Prometheus. Seems to be a pattern with the director.

“I’m not going to die here.” That’s the spirit.
Watney’s positivity, along with his ingenuity, is really what saves his life.

“Luckily...I’m a botanist.” Ha!
A very funny scene since we really don’t know what Watney’s position in the crew is up to this point.

Nice #Noseplugs, Watney.

The first sign of green on #Mars.
This scene reminds me of the beginning of WALL-E when the robot gives the green sprig to EVE as a present.

50 million miles from Earth. #MajorHomesickness
I couldn’t imagine the suffocating isolation of being on an interstellar voyage like this.

Organic, homegrown potatoes on #Mars. They make far tastier #FrenchFries than #MacDonalds.
At least you’d know they were real potatoes, not frozen slices of processed starch like at Mickey Ds.

“The whole world is rooting for you.” What a singular honor.
Better not accidentally kill yourself. No pressure or anything.

“I colonized Mars.” Hilarious.
Watney’s cogitations are always so well formulated. The mark of a great scientist.

Mark’s life is saved by the “handyman’s secret weapon.” #DuctTape #
This Canadian comedy show will leave you in stitches. Back to Mars: it’s amazing how duct tape can seal a breach in a cracked helmet, effectively shutting out the Martian atmosphere. And great preparedness on Watney’s part to have tape on his person at all times. He must’ve been a Boy Scout.

#ProjectElrond. Clever inside reference with #SeanBean in the room. #Boromir #
Bean played Boromir, who was at the Council of Elrond in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001).

“Mark Watney, Space Pirate.” Love his line of reasoning. #SpacePirate
Though done tongue-in-cheek, the logical assemblage of facts with humorous applications makes this a delightful scene. It’s a nice character moment that further cements our affinity for the character.

“Everywhere I go I’m first.” What a euphoric feeling that would be.
It’s a sensation familiar only to true pioneers.

That tarp over the nose of the rocket is giving me major anxiety.
I’d want a lot more than a sheet of plastic between me and space.

“You have terrible taste in music.” Much needed #ComicRelief.
Disco is to music what film noir is to movies. Both had a clearly defined beginning and end. As such, they are styles or movements, not genres.

Final analysis: an inspiring story of ingenuity and tenacity that’s at least as heart stopping as #
And is arguably more intense (as a whole) than last year’s Interstellar.

3 1/2 out of 4. Damon turns in a stellar performance and Scott’s direction is truly out of this world.

Based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir, The Martian is the latest foray into deep space by director Ridley Scott (Alien, 1979 and Prometheus, 2012). Although the star of the show is Matt Damon, he’s supported by a dazzling array of fine actors, including: Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mackenzie Davis. Damon plays Mark Watney, member of a manned mission to Mars. During a violent sand storm, gale force winds tear loose a satellite dish that slams into Watney and sends him spiraling away into the blustery Martian night. The team leader (Chastain) makes the difficult decision to leave Watney and the sand blasted surface of Mars behind for the regulated environs of the orbiting space vessel. Once the team is safely aboard, the ship begins its long journey back to Earth. At a press conference, Watney is pronounced dead by a NASA executive (Daniels). The end. Not quite. As you’ve guessed, Watney is still alive. Thus begins the rest of the movie, which centers on Watney’s arduous struggle to stay alive on the Red Planet and the problematic rescue mission mounted by NASA. The story element that makes this movie so incredibly enjoyable is its educational component: watching Watney use real science (most of which went right over my head) to sustain his life, especially during the sequence where he creates a makeshift greenhouse inside the landing pod, is engrossing and exhilarating. If these scenes have a downside, however, it’s that I suffered an anxiety attack when I mentally put myself in Watney’s place and realized I wouldn’t last one day on Mars with my limited knowledge of science. Granted, Watney is a trained astronaut, but there’s no way I would know how to make all of the gizmos he improvises with duct tape and feces (not together fortunately, ew). This master course in science is definitely one of the more engaging aspects of the film, but there’s plenty more to recommend it. Like in 2010 (1984) and Space Cowboys (2000), an international effort is required in order to accomplish the mission, a plot point that should appeal to foreign audiences as well as promote global goodwill…which our world can certainly use right now. There can be no doubt that Damon’s Watney is the hero of the hour: he’s resourceful, humble and witty. While Watney is a far cry from Damon’s devious Dr. Mann in Interstellar (2014), he’s a distant echo of Damon’s titular character in Saving Private Ryan (1998): rescue teams are sent to retrieve his characters in both of those films as well as this one. Playing a lost sheep is becoming a career MO for Damon. As a bona fide sci-fi epic, Martian puts other Mars-themed movies (Mission to Mars and Red Planet, both released in 2000) to shame. Ridley Scott’s well honed craft is evident both in the film’s outer space and planetary scenes. His framing of the visually striking desert vistas on the surface of Mars (filmed on Earth, of course) are effectively counterpointed by the moody and claustrophobic environments inside the various vessels—mother ship, module and rover. Scott mastered this juxtapositional contrast between the expansiveness of space and the constricting confines of space vessels in his Alien movies. The mounting crises in this film brings to mind the similar mechanical failures and scientific quandaries that made Apollo 13 (1995) such a pulse-pounding, nail-biting masterpiece. This film matches that level of intensity but also offers a good amount of comic relief, especially during Watney’s mission logs. Whereas Prometheus and Interstellar offer a harder brand of sci-fi, Martian is more scientifically accurate and has more commercial appeal. In the end, this survival film is thrilling, inspiring and crowd-pleasing and has carved out its own little corner of the sci-fi universe.

Pawn Sacrifice (PG-13)

Directed by: Edward Zwick
Starring: Tobey Maguire
September 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Pawn Sacrifice

“There are bad people out there.” Way to teach you kid, Ms. Fischer.
No wonder Fischer is so messed up later in life. Correction: “you” should be “your.”

“He taught himself.” Incredible.
The way the onscreen graphics illustrate the various moves that Fischer is seeing in his head is utterly brilliant.

“I want silence.” Woah!
I remember yelling that in my college dorm when knuckleheads were causing a commotion in the hallway while I was trying to study. Under the circumstances, I think my reaction was far more rational than Fischer’s here.

5 against 1. Fischer has a meltdown.
Fischer detects a pattern, something John Nash (Russell Crowe) was also pretty good at in A Beautiful Mind (2001).

“Russians are like boa constrictors.” Amazing how Fischer can remember every move of every game.
Although, some people can do the same for every baseball game they’ve ever seen on TV or listened to on the radio.

“Without chess he doesn’t exist.”
Not much of an existence if your whole world is wrapped up in one thing.

“A war of perception.” #ColdWar at its finest.

“World War III on a chess board.” Fischer vs Spassky.
The intrigue and action start kicking into high gear at this point.

Game 1 is decided by loud camera sounds.
And people in the audience whispering, coughing, etc. Noise pollution to the ultra sensitive.

Game 2- No show.
Fischer is busy looking for bugs in his room. No, not bedbugs.

Game 3. Bobby employs the “suicide” opening.
Dispensing with convention is what enables Fischer to get back into the tournament. A fact punctuated by his ingenious strategy in Game 6, which chess experts consider the finest game of chess ever played. Let that sink in for a minute.

The X-ray of Spassky’s chair reveals two dead flies. Nice to know Bobby isn’t the only one who’s nuts.
A great sequence that makes us question whether Spassky is just messing with Fischer or if he’s just as paranoid as his American opponent. The scene in Spassky’s room gives us a possible clue.

Chess is the search for truth.
Hmm…here I thought it was about humiliating your opponent.

Final analysis: a true story of a rare genius tragically plagued by a mental illness.
As we’ve seen in many examples throughout history, genius always has a trade-off: Vincent van Gogh, Brian Wilson (watch Love & Mercy), the aforementioned John Nash, etc.

Maguire delivers as a paranoid, angry perfectionist in an Oscar-worthy turn.

3 out of 4. Archival footage is a plus in this Cold War drama featuring U.S.’s most eccentric hero.

Steeped in Cold War intrigue, Pawn Sacrifice (how awesome is that title?) is like a John le Carre spy novel merged with a psychological drama couched in a historical biopic. Not to be confused with Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), which told the story of a young chess prodigy who was trying to become the next Fischer, this film features the real account of Fischer’s turbulent life and career. Fischer, who rose to prominence in the sport of chess during the early years of the Cold War, made defeating the Russians his personal mission in life, an objective that met with extreme resistance since the Russians ruled the game during the 60s and 70s and had a system in place to ensure their continued dominance. Even though Fischer’s ambitions to singlehandedly dismantle the Russian juggernaut set him on an arduous path, the toughest opponent Fischer ever faced was himself. In the throes of a co-morbid stew of symptoms (which, according to my unprofessional opinion, included: OCD, paranoia, manic depressive disorder and some form of autism), Fischer’s brilliance certainly came with a price. Bringing such a multifaceted character to life would prove challenging to any performer and former Spider-Man actor, Tobey Maguire, probably wouldn’t appear on anyone’s short list to play such an emotionally demanding part. However, sometimes defying conventional wisdom produces greatness and such is the case here as Maguire turns in his finest performance since Seabiscuit (2003). Although Maguire’s acting is consistently superb in the film, and should attract the attention of the Academy, the tantrum on the beach and the scene where Fischer tears his room apart looking for bugs are standouts. As with any good story, a hero can never truly shine without a formidable foil—that role is filled by Liev Schreiber, who is exceptional in his portrayal of Russian chess god Boris Spassky, a man who, as characterized in the film, had some mental troubles of his own. If the idea of watching a series of chess matches for two hours doesn’t appeal to you, know that director Edward Zwick (Glory) has done an excellent job of building tension through interpersonal and intrapersonal conflict and that very little of the movie is spent hunched over a chess board. That said, even if you aren’t a chess fan, the mesmerizing performances and bracing drama should hold your interest throughout the movie. The use of nightly news clips and archival footage from the actual chess tournaments also infuses the film with a degree of historical accuracy that should effectively transport you back to these significant events, which took place over forty years ago. So if you’re in the mood for a Cold War yarn, or just a fascinating character study of a mad genius, this movie is for you. That’s my gambit. Your move.

The Intern (PG-13)

Directed by: Nancy Meyers
Starring: Robert De Niro
September 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Intern

“A hole in my life.” Many people, young and old, have this.
Although this search for significance is universal, it’s probably more pronounced for those facing old age alone.

“I still have music in me.” Heartfelt video audition. Inspiring.

A way for friends to shop together online. Dangerous.
Just imagine friends making recommendations for each other or people pressure buying what their friends bought. Frightening. Especially with the Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009) set.

“What was your you remember?” Ha!
What a backhanded, ageist, comment.

Gray is the new green.
I thought orange is the new black. I’m so confused.

The blinking scene is hilarious.
Hathaway’s character is weirded out by people who don’t blink. But what about those who blink too much?

“Sitting is the new smoking.”
Not quite as bad for you, but a point well made for those cube dwellers that’ve been forced into a sedentary lifestyle.

When did “too observant” become a bad thing?
Many people are content to believe lies about themselves and are resistant when someone comes along and tells them the truth.

The Facebook and pizza scene is special.
This is the kind of well crafted character scene that sets Meyers apart from other filmmakers in the drama/comedy hybrid genre.

The “fake alarm” scene is hilarious.

First date at a funeral. Classy.
Flipping the bird at a funeral? Classless.

Pocket squares...a secret weapon with women.
DeNiro’s explanation for how pocket squares were made with women, not men, in mind is ennobling and chivalrous…something has clearly been lost over the generations. Hathaway’s character, Jules, points this out in the bar scene when she contrasts Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford with the three twenty-something schlubs standing in front of her.

Intern/best friend. Touching scene.

Final analysis: a touching, topical film that strikes all the right chords emotionally.
As we’ve come to expect from Meyers’ films.

De Niro and Hathaway are terrific together and director Nancy Meyers has delivered another cinematic gem.

3 out of 4 stars. A crowd-pleasing dramedy that should appeal to the young and old alike.

Nancy Meyers has done it again! Not only has she delivered another delightful and diligent character study, she’s also given us a film that, like many of her past films, has tapped into the zeitgeist in powerful yet nearly imperceptible ways. In The Holiday (2006), Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz—both of whom have just broken up with their loser boyfriends and just need to get away—conduct an intercontinental house swap for the Holidays. Though themes of old relationships, new adventures, accidental boob grazes (okay, you got me…it isn’t a theme, but it is an extremely funny scene) and overcoming emotional numbness all factor into the film, it’s the keen comparisons between old and new Hollywood by Eli Wallach’s character that serve as the heart and soul of the film. It’s Complicated (2009) shows the effects that a middle aged divorce has on the grownup kids in the family…and how adults can carry on like kids in the midst of a confusing love triangle. The Intern (not to be confused with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson’s The Internship from 2013) is Meyers’ canniest film to date. The director addresses the generation gap, career reversal (woman CEO married to Mr. Mom, who, in his state of emasculation, steps out on his wife) and the need for structure and purpose in our lives in such an organic, unassuming way that most people will miss the surfeit of social relevance dispensed here. The film incisively depicts the plight of young people desperately trying to make their mark in a down economy and how anyone over forty is considered ancient by the youth focused job force and may find it difficult to secure employment. Whereas the twenty-somethings may be doggedly focused on making their first million by thirty, some retirement aged folks, like Ben (Robert De Niro), would be happy just to have a job to help them pass the time of day. The film underscores another disconnect in today’s business world…the people with little to no experience (not knowledge, degrees or advancement due to nepotism) are making all of the decisions while individuals with decades of on-the-job training and wisdom are being relegated to the sidelines or, worse still, coffee runs for entitled bosses with superior social media and/or computer skills but who have no people skills or business acumen whatsoever (if you detect a hint of animosity it’s because I, like far too many other highly qualified individuals in our country right now, am living Ben’s reality every day). Only when both sides of this generational struggle learn how to work together, as Jules (Anne Hathaway) and Ben do in this film, can true progress be made in our nation’s business sector. The infidelity subplot has been done a trillion times before, and the one here really isn’t all that noteworthy other than the way it adds tension to the story. What is worth mentioning is the film’s underlying theme of the basic human need for purpose. For Jules it’s her job, which everything in her life is conspiring to take away from her. For Ben, it’s having structure and socialization in his life as a retired widower. The message is clear: whether just starting out in the work force or winding down after a long career, we all need some type of vocation to fill our days and give us a sense of accomplishment. The final scene also gives us a hint about how to find fulfillment and satisfaction in life...sometimes we just need to take a day off to actually enjoy the life we work so hard to maintain. Other than its clever characterizations, stellar performances, sure-handed direction, socially salient plot points and crowd-pleasing story, The Intern is just like every other dramedy out there.

Captive (PG-13)

Directed by: Jerry Jameson
Starring: Kate Mara
September 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Yeah, a #CR meeting. Best place to go to work on life’s three “H”s.
Hurts, hang-ups and habits. “Keep coming back, it works if you work it and it won’t if you don’t!”

“I like it too much.” If you’ve ever said this, there’s a good chance you’re an addict.
Actually, it’s almost a certainty.

“A month...a few days.” #AddictsTimetable
You hear this type of revisionist history all the time on TV shows featuring real-life drug busts.

Ahh...the old pour a Coke on the battery trick. #Classic
And just think, we actually put that in our stomachs.

Brian isn’t a complete monster, he has a soft spot for his son.
His one redeeming quality.

Brian is in denial over raping a woman and Ashley is in denial over her meth habit. #DoubleDenial
Messed up people have an uncanny way of finding each other.

“My family doesn’t listen to me either.” #NoTrust
Of course, once you’ve burned enough bridges, you have no more credibility.

“You’re not my brother.” Got him!

“Lady’s first.” #CrisisMoment
If you were an addict desperately trying to quit, would you take at hit or a bullet?

Brian’s plan is to rob a bank and escape to Mexico. #RealOriginal
This is pretty much the plan every villain has in every Western book/movie script ever written.

Brian says, “I have a demon in me.” Hadn’t noticed.
He also has drugs in him. Probably doesn’t help matters any.

The car stall scene is intense.
You just knew this was going to happen since they set it up earlier in the movie.

The greatest tragedy is a “life without purpose.” #PDL #Saddleback
One of the many great lines from The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren.

“Goodbye, Little Man.” Touching voice mail message.
It’s sad when you think of all the little men out there who will never get to meet their dads because they’re doing time for doing illegal things.

“You don’t have to be perfect to be used by God.” A #PowerfulMessage from @RickWarren. #Saddleback
In fact, many of the people God used in the Bible were far from perfect.

Final analysis: a powerful true story of how one woman finds redemption amid a life-changing tragedy.
And one man’s courage to do the right thing by letting the woman go and surrendering himself to the authorities.

3 out of 4. A hope-filled story and fine performances help to overcome the movie’s budgetary constraints.

Based on the true story of how Folsom County prison inmate, Brian Nichols (David Oyelowo), escaped from his cell, killed four people (including a judge) and became the focal point of one of the most high profile manhunts in our country’s history, Captive is a tragic tale but also a story of courage, hope and forgiveness. The events portrayed in Captive take place in 2005 during a terrifying and tragic eight hour period and are adapted from the book of the same name written by Ashley Smith, the woman Brian holds captive when he tries to hole up and evade the police dragnet. Ashley, played by Kate Mara, is a meth head who is trying to get her life back on track so that she can regain custody of her daughter. Fate, or perhaps a higher power, puts these two tragic figures together and the results are, by turns, intense and inspiring. The first thing most viewers will notice about the film is that it doesn’t have a very big budget. The second thing that will register with the audience is that the producers wisely allocated a generous portion of their budget to securing A list actors, namely Golden Globe nominee Oyelowo (Selma, 2014) and Mara (House of Cards). Since the majority of the film features both actors, either together or separately, the lead performers had to be solid if the film had any chance to succeed, so money well spent on these two fine performers who fit their roles perfectly and work extremely well together. The story maintains its intensity throughout and the riveting drama is punctuated by thriller-esque moments, like when Ashley’s car breaks down at night in the pouring rain. The climactic sequence, where police close in around Nichols, is also quite suspenseful. The movie’s theme of redemption isn’t necessarily subtle, but it isn’t driven home with a jackhammer either…thankfully. Though there’s a strong religious underpinning here, the film never comes off as preachy. In fact, this movie should serve as a template for other “religious” dramas: it’s a gripping true story that has some top talent and a faith-affirming message that’s conveyed organically rather than foisted upon its audience. Some sports movies, like Facing the Giants (2006) and last year’s When the Game Stands Tall have already perfected this faith-based film formula. Granted, due to its conspicuous message and/or shoestring budget, Captive won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. At the very least, the film has given us a big screen treatment of the ripped-from-the-headlines account of Nichols’ prison break and subsequent life changing encounter with Smith. So, whether or not you find the film illuminating, hopefully you’ll find it captivating.

Learning to Drive (R)

Directed by: Isabel Coixet
Starring: Patricia Clarkson
August 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Learning to Drive
Or as Kingsley’s Darwan says, “Seatbelt first.”

“Driving is a freedom.” One that can be revoked for idiots.
Many people need to be reminded that driving is a privilege not a right and that a license can be revoked at any time. There, I’ve made my point. Idiots!

The #TaxicabConfessions style opener is heartbreaking.
And an accurate portrayal of what cabbies must deal with as part of their job. No thanks.

“The third itch.” Male menopause. #Manopause
Every seven years. Kinda’ like Vulcans and Pon Farr.

“Teach yourself to see everything.” No easy task.
Especially for people who suffer from ADD/ADHD.

A #SkankMachine. Amusing.
And just like the tantalizing treats in a vending machine, flings only meet an immediate need and are nothing more than empty calories for the soul.

“It’s like asking me to move out of me.” Sad.
A spiteful spouse will use anything they can to inflict emotional pain during a divorce.

“I think it’s time to discuss road rage.” Ha!
Kingsley is masterful in his portrayal of an Indian man. Of course, he’s had plenty of practice. Gandhi (1982).

“Rear entry.” Check!
Not even gonna’ touch this one. Ew!

Peligro. Right motive, wrong language.
How terrifying would it be to live in a country where you didn’t know the language, customs, etc.?

“Goodbye Wendy.” Illegal hands to the face.
A really telling scene. Clearly Darwan has feelings for Wendy, but those feelings will have to remain unexplored due to his circumstances.

“You’re my faith.” Touching moment.
Whereas it’s inadvisable to put your faith in a person, I understand and agree with Wendy’s sentiment here. An extremely bittersweet resolution.

Final analysis: a feel good drama about finding the courage to overcome the painful transitions in life.

3 out of 4. Superb central performances & a heartwarming story make this a crowd-pleasing winner.

Let’s face it…there isn’t anything earth-shattering about this movie. The family drama meets collision-of-cultures premise has been done many times before in movie history. Elevating such a project above the morass of similarly themed films requires, among other things, stellar lead performances. This movie certainly delivers on that front with superb turns by Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, two actors you wouldn’t naturally match up as a possible love interest, but who are marvelous together here. It’s not just the A-list actors who deserve credit, though: Grace Gummer (The Newsroom), Jake Weber (Hell on Wheels) and Sarita Choudhury (Homeland) also shine in their supporting roles. A solid assist also comes from the many NYC locations, which visually festoon the film while grounding the story in a strong sense of place. Another plus here is the judicious placement of cultural (Indian) insights into the story line, which provide diversity and authenticity to the proceedings. However, what really sets this film apart from others of its ilk is its unique riffs on dramedy tropes. The first expectation shattered here, and the trailer was more than a little disingenuous on this count, is that this is a romance film. As the plot unfolds, it becomes evident that Wendy (Clarkson) and Darwan (Kingsley), who meet via a chance encounter and develop an unlikely friendship, have feelings for each other. Those feelings, however, remain unrequited due to timing and propriety: Clarkson is in the throes of a divorce while Kingsley is just jumping (literally, since he ties the knot one day after meeting his bride) into a marriage—arranged, of course, as per cultural dictates. The wistful yearning the characters have for each other is palpable and the chemistry between them is undeniable. The fact that this slice-of-life story doesn’t degenerate into romantic drivel is really what recommends it the most. Another story element that eschews the typical cutesy or lazy storytelling often found in this brand of light drama is when Clarkson’s daughter, Tasha (played by Meryl Streep’s daughter, Gummer), asks if she can live at home with mom after experiencing a painful breakup with her boyfriend at college. Recently separated Wendy is in need of companionship, so this plan seems like a natural, mutual resolution to the felt-needs of both mother and daughter. However, Clarkson turns down her daughter’s request and affirms that returning to college, where Tasha will soon develop new friendships and romantic interests, is really the best thing for her. It’s a great moment that flies in the face of convention and is 100% schmaltz free. The final narrative changeup is when Wendy says her faith rests in Darwan, which precludes any kind of relationship with him since he’s married. Again, the writers don’t resort to pat or contrived solutions, so kudos to them for taking the narrative high road. While the sentimental set will surely grow frustrated by these less-than-ideal plot choices, those who prefer realistic stories with genuine emotions should thoroughly enjoy this honest, straightforward portrait of individuals who are attempting to embrace new beginnings while coping with life-altering challenges. Or to put it a different way, the movie is really just about learning how to suck it up and drive on.

Southpaw (R)

Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal
July 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

With much respect to ring announcer Michael Buffer for his signature line.

The ritual of padding the boxer’s fists is extremely involved. Takes up a couple minutes of screen time.
Besides serving as an intro over the opening credits, this sequence demonstrates just how painstaking the preparations are for a bout and how boxing is, indeed, big business.

“Is that all you got?” Don’t taunt the guy.
Especially when you have blood streaming down your face.

“You got hit a lot, dad.” Hope’s daughter counts the boo boos on his face.
This is a really cute scene and a practical way for Hope’s daughter to gage how rough her daddy’s night was in the ring.

“You wanna go two rounds with me, champ?” Sign me up!
For Rachel McAdams I’m sure I could somehow find the strength.

“It’s not that bad.” Famous last words.

Hope head butts the referee. Where was that fight earlier in the bout?
Misplaced anger seems to be an issue for many boxers.

“Let me just give my daughter a hug.” Heartbreaking.
And when the bailiffs try to subdue Hope, you just know that things aren’t going to end well.

No wife, no house, no kid. Things have really gone south for Southpaw.
Somebody needs to play this Country song backwards so that Hope can get back everything he’s lost.

“Can’t even hit a question.” Ha!

“Stopping punches with your face is not defense.” That’s okay, Hope, Rocky was never any good at defense either.
Though not nearly as legendary as the training scenes in the Rocky films, the techniques Forrest Whitaker’s Tick Wills uses are also memorable and highly effective. I love the “strings in the ring” scene.

“Make him miss, make him pay.” Good strategy.
Fighting smarter, not harder, is the order of the day…a radical departure from Hope’s earlier, “human punching bag” style of boxing.

“Don’t let this man control you.” This is intense.
You just don’t go insulting a man’s family like that. I don’t know what the punk was thinking, but whatever it was, it backfired…in a big way.

Grab a tissue box for the final father/daughter hug.
Finally a glimmer of hope in this Murphy’s Law on steroids story.

Final analysis: a hard hitting redemption drama with a tremendous performance by Gyllenhaal.
However, as good as this performance is, it doesn’t top what Gyllenhaal achieved as the mentally deranged news cameraman in last year’s Nightcrawler.

3 out of 4 stars. An often bleak look at a fallen star that thankfully offers some hope at the end.

For those not in the know regarding boxing jargon, southpaw refers to a left-handed fighter. Another aspect of the word comes to light during this film’s climactic fight when Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) switches from a right-handed to left-handed attack. It’s the reverse of Inigo Montoya’s surprise revelation in The Princess Bride (1987), “I am not left-handed.” When analyzing any boxing film, natural comparisons must be made to Rocky (1976) or even earlier films like The Set-Up (1949) or Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), both directed by Robert Wise. In these examples, and many others, something resembling a pattern has emerged and a few of those boxing film tropes include: enacted boxing sequences (of course), a middle to lower class meathead who has lots of pent up anger from a childhood trauma or other family drama, a miraculous comeback against all odds and crowd-pleasing training scenes that help the audience to identify with and cheer on the main character. Many of those ingredients are present in this pugilistic portrait as well, with one notable exception; Hope is already at the pinnacle of his profession when the movie begins. Whereas Rocky was a populist rags to riches tale, Southpaw is a reversal of fortunes faux biopic that’s just as brutal outside the ring as inside it. The movie presents a fascinating character study of a man who parlays his talents into a career that provides everything he’s ever wanted in life—the World Light Heavyweight title, a gigantic estate, a fancy sports car, a beautiful wife and a cherubic daughter. However, Hope’s performance-driven existence implodes like a house of cards when tragedy befalls his family and he’s forced to be a father for the first time and get a job outside of boxing, which is all he’s ever known. Gyllenhaal is terrific as the movie’s central, tragic figure and is thoroughly convincing as both cocky champ and down-on-his-luck chump. This part splits its screen time between the public and private lives of the boxer, and Gyllenhaal plays each of these character aspects to perfection. This physically punishing role surely took its toll on the actor, so kudos to Gyllenhaal who, literally, suffers for his art in this film. Aside from the lead performer, the supporting players are also exceptionally good here, especially Rachel McAdams as Hope’s wife and Forest Whitaker as Hope’s no BS trainer. If the movie has a drawback, it’s the merciless and unrelenting Murphy’s Law plot, which turns the film into an exercise in bleakness and futility. By way of warning, the sustained heavy-hitting drama and frequently violent fight scenes may be too intense for some viewers. As such, Southpaw is about as enjoyable as hitting your thumb with a hammer. Fortunately it isn’t as painful and is more worthwhile in the end. Though the final scene offers an avenue of redemption for the downtrodden fighter, don’t expect a triumphant celebration like the ones found in the Rocky films. A solitary ray of hope is about all this film can muster.

Final Note: This film features James Horner’s final, posthumous score. Horner was one of the great film composers of our time. May he RIP.

Mr. Holmes (PG)

Directed by: Bill Condon
Starring: Ian McKellen
July 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Mr. Holmes

“It isn’t a bee, it’s a wasp. Different thing entirely.” The essence of distinctions.
And, as we learn in the film, wasps kill bees. Oh, and that bees leave their stingers in their victims while wasps leave painful welts.

“It’s usually about his wife.” Holmes teaches Roger the #ArtOfDeduction.
Actually, this is more life experience than deduction. If a man is hung up over something, 9 times out of 10 it’s a woman.

“And if I forget to make the mark?” Practical as ever.
The scene later in the movie, where we see the journal filled with black dots, is absolutely horrifying. The mind is a terrible thing to waste, especially when it’s one as brilliant as Holmes’.

Never heard of a #GlassHarmonica. I usually just rub my finger over the mouth of a drinking glass.
And, truthfully, I’m not even very talented at that.

“We do not like wasps.” Something the young and old can both agree on.
The relationship between Holmes and Roger is one of the movie’s many highlights.

“I prefer facts.”
As Dragnet’s Joe Friday would say, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

Holmes finds #PricklyAsh amid the horrific remains of Hiroshima.
Fascinating, and bitterly ironic, that a substance that improves memory should grow in an area of the world that many would choose to forget.

Holmes watches a movie based on one of his cases. His review: #PureRubbish.
Of course, since Holmes himself is fictional, the detective watching himself on the big screen is utterly ludicrous.

“I can’t remember.” Holmes like we’ve never seen him before.
We’ve seen Holmes in the throes of an addiction (Nicholas Meyer’s 1976 film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution) before, but never in the grip of Alzheimers. It’s a totally compelling, and heartbreaking, portrayal of a once indomitable private detective.

“A good son always does what his mother asks.”
Good advice for sons of any age.

“Don’t say everything you think.” #LifeLesson
If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all. Remember that chestnut from your youth?

Burn, wasps. Burn!
Actually, other than Holmes’ poor memory, the wasps are the only antagonists in the film.

“My first foray into the world of fiction.” And it’s a good one.
And more factual (if fictitious) than Watson’s accounts, as we’re lead to believe by Holmes.

Final analysis: a deeply moving portrait of a once formidable detective in the throes of losing his faculties.
A totally unique take on the character and one that hits the mark, thanks in large part to its incomparable star.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars. McKellen is mesmerizing in this first-rate, though slowly paced, #DraMystery.

One thing there’s always been an abundance of throughout film history is sequels, and one of the longest running series of all time spotlights London’s preeminent caper solver, Sherlock Holmes. The master detective has been portrayed in over 200 films by over 70 top tier actors, ranging from Basil Rathbone to Robert Downey Jr. Although characterizations have contained minor variations in mannerisms and style, Holmes has been played fairly consistently over the years: confident, irreverent and snobbish, with an encyclopedic knowledge and preternatural insight into human beings and the natural world around them. By contrast, something we’ve never seen before, until this film, is a Holmes who isn’t in complete command of his mental faculties. A Holmes with Alzheimers is just as compelling (perhaps even more so), than a kryptonite crippled Superman. Since Holmes’ greatest asset is his brain, his aggressive memory loss reduces him to a pitiable, tragic figure—a mere shadow of his former self. However, what makes this vivid character portrait even more fascinating is that even though Holmes’ memory is failing him, his powers of deduction are still razor sharp. So who could possibly pull off such a complex role while also infusing it with the necessary vulnerability, sagacity and…magic? Why, a living, breathing wizard, of course. Ian McKellen’s performance is a study in brilliance; he fits the part of the aging investigator so well that it seems as if he were born to play Holmes. The main thrust of the movie revolves around Holmes’ final case—the one that inexplicably sent him into early retirement when he had plenty of good sleuthing years still ahead of him. Snippets of that case are woven into the tapestry of the narrative in a series of flashbacks. Holmes, channeling his inner John Watson, puts pen to paper and tries to piece together the events of his concluding conundrum in narrative form. There’s one crucial detail of his initial investigation that evades Holmes’ every effort to isolate it inside the prison of his mind. This elusive clue becomes a MacGuffin of sorts and its eventual unveiling reveals a heartrending tragedy. The bitter knowledge that successfully solving a case doesn’t always guarantee a positive outcome for all parties involved drives Holmes from his flat on 221B Baker Street to a country cottage, where he hangs up his deerstalker hat for good. Whereas the intermittent vignettes of Holmes’ ultimate intrigue serve as the spine of the movie, it’s Holmes’ interactions with his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker) that grounds the movie and shows us a human side to the character that we’ve rarely, if ever, seen before. Though the pacing is slow at times, the insightful flashbacks and clever planting of clues should hold the attention of most audience members. Of course, the period accurate details, gorgeous locations and stellar performances should also keep viewers engaged and entertained throughout the movie. Bottom line: this film portrays Holmes in a way we’ve never seen before, thanks in large part to an added depth of character and reassuring measure of his humanity. I deduce that this film will be well regarded by critics and will even gain Oscar’s attention. We’ll see how accurate my inner Holmes proves to be.

Irrational Man (R)

Directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix
July 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Irrational Man

“A reputation proceeded me.”
An emphasis on the word “A.” Which infers a negative reputation. Ironically, it’s a negative reputation that Abe is fully aware of. Correction: Preceded. All proceeds from this review will go toward my grammar lessons.

The difference between philosophy and the real world. The #AnneFrank example is thought-provoking.
The point being that always telling the truth can have dire consequences in certain instances. Reference Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar (1997).

Abe avers that much of philosophy is #VerbalMasturbation.
Which is having sex with someone you love. Reference Annie Hall (1977).

Abe has lost “the will to breathe.” He needs to be #Unblocked.
Parker Posey helps Abe out with his whole “blocked” issue. Abe doesn’t need to resort to self love in this instance. I know, TMI.

Abe’s lesson in “existentialism” is shocking. #RussianRoulette
Abe definitely lives on the edge. The extents that he’ll go to in order to prove his point, however, are unhealthy…and dangerous.

Abe finds a new purpose as hit man. #StrangersInADiner
In a way, Jill creates a monster by drawing Abe’s attention to the conversation taking place in the booth behind her in the diner. Reference Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951).

“Go with your gut.” Abe should know. #BeerBelly
Phoenix really let himself go for this role. Suffering for his art…while eating a Big Mac.

How to lace a fresh squeezed orange juice with cyanide.
It looks a lot easier than it is. Don’t try this at home.

Abe has learned to celebrate life instead of romanticizing death.
Ironically, this new clarity in life comes from murdering someone he’s never met—celebrating death.

The deconstruction of the judge’s murder over dinner is a fabulous scene.
Ethan Phillips (Star Trek: Voyager) stands out here, but it’s his screen daughter, Stone, who steals the scene with her leaps of logic that prove to be dead on.

“A dark cloud had covered the moon.” #SeedOfDoubt
Note to men everywhere: when a woman says there’s nothing wrong, there always is…and there’s a good chance it’s something you said or did.

Abe’s “meaningful act” comes to light.
Abe’s rationalization for his action is disturbing, yet wholly justified from a purely pragmatic standpoint.

Saved by a flashlight.
It was a whistle in Titanic (1997). It’s the little things in life…

Final analysis: The story morphs from a character study to a murder mystery, but is compelling throughout.
I applaud Allen for taking a chance on this ambitious, off format story. This is certainly a unique entry into his oeuvre.

3 out of 4. Top notch acting by Phoenix and Stone and sure-handed direction from Allen, as usual.

Woody Allen’s 51st film is a good one, but not a great one. The stars, Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone, are fabulous as mentally troubled teacher and starry-eyed student, respectively. The movie is a fascinating character study of Abe (Phoenix), a freethinking, womanizing, liquor guzzling philosophy professor whose melancholia and mania (self Russian Roulette) have established a reputation that’s followed him from his former college to his new one. The shrouded details of Abe’s checkered past create a mystique that proves irresistible to impressionable ingénues and carousing cougars alike. Abe’s projection of redeemable misanthrope acts like a potent aphrodisiac on the colleagues (Parker Posey) and students (Stone) who are helplessly and haplessly trapped in orbit around him. Abe is an intriguing personality for many reasons, not the least of which is that his own personal philosophy of life, and more importantly death, is so disparate from what he teaches in the classroom. Abe’s blind spot is his misguided notion of justice. Jill’s (Stone) blind spot is Abe. Jill follows Abe around like a lost puppy dog and is high on his crafty speech and encyclopedic knowledge, both of which make him sound like he’s figured out all of life’s intricate mysteries. Jill is oblivious to Abe’s dark side for the first half of the movie but her denial gradually wears off when she hears some disturbing rumors which open her eyes to Abe’s true nature…a deeply disturbed, ice-in-the-veins killer. As such, Abe’s psychotic tendencies run antithetical to the archetypal Allen lead character (even with as messed up as Cate Blanchett’s bi-polar busybody was in Blue Jasmine, her character was sympathetic in spite of her mental condition). Abe is sympathetic at the beginning of the film but is wholly irredeemable by the end. This lack of a true-blue hero is one of the story’s biggest drawbacks. The real Achilles’ heel here, though, is the story. By switching thematic gears—from a straightforward character drama to a murder mystery/thriller—midway through the film, Allen runs the risk of confusing or exasperating his audience. However, despite its noticeable narrative modulation, the mid-movie plot shift is a unique story method and Allen’s sure-handed direction makes the transition a relatively seamless one. Irrational is one of Allen’s headier scripts; it’s heavy on philosophy and ethics but light on the signature brand of humor that marks most of his films. All things considered, this is a nice change-of-pace film for the auteur. Sadly, though it contains rich performances and a thought-provoking moral, this film fails to register as top tier Allen. If you disagree with my assessment of the movie, know that I’m doing my best to not resemble the title.

Love & Mercy (PG-13)

Directed by: Bill Pohlad
Starring: John Cusack
June 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Love & Mercy
Paul Dano also plays the younger Wilson.

“Well the master lock feature works.” #SellingPoint
Elizabeth Banks is charming and compassionate throughout the film, but this meet-cute really sets the tone for what’s to come.

“Lonely. Scared. Frightened.” Most people write their number on the back of a business card.
Or a matchbook. Those three words are a cry for help and, fortunately for Wilson, Banks perceives his unspoken plea. I also love the fact that Wilson’s star power is completely lost on her. She’s attracted to the real person not the celebrity. Refreshing!

“We can’t let them get ahead of us.” Musical #ArmsRace with #TheBeatles.
The period in question was before my time, so I had no idea that such a competition existed between these two groups. It makes sense, since they were popular around the same time, but they hailed from different countries and had radically different musical styles.

“If you repeat a mistake every four bars, it’s no longer a mistake.” #Improvisation
This is a really fun scene and demonstrates Wilson’s genius. He definitely had an ear for complex chord structures and unusual sounds.

“He scared me into making great records.” The rough road to greatness.
This traumatic back story really humanizes Wilson and garners a tremendous amount of sympathy from the audience.

“Do you think we can get a horse in here?” Ha!
Fitting, since the album was called “Pet Sounds.”

“Help me help Brian.” #ControlFreak
Dr. Landy is a conniving, manipulative twit. Paul Giamatti plays the loathsome psychiatrist to perfection.

Hang on to your ego.
Actually, letting go of it is probably the better course of action.

A chorus of plate scrapes. Deafening and annoying.
This scene gives the audience an insider’s understanding of how sounds tortured Wilson. An extreme OCD.

Something’s wrong with the recording studio. #BadVibrations
Another indication of Wilson’s mad process.

“Could you at least drive me home?” Funny.

Final analysis: a fitting, touching tribute to a true musical genius.
And, most poignantly, how such genius often comes with a price. Remember van Gogh.

3 out of 4. Dano and Cusack deliver tremendous performances as Wilson. Good vibrations, great film.

In some ways, this film reminds me of Julie & Julia (2009), a biopic based on the life of renowned chef Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and a young woman (Amy Adams) who decides to make all of the recipes in Child’s cookbook in one year. Though vastly different thematically, both films are decades-spanning biographical pieces that sustain their parallel narratives with riveting drama and superb performances. Whereas Julie featured two different people, Love features one person played by two different actors: Paul Dano as 60s Wilson and John Cusack as 80s Wilson. The most significant comparison is that the earlier (chronologically) stories in both films are far more compelling than the later ones. Streep is thoroughly mesmerizing as the French chef, but Adams, despite her disarming charm in playing a struggling chef who blogs about her culinary experiences in a Soho flat, just can’t elevate the ordinary story that comprises her half of the film. Unfortunately, that same pattern holds true here as the story of how Wilson created some of the Beach Boys’ greatest hits is far more fascinating than Wilson’s deterioration under the mismanagement of a shady psychiatrist. Dano is dynamic as young Wilson, while Cusack struggles to gain emotional footing as the adult Wilson in arguably the more difficult role. And then there’s the matter of appearances: while Dano looks a little like a twenty-something Wilson, Cusack looks nothing like a middle-aged Wilson. Since both Cusack’s appearance and performance fail to capture the essence of Wilson, one wonders why the actor was selected to play the superstar singer to begin with…and was real life Wilson consulted on the casting choice? The only thing that salvages the 80s storyline is the supporting players, especially Paul Giamatti and Elizabeth Banks. Giamatti plays one of the most despicable antagonists to have crawled out of a dark corner of the silver screen in quite some time. When he swears out Banks at the car dealership you literally want to throw something at the screen. As for Banks, she exudes uncommon compassion for the emotionally troubled musician and singlehandedly makes the entire adult Wilson section work. But enough about the Wilson’s later life; all of the film’s fun and energy occurs in the earlier time period. The making of the music is simultaneously enthralling and thrilling and Wilson’s traumatic childhood and slow descent into mental instability are utterly captivating. Even though snippets of the Beach Boys catalog can be heard throughout the movie, I could’ve used a lot more of their music here, along with more concert vignettes. Despite the movie’s Jekyll and Hyde narrative (which makes for an emotionally uneven movie), this is still a worthwhile glimpse into Wilson’s world and the mad process that forged the many unforgettable tunes he’s churned out over the years. Maybe the next time we can have a film with a unified tone and a lead actor that actually looks the part. Wouldn’t it be nice?

Inside Out (PG)

Directed by: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
Starring: Amy Poehler
June 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Inside Out
A high bar, to be sure, but this is certainly among the very best.

“I Lava You.” A sweet animated short. #Lava
At first I was dubious as to where this cartoon was going, because of the singsong nature of its narrative, but in the end this is a memorable, heartwarming short.

Joy meets Sadness. Don’t see them becoming friends.
Sometimes I’m just dead wrong.

“Family Island is amazing!” #CoreMemories
This concept is utterly fascinating and illustrates the importance of the major events and experiences in our lives and how they can shape who we are…positively and negatively.

“I’m starting to envy the dead mouse.” #NewDigs
It’s always difficult to start over in a new area, especially if it’s radically different from what you’re used to. The movie ably captures the feelings of uncertainty, loneliness and loss that can occur during these times of transition.

“Congratulations, San Francisco, you’ve ruined pizza!” #BroccoliTopping
A really funny scene, made even funnier by Anger’s brusqueness.

#MindManuals #LightReading

Train of Thought. Clever!
Even though it’s a little tongue-in-cheek, this is a fun concept.

“Can I say the curse word now?” Ha!
Ironic that anger is often the movie’s primary source of comic relief.

Dad’s #BrainOnHockey scene is frighteningly accurate.
And utterly hilarious! Zoning out while watching sports is an innate ability possessed by most men. Some men have even perfected it into an art.

“We’re deconstructing!” Brilliant visuals.
A very clever scene with some mind-blowing animation.

“There’s Déjà Vu. There’s Critical Thinking. There’s Déjà Vu.”
I think they just wanted to see if the audience was paying attention. Paying attention.

“Take her to the moon for me.” Bing Bong’s sacrifice is moving beyond words.
Grab the tissue box…this is a rough scene.

“For Riley!” Hilarious.

Sadness saves the day!
You just knew it would happen this way. A predictable, yet satisfying, ending all at the same time. Hooray for the underdogs!

What’s poo-berty?

Final analysis: an absolutely brilliant premise that’s executed to near perfection.
In fact, I honestly feel this is the most ingenious concept Pixar’s ever devised…and that’s really saying something.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars. A thought-provoking, tender years tale that hits all of the right emotional notes.

Ever looked at someone and wondered, “What’s going through their mind right now?” The creative minds at Pixar Studios took that thought and turned it into an animated feature called Inside Out. The movie focuses on a young girl named Riley and her emotional and mental processes as she deals with a cross-country move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Instead of merely showing us Riley’s emotional struggles externally, director Pete Docter (Up) gives us a glimpse into the girl’s mind in order to observe, firsthand, the full spectrum of feelings she experiences. Riley’s individual emotions are personified by Joy, Sadness, Anger and others. Each of the emotions has a matching personality, i.e.: Joy is infectiously ebullient; Anger is violently explosive, etc. It’s been noted by some leading doctors and psychiatrists that the brain is the executive control center of the entire body. Pixar artists have cannily appropriated that factoid for their story by creating a central control panel inside Riley’s brain…the main operations center where the assorted emotions call the shots for Riley’s every thought, mood and behavior. But Riley isn’t merely an automaton, or a marionette whose strings are pulled by the tiny characters inside her brain. What’s really fascinating about the story is that Riley has volition apart from her own emotions, which is true-to-life since cogitations and cold hard logic can occasionally win out over emotions. The fact that Riley’s choices can override what’s going on inside her brain infuses the story with a great deal of anxiety and mystery since we, along with Riley’s emotions, often have no idea of what’s coming next. In these instances, Riley’s emotions must react to an unforeseen event, like when a life experience creates a core memory. The reverse also holds true as Riley is often deeply affected by her emotions and seems utterly powerless to regulate them. Some of the best twists in the movie occur when our young heroine is overcome by a particular emotion, like when Sadness does a number on Riley during her first day at the new school. This story device, where the action intercuts between Riley’s brain and what’s happening in the real world, generates tension throughout the film and effectively illustrates the disconnect between thoughts and feelings that we each must learn to reconcile. The world Pixar creates to represent the inside of Riley’s brain is truly astounding. The architecture of the mind is based on real science but is organized and visualized in a manner that reflects the thought process of an 11-year-old girl. The different sections of Riley’s personality, as well as the way memories are created, stored and discarded are brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. But not everything in the film is based on real world science. Some story elements, like the Train of Thought, are just there for fun. This film, which reveals a great deal about the human condition by examining the thoughts and feelings of an angst-ridden preteen girl, will go down as one of Pixar’s finest…which is no small claim when considering the studio’s back catalog of superlative animated films. Inside delivers an emotional wallop that’s rivaled only by the end of WALL-E (2008) and the beginning of Up (2009). The abounding movie magic contained within its narrative, along with its clever conceit, touching story and universal appeal, has insured that Inside will be enjoyed for generations to come. This 15th Pixar film has it all and is a shoo-in for Best Animated Feature and, perhaps, even for Oscar’s top prize. For a movie that’s all about the brain, Inside Out has a tremendous amount of heart.

Far from the Madding Crowd (PG-13)

Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg
Starring: Carey Mulligan
May 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Far From the Madding Crowd

No sidesaddle for Bathsheba. Independent indeed.

George doesn’t listen very well. Needs some obedience.
I just hate it when I speak too soon…

Sheep excel at charging over a cliff like lemmings. Unfortunately, they don’t fly.
Splat! What a heartbreaking scene. Apparently some sheepdogs just can’t live up to their name.

“It is my intention to astonish you all.” Mission accomplished.
All Mulligan has to do is stare at the camera and we’re astonished.

“I have no need for a husband.” Ouch!
A very uncommon and audacious declaration for the period in question.

Who can save the sick ewes? The guy you just fired.
Okay, I’ll come back on two conditions: 1. You give me a raise, and 2. You go out with me.

Superb duet between #CareyMulligan and #MichaelSheen.
Some truly fine singing and with only a piano for accompaniment.

“We understand each other.” More than you know.
Schoenaerts and Sheen’s characters have both felt the bitter chill of Mulligan’s cold shoulder.

“I will make amends.” Sure you will.

And Child is rubbed off on the coffin. Insult to injury.
The mummy baby scene is unnerving.

Like or respect?

A ghost from the past arrives on Christmas.
Not to be confused with the Ghost of Christmas Past from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

“I forbid you.” And they lived happily ever after.
At long last, Mulligan comes to her senses and actually picks the right guy. Third time’s the charm, I suppose.

Final analysis: a well mounted period piece with gorgeous vistas & superb performances all around.

3 1/2 out of 4. Mulligan, Schoenaerts and Sheen shine in a film that’s far from ordinary.

Cut from the same cloth as an Austen or Bronte literary classic, Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd offers everything you’ve come to expect from this brand of Victorian Era period piece…but with a twist. Whereas many examples of English countryside dramas involve family intrigue, shifting loyalties and scheming mothers seeking to marry off their daughters, etc, this story flips the script by spotlighting a young, independent woman who has absolutely no desire to be married…an abnormal, almost transgressive, attitude to possess during the period in question. A common trope in the romantic fiction of the period is the love triangle, but Hardy serves up another narrative twist in this story: the love rectangle. The bulk of the movie centers on three suitors (Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge), each of whom vies for Bathsheba’s (Carey Mulligan) affections. As would be guessed, the four main performers are all superb in their roles. If I had to hand out a gold star it would go to Michael Sheen, who plays Bathsheba’s wealthy neighbor, William Boldwood (wonder if it ever occurred to him that his last name might be contributing to his celibacy), to perfection. William taps into some superhuman reservoir of patience when maintaining a state of decorum and civility in the face of Bathsheba’s many rejections and indiscretions. After nearly two hours of rebuffed advances and mind games, fate finally nudges Bathsheba in the right direction (since she’s not savvy enough to choose the right man on her own) when two of her three admirers are eliminated from the competition during a tragic shooting, which secures prison for the one and death for the other. When fate conspires to such a degree, it must be kismet; and so Bathsheba finally approaches the last man standing, Gabriel (Schoenaerts), and reveals her feelings for him. Of course, Gabriel has been in such mental and emotional anguish over Bathsheba from the beginning of the movie—desperately hoping she’d recognize and return his love—that he walks toward the sunset with Bathsheba like a lamb to the slaughter, completely exhausted from his pursuit of her and entirely at Bathsheba’s mercy to do her bidding for the rest of his sheep herding days. I know it was written during a different time (and on a different continent), but part of me hoped that Gabriel would pull a Rhett Butler (Gone with the Wind, 1939) and just keep on walking away from Bathsheba and her disreputable estate. Bathsheba should’ve been forced to learn the lesson that you can only toy with a man for so long before there are serious repercussions to your manipulations…reference long-suffering Eric Bana violently taking what he wants from scheming Natalie Portman in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008). All things considered, Madding lives up to its name in how it draws out its excruciating tale of unrequited love, providing resolution and release only in the film’s final scene. If you like complicated, character-driven period pieces with superior performances and production elements, this film’s for you. If not, you might find the movie’s protracted love affair to be quite…maddening.

Danny Collins (R)

Directed by: Dan Fogelman
Starring: Al Pacino
April 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Danny Collins

Kinda based on a true story. Love the honesty.
Most “true story” films try to bamboozle us into thinking we’re watching an “actual account.” In many instances, what we’re really seeing is only the morsel of an authentic happening that’s been embellished into some egregiously sensationalized plot that bears little resemblance to the real event.

Opening concert: #MindiAbair on sax.
For those who’ve never seen Mindi in concert, you’re missing out…she’s an amazing performer. Mindi’s on a short list of female smooth jazz A-Listers (and when it comes to the saxophone, it’s her, Jessy J and Candy Dulfer).

Collins still has fans. “Three of them. Each one older than the last.”
Self-deprecating humor is one of Collins’ most endearing qualities, a trait that instantly wins over the audience.

“John Lennon wrote you a letter.” #BestBirthdayGiftEver
Unless it was delivered 30 years late.

“Busy Work” crawls out from under the bed. #Busted!
He definitely lives up to his name.

“Currently or in general?” Hilarious! #GoodPatter
This is the first scene with Pacino and Bening and the sparks start flying from the outset.

Danny’s attempts at matchmaking are humorous.

“You can’t buy redemption.”
You can’t buy love either. The Beatles made sure we knew that.

“I don’t know how I allowed it to go so long.” Touching scene.
At some point, it probably became easy just to put it off indefinitely.

#DinnerTease. Ha!
Bening sure knows how to play hard-to-get. Hats off to Warren Beatty.

Shattered picture frame, shattered relationships.
Symbolism? A definite possibility.

Danny loses his nerve and loses his dinner. #OneBadDecision
Good thing he doesn’t lose his lunch. That would just be too much.

“It’s a good thing when he calls you Tom.” Good father/son moment.
This is a genuinely moving scene and sets up a memorable final scene/shot.

Final analysis: a surprisingly moving washed up rocker tale with lots of heart and laughs.

3 out of 4. Pacino is superb & has amazing chemistry with Bening. A heartwarming tale of redemption.

I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised by this film. The trailer, which focuses mainly on the decades-old letter from Lennon, Collins’ life of excess and faux concert clips, didn’t do the movie justice. In some ways, this film reminds me of the similarly themed Music and Lyrics (2007). In that film, Hugh Grant plays a has-been 80s rock star holding on to the last vestiges of a music career by performing at smalltime clubs and state fairs. As the script would demand, Drew Barrymore enters his life and is a catalyst of change for Grant’s character, both personally and professionally. In this film, Collins befriends Bening who serves as confidant and muse to the derailed celebrity as he tries to put his life and career back on track. Fortunately, Collins doesn’t dedicate and play his new hit song for Bening during a live concert at movie’s end, as Grant does for Barrymore. This conscious effort to avoid schmaltz is one of the movie’s greatest assets, aside from its stellar performances. Pacino is predictably strong, and although this isn’t one of his finest performances, he’s thoroughly convincing not only in his portrayal of the larger-than-life singer, but also in his grungy, wrinkly and well-tanned appearance. Pacino is uber-charming in the film and plays the part of an old smoothie to the hilt. His screen chemistry with Bening is palpable and lends the film a fair amount of good-natured fun. The way Pacino infuses pathos into his character, in order to extract the optimal degree of sympathy from the audience, is absolutely brilliant. Indeed, we can’t help but cheer Collins on as he attempts to rectify past mistakes by inserting himself into the life of his adult son (Bobby Cannavale, in a pitch perfect performance)—whom he’s never met. The series of father/son vignettes, especially the movie’s final scene, serve to hoist the movie above the droves of middle-aged angst dramas that have graced the silver screen in recent years. Collins isn’t wildly original or overly inspirational, but it’s a highly effective, deeply affecting character piece that deftly sprinkles in some laughs and heartwarming moments amid the struggles of its title character; a fading celebrity, whose desperate attempts at remaining relevant and doing right by his family are strangely ennobling. All in all, Collins is a compelling slice-of-life tale and a friendly reminder that it’s never too late to make positive changes in our lives.

The Age of Adaline (PG-13)

Directed by: Lee Toland Krieger
Starring: Blake Lively
April 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Age of Adaline

“The first and last chapter of her story.”
From that description, you’d think the narrator was referring to someone with a short lifespan, but nothing could be farther from the truth.

Adaline has five locks on her door. Not very trusting for an immortal.
In a later scene I did a recount and I think there might actually be six locks on her front door. But who’s counting?

“Magical” lightning bolt makes Adaline immortal. #OriginStory
Here’s the element that makes this a sci-fi story. It’s hokey, but no more so than the conceits behind The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) or The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), etc.

“Since I Don’t Have You” by #TheSkyliners. My dad’s favorite song.
I’d recognize it anywhere.

Adaline does her best #SherlockHolmes routine on a young suitor. #SolidDeductions
Ellis should quit while he’s behind. But he doesn’t. And so the story continues.

“Jenny kissed me.” Not familiar with that poem. But then, I’m not a know-it-all.
Truth be told, my knowledge of poetry is next to nil. Guess that means it’s time for me to take a rhyming pill.

Ellis keeps sticking his hand where it doesn’t belong. A dangerous habit for a professional painter.
Turns out Ellis isn’t a professional painter after all, he was just painting his flat. But to be honest, I’m not really sure what he does for a living. Seems like Ellis is a jack-of-all-trades sort.

“I don’t like having my photo taken.” And with good reason.
I don’t like having my photo taken either, but not for the same reasons as immortal Adaline...obviously.

A horse that can pitch? #DumbestJokeEver
But sometimes jokes are so dumb they’re actually funny. Such is the case here, much to Ellis’ relief.

Adaline has a pet photo album. Her priority is pets over people. The curse of immortality.
While pets have a shorter lifespan than humans, you don’t have to worry about them learning your secret. Plus, you can take them with you when it’s time to reinvent yourself in a new area.

An indoor, outdoor theater. Fascinating!
Placing the luminescent stars on the ceiling is a nice touch and certainly enhances the overall mood.

Ellis says Jenny has nine lives. Not far off the mark.

Superb acting by #HarrisonFord when he meets Adaline/Jenny. #StateOfShock
Scenes like this should come as no surprise, but sometimes the mind drifts to Indy and Han and we forget what a tremendously talented performer Ford really is.

“It was fleeting, inconsequential.” Nice cover.
I mean, he named a comet after her for crying out loud.

Never challenge an immortal to a game of #TrivialPursuit.
Kiss your winning streak goodbye, William.

Of comets and proposals. #NearMiss
A really good scene. Superbly performed and rife with meaning.

Scars don’t lie.

“You’ve lived, but you’ve never had a life.” The price of immortality.
You can never live up to your fullest potential if you’re always looking over your shoulder.

“Nothing makes sense without her.” #TrueLove

“My name isn’t Jenny.” The cat’s about to come out of the bag.
I was hoping she wouldn’t spill the beans here, but if she hadn’t, the movie would’ve run at least another half hour.

First gray hair...normally not a cause for celebration. Unless you haven’t aged a day in over 100 years.
I was less than thrilled when I plucked my first gray, but then again, I’m a vain man.

Final analysis: a thoughtful examination of mortality and the human experience.

Shades of #
ForeverYoung and #TheCuriousCaseOfBenjaminButton, but with its own unique twist.
By featuring main characters who, in some regard, exist apart from the normal flow of time, these types of films make us stop and take a long, hard look at our lives. By identifying with these characters, we gain an outsider’s perspective on our own lives, which reminds us just how precious a commodity time really is.

2 1/2 out of 4. A farcical romance with Sci-Fi trappings. Has a message, but is fairly unmoving.

So the basic premise here, a woman achieves immortality after drowning in freezing water and being resuscitated by a well placed, well timed lightning bolt, is as unbelievable as they come; a story right out of a classic sci-fi pulp digest. The narrated narrative itself, which spans a century, reveals the plight of Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) as she moves through time without aging and without making any serious connections with people for fear of growing too close to someone that she’ll have to run away from when her wrinkle free skin betrays her to aging “contemporaries.” The movie’s inciting incident occurs when Adaline unwittingly falls in love with Ellis (Michiel Huisman), a relationship she knows is ill-fated from the outset but is helpless to resist. Further complicating the story is the “meet the parents” scene where Ellis’ father, William (Harrison Ford), recognizes Adaline from the past. As a one-time lover of Adaline’s, William’s random reunion with the ageless woman explodes the implications of the story. The movie splits its time between four genres: Drama, History, Romance and Sci-fi. In many respects, the story feels like it was written by Nicholas Sparks, which screenwriters J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz should take as a compliment. The sci-fi elements are of the softer variety, resembling the works of Fitzgerald more than those of Wells. The former wrote the story-turned-movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), a tale about a man who ages backwards. Here, the title character maintains a normal temporal trajectory, but will forever remain untouched by the ravages of time. The period elements are extremely well done and have attained the appropriate degree of authenticity to keep us engaged in the story’s fantasy. The acting is also superb. Ford’s portrait of a man yearning for the past and pining over the life that might have been is truly exceptional, and Kathy Baker, as Ford’s jealous wife, is also terrific in an ancillary role. Lively delivers a genuine, understated performance that very easily could’ve ended up being mawkish in the hands of a less skilled actor. At times, Lively’s Adaline seems detached or aloof. Such muted emotions are not only appropriate, but are keen observances of human behavior since an ageless woman would learn very quickly how to suppress her feelings in order to protect her identity as well as safeguard against over-investing in the lives of mere mortals. In the end, this film won’t set the world on fire, but it’s an intriguing examination of the human condition with respect to our perception of time and our own mortality. The underlying question “What good’s immortality if you can’t even enjoy it?” permeates this bittersweet tale. Fans of Sparks style decade-spanning romances should find the film heartfelt and emotionally satisfying. Those who appreciate finely mounted slice-of-life stories should also enjoy the film. But those who would prefer that sci-fi elements be kept out of their down-to-earth dramas might feel left out in the cold.

Ex Machina (R)

Directed by: Alex Garland
Starring: Alicia Vikander
April 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Ex Machina
Not quite. But certainly a unique entry into the genre.

First prize. #InstantCelebrity
Nothing new here…everyone wants a piece of success.

“Follow the river.” In which direction?
Pretty vague directions when dropping someone off in the middle of the wilderness.

Key card photo. Can I get a retake?
Remember that frightened look. You’ll see it again at the end of the film.

Gorgeous view from the patio. I can almost smell the pine trees.
The lab is situated in a remote region of a forest. Not only is the compound isolated, its tight, spare and windowless interiors lend it an institutional feel. Good thing Caleb doesn’t have claustrophobia.

Nathan wants Caleb to get past the “freaked out” stage.
Caleb should listen to his anxiety.

Data audit? Don’t sign the contract Caleb.
Of course, if he withholds his signature we don’t have a movie.

The Turing Test. Baptism of fire.
“Who’s Turing?” you ask. Reference The Imitation Game (2014).

Hello Ava!
Say it like “Hello Nurse!”

How many computer nerds wouldn’t get a #
Ghostbusters reference?
Especially since Caleb holds his own during the Trek talk later in the movie. I chalk this up as a nitpick.

Ava turns the tables on Caleb, grills him with questions. Be careful, Caleb. Nathan is listening.
Also, learn from this incident. If she can turn the tables on you once…

“You shouldn’t trust anything he says.” Now we have a story.
Of course, everyone in the audience knows Nathan is full of it even before Caleb conducts his first session with Ava, so not much of a surprise.

Hacking the world’s cell phones. A map of how people think. Fascinating!
And frightening!

If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be? Ava chooses a traffic intersection. #PeopleWatching
You’d find Data hanging out on the other side of the intersection, except he’d be engaged in small talk with passersby (TNG’s “Starship Mine”).

Ava plays dress up for Caleb. She looks kinda #PlainJane now.
Darn it! No more “curve” appeal.

“Engage intellect.” The discussion on #JacksonPollock and #
StarTrek is intriguing.
Nathan’s Pollock painting does look like something Data would hang in his quarters.

Ava asks some tough questions for an AI.
Be very wary, young Caleb.

“Ava’s body’s a good one.” Uh, yeah!
The understatement of the year.

Caleb finds the skeletons in Nathan’s closet. #Sexbots
Hopefully there aren’t any minors in the audience since this is a Rated R movie (the fact that I’m bring this up reveals my distrust of parental “wisdom” in bringing younger kids to see such films), but just as a precaution: #FullFrontal.

Ava gives herself a physical upgrade. Thank God she put all the right parts in the right places.

Final analysis: an intriguing premise that asks some important questions about the essence of existence.

3 out of 4. The Shakespearean ending is a miss, but the rest is a salient examination of sentience.

Deus ex machina is a Latin term that means “god from the machine.” The technique, which introduces a new character at the end of a story that swoops in and miraculously solves all of the problems, was employed by playwrights during Greek theater’s nascent period. Over time, the writing device fell out of favor and is now considered a universal no-no. In the new movie, which tellingly leaves out the deus (god) part of the title, we find a twist on the much impugned story device—we know who the agent of change is early on in the story, but how that character plays into the film’s climactic events is very much in question until the very end. The story here isn’t earth-shattering: A wealthy tech mogul lures a bright young computer nerd (under false pretenses) into conducting a Turing test on his latest android, who just happens to look like a supermodel. What works here is the examination—through the eyes of a machine—of what it means to be human. The mental chess match between Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is intriguing, and some complex emotional and psychological subjects are broached, such as: friendship, trust, sexuality and, of course, the essence of sentience. Another successful aspect of the film is its skillful thematic layering: the juxtapositions between the open spaces of the surrounding forest and the cloistered confines of the sterile lab, biological and mechanical beings and even good and bad people are all expertly woven into the movie’s narrative tapestry. The isolation from civilization and claustrophobia inside the compound both serve to enhance the film’s melancholic mood and are symbolic of how each of the characters is, in his/its own way, physically or mentally trapped. Lots of food for thought here, which makes the movie a joy watch. The small cast also suits the static, minimalist story. Each of the performers does fine work, but the lack of star power here (Oscar Isaac isn’t quite a household name yet, but will be come December) is one of the movie’s only drawbacks. The main problem with the film is its ending, which squanders a promising premise and solid setup with a predictable, even telegraphed, resolution that’s right out of Macbeth. In the end, Ex Machina is a stylish, thought provoking sci-fi yarn that should stand the test of time—well, at least until the androids take over and eradicate any trace of human existence.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (PG)

Directed by: John Madden
Starring: Judi Dench
March 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

#MaggieSmith most definitely isn’t getting her kicks on Route 66.
It’s abundantly clear that this scene was written only to generate a laugh. Since the meeting is in San Diego, why didn’t Patel and Smith just fly into the city’s airport rather than driving a convertible across the scorching hot desert?

“Get her some boiling water.” A humorous scene on the proper way to make a cup of tea.

“Why die here...when I can die there?” Quite a sales pitch.
Smith tells Patel to shut up and let her do all the talking during the meeting with David Strathairn. Patel exercises restraint for about 14.3 seconds.

Taxicab Confessions: India Edition.
Or, as the plot soon reveals, Strangers on a Taxi.

Sagai= Engagement Party. Let the drama begin.

“I went with low expectations and came back disappointed.” The eternal pessimist.
Maggie Smith’s line actually sounds like it could’ve been delivered by one of the two old coot critics in The Muppet Show.

“The fastest fox in the forest.” Or, the fastest talker in India.

“There’s just so much bloody potential” in life. And so many frustrating limitations.
Sometimes having too many options is worse than just choosing among a handful of opportunities. Having seemingly unlimited potential might also lead to a kind of ennui that prevents the person from getting anything done in life...the “Jack of All Trades, Master of None” syndrome.

#DevPatel asks his mom to take one for the team. Humorous.
Most women wouldn’t resist such an offer. I mean...we’re talking about Richard Gere here.

The wants and fears monologue is poignant.
One day after watching the movie I don’t really remember what was said here, but I’ll trust my earlier self that this was a great scene.

#DevPatel should’ve learned the choreography. He looks like a doofus on the dance floor.
Actually, that’s still better than what I could do in his place. #TwoLeftFeet.

“Shall we write the next chapter?” That’s when you know you’ve spun a good yarn.

“How much time do you have?” Way to go for the jugular.
A question you should never ask someone over 65.

Death by cow. Amusing.
Of course, there’s cultural relevance here since the train’s passengers would all be placed in harm’s way in order to save a cow…a sacred animal in Indian society.

I don’t do advice...I do opinions.
But if you offer your opinion on how something should be done, isn’t that kinda’ like offering advice, right?

The roots and wings wedding speech is touching.
Especially the script change portion at the end.

“There’s no present like the time.”
A nice play on words, but also a poignant nugget of wisdom. This phrase reminds me of Gandalf’s instruction to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001): “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Final analysis: a natural extension of the first film with some new adventures and characters.
Although I miss Tom Wilkinson from the first film, the addition of Richard Gere, Tamsin Greig and David Strathairn were good casting choices that paid off huge dividends in the film.

2 1/2 out of 4. A cultural and relational journey that was worth the return trip.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) was a crowd-pleasing, life affirming dramedy based on Deborah Moggach’s book of the same name. Most of the principal actors have returned in the sequel (Tom Wilkinson is out, while Richard Gere and David Strathairn are in), and the setting, tone and theme (i.e., making the most of the Golden Years) is fairly consistent with that of its predecessor. So why a sequel? Well, the first film was a modest hit, especially among the AARP set, so there was certainly financial justification for green lighting a sequel. Tapping the scintillating cast (which includes: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, etc) for one more go-round also must’ve seemed like a surefire way to win at the box office. Ultimately, having a built-in audience is the kind of safety net studios, like Fox Searchlight, are greatly desirous of, provided that the majority of that audience is still around to enjoy the sequel (after all, it’s been four years since the release of the first movie). Life imitates art in the follow-up film: just as the title has been established as a recognizable, bankable brand for the film franchise, it’s also inspired a franchise of hotels “stretching across India and beyond” in the world of the story. Sprinkling additional curry into the savory story are subplots involving: engagement/wedding parties (with plenty of Bollywood-style pomp and dancing), a surprise visit by a hotel inspector and a handful of percolating romances, all of which bloom into relationships by movie’s end…just in case we never get another chance to advance the story with this gracefully aging cast. What ailed the first film, i.e., shallow characterizations, uncomplicated plots and a heaping helping of sentimentality, also afflicts the sequel. Conversely, the elements that worked well in the original movie—gorgeous Indian locales, a dazzling cast, a positive, inspirational, meaningful story line—work like a charm here as well. The generation reconciliation between Patel and Smith’s characters, who are co-partners in the hotel franchising venture, is a clever way of keeping young and old viewers engaged throughout the movie. Also, when not preoccupied with sophomoric subplots, the movie effectively presents us with a sometimes humorous, sometimes profound look at what it means to grow old. The straightforward plot is the perfect compliment to the film’s feel good exuberance, and is the antithesis of the typical, dreary old age film like the uber-depressing Amour (2012). When all is said and done, this Second film is tons of fun and has a lot of dignity to go along with its levity. So, will there be a Third film in the series? And will Maggie Smith’s character return? Time will tell. But to be on the safe side, the studio should start production sooner rather than later. With a cast this seasoned, time is of the essence.

Mr. Turner (R)

Directed by: Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall
December 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Mr. Turner
Whenever I think of Spall, I’m reminded of that creepy rodent-man he played in Enchanted (2007). Another decidedly eccentric role.

Opening scene with sunset behind the windmill has a painterly quality.
Something that isn’t lost upon Turner, who sketches the scene as reference for a future painting.

“Do you need anything else?” Dangerous question.
Turner cops a feel. Every man has his needs, I suppose.

Don’t know that I could keep my food down with that hog’s head staring up at me.
Or at the very least I would push it down to the other end of the table and make someone else look at it.

“Remember me” is forgettable the way Mr. Turner sings it. He should stick to painting.
His voice is so awful; it could make a dog go hoarse from howling.

I was expecting a bigger ah-ha from the prism experiment.
An intriguing setup that ends up being a Huh? moment.

Is that crying or travailing?
Turner cries like he’s in labor. It’s a nerve-grating braying.

Turner ruins his masterpiece with a blot of red.
Just to make a mockery out of a fellow painter. Cruel, but not without an element of humor.

The discussion of gooseberries is zzzzzzz...
Whenever I hear the word gooseberries I think of Ergo “the Magnificent” from Krull (1983), a goofy, would-be magician who was fixated on pies filled with the berries.

“A dirty yellow mess.” Turner overhears this rather unflattering critique of his painting.
I just think he ran out of other colors.

Turner is resolved to bequeath his collection...turns down a fortune.
What unassailable integrity. Turner desired his paintings to be enjoyed by the masses not just one rich person. His focus was on posterity, not fiscal security.

“So I am to become a non-entity.” It is appointed to each of us.

Final analysis: a deliberately paced biopic that paints a vivid portrait of the eponymous artist.

3 out of 4 stars. Surely not everyone’s cup of tea, but a gorgeous film by director Mike Leigh.

As a film featuring and focused on fine art, it’s fitting that director Mike Leigh should so deftly capture with a camera the same sumptuous vistas that the titular artist, J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), created with his paintbrush back in the early to mid 1800s. Indeed, Leigh’s landscape shots are framed as photo real representations of the various paintings featured throughout the movie. Many of these tableaus are, in a word, painterly, and serve as the perfect compliment to Turner’s impressionistic, maritime paintings. Visual elements aside, the film is a fascinating character study of its central figure, a man who, as a former member of the Royal Academy of Arts, is regarded as one of Britain’s finest painters from his or any other era. As depicted in the movie, Turner is an eccentric individual whose gruff exterior is tempered only by his heart of gold. Spall’s portrayal is exceptionally nuanced, capturing Turner’s quirks and questionable behaviors in a manner that’s intriguing rather than revolting. As the lead performer in a two and a half hour movie, Spall has a surprising dearth of dialog, and many of his lines are little more than grunts…incomprehensible mumblings that lose in clarity what they gain in personality. Perhaps the highest praise for Spall’s performance is that he makes such an oddball character so sympathetic and, to a greater or lesser extent, relatable. History buffs, art critics and cinephiles will surely fall in love with this movie for its artful depiction of…art. But aside from those special interest groups, a broad swath of this movie’s audience will probably find the film: pretentious, dull, tedious, interminable or all of the above. Indeed, for many those viewers, this movie will be about as exciting as watching paint dry.

McFarland, USA (PG)

Directed by: Niki Caro
Starring: Kevin Costner
February 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

McFarland, USA
From Disney studios? You betcha’!

Costner as a high school football coach. It fits, but I thought this was a cross country movie.
Beware the job ending ricochet.

“Are we in Mexico?” Must’ve taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque.
If you’re not familiar with this reference, you need more Looney Tunes in your life.

Welcome to McFarland. Have a chicken.
The new family pet.

Invisible, expendable kids. Sad.
This is a disheartening indictment on the state of our education system.

“Congratulations, you just made the cross country team.” Ha!
No tryouts necessary. Now go run ten miles.

First meet. Palo Alto. No respect for team “Taco Bell.”
Racism in any form is ugly, but when it’s employed in a taunt it’s like squirting lighter fluid on an open flame. Of course, the team uses the anger from those taunts to fuel their revenge tour all the way to the state finals.

Makeshift course for hill conditioning. “The higher the better.”
The almond mounds serve a double purpose: hills to train on and physical reminders of how it took many hours of hard work from an army of low wage pickers to build them.

Costner must overcome the team’s “picker” mentality.
A rigid pattern of thought that leads to the conviction that things will never change for the better.

The bridge scene is moving.

Costner rides a pink “Barbie” bike. He rode a purple girl’s bike in #ThreeDaysToKill.

“Good race amigo.” Ha!
Paybacks are sweet.

Costner learns how to cut cabbages. Earns respect and the title “coach.”
Note to self: If ever you complain about your job at any point in the future re-watch this scene for a reality check and be grateful for what you have.

“Who’s tougher?” Good pep talk.

“McFarland’s going to state.”
A bit of a spoiler, but you could probably guess this from watching the trailer. Anything less would make this a fairly unremarkable story, yes?

“We’re not the chiefs, we’re the indians.” Sage advice.
A lesson that’s better to learn as a young man than an old one.

Costner’s “superhuman” speech is truly inspiring.

Danny Diaz saves the day. What a moment!
One of the ultimate examples of teamwork I’ve ever seen in film. Goose bump inducing.

Final analysis: an inspirational true story sports movie that hits all of the right emotional notes.
In the theater I attended, the entire audience began applauding when the end credits started to roll. Proof positive.

3 out of 4 stars. A heartwarming and crowd-pleasing film with another tailor made role for Costner.

As sports go, cross country running isn’t one of the more exciting ones to watch. It also isn’t one of the more exciting sports to base a movie on. However, this film is surprisingly watchable thanks, in large part, to its star. Kevin Costner, the undisputed king of sports movies, plays Jim White, a failed football coach who gets a crazy idea to start a cross country program in the small farming community of McFarland, CA. Costner slips into this role as easily as when he puts on his favorite pair of boots: his rugged, Everyman appeal is a huge boon to his portrayal of Coach White. Not only does Costner look the part, but the veracity he brings to the role makes it seem like he really is a high school coach. In fact, Costner’s performance is so convincing and so effortless that the line between performer and character is exceptionally blurred at times: Costner the actor is subsumed into Costner the coach. As easy as it would be to give the lion’s share of the credit to Costner and his screen wife, Maria Bello, it’s really the no-name cast of Hispanic actors who are the heart and soul of the film. What shines through the most in this story is the hardworking and family focused citizens of Small Town, USA. The movie effectively explores how the other, other half lives and serves as a poignant reminder of the humble beginnings many people come from…and the scores more who never get the chance to improve their circumstances in life. The movie is educational; both in how it raises awareness of the lesser-known sport of cross country and in the way it reveals the inner workings of the Latino culture. The movie is also inspirational, depicting the means by which perseverance and teamwork can pave the pathway to success. Though the sports elements, and even the exultation and satisfaction over seeing the team win big, lend the true story its feel-good exuberance, the film attempts to impart something much deeper than just a standard chronicling of yet another high school championship team. The movie takes us back to the basics—dedication, loyalty and community, to name a few. In the final analysis, the biopic aspect is far less compelling than the movie’s subtle reminder of what really matters most in life: keeping the main thing the main thing. It’s a universal challenge that applies to those living in a sprawling metropolis or in McFarland, USA.

Wild (R)

Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallee
Starring: Reese Witherspoon
December 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Or sandals with duct tape. Hiker’s choice.

Loosing a toenail is painful. Loosing a shoe is devastating. Not a promising beginning.
The film does a great job of beginning right in the middle of the action…a tried-and-true guideline for good writing.

Walk a thousand miles? Piece of cake.
I mean, Forrest Gump ran from one coast to the other.

Reese wrestles with her mondo backpack. It has her pinned for a moment, but she prevails in the end. #CloseCall
There comes a point when too much planning is counterproductive.

No wonder Reese’s backpack is as big as she is, she’s lugging around journals and poetry books. #TravelLight
What she really needed was a book on how to pack light. Oops…more space.

Always bring the right fuel.

Divorce tattoos. Hmm. I thought the idea was to move on from the other person not to be constantly reminded of them.
I’ve never heard of this before and it seems a bit ridiculous. But to each his/her own.

Don’t get stuck in a rock crevasse, Reese. Learn from James Franco’s mistake.
She had me worried for a moment. Getting wedged in a rock outcropping would’ve changed the whole tone/theme of the film though. And not for the better.

“Seriously, you have no Snapple in that pack?” Nope, just the kitchen sink.
Actually, her backpack is about the size of a sink.

Pruning time. Lose the library and the...prophylactics? 12 of them? How much action was she expecting on the trail?
I understand that women have expanded awareness (thank you, John Gray) and that they always like to be prepared (like any good Boy Scout), but the inclusion of this item baffles me. Was she planning on humping a cactus? Or worse still…a coyote?

Find your best self.
A tad Hallmark-ish, but a nice reminder/sentiment just the same.

“Here’s to a young girl all alone in the woods.” Reese encounters the most dangerous predator...a horny redneck.
The rattlesnake doesn’t even come close to rivaling this threat.

Queen of the PCT. It’s better than Jane.
PCT = Pacific Crest Trail, locus for the majority of the film’s action. Jane = Tarzan’s mate, referenced earlier in the movie.

The polite boy is adorable.
And has a nice singing voice to boot.

Reese finds forgiveness at the Bridge of the Gods.
Self-forgiveness. The hardest kind to accept.

Final analysis: a well told journey of self-discovery and redemption, with some gorgeous scenery.

3 out of 4. This emotionally, physically demanding role brought out the best in Witherspoon. Wild about it!

The premise here is pretty straightforward: a survival plot with a spiritual journey subplot. Though the progression of incidents makes the story fairly predictable, a few minor twists along the way add variety and intensity to the laser like through line. What breaks up the formulaic narrative is a series of flashbacks which fill in the gaps of Cheryl Strayed’s (Reese Witherspoon) tumultuous life leading up to her fateful decision to set out on a thousand mile schlep across the California desert. If the film has any art, it’s achieved during these dreamlike reflections that pop into Reese’s mind at random intervals during her trek. Wild is based on the book of the same name, which is based on the actual events of the brazen journey Strayed embarked upon in 1995. It’s hard to know if any other actor could’ve portrayed Strayed as effectively, but there can be no doubt that Reese pulls off the part…which is somewhat surprising since, thematically speaking, it’s a million miles away from Legally Blonde (2001). This role is quite a departure from the typical dolled up, good girl part Reese has played in many of her previous movies, so kudos to her for getting in touch with her inner Annie Oakley. Although much of the movie centers on Strayed’s often arduous attempts at negotiating her way through physical and emotional wastelands, she does encounter several people along the way (played by Thomas Sadoski, Gaby Hoffmann, Kevin Rankin and Cliff De Young) who provide her with valuable wisdom and resources. The standout supporting performance comes from Laura Dern, who plays Strayed’s mother, Bobbi. Bobbi’s bright, beaming face belies the inner pain she experiences from her bought with a terminal illness. Though her screen time is limited here, Dern, whose heartfelt portrayal is humbling and inspiring, has garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Perhaps it’s the fish-out-of-water, against type casting, but Reese has also received a nod in the leading female category. All things considered, this film isn’t earth-shattering, but it is gritty, flawed and genuine, much like its central character. Though many of us will never attempt such a challenging journey, we can live vicariously through Strayed’s incredible accomplishment by watching this movie from the comfort of a theater or our own living room. Unless someday we get a wild hair to have a wilderness excursion of our own.

The Theory of Everything (PG-13)

Directed by: James Marsh
Starring: Eddie Redmayne
November 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Theory of Everything

Science meets Arts at a party.
They say opposites attract. Here it’s not only a contrast in field of study but also in political/religious views.

A test to separate the quarks from the quacks. Amusing.
David Thewlis, best know for his portrayal of Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter movies, is a really good journeyman actor and is perfect in the role of Hawking’s professor.

“Celestial dictator.” Hawking’s rather unflattering moniker for the Almighty.
He finds “your lack of faith disturbing.”

“A false conclusion.” True love, however, can never be false.
Proof positive that love isn’t logical or quantifiable. It’s the only thing in the universe that an equation can’t solve. In short, love is the theory of everything. A curious aside: in John Nash’s (Russell Crowe) final speech in A Beautiful Mind (2002), he refers to “the equations of the mind” and credits love as the answer and solution to life’s mysteries. Two brilliant contemporaries arriving at the same conclusion. Fascinating!

Chapter four is “brilliant.” Secures Hawking’s professorship.
Chapters 1-3? Eh.

Need stress relief? Join the church choir.
Hawking’s wife eventually does find relief from her stress…in the arms of the choir director. Scandalous? Look two tweets ahead.

A lesson in pees and potatoes.
Some of the science goes right over my head, but the vacillation of theories regarding divinity is amusing. First Hawking proves the existence of God and then the scientist kills the Almighty. Don’t worry, Stephen, He believes in you even if you don’t believe in Him.

Hawking gives his wife a hall pass.
That was really big of him. Sheesh, I didn’t mean it like that.

A spelling quaint. And crude. What a torturous way to communicate.
Seems like an alphabet chart with a pointer or even a Ouija board would be more efficient.

Hawking slips into a coma...his own personal black hole.

“That is for a friend.” Nice cover.
Oops, I guess that’s a double entendre.

A dot matrix printer. What a blast to the past.
Slow, loud printing. Hard to read. Perforated edges that you had to tear. Don’t miss it at all.

“Look what we made.” Touching.

Final analysis: a bittersweet biopic that deals with personal tragedy and life’s big questions.

3 out of 4. An inspirational tale and an astounding, body-wracking performance by Redmayne.

As a film that focuses on the extraordinary life and career of renowned theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, the story is exactly what you’d expect it to be: a chronological, cause and effect period piece with fine performances and a plot that’s diligently moored to the actual account. Some will consider this middle-of-the-plate approach to be acceptable while others will regard it as inexcusably uncomplicated and lacking in imagination. In either case, the plot is a linear progression of significant moments in the mathematician’s life and, as would be expected, the narrative proceeds in a very logical and methodical manner. Save for Hawking’s occasional mental flash of celestial lucidity, there’s very little style here. Since much of the story focuses on Hawking’s preoccupation with time, it would’ve been effective, even fitting, if the story had employed flashbacks, flash-forward’s, disjointed continuity or other causal devices in reflecting the fluid nature of the movie’s temporal plot. Mind you, I’m not advocating a reverse polarity plot like in Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2001), but maybe something with leaps forward or backward in time like TVs Lost would’ve served the movie in good stead. Standard storytelling choices aside, any serious discussion of the film begins and ends with Eddie Redmayne’s mesmerizing, transcendent portrayal of the ALS afflicted central character...due to the inherent physical demands of the part, Redmayne justly deserves the Oscar nod he’s received for this role. Redmayne’s nuanced, effortless depiction of Hawking’s gradual physical deterioration is a study in brilliance. It’s a performance that exacted a considerable toll from the actor—the contortions required to mimic Hawking’s degenerative condition must’ve been agonizing to model and maintain. Somatic challenges aside, Redmayne’s facials reveal a man who appears to be virtually unaffected by his malady. If this portrayal is accurate, Hawking is far more jovial and enthusiastic about life than most of us would be in his position. The fact that Hawking can still smile at all is truly inspirational. All in all, this is a decent film that’s a fitting tribute to one of the brightest minds of our generation. However, the movie lacks the narrative savvy required to effectively convey its chrono-centric theme. The logic over emotion methodology has resulted in a film that fails to make any deep, lasting connection with its audience. So, will this film go down as one of cinema’s finest biopics? Time will tell.

Birdman (R)

Directed by: Alejandro G Inarritu
Starring: Michael Keaton
November 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Subtitle: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.
Little did I know when I tweeted this phrase that it would appear as a headline later in the movie.

@MichaelKeaton levitating in his underwear is an unexpected first scene. Really sets the tone.
Don’t worry this isn’t the last time you’ll see Keaton in his underwear in the movie.

@ProstateWhispers. Hilarious!
Funny thing is, when I typed it in, some guy had already created that Twitter account. Life imitating art?

“I didn’t even know the man” scene is amusing and beautifully acted.
This is like an entire acting workshop in a five minute exchange. Superb choices by two exceptional actors.

@EdwardNorton brings the cupboard down, but not the house.
Not in the truest sense of the phrase, anyway. His actions do produce hysteria in the audience, but not for being genuinely funny.

“You’re not important. Get used to it.” #EmmaStone delivers one powerhouse monologue.
Stone’s monologue ends up being a direct address to the camera and the intensity in her gaze threatens to burn holes in the screen…and the audience by extension. One thing’s for sure, I’d never want to make her angry.

Truth or dare scene is fun...and revealing.

“I can pretend too.” Ha!
Another phenomenal exchange between Keaton and Norton.

The toilet paper philosophy scene is profound in an offbeat way.
And humorous when Keaton wipes out humanity by absentminded dabbing his face with the double ply square.

Sometimes you have to stop and smell the lilacs.
Or non-smell them in this case. But they still look nice, and it’s the thought that counts.

All that gauze and tape around his nose makes him look like his alter ego.
You can bet this visual symbolism wasn’t just a happy accident.

Final analysis: a meaningful, yet bizarre effort with a behind the scenes,
A Prairie Home Companion vibe.

3 out of 4 stars. An ambitious project with top tier performances and a one-of-a-kind story.

I doubt anyone who’s seen this film would disagree that it’s a true original. Whether or not it’s enjoyable is a matter of opinion. The story itself, which centers on middle-aged Riggan’s (Michael Keaton) attempt at recapturing some of the glories of his early acting career, should be universally understood and appreciated by most folks in the audience. However, the film runs the risk of loosing its audience over whimsical visual elements, i.e., Riggan levitating in his underwear or soaring above the NYC skyline as if he possesses the abilities of the fictitious, titular superhero. The blurred edges of fantasy and reality are painted with fine brushwork by director Alejandro G. Inarritu (Biutiful), but such intermittent departures from reality will undoubtedly prove inspiring for some spectators and irritating for others. There’s an enormous amount of art in the film, which should keep the die-hard cinephiles drooling: there’s also a very Broadway-centric narrative here, which should fill the theater set with elation. To whit, the majority of the movie is filmed inside the expansive area behind the stage, where labyrinthine hallways lend access to the prop, dressing and dining rooms where most of the drama takes place. The action randomly meanders between the various rooms, setting up juicy character vignettes in a similar manner to what Robert Altman achieved in A Prairie Home Companion (2006). Some of the film’s most meaningful moments include: Keaton’s heated exchanges with Emma Stone, his screen daughter; Stone and Edward Norton’s witty banter on the patio; Keaton and Norton as they vie for star status on the show and Keaton’s acerbic conversation with a jaded theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) in a bar. This last scene underscores the antagonistic relationship that often exists between actors and critics—it’s a clash of ideologies with vitriol to spare. Also worth mentioning is the film’s thinly veiled thesis on theater’s ostensible artistic preeminence over commercial films (and TV, etc). The inference here, and it’s been borne out many times by typecast actors, is that an actor who achieves commercial (cinematic) success early in his career might find it difficult to secure serious work in later years. There have been notable exceptions to this notion, like Robert Downey, Jr., who was an established thespian long before he was tapped to play Iron Man (at age 43). A fading public image has vexed many an actor over the decades, and Inarritu takes that mental angst to a fantastical extreme by showing us several glimpses of Riggan’s alter ego—the actual Birdman—who haunts and taunts the aging star’s private musings. Indeed, the often antagonistic or nihilistic voiceover thoughts, which struggle for supremacy over Riggan’s conscious cogitations, are an extremely effective take on the Jekyll/Hyde story device. These dark imaginings pose an intriguing question: Is this whole movie transpiring inside Riggan’s head? If so, is he actually an asylum inmate (as is supposed of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character at the end of Shutter Island) with the movie’s many flights of fancy simply representing the mental mechanizations of a certifiably insane individual? Besides the finely honed characterizations and stylish production, it’s really the multivalent nature of the psychologically complex plot that has ensconced this film in its own creative universe. The story is definitely open to interpretation, as is its appeal.

American Sniper (R)

Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Bradley Cooper
January 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The opening scene is the trailer. Right into the action.

Three types of people. A stern lesson.
Chris Kyle’s dad dispenses this harsh wisdom in order to toughen up his sons. Interestingly, in the early goings of Eastwood’s Jersey Boys (2014), a mentor tells Frankie Valli and his cronies that there’s only three ways out of the neighborhood. Maybe it’s just unfounded numerology, but the similarities between these scenes seemed worthy of highlighting.

She did it to get attention. Any excuse will do, I suppose.
If you’re caught red-handed, just confess. The “you weren’t supposed to be back until tomorrow” excuse is lame to the degree that it’s almost worse than the act of indiscretion.

Playing darts on a guy’s back. These SEALs are tough!
Lots of machismo in this scene. And a fateful night for Kyle, who meets his future wife at the bar.

“The space between heartbeats.” Who knew target practice could be so poetic?

He can’t hit a target, but he can tag a snake.
Reminds me of Paul Hogan’s Lightning Jack (1994), a self-styled Old West outlaw from Down Under who needed glasses to read but could hollow out a coin with a bullet from fifty feet away.

New Olympic sport...sniping.
The addition of the Syrian sniper is one of the film’s main criticisms. Apparently this nemesis is largely fictional, finding inspiration from a solitary chapter in Kyle’s book. However, the addition of a competent counterpart to Kyle ratchets up the tension and provides a de facto villain to the proceedings. The cat and mouse contest between the two top snipers reminds me of the taut action sequences between expert marksmen Jude Law and Ed Harris in Enemy at the Gates (2001).

Nitpick: Despite what the smart Alec says, it is a comic book. Graphic novels are much thicker.
A graphic novel is an expanded story or a collection of loosely related, non-continuous stories. It should be obvious, to anyone who’s ever picked up a comic book, that what the cocky character is holding in his hands is a single issue of a serialized comic book series, not a graphic novel.

“Horny preggers.” Ha!

Clear houses with the marines...takin’ it to the street.
I applaud Kyle’s assertiveness. Instead of just following orders and sitting around, Kyle was instrumental in saving the lives of many Marines while also extracting vital intel with his advanced negotiation/coercion skills.

Neighbor’s lawnmower turns on...the first signs of PTSD.
And speaking of PTSD…

The shell shocked brother scene is sad.

A direct action squad...bold new plan.

Squeaky floor, hidden cache.
So much for the hospitality. Hope the meal was good.

“You saved my life.” Goosebumps.
Cooper’s performance, as a man uncomfortable with accepting praise from others, is thoroughly convincing here.

“You can only circle the flame so long.” Sobering. And prescient?
It looks like that statement was prescient after all, although what ultimately does Kyle in completely took me by surprise.

Zales bites the bullet.
A tragic story line since it looked like he would pull through.

Tour Four: is this a vocation or addiction?
A condition we also saw in The Hurt Locker (2008) when soldiers were shown playing FPS video games on their downtime. Here, Kyle watches video recordings of some of the military operations he was a part of and, even more frighteningly, relives battles in his mind while starring at the black screen of a turned off TV.

“Don’t pick it up” scene is heart-stopping.
This is the ultimate crisis moment in the film. What an awful decision to be faced with. No wonder he had PTSD. Who wouldn’t?

Sandstorm. Visibility nil. How the heck do they know who they’re shooting at?
Talk about the fog of war! These are prime conditions for friendly fire.

“Who’s the legend now?” Ha!
Eastwood lays the “legend” status on pretty thick, especially since I’d never heard of Kyle before watching this film.

Final analysis: a haunting look at conflict in the Middle East and the toll it takes on our soldiers.
And at how little we invest in their lives after they return home.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars. A career turn by Cooper and Eastwood’s finest film in years.
What was Eastwood’s last great movie: Invictus (2009)? Gran Torino (2008)?

For all of the active/retired members of the military reading this, thank you for your service.

How fitting that an actor/director whose name has become synonymous with bullet-riddled actioners over the last half century should helm a movie based on the incredible true story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle. There can be no doubt that this is Clint Eastwood’s finest directorial effort in years and that, when his illustrious career finally comes to an end, this film may very well go down as his behind-the-camera magnum opus. Based on the book of the same name by Jason Hall and Kyle himself, American Sniper follows the exploits of this decorated soldier and his plights on the battlefield and on the home front. Bradley Cooper, in an unequivocally brilliant performance, fully inhabits the title role and imbues Kyle with genuine emotions and reactions to the most stressful, unenviable circumstances imaginable (reference the “Don’t pick it up” scene). Regardless of the location or situation, Cooper eases himself into scenes that require: decisiveness on the front lines, tenderness at home with his family, awkwardness when praised for his heroic accomplishments and startling deftness at picking off enemy combatants in the heat of battle. With appropriate kudos going to the two men who made this film an indelible, inescapable biopic, it’s time to shift focus to the elephant in the room—as you’re probably aware of by now, thanks to media saturation, this film has generated a generous amount of controversy. Other than the fact that there are just as many F bombs dropped as bullets fired in the film, it’s hard to see how anything in this movie can be construed as controversial. Some will argue that the movie glamorizes violence, but in reality it does the exact opposite by depicting the horrors of war and the devastating effects it has on our troops. With all due respect to those who maintain a dissenting viewpoint, and at the sake of fanning the flame of an already incendiary topic, those who assess this film as a pro-war endorsement are completely missing the point. War is hell and its effects on soldiers are often mentally debilitating, as evidenced by Kyle’s severe PTSD in the movie. Despite several protracted battle sequences, which detail some of the major skirmishes Kyle participated in, the film in no way glorifies war. By contrast, the film shows good people getting their faces blown off or innocents being tortured by a drill, examples that underscore the need for our continued participation in ending the reign of terror in the Middle East. Again, I vehemently oppose the notion that this is a pro-war propaganda piece…it’s a brutally honest portrait of one man’s combat experiences and the traumatic effects those four tours of duty had on his psyche and his entire family; as the movie subtly reveals, everyone suffers when the soldier returns home from active duty. It’s a shame that the well advertised controversy, which hangs over the film like an oppressive layer of cloud, has cast an unflattering light upon this superlative film. However, judging from the way this movie has engendered long lines and packed theaters (I was shut out on its opening weekend), the controversy surrounding the film has generated a buzz that’s done wonders for its bottom line. Bottom line, Eastwood and Cooper are worthy of Oscar attention and the story is a potent reminder that freedom is never free. This film will stand the test of time, and with good reason. Parting shot: the extended “moment of silence” during the end credits is sobering and haunting.

Selma (PG-13)

Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo
January 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The movie opens with an unexpected bang. What a senseless act of violence.
And it always seems like it’s the kids who pay the price…sad.

The right to vote unencumbered. No small ask.
Especially in the Deep South in the 60s.

“Dismantle the family.” A cruel strategy.
J. Edgar Hoover isn’t painted in a very favorable light in this film. He was also portrayed very unsympathetically in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar (2011), which is probably one of the reasons why that film didn’t do too well critically or financially.

“Give us the vote” speech is sensational.
In fact, it makes you want to stand up and cheer. But save your applause for MLK’s final rousing speech from the steps of the capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama.

“God was the first to cry for your boy.” Rough scene.
What a powerful sentiment and reassurance for a grieving father. Even when he wasn’t reciting a speech, MLK had a way with words.

MLK takes a long time to answer no. An uncomfortable and telling scene.
And an agonizingly ambiguous scene. But, with as much time as he spent away from home, it’s no wonder why MLK had relational problems with his wife.

The debacle on the bridge is a rough sequence.

March 2.0 with mixed races.
The tide begins to turn. The scene where MLK kneels to pray and the masses behind him follow suit reminds me of when Aragon kneels to pay homage to the hobbits and his entire kingdom kneels behind him in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Note to women: that level of respect is enough to make a grown man cry. Works on me every time.

LBJ strikes down voting restrictions. Victory at last.
Persistence pays off…but at what price?

Footage of the actual march is deeply affecting.
Such archival footage provides authenticity and a profound weight to its historicity.

Final analysis: a deeply moving biopic centered on the landmark march for human rights in Selma, Alabama.

3 out of 4. A difficult film to watch at times, but the uplifting ending makes it a journey worth taking.

This film is riddled with pro/con contradictions. On the plus side we have a story that focuses on an iconic figure from American history at the crux of his most monumental mission to affect a sea change in our country’s civil rights. On the minus side we have a story that focuses on an iconic figure from American history at the crux of his most monumental mission to affect a sea change in our country’s civil rights. In other words, because this story is so familiar to our collective consciousness (MLK’s name should be familiar to every citizen in our country, if only because of the national day named in his honor), the subject matter is easily comprehendible but also entirely too predictable. The movie’s main challenge was how to capitalize on the story’s immediacy and accessibility without making it perfunctory or hackneyed. The results here are a mixed bag. First to what works well in the film. The use of original locations where the actual events took place, accompanied by period appropriate cars, costumes, etc, is a huge boon to the movie; they add the kind of authenticity that’s a prerequisite for quality biopics. Also, the film boasts a dazzling array of top shelf talent, including: Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper, Tom Wilkinson as former U.S. President LBJ, Giovanni Ribisi as Lee White, Common as James Bevel, Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover, Tim Roth as Alabama Governor George Wallace, Stephen Root as Colonel Al Lingo, Cuba Gooding Jr. as Fred Gray and Martin Sheen as judge Frank Minis Johnson (uncredited). Whereas the performers certainly did their part in effectively portraying key figures from the era of civil unrest depicted in the movie, the writing and directing are the more culpable culprits for the film’s underachievement. Director Ava DuVernay’s technique is fairly invisible, which is fairly consistent with the framing methods employed during the mid 60s, but the resulting film has very little visual panache and is somewhat muted and bland—the very antithesis of the period in question. It seems as if DuVernay was so concerned with accuracy and veracity that she eschewed creative impulses at every turn, sacrificing any modicum of style or art in the process. At times, the plot feels like a cause and effect string of the significant events and speeches in MLK’s life. Since these public addresses are mere dramatizations of his original talks, wouldn’t showing clips of MLK’s actual speeches have been more emotional and impactful (and economical)? One of the biggest detractors to the narrative is that it’s so preoccupied with telling a historically accurate tale that it sacrifices character development in every case except for the title character. Other than the scene where MLK’s wife asks him if he loves her, the event-driven plot preempts any kind of heartfelt interactions and, indeed, stays just outside the circumference of genuine, human emotion. Granted, this film isn’t remotely as insipid as a Lifetime special, but it’s a far cry from being a bracing biopic like Argo (2012). Final thought: when I screened the film, I ended up sitting next to two teenage girls in a packed theater. Though they whispered back and forth a few times, the movie seemed to hold their attention the whole way through. This heartened me since there were plenty of other, more age appropriate entertainments in the Cineplex for them to choose from. That they selected this film meant that either their parents/teachers obligated them to go or that they had a genuine interest in learning more about MLK’s amazing life story. If the latter is true, we can find some comfort in knowing that today’s young people still want to learn about history—an encouraging sign since we all know what happens to those who fail to learn from the past.

The Imitation Game (PG-13)

Directed by: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch
December 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Imitation Game

The opening narration admonishes us to “pay attention.”
Thanks to Sherlock, I’ve been conditioned to automatically pay attention whenever Cumberbatch is onscreen.

Cumberbatch is recruited to study the “crooked hand of death.”
Otherwise known as Enigma. If you remember the movie U-571 (2000), their mission was to board a German sub and steal an Enigma device. Hey, maybe the encryption machine Cumberbatch’s team is trying to decipher is the same one from U-571?

“Should we leave the children alone with their new toy?” Ha!

Mission: check twenty million settings in twenty minutes. No problem.
If you’re Data (ST:TNG).

A machine to defeat a machine.
Sounds like a Terminator movie. This concept doesn’t sound like rocket science, but, inexplicably, it was back during WWII. The fact that Turing’s insistence on building/funding a machine was resisted by the military is simply incredible. How shortsighted and…illogical.

Crossword audition is clever.
But the chauvinistic tryout is disappointing. Apparently only men were good at crosswords back then.

Christopher is turned on for the first time.
This was the only child Alan Turing ever had, but what a brainchild. His creation (a rudimentary computer) not only single-handedly shortened the war; it’s changed the course of human evolution.

A rudimentary key word search is devised. Bloody brilliant!

“Turns out that’s the only German you need to know to break Enigma.”
The movie avers that love ended the war, but it was really Germany’s undying allegiance to Hitler that did them in—in more ways than one.

“We’ll have each other’s minds.” Uncommon bravery.
This is an astounding scene. Clarke’s (Knightley) willingness to marry Turing even after he reveals that he’s gay is mind-boggling. Turing knows that a life with him would be unfulfilling and rife with hardship so he pushes Clarke away with a vicious lie. In reality, he loves her too much to consign her to a life of unhappiness with him. It’s a bitter exchange with incisive dialog and superlative acting.

Final analysis: a staggering true story with a tremendous lead performance by Cumberbatch.
Cumberbatch continues to astound with each new part he plays…be it human or dragon.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars. A superb period piece that should garner a great deal of Oscar attention.

As Turing’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) voiceover narration attests, intelligence wins wars…not planes, ships or boots on the ground. Though Imitation resembles neither a traditional, action-packed war film, nor a spy thriller, it’s much more than just a true story about how the Brits subverted the German intelligence apparatus: it’s a bracing character study, a tragic tale of unrequited love, a psychological war film (with only brief glimpses of actual combat) and a true account of how Turing’s machine helped to end the war while ushering in the computer age. A non-action war movie might not sound all that exciting, but thanks to its engaging story and fascinating character interplay, interest never wanes during the two hour drama…a tribute to Graham Moore’s screenplay (based on Andrew Hodges’ book) and Morten Tyldum’s taut direction. Of course, the name and face on the poster is what will attract viewers to this low-key, slow-boil period piece. Due in large part to his work on TVs Sherlock and big screen blockbusters like Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), Cumberbatch has become a household name and is fast becoming one of the finest actors of his generation. If Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock is noticeably ADHD, his turn as Turing more closely resembles someone on the spectrum. The lunch invite scene is uproariously funny and features a spot-on Asperger-ish delivery by Cumberbatch. As for the movie’s romance, Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley are brilliant as mismatched lovers. It’s profoundly sad that the mental compatibility these characters possess doesn’t translate into physical compatibility. This failed romance begs an interesting relational question: is the meeting of minds more important than physical infatuation? Many would respond in the affirmative, and if true, Turing and Clarke had a deep, meaningful love affair in spite of its platonic status. The procedural component of the film drags at times but contains enough unexpected turns to keep the audience engaged. The team of code breakers includes some interesting characters, one of whom has extracurricular allegiances, a subplot that provides the movie with a spot of intrigue. The size, composition and specialties of the group are strikingly similar to the members of the implosion team on WGN America’s Manhattan, a WWII set TV series that chronicles the mad scramble by American scientists to discover a way to split the atom. Though on opposite sides of the pond, Manhattan and Imitation both center on groups of scientists and mathematicians working on top-secret projects to defeat the Nazis amid an oppressive military presence; and both objectives are challenged by unforeseen consequences. The burden of knowledge has rarely been as devastatingly depicted as in this film. Indeed, Enigma becomes a Pandora’s Box of sorts when the code is finally cracked but restraint must be exercised so as to not tip off the Germans that their complex cipher has been decoded. The implications of this ethical dilemma erupt in a scene where one of the young men on Turing’s team, Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), realizes that warning his brother’s ship of an impending German attack would expose their discovery and effectively nullify the years of work that went into breaking the German code. It’s a bitter twist on Star Trek’s “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one” maxim that Peter’s brother must die in order to preserve the secret that can win the war. How ironic that the team was so preoccupied with cracking the code that they failed to consider the implications and ramifications of what that knowledge would bring. Armed with substantial narrative and emotional complexity, this highly intelligent intelligence movie will go down as one of the finest non-war War movies in cinema history. There’s nothing Imitation about the film…it’s one of a kind.

Unbroken (PG-13)

Directed by: Angelina Jolie
Starring: Jack O’Connell
December 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

And co-written by the Coen brothers, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling biography. You’d be hard pressed to find a stranger amalgamation of creative talent on any movie project, much less a historical biopic.

Heavy much for the sneak attack.
Correction: flak. Flack is what I’ll get for misspelling the word.

“Love thine enemy.” An apropos homily for what’s to come.

Run, Louie, run!
With apologies to Forrest. But seriously, this scene reminded me a lot of the early running scenes in Forrest Gump (1994).

Brother’s parting words are profound.
In fact, Louie’s brother has some of the most inspirational lines in the film and is, arguably, the reason why Louie has the mental tenacity to survive his many ordeals.

Certified by Helen Keller. Ha!
Helen Keller jokes are usually made in poor taste, but I couldn’t keep from laughing at this one given the context.

A bump on the raft in the middle of the night. Doesn’t get much more terrifying than that.
I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t get a wink of sleep…in fact, I’m positive.

The barf scene is disgusting. Glad I didn’t see this in 3D.
Lest you grow frustrated searching Fandango for a 3D version of the film, know that I was using hyperbole here. My comment was solely intended as a jest. Still, Jolie didn’t have to film the puke coming straight at the camera…and audience by extension.

Take your pick: a strafing plane or man eating sharks.

Would you rather die on the open seas or be taken to a Japanese internment camp?
There’s a card game with similar hypothetical quandaries, but I’d be willing to bet that this scenario isn’t one of them.

Louis refuses to read a false statement...becomes a human punching bag.
The price of allegiance…and integrity.

The Tokyo Ritz turns out to be a coal barge.
Instead of a chocolate on their pillow they get a lump of coal as their pillow.

Louis lifts a heavy beam over his head...his own personal cross.
In addition to being beaten with a bamboo stick and repeatedly punched in the face, this is yet another parallel between Louis’ sufferings and Christ’s.

Final analysis: a heavy true story that captures the triumph of the human spirit amid tragedy and suffering.

3 out of 4 stars. Not an enjoyable film but an important and inspiring one.

I must admit, when I first learned that this film was directed by Angelina Jolie and co-written by the Coen brothers, I had serious doubts that it would adhere to Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book or, more importantly, honor the extraordinary life of its central personage, Louis Zamperini. I’ve never been happier to have been proven wrong. Jolie’s direction isn’t masterful but it’s very good…perhaps even surprisingly good. Of course, Jolie was supported by some exceptional talent behind the camera, beautiful location work and finely crafted, period appropriate props, sets, costumes and other production elements. The story hews fairly close to Hillenbrand’s novelized biography with a few notable embellishments and exclusions. While the book mentions the survivors catching birds and fish for food, grabbing a shark right out of the water by its tail seems a bit Hollywoodized. One significant omission from the film is that during the Summer Olympic Games in Berlin (1936), Zamperini actually met Hitler, who complimented the runner on his record-shattering final lap of the 5000-meter race. While on the subject of the Olympics, I wish Jolie would’ve spent more time on this aspect of Zamperini’s amazing life journey…it would’ve served as a lighter, happier counterbalance to the bleak and tragic events that dominate the back half of the film. To whit, for those who are disturbed by images of violence, the movie’s torture scenes may be difficult to endure. Though a far cry from torture porn, squeamish spectators are advised to avert their eyes or make a run to the concession counter during the beating scenes. All things considered, Jolie acquitted herself well in her second directorial effort and the story itself, though difficult to watch at times, is undeniably inspirational. It fills me with profound sadness that Zamperini never got to see his life story on the big screen—he passed away on July 2, 2014. This was a true account that deserved to be experienced by a mass audience, so I’m thrilled that it’ll now be immortalized on the big screen for future generations to experience. Your life and legacy are an inspiration to us all, Louie. RIP.

Big Eyes (PG-13)

Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Amy Adams
December 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Big Eyes
No Johnny Depp? No Helena Bonham Carter? Boy, Burton really is turning over a new leaf.

“You’re better than spare change.” Quite a pick up line.
It’s on the opposite end of the spectrum from “You look like a million bucks!”

“You are on the threshold of untold success.” Something tells me Adams’ fortune is about to come true.
Of course, I’ve seen the trailer, so I cheated.

The “Hobo Kids” paintings are all the rage thanks to the altercation reported on the front page.
A surefire way to create a sensation is to couch it in controversy.

Charging for posters of paintings...what a concept.
It was revolutionary for its time, but would be an obvious move by modern marketing (which, of course, would utilize the internet to drive sales).

The grocery store scene is the first traditional Burton flourish in the film.
This scene might weird some people out, but it’s really telling of Adams’ character’s psyche. On the other hand, maybe she’s completely sane and that particular store just happened to be invaded by aliens hailing from the same world as that big eyed nurse seen at the beginning of Star Trek (2009).

S. Cenic. The cat’s out of the bag.
“Scenic” is such an obvious tipoff that I’m surprised nobody in the art world caught it and ousted Walter Keane on the spot…unless this was artistic license taken by Burton in order to preserve the anonymity of the not-so-innocent artist/huckster until late in the film.

Adams works on a “defining statement” for the World’s Fair.
One set of big eyes per painting is manageable, but a throng of such bulging ocular orbs painted on a mural is overkill, right? And a bit creepy?

The “infinity of kitsch” is lambasted in the Times.
Terence Stamp is superb here and really gets in touch with his inner Anton Ego (Ratatouille).

“Eye did it!” The truth comes out.
A clever headline. Puns were more en vogue in the 60s, so it probably got better comedic mileage back then.

The courtroom “choreography” scene is humorous.
It’s the type of buffoonery you’d expect to see in a Looney Tunes short.

The verdict will be based on a paint off. Saw that coming.
The audience can predict the necessity of this scene twenty minutes earlier in the film, but the payoff is still extremely satisfying. The sequence has a very classical Hollywood feel to it.

Final analysis: a superbly crafted true account with tremendous performances and brilliant direction by Burton.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars. Burton has redefined himself as a “serious” director. Who knew?

This is Tim Burton’s most enjoyable film in ages. Perhaps not incidentally, it’s also the least fanciful film he’s helmed in the same span of time. Have Burton’s recent box office bombs forced him into becoming an honest filmmaker? If the quality work he’s turned in here is any indication of his potential to become a dramatic director, one can certainly hope. Without the assistance of his usual thespian crutches—Depp and Bonham Carter—Burton has tapped Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams as his leads and not only was the casting pitch perfect, so are the performances themselves. Adams is extremely adept at generating pathos for her struggling artist single mom and Waltz is masterful at imbuing his deceptive opportunist with enough rakish charm to prevent his character from degenerating into a caricatural villain. Taking nothing away from the superb directing and writing, it’s really the acting that elevates this film above the scores of well crafted biopics. In fact, the performances are so mesmerizing that much of the time we’re completely oblivious to the finely appointed, period appropriate sets, props, costumes and other production elements that effectively transport the viewer back to the 50s and 60s. The attention to detail here is staggering and furnishes the film with a level of authenticity that’s absent from less meticulous, less immersive period pieces. And let’s not forget the film’s most valuable and vital props—the paintings. Some will find them appealing while others will find them creepy, but however you view them, the “big eye” paintings are the film’s focal point and silent co-star…and basis for the title. Burton has always had a yen for bizarre, disproportionate and askew characters, so doing a film about big eyes seems like a natural fit for the director, especially when recalling his walleyed Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland (2010), who could easily be a grownup version of one of the dejected waifs in Margaret Keane’s (Adams) paintings. Not only does Burton like big eyes, it would appear that he also likes the word big itself—this is the third movie he’s directed with that word in its title (1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and 2003’s Big Fish—to cover all the bases Burton should call his next movie Pee-Wee’s Big Eyed Fish). This film is a watershed event in Burton’s career; against all probability, he’s reinvented himself as a director of independent dramas. Burton can always return to his fanciful fantasy film roots if he so desires, but at least he has something to fall back on now if those projects should flounder. That might not mean anything to you, but to the baron of the bizarre, I’m sure it’s a pretty big deal.

Exodus: Gods and Kings (PG-13)

Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Christian Bale
December 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Exodus-Gods and Kings

Reading entrails. Eww. How barbaric.
Kind of a gross scene to start a Biblical epic with, yes? But at least an alien didn’t burst out of the dead bird’s chest!

A clash of swords...a sign of things to come.
The next time their swords clash, Moses will be banished from the kingdom.

The rain of arrows is spectacular. The rest of the battle isn’t bad either.
The confrontation definitely has a LOTR aesthetic and pace to it, but it isn’t nearly as protracted or flashy as the melees in Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films.

Moses visits the viceroy...insists on looking the slaves in the eye.

Moses spares
Breaking Bad’s #AaronPaul from the whip.
Turns out that Paul’s character is named Joshua, the man who eventually succeeds Moses.

Moses learns about his true identity from #SirBenKingsley.
If Kingsley told me my dad was a hippo and my mother was a rhino I’d probably believe him. The man has gravitas.

Moses looses one horse but gets two more.
It’s almost as if someone up there is looking out for him. Of course, Moses had to slay two assassins in order to acquire the steeds. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, I suppose.

Moses answers the three questions correctly and gets to “proceed.”
Most men would die to have such an easy path to pleasure. Just my luck, but whenever I try playing that game it always ends up being twenty questions.

The burning bush sequence is very different, but very effective.
If there’s any scene in the movie that will spark controversy, this is it. Moses’ mud bath and chat with a young boy is way out in left field compared to a traditional interpretation of the burning bush event in the Bible.

Moses returns to Memphis...not the one in Tennessee.
The locals say it’s nice this time of year, but maybe they’re just in d’Nile. Yuk, yuk.

Ramesses watches his boats set ablaze by flaming arrows. A brilliant visual.
These minor acts of rebellion are but pinpricks to the mighty Pharaoh. However, where human agency ends, God’s might begins. Prepare for the twelve plagues.

Hmm...I never knew that crocodiles initiated the plagues.
However, this feeding frenzy is a spectacular feat of CG wizardry…and is also pretty gruesome.

Darkness falls over the city like an ashen shroud. Then the cries of terror ascend. Spine-tingling!
Ironically, this “angel of death” visual is far less elaborate, from an FX standpoint, than the ones in many of the earlier Moses films. Though low-tech and fairly simple to achieve, this sequence is highly effective.

The chariot pileup is awesome.
You just knew Ramesses’ hubris would lead to this end. But it’s still a spectacular cataclysm.

Tornadoes and tsunamis...oh my!
I couldn’t think of a third “T” word, but you get the point.

“They’re my people.” Goosebumps.
Actually, they’re God’s people but since it’s such a great line, and because the actor moonlights as Batman, we’ll let it slide.

Final analysis: a reverent treatment of the Biblical account with minor deviations from the text.

3 out of 4. Though more epic in scale, it still lacks the heart, and faith, of DeMille’s version.

Though not as blatantly sacrilegious as Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014), Ridley Scott’s rendition of the exodus saga takes occasional liberties with the sacred text which will, undoubtedly, create a great deal of controversy among theological fundamentalists. There doesn’t seem to be a happy medium with these big screen Bible features—they’re either poorly produced but theologically accurate or lavishly produced but brimming with questionable creative departures or outright heretical story elements. In Exodus, you can tell that Scott’s intentions were to evince the appropriate degree of reverence toward the source material while making art with some selected story elements. Unfortunately, the results are a mixed bag. The major action sequences look like they were storyboarded by Peter Jackson or Steven Spielberg, which is to say they look amazing but are better suited to a blockbuster adventure film than a historical epic. Some of the movie’s major narrative turning points are radically different from what appears in the Bible; chief among them is the head-scratching burning bush episode. Still, the plagues play out pretty much as you’d expect them to (except for the croc crock) and the “death angel” scene stands out as a prime example of how, when it comes to FX, sometimes less is more. Just like in Noah (see my review) however, the divine is often explained away by human reasoning here: the “scientific” explanation of the plagues, the receding of the sea (with the addition of tornadoes just because they look really cool), etc. The characterization of Moses has also been altered for wider appeal since listening to Bale stutter his way through two and a half hours of dialog would’ve been a major detractor to the story’s enjoyment. Bale’s Moses is decisive, confident and heroic: the real Moses struggled to exhibit any of the above attributes and, as a result, had to rely upon God for his strength…which is a major point of emphasis throughout his character arc. As flawed as the patriarch’s portrayal is, Scott’s depiction of the Almighty is downright disturbing. Scott consistently paints God as an angry tyrant. Worse still, this God is revealed as a warmonger when He expresses how pathetically ineffective Moses’ acts of sedition have been and how more aggressive, i.e., supernatural, measures are required in order to bring the evil Pharaoh to his knees. Is this really Scott’s perception of God? If so, it certainly explains the movie’s authoritarian portrait of the Big Guy (Boy?) Upstairs. The forging of the Ten Commandments was a visual extravaganza in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 masterpiece, but, for whatever reason, Scott chose to eschew FX during this dramatic passage—the low key scene sees Moses chiseling the tablets himself while the mental apparition of God stands around and bickers with him. Judging by this scene, it would appear that Scott’s God is also a micromanaging taskmaster (or is just plain lazy). In the end, this film will go down as an entertaining examination of this exilic event, but it certainly won’t be esteemed as a faithful adaptation of the Biblical account. However, Exodus is an updated cinematic spectacle with modern visual effects and big name stars, so it serves its purpose as a sensational, yet superficial, survey of this standout Sunday school story.

Nightcrawler (R)

Directed by: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal
October 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Gyllenhaal creates his own job as a freelancer.
After striking out with two potential employers, Gyllenhaal decides to take matters into his own hands and forge his own job description.

Gyllenhaal sees his “graphic” shooting clip on the news.
A monster is created. The chance to become famous for filming gruesome images at accident sites is like crack cocaine to Gyllenhaal’s narcissistic opportunist.

Gyllenhaal arrives late to a structure fire thanks to the ineptitude of his new intern.
Don’t worry, Gyllenhaal will get him back later in the film. And how!

Now that’s a significant upgrade in vehicles.
Though, it’s not very inconspicuous is it? In the scene where Gyllenhaal flees the scene of the shooting, wouldn’t his flashy sports car draw the attention of cops responding to the emergency? As a getaway car, his original beater would’ve been better suited for flying under the radar…plus, with the way Gyllenhaal drives, why would you risk crashing that beautiful new vehicle?

Gyllenhaal “sets the scene” at a car accident.
Clearly he never took a first aid course, because you never move an injured individual at an accident site for fear of creating or exacerbating a neck injury.

“A friend is a gift you give yourself.” Creepy!

Gyllenhaal films the accident he created. Now that’s cold.
Poor Bill Paxton didn’t know he was dealing with a nut job when he offered to partner with Gyllenhaal. Side note: Paxton played another adrenalin junkie in Twister (1996). However, the risk here is probably a little less and the pay is probably far better. It would be funny if this was an older version of the same character, who decided to settle down and get a respectable job after having his fill of chasing tornadoes.

Capturing a shooting in progress. Now that’s an exclusive.
This is a very grizzly sequence, especially in its original, non-blurred format. This sequence puts Gyllenhaal’s character on the map and also explodes the movie’s theme of ethics in media.

Gyllenhaal sets up his own exclusive. A dangerous game.
He uses cops as pawns in a scene that he’s created for his own amusement and professional advancement. Frightening!

Filming a high speed chase from right behind the pursuing cop car. Crazy!
You know this will be the next kick for those who like to live their life on the edge. Chasing tornadoes was so 90s.

Withholding information…minor detail.

Final analysis: a telling, salient story of media sensationalism gone awry.

3 out of 4. A disturbing portrait of a troubled soul who finds his niche by capturing the shocking.

“If it bleeds, it leads,” Bill Paxton’s character says as he walks, no…swaggers, away from the scene of an accident with video camera in tow, brushing right past Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s late to the scene. Too late, it turns out, to sell his footage to a news station, because when it comes to independent footage, as with life itself, the early bird gets the worm. Conversely, I suppose the late bird gets the night crawler. Appropriately, that’s the name (nightcrawler) for these thrill-seeking freelancers who listen to police scanners and try to beat emergency vehicles to the scene of an accident in order to provide (for a price) local news affiliates with exclusive footage of the catastrophe. As if that premise wasn’t intriguing enough, the movie boasts a compelling character study and some searing commentary on the condition of our society. Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of a nightcrawler named Lou Bloom is undeniably brilliant—Bloom is a bundle of quirks and neuroses rather than just one idiosyncratic behavior, which seems to be all the rage in entertainment these days…especially on TV. To whit: Tony Shalhoub made the titular obsessive-compulsive detective famous on Monk, Claire Danes continues to astound as a bipolar CIA agent on Homeland and young Max Burkholder is masterful in his depiction of a preteen with Aspergers on Parenthood. The list goes on and on, but these clear-cut characters with easily diagnosable psychiatric conditions (even for a layman) often lead to predictable or caricatural enactments since the personality traits exhibited by such people are so distinctive and well-defined. Again, Gyllenhaal’s nuanced performance is utterly captivating because it adroitly avoids the obvious “Hey, guys, I’m playing an egomaniacal sociopath” telegraphing that frequently accompanies roles where attention is drawn to a character’s mental challenge or affliction. Acting aside, writer/director Dan Gilroy and cinematographer Robert Elswit do a superb job of capturing the distinctive look and mood of L.A., particularly during the night scenes. In many ways, Gilroy’s framing choices remind me of those in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), another nocturnal neo-noir that featured a generous portion of pulse-pounding racing through the city’s main arteries and side streets. As in Drive, the City of Angels serves as an additional, non-corporeal character in this film. I won’t belabor the movie’s not-so-subtle treatise on the current state of the news, but its message of morality (or lack thereof) in media is poignant, especially in light of the fact that many traditional news outlets have resorted to sensationalizing stories in order to compete with social media and online news sources. Sad to say, but traditional news just can’t satiate the appetite of a society that’s incessantly and exponentially drawn to the extreme, graphic and profane (all of which are shamelessly showcased and promulgated by YouTube videos, reality/late night/political commentary TV shows, etc) more than actual vetted and sourced journalism. At the time of this writing, HBO’s superb drama, The Newsroom, will air its final episode this weekend after three abbreviated seasons. As a show about a fictitious news network, The Newsroom never found a large enough audience to sustain a lengthy run, which is a profound disappointment since Aaron Sorkin’s topical, whip-smart drama is top shelf TV and deserved a better reception and fate than what it received. The characters on the show often express frustration over the fact that true journalism is being rapidly replaced by hack-on-a-corner reporting...after all, any idiot with a cell phone can capture or create the news these days. The grim reality we now face is that experienced and informed news anchors like The Newsroom’s Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) are becoming an endangered species, thanks to the Lou Bloom’s of the world. In a very real sense, these Joe Camcorders and late night creepers are holding the medium hostage. It’s enough to make your skin crawl.

Fury (R)

Directed by: David Ayer
Starring: Brad Pitt
October 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Pitt rides into tank hell.
This opening sequence reminds me of Sybok cantering through the desert straight toward the camera at the outset of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989). Obviously the setting (and planet) is completely different here, but the shots themselves are close cousins.

Fury rolls into camp.
They’re greeted with vacant stares. Not much of a hero’s welcome.

A trope of war movies is the new his name in Norman.
The presence of Michael Pena is another war movie convention; the inclusion of at least one minority on the team.

Don’t touch Shia’s ‘stache.
I don’t begrudge him his defensiveness. After all, it probably took him a year to grow.

Why do fired bullets look like laser beams here?
Not much to add to this, but at times I thought I was watching a Star Wars movie.

Norman is faced with a “simple math” equation. Not so easy to carry out.

Norman is multi-talented: he plays piano, reads palms and is quite the ladies man.
That last one is a bit of a euphemism.

How to ruin a perfectly good egg breakfast.
Yeah, unless I was starving, I wouldn’t eat licked eggs.

Tank dogfight is intense.
Dogfight is typically used for one-on-one plane battles, though. Guess the word I should’ve used is…bullfight?

Pitt’s dogged directive: “Hold this crossroads!”
Two tweets in a row with the word “dog” in them. Woof!

Shia quotes scripture: “Here am I, send me.”
However, he also takes the Lord’s name in vain. Wonder if he knows the one about the impossibility of fresh and salt water flowing from the same fountain (James 3:11)? (Not to mention the third commandment as set forth in Exodus 20:7).

One tank versus an army. Never tell me the odds.
This battle certainly illustrates how a tank can function as a mini-fortress.

The final, high angle shot of the corpse riddled crossroads is horrific.
Although, I actually would’ve expanded the shot out even further, but the point was made, I suppose.

Final analysis: a standard issue war story that evokes a strong sense of time and place.

2 1/2 out of 4 stars. A decent war tale, but even Pitt can’t lift the standard story out of the mud.

This certainly isn’t the first tank-centric WWII movie ever made—Sahara (1943), The Desert Fox (1951) and Lebanon (2009) to name three right off the top of my head), nor is it the most original. What is new here are the modern battle sequences which feature rockets and bullets whizzing by like laser beams in a sci-fi shootout. I have no way of knowing if these seemingly anachronistic visuals are accurate or not (I wasn’t there), but I’ve never seen this kind of special effect in any other war movie. As incredulous as it sounds, tanks firing laser beams is the least of this movie’s problems. Relying heavily upon war movie conventions and offering little that hasn’t been seen and done a hundred times before in WWII bloodbaths severely hobbles this film…like a tank that’s thrown a tread. Aside from a few reasonably suspenseful battle scenes and the climactic standoff, there’s really little to recommend the movie, other than the notable cast and high end production values. There’s a standout scene right in the middle of the movie when the tank officers invade the home of two German women. The reprehensible behaviors exhibited by the soldiers (Shia LaBeouf, The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal and Gracepoint’s Michael Pena) during this scene makes us loose all respect for them; so much so that when the final conflict arrives, we really don’t care if they live or die…it’s extremely difficult to emotionally invest in unsympathetic characters. In the end, Pitt, the new guy (Logan Lerman) and the tank itself are about the only things we have any kind of affinity for in the movie, and that really isn’t enough to justify shelling over a ten spot, two singles and a pair of quarters for (current ticket price in the OC). Is Fury a decent WWII flick? Sure. Is it worthy of inclusion into the War Movie Hall of Fame? Not even remotely. Let’s face it, without Pitt’s presence this movie would’ve tanked.

The Skeleton Twins (R)

Directed by: Craig Johnson
Starring: Kristen Wiig
September 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Skeleton Twins

One suicide attempt averts another.
This is a fascinating sibling (psychic?) connection…that they would be suicidal at the same exact moment.

The #MarleyAndMe scene is humorous.

Wilson’s commentary on “land mines” is graphic but apropos.
I’m sure every married man can identify with Luke Wilson’s comment. If you can’t admit it, you’re even more emasculated than you realize.

The siblings share secrets...a revealing scene.

Superb acting on the lip sync scene. A lot of fun.
It’s actually a bit frightening how well Wiig and Hader mouth the words to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” Lots of rehearsal time or are they just freaks of nature at lip syncing?

“It turns out that I’m the one who peaked in high school.” Moving scene.
This is a really poignant moment of self-reflection, and one that’s sure to resonate with anyone facing middle age with nothing to show for their life but wishful thinking and waylaid dreams.

Final analysis: some amusing moments, but a far heavier story than the trailer intimated.

2 1/2 out of 4. One of the finest brother/sister movies that’s come along in quite some time.

It really grieves me that I can’t give this movie a higher rating, particularly because of its exceptionally fine portrayals—Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader and Luke Wilson are all terrific in the movie. However, due to its unremarkable script, I just can’t justify a bump in my rating for this film. It’s not that the screenplay is awful, because that certainly isn’t the case. The story contains some decent dialog and several really good character moments, including the hilarious lip sync sequence and the humorous scenes in the dentist office. However, as a whole, the script, written by Mark Heyman and director Craig Johnson, is conventional and predictable…and only occasionally comical. An aggregate of well written and acted vignettes, the story never looses its entertainment value, and yet, as a whole, it fails to live up to the quirky, cutting-edge dramedy promised in the trailer. That unfulfilled promise to the audience could be a major impediment to the film’s success, especially since many viewers will expect to see similar antics to the ones Wiig and Hader regularly perpetrated on Saturday Night Live—although their chemistry from working with each other over the years is glaringly evident here. Another reason the movie might have a hard time winning over audiences is its identity crisis. The term dramedy was coined to define movies that contain a good mixture of dramatic and comedic elements. Although this film has several amusing scenes, the dramatic beats (consisting of suicide attempts, marital infidelity and a sex with minors back story) frequently overshadow the sporadic moments of levity, effectively throwing a pall over what otherwise could’ve been a feel-good flick. In fact, an honest appraisal of the film reveals an approximate ratio of 70% drama to 30% comedy, which is a radical reversal from the lighthearted romp depicted in the disingenuous trailer. Ultimately, the movie’s Achilles heel is its unsympathetic characters. We really want to root for these people, because they’re genuinely likable, but the story works overtime to make us loose our affinity and respect for them due to their irksome insistence on making poor choices. In the end, it’s just a shame that the cast didn’t get a more solid assist from the screenplay because the performances are truly remarkable, especially the ones turned in by screen siblings Wiig and Hader. Even though observing the interactions between these two stars is a treat all by itself, the movie would’ve been a veritable feast had it employed a story with more meat on the bone.

A Walk Among the Tombstones (R)

Directed by: Scott Frank
Starring: Liam Neeson
September 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

A Walk Among the Tombstones
Not quite, since this movie is significantly darker than the Taken films and since it involves absolutely no abductions.

Two shots before a shootout.
Drinking and driving is bad enough, but shooting while sauced seldom ends well.

Neeson turns down a job and gets his eight year chip.
A win/win. However, if things ended right here, we’d have a pretty short movie.

An elaborate back story for Neeson’s new case. I smell a setup.
The man who hires Neeson is played by Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey. Another DA star, Michelle Dockery, appeared with Neeson earlier this year in Non-Stop.

Neeson takes the titular walk. Meets the creepy groundskeeper.
Played by Olafur Darri Olafsson (of course it wasn’t fun to type). He looks like the destitute, mentally challenged child of Kevin Page, Bum from Dallas (2012).

Neeson tails a POI and is tailed.

No East Village Plumbing. No surprise.

The punch through the glass is awesome.
One of the coolest scenes in the movie.

The 12 steps narrated over the firefight makes for a unique sequence.
There’s definitely some art here, especially the sobering voice over and freeze frame techniques.

Final analysis: a deliberately paced thriller with an understated but effective turn by Neeson.

2 1/2 out of 4. A tale of redemption that’s worthwhile if only for Neeson’s performance.

The most compelling screen heroes have always been the ones beset by some kind of mental or physical flaw…the more severe or debilitating the flaw is, the greater the exultation is at the end of the movie when the protagonist overcomes his limitations, defeats the villain and saves the day. Here, Liam Neeson’s former cop/present private detective is a recovering alcoholic—his problem affected his on-the-job performance which led to his swift departure from the force. The pivotal incident in Neeson’s past serves as opening prologue and intermittent back story, delivered in a series of stylized flashbacks, and is the movie’s spine, or, more appropriately, its heart. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is standard B-grade thriller fare. The case Neeson accepts is similar (though, admittedly, more graphic) to the plethora of conventional crime plots featured on the ubiquitous network TV procedurals. Other than the movie’s star, the rest of the performers, though well-suited to their roles in most cases, fail to exhibit big screen chops. This should come as no surprise since many of the supporting players here have spent a significant portion of their careers making a name for themselves on the small screen: Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) and David Harbour (Manhattan) to name just a couple. One aspect of the film that works particularly well is the soiled and seedy NYC locations that serve as immersive backdrop and locus of action throughout the film…the foreboding cemetery, panoramic rooftop, well-appointed or ramshackle residences and even the sparsely populated municipal library are all used to great effect in making this modestly budgeted film seem a bit more prestigious. Credit director Scott Frank with adding visual variety and visceral verve to the handful of action sequences, particularly the poetic, climactic shootout (see above). All things considered, Tombstones isn’t a stellar thriller, but it’s unique in its own right and has much to recommend it. At the very least, this film should tide us over until Tak3n.

The Judge (R)

Directed by: David Dobkin
Starring: Robert Downey Jr.
October 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Judge

“Nothing changes.” Welcome to Small Town, USA.
I’ve lived in plenty small towns growing up and can attest to the above statement.

“Yeah” is not an appropriate affirmation for the court.
Nor anywhere else for that matter. It’s the lazy man’s yes.

Firefly bar non-fight. “Get counseling.”
However, even with the law on my side, I still don’t know that I’d tempt, by incessant browbeating, such lowlifes into throwing a punch at me. I guess such natural, rational, fears fail to register if you’re Iron Man.

“Narrate this!” Ha!

Billy Bob Thornton is the prosecutor. Uh-oh!
After watching his cold, calculating portrayal of a hit man in Fargo, I just don’t think I’d want to take him on, even though his character here is on the right side of the law.

Jury selection is humorous.

Fixing the sink. Nice cover.
Just think how awkward and uncomfortable this scene must have been to film for both men; hours of standing in a tub, au naturel in Duvall’s case. With this particular scene in mind, among many others to validate consideration, Oscar nominations for both actors seem all but assured. To withhold such recognition would be utterly absurd.

First driving lesson...a special scene.

Double hurl. Nasty!
Just another reason why you should never walk on the grass.

“I choose you.” Touching moment.
The best father/son reconciliation scene I’ve seen since Chris Cooper shows up at Jake Gyllenhaal’s rocket launch at the end of October Sky (1999).

Final analysis: a slowly-paced but meaningful father/son drama with powerhouse performances.

3 out of 4. This movie represents a new career watermark for Downey Jr and Duvall. That’s my verdict.

As a patchwork of conventional narrative elements—estranged father and son (Ordinary People, Parenthood), Big City success story returning to country roots (Sweet Home Alabama, The Fighting Temptations) and the stress and strife surrounding a funeral (Elizabethtown, Death at a Funeral)—there’s nothing earth-shattering about this story. However, the run-of-the-mill material is elevated by the superlative lead performances by Downey Jr. and Duvall; in fact, the air in the theater is filled with static electricity every time they have a scene together. Their onscreen chemistry is undeniable, and you can just tell that working together brought out the finest efforts from both stars. Also buttressing the movie’s standard screenplay is a raft of fine supporting players, including: Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard and Leighton Meester. The location work for Carlinville, Indiana (extensively shot in Massachusetts) is also exceptional and serves as an appropriate, all-American backdrop for the movie’s rather unusual court case. As for the courtroom scenes, they’re judiciously shot and, fortunately, never completely upstage the film’s familial frictions or relational revelations that surface at the most unexpected and least opportune moments. There are plenty of solid scenes in the movie, like: Strong’s home movies, Downey’s late night break-in to Farmiga’s bar and the heart melting scene when Duvall meets his granddaughter (Emma Tremblay) for the first time. Ultimately, though, the movie is held together by Downey and Duvall’s shared scenes, especially the ones where they just go at it like two bare fisted brawlers in a grudge match. The movie would’ve been just another middling family drama, like the ones frequently featured on Lifetime, were it not for the powerful presence of these megastars in career defining turns. Although the film’s length and pacing may be a deterrent for some audience members, this movie will probably satisfy those who enjoy well-acted dramas. You be the judge.

Hector and the Search for Happiness (R)

Directed by: Peter Chelsom
Starring: Simon Pegg
September 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Hector and the Search for Happiness

Dogs don’t fly, Simon.
Don’t worry...the dog wasn’t hurt in the process of filming.

Two movies with Rosamund Pike in as many days.
As you can tell from my previous blog entry, I had just seen Gone Girl the night before watching this film.

“Cut the rope, Tintin.” Pegg goes off on a patient.
The Tintin reference reveals Hector’s status as a grown-up boy (a psychic patient of Hector’s actually sees him as a boy), but also prefigures his globetrotting adventures later in the movie.

Bumped up to business class. Down or memory foam?
I was bumped up to first class once on a very long flight overseas. There’s really nothing like it.

The mirror image inkblot for #4 is humorous.
This definitely reveals the id of the male gender. It’s the classic “Why have one when you can have two?” mentality.

Hector looses the scent of happiness atop a serene mountain.
Other than the arctic air, I definitely think I could be happy there for a while…jaw-dropping vistas.

#8 is vital...answer your calling.
Fulfillment is all about finding purpose in life. Actually, the quote at the top of The Equalizer (see my review) ties in rather nicely with this sentiment.

Must admit, I’ve never been successful at implementing #13.
I derive fun from watching movies and very short list of other activities. I know…I need to make an appointment to see Hector stat.

“Listening is loving.” A powerful principle and an emotionally impactful scene.
The sequence on the plane is the heart of the film, and is also the answer to the perplexing question Hector has pursued throughout the movie.

“Mothering with an S.” Ha!

“Emotionally squeamish.” Ouch!
Those who know us best can hurt us the most.

Final analysis: a journey of personal discovery marked by humorous and meaningful moments.

2 1/2 out of 4. Not the comedy portrayed in the trailer but a feel-good flick.

Bored with the sameness of life, Hector (Pegg) embarks on a globetrotting journey to find that most elusive of emotions…Ah-penis (easily the funniest scene in the movie). As a respected psychiatrist dating a fetching woman (Rosamund Pike), Hector really has it all…and yet, his life is devoid of the titular element. Those who don’t have an attractive partner or a high paying job may find it hard to sympathize with Hector’s ennui, while others in a similar stage/station of life will readily identify with his plight. In many respects, Hector follows the same general trajectory and itinerary that Julia Roberts’ character did in Eat Pray Love (2010). This movie also mirrors last year’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which starred Ben Stiller. Mitty and Hector both feature characters mired in the doldrums of existence and in desperate need of relief from the daily routine. Both men are entering middle age, both keep fairly rigid schedules and both find fulfillment and inspiration only after leaving their familiar surroundings and embarking on a transcontinental adventure. In Mitty, the goal is to find a missing photograph, while this movie’s objective is the apprehension of happiness. The end result of both movies is that the central male characters discover who they really are by escaping from their lives for a short season. If that premise sounds somewhat familiar, and formulaic, it is. Unfortunately, this film adds insult to injury with its predictable plot (the narrative has little character complexity and is told in a straightforward manner) and contrived subplots (Hector does a favor for a tyrant, played by Jean Reno, which pays off dividends later in the film, and the utterly inane brain mapping storyline that even Christopher Plummer’s fine cameo can’t salvage). The biggest drawback here is that the movie was billed as a comedy and is sure to disappoint those jonesing for a light-hearted romp with resident funny-man Pegg. That’s not to say the film doesn’t try its hand at levity; the above double entendre stands out as a chief example. However, Hector, who we’re supposed to take seriously, is portrayed as a klutz, bumping into and breaking everything that isn’t nailed down in feats of physical comedy that would make The Three Stooges envious. After the third or fourth occurrence, however, these pratfalls just aren’t funny anymore. This film is amusing and heartwarming, but not necessarily exciting. In the end, Hector finds happiness in the film, but will the audience?

Gone Girl (R)

Directed by: David Fincher
Starring: Ben Affleck
October 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Gone Girl

Primal questions. Yikes!
If this is really the description of a quotidian relationship, is there any wonder why 50% of all marriages end in divorce?

Villainous chin. First warning sign?
But what exactly constitutes a villainous chin? Long and pointed like Vincent Price’s? Rugged and rounded like Ray Liotta’s? Not sure Affleck’s chin qualifies as villainous by any standard.

A sugar storm and the first kiss.
This is a nice moment, but it’s robbed of any joy or elation since we’re already aware of the relationship’s trajectory.

Who let the cat out?
Ooo…ooo, ooo, ooo!

“We have our first clue.” Ha!
This is a much needed bit of levity to break up the tension. Also, the envelope clues us into the antagonist’s superior confidence in self and utter lack of respect for the abilities and intelligence of the detectives investigating the missing person’s case. Is this a press conference or marketing blitz?
When you really stop to think about it, the true villains in the movie are Amy’s parents since they’ve gotten rich off of turning their daughter’s image and identity into a brand.

“Everything else is just background noise” works for a season...a short one.
You can only ride the waves of good intentions for so long in a relationship before the swelling emotional tsunami comes crashing down and takes you under.

Ambush at the vigil.

“Does Missouri have the death penalty?” Chilling.
Affleck’s character is a really poor chess player in the movie…he’s consistently two moves behind the person who’s framing him.

Gummy bear toss. Creating a sympathetic public image.
Make it gummy worms and I’ll commit all kinds of mistakes on purpose.

A convenient end note, but enough evidence to convict?

Miracle on the Mississippi...nice spin.
As the legal gun-for-hire, who’s amused rather than distressed by the case’s unexpected turns, Tyler Perry is exceptional in his supporting role.

Final analysis: an incisively smart & subversive missing person mystery with more twists than a roller coaster.

Affleck is convincing, but Pike is creepy good in a role that will have people talking for quite some time.
A lot of hubbub has been made about Affleck’s acting here, and while his performance is solid, it pales in comparison to Pike’s mesmerizing turn as a cold, calculating wife armed with a master plan for how to destroy her husband.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars. Fincher’s direction is superb and the screenplay was written by Flynn herself.

There was never any doubt that the writing for Gone Girl would be top notch since the source material was adapted by its author, Gillian Flynn. Enlisting David Fincher (The Social Network) to direct was a canny choice as was tapping top talent in Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike for the movie’s two central roles. Having all of the right ingredients doesn’t always translate into a successful movie (Waterworld) but, fortunately, the law of averages worked out in this film’s favor. The story of a philandering husband being accused of killing his wife has been done countless times throughout the history of cinema, but this movie’s unique set of circumstances and frequent red herrings, left turns or U-turns keeps the audience engaged right up until the bitter end; a resolution that’s created a great deal of controversy, especially for the scores of people who’ve read the book (I, unfortunately, cannot be counted among their ranks since I chose to read The Maze Runner instead—a grievous choice). Even though the story is methodical and procedural, we never lose interest thanks to Flynn’s diligently measured dialog and finely chiseled characters; all of which are well-rounded and many of which possess modulating or murky or motivations. As a deconstruction of the modern marriage, the film has plenty to say about the problems and pressures contemporary couples face. The scheming, controlling woman paired with a weak willed, low ambition, highly emasculated man is certainly telling of a societal trend that’s been steadily, if not exponentially, escalating since the Mr. Mom 80s. As such, is the movie making commentary on how tradi