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

Unsung Hero (PG)

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Directed by: Richard L. Ramsey, Joel Smallbone
Starring: Daisy Betts
April 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!


David Smallbone (Joel Smallbone), an Australian music promoter, has had some success in bringing contemporary Christian bands from America to the land Down Under in the late 80s. Despite sound advice to the contrary, David turns down a “lesser act,” DeGarmo & Key, and signs a major deal to bring over emerging superstar Amy Grant for an extensive concert tour.

Then the nation suffers an economic downturn, resulting in Grant performing for crowds of hundreds rather than thousands. Since David’s name appears on the contract, he ends up losing his job and foreclosing on his beautiful home.

In an act of desperation, David takes a job in America and moves his wife, Helen (Daisy Betts), and six kids (with one in the oven) to Nashville, TN. Showing up to work on the first day, David learns that his position was given to someone else. Since his work visa prohibits him from getting another job, David resorts to doing landscaping work for cash with his older kids just to afford their unfurnished house. When David solicits work at a nearby mansion, guess who opens the door? Yep, you guessed it…Eddie DeGarmo!

Right off the bat, the movie gives us a poignant lesson in the dangers of pride. David considered it beneath him to bring DeGarmo’s band over to his country. Now he’s in DeGarmo’s country scrubbing his toilet bowl. How the mighty have fallen.

Pride rears its ugly head when David is shamed by generous neighbors and fellow churchgoers. He pushes them away right when his family needs them most, when child #7 arrives. David’s inability to find a job and provide for his family sends him into a state of debilitating depression.

In yet another act of pride, David shuns the advice of his loving father, James (Terry O’Quinn). During a phone conversation, David hangs up on his dad; an act that comes back to haunt him just days later when James unexpectedly dies.

Of course, this film isn’t about debased David, his long-suffering wife or his ever-encouraging dad, it’s about the Smallbone children—three of whom would grow up to become Grammy Award-winning performers.

They say kids are resilient, and this movie certainly proves that aphorism true. Without beds, batteries for toy robots or even much to eat (Ramen again?), the kids found ways to stay busy helping the family and somehow managed to have fun despite their limited means and humble circumstances. This spotlights the movie’s main theme, which is that the most important things in life are faith and family—an ethic exemplified by the Smallbone clan.

The most famous Smallbone is the eldest daughter, Rebecca St. James (Kirrilee Berger). Her younger brothers, Joel and Luke, are members of the group For King & Country. In an ironic feat of casting, Joel (who also co-wrote and co-directed the film) plays his father, who was about his age during the early 90s, when the movie is set.

There are many highlights in the film, including the two-hanky Christmas scene when neighbors show up with everything on the Smallbone’s wish list; furniture, washer and dryer, Christmas tree and presents.

The movie’s culminating moment comes when seventeen-year-old Rebecca auditions for DeGarmo, with her younger brothers singing background vocals (the tryout comes complete with edited home video footage projected onto a large screen by another of the Smallbone boys). Rebecca’s original song, “You Make Everything Beautiful,” has a lilting quality and a catchy, hum-all-day melody.

So, who’s the titular agency? Is it the unidentified benefactor who pays the Smallbone’s hospital bill after the birth of their youngest child? Or is it some unseen guiding hand that, through all their hardships, has been leading the Smallbone family to exactly where they need to be? Depends on what, or who, you believe. But there’s no mystery as to what the Smallbone family believes.

Unsung Hero is an inspirational, follow-your-dreams biopic that reminds us of the power of courage, kindness and perseverance.

And to honor God, country, family and all the other heroes in our lives.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4

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)

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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.

Since
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

The Marvels (PG-13)

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Directed by: Brie Larson
Starring: Nia DaCosta
November 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!


Marvel’s The Marvels is a bizarre blend of The Powerpuff Girls and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). What in the universe does Marvels have to do with those other, disparate properties? As with the trio of female superheroes in this movie, The Powerpuff Girls animated series features three females who use their superpowers to fight evildoers. More germane to Marvels is the second Fantastic Four flick; Johnny Storm/The Human Torch (Chris Evans) makes contact with the titular Surfer’s “flux,” which allows the Torch to switch powers with his other three teammates by touching them.

Here, the movie’s main gimmick is that Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Captain Monica Rambo (Teyonah Parris) and Kamala Khan/Miss Marvel (Iman Vellani) are linked through a quantum level incident (administer 2 ccs of David Gerrold’s “bolognium”), which forces them to switch realities with each other every time one of them uses their superpowers. At first, this location-swapping gimmick is an exhilarating plot device. But then the novelty wears off and we realize that, behind the veneer of slick CGI, there’s very little story here.

The movie gets a little dramatic mileage out of Capt. Rambo’s bitterness toward Capt. Marvel. Capt. Rambo was a young girl when Capt. Marvel told her she’d be right back…now she’s a grown woman. But in a universe where 5-year “blips” occur, shouldn’t people expect the periodic absence of their heroes?

A more enjoyable story element is Miss Marvel’s idolization of Capt. Marvel—the former’s bedroom is a veritable shrine to the latter. However, as with the randomized reality-jumping gag, this hero worship subplot grows tired midway through the movie. At least Miss Marvel apologizes to Capt. Marvel at one point, saying, “I didn’t give you enough space to be a person.” Guess Miss Marvel is a budding psychiatrist.

For my money, the most engaging part of the story is when Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton, who plays one of the weakest villains in the Marvel panoply) uses quantum singularities to steal air from one planet, water from another and sunlight from still another planet, in order to restore her devastated planet. To quote Spock, this is a “fascinating” concept. Most Marvel movies feature the destruction of cities and planets. Here, it’s about ravaging worlds by siphoning their natural resources. It’s like water, horse or cattle theft in the Old West, but on an epic scale.

Other than exuberant Vellani and her lively Pakistani-American family (who steal the show), most of the actors sleepwalk through the film. Larson looks bored. And why wouldn’t she be…her character is virtually indestructible (the “Superman Paradox” but without even a shard of kryptonite to serve as a check to her invincibility). Parris does her best to look miffed, but Capt. Rambo’s anger toward Capt. Marvel feels forced and petty.

The most tenured member of the troupe, Samuel L. Jackson, delivers a “wooden” performance that’s redefined the meaning of the term. His acting is as stiff as his gait. The writers (Nia DaCosta, Megan McDonnell and Elsa Karasik) also fail Jackson since much of Nick Fury’s dialog consists of snarky one-liners, most of which land with all the subtlety of Thor’s hammer.

The biggest laughs in the movie involve the alien cats (relax, this isn’t a spoiler since we’ve seen one of them in an earlier Marvel movie). Though the frenetic feline fire drill on the space station provides some much-needed levity, their role in saving the station’s passengers is as obvious as Capt. Rambo’s fate at the end of the film (a major nitpick since, as an astronaut, she should know that spatial rifts have two sides).

Though the film’s “girl power” aspect will appeal to some audience members (but is this movie really just a corrective to the largely male-dominated
Avengers movies?), there isn’t anything ground-breaking here. Sadly, the movie’s amazing production values are offset by a weak script and uninspired acting. It’s another mediocre outing by a studio that, more times than not in recent years, has failed to live up to its name.

Rating: 2 out of 4

A Haunting in Venice (PG-13)

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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)

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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

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One (PG-13)

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Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise
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!


Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to determine if this movie is worth its $290 million dollar price tag or the 10+ dollars (national average) you’ll have to shell out to see it.

The movie opens somewhere in the Bering Sea, where the Russian submarine,
Sevastopol, is scuttled by its own active learning (artificial intelligence) system. Meanwhile, in the middle of the Arabian Desert, IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is engaged in a shootout with bounty hunters during a sandstorm. After dispatching his less-skilled attackers, Ethan is reunited with Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who has one half of a cruciform key. The other half must be found soon, because only the assembled key can prevent the planet from being annihilated by a rogue AI called the Entity. Cue the ticking time bomb story device.

Ethan encounters Grace (Hayley Atwell), an interested party in the key, at the Abu Dhabi International Airport. While hiding out from Jasper Briggs (Shea Whigham) and his team of paramilitary goons, Ethan catches a glimpse of his old nemesis Gabriel (Esai Morales), another seeker of the key. And, just because an action film requires lots of moving parts to conceal its tenuous story, the ironically named White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) is also in pursuit of the movie’s MacGuffin. As usual, Ethan is assisted by his loyal companions, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg).

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is the seventh film in the series and is the first part of a two-part story—a first for the franchise—which will culminate with Cruise’s final appearance as Ethan Hunt, a character he first portrayed 27 years ago. This is also the longest Mission Impossible movie yet, clocking in at bladder-taxing 2 hours and 43 minutes.

Also of note, this is the third
Mission Impossible movie to pair Cruise with director Christopher McQuarrie, who also worked with the star as a writer or director on Valkyrie (2008), Jack Reacher (2012), Edge of Tomorrow (2014), The Mummy (2017) and a little film that came out last year called Top Gun: Maverick. It’s clear from the quality of their past collaborations that the actor and director work well together.

Cruise, 61, is still on his A game—he still does his own stunts and still sprints for minutes at a time without breaking a sweat. Recently, the actor publically expressed his admiration for Harrison Ford and said he’d also like to star in action movies when he’s 80. At this rate, Cruise will be doing his own stunts when he’s 100…and making it look easy.

But the movie’s stunts weren’t easy, especially since most of them were done practically. Though well conceived and executed, the film’s action set pieces fail to deliver a knockout punch; that one heart-stopping, death-defying stunt we’ve come to expect from these movies, like the exhilarating skydiving sequence in
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018), which puts this movie’s parachute and speed-flying scenes to shame. Sad to say, but the action here doesn’t feel elevated. It does feel derivative, though.

Spoiler Alert: The opening submarine sequence feels like it was borrowed wholesale from
The Hunt for Red October (1990), most notably the scene where the sub is struck by its own torpedo. (Sidebar: I counted two instances of “impossible” in the sub crew’s conversation…more on the movie’s dialog in a bit).

The pulse-pounding car chase in Rome starts off in a fresh vein, with Grace stealing a police car and Ethan driving a really dorky-looking police motorcycle. But then we drift into standard car chase territory when Ethan and Grace upgrade to a Bond-like, hi-tech yellow Fiat (funny how Ethan doesn’t balk at the car’s bright color when he knows every police car in the city is pursuing them). Though thrilling at times, the entire sequence comes off like one of the Mini Cooper chases in
The Italian Job (2003) or similar high-octane chase scenes in one of the Bourne movies. The only part of the sequence that really pops is its handcuff hijinks; Ethan and Grace are forced to take turns driving with one hand. It’s a fun scene, beautifully played by Cruise and Atwell.

As Ethan prepares to go Evel Knievel off the side of a mountain, Benji melts down, shouting at Ethan that he has no idea the kind of pressure he’s under. This comedic bit is a virtual remake of the scene in
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) when Benji has an anxiety attack while Ethan ascends the Burj Khalifa skyscraper with fickle suction gloves. Someone should’ve told screenwriters McQuarrie and Erik Jendresen that it was funny the first time….

The series has come full circle with respect to its high-speed train sequences (and whose idea was it to name the train Orient Express?). Though the knife fight involving Ethan and Gabriel is occasionally riveting, it isn’t nearly as daring or dazzling as the helicopter explosion that violently propels Ethan onto the back of the train in the first
Mission Impossible (1996). Where’s the originality? Have these Mission Impossible movies run out of new ideas?

I’ve probably spent too much time talking about action sequences, but, at the end of the day, that’s why people turn out to see these movies. Those who only care about the action probably won’t be dissuaded by my comments, but those looking for something else, like a plot, may find the movie wanting. The story is a style over substance spectacle that builds its structure around a series of action sequences. Worse still, when the origin of the key is revealed as something that’s been obvious from the start, we realize the entire story has been one giant red herring. Yawn!

Also disappointing is that there’s very little character development in the movie. At this point in the series, shouldn’t we see more growth in Ethan and the other recurring characters?

For instance, what does Ethan learn in the movie? That women who fall into his orbit tend to meet untimely demises? Old hat! That he still has a tendency to go rogue? It’s in his DNA. That he can’t trust or outsmart a computer? Can anyone? That confronting ghosts from the past can be dangerous? Granted. That even if you don’t smoke, carrying around a cigarette lighter can come in handy?

I realize these movies will never be mistaken as high art, but adding a little meat to these bare-bone characters might’ve gone a long way toward making the material a little less campy and more adult.

Now, as promised, here’s my diatribe on the film’s dialog. In short, it’s maddeningly inconsistent. I can’t remember a time when a movie’s dialog was so bad I started squirming in my seat, but such was the case here when influential leaders from around the globe discuss the existential threat posed by the Entity. Instead of communicating with each other, the characters talk at each other, spouting scripted sound bites to fill in expository details the audience has already guessed.

It takes nearly five minutes for the characters to say what I can sum up in six words: find the key, save the world (with apologies to
Heroes). This is one of the most agonizingly tedious data dumps ever committed to film. What makes the sequence even more tragic is that these are really good actors (Cary Elwes, Henry Czerny, Charles Parnell and Mark Gatiss, among others), whose talents are wasted on dialog any middle schooler could craft. The actors try their best to lend weight to their flimsy lines, but to no avail.

The ponderous conference mercifully ends when green gas knocks out everyone but a disguised Ethan (way too many mask gimmicks in this movie) and Eugene Kittridge (Czerny). Kittridge delivers a superb monologue that touches on some of the most salient issues in the movie, including the dangers of AI and the threat of desperate nations fighting over dwindling resources like food and water. He also predicts that the present mission will cost Ethan dearly.

Sadly, such meaningful dialog is one of the only bright spots in a film riddled with pedestrian lines like, “There’s a bug in the system. A ghost in the machine.” Yeah, we get the point. And then there’s this revelatory statement, “Whoever controls the Entity controls the truth.” Or Ethan’s insightful newsflash, “People are chasing us!”

The movie is bookended with voiceover narrations by Kittridge, who sets the tone with an overly earnest soliloquy and wraps things up with a sermonizing summary of the stakes for the next film. These painfully prosaic stretches of dialog would’ve gone down easier with a comedic chaser, but the film only has a few funny lines. Even the reliably witty Pegg only lands a couple jokes in the movie.

So, aside from derivative action sequences and horrendous dialog, what is there to recommend the film? Well, the cinematography is quite good and McQuarrie makes the most of his locations, particularly the golden hour cityscape in Rome, Italy; the shot of Ethan running along the ruffled rooftop of the Abu Dhabi airport; and the forested region in Norway where Ethan attempts his high-altitude motorcycle jump.

The movie’s acting is also an asset. Many audience members will enjoy the fervid friendship that forms between Ethan and Grace (Cruise and Atwell have tremendous onscreen chemistry). Though their witty banter is enjoyable, the romantic tension between the couple feels rushed, and inappropriate, since Ethan’s girlfriend just recently died. As a thief with a penchant for leaving Ethan in the lurch, Grace comes off as a spy movie version of Catwoman; with Ethan in the role Batman since he has a similar fighting style and does his fair share of flying in the movie.

A silly analogy? Probably. That means it’s time to examine some weightier topics.

As with most action flicks, this movie’s plot takes a backseat to sensational stunts and heart-pounding chases. Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave us with much to evaluate on the story front. Still, the movie has a few meaningful aspects, so let’s take a closer look at a few of them.

Although the movie foregrounds the potential dangers of AI, it eschews a broader conversation on the ethics of AI. At the heart of the AI debate is the obvious fact that humans created the problem by playing God. Though the topic has been broached many times before—such as the compelling “fire sale” cyber attack storyline in
Live Free or Die Hard (2007) or Skynet in the Terminator movies, the quintessential, post-singularity AI invasion cautionary tale—this movie could’ve shown some new threat to humanity, based on the latest AI research. Unfortunately, the Entity only focuses on Ethan and his team, so the movie stays surface level and fails to consider the global implications of an AI running amok. A major whiff by McQuarrie.

Rather than being a menacing presence in the film, like Ultron in Marvel’s
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), the Entity barely factors into the action—only the agents doing its bidding remind us of the looming threat it poses. This is a major problem from a story standpoint since a hero can’t shine unless he’s pitted against a really strong villain. Here, the villain (the Entity) is only seen or heard in a few scenes.

Gabriel isn’t onscreen enough to qualify as the movie’s main villain either. He’s characterized as a dark messiah; the Entity’s chosen one. In Gabriel’s demented philosophy, death is a gift. Ethan says Gabriel doesn’t enjoy the killing, but the suffering. This reveals Gabriel’s bent toward sadomasochism.

One of the movie’s recurring themes is the nature of truth. Ilsa says, “The world is changing. The truth is vanishing.” This assumes that lies will eventually force the truth into extinction.

Kittridge has a different take on the truth, “This is our chance to control the truth. The concepts of right and wrong for everyone for centuries to come.”

Kittridge’s egomaniacal wish is well within reach since the truth is being manipulated by the media every day. Nothing new there. The last part of his statement is the most troubling since we can see an erosion of decency and decorum in every strata of our society today. In a world of moral relativism, where there’s no right or wrong, anything goes.

The most disturbing dialog in the movie comes from Denlinger (Elwes), who calls out another character for his outdated ideas of patriotism. He refers to it as “old think.” Denlinger is in support of a super-state that will rule the entire world (Xi Jinping, Putin and a long list of other tyrants are licking their chops at such a proposition—as long as they’re the one in charge).

If there’s one area of the movie that’s relevant, that’s clear-eyed about our impending slide into dystopia, it’s these frightening statements made by a career politician swept up in the false promises of global equity.

In the end,
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is overstuffed with decent (but certainly not amazing) action sequences, and is severely hamstrung by a derivative story filled with unsophisticated dialog. Still, other than standard action violence and a handful of expletives, the movie is pretty clean.

Most two-part movies start off with a slower first film which sets up an explosive climax in the second film. If that pattern holds true, I’m hopeful that the franchise will end on a bigger bang than what we get in this film.

Still, with the recent slate of glum, humdrum movies,
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One seems poised to be the top grossing film of the summer.

Anything’s possible, I reckon.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4

Sound of Freedom (PG-13)

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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

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (PG-13)

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Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Harrison Ford
June 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!


Fifteen years after the infamous Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), we have the fifth, and final, film in the fedora franchise.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny opens on a rainy night in Germany, circa 1944. While operating behind enemy lines, Indy is captured by Nazis…because what would an Indy film be without them? A protracted, passé action sequence ensues, pitting Indy and his sidekick, Basil Shaw (an egregiously underserved Toby Jones), against German soldiers and Colonel Weber (Thomas Kretschmann) on top of a train. With the bad guys vanquished and the artifact secured…

…we jump forward in time to the movie’s present—1969. It’s “Space Day,” and a massive crowd is celebrating the safe return of the Apollo 11 astronauts with a ticker tape parade in NYC. Just as Indy is about to retire from teaching, his goddaughter, Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), surfaces and embroils the octogenarian archeologist in a globetrotting adventure to discover the titular artifact, which, purportedly, can open fissures in time.

So, the burning question for many fans of the series will be, does
Dial resemble the original trilogy or the ignominious previous film? Dial is a hard left turn from campy Crystal, a wise choice by studio execs and the film’s producers. It’s a serious film; perhaps too serious. In an effort not to come off like a cartoon (a la Crystal), Dial overcorrects, to its detriment. Though its action sequences are finely executed by director James Mangold—this is the first Indy film not to be helmed by Steven Spielberg—there’s little levity to counterbalance the movie’s earnest storytelling and somber mood. Indeed, despite its surfeit of high-octane action scenes, Dial is a joyless joyride.

At two hours and thirty-four minutes,
Dial is overlong and over involved. It spends too much time focusing on the past when the more interesting story elements are in the present—namely, the fate of Indy’s son (no Shia LaBeouf as Mutt in this outing) and Indy’s strained relationship with his wife, Marion (Karen Allen, who makes a brief appearance in the film).

And speaking of the past, the movie’s climax is sure to raise a few eyebrows…and make others mad enough to throw their bucket of popcorn at the movie screen. Though not as jarringly unrealistic as the alien reveal at the end of
Crystal, Dial’s time-jumping climax will surely create a debate over whether or not it “jumps the shark” (with apologies to Jaws). Spoilers: Why is Helena so insistent that the Archimedes Dial be returned to the future when she doesn’t even give a second thought to the crashed WWII plane? Hasn’t she heard of the Prime Directive (yes, Star Trek was on the air from 1966-1969)? Incidentally, the concept of a plane traveling through a time vortex has been done before, and done better, in The Twilight Zone episode, “The Odyssey of Flight 33.”

Even with her annoying stubbornness and occasional errors in judgment, Helena is the most interesting character the movie. Though not always operating on the right side of the law—Indy frequently turns a critical eye toward her shady dealings—Helena brings some much needed exuberance and irreverence to the film. Her insouciance is the proper counterweight (like a bag of sand replacing an idol) to stolid and avuncular Indy, who incessantly lectures Helena as if she’s one of his pupils.

In one scene, Indy gripes about growing old, a requisite admission one would think. Of all his failing body parts, though, what hinders him most in the film is his broken funny bone. Maybe Ford is just playing himself at this point, but his portrayal of the eponymous action hero is that of a bitter and perturbed old man who forgot to take his Geritol.

Amid its more pedestrian elements (like old Indy riding a horse through a subway), the movie has a few adult moments. In these scenes, Indy grapples with retirement, engages in self-recrimination over his son’s death and laments his relationship woes. The movie also has a couple meaningful themes; the importance of second chances and the dangers of playing God, particularly applicable to those who desire to go back in time and rewrite history, like villainous Voller (Mads Mikkelsen, the next Nazi iteration of Ronald Lacey’s Toht from
Raiders of the Lost Ark).

The main theme, which is subtly woven throughout the film, is obsession. Basil spent much of his life trying to track down the other half of the Dial. Following in her father’s footsteps, Helena also doggedly pursues the Dial, although her motivations for doing so are far from scientific or altruistic. This multigenerational search for a historical object recalls Henry Jones’ (Sean Connery) obsession with finding the Holy Grail in
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Just as Henry tells Indy to “Let it go,” Indy must convince Helena to do the same before she loses her life in the reckless pursuit of the artifact.

The theme John Williams composed for the spirited heroine (“Helena’s Theme”) is absolutely gorgeous—a sweeping, romantic piece that recalls the music of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The entire score is laced with nostalgic cues and only features a few brief instances of the iconic “Raiders March” to remind us that we’re in an
Indiana Jones movie. Williams’ score is an Oscar-worthy effort made even more remarkable by the fact that he was 90 when he composed it.

Back to the burning question, is
Dial a good film? To answer in Indy speak, “Good, yes; great, no!” Dial ranks right in the middle of the Indy cycle of movies: it isn’t as epic as Raiders and isn’t as fun as The Last Crusade. But, at least Dial doesn’t feature chilled monkey brains or man-eating ants.

Dial is a well produced (except for the hit-and-miss age-regression CGI during the opening sequence), directed (Mangold isn’t Spielberg, but he acquits himself well), and acted (new: Antonio Banderas and returning: John Rhys-Davies actors deliver delightful performances) film that contains many elements of a really good Indy adventure. However, the movie isn’t all the way dialed in and fails to deliver the rousing series climax audiences expected and deserved.

In the final analysis, the movie just isn’t fun and only has a little touch of the ole
Indy magic at the very end. Sad.

So, what have we learned from the film? You can never have too much ice cream. Old action heroes never hang up their fedoras (for long). Oh, and never bring a bullwhip to a gun battle.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4

Jesus Revolution (PG-13)

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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

Strange World (PG)

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Directed by: Don Hall, Qui Nguyen
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal
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!


“To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations.”

That was always my favorite part of the opening narration from the original
Star Trek TV series.

It seems clear that the new Disney animated sci-fi film,
Strange World, derives its name from the above quote.

Unfortunately,
Star Trek this ain’t.

The film opens with a back story involving a group of explorers ascending an icy peak. The headstrong leader of the expedition, Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid), is adamant about searching beyond the mountains. His son, Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal), wants to return home to study a plant he found that gives off energy. Jaeger strikes out on his own, leaving his son behind with the rest of the team.

25 years later: Searcher is hailed as the discoverer of pando, the “power plant” that provides electricity for the entire city of Avalonia. But when the energy-producing green pods on the pando plant start dying, Searcher is enlisted to join a team that will determine the root of the problem deep below the planet’s surface. When their ship arrives at a strange new world, Searcher and his fellow explorers, including his son Ethan Clade (Jaboukie Young-White) and wife Meridian Clade (Gabrielle Union), encounter an array of bizarre creatures—some benign and others hostile.

You guessed it;
Strange World is riddled with clichés and references to classic adventure yarns of yore.

When the ship descends through a giant hole and enters the bowels of the planet, we’re reminded of
Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959, 2008). When the explorers fight their way through gross creatures, we’re reminded of King Kong (particularly the disgusting giant insect scenes in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake). When Searcher and Ethan learn that the island (eye-land) they live on is really a gigantic life form, they realize the creatures inside its body are merely red blood cells and antibodies; navigating the ship through these microorganisms to the being’s giant heart is reminiscent of Fantastic Voyage (1966).

Strange World weaves the theme of yet another classic novel into its story: Moby Dick. Jaeger’s obsessive quest to reach the other side of the mountain causes him to abandon his wife, son and the rest of his team. This Captain Ahab style character flaw was also present in the title character of this year’s Pixar release, Lightyear. Perhaps Disney/Pixar should give this particular literary allusion a rest for a while.

The movie’s creativity is one of its bright spots. Though the overall aesthetic is decidedly Seussian, some of the creatures in the strange land are cleverly and beautifully realized. This is particularly true of the blue, stretchy blob that Ethan names Splat (yep, a toy version of the creature has been mass produced by Disney in anticipation of the holidays).

What’s disappointing, though, is that the movie doesn’t take the time to properly showcase its many inventive invertebrates. Writer/Director, Qui Nguyen, must have ADD, because he rushes from one bizarre creature to the next without giving us a chance to really enjoy the teeming life or immersive environment of the imaginary world. Despite its cornucopia of colorful creatures, the movie fails to awe…which is a prerequisite when constructing a strange new world.

The movie also shortchanges the dramatic potential of having three generations of men as its central characters. Yes, there are a few meaningful moments, like when Jaeger teaches Searcher how to throw and Ethan how to use a flamethrower, but the movie’s attempt at establishing generational reconciliation as a theme falls flat. At different points in the movie, Searcher calls Jaeger a bad dad and Ethan says the same to Searcher, despite the fact that Searcher has spent his entire life trying to be the opposite of Jaeger. It’s ironic how we often become that which we despise.

The closest we get to a warm fuzzy ending is when Jaeger tells Searcher, “My legacy isn’t those mountains, it’s you.” Since Jaeger never made an attempt to return to his wife and son during his 25 year absence, that sentiment seems hollow and too little too late. Ultimately, the movie doesn’t deliver that one satisfying moment to button up the story and leave us with a smile on our face as we exit the theater.

The ending isn’t the only area of the movie that wasn’t satisfying.

Personal confession: there are few things in life that infuriate me more than adult advocates forcing their politics and worldview onto kids by using an animated movie as a vehicle. Such an approach is pathological. Sadly, it’s nothing new.

Perhaps you’ll recall
FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992), an animated movie that glorifies magical fairies who live in a forest, and vilifies humans who are polluting the environment and cutting down trees with a “monster” bulldozer.

In
Happy Feet (2006), Mumble’s (Elijah Wood) inability to sing, and ability to tap-dance, makes him a deviant among fellow penguins…a thinly-veiled reference to homosexuality. Also, the movie casts humans in the role of the antagonists both when human researchers invade the penguin’s island and imprison Mumble in an arctic exhibit, and when overfishing practices in the Antarctic are called into question.

What marred those earlier animated films also afflicts
Strange World. In fact, my harsh critique of Happy Feet also applies to this film. In my review I wrote:

“…the movie’s political slant is so transparent and so in-your-face, it’s almost nauseating. How cowardly of leftist Hollywood and environmentalist wackos to use an animated film to espouse, disseminate and otherwise foist their alarmist and fear-mongering doctrine upon audiences; offending many adults and unduly influencing the minds of future generations with a ‘green’ theology.”

My, how I miss that fiery young man!

(Note: Spoilers in this section). So how does
Strange World seek to corrupt the minds of youngsters? In a very crafty way.

As the source of all power in Avalonia, harvesting pando is vital for the society to function. When the characters learn that their civilization has been built upon a living being, they’re faced with a fateful decision: in order to save the creature, they must destroy the pando roots that are killing the creature’s heart.

The movie ends one year after the pando roots have been eradicated. A voiceover narration praises people for their ability to be resourceful in the face of hardships. Everyone lights a candle and the entire village has a Kumbaya moment, happy in the knowledge that their sacrifice has saved their planet.

To the discerning eye, the analogy here is plain: pando = petroleum/oil/fossil fuels. Fossil fuels, the movie (and liberals) argue, is killing our planet (Mother Earth/Gaia). The only way to save our planet, then, is to go back to the way things were before we started using fossil fuels, or to embrace Green sources of energy.

Aside from the fact that the science behind Green energy (wind turbines, electric vehicles, etc.) hasn’t been satisfactorily explained or verified, most conservative estimates suggest it will take us at least 20-30 years to fully switch over to Green energy.

But the movie paints a very different picture. It suggests that we should just turn off the electricity and light a candle—the transition from fossil fuel-based energy to Green energy is just the easy. The movie’s conviction that a shift from one form of energy to another can be accomplished in just a year without any major complications (such as a breakdown in society that can lead to a violent upheaval) isn’t just egregiously disingenuous, it’s downright dangerous.

But don’t just take my word for it. Director Nguyen says, “Two things that are always a battle are the conveniences of today versus the need for tomorrow. If we lost certain energy sources, it would make things harder, but ultimately might be better for the world and make the future last.” There you have it; the movie is conditioning our children to prepare for less convenience and more hardship in the future.

No matter which side of the debate you fall on, you have to admit that this underhanded dig at fossil fuels is done in a deceptive manner, and is propagated for the sole purpose of indoctrinating young viewers. The movie is trying to convince them that to save the planet, we must end fossil fuels and adopt Green energy. Anyone who disagrees with that agenda is complicit in dooming the planet. You can see how this flawed ideology can create a militant activism in today’s kids/tomorrow’s leaders.

This begs the question: why is such a controversial subject being broached in an animated movie? Also, is it fair to take sides on an issue that kids should be given the right to choose on their own, preferably when they’re older? The way this film seeks to indoctrinate young members of the audience is downright malicious.

At the risk of overstating my central thesis, I’d like to share another tidbit from my
Happy Feet review, which is also germane to this film: “…it’s really children who are losing out the most here; for their sake, why can’t Hollywood check its politics at the door and let kids make up their own minds about where they stand on environmental issues…when they’re old enough to do so?” Of course, this argument also applies to the film’s (and our government and education system’s) aggressive push to hypersexualize young people and make alternative lifestyles attractive to kids who are still learning their multiplication tables.

Despite its innocent trappings, this film is the Green New Deal writ large. By packaging its blatant, heavy-handed message into a disarming, cutesy kid’s story, the studio has made its mission clear: to indoctrinate the next generation with a pro-homosexual, pro-Green energy agenda. It’s insidious!

In the end, the only thing strange about
Strange World is its twisted, perverse and overly-ideological worldview.

A more fitting title would’ve been
Woke World.

Last Item: The new “Disney 100” opening animation is beautiful and magical; a jaw-dropping sequence that would make Walt proud. But the way his studio is propagandizing innocent, young kids is surely causing poor ole Walt to roll over in his grave.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (PG-13)

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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

Jurassic World: Dominion (PG-13)

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Directed by: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Chris Pratt
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!


Believe it or not, Ripley, this is the sixth movie based on Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel “Jurassic Park.” What’s more, this is the third movie in the Jurassic World trilogy—the supersized spawn of the Jurassic Park trilogy.

Jurassic World: Dominion opens in the same globetrotting manner as Crichton’s original book. From a giant locust swarm in South Texas, to the snow-covered Dolomite Mountains in Italy, to the forested Sierra Nevada Mountains, to the sweltering Mediterranean island of Malta, the movie covers a lot of territory. Sadly, despite its many exciting locations and events, the movie fails to blaze any new territory narratively.

The story eventually brings us to characters we know; Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) are raising clone girl Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon). Much like Ariel from
The Little Mermaid or Hanna from the eponymous 2011 movie and 2019 TV show, Maisie wants to be where the people are. Owen and Claire are overprotective parents, but who wouldn’t be when every tech company on the planet would love to get their hands on Maisie, the first human clone? Oh, and pay no mind the raptors romping through the forest near Owen’s cabin. They’re trained.

Jump to a reunion scene with Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern). Ellie tells Alan she’s recently divorced—cue the love story. The doctors are invited to visit the top-secret genetics lab, Biosyn (what a pun! Bio-sin, i.e., messing with the natural world is a transgression).

At Biosyn, Alan and Ellie are reunited with another long-lost friend, Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). They also meet the head of Biosyn, Dr. Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott). You might recall that name from the first
Jurassic Park (1993). He’s the one who paid Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) to steal the dino embryos and deliver them in a Barbasol shaving cream can. Picking up this loose narrative thread from the original film is one of the movie’s finest moments.

But the thrill of getting the band back together again soon wears off and we realize that Ian’s quirky sense of humor hasn’t aged well (unlike the svelte actor portraying him). Though the romantic tension between Alan and Ellie is sweet, it’s also terribly predictable with nary a complication to keep us guessing.

And speaking of predictable, the paint-by-numbers plot has a chronic case of ADD—its focus constantly shifts between sets of heroes. Regrettably for Owen and Claire, they’re frequently upstaged by the old guard…in their own movie. Plus, the action scene in Malta looks like it was borrowed from a James Bond movie, only with raptors feasting on tourists subbed in for hero vs. villain shootouts.

One of the central themes of these
Jurassic Park movies is the dangers of playing God, and “Genetics Gone Wrong” is front and center in the trilogy capper. Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong) is up to his old tricks, creating giant locusts and other DNA-spliced creatures. Hasn’t he learned from his mistakes by now? Whatever the latest catastrophe is involving dinosaurs, you can bet Henry is at the center of it. As Ian rightly points out, “It’s always him!”

Of course, these films wouldn’t keep attracting large audiences without terrifying dinosaurs rampaging through amusement parks and gobbling up humans. Many of director Colin Trevorrow’s sequences draw too much inspiration from the earlier films, i.e., characters trying to hide from a large, carnivorous dinosaur behind an overturned SUV, a la the OG film. Though this movie sees the return of the dilophosaurus, the attack scenes involving these frilled creatures are nearly identical to those in the original
Jurassic Park.

Based on Alan’s theory that dinosaurs were more bird-like than reptile-like, some of Henry’s new GMDs (genetically modified dinosaurs) are avian in appearance. Unfortunately, a giant creature with feathers doesn’t evoke the same sense of dread that a “terrible lizard” does.

In the end, even the team lift of old and new characters can’t hoist
Dominion out of the swamp of failed creature features. It will go down as the worst of the lot.

However, depending on how current events play out,
Dominion’s warning of an impending global food shortage may give it unforeseen relevance.

So, now that we’ve had
Jurassic Park and Jurassic World, what’s next? Jurassic Universe?

Rating: 2 out of 4

Lightyear (PG)

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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).

Still,
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)

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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

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (PG-13)

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Directed by: Sam Raimi
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch
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!


Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness definitely resembles its name. It’s equal parts strange and mad. As if that wasn’t bad enough, everything in the film feels…off.

There are very few funny lines, very few meaningful moments and very few exhilarating action sequences in the movie. Then there’s the 60/40 split between scenes centered on Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Wanda Maximoff/The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). Strange had to share screen time in
Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) too, but that movie was a vehicle for the wall-crawler in the red spandex suit.

Taking Strange’s screen time in
No Way Home and adding it to his screen time here, he almost gets an entire feature out of the two Multiverse movies. In short, it seems like Strange always ends up playing second fiddle to other characters in the Marvel panoply—he’s even sidekick to Wong, the Sorcerer Supreme (Benedict Wong), in his own movies.

As with the scribes of
No Way Home, screenwriter Michael Waldron barely scratches the surface of the creative potential of the Multiverse here. In one of the alternate realities Strange visits, you “go on red” when crossing the street…a pretty mundane change from our reality. Yes, the tree-strewn city is an interesting concept, but the Mustafar-like hellscape and LOTR-style tower, where the Scarlet Witch takes her throne, are derivative and uninspired.

The one part of the movie that was cleverly conceived was Strange and America Chavez’ (Xochitl Gomez) plunge through several planes of the Multiverse; in one reality they become sentient splotches of paint. Though skillfully realized, this short segment is reminiscent of when the Infinite Improbability Drive is engaged in
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)—the sequence where the crew of the Heart of Gold is turned into hand-knit toys is bloody brilliant!

As portrayed in the movie, the Multiverse fails to tap into the vast expanse of possibilities inherent in its name. I’d go on a rant about the lack of wonder, awe and imagination on display in the film, but I couldn’t possibly top the incisive remarks I made in my review of
No Way Home (please reference it for a detailed drubbing of that movie’s mammoth mishandling of the Multiverse).

So, what’s this movie about? Good question.

The story’s character arcs are pedestrian and prosaic. Wanda must let go of her obsessive maternal instinct—she’s willing to destroy anything that prevents her from raising her two boys, including alternate versions of herself. Not very rational.

Doctor Strange’s integrity is called into question…will he turn to the Dark Side (a la, Anakin Skywalker) or will he prove to be virtuous, unlike many of his counterparts from other realities? As if there could be any doubt.

These ho-hum challenges for the central characters provide little opportunity for personal growth—this is as complicated as the film gets. I wish America, who has the ability to open star-shaped portals into the Multiverse, would’ve transported us into a more compelling story.

The secret group called the Illuminati, brings some much-needed energy and levity to the proceedings. The casting of this team of eclectic heroes is superb and offers more than a few surprises.

Multiverse of Madness squanders the solid handoff from the first film. Even the Doctor Strange spotlight episode in the animated series What If…? is superior to this film.

In the end, this latest foray into the Mediocre-verse is another indication of how the studio is failing to live up to its name.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4

Spider-Man: No Way Home (PG-13)

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Directed by: Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland
December 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!


Spider-Man: No Way Home has opened up a whole new narrative dimension for the MCU—the multiverse.

The multiverse concept certainly isn’t new; the earliest physics-related usage of the word can be traced back to a 1963 sci-fi story. Of course, the notion of alternate or intersecting realities has been extensively plumbed in sci-fi and fantasy books/TV shows/movies such as
Star Trek (the “Mirror Universe” and TNG’s “Parallels”) and Sliders…among many other examples.

Sadly, screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers barely scratch the surface of the infinite plot possibilities inherent in the multiverse concept. Indeed, such a wide open story device should’ve been expanded to far greater creative frontiers (reference Piers Anthony’s “Mode” series) than what’s presented in this pedestrian yarn: a teenage angst opener gives way to a bleeding heart middle which sets up the mash-up melee ending.

In an ironic twist, the story is dependent on Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) but conveniently sidelines him for most of the film (for fear that he’ll upstage the kid running around in red tights, no doubt). Strange’s spell, destabilized by Spider-Man/Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) multiple modifications to his incantations, opens a rift in space/time that allows the multiverse to come spilling into our plane of reality. Moral: alter the witch’s brew at your own risk. Corollary: beware the consequences of playing God.

What begins as a clever assemblage of heroes and villains from every previous
Spider-Man movie (and what a treat it is to see Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, Jamie Foxx, et al. together on one set!) morphs into a rehabilitation experiment gone wrong (of course). The resulting protracted battle, which is all over the place and isn’t nearly as exhilarating as it should’ve been, features too many confrontations with too many characters and ends up being a sticky, tangled mass…much like a spider web.

While it’s fun to see all three Spider-Men (Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Holland) sharing screen time, the dialog is often hokey, jokey and repetitive (why do McKenna and Sommers keep harping on the fact that Maguire’s Spidey can naturally produce webs while Garfield and Holland’s wall-crawlers must manufacture theirs?). In many of these arachno-trio sequences, the opportunity for the heroes to learn from each other is eschewed in favor of frivolity and fan service. So much character development could’ve been mined in these scenes. What a whiff!

The one aspect of the movie that stimulated my gray matter was talk show host J. Jonah Jameson’s (J.K. Simmons) blustery commentary that bookends the film. At the beginning, with Spider-Man’s identity recently revealed, Jameson regards Parker as public enemy #1. At the end, after the timeline has been (mostly) restored, Jameson calls Spider-Man a coward for hiding behind a mask.

Not only does such choleric rhetoric illustrate the plight of a hero in the eyes of a fickle public, it accidentally stumbles upon a telling socio-political message: the media, it would seem, is complicit in inciting bigotry and hostility in any universe.

This movie caps off a trilogy where each installment has gotten exponentially worse. Many aspects of the movie are gimmicky, which is fitting since the entire plot is built on a gimmick (the multiverse).
No Way Home squanders a promising premise and underserves a tremendously talented cast.

The word “Home” appears in the titles of all three Holland
Spider-Man movies. If the next film in the series isn’t any better than this one, they should name it Just Stay Home.

Rating: 2 out of 4

Dune (PG-13)

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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)

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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)

Stillwater-2021
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)

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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)

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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

Tenet (PG-13)

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Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington
September 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!


“To the degree that it’s not plot, any experimental structure will call attention to itself and often seem visibly artificial. So it has to be managed carefully or the story, the human content, will become secondary to the style. The story may even disappear altogether, lost in the clever externals of its presentation. One of the most damning things that can be said about a story is that it’s an amazing technical achievement.”

Those words come from Ansen Dibell’s
Plot. Ironically, that writing resource was published in 1988, five years before CGI took a giant T-Rex leap forward in Jurassic Park (1993). How many CG era films does that “style over substance” indictment describe? A staggering number, I think (I’m looking at you Star Wars prequels).

The first thing that popped into my mind while reading Dibell’s quote was director Christopher Nolan’s
Dunkirk (2017). Nolan’s depiction of the eponymous WWII debacle was a visual marvel, yet featured some of the scantiest character development in cinema history. You can read what an epic fail Dunkirk’s story was in my review.

So here we have
Tenet, Nolan’s follow-up to Dunkirk. Nolan’s fascination with time (Memento and Interstellar) and the nature of reality (Inception) collide in Tenet. Sadly, Tenet resembles Dunkirk more than those earlier Nolan successes.

Tenet is a rare exception where the trailer is better than the movie. The preview establishes a time-bending reality where generically-named Protagonist (John David Washington) and Neil (Robert Pattinson) experience effect before cause. This causal reversal creates some startling visuals, particularly when we see a crashed car flip over and drive backward through freeway traffic.

However, for all its “amazing technical achievements,”
Tenet is clearly missing what the Tin Man yearned for in The Wizard of Oz (1939)…a heart. Lack of heart also was the narrative Achilles’ heel of Dunkirk, which starred Kenneth Branagh (who plays villain Andrei Sator here).

Since
Tenet’s sole writing credit belongs to Nolan, the movie’s dearth of genuine human moments has exposed his storytelling inadequacies; in the past, Nolan’s stories were buttressed by the superlative efforts of David S. Goyer and his brother, Jonathan. Nolan fails to reveal significant personal details about any of his characters. Without a connection to the characters, we aren’t really concerned for their safety—the same was true of the cardboard cutouts that populated Dunkirk.

Despite its intriguing premise,
Tenet is a wholly uninvolving and unmoving tale due to its shallow characterizations and uninspired performances. Sad to say, but this decorated, scintillating cast is grossly underserved by Nolan’s script. Pattinson is flat, Branagh is unconvincing (especially his beard), Washington is unreasonably overconfident, and Michael Caine and Martin Donovan are mere blips on the radar (which, like tenet, is a palindrome).

Then there’s the question of where the movie’s MacGuffins come from—namely, objects that cause time to flow backwards. Are the artifacts alien in origin? The reference of “somewhere in the future” is egregiously vague (more lazy screenwriting). Also, Sator’s scheme to destroy the world is right out of a 70s James Bond movie. Nothing original here.

Though brilliantly realized, the action sequences actually undermine the film. For example, when we see a fight scene staged backwards earlier in the story, do we really need to see the same sequence played forwards later in the movie? We get the point already.

Worse still, two earlier sequences are revisited later in the movie—the freeway car chase and the melee at the airport. Returning to the same locations and sets feels like a retread and is an egregious waste of screen time, proof positive of the story’s tenuous construction. These hollow and anticlimactic action scenes may induce the sensation of déjà vu, restlessness from boredom, or both.

To the movie’s credit, it makes the audience work to figure out what’s going on—it’s the opposite of mindless entertainment. Also, the movie boasts a few exceptionally well-crafted action set pieces. These pulse-pounding sequences will leave many viewers completely satisfied, regardless of the flaccid story.

However, despite its ambitious high concept premise,
Tenet is too long, too confusing and, surprisingly, too monotonous. In the end, the film is an interesting puzzle for the mind, but it isn’t an enjoyable entertainment.

The sequel,
teneT, will be this movie played backwards.

Rating: 3 out of 4

I Still Believe (PG)

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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)

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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)

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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.

For
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

Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker (PG-13)

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Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Carrie Fisher
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!


End of an era.

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker is the ninth and final “Skywalker Saga” Star Wars movie. The series spans forty-two years. At age seven, I was squarely in creator George Lucas’ (stay on) target audience when the first movie (originally titled Star Wars, now referred to as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope) was released in 1977.

These movies—and action figures, books, comic books, soundtracks, TV series, etc—have been a significant part of my life for over four decades now. I realize there are scores of fans who have been similarly impacted by Lucas’ lucrative and legendary brainchild…perhaps you, dear reader, are one of them.

Saying goodbye to such a cherished mythos, and its bevy of beloved characters, has left me in an ineffable state. Though not quite like experiencing a death in the family, reaching the end of the closing credits of the final
Star Wars film feels like a loss just the same; despite the fact that the franchise will continue on both big and small screens far, far into the future. Though the quality of the movies has widely varied, I’m Luke-after-Ben’s-death despondent now that the series has finally come to an end.

As I think about
Skywalker, many words and phrases come to mind…

Rally. Course correct. Back on track.

Yes, I’m one of the legions of
Star Wars fans who considered the previous film, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017), to be a Death Star sized pile of Bantha Poodoo. If you have a spare half hour, you can read my review, which contains a scalding diatribe against the film’s many failings. To bottom line it for you, if you feel the way I do about The Last Jedi, you’ll probably enjoy the series capper. If you’re in the other camp, you might struggle to enjoy Skywalker.

In all fairness,
Skywalker is cameo-heavy, overly sentimental at times and rather predictable throughout. Some things don’t add up (why was the fleet of Final Order Star Destroyers concealed for so long, how can Sith loyalists operate the vessels as well as trained Imperial crews and why are the capital ships so easy to destroy once their superlasers have been blasted a few times by Resistance fighters?), other things could’ve been better (character threads, i.e. the relationships between Rey (Daisy Ridley)/Finn (John Boyega) and Finn/Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), needed to be tidied up) and still other things are utterly daft (like when the spy telegraphs his identity with “I’m the spy!”). But overall, this is a solid effort and a fitting conclusion to Lucas’ enduringly popular work of light and magic.

Spoiler Alerts (from here on in): At the heart of every
Star Wars film is family, specifically the Skywalker family (family, of course, also lies at the heart of the Disney Empire). The latest trilogy has layered identity on top of family. Where does Rey come from? Can sinister Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) be redeemed and revert to his true self, Ben Solo?

As the embodiment of the yin-yang philosophy, Rey and Ren are light-dark side counterparts, respectively. It’s a fascinating role reversal that Rey descends from an evil family and becomes a Jedi, while Ren was raised by a good family and ends up a Sith. In this way, the protracted epic has modulated from being the chronicle of one family to the intersection of two Force-full families.

At several junctures in
Skywalker, Rey is asked what her family name is and she awkwardly confesses that she doesn’t know (the impertinence of the little Aki-Aki girl is overdetermined since Rey’s first name should suffice for an informal introduction). At the end of the movie, Rey identifies herself as a member of the family that has loved and nurtured her all along. It’s a stirring scene that may have added spiritual significance for those who consider themselves grafted Gentiles (Romans 11:17-24).

The family theme extends beyond the movie’s characters to those in the audience. As a multigenerational family film,
Skywalker will attract spectators of all ages. One way the movie has catered to its broad demographic is to give both young and adult audience members heroes to cheer for...clever.

Everyone who’s seen the trailer knows about the return of Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). As the final film in the series,
Skywalker has attracted a number of new actors (Richard E. Grant, Keri Russell and Dominic Monaghan), as well as many headliners and supporting players from the original trilogy. Be on the lookout for a well-known side character who serves as Lando’s gunner. Eagle-eyed fans may also recognize one of the franchise’s major magic-makers as the disapproving tavern owner on snowy Kijimi.

The film presents several new concepts regarding Jedi/Sith abilities. The first deals with a person’s life force. Though never featured in any prior
Star Wars movie, apparently Jedis/Siths have the capacity to leach away life force from others or transfer a portion of their own life force to another being to bring about rapid healing (Wolverine style).

Though Force Healing is a clever concept, it smacks of the same kind of plot gimmick that had R2-D2 sprouting leg rockets and taking flight just when the story called for it in
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002). Director J.J. Abrams and his team of writers have created a major discrepancy between their newly-minted Jedi skill and the well-established Star Wars canon. Case in point, if a Jedi has the means to heal someone else, even when that person has been run through with a lightsaber, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) need not have died in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999).

In a similar vein, it was revealed in earlier movies that a Jedi, with the proper training, can fade from our plane of existence, i.e. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and Yoda (voiced and performed by Frank Oz). How then, can Ren accomplish such a feat? As a recent convert to the light side of the Force, how would Ren/Ben know how to achieve a Force Fade? Even Jedi Master Jinn didn’t have that advanced knowledge…his corpse was roasted on a pyre at the end of
The Phantom Menace. Someone needs to write a Jedi Handbook—comprehensively detailing every mystical or superhuman power such light side guardians possess—to prevent future writers from succumbing to this kind of willy-nilly storytelling.

The Force Dyad (Ren’s terminology) is an intriguing aspect of this latter trilogy, and is made even more compelling by the fact that Rey and the audience can see what’s going on behind Ren, but the masked villain can’t visualize Rey’s surroundings. Since Rey and Ren are connected through the Force, objects can be conveyed from one of their locations to the other. In this way, Rey handing off a lightsaber to Ren, who’s in a different part of the citadel on Exegol, is one of the highlights of the film.

However, the sequence could’ve been ten times more mind-blowing. What if Rey had temporarily lost one of her two lightsabers (or Palpatine had confiscated one of them)? The action scene plays out exactly the same, with Rey dispatching the Emperor’s guards and Ren shredding his Knights, with one major exception…

Using the Force, Rey and Ren take turns using the solitary lightsaber, passing it from one location to another while working in concert to coordinate their attacks. Go ahead; re-choreograph the entire sequence in your mind with this new limitation. Instead of another “Oh look, Rey/Ren is kicking butt and their opponents don’t stand a chance” melee, this climactic lightsaber battle could’ve been the greatest fight scene this side of
The Matrix (1999).

In addition to its missed opportunities, the film contains many other oversights and nitpicks. Near the beginning of the movie, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) engages in a dangerous (and dubious) piloting stunt known as “lightspeed skipping,” which involves a series of quick, successive jumps into and out of hyperspace. The maneuver, which places an inordinate amount of stress on a ship, is made even more dangerous by the fact that you can come out of hyperspace too close to an asteroid or other solid object (smuggler’s warning).

The TIE fighters pursuing the
Millennium Falcon stay right on the freighter’s tail the entire sequence. How? Even though it was established in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015) that Special Forces TIE fighters have hyperdrives, how are the enemy ships able to precisely match ace pilot Poe’s every maneuver since they have no idea what he’ll do next? Either the TIE pilots are clairvoyant or they have Sith-like reflexes.

Abrams is notorious for featuring purely self-indulgent scenes (reference the two arctic creatures pursuing Kirk in 2009’s
Star Trek) in his action movies. Here, Rey cuts a wing off Ren’s TIE fighter in a drawn-out spectacle. Though Rey’s Matrix-style slo-mo leap is dazzling, the rest of the scene is utterly gratuitous…and ultimately superfluous. We know Ren isn’t going to fire on Rey, so why does he attempt the low-altitude flyover? Especially since he risks losing his ship (and his life—surely he would’ve gotten a concussion from that crash) in the process.

Ren exits his mangled cockpit (without a scratch, mind you) and gets into a tug-of-war with Rey. Instead of rending a lightsaber, as they had done in
The Last Jedi, Rey and Ren rip apart a troop transport. Rey escapes and Ren is left to hitch a ride (although, if Ren really wanted to apprehend Rey, he could’ve prevented her ship from taking off). Though the Force struggle is suspenseful, the entire sequence lacks motivation…and logic.

Even though spectral Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) lifting his X-wing fighter out of the water is a nice callback to his failure to accomplish a similar feat in
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), it creates a gap in logic, namely, how can a ship that’s been submerged for years still operate? A couple lines of dialog could’ve rectified this flaccid plot point:

REY
Terrific! Now how am I supposed to fly it?

LUKE
(with a twinkle in his eye)
Don’t worry. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to fix a waterlogged X-wing.


Another snafu deals with the Falcon’s rough landing on Kef Bir (the non-Ewok Endor moon). Though we’re told the ship’s landing gear is busted, shouldn’t Poe be able to gently land the ship in a field, even with only one good arm (the other is in a sling)? If the landing required two hands, why couldn’t Chewie (Joonas Suotamo) have parked the ship? Or, for that matter, why couldn’t Rey, using the Force, have given them a soft landing?

Aside from a really nice shot of the
Falcon and the furrowed grass behind it (which visually recalls the skid mark in the sand made by R2-D2 and C-3PO’s (Anthony Daniels) deserted escape pod in A New Hope), the only reason the crash landing is in the story is to introduce us to Jannah (Naomi Ackie), who conveniently knows exactly where to find the specific parts needed to fix the Falcon. Contrived! Fetching the parts delays the departure of our heroes, which gives Rey, and then Finn and Jannah, time to have a sidebar adventure on the gigantic wreckage out in the ocean.

The scene where Finn and Jannah get picked up by the
Falcon also contains a continuity problem. After jumping on top of the Falcon, Finn and Jannah look over at the exploding Star Destroyer. The next shot shows the Falcon executing a sharp turn and quickly ascending toward the camera. Poor Finn and Jannah, who wouldn’t have had enough time to enter the Falcon before the ship executed its vertical pivot, would’ve been thrown clear of the rapidly accelerating ship (remember, they’re still inside Exegol’s atmosphere, so unless they borrowed gravity boots from the Star Trek universe, Finn and Jannah would’ve dropped like rocks).

Bringing back Palpatine—the last time we saw the hooded heavy was in
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983) when he fell down the Death Star’s reactor—seems more like an expedient stopgap than a well considered plot decision. Since Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) was such a joke, Abrams was forced to come up with a big league villain for the final film. I just wish he hadn’t rehashed so many characters and story elements (like the derelict Death Star, even though it makes for a looming, unsettling set piece) in his Star Wars films.

Though it would be easy to nitpick this film to death (more than I already have), out of reverence for what the series has meant to so many, myself included, I’ll abstain.
Skywalker is a triumphant ending to one of the grandest sci-fi sagas of all time. And, as one of the movie’s many grace notes, Chewie finally gets his medal…the circle is now complete. Speaking of cyclical symbolism, this film ends at the Lars homestead on Tatooine, just as Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) did to close out the prequel trilogy.

So, where does the franchise go from here? More TV series? More ancillary films? Another trilogy? With such an uncertain future, it’s a good thing we have the Force to guide us.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Richard Jewell (R)

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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)

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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)

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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.

Unlike
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)

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Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Matt Damon
November 2019


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4

Joker (R)

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Directed by: Todd Phillips
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix
October 2019


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not joking.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4

Rambo: Last Blood (R)

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Directed by: Adrian Grunberg
Starring: Sylvester Stallone
September 2019


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 2 out of 4

Overcomer (PG)

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Directed by: Alex Kendrick
Starring: Alex Kendrick
August 2019


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3 out of 4

Crawl (R)

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Directed by: Alexandre Aja
Starring: Kaya Scodelario
July 2019


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 2 out of 4

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

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Directed by: Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland
July 2019


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 2 out of 4

Toy Story 4 (G)

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Directed by: Josh Cooley
Starring: Tom Hanks
June 2019


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3 out of 4

Tolkien (PG-13)

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Directed by: Dome Karukoski
Starring: Nicholas Hoult
May 2019


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3 out of 4

Avengers: Endgame (PG-13)

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3 out of 4

The Best of Enemies (PG-13)

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4

Captain Marvel (PG-13)

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3 out of 4

Glass (PG-13)

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4

Green Book (PG-13)

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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)

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Directed by: Fede Alvarez
Starring: Claire Foy
November 2018


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


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

Rating: 3 out of 4

Overlord (R)

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Directed by: Julius Avery
Starring: Jovan Adepo
November 2018


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


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

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4

Indivisible (PG-13)

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


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


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

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4

First Man (PG-13)

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Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling
October 2018


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


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

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4

Operation Finale (PG-13)

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Directed by: Chris Weitz
Starring: Oscar Isaac
August 2018


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


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

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

The Meg (PG-13)

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Directed by: Jon Turteltaub
Starring: Jason Statham
August 2018


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


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

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

Rating: 2 out of 4 stars