Movie Reviews

Movie Review: The Netflix Original “Bright”

Netflix has given us a Christmas present, and it just might be better than a tax break. Set in an alternative L.A., populated with orcs, elves, fairies, and human beings, Bright is a fresh take on the buddy-cop movie: Ward (Will Smith) is paired with Jakoby, an orc (played brilliantly by Joel Edgerton). Despite the nods to diversity training and racial profiling, all is not well. Scars from a 2,000 year old war have left a very uneasy truce between men and orcs, and all of Ward’s fellow patrolmen want Jakoby dead. Into that heady mix falls Tikka, a young elf bearing a magic wand she is desperately trying to keep from those who would bring back the Dark Lord. Unfortunately, everyone and his brother wants the wand, which one character describes as “like a nuclear weapon with a wish list.” Foremost among those are the elves in the group known as the Inferni, led by a deliciously evil and unstoppable Noomi Rapace. No, Dorothy, we are definitely not in Kansas anymore!

With all the production values of a big-budget Hollywood extravaganza, the film moves like gangbusters. The action is fast, funny, violent and at times, even John Wickian. (Can I say that?) So if you like your entertainment loud and lurid, put another piece of holiday roast on your plate, freshen your drink, sit back and enjoy. I give Bright an enthusiastic five stars.

Movie Reviews: Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Have you wondered why 93% of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes liked Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but only 57% of the general audience did? I have my own hypothesis. Do you remember what Daniel Craig as the new James Bond said to the bartender who asked him if he preferred his martini shaken or stirred? He replied, “Do I look like someone who gives a damn?” That iconoclastic moment defined his take on the role. So, too, the new Star Wars film is filled with iconoclastic moments that have jarred dyed-in-the-wool fans. Those who go in to the movie with preconceived notions as to how things should turn out would best follow the warning Luke gives to Rey toward the end of the film: “This isn’t going to turn out as you expect.” The new director, Rian Johnson, takes a much freer approach to the mythos, and I’m afraid this disappoints some viewers. I was not one of them. I feel The Last Jedi delivers on all levels: compelling characters, engaging story, eye-popping action, and a very satisfying conclusion. Not to be crude, but I was tempted to light up a cigarette as I walked out of the theater.

On a different spectrum entirely, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a visceral, gut-wrenching tour de force for veteran actors Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell. Borrowing from the Coen brothers playbook, Martin McDonagh has crafted a sometimes darkly comic and always ferocious film about a mother’s grief for her murdered daughter. I confess that I was afraid the film would end with a graphic depiction of that grisly rape and murder, but it does not–thankfully that remains off-screen. That’s not to say the film isn’t violent, but it’s the violence of savage fist-fights between men. What is unique about this film is the attention to character: even the most minor character is nuanced, complex, more than what is immediately visible. Because of that, a gesture as small as offering someone a cup of orange juice with the straw pointed in the right direction can be redemptive. I do recommend you see it with a friend so you can discuss it afterward. I found I enjoyed it more as I got some distance from it and had a chance to process it with a friend. I will be very surprised if McDormand and Rockwell don’t get Oscar nods for their performances.

Two Movie Reviews: Coco and The Man Who Invented Christmas

I took my nine-year-old granddaughter to see Coco last weekend, and I was pleasantly surprised. I went in not expecting too much (from what I had seen of the trailer), and was treated to a richly and beautifully animated film with extraordinary depth. Happily, it is devoid of the potty jokes that have become  the staple in recent animated films. Instead, it explores family loyalties, personal identity, ambition, and betrayal in a thoroughly engaging way, and yes, mush that I am, I was pretty choked up by the end. This movie has Oscar written all over it. That said, my only disappointment was the animated short that preceded it. We’ve come to expect little gems from Pixar–smart, quirky shorts that burst with creativity. Instead, we get an Olaf the Snowman (yes, from Frozen) cartoon that was dull and unimaginative. But don’t walk out! Stay for the feature! It’s more than worth the price of admission. I’ll be going to see it again.

Then I took my daughter to see The Man Who Invented Christmas. This is a delightful Christmas confection, purporting to be the story of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol. I’m quite sure they played loose with the facts, but for any fan of Dickens, the film is pure pleasure. Dan Stevens as Dickens and Christopher Plummer as Scrooge could not have been better cast. We see Dickens haunted by his characters, who refuse to behave as Dickens would have them. As a writer, I especially liked the way Dickens is portrayed as “trolling” for ideas, paying attention to the people and conversations around him, writing down names that he likes in his notebook, jotting down turns of phrase to use later. Reading A Christmas Carol is a holiday tradition for me, along with watching an assortment of Christmas films. (How can it be Christmas without Chevy Chase and Ralphie and the Muppets?) Anyway, I’m sure I will add this film to my collection for viewing again next Christmas.

Music and Mayhem: A review of the movie Baby Driver

If you’ve had any doubts about seeing the new action film Baby Driver, leave them all behind. This movie delivers in spades. No, the trailer didn’t contain all the good parts. This is a thrilling film from start to finish. The casting of Ansel Elgort as the driver was inspired–yes, he has a truly baby face, and to see him drive like a bat out of hell is a delight. Kevin Spacey is a menacing puppet master, and both Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx are deliciously evil bad guys. And did I mention the killer sound track? All of the delirious action is driven by the tunes that play in Baby’s ears, music he listens to in order to drown out his tinnitus. Just when you thought the movie was exciting, it careens toward a climactic battle that will leave you gasping for breath and thoroughly satisfied. Sick and tired of your stupid boss? Kids driving you crazy? Demoralized by your impotent road rage in your wimpy Toyota? Check in to your local cineplex for the ultimate catharsis. Just make sure to fasten your seatbelt.

Movie Review: Alien Covenant

First a confession: I’m a bit of a romantic and long for the days of yore when the alien was simply a bad-ass space dragon hell-bent for leather. We know, since Prometheus, that it’s really a weaponized life-form genetically engineered to annihilate planets. Oh, well, the blush is off the rose. That said, Ridley Scott has demonstrated that there’s still (alien)life left in the franchise.

Alien Covenant is closer to the original Alien than to the rather tepid Prometheus, and for my money, a far better film. Set ten years after the conclusion of Prometheus, it focuses on the crew of the starship Covenant, with its cryosleep pods full of earthlings eager to colonize another world. Alas, an emergency awakens the crew, who then succumb to that old alien trope of responding to a signal they intercept from another planet. This planet is much like earth and is also far closer than their original destination. Why not go down and check it out? Of course, this is akin to the plot device in slasher films, when the audience is screaming to the scantily-clad teenagers not to go down into the darkened basement. But adolescents never learn, nor do starship flight crews.

Michael Fassbender, scene-stealer that he is, reprises his Prometheus role of David, perhaps the creepiest android in cinema. He is joined by his technically superior upgrade Walter, a match made in hell.

Overall, the movie is quite stunning to watch, with its intricate sets and superb computer graphics. Scott includes some winks at the earlier films: the perpetual-motion drinking bird from Alien makes a cameo appearance, and Fassbender, using a recorder-like flute, plays the theme from Prometheus. But make no mistake about it–this is a horror movie and a pretty bloody one at that. Definitely not for the squeamish. Would you like to increase your heart rate and respirations without a boring workout at the gym? Alien Covenant will have your heart pounding and adrenaline pumping with its dizzying action sequences and its sometimes terrifying encounters with the creature that refuses to die. Add a plot twist or two and you have a recipe for a welcome escape from the heat of summer into the air-conditioned multiplex. I’ll give it four out of five stars–well worth the price of admission. I may take my sons and go see it again.

Movie Review: Netflix Series “13 Reasons Why”

Seventy-five years ago, the French philosopher Albert Camus wrote, “Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering. . . . in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land.” (The Myth of Sisyphus).

When 13 Reasons Why begins, Hannah has already taken her life. Before doing so, however, she made 13 audio tapes, each addressed to a person who contributed to her untimely demise, through acts of omission or commission, neglect or bullying. Each of those people must listen to all the tapes and then pass them on to the next person on the list. What unfolds is a gripping mystery, unraveling the sometimes casual insensitivity, sometimes brutal crime that is the stuff of relationships. It is a journey into everyday darkness, a descent into a world without redemption. And it all takes place in a high school.

It seems that the older we get, the easier it can be to dismiss the upheavals of adolescence. We belittle the pain by calling it “teenage angst” or “drama.” We’ll say things like, “How bad can it be? Their parents pay all the bills, put a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, food in their bellies.” This series is the antidote to such inane sentiments.

Over the course of 13 insightful episodes, we meet a group of adolescents who range from the shy and decent, to the bold and criminal. If you are a high school teacher or guidance counselor, you should watch this series. Your students are already talking about it. If you are a mental health therapist, you owe it to yourself and your patients to see it. But it is not a program for the squeamish. The graphic scenes of rape and suicide (without the slightest bit of prurience) may cause you to turn your eyes away. That said, it is a masterwork. The writing and dialogue are crisp, the production values high, the youthful actors uniformly excellent. It may be the most heartbreaking show I have ever watched and I am still haunted by it. You have been warned.

Book Signing and Movie Review: The Fate of the Furious

I wanted to let my friends know that I will be reading from my short stories and my latest novel and signing copies at Santiam Wine & Bistro on Saturday, May 13, from noon  to 3:00. The shop is located at 1555 12th Street SE in Salem. The owner, Debbie Rios, will have some yummy selections for tasting. What better way to start a weekend than a sip of wine and a good book? I hope to see you there.

That said, what about The Fate of the Furious? OK. If you didn’t enjoy any of the previous films in the franchise, then don’t go to see this one. If you did enjoy them, then run out and buy a ticket today. But let’s be clear. This isn’t rocket science, nor is it War and Peace. It’s a testosterone-fueled, car-chase-and-explosion-packed film probably aimed at an audience of adolescent boys. But what’s wrong with that? You were young once, weren’t you? So park your brain at the door and ramp up your willing suspension of disbelief to astronomic proportions. Then take out a personal loan so you can afford the popcorn and bask in the cinematic mayhem. But by all means, fasten your seat belt!