The Last Laugh (2019)


As you get older, life can be a gas.

(2019) Comedy (NetflixChevy Chase, Richard Dreyfus, Andie MacDowell, Kate Micucci, Chris Parnell, George Wallace, Lewis Black, Richard Kind, Ron Clark, Kit Willesee, Chris Fleming, Allan Harvey, Jason Batchko, Alan Demovsky, James Galea, Rafael Villegas Jr., Carol Sutton, Belinda D’Pree, Sharon Martin, Jessie Payo, Robin Wesley, Khiry Armstead, Giovannie Cruz. Directed by Greg Pritikin

 

As someone who is going to hit the big six-oh this year, films about being old have more of a resonance with me lately than usual. At the same time, as I am writing this, I’m listening to the latest album by Hamerkop.  Age is, truly, just a number.

Don’t tell Hollywood that, though. Most comedies about elderly sorts have a pretty condescending attitude towards the AARP generation. We’ll get more into that in a minute, though; let me tell you a little bit about the plot of this one though. Al Hart (Chase) was once upon a time a talent manager for some of the most talented stand-up comics in the business, but now he’s retired and mourning his wife. His granddaughter Jeannie (Micucci) is concerned that Al has been doing a lot of falling down lately. She is anxious for him to move into a facility where he can be seen to; Al is against the idea but after a particularly nasty spill agrees reluctantly.

At the retirement village, Al discovers Buddy Green (Dreyfus) is a resident. Buddy was Al’s first client and had the makings of being a major star; Al had him booked on the Ed Sullivan show which would have established Buddy as a major star. Inexplicably, he never showed up and turned his back on comedy, instead choosing to raise a family and become a podiatrist. Talk about the shoe being on the other foot.

But the what-ifs have never really left Buddy and Al, seeing the parade of residents to the morgue figures that Buddy deserves a last shot to see if he had the stuff; he books Buddy on a cross-country tour, starting off in cruddy venues in Podunk towns gradually working up to bigger shows until the big one – the Stephen Colbert Late Show in the Ed Sullivan theater in New York. Along the way, the two bicker like an old couple, pick up a free-spirited artist in Kansas City (MacDowell) that Al becomes sweet on, and discover that it’s never too late to pursue a dream.

If that last sentence sounds a bit maudlin, it’s meant to. The movie plays it about as safe as a movie can be played, with the exception of a magic mushroom sequence in which Al trips, imagining a musical number and a carriage ride with Abe Lincoln at the reins. No, I don’t know why.

Remember I talked about Hollywood’s condescending attitude towards the aging? This is the kind of movie that portrays old folks doing shrooms and having sex as kind of “isn’t that cute.” Let’s do the math; people turning 70 this year were born in 1950; they were in their teens and 20s in the 60s and 70s when just about everyone was doing drugs and having sex. I think Hollywood sees the elderly still as the Leave it to Beaver generation, except that they were doing drugs and having sex back then too. Guess what, America? Your grandparents used to get high and fool around. Get over it.

Worse still, the humor is of the safe, don’t-offend-anyone variety, which makes me want to scream. I’m not the biggest Chevy Chase fan ever, but dammit, the man was an integral part of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, and played a major role in one of the most subversive comedies ever made – Caddyshack. Can we not accept that there are some great comedic minds hitting their 70s now and capable of making comedies that can be bigger game changers than some of the modern crop of comics are currently capable of making? Dreyfus – who is as good as he ever was in this movie – as well as Chase and MacDowell all deserve better than this mildly entertaining, eminently forgettable project.

REASONS TO SEE: Dreyfus is a gift.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unnecessarily maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good amount of profanity including plenty of sexual references, as well as some drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first leading role for Chase in a mainstream film since Snow Day in 2000.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews, Metacritic: 31/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Sunshine Boys
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Glass

The Grey Fox


Bill Miner, at your service.

(1982) Western (UA Classics/Kino-Lorber) Richard Farnsworth, Jackie Burroughs, Ken Pogue, Wayne Robson Timothy Webber, Gary Reineke, David Petersen, Don Mackay, Samantha Langevin, Tom Heaton, James McLarty, George Dawson, Ray Michal, Stephen E. Miller, David L. Crowley, David McCulley, Gary Chalk, Isaac Hislop, Sean Sullivan, Bill Murdoch, Jack AckroydDirected by Phillip Borsos

One of the great Westerns of the last 50 years is one that is often forgotten; Phillip Borsos’ The Grey Fox. It hasn’t been available to stream or view at home for a while, but the good folks at Kino-Lorber have given the film an all-new 4K restoration and it looks possibly better than it ever has. I admit that I hadn’t seen it in decades before re-watching it a few days ago.

It’s based on the true story of Bill Miner (Farnsworth), also known as the Gentleman Bandit, who committed a string of stagecoach robberies in the West. Caught, he was sentenced to prison in San Quentin which he served for more than thirty years before being released in 1901. The movie picks him up here, trying to adjust to life outside of the life of crime he’d always known and not really succeeding at it. Stagecoaches are not really in vogue anymore and robbing banks is not really Bill’s style.  An innovator in his time (he is for real credited with being the first to utter the command “Hands Up!”), he has entered a new century to find that the world has passed him by.

One evening, he goes into a movie theater and sees The Great Train Robbery, the 1903 Edwin S. Porter film that was only eleven short minutes long, but it would change Miner’s life. Why, here was a line of work he could get into! He sets out to do just that, but a botched attempt in Oregon leads him to British Columbia where he settles down in the small mining town of Kamloops under an assumed name. He puts together a team including the volatile Shorty Dunn (Hobson) and the consumptive Louis Colquhoun (Petersen). He also meets a feminist photographer named Kate (Burroughs) with whom he begins a romance that give him the thoughts of maybe, finally, settling down.

This is a beautifully shot movie; hopefully, once theaters reopen, your theater that shows revivals will book this for at least a one night screening. It certainly deserves to be seen on the big screen, but the 4K restoration makes the film look incredible even on much smaller screens.

But as beautiful as the film looks, the main attraction here is Farnsworth, who up to that point had been a stunt man for three decades as well as playing small roles for a decade, although he had been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1979 for Comes a Horseman. This was his first leading role and it established him as an actor of tremendous skill. He would continue to act – including another Oscar nomination for a lead role in David Lynch’s The Straight Story – until he passed away in 2000.

The movie combines elements of the gritty 70s westerns with the grandeur of the westerns of the 60s, making it thoroughly entertaining. The romance between Bill and Kate is endearing and the chemistry between Farnsworth and Burroughs is genuine. The movie is available here in Florida, benefiting three theaters locally; the Enzian here in Orlando (here), the Corazon in St. Augustine (here), and the MDC Tower in Miami (here). Those readers out of state can click the photo above which will take them to a list of theaters that are also presenting the film; choose one of your liking. Purchasing the film at any of these three sites will benefit the theater in question, so feel free to purchase a movie that the entire family will enjoy at the same time benefiting independent theaters who need all the help they can get. It’s a win-win situation.

REASONS TO SEE: Farnsworth’s signature role. Beautifully shot. Has all the elements of an old-fashioned Western. Interweaves old movie footage in skillfully.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a little too low-key for hardcore Western fans.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is widely considered to be one of the ten best films ever produced by Canada.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Last Laugh

A Dog’s Way Home


Happiness is the love of a good dog.

 (2019) Family (ColumbiaAshley Judd, Edward James Olmos, Wes Studi, Bryce Dallas Howard (voice), Alexandra Shipp, Barry Watson, Chris Bauer, Tammy Gillis, Jonah Hauer-King, Farrah Aviva, Patrick Gallagher, Lucia Walters, Lane Edwards, John Cassini, Darcy Laurie, Benjamin Ratner, Motell Foster, Brian Markinson, Patrick Gallagher, Broadus Mattison, Christine Willes. Directed by Charles Martin Smith

 

Another in a recent spate of movies told from a canine point of view, this is also based on a novel by W. Bruce Cameron, who also wrote A Dog’s Purpose which, perhaps not coincidentally, got the sequel treatment in 2019 as well.

Here, kind-hearted med student Lucas (Hauer-King) finds and rescues a pit bull puppy living in a condemned property that an unscrupulous developer (Markinson) is trying to tear down. He and fellow VA intern Olivia (Shipp) who would look favorably on Lucas as boyfriend material, decide to keep the pup over the objections of Lucas’ PTSD-afflicted veteran mom (Judd) who gradually warms to the dog, whom they name Bella (Howard) whose thoughts we get to hear.

Lucas’ efforts to keep the developer from…umm, developing leads to him calling a favor from an equally unscrupulous animal control officer (Cassini) who is enforcing a Denver law banning pit bulls. Knowing that if Bella is captured by animal control she’ll be put to sleep, Lucas reluctantly arranges to give his dog to a family in New Mexico to care for, only to see Bella run home to her one true master. Along the way she meets people (good and bad), critters (good and bad) and tugs at the heartstrings at just about every available opportunity.

Being a dog nut myself, I tend to be overly lenient to such films and will be the first to admit that the ending had tears streaming down my jaded critical face. There are even moments for cat lovers – baby Bella is raised by Mother Cat, and along the road back home Bella meets a cougar kitten whom she dubs “Big Kitten,” turning into a not-so-good CGI apparition.

This is more-or-less harmless family viewing material with a nice sucker punch for dog lovers like me. It doesn’t really push any boundaries nor is it essential viewing even for kids, but it does make a nice hour and a half babysitter for parents and children alike during these stay-at-home days.

REASONS TO SEE: Ends up being heartwarming, but you would expect that..
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really Jack London, is it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some dog peril and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The dog that plays the adult Bella, Shelby the Dog, was a rescue dog found liiving in a Tennessee junkyard.

BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic:  50100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Call of the Wild
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Grey Fox

The Vanishing (Keepers)


Taking on all comers.

(2018) Mystery (SabanGerard Butler, Peter Mullan, Connor Swindells, Gary Lewis, Emma King, Ken Drury, Soren Malling, Ólafur Dari Ólafsson, Gary Kane, Roderick Gilkison, John Taylor. Directed by Kristoffer Nyholm

 

On or about December 15, 1900, three lighthouse keepers on the tiny island of Eilean Mor in the Flannan Islands about twenty miles West of the Outer Hebrides Islands in Scotland vanished without a trace. Their fates are unknown even to this day and are the subject of lively conversation locally.

Senior officer Thomas Marshall (Mullan), grizzled veteran James Ducat (Butler) and fresh-faced newcomer Donald MacArthur (Swindells) – known in the log book as “The Occasional” because he isn’t a full-fledged member of the crew yet – are set for a six-week shift watching the Flannan Islands Lighthouse. It is tedious, boring and lonely work but the three men get on pretty well, ribbing the newbie and heading off the cold with copious amounts of Scotch.

Then a rowboat shows up with an apparently dead body and a locked chest. Donald is sent down to investigate, and the dead body turns out to be not-quite-dead-yet. Donald ends up in a fight for his life and triumphs, but is sorely affected by what has transpired. You just know that whatever is in the chest that someone was willing to kill for is certainly going to have other people looking for it, and of course they eventually show up. That leads to further mayhem, guilt, paranoia and inevitable tragedy.

Nyholm does a good job of creating an eerie atmosphere. Certainly there have been paranormal explanations as to what happened to the keepers, but Nyholm and writers Celyn Jones and Joe Bone keep their feet planted firmly on terra firma, but Nyholm is not above making us think there is something otherworldly going on. It is only in the last half of the film that we’re pretty much told “Nope, nothing crazy going on here.”

The performances here are superb, particularly from Butler, who doesn’t get many opportunities to flex his acting muscles in the action movies he primarily makes these days, and Mullan, one of the finest character actors in the UK. The turn of the 20th century is replicated well here, although the lighthouse is equipped with a radio that I’m fairly certain wasn’t in general use for another decade at least.

Despite the title which intimates a spooky horror film, this is a pretty taut thriller with explosions of very personal, in-your-face violence. Well-acted with a nicely tense atmosphere of paranoia and maybe something else, this is an ideal viewing on a cold, windy night – or for that matter, a still summer day.

REASONS TO SEE: Very atmospheric with great period production design. Solid performances all around, particularly from Butler and Mullan.
REASONS TO AVOID: Devolves into a generic thriller towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence and grisly images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the lighthouse of Eilean Mor is still operational albeit slightly modernized, four other lighthouses were used in the production of the film due to the remoteness of Eilean Mor.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lighthouse
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
A Dog’s Way Home

Escape Room (2019)


Did someone say “Poseidon Adventure”?

(2019) Horror (Columbia) Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Jay Ellis, Tyler Labine, Deborah Ann Woll, Nick Dodani, Yorick van Wageningen, Cornelius Geaney Jr., Russell Crous, Bart Fouche, Jessica Sutton, Paul Hampshire, Vere Tindale, Kenneth Fok, Caely Jo Levy, Jamie-Lee Money, Jeremy Jess Boado, Carl Coetzee, Katheryn Griffiths, Gary Green, Raven Swart, Inge Beckmann. Directed by Adam Robitel

 

When a movie is dumped into a January release date, it could either be an Oscar-qualifying holdover looking to make a wide release (good), or a movie that the studio’s pretty sure is going to tank (bad). When it’s a horror movie, it generally means the studio thinks it can clean up against generally weak competition of Christmas holdovers and January bargain bin cinema.

Escape Room actually isn’t all that bad; it capitalizes on the escape room fad which was pretty much inevitable – Hollywood likes to capitalize on every fad. Escape rooms, for those not in the know, are group exercises in which a group is locked in a room and must solve clues scattered about the room to unlock the doors and escape. Normally, there’s a time limit. Normally, the room doesn’t kill anybody.

But this being a January-released horror movie, you know that’s not going to be the case here. The six contestants, lured by the prospect of a $10,000 payday if they solve the puzzle and escape, are an introverted math whiz (Russell), an alcoholic loser (Miller), a cocky businessman (Ellis), a PTSD-afflicted veteran (Woll), a truck driver (Labine) and a puzzle nerd (Dodani) who may as well have been called “Mr. Exposition.”

The cast is serviceable and at least commit to playing parts which are largely one-dimensional. The rooms themselves are lavish and fiendish; try and check any sort of logic at the door and you’ll be okay. For the most part this is mildly entertaining if you like this sort of thing, but hardcore horror fans are going to bemoan the lack of gore (another studio going for the PG-13 crowd) while thriller fans might find this too simplistic. It did well enough to generate a sequel whose release has been held up by the COVID-19 outbreak.

REASONS TO SEE: Reasonably entertaining.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very much “been there, done that.”
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence and profanity, perilous action, some sexually suggestive material and a few grisly images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second time that Robitel has directed the first nationwide release of a new year (he previously did in 2018 with Insidious: The Last Key).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews, Metacritic: 48/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saw
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Vanishing

Lionheart (2018)


Genevieve Nnaji keeps a wary eye out for whatever could be standing in her way.

(2018) Comedy (Netflix) Genevieve Nnaji, Nkem Owoh, Pete Edochie Onyeka Onwenu, Kanayo O. Kanayo, Ngozi Ezeonu, Kalu Ikeagwu, Chibuzo “Phyno” Azubuike, Jemma Osunde, Sani MU’AZU, Yakubu Mohammed, Peter Okoye, Chika Okpala, Oramulu Peter, Clemson Agbogidi, Chudi Nwafo, Stan K. Amadi, Obi Jane Nkechi, Uzodinma Umeh, Okwesileze, Steve Eboh. Directed by Genevieve Nnaji

 

Africa is a diverse and beautiful continent. There is veldt and jungle, mountains and deserts, modern urban metropolises and dirt-poor villages. There is no pigeonholing a continent, and the more glimpses we get into the daily life in various African nations, the more we come to realize that we have a lot in common with them.

Nigeria has a film industry known as “Nollywood” that has made some headway under some pretty tough obstacles. Their economic struggles in the Eighties led to nearly every movie theater in the country being closed down. Their movies are largely distributed on tape and disc, and while streaming services are beginning to make headway there, the infrastructure makes Internet availability spotty particularly in the more rural areas of the country.

One of that country’s brightest stars is Genevieve Nnaji. She not only stars in the first Nigerian film to be distributed on Netflix, but she also directs and co-wrote the script. She plays Adaeze, a smart, ambitious woman working in her father’s (Edochie) transportation company. Even though she’s more able than most men, she is often met with derision and hostility; her ideas are often rejected out of hand and from time to time men in the male-dominated industry expect sexual favors from her in exchange for their cooperation. When her father takes ill, rather than pass on the leadership reins to his infinitely qualified daughter, he instead passes it on to his eccentric brother (Owoh) who has some interesting ideas about leadership.

Adaeze’s frustration further grows when she discovers that the company is in a precarious financial position. Her father, perhaps unwisely, took out several loans which the bank has called. They have 30 days to pay it back before they lose everything. She will have to figure out a way to team up with her uncle if they are able to save the company from predators both from without – and within.

Nnaji is an almost regal presence in the same way Angela Bassett is. Beautiful and elegant, she has a screen presence most American actresses would envy. She has a knack for the light comedy of the movie, and while she is no Kate McKinnon, she nonetheless knows what she’s doing in a comedic role. Owoh is definitely the comic presence here, however. Nnaji is essentially his “straight man.” The humor isn’t outrageous or over the top, but more a gentle ribbing of the foibles of life – a very African viewpoint, in other words.

The family dynamics of the Obiagu family are what make the movie really worthwhile. There is a good deal of bickering but there is also a good deal of love – in other words, just like families everywhere. Of course, it’s not exactly headline news that people are people everywhere you go, but it’s nice to see the people of a different culture share their similarities as well as the things that make their culture unique.

REASONS TO SEE: A glimpse at urban African life.
REASONS TO AVOID: A somewhat pedantic plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some occasionally rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was the official submission by Nigeria for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2019 Academy Awards but ended up being disqualified since it was determined that the bulk of the film was in English.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gods Must Be Crazy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Escape Room

Vice (2018)


Love him or hate him, Bale nailed Dick Cheney.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Annapurna) Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Alison Pill, Eddie Marsan, Justin Kirk, LisaGay Hamilton, Jesse Plemmons, Bill Camp, Don McManus, Lily Rabe, Shea Whigham, Stephen Adly Gurgis, Tyler Perry, Josh Latzer, Jeff Bosley, Camille Harman, Jillian Armenante, Matthew Jacobs, Alexander MacNicoll, Cailee Spaeny. Directed by Adam McKay

 

Dick Cheney is a polarizing figure. The former Vice-President is looked upon by many conservatives as an architect of the modern Republican party; liberals tend to see him as the boogie man. He is a man renowned for playing his cards close to the vest and as a result is something of an enigma.

Cheney is not so much portrayed as inhabited by Christian Bale, an actor noted for throwing himself feet first into his roles (he would win the Golden Globe for this one). He is accompanied, as all great men are, by a great woman, his wife Lynne (Adams, nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe). He becomes an aide to then-Senator Donald Rumsfeld (Carell), an association that would last through several administrations.

McKay presents this almost as a comedy; there are indeed some farcical interludes (like a false set of credits that role before Cheney decides to take the Vice-Presidential position) which seems like an odd call, but it works. Cheney is by his own admission not the most charismatic of men and how he rose to such a powerful position is something of a miracle of “right guy, right place and right time.” The humor helps lighten the movie which wouldn’t have worked as well as a straight drama.

I can imagine those readers leaning to the right will find this contemptible and disrespectful. I can’t disagree with the latter; McKay’s politics made it inevitable that this would not be a kindly portrait of the former V.P. Liberals of the more fire-breathing sort will say this doesn’t go far enough in excoriating a man that some believe paved the way for our current chief executive and his philosophy of absolute executive power.

But I’m not here to review the politics of the film, only the film itself. It is well-acted, highly entertaining and certainly worth a look, particularly if you are left-leaning. As I said, those on the right will likely not find this a laughing matter as I’m sure a similarly themed movie about, say, Al Gore, would be to folks like me.

\REASONS TO SEE: Bale and Adams truly inhabit their roles. Irreverently funny.
REASONS TO AVOID: Conservatives may not dig this, and everyone may find it a tad dry
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and a few violent images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bale has the same birthday as Dick Cheney does (January 30).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews, Metacritic: 61/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: W
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Lionheart (1988)