The Ghost of Peter Sellers


A comic genius lost at sea.

(2018) Documentary (1091Peter Medak, Peter Sellers, Joe Dunne, Spike Milligan, Nora Farnes, Simon van der Burgh, Louis M. Heyward, Susan Wood, John Heyman, Liza Minelli, David Korda, Ruth Myers, Robin Dalton, Costas Evagorou, Murray Melvin, Costas Demetriou, Tony Greenberg, Dennis Fraser, Piers Haggard, Robert Wagner, Anthony Franciosa, Rita Franciosa. Directed by Peter Medak

 

We Americans love a winner. What movies do we go see? The box office champions. We figure if everyone else wants to see it, it must be good. Still, there is something fascinating about a colossal failure – it brings the rubberneck instinct in all of us.

The thing is, Ghost in the Noonday Sun is not even a legendary failure like Heaven’s Gate or Ishtar. Maybe it should have been – it had everything going for it. It’s director, Peter Medak, was fresh off The Ruling Class and was considered one of the brightest young directors in Hollywood. The star, Peter Sellers, was widely acknowledged as a comic genius and perhaps one of the greatest comic actors ever. His buddy from The Goon Show, Spike Milligan, had written a script for a pirate movie. The production would be based in Cyprus and the producers built a working pirate ship for the movie. What could go wrong? Pretty much everything.

They should have gotten the hint when the pirate ship was run into a dock and sank on the first day of production. “We were cursed from Day One,” intones producer, the late John Heyman. It was 1973 though; excess was not a problem. Hollywood was thriving, after all. But there were signs, according to Medak.

Sellers had personally recruited Medak to the project and for his part Medak jumped at the chance to work with a legitimate genius. However, just before production started, Sellers had split with girlfriend Liza Minelli and was, as Medak puts it, “catatonically depressed.” He hadn’t read the script but once he read it, he realized that the movie was a disaster waiting to happen and instantly became focused on getting out of doing it. He went to the lengths of faking a heart attack (he had a well-documented heart condition that would eventually kill him seven years later). Sellers fired producers right and left, only showed up to the set when he felt like it, and alienated virtually everyone. He tried to have Medak fired, had such a vitriolic row with co-star Anthony Franciosa that neither actor was willing to appear in the same frame together.

Medak eventually completed the film and when he went to the wrap party, nobody from his own film was there; only a couple of technicians from another film working on the island. The studio (Columbia) deemed it unreleasable when they got it and it stayed on the shelf until it got an unheralded home video release on VHS. It’s not hailed as a lost treasure, nor is it even remembered as a massive failure. It’s just…ignored. Still, it was enough to destroy Medak’s confidence in himself, and derail his career; he wouldn’t direct another film for five years and he would rarely get the opportunities to direct high-profile films ever again, even though he did some decent movies like The Krays and Romeo is Bleeding as well as being regularly employed in television – he was unable to control his star so no studio would take a chance on a big-budget film with him ever again. Now in his mid-80s (he was 80 when this was filmed), the pain is very much still there. He breaks down a couple of times during the movie and clearly has issues letting go, even though Sellers’ former agent Nora Farnes gently implores him to, while Heyman, showing remarkable perspective, reminds him “it’s only a movie.”

Whether this turned out to be the catharsis he clearly intended it to be, only Medak knows. For the rest of us, it’s a deep dive into how a big movie can descend into absolute chaos, particularly when a mercurial star has way too much control. Medak has over the years kept a good deal of mementos from the movie; production logs, letters from Heyman urging him to get control of the situation or he would be fired, still pictures, home movies and yes, footage from the ill-fated film itself.

It turns out to be a fascinating exercise, perhaps more so for Medak and cinematic buffs than for the general public but it is to a large extent the equivalent of watching a train wreck. I don’t think movie sets are run quite the same way anymore and while situations like this one could conceivably happen again, producers generally have insurance policies that cover this kind of thing. Back then, nobody got paid if the movie didn’t get made, so despite the surreal chaos, Medak soldiered on, knowing that the end result would be catastrophe. But sometimes, the best revenge is survival.

REASONS TO SEE: Bittersweet but fascinating. A cautionary tale of how one person can hijack an entire production.
REASONS TO AVOID: May have limited appeal beyond cinema buffs
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sellers would go on to win an Oscar for Being There. He died in 1980 at age 54.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews, Metacritic: 73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lost in La Mancha
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
House of Hummingbird

Miss Bala (2019)


Doing the cartel crouch.

(2019) Action (ColumbiaGina Rodriguez, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Anthony Mackie, Cristina Rodio, Damián Alcázar, Matt Lauria, Ricardo Abarca, Sebastián Cano, Aislinn Derbez, Lilian Guadalupe Tapia Robles, Erick Rene Delgadillo, Mikhail Plata, Jorge Humberto Millan Mardueño, Thomas Dekker, José Sefami, Gaby Orihuela, Roberto Sosa, Vivian Chan. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke

 

For those in the know, Mexico has a thriving cinematic scene that has produced such luminaries as Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron, as well as some amazing films, like Y tu mama tambien and Amores perros, not to mention a stark thriller called Miss Bala.

That movie, Mexico’s official submission for the 2012 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, had a lot going for it but was ultimately flawed, largely due to the somewhat one-dimensional nature of the lead character, although the actress playing her did a pretty good job considering that she didn’t have a whole lot to work with. In the American remake, Gloria Fuentes (Rodriguez) is an American make-up artist who returns to the place of her birth, Tijuana to help her best friend Suzu (Rodio) with her make-up for the upcoming Miss Baja pageant.

They go to a local nightclub so that Suzu has an opportunity to mingle with the judges, particularly Police Chief Salazar (Alcázar) whose vote is crucial to winning the pageant. However, while Gloria has excused herself to the bathroom, a group of heavily armed cartel thugs shoot up the nightclub. Gloria escapes but in the confusion can’t find Suzu. When Suzu hasn’t appeared by the next morning – and is not among the dead – she realizes that Suzu has been taken, but by who?

Gloria is kidnapped herself by the Las estrellas gang whose leader Lino (Córdova) who wants to make use of Gloria and promises to find Suzu if she does what she’s told. There are, as you might expect, plans within plans, plots stirring and double crosses across the board. A gruff DEA agent (Lauria) also wants to use Gloria to infiltrate the gang, and an American gangster (Mackie) warns that there is a DEA mole in the gang. What’s a girl to do?

Rodriguez, who was so good in Jane the Virgin in a comic role, shows leading lady presence not to mention some pretty decent action chops, although I kinda wish she had more opportunity to use them. She has “star” written all over her; unfortunately, in the time period we are currently enduring, her Hispanic background may be an issue with a segment of the moviegoing crowd which is a shame; she is absolutely terrific here.

The rest of the movie is basically a pretty rote action film which gets points for getting made with a predominantly Hispanic cast in the age of “Build that wall” but loses points for not displaying a ton of originality. A lot of the best elements of the original film were taken out, but one critical new element was added in; Gloria is no victim, regardless of her circumstances. That’s pretty refreshing to see a female in an action movie as strong and as capable as this one and not be played by Sigourney Weaver or Linda Hamilton.

REASONS TO SEE: Rodriguez is a terrific action star/leading lady.
REASONS TO AVOID: Would have been more effective with an “R” rating.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, drug and sexual content and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A remake of a 2011 Mexican movie of the same title.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 22% positive reviews, Metacritic: 41/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Columbiana
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Parkland Rising

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

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

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse


A gathering of Spiders.

(2018) Animated Feature (Columbia) Starring the voices of Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Lily Tomlin, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Velez, Zoe Kravitz, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Nicolas Cage, Kathryn Hahn, Liev Schreiber, Chris Pine, Natalie Morales, Oscar Isaac, Jorma Taccone, Lake Bell. Directed by Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman

Spider-Man has been perhaps the most popular character in the history of Marvel Comics. So much so that the hero has progressed beyond Peter Parker; there are a number of iterations of the character in the comics; some serious, some not.

Miles Morales (Moore) is one of those characters. A young, African-American/Hispanic teen, he likes hanging out with his Uncle Aaron (Ali), and less so with his cop father (Henry). He’s a very smart kid, but not so interested in school and a little on the timid side. When he’s bitten by a radioactive spider, he gets the powers of Spider-Man. He relies on the comic books to kind of guide him through.

But then the Kingpin (Schreiber), a corpulent villain, opens up gateways to a multitude of parallel universes, threatening all of them. Spider-men from all around the multiverse begin to flood in, including a tired and nearly broken Peter Parker (Johnson), an iteration in which Gwen Stacy (Steinfeld) becomes Spider-Gwen, a black and white character from the 30s called Spider-Noir (Cage), a porcine cartoon pig named Spider-Ham (Mulaney) and a sprightly teen from the future named Peni Parker (Glenn). Together they will have to face down against the Kingpin and his scientific advisor Doc Octopus (Hahn) if they are to save the multi-verse.

Visually, this is a striking film that is meant to look more like a comic book than conventional animated features. It is certainly meant to appeal to Spider-Fans, with lots of little in-jokes and Easter Eggs for those who follow the character in the comics, but even for those unfamiliar with the various Spider-Man characters, there is some clever dialogue to keep the story moving, even though at just a hair under two hours long it might be too much for the attention-challenged. Still, this was the Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards and quite honestly, it deserved to be.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderful animation. Plenty of Easter Eggs for fans. Clever dialogue.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some cartoon violence, mild profanity and thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the original creators of the Spider-Man comic, passed away during production of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, FlixFling, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews, Metacritic: 87/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Incredibles
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Hope Gap

The Girl in the Spider’s Web


Lisabeth is not someone you want to cross.

(2018) Suspense (MGM/ColumbiaClaire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, LaKeith Stanfield, Sylvia Hoeks, Beau Gadsdon, Carlotta van Falkenhayn, Stephen Merchant, Christopher Convery, Claes Bang, Synnøve Macody Lund, Cameron Britton, Vicky Krieps, Andreja Pejic, Mikael Persbrandt, Thomas Wingrich, Andreas Tietz, Paula Schramm. Directed by Fede Alvarez

One of the most intriguing literary characters to come along in the last fifteen years is Lisbeth Salander, the avenging angel/hacker/righter of wrongs/badass from Stieg Larson’s Millennium trilogy and the David Lagerkrantz novels that succeeded it after Larson’s death. While the Swedish Millennium films ended up being massive art house hits, the two big budget attempts from MGM/Columbia both flopped. It wasn’t because of the lead actresses.

Lisbeth Salander (Foy) is living off the grid, using her uncanny computer skills to help out a security firm. In her spare time, she punishes the abusers of women, as she herself was a victim of sexual abuse from both her father and her guardian. It’s enough to make you hate men – and I’m a man!

She get involved with a remorseful computer programmer (Merchant) who wants her to steal his program from the American military, which will gain too much power from it. She is assisted by an NSA agent (Stanfield), crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Gudnason) and fellow hacker Plague (Britton). Opposing her are the Spiders, a global criminal gang and one of their finest operatives (Hoeks) – who happens to be Lisbeth’s sister.

There is definitely some post-feminist anger deep in the DNA of this series and Alvarez manages to capture it without blunting its impact too much. The veteran horror director also proves he’s no slouch with action sequences, including a thrilling motorcycle chase. Alvarez has a very strong visual style – the white and grey of a Swedish winter is juxtaposed with the bright red attire of the Spider Queen.

Sadly, neither this film – a “soft reboot” of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – nor its predecessor measure up to the Swedish trilogy. Maybe Hollywood just doesn’t get the subtleties that make the Swedish versions superior; sometimes, a big budget is actually detrimental to a film. That isn’t to say that this is a bad movie – it’s certainly entertaining, and Foy does a magnificent job. It’s just not as high-quality by comparison.

REASONS TO SEE: Well-staged action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: Neither American film holds a candle to the Swedish film series and Noomi Rapace.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some violence and brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stieg Larson, who created the Millennium series of novels, originally planned for ten books in the series but passed away in 2004 after writing only three. His partner Eva Gabrielson has possession of his notes outlining the remaining books, but because they were never married the literary rights passed to his father and brother. With both sides unable to agree on what direction the series was to take, the family commissioned writer David Lagerkrantz to continue the series. This book is based on his first effort, the fourth official book in the series.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews, Metacritic: 43/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Atomic Blonde
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Gelateria

The Front Runner


Hugh Jackman can’t believe he went from being Wolverine to being Gary Hart.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Columbia) Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Mark O’Brien, Molly Ephraim, Chris Coy, Alex Karpovsky, Josh Brener, Steve Zissis, Tommy Dewey, Kaitlyn Dever, Oliver Cooper, Jenna Kanell, RJ Brown, Alfred Molina, Ari Graynor, John Bedford Lloyd, Steve Coulter, Kevin Pollack, Sara Paxton, Joe Chrest, Courtney Ford, Rachel Walters.  Directed by Jason Reitman

 

The story of Senator Gary Hart’s (D-Co.) 1988 Presidential campaign is either a comedy of errors, or a tragedy of monumental proportions – likely depending on your political point of view. The facts are fairly simple. Hart (Jackman) was considered the front runner for the Democratic nomination until the press – mainly in the person of Miami Herald reporter Tom Fiedler (Zissis) chased down rumor that Hart was having an extramarital affair with a model by the name of Donna Rice (Paxton). The scandal – which was all innuendo and is denied to this day by both Hart and Rice – was enough to sink Hart’s ship and wipe out his political career.

Reitman tends to lean towards the quixotic. It is clear that the Hart scandal signaled the end of a tacit understanding between the press and politicians that personal affairs were off-limits; the press smiled and looked the other way while John Kennedy had several affairs, most famously with Marilyn Monroe – so they say. Hart’s own stubborn refusal to see the coming storm and ignore the scandal that was brewing is seen as a tragic flaw in his character – he wanted to focus on the issues. In today’s political reality, that concept seems as quaint as the horse and buggy.

The movie is based on a book by journalist Mike Bai with the script co-written by Bai, Reitman and former political campaign staffer Jay Carson and thus has a ring of authenticity of it. Reitman seems to be going for a West Wing-like vibe in which idealists who want to make the world a better place are stymied by political realities, but the movie is oddly low energy, something that the West Wing could never have been accused of.

A dynamite cast including some outstanding performances by Farmiga as Hart’s long-suffering wife, Simmons as his campaign manager and Molina as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee are a highlight. Reitman also treats Rice with much compassion, showing her as a victim and not as a golddigger which is how the contemporary press portrayed her. She was assuredly not that.

Still, I would have liked a bit more attention to period detail and maybe a less low-key performance by Jackman who would seem to be perfectly cast as Hart, but never really gets the politician’s personal charisma right. Hart was a front runner for a reason, but you wouldn’t know it by watching this film.

REASONS TO SEE: A stark reminder that we elect the leaders we deserve.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too low-key for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: ever and Ephraim play two of the Baxter sisters on Last Man Standing.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Primary Colors
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Sorry We Missed You

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween


Trick or treat!!

(2018) Family (Columbia) Wendi McLendon-Covey, Madison Iseman, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Caleel Harris, Ken Jeong, Jack Black, Chris Parnell, Bryce Cass, Peyton Wich, Shari Headley, Christian Finlayson, Matthew Jose Vasquez, Courtney Cummings, Jessi Goel, Drew Scheid, Taylor Siva, Sydney Bullock, Jason Looney, Kendrick Cross, Deja Dee. Directed by Ari Sandel

 

I always look askance at a young adult author whose book series is described as a “phenomenon.” The only audience more fickle than adults are kids. Phenomenons come and go with the regularity of Trump tweets.

In this sequel set in the universe of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, two young would-be entrepreneurs (and middle school students) Sonny (Taylor) and Sam (Harris) unexpectedly find an unfinished Stine manuscript in a creepy old house and free Slappy, the malevolent ventriloquist dummy (voiced by Mick Wingert) is brought to life. At first, all he wants is a family of his own, which makes Sonny’s big sister Sarah (Iseman) suspicious although their single mom Kathy (McLendon-Covey) is blissfully unaware that the dummy is sentient. When Slappy is ultimately refused, he decides to get himself some revenge – by using his magic to bring to life Stine-influenced Halloween decorations and turn the sleepy upstate New York own into perpetual Halloween.

The movie doesn’t compare favorably with the first one; although Black (as author R.L. Stine) is in the film, he doesn’t show up until the very end in what is a glorified cameo, although he does set up a Goosebumps 3 should Columbia elect to make one. A little more Black would have gone a long way, but to be fair he was busy making a competing film and was unable to participate fully in this one.

That leaves us with the kids to carry the film and quite frankly that’s not something they’re capable of quite yet. Their performances are inconsistent and frequently wooden. Still, the movie does okay thanks to some fairly nifty special effects and the character of Slappy who makes a delightful villain for the younger set.

REASONS TO SEE: Slappy makes an outstanding kidflick villain.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too much like the first.
FAMILY VALUES: There are mildly scary sequences, rude humor, some light profanity, and images of monsters and creatures.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jack Black and Madison Iseman were both in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle but unlike here, they didn’t share any screen time together.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere,  Netflix, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The House With a Clock In Its Walls
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Afterward

Venom (2018)


A face only an alien symbiotic mother could love.

(2018) Superhero (Columbia) Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott, Jenny Slate, Melora Walters, Woody Harrelson, Peggy Lu, Malcolm C. Murray, Sope Aluko, Wayne Pére, Michelle Lee, Kurt Yue, Chris O’Hara, Emilio Rivera, Amelia Young, Ariadne Joseph, Deen Brooksher, David Jones, Roger Yuan, Vickie Eng, Scott Deckert, Nick Thune, Lauren Richards. Directed by Reuben Fleischer

 

The Marvel march to cinematic domination continues with this non-MCU entry into the Spider-Man universe which is separate, even though Spider-Man is ostensibly part of the MCU now (confused yet?) but Venom is decidedly not.

Eddie Brock (Hardy) is an investigative journalist who is all about getting the story, regardless of who it hurts in the process. It gets him fired from his job and bounced from his relationship with lawyer Anne Weyring (Williams). In short, Eddie is a bit of an insufferable prick. While investigating tech billionaire Carlton Drake’s (Ahmed) Life Foundation, Eddie gets infected with an alien symbiote that has destroyed everyone else it has infected.

However, Eddie turns out to be not rejected by the symbiote, which endows Eddie with enormous strength and tendrils/tentacles that stretch out from his gelatinous black skin to take all sorts of shapes and forms. It makes Eddie insatiably hungry and the preferred diet of choice for the symbiote is human flesh, although Eddie draws the line there. But Drake wants his alien back and has big, evil plans for it once he gets a symbiote of his own.

The movie follows the superhero origin story formula to a T, which might work for less discerning fans but for the rest of us is very noticeable. This lack of ingenuity and creativity sabotages the film throughout and despite a fine performance by Hardy and solid supporting performances by Williams, Ahmed and Slate, renders the movie as a disappointment.

There are some plus signs, of course. The interplay between the symbiote and Eddie is downright funny at times, and there’s a motorcycle chase scene that is absolutely off-the-chain. Even though the origin story is formulaic, Venom is nonetheless a different kind of superhero, a super-anti-hero if you will. With a little less playing it safe, this could have been a truly memorable film instead of just a mediocre one.

REASONS TO SEE: Tom Hardy is excellent.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie ended up being a bit underwhelming.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of violence (some of it bloody) and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The symbiote and Eddie Brock also appear in Spider-Man 3 in which Brock is played by Topher Grace.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On-Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews: Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mask
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Bad Times at the El Royale

White Boy Rick


Like father, like son.

(2018) True Crime Drama (ColumbiaMatthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane, Bryan Tyree Henry, Bruce Dern, Bel Powley, RJ Cyler, Jonathan Majors, Eddie Marsan, Taylour Paige, Piper Laurie, Raekwon Haynes, Ishmael “Ishdarr” Ali, James Howard, YG, Danny Brown, Kyanna Simone Simpson, Heidi Sulzman, Lauren Ashley Berry. Directed by Yann Demange

 

The crack epidemic of the 80s that led to the “Just Say No” program was tragic in nearly every sense. There were no real winners – and the biggest losers were those in the poorest communities. Entire cities fell victim to the crime wave that followed the crack. Cities like Detroit, for example.

Young Rick Wershe Jr. (Merritt) has been caught up in a bad crowd. It’s not really a wonder; his dad (McConaughey) sells guns illegally, and you can bet those weapons are not being stored in a glass case. They’re finding use in the criminal underworld. Rick’s best friend Boo (Cyler) has connections with the Curry crime family. Rick, nicknamed White Boy because he is the sole Caucasian amongst the people he hangs with, ends up being recruited by a couple of unscrupulous FBI agents (Leigh, Cochrane) to be an informant – the youngest in FBI history at age 14. As it turns out, this doesn’t turn out so well for Rick or the rest of his family.

Demange, a French director best known for ’71, has the perfect directorial temperament for the urban grit this story demands. He manages to get some strong performances out of McConaughey who plays a lowlife hustler whose life is a series of miscalculations, and Merritt, a fairly unknown actor whose broad Baltimore accent doesn’t distract (too much) from the film.

The movie has a fairly bleak outlook; Wershe spent more than 30 years behind bars for a non-violent drug offense while others with more violent offenses arrested near the same time were released earlier. Now, the film doesn’t mention that when he was arrested Wershe had eight kilos of cocaine in his possession, but even so the punishment seems a little excessive. He has since returned to jail for a separate offense.

This is definitely meant to be a cautionary tale and certainly Wershe was no angel and made some bad choices, although to be fair people who live in the kind of poverty and hopelessness that is part and parcel to living in neighborhoods like that generally have few alternatives. This movie is generally pretty well-made, but doesn’t illustrate that fact perhaps as clearly as it might have.

REASONS TO SEE: Demange sets a great sense of tension throughout. McConaughey gives another outstanding performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the bleak side.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a plethora of profanity, a ton of drug use and references, violence, sexual content and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film is set in Detroit, it was actually filmed in Cleveland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/20: Rotten Tomatoes:59% positive reviews: Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prince of the City
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Between Two Ferns: The Movie