Hidden Orchard Mysteries: The Case of the Air B and B Robbery


The joys of hanging with your bestie on a summer day.

(2020) Family (VisionJa’ness Tate, Gabriellla Pastore, Catarah Hampshire, Carlos Coleman, Corey J. Grant, Kim Akia, Donovan Williams, Orlando Cortez, Davey Moore, Camilla Elaine, Hunter Bills, Ole Goode, Jaymee Vowell, Kevin Robinson, Vanessa Padla, Candice Richardson, Ja’Juan Burton, Edward Pastore, Audrey Meah, Diane D. Carter, Tim Davidson, Vienna Ash-Simpson. Directed by Brian Shackelford

 

Have you ever been around someone who was consciously trying to sound hip, but the words are awkward and only make you cringe? It’s one thing to have a 17-year-old telling you that they’re woke; it sounds disingenuous when it comes out of a 40-year-old mouth. Sometimes an entire movie can feel that way.

Summer is beckoning and best friends Lulu (Tate) and Gabby (G. Pastore) are looking forward to three months without school. They live in a fairly tony development called Hidden Orchard where people are friendly, but bicker over just about everything, such as a resident’s plan to convert a property into an Air B and B. Then when the house is robbed the neighborhood goes on edge. Lulu and Gabby are determined to solve the mystery that apparently the local police are having issues cracking. The deeper they get into the mystery, however, the greater danger the two intrepid teens realize they are in. Pretty soon solving the case may be the only way they can get out of this with their hides intact.

I have nothing against family movies in general, but oftentimes they seem to be of the opinion that their target audience is unsophisticated and not very bright. I have found that most young people actually have more than a few brain cells rattling around between their ears, and appreciate not having everything spelled out to them. They are perfectly capable of figuring things out for themselves.

Parents and most kids are going to find this cliché and riddled with afternoon special tropes. While Lulu and Gabby get on like a cross between the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew (or to be a little more current, like they should be headlining shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark? on Nickelodeon. Your kids may find that intriguing, although most kids are probably not too interested in a 20-year-old TV show.

While the cast is admirably diverse and in particularly, African-Americans are shown in a light of being hard-working, intelligent and prosperous, the acting feels very stiff and the line delivery sounds forced. Worse still, the music – which is constant to the point that there is almost no moments during the film that don’t have a soundtrack – sounds like the score of a bad TV movie comedy. It’s intrusive and noticeable, which is not a good thing at all.

Parents should be aware that there are an awful lot of damns, hells, and hos. While I think that for the most part it’s no worse than what the average kid hears during the course of their day, some parents may be uncomfortable with it, as well as the drug humor herein. I would recommend that parents consider this when deciding whether this is appropriate viewing for their children.

Nothing here is all that offensive, other than the execution. I get the sense that this could have easily turned into a franchise had this been done right, but I can’t think of a single reason to watch a sequel to this. Definitely one of the worst films I’ve seen so far this year.

REASONS TO SEE: Positive portrayal of people of color.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very cliché and predictable. The acting is forced and uniformly mediocre. The score is intrusive and sounds like it was filched from another older bad movie. Although marketed as a family film, some of the material may not be appropriate for some kids.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some peril and rude humor, as well as mild profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although he has directed several documentary features, this is Shackleford’s debut as a narrative feature director.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nancy Drew
FINAL RATING: 2/10
NEXT:
Babyteeth

Finding Grace


The picture of teen petulence.

(2020) Faith-Based Drama (VisionParis Warner, Jasen Wade, Kisha Sharon Oglesby, David Keith, Bo Svenson, Erin Gray, Bethany Davenport, London Grace, Braden Balazik, Lucy Harselle, Warren Fast, Gage Maynard, Stacie Fast, Steve Norris, David Raizor, DeeJay Sturdivant, Israel Varela, Barbara Chevalier, Paige Fiser, Lacey Fiser, Avery E. King. Directed by Warren Fast

 

I will admit from the get-go that I’m not a big fan of faith-based films. It isn’t that I don’t believe, or that I don’t think that there isn’t a place for them; clearly there’s a market for them, and I don’t have a problem with Christianity in general. I have to say I’m averse to being preached to, however, and faith-based films have a tendency to be preachy – not all, but most. My biggest problem with Christian films in general, however, is that most of them are awful.

Take Finding Grace, for example. Alaska Rose (Warner) has been acting out ever since her mother left the family, leaving the hard-working Dad (Wade) to raise Alaska and her little brother (Balazik). Alaska is “out of control,” as the judge (Gray) in the film-opening courtroom scene remarks; she has been caught holding a fake I.D. and an alcoholic drink. As she is 18 years old, that means adult jail but the judge decides to be lenient, even though Alaska has enough attitude for ten teens. She ends up with 150 hours of community service. Note: how does one get sentenced to an adult jail for something that isn’t a crime for adults? I….err…umm…

Alaska is assigned to a residential care facility for the elderly. Alaska is assigned to the difficult Mrs. Foster (Oglesby) which works out about how you’d expect; she is also given charge of the talent show, which she is completely disinterested in. In the meantime, Dad’s business is failing and he is only barely holding his head above water; it would take only a small wave to drown the family. They haven’t been going to church recently, either, not since Mom left. Still, Alaska has a good heart and maybe something might click when she lets others in, particularly if she lets God in.

There are a few recognizable names here, mainly in blink and you missed them parts but the talent here is for the most part pretty unknown. That doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing; I’ve seen unknown casts deliver powerhouse movies in the past, but to do that you need a script that doesn’t feel like it was patched together from fifty other movies, and this one certainly has that feel.

The real issue for me is that the movie doesn’t go anywhere that hasn’t been gone before, many times. It doesn’t add anything particularly fresh, or new. I’ll be honest; I think that Christian audiences have been given short shrift by filmmakers in the genre; they can be just as discerning as secular audiences, and they deserve movies that are interesting and well-acted. This feels more like a sermon based on an Afterschool Special that lasts two hours, and even on my best days I couldn’t last two hours for a sermon. I believe – and maybe I’m wrong – but Christian audiences need more than a message in their movies. They need believable characters. They need actions that make sense. They need a plot that isn’t as predictable as Sunday falling the day after Saturday. I think the time has come to hold Christian filmmakers to higher standards.

REASONS TO SEE: Panama Beach looks like a pretty nice place.
REASONS TO AVOID: Predictable plot. Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and brief sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot entirely on location in Panama City, Florida; shortly after filming was completed, the town was devastated by a direct hit from Hurricane Michael, so reshoots were not possible.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Let There Be Light
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT:
If Beale Street Could Talk

Agatha and the Truth of Murder


“Colonel Mustard, in the study, with the lead pipe.”

(2018) Mystery (Vision) Ruth Bradley, Pippa Haywood, Ralph Ineson, Bebe Cave, Luke Pierre, Joshua Silver, Samantha Spiro, Tim McInnerny, Blake Harrison, Dean Andrews, Brian McCardie, Michael McElhatton, Seamus O’Hara, Derek Halligan, Liam McMahon, Amelia Rose Dell, Clare McMahon, Richard Doubleday, Stacha Hicks. Directed by Terry Loane 

 

In 1926, the great mystery writer Agatha Christie disappeared, A great nationwide manhunt ensued with more than 10,000 police officers working the case. She was discovered eleven days later in a hotel, using the surname of her husband’s lover and with no memory of what transpired over those eleven days. To this day, it is a real-life unsolved mystery. This British made-for-TV film offers it’s own explanation.

Christie (Bradley) was at a crisis point in her life. While her career as a mystery author was going well, she was suffering from writer’s block and was tired of writing novels in which her readers simply picked the least likely suspect and solved the crime in that manner. Worse still, her husband (McMahon) was carrying on an affair with a younger woman and was demanding a divorce, one which she didn’t want to grant. Despite his infidelity, Christie was still in love with her husband.

She is in despair when approached by Mabel Rogers (Haywood), a nurse who begs the author to solve the murder of Rogers’ friend (and lover) Florence Nightingale Shore, bludgeoned to death on a train six years earlier. Although at first reluctant, Christie decides that solving the murder is not only the right thing to do but exactly what she needs to get out of her funk. She and Mabel concoct a plan to invite the main suspects in the crime to a country manor under the guise of being an insurance company representative seeing to the disbursement of funds from a will – nothing like appealing to greed to round up a disparate group of people.

Needless to say, things don’t go necessarily the way the great writer planned things and it ends up with her prime suspect (Andrews) being killed. When the actual police, in the person of Detective Inspector Dicks (Ineson), the cat is out of the bag and the game is truly afoot – to quote Arthur Conan Doyle (McElhatton), whom Christie consulted earlier about her writer’s block.

Part homage and part real life mystery, the case that Christie was called upon to solve in the film – the murder of Florence Nightingale Shore, a niece of that Florence Nightingale, actually happened as described and in reality, was never solved. That Christie knew about the case is certain; it was big news in Britain at the time and Christie used elements of the crime in her book The Man in the Brown Suit. Mabel Rogers also existed as well.

Bradley makes an extremely engaging Christie. The actress, best known in the States for her work in Grabbers as well as the genre series Primeval and Humans, gives the acclaimed mystery writer a certain amount of pluck. While she is devastated by her husband’s affair, she has enough self-awareness to know that wallowing in misery is not the way to go. I don’t know how close her portrayal is to how the real Christie was but I think she plays Agatha Christie the way we wish she was.

The era is captured pretty well and while the production values aren’t quite as lush as the best adaptations of Christie’s work are, the movie suffices in that regard. While mystery buffs will find nothing particularly innovative here, I don’t think the movie necessarily had to reinvent the wheel in order to be successful. If I do have a bit of a quibble, the dialogue can be stiff and sound unrealistic to my ears. It doesn’t sound like real people conversing at times.

Fans of Christie’s work – my mother is one and I grew up reading many of her novels – will find familiar territory here, from the gathering at a country manor to the somewhat positive light that the police are portrayed here (other mystery writers have tended to write them as bumbling fools). That makes this kind of cinematic comfort food, the sort of thing that is sorely needed in these trying times.

REASONS TO SEE: Bradley makes a wonderful Christie.
REASONS TO AVOID: The dialogue tends to be a bit stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The film was broadcast on Channel 5 in the UK on December 23rd, 2018. It was the first in a series of fictional films about Christie to be shown on television – each featuring a different actress in the role.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft,  Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Agatha
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald

An Irish Story: This is My Home


On the road again.

(2020) Music Documentary (VisionDave Browne, Dave Rooney, Jose Andres, John Good, Tony McGuinness, Joanne Rooney, Aisha Browne, Joe Magee, Jessie Nickoley, Chad George, Greg Ahn, Gavin Carpenter, Simon Knuusen, Heather Lingle, Daragh Kenney, Teresa Murphy, Henry Parnell, Steve Carey, Russ Warner, Jonathan Adams, Kevin Lowney, Teresa de la Haba. Directed by Karl Nickoley

 

There is an old saying: “The luck of the Irish.” Any Irishman will smile ruefully at the cliché, clap you on the back and tell you that it’s all bad luck. Looking at the history of Ireland, you can’t disagree.

Dave Browne and Dave Rooney are two Irish gentlemen who now live in the United States – Las Vegas, to be exact – and make up the Irish folk band the Black Donnellys. Some may be aware of their Guinness world record owned by Browne, for playing guitar continuously for 114 hours straight at Dublin’s legendary Temple Bar.

The duo – both hoping to get their green cards and eventually become American citizens – hit on exploring their new home and at the same time, making the record books once again by playing 60 shows in all 50 states in just 40 days. It might sound easy on paper, but trust me – it’s anything but.

We’re brought along on their journey, starting with a gig in their home base and then heading down to Arizona and California and continuing on and on and on. Everyone knows what Murphy’s Law is – whatever can go wrong, will go wrong – but let us not forget that Murphy was an Irishman (he was also an optimist, but that’s another story for another day). The RV that they rent has mechanical issues. A volcanic eruption in Hawaii threatens their flight back to the mainland. Gigs get canceled with little notice, causing them to scramble.

Throughout the boys keep their sense of humor intact, even though the grind of the blitzkrieg tour clearly begins to wear on them. They also have financial issues on the way; at last they break down and start a GoFundMe page to help them get through the tour and their fans come through. It’s amazing how people respond sometimes when you just ask for help.

The music is rousing and guaranteed to get you out of your seat and on your feet, clapping your hands and dancing like a fool. Be sure to have plenty of Guinness on hand when you’re watching this at home.

The main attraction here is Browne and Rooney, however. They are about as Irish as you can get, telling stories effortlessly and with self-deprecating humor. They are charming, genuine and extremely likable. They get reflective from time to time on the struggles of Irish immigrants in the United States, and of course the things that have troubled their beautiful homeland.

Still, this is the kind of movie that will make you feel better and let’s face it, who doesn’t need that? This wasn’t exactly what I was expecting – but it was just what I needed.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is wonderful. Browne and Rooney are charming, engaging storytellers. A truly entertaining music doc.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a bit repetitive in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There are more fookin’ F-bombs than you can fookin’ count.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Black Donnellys are currently the house band at the Ri Ra Irish Pub in the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: One Direction: This is Us
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Dosed

Stuck (2017)


You never know when someone is going to break out into a song on the New York City subway.

(2017) Musical (VisionGiancarlo Esposito, Amy Madigan, Ashanti, Arden Cho, Omar Chaparro, Gerard Canonico, Timothy Young, Reyna de Courcy, Heather Hodder, Sienna Luna, Belle Smith, Shannon Lewis, Jennifer Knox, Dennis Launcella, Mel Johnson Jr. Phil Oddo, Anna Kuchma, Anita Welch, Natia Dune, Alisha Nagasheth, Rachael Ma, Sam Carrell. Directed by Michael Berry

 

It is no secret that for the most part, we have lost our ability to connect. We are so trapped in our cell phones and our social media, squatting in our little corner of the world that we’ve made for ourselves that we have forgotten that we’re actually living in that world with other people. Therefore, we go out into the world, our noses buried in our iPhones and scared to bejeebus to make eye contact with anybody less we be actually forced to have a conversation. As Paul McCartney observed more than 40 years ago, by playing it cool we’re making the world a little colder.

In this movie based on an off-Broadway musical, six New Yorkers find themselves on a subway car that abruptly comes to a stop. The harried conductor (Johnson) explains that there’s a police action on the platform ahead and they are waiting for the all-clear signal to continue on their way. He locks the doors to the car and continues on his way, never to be seen again in the film.

That leaves six strangers, nervously eyeing one another (without actually making eye contact) except for one guy – Lloyd (Esposito), an outgoing sort who carries with him all his worldlies in a trash can on wheels. He stands up and offers up a coffee cup for spare change as he delivers a brief Shakespearean soliloquy – or part of one anyway.

The others are a human resources department diversity poster of riders, all with their own problems; Caleb (Canonico) is an aspiring comic book artist who has been sketching dancer Alicia (Cho) who is none too pleased about having a dweeby stalker, and for good reason as we find out later. Ramon (Chaparro) is a hard-working immigrant working three jobs to give his beloved daughter (Luna) an opportunity at a better life – and he’s dang stressed because he’s sure that being late to the job that he’s on his way to will get him fired and as it is his family is right on the edge of not making it.

Then there’s Eve (Ashanti) who is wrestling with a very personal choice that has an odd connection to her own past, while Sue (Madigan) is a music professor who has recently been struck by an unthinkable tragedy that has left her struggling to find any good in the universe. As the subway riders actually begin to talk, they find themselves opening up about the things that are bothering them, while also discussing hot button topics like immigration, abortion, health care and sexual assault. This being a musical, the characters are apt to break into song at any given moment.

There is a certain amount of urban grit to the film, or at least what passes for it; we film reviewers in Orlando have little experience with true New York urban grit. It seems fairly genuine to me, but some critics who are actual New Yorkers say no. The music is decent enough; I enjoyed it while I was listening to it but now two days later I can’t for the life of me remember a single song. That could be because my mind was on Hurricane Dorian as it passes through the area today. We Floridians have our own kind of grit.

While none of the main performers are especially known for singing with the exception of Ashanti who is a bona fide pop star, the entire cast actually acquits themselves well in that department. Esposito in particular stands out; he really is a national treasure in the sense that he makes every film he’s a part of better and some of his performances are legendary. Madigan, a veteran actress who has been nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy, and won a Golden Globe for her work in the TV movie Roe vs. Wade. Few of her fans remember that back in the 70s she was in a band called Jelly (and modeled for Playboy wearing nothing but jelly to promote her band). Her song is one of the most haunting moments of the movie, largely due to Madigan’s performance.

There are some moments of comedy, some of them awkward but by and large things are fairly serious. Now, truth be told, I’m not a big fan of modern musicals; they all sound alike to me and feel like they were written by committee to please focus groups more than to make some sort of comment on the human condition. Like modern pop music, stage musicals feel over-produced and under-insightful but I actually enjoyed this, so take that for what it’s worth. I suspect those who love stage musicals will be more likely to seek this out but for those who are ambivalent I can tell you that I found myself enjoying it as flawed as it is. Keep in mind that both Esposito and Madigan are reliable performers in any milieu, even a musical.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures a gritty urban feel.
REASONS TO AVOID: The material tends to be a bit heavy-handed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some fairly adult themes and a depiction of a sexual assault.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Because New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) was reluctant to let the crew film in an actual subway car, a near-exact replica of a modern subway car was built in the Pfizer Building in Brooklyn and all the subway train sequences were shot there.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 36/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rent
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Always Be My Maybe

Xenophobia


Why is it that aliens always get the pretty girls?

(2019) Science Fiction (VisionKristen Renton, Manu Intraymi, Rachel Sterling, Brinke Stevens, Angie Stevenson, Kelly Lynn Reiter, Alexander Kane, Alan Maxson, Nick Principe, Dilynn Fawn Harvey, Mark Hoadley, Karlee Perez, Keavy Bradley, Jed Rowen, Baker Chase Powell, Shaun Blayer, Scott King, John Karyus, Jack McCord, Douglas Epps, Sheila Brandon Allen. Directed by Thomas J. Churchill, Steven J. Escobar and Joe Castro

 

Sometimes, a filmmaker’s reach exceeds their grasp. That’s just the way things go sometimes; someone comes up with a good idea but doesn’t have the expertise or the budget (or both) to pull it off. As a critic, those are the most disappointing movies of all. You might think that we critics get off on ripping a bad movie a new one but speaking for myself, that’s simply not the case. Truthfully, I want every movie to be a home run. Sometimes they strike out swinging, though.

A support group for alien abduction victims meet to tell their tales of woe. The members are at turns terrified and hostile, paranoid and sympathetic. They’ve all been through hell and are trying to help one another make it through to the other side, but what could be waiting there might well be worse than what they’ve already been through.

This is told anthology-style with each abduction tale getting a different director, so there are tonal shifts from segment to segment. The segments include a photographer who gets abducted and probed while taking pictures in the desert, a group of young women who have a captive audience, a camping trip that turns deadly when an alien artifact is discovered, and a house in which a dog-sized alien stalks a babysitter.

Despite the presence of one of my all-time favorite Scream Queens in Brinke Stevens (who plays the mother of an abduction victim here), the acting is almost uniformly bad. The digital effects look like something you might see on an early PlayStation games, but much of the effects are practical and even though the aliens look a little bit on the rubbery side, the aliens are still nifty enough (some of them Gigeresque) to be enjoyable.

The trio of directors also wrote the film and they could use some work on their dialogue; much of it is written like nobody bothered to actually speak any of it out loud before giving it to the actors to read. It sounds thoroughly unconvincing and not at all the way people actually speak to each other.

I wanted to like Xenophobia a lot more than I did and I will have to confess that my score is probably a bit generous but I hate to thoroughly eviscerate a movie like this one. Clearly there  was some pride and passion put into the finished film but this was certainly a case where ambition overrode realism.

REASONS TO SEE: The aliens are fairly nifty in a B-Movie kind of way.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting is subpar. The story is disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as violence and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Veteran Scream Queen Brinke Stevens originally got a Masters in Marine Biology and briefly worked as an environmental consultant for a nuclear power plant before venturing into modeling and acting.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Communion
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Perception

Method of Murder


In the desert where you can bury your bodies …or not.

(2017) Documentary (Vision) Jacky Rom, Tommy McDonald, Junior Rubio, Arianna Black, Mason Pollack, Jamie Wilson, Sarah Cass, Cash Kasper, Norm Thom, Derek Stevens, John Fiato, Jenny Brown, Vivien Karp, Joseph Charfauros, Sandy Karp, Larry Hess Lyle Rivero, Marco Antonio, Keith Evans, Kristin Whittemore, Isabelle Mondelaers. Directed by Elliot Manarin

 

How do you kill a person and get away with it? In this era of forensic experts, security cameras and digital footprints, it’s harder than ever – and it was never easy. For most of us, it’s an academic question, something that leads us to watching TV crime shows or reading murder mysteries.

For British crime novelist Jacky Rom however, it’s a whole lot more than idle speculation – it’s a living. The author of best-selling novel From Makeup to Murder, she was hard at work on the follow-up From Vegas to Villainy and needed some ideas on how to do the deed, so to speak. Being the kind of plucky sort who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, she heads out to Los Angeles and Las Vegas to figure out how she was going to commit the perfect crime – in a literary sense.

In this hour-long documentary, Rom interviews tattoo artists, photographers, magicians, make-up specialists, lion tamers, archers, casino security experts and firearm specialists. For the most part everything is handled in a fun, lighthearted manner. Rom is endlessly cheerful and comes off like a Brit combining work and vacation, but there are some serious moments. She is visibly affected when she fires a handgun; the recoil establishes just how powerful a weapon it is and just how easy it is to kill someone with it. For a few moments, the crime author seems to be empathizing more with the victims than the investigators.

She seems to have an inventive mind as one of the methods she devises is pure genius if impractical. However, sadly, most of the methods she investigates are pretty run-of-the-mill – I suppose she wanted to keep her best ideas for her book and I could hardly blame her. As it turns out, having lions dispose of the remains of her victim turns out to be a bad idea. When she looks into burying a body in the desert, she discovers it is a whole lot harder than it sounds.

I don’t think this is going to give anyone with criminal intent any nefarious ideas but it is a bit of a lark, even if it moves slowly occasionally. Rom is an engaging personality and I wouldn’t mind spending an hour with her normally but after awhile this begins to feel like one of those British travel documentaries that has an offbeat, morbid bent.

REASONS TO SEE: The concept is fascinating albeit morbid.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie is fairly vanilla and unimaginative.
FAMILY VALUES: Although presented in a lighthearted manner, some of the subject here is adult in nature thematically speaking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to being a crime novelist, Rom also is a radio hostess in the UK.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: How to Commit the Perfect Murder
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Farewell

Bob Fosse: It’s Showtime!


All that jazz.

(2019) Documentary (VisionBob Fosse, Jason Solomons, Merritt Moore, Will Young, Vanessa Fenton, Geraldine Morris, David Benedict, Louise Redknapp. Directed by Lucia Helenka

 

Those who love musicals view the name of Bob Fosse with reverence. He may well be the greatest choreographer in Broadway history and remains to this day the only person to win a Tony, an Emmy and an Oscar in the same year (1973).

This British documentary examines Fosse both professionally as the innovative choreographer he was and personally, pulling no punches regarding the self-destructive tendencies he possessed. His semi-autobiographical film All That Jazz should give viewers an idea of the demons that haunted the man.

The footage of the films, television shows and Broadway musicals that Fosse was involved with is the best part of the film. The filmmakers and commentators do a good job of explaining how precisely that Fosse innovated dancing in musicals, with some very intuitive points about how his own body image influenced his choreography. For example, Fosse was born pigeon-toed which led to his celebrated turned-in knees style; his own discomfort with his baldness led him to using bowler hats in his choreography. To say that Fosse’s choreography was stylized is an understatement; there was a lavishness to his movements, an almost haughtiness to the way the dancers presented themselves.

American audiences may find the use of talking heads in the film to be somewhat dry. While the professions of those making the commentary are listed (film critic, actor/singer and so on), it is never really established what makes these folks expert enough in the life and choreography of Fosse to warrant inclusion in the film. They do talk intelligently about the subject but as someone who is relatively unfamiliar with the particulars of his work, it’s hard to know how valid the commentary is.

Fans of the late choreographer will no doubt find this fascinating, while tyros like me may be less enthusiastic. Clocking in at just over an hour, the film at least won’t take up an enormous amount of your time. I must say, however, that I learned more about Fosse from watching the dance clips than I did listening to the commentary.

REASONS TO SEE: The dance footage is a reminder of how great a choreographer he was.
REASONS TO AVOID: Relies far too much on talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some incidental smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted on the British arts-oriented television channel Sky Arts in May 2019.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: If the Dancer Dances
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Ice on Fire

Point Man


Two soldiers who don’t see eye to eye.

(2018) War (Vision) Christopher Long, Jacob Keohane, Chase Gutzmore, Marcus Bailey, Matthew Ewald, William Shannon Williams, Jeff Williams, Paul de Havilland, Joe W. Nowland, Acorye’ White, Jimmy Ace Lewis, Bryan Bachman, Cody Howard, Triston Dye, Jason Alan Cook, John Charles Harnett, James Roseman, Jason Damico, Marianne del Gallego. Directed by Phil Blattenberger

 

Once upon a time, war movies depicted American soldiers as brave, heroic and honorable and why not? The wars we were involved in were for the most part clearly defined from a moral standpoint. Then came Vietnam and everything changed.

Andre “Casper” Allen (Long) is “in country” and he’s not thrilled about it. Martin Luther King has just been assassinated back home and the civil rights movement is reaching a crescendo. Meanwhile he’s risking his life for a country where his people are hated, discriminated against, lynched and in general treated like second hand citizens. Even in Vietnam he’s called “Soul Man” by the locals who while they seem to be more accepting of him than his fellow Americans, are too busy trying to kill him for him to make friends.

He’s outspoken and opinionated which doesn’t endear him to his commanding officer, Lt. Sutton (Ewald) and he has to endure the racist taunts of Mississippi redneck Pvt. Meeks (Keohane) in the barracks. His platoon is being sent out into a largely hostile territory where unit 29 Bravo has disappeared and with whom all communication has been lost. They are being sent to sweep the area of Viet Cong and find the missing company, or their remains.

When his platoon gets into a firefight, four of the soldiers are pinned down – Casper, Meeks, and African-Americans Joe (Gutzmore) and Felix (Bailey) when Sutton bugs out to save his own neck, leaving the other four there to die. They fight their way out and go looking for Sutton – and it’s not to buy him an ice cream as Casper puts it. In the meantime, the four cut-off soldiers find the missing 29 Bravo and discover that their mission has devolved into killing every Vietnamese civilian possible whether they have any ties to the Viet Cong or not. Casper, who has become the quartet’s de facto leader, decides to take matters into his own hands which leads the group further and further down the rabbit hole.

=The morality of the Vietnam war is something America has been trying to come to grips with ever since we pulled out of Saigon, an act that is still hotly debated today. The soldiers who fought there are often caught in the middle; they were spat upon and despised by the left for even going to war and they were looked down upon and despised by the right for not winning it. Even today there’s a stigma associated with those who fought in the war, despite our rush to “support our troops” in the present day. The soldiers who served in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos don’t get the respect today that their peers who fought in other wars received and continue to receive.

We have to remember that a very large percentage of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam were basically teenage boys from poorer environments. This is a fact of the war that the movie fails to capture – most of the soldiers here seem to be older. The movie does capture the chaos of having leadership that was often self-contradictory and often did senseless things without explanation.

This is a very low budget indie. Do not expect to see battle sequences loaded with explosions and DolbyTM bullets whizzing through the air. Most of this is done with practical effects and it appears that the budget for fake blood was pretty low as well. Some war film buffs might find that disconcerting. The actors here are largely unknown and while they mostly acquit themselves well, some of the dialogue that they’re required to speak doesn’t sound much like how soldiers actually talk.

This isn’t a home run but it isn’t bad. There are a lot of good things going on here, not the least of which that we get a chance to examine our moral evaluations of the war – everyone above a certain age has one. I’m not going to say this is the war as soldiers experienced it but I think that it gets some of the confusion, the moral dilemmas and the chaos of the war. High kudos to the filmmakers for at least trying something different and succeeding enough of the time to make this a recommended rental.

REASONS TO SEE: The film gives a sense of the conflict that African-American soldiers went through.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the dialogue is a bit on the clunky side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of salty language, racial epithets and war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although this was the first American narrative production to shoot in Vietnam for a movie about the Vietnam War, some of the combat scenes were shot at Lee Ranch here in Orlando.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Platoon
FINAL RATINGS: 6/10
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Arctic

Cecil


What do you mean most adults aren’t idiots?

(2019) Family (Vision) Sark Asadourian, Jason London, Christa Beth Campbell, Jenna von Oy, Aaron Munoz, Valerie Jane Parker, Avary Anderson, Susannah Devereaux, Graham Schneider, Maddie Kimrey, Mary Alfred Thoma, Reese Gould, Amiya Harris, Anna Grace White, Robert Gobelet, Jay Dee Walters, Noah Quarles, Kaiden Scott, Drake Light, Sarah Reynolds. Directed by Spencer Fritz

 

Most of us, growing up, have spent time watching movies aimed at kids our age at the time. Those movies were often over-the-top, always kid-centric and often portrayed the adults as essentially idiots whose sole purpose was to make our lives as kids miserable. These movies were mostly essentially meant to empower us, to give us the feeling that we could accomplish anything without the help of our parents. Mainly though we ended up learning that adults were not to be respected and that the only way to get things done properly was to do them ourselves.

The unfortunately named Cecil Stevens (Asadourian) has a lisp, which is not generally not a favorable condition when you’re in the fourth grade. Just saying his own name essentially paints a target on his back. Worse still his mom (von Oy) and dad (London) are having problems and have separated, forcing mom to take Cecil to his super hip grandma’s (Thoma) to live which means a new school. His new neighbor Abby (Campbell) who is also editor of the school newspaper tries to show her new friend the ropes but eventually she hits upon the solution – Cecil will just have to change his name.

Cecil is fine with that and even has a name in mind: Michael Jordan. Seeing as this is 1996, the new name brings Cecil great popularity and everyone wants to change their name to a celebrity. However, the unscrupulous principal (Walters) gets wind of the idea and decides that this is an ideal way to make the money to pay off the loan shark he owes money to, which has led him to cut school programs and funneling the money to the shark. When the newfound popularity goes to Cecil’s head, he is about to learn one of the great lessons of childhood – that actions have consequences.

Setting the movie in 1996, which was likely when the writer/director was experiencing the fourth grade himself, might have seemed a good idea at the time but in retrospect is a misstep; most of the age group this movie is clearly aimed at won’t have any memories of the nineties whatsoever. A more contemporary setting would have been a better idea.

The real problem here is that this is a movie that is severely dumbed down. There’s a whole lot of toilet humor and nearly every adult is an over-the-top caricature, the adult actors chewing scenery like living Cartoon Network characters. This makes the movie unwatchable for just about anyone who is older than seven or eight; even the fourth graders that inhabit this film would have rolled their eyes at this one.

Fortunately, the actors playing the lead kids – Asadourian and Campbell – acquit themselves surprisingly well. They get into their parts and even though they aren’t delivering naturalistic performances, the roles really don’t lend themselves to reality to begin with.

Parents may find the message to be a sound one but they likely won’t be willing to watch this one with their kids without some sort of distraction. Any kids movie which has the moms and dads whipping out the smart phone while the movie is playing is in big trouble.

REASONS TO GO: Asadourian and Campbell actually do a credible job.
REASONS TO STAY: Any viewer over the age of seven will end up being put off by this. The target audience won’t get the 90s references.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of rude humor, adult buffoonery and some mild bullying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on the director’s childhood.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harriet the Spy
FINAL RATING: 4/10
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Book Club