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
NEXT:
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
NEXT:
Book Club

Outlawed


Some people just shouldn’t be allowed to use grills.

(2018) Action (Vision) Adam Collins, Emmeline Kellie, Andy Calderwood, Andre Squire, Ollie Christie, Jessica Norris, Ian Hitchens, Anthony Burrows, Zara Phythian, Tina Harris, Brian Woodward, Rose Joeseph, Martin Gaisford, Tobias Fries, Celiowagner Coelho, Craig Canning, Steven Blades, Jack Edwards, Renars Latkovskis, Phil Molloy, Melvyn Rawlinson, Lisa Opara, Halle Neathey, Charlotte Williams. Directed by Adam Collins and Luke Radford

 

Action movies are surprisingly formulaic. Somebody gets wronged, somebody gets their booty booted. It’s a formula as old as time. The truly great action movies either add something to the formula or execute it flawlessly. Some merely emulate the formula as best they can.

Jake (Collins) is part of an elite British special forces unit. They do the dirty work when there is a bad guy who needs to be terminated, or a child that needs rescuing from terrorists. After capturing a particularly nasty wild-eyed wild-haired terrorist (Fries) who likes to shoot children, Jake and his crew are recognized with medals.

He is contacted by Nottingham businessman/power broker Harold Archibald (Hitchens) who offers Jake a job. Jake however knows what Archibald is all about and declines. Shortly after, Archibald – who has been making deals with the wild-eyed wild-haired terrorist, double crosses the WEWH terrorist which is not usually a good idea when dealing with terrorists. He ends up with his children kidnapped and even though Jake’s team is sent in to save the day, it ends in tragedy.

Jake just can’t get past that a child died on his watch and he decides to get his discharge papers. He promptly discovers that his girlfriend (Kellie) is cheating on him and so Jake sinks into a bottle and screws the cap shut behind him. Then, childhood girlfriend Jade (Norris) finds him sleeping in the street and tells him that she needs his help Her father was murdered you see and the person responsible was none other than Harold Archibald and she has the proof! Archibald owns the cops – or at least has a long-term lease out on them – and is virtually untouchable. Nevertheless he kidnaps Jade and almost dares Jake to come get her. What self-respecting special forces operative could turn down a dare like that?

Collins is a veteran stuntman on a variety of major Hollywood productions as well as a former British Marine. His acting chops are from the early Jason Statham school of acting. He has some potential in a Vinnie Jones sort of way (I’m really name-checking today) but largely it’s wasted because the role he is given to play here is so run of the mill. I don’t feel sorry for him however; he co-wrote and co-directed this movie so he has only himself to blame.

The action sequences as you might expect are the highlights here. Unfortunately when it comes to exposition, Collins makes a fine soldier. The story portions tend to be a bit maudlin complete with overwrought score and advanced by unbelievable coincidences. The dialogue is clunky and cliché; the villains are way over the top but that’s okay – villains should be. Heroes should be understated and brooding, or outgoing and light.

If you’ve never seen an action movie before, this is a fine jumping-off point but if you have seen your share a little too much of this will be too familiar. While there are a few things that work, most of the movie just doesn’t live up to the standards it should be.

REASONS TO GO: Collins is a solid action performer.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is absolutely rotten with action movie clichés. The story is dull and uninspiring.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence and profanity as well as nudity, sexual references and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Collins served six years in the Royal Marines, which included two tours of Afghanistan.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silencer
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
 Every Act of Life