Baby Driver


Baby and Debora want their Big Mac meals right NOW!!!

(2017) Action Comedy (TriStar) Ansel Elgort, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, Lily James, Elza Gonzalez, Micah Howard, Morgan Brown, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Morse Diggs, Flea, CJ Jones, Paul Williams, Big Boi, Killer Mike, Lance Palmer, Sky Ferreira, Lanny Joon, Hudson Meek, Brogan Hall, Richard Marcos Taylor, Viviana Chavez, Hal Whiteside, Brigitte Kali. Directed by Edgar Wright

 

This has been a really good year for quirky action movies and this one is one of the best of the year. British director Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) channels Tarantino through a Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack filter and turns in an absolute gem.

Baby (Elgort) is a getaway driver par excellence. Due to a childhood accident, he suffers from tinnitus – a ringing of the ear that can sometimes be distracting. To combat this, he wears an iPod and ear buds to drown out the white noise with classic rock and roll from such diverse groups as The Damned, Golden Earring, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and T-Rex.

He works for a criminal named Doc (Spacey) who robs banks, although he doesn’t actually do the robbing himself; he puts together the master pan and assembles the crews. The only common denominator is Baby who he considers his “good luck charm” and who besides owes Doc a debt which he pays for with each job. Baby has one more job to go before the debt is paid but Doc doesn’t really want to let him go.

The trouble is from Doc’s standpoint is that Baby has found himself a girlfriend, Debora (James) who waitresses at the diner he frequents. The two are eager to get the heck out of Dodge (or at least Atlanta) and drive west and never stop but Doc has Baby sucked in. Still, Baby has his own plans and he might just be able to outthink the brilliant Doc if he gets a few breaks going his way.

The action sequences which were done practically and without CGI are flat-out amazing. Some of the best car chase sequences since Bullitt populate this film. The backstory and mythology of the piece is riveting and Wright populates this world with a cast of characters that would do the aforementioned Tarantino proud. The dialogue as you would expect from an Edgar Wright film is smart and occasionally brilliant.

Elgort who has not impressed me particularly to this point does so here. He’s done a lot of teen heartthrob films and he is completely wasted in them; this is the kind of movie he was born to do and he makes the most of it. The rest of the cast is uniformly at the top of their games, with Hamm and Foxx particularly noteworthy.

Since allegations of sexual misconduct came out against Spacey a few weeks ago, there are likely many who will want to boycott the film because of his presence in it and yes, he plays a very critical role and takes up a good deal of screen time. I won’t begin to excuse his performance or advise for or against boycotting this film because of it but I will say that while he shows off the best of his abilities here, I can understand why people will want to give this film a miss because of his presence. Again, I won’t judge anyone’s moral compass other than to say that the rest of the cast and crew who made this one of the year’s best movies may deserve your support in this case but again, it is understandable if you choose to withhold it. Nevertheless this is one of the year’s best films.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are second to none. Elgort gives the best performance of his career to date and has real chemistry with James. The backstory is not only credible but entertaining. The soundtrack is spot on.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s quite possible that the film is too hip for its own good. The presence of the disgraced Spacey may make it a moral choice whether to support this film or not.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity throughout the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: CJ Jones, who plays Joseph (a deaf character) is himself deaf.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Logan Lucky
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Mr. Roosevelt

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Gerald’s Game


Carla Gugino is literally a captive audience.

(2017) Thriller (Netflix) Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Carel Struycken, Henry Thomas, Chiara Aurelia, Kate Siegel, Natalie Roers, Tom Glynn, Stu Cookson, Gwendolyn Mutamba, Ben Pronsky, Jon Arthur, Nikia Reynolds, Kimberly Battista, Michael Amstutz, Chuck Borden, Dori Lumpkin, Chad Kinney, Bill Riales, John Ceallach, Tony Beard, Victoria Hardway, Adalyn Jones. Directed by Mike Flanagan

It has been the year of Stephen King adaptations, with Dark Tower and It having already made their theatrical runs and 1922 recently released on Netflix. This adaptation is of particular interest because 1) Mike Flanagan, who has been impressive with Oculus and Hush, is in the director’s chair here and 2), this is one of King’s lesser works that was thought to be virtually unfilmable. How wrong they were.

One can see why that thought occurred however. The movie is mostly set in a single bedroom with the protagonist alone and immobile for the bulk of the story. There is also a kinky sexuality to it that in the current atmosphere is both timely and perhaps may incite a certain segment of the population to point their fingers and cry shrilly “Objectification! Objectification! Objectification!” We are, these days, gunshy about sex (particularly of the kinkier variety) on both sides of the political aisle.

The marriage between successful attorney Gerald (Greenwood) and his trophy wife Jessie (Gugino) has been troubled for some time now and the two decide to take a romantic trip to a beautiful but remote vacation cabin to try and heat things up. Gerald’s idea of romance is a lot different than Jessie’s however; he wants to handcuff her to the bed and enact a rape fantasy on his wife. At first she goes along with it, but as Gerald gets deeper into the game she freaks out and demands that he stop and free her. At first he is petulant, like a little boy who’s been told he can’t have a cookie. Then he does what most little boys don’t do – he has a heart attack and dies.

Slowly the realization comes to Jessie that she is in an absolutely terrifying predicament; she has no way to free herself from the stainless steel cuffs, no way to get food or water and she is sharing the bedroom with her husband’s corpse and a hungry dog who is desperate enough to enjoy some Gerald tartare. As panic begins to set in and she realizes that nobody can hear her screams, she begins to speak with the angels and devils of her better nature – her angels represented by a strong, self-possessed version of herself and her devils by Gerald himself. While Gerald mostly relates the scenarios in which she dies a horrible death, the alter-Jessie figures out ingenious ways to get water and eventually to concoct a desperate plan to escape – one that will take all of the actual Jessie’s willpower and courage.

But there is soon another player in the play; a deathly, spectral figure with a bag of bones who is stalking her after dark. She realizes that as the last evening falls that he will come for her in the night…and she will join her husband as potential puppy chow if she doesn’t escape before then.

The script follows King’s book pretty faithfully but it lacks the sense of dread and terror that King was able to weave in the book – but to be fair, not every writer is as talented at that particular skill as King is. In fact, very few writers are. Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard turn this more into a suspense film than a supernatural thriller which is what King produced – but the Moonlight Man is excellently rendered, I’ll give them that.

I’ll also give you that this is the performance that I’ve been waiting for Gugino to deliver. It’s masterful as she captures both the strong, self-assured side of Jessie and the frightened, wounded and disregarded part of her. She spends nearly the entire movie in a negligee (and looks mighty fine doing it) but you never get a sense of her being exploited (although some may disagree); she’s a woman who is comfortable with her sexuality and one senses that if Gerald had actually had a romantic weekend getaway planned instead of a kinkfest, he’d have gotten plenty of action.

She and Greenwood actually work very well together. Greenwood is sixty-plus at this point but he looks a lot more buff than the overweight Gerald of the book; it’s possible that Gerald’s use of that Little Blue Pill may have been what done him in. The relationship between Jessie and Gerald is believable; these are people who feel like they’ve been together for awhile but have begun to diverge away from one another and neither one knows really how to get back on the same page – or if it’s even possible. They remain civil to one another but there is that undercurrent of tension between them that tells a story of frustrations not voiced and petty arguments that are.

There is a subplot about Jessie’s past about a terrible incident that takes place during a rare total eclipse that does a lot to explain her backstory. It’s sensitively handled and again is pretty timely considering the events of recent months but it might be a little disturbing for people who have a history of childhood sexual abuse.

All in all this turned out much better than I think most of us had a right to expect. It re-emphasizes that Flanagan is the genuine article, a master of horror films who tends to elevate every project he works on and this one is no exception. Not only is it maybe the best adaptation of King you’ll see this year, it is one of the better original films you’ll see on Netflix this year as well.

REASONS TO GO: Gugino gives a career-defining performance and she works very well with Greenwood. The plot is fiendishly clever.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is not nearly as creepy as the book.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, a good deal of sexuality and some disturbing images and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dialogue and plot devices from the film reference such Stephen King books as Dolores Claiborne, Cujo and The Dark Tower.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Girlfriend Experience
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
More of Six Days of Darkness

Annabelle: Creation


The power of Christ compels you!

(2017) Horror (New Line) Anthony LaPaglia, Samara Lee, Miranda Otto, Brad Greenquist, Lulu Wilson, Tabitha Bateman, Stephanie Sigman, Mark Bramhall, Grace Fulton, Philippa Coulthard, Taylor Buck, Lou Lou Safran, Joseph Bishara, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Lotta Losten, Fred Tatasciore (voice), Brian Howe, Adam Bartley, Kerry O’Malley. Directed by David F. Sandberg

Creepy haunted dolls have been a staple of the horror genre for a very long time. Sometimes they are the avatars for demonic spirits; other times they are physically possessed. They are sometimes played for laughs but there are few things scarier than a demonic doll coming at you while brandishing a knife with intent to do homicide.

I imagine nobody would know that better than Sam Mullins (LaPaglia) since he is a dollmaker. He is also a grieving father; his daughter Bee (Lee) was killed in a tragic auto accident some seven years earlier (this is set in the late 1940s/early 1950s by the way). Since then, he has retreated back to the California farmhouse that is also his workshop along with his disfigured and disabled wife Esther (Otto).

When he hears of an orphanage in need of some housing space, he invites them to stay in his spacious home. For the six girls who are brought to the Mullins farm, it’s like heaven on Earth. Their caretaker, Sister Charlotte (Sigman) is grateful that they have a place to stay, particularly for the two youngest, polio-stricken Janice (Bateman) whose leg is in a brace and her cheerful, optimistic bestie Linda (Wilson) who has sworn to stay together with Janice no matter what.

There is one room that is locked in the whole house, one of two that the girls are forbidden to enter; one is the bedroom where Esther rests; the locked door is Bee’s former bedroom. However, when Janice discovers the door to Bee’s room open and ventures in, she finds there a doll that seemingly can move on its own and the spirit of Bee begging for help. What does Bee need? “Your soul,” she snarls and Janice is on the road to Linda Blair-land. Soon after the orphans and the grieving couple are going to be doing a lot of running, screaming and in some cases, bleeding.

This is a prequel to the first Annabelle film which in turn was a prequel to The Conjuring. Sandberg was apparently reluctant to tackle this initially after achieving a rep with the successful Lights Out  He decided to do it because the film is almost a stand-alone entry; very little of the rest of the Conjured universe is even referenced here. With Creation netting $300 million (and counting) at the box office on a production budget of $35 million, you can bet he’ll have the juice to pick and choose his next few projects at his leisure.

The movie is a slow burner; it starts off slowly, builds gradually than erupts in the third act in a chaotic whirlwind of gore and terror – very old school when it comes to that and you’ll find no objection coming from this critic on that count. I also like the air of melancholy that Sandberg sets up and is particularly enacted by LaPaglia who is a much underrated actor. Sigman gets to look worried an awful lot and Otto gets almost no screen time whatsoever but makes good use of the time she does get.

The rest of the cast playing the orphans are all very attractive and well-scrubbed although they are mostly given one-note characters to play; the mean one, the flunky, the perky one and so on. Bateman does a credible job playing the frightened Janice, a young girl who’s gotten a raw deal from life although that deal gets even worse when Annabelle shows up; the before and after portrayals show some real talent for Bateman. I’m not familiar with Hart of Dixie, the TV show she was a regular on but judging on her performance here I think she certainly has a future.

Although critics were solidly behind this one, I found it to be the weakest entry in the franchise so far and mainly because it really doesn’t have much of a personality. While there are a few legitimately good scares here, the vast majority of them are pretty predictable. The plot utilizes a lot of elements that are typical for horror films including the panic-driven dumb moves by the protagonists. There felt like a shortage of imagination in writing this film which is what really bothered me about it. The CGI was a little subpar as well.

Still, this is a solid horror movie that will entertain; it just doesn’t hold up as well next to the other entrants in the franchise. Given its box office success and with at least two more spin-offs in the works from the second Conjuring movie, I can say with confidence that we haven’t seen the last of Annabelle quite yet.

REASONS TO GO: LaPaglia gives a melancholy performance. There are a few really nasty scares here.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s definitely the weakest entry in the franchise thus far. It feels a bit short on imagination with too many horror movie clichés in the mix.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some horrific images, lots of violence and situations of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie in The Conjuring franchise in which Ed and Lorraine Warren are not mentioned in any way.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Child’s Play
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness continues!

Clarity


Healthcare isn’t what it used to be.

(2014) Drama (Vision) Nadine Velazquez, Dina Meyer, Maurice Compte, Tony Denison, Dana Melanie, Lourdes Narro, Geovanni Gopradi, Anton Rivas, Rusty Meyers, Jason Sarcinelli, Cazi Greene, Thompson Jr., Vinda Montalvo, Veronica Lopez, Eduard Osipov, Christina Roman, Joey Huebner, Morgen Weaver, Luis Delgado, Danny Pacheco, Andrew Pacheco, Sharon Resnikoff. Directed by Peyv Raz

 

A mother’s love is pretty much about as certain as death and taxes. There aren’t many moms who wouldn’t go through hell for the sake of their child and if that child’s life hung in the balance, well there isn’t anything they wouldn’t do to save them

Sharon (Meyer) is throwing a dinner party to welcome her adopted daughter Maggie (Melanie) home from medical school. However when she arrives home she suddenly collapses at the dinner table and is rushed to the hospital. As it turns out, Maggie has a rare disease that is causing her kidney to fail and she needs a new one pronto. As she is adopted, nobody in Las Vegas – where Sharon lives – can help. They’ll have to find her birth mother who Sharon only knows lives somewhere in Mexico.

But Maggie being adopted is a bit of a misnomer. She was in fact stolen from her birth mother Carmen (Velazquez – Narro as the younger version in flashbacks) and sold to the rich American. Sharon wasn’t aware of this although Malcolm (Denison), her late husband’s muscle man, knew the score. So he heads off south of the Border to bring Carmen back. He doesn’t mention that her long lost daughter needs a kidney. Carmen’s husband Omar (Compte) is somewhat suspicious at the sudden reunion and insists on coming along.

Carmen has the same disease as her daughter does and the transplant may very well kill her – which makes one wonder if poor Maggie is getting a kidney that will last her for very long. Sharon is used to getting what she wants but as the power shifts from the wealthy Sharon to Carmen who wants justice for having her child stolen from her, Maggie’s life will hang in the balance.

I’ll give credit where credit is due; this is a really good concept for a film and it brings up some solid socioeconomic points not to mention some pretty strong emotional ones. Unfortunately, the opportunity provided by a good concept is squandered in execution, mainly because the movie ends up coming off like a particularly hysterical telenovela.

Some of the plot points strain credibility, particularly near the end when Carmen threatens Sharon, and by extension, her own daughter. It comes out of left field and especially when Carmen went through such heartache and at last is reunited with her daughter I don’t think that she would do anything to endanger her daughter’s life – but beyond that there’s also the dialogue which does sound like soap opera 101. Not that I have anything against soap operas but the movie takes all the worst elements of that particular art form which may well thrill fans of that genre but if, like me, you’re not quite so enamored this might not be good news at all

Meyer, who was one of my favorite actresses of the 90s (I’ll never forget her work on Starship Troopers and Eyes Wide Shut) puts as much dignity as she can muster into the role. Velazquez who has done some stellar work on her TV shows Major Crimes and Six does what she can with a character who is often contradictory which I suppose makes her fairly realistic. Playing the innocent martyr is Melanie who at least manages to look beautiful and ill at the same time.

Much of the rest of the cast injects some hysterics in their histrionics. I don’t blame them to be honest; with a movie like this chewing scenery is really the only option for an actor and a lot of that goes on here. I do think this is a bit of a wasted opportunity; this could have further explored the class divide between the wealthy trophy wife of a Las Vegas businessman (I don’t think it was really necessary to make him so shady) and the impoverished hard-working Mexican girl; given the current climate of Mexican-American relations, a lot of hay could have been made of that as well although to be fair this was filmed well before Trump was elected. If the over-dramatics had been cut down in the plot, this could have been a really nice little film. Hopefully Raz’s next one will be better.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is good and Meyer handles her part like a pro.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is cringe-inducing. Some of the writing is a bit on the overwrought side.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie has a bit of violence as well as discussion of a character’s rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature directing debut for Peyv Raz.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Forrester
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Monogamish

Win It All


This is what tired of winning looks like.

(2017) Comedy (Netflix) Jake Johnson, Keegan-Michael Key, Joe Lo Truglio, Aislinn Derbez, Rony Shemon, Arthur Agee, Steve Berg, Cliff Chamberlain, Jose A. Garcia, Tiffany Yvonne Cox, Edward Kaihatsu, Nicky Excitement, Morgan Ng, Kris Swanberg, Kristin Davis, Rashawn Scott, Howard Sudberry, Salome St. Clair, Freddy Gonzalez, Ali Bathwell. Directed by Joe Swanberg

 

The gambling addiction is one that is particularly hard to shake and particularly difficult for others to understand. It’s the adrenaline rush that the gambler is really addicted to, not even the winning so much. The action becomes the be-all and end-all for the addict as it saps all of their self-control. In some ways it’s like any other addiction but most people treat it differently. “Why don’t you just stop gambling?” they wonder, not realizing it’s a physiological addiction just like alcoholism and sex addiction.

Eddie (Johnson) knows it only too well. He is in the throes of a serious gambling addiction. Unable to hold down any job or maintain a relationship, he does a series of cash under the table blue collar odd jobs. When he gets paid, he finds himself a poker game or underground sleazy casino and spends – make that loses – his hard earned dollars there. Constantly asking for loans, not so much to pay bills but to pay down his gambling debts, his brother Ron (Lo Truglio) has essentially given up on him although he is one of the few people left who actually talks to Eddie although he’s done loaning him money.

Then loan shark Michael (Garcia) approaches Eddie with an intriguing offer; Michael is about to do a short stint in jail, six to nine months, and he wants to leave a black bag with Eddie to watch over. Keep the bag safe, Michael tells him, and don’t look inside. Do that and when Michael gets out, Eddie will get paid ten grand. Easy money, right?

Not for a guy like Eddie. It is not a spoiler at all to tell you that curiosity is going to get the better of him and what he’s going to find in the bag is a lot more than $10,000. And it is not a spoiler to tell you that Eddie won’t be able to resist temptation. And yet it seems at first that this unearned money begins him on the road to redemption; he actually wins some money, enough to pay off some of his debts. He meets a girl (Derbez) whom he falls for and who inspires him to reform. He joins his brother’s landscaping company and discovers he actually likes the work.

However you know that this isn’t going to last and of course it doesn’t. Eddie falls deeper and deeper in the hole as he tries to win back the money he keeps taking from the bag. Then comes the news that is the stuff of his nightmares; Michael is getting out early and will be collecting his property in days, not weeks. With his options starkly limited, Eddie is going to have to take the biggest gamble of his life.

Swanberg is one of the most prolific and talented directors working today. Like most prolific directors, sometimes he loses something in the zeal to get a new project completed and here I think the tone in many ways doesn’t work the way I think he envisioned. Re-reading the synopsis above, I was struck that this sounds very much like a drama; it’s not. This is a comedy and given the seriousness of the subject matter the disconnect is a bit jarring.

Swanberg is known for being a keen writer of dialogue as well as insightful into the foibles of the human condition and both of these elements are in full flower here. Eddie isn’t the first movie character to suffer from gambling addiction and he won’t be the last but he may very well be the most realistic. He’s not a bad man; he’s not a good man; he simply can’t control his gambling impulses. Most of us have some sort of thing that we simply can’t resist; some are into videogames, others into sex, others into alcohol, others into beauty products, still others into sports. Whatever it is that floats our boat we have a hard time resisting the siren call. You may chalk it up to a simple lack of self-control or even a waste of time, but often people with these sorts of addictions can no more control their impulses than they can control the color of their eyes. Even 12-step programs, which are often helpful in handling addiction, don’t always work.

Swanberg has kept the cast to be mostly lesser known with the exception of Key who plays Eddie’s not-entirely-helpful Gamblers Anonymous sponsor and Key is one of the best things in the movie. Derbez, an up-and-coming Latina actress, also shows some promise. Johnson has the lion’s share of the screen time and he carries it pretty well; he has a decent future ahead of him if he can continue to write roles like this for himself.

With a soulful soundtrack that is at times overbearing but for the most part dovetails perfectly with the theme and mood of the film, this is a reasonably cool although I suppose it might have been cooler. This is not one of those Steven Soderbergh films that just oozes cool. This is more a poor man’s cool, an ordinary cool. It’s the kind of cool we can actually aspire to. There is something comforting about that alone.

REASONS TO GO: As usual for a Joe Swanberg film, the writing and particularly the dialogue is extremely strong. Johnson shows some promise as a lead.
REASONS TO STAY: The outcome is a bit predictable. The subject matter deserves a more serious tone.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie contains profanity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third collaboration between Swanberg and star and co-writer Johnson.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gambler
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Wonder Woman

Sandy Wexler


Sandy Wexler is pleased.

(2017) Comedy (Netflix) Adam Sandler, Jennifer Hudson, Kevin James, Colin Quinn, Nick Swardson, Jackie Sandler, Terry Crews, Rob Schneider, Lamorne Morris, Aaron Neville, Jane Seymour, Luis Guzman, Arsenio Hall, Quincy Jones, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Mason “Ma$e” Betha, Rob Reiner, Chris Elliott, Eugenio Derbez, Milo Ventimiglia, Jessica Lowe. Directed by Steven Brill

 

We all know the big names in front of the camera. Some of the more dedicated movie buffs also know the big movers and shakers behind the camera Then there are the guys on the periphery, the outsiders. The guys like Sandy Wexler.

Wexler (A. Sandler) worked as a talent agent in the mid-90s in Los Angeles and to say he had A-list clients would be the kind of lie that he was well-known for saying; Sandy is almost pathologically incapable of telling the truth. He is also as pathologically loyal to his clients who are among the dregs of show business; a daredevil (Swardson) who has issues colliding with birds, a ventriloquist (James) who dreams of stardom on UPN and Bedtime Bobby Barnes (Crews) who’s a wrestler with a unique ring persona.

None of them have much of a future and quite frankly Wexler isn’t much of a manager either, promising gigs that never materialize or are much different than he represented on the phone. He drives his clients crazy but he’s also there for them when they need him most. One afternoon, he is taking the daughters of a client to a local theme park and there he hears the voice of an angel. It belongs to Courtney Clarke (Hudson) and Wexler knows that for the first time in his career, he has a legitimate talent right in front of him. After convincing her convict dad (Neville) that he can take her career to pop stardom, Courtney signs up with Wexler.

It doesn’t hurt that Sandy has a bit of an awkward crush on her, although she doesn’t seem to notice. Still, he manages to use his connections to get her in front of people the likes of Babyface and Quincy Jones. He also runs into a few sharks and it becomes pretty obvious that he’s way out of his depth but if there is one thing that is true about Sandy Wexler is that he believes in his clients and he believes that he can actually do them good. And maybe, in this one shining example, he might just find the warm glow of the big time within reach.

Sandler’s last three movies (including this one) have all been direct-to-Netflix and together with the last few theatrical features have been on a downward slide pretty much since Funny People. It’s nice to be able to say that this one is actually better than most of his recent films. There is a charm and warmth here that have been missing from his movies for awhile. There are few actors who can pass for amiable as well as Sandler – basically because that’s how he is away from the cameras by all accounts. He is at the top of his game in that regard here.

The story is mainly told in flashback, with dozens of celebrity cameos (including Chris Rock, Conan O’Brien, Penn Jillette, Rob Reiner, Pauly Shore, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, Janeane Garofalo, Louie Anderson, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis and Kevin Nealon, just to name a few) giving testimonials in some sort of celebration (we don’t find out what’s being celebrated until the very end of the picture). The celebrity testimonials are fun, one of the highlights of the movie. Some of them are genuinely funny.

The jokes for the most part are groaners, although not all of them are. It’s shtick for certain, but it is Grade A shtick nonetheless. The movie runs well over two hours long which may exceed your particular tolerance for an Adam Sandler movie, but for some may find that to be not a factor. I’ll admit I was checking my watch near the end.

This also has a definite feel for a lot of Sandler’s other films, particularly of the last decade or so which may be a deal breaker for some. It also may be for others a deal maker so it really depends on how you feel about Sandler and his type of humor in general. You will get the full Sandler shmear; shuffling hunched posture, funny voices, product placement and the usual cast of Happy Madison regulars (Happy Madison is Sandler’s production company).

Still, whether you love him or hate him, Sandler does have a knack for making one feel good as one watches the closing credits roll. This doesn’t stand among his best work but it is certainly the best movie that he has made for Netflix to date. Sandy Wexler stands as a heartfelt tribute to the outsiders on the fringe of the entertainment business, the ones who have more heart than talent whose eccentricities are endearing rather than annoying – mostly. There’s definitely room for a movie like that in the hearts of those who have a fondness for that kind of subject.

REASONS TO GO: The celebrity cameos are a lot of fun. The viewer is left with a pleasant feeling.
REASONS TO STAY: The jokes are really cornball. A little too much like Sandler’s other recent films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality as well as rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Sandy Wexler is based on Sandler’s real-life manager Sandy Wernick who also makes a cameo in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Broadway Danny Rose
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Camera Obscura (2017)


She has no idea just how bad her luck is going to get.

(2017) Thriller (Chiller) Christopher Denham, Nadja Bobyleva, Catherine Curtin, Chase Williamson, Noah Segan, Andrew Sensenig, Gretchen Lodge, Jeremy King, Dane Rhodes, David Jensen, Charlie Talbert, Carol Sutton, Lance E. Nichols, Hawn Tran, Cassandra Hierholzer, B.J. Grogan, Jared Bankens, Les Miles, Rebekah Downs, Emily LaGroue, Ashton Leigh, Tammi Arender. Directed by Aaron B. Koontz

We all have a morbid fascination with death. It’s somewhere we’re all going to eventually but we’re not particularly eager to get there. Still, if you knew the place and the manner of the death of a loved one, wouldn’t you do everything within your power to change it?

Jack Zeller (Denham) has seen his share of death. As a war correspondent in Afghanistan, he has been privy to some horrific deaths in his time, enough to make him put down his camera for good once he came home to stay. He’s seeing a therapist (Sutton) regularly and it seems to be helping, but he has become something of a shut-in, refusing to go to work. For his fiancée Claire (Bobyleva) this is unacceptable; she is a realtor but finances are tight and she needs he intended to start bringing some cash in rather than just sit around all day.

On a whim, she buys Jack an antique camera and helps him get a gig taking pictures of houses for her agency. Jack at first has some difficulty getting himself going but once he does he is delighted to have camera in hand again. He is beginning to feel like he’s rejoining society. However, when he takes the film to the local photo lab, something a little odd occurs; the shots are all in black and white despite the fact that Jack used color film. Also there are things in the images that weren’t there when Jack took the pictures; dead bodies.

It doesn’t take long for Jack to figure out that the camera, which he later learns has been cannibalized from various parts, is taking pictures of murders that haven’t happened yet. He also begins to suspect that the camera once belonged to a notorious serial killer. He also finds out quite by sheer accident that while he can’t prevent the deaths from happening, he can change who it’s happening to.

But the bad news is that all the bodies that are turning up in his photos are of his beloved fiancée and that will just not stand. Jack has always been a pretty mellow guy but to save Claire he will do anything – including murder. The issue is though whether there is some supernatural force at work here or if this is all a product of Jack’s deteriorating psyche.

There are some real interesting concepts at work here and Koontz does some of them justice but others not so much. We’ll get back to the latter in a bit but first the good stuff. There’s a real 80s horror film vibe here that I appreciated, from the high concept to the pulsing electronic soundtrack that recalls some of John Carpenter’s films. While Stranger Things is a little bit more accomplished at setting the 80s tone, Koontz does a pretty good job of emphasizing the things that made that era one of the best for horror films in history.

The lead performances are also pretty strong. Denham captures the feeling of a vet who has shut down essentially which make his later activities all the more shocking. Some critics have complained that his performance is too laid back but I disagree; I think he nails the part to near perfection. He also gets the best line of the film; “I’m living in an episode of Goosebumps” which is part of the comic relief the film needs. Koontz again manages to keep the horror element from becoming too overwhelming which is something of a lost art these days; most modern horror directors seem to prefer a constant barrage of frights and action without letup. A little comic relief actually helps emphasize the horrific elements.

On the negative side, I think Koontz does waste a few opportunities. The “demonic vs. psychotic” element is a staple in horror films and Koontz does a pretty good job of maintaining the balance here but in the long run I don’t think he explores the psychotic end as thoroughly as he might have. It’s always more or less something on the edge of our periphery, the question “is it real or is it all in Jack’s head?” but we don’t get enough of a look inside Jack to really get the kind of doubt we need for this to be truly successful. That may be more of a function of budget than creativity but a few background development scenes might have served the film well.

The movie also takes awhile to really get moving. I’m okay with slow builds to over-the-top conclusions but sometimes we just need to get into the meat of the matter a little more quickly. Yes, I know I was complaining that we needed more background scenes just one paragraph ago, but we might have substituted those for scenes of Jack and Claire having dinner with friends, or arguing over money. In any case, in this age of easily bored movie audiences, it behooves a director to ramp up quickly, particularly in genre films.

Although some have listed this as a horror film (and there are plenty of horrific elements in it), I think that calling it a thriller would be closer to the truth. There are definitely supernatural elements and some scenes of extreme violence and disturbing content, but to me this felt more like a thriller, with more emphasis on the non-supernatural elements. That’s just the way I saw it; your experience may vary.

This isn’t a bad film despite the scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. It’s certainly not perfect but there are a lot of positive elements here that enable the viewer to overlook some of the flaws. All in all it’s a promising start for a young filmmaker who has some big things ahead of him I’m quite certain.

REASONS TO GO: The 80s horror film vibe is alive and well here and the soundtrack adds to the vibe nicely. The lead performances are strong.
REASONS TO STAY: The film takes a little bit of time to get going. There are some missed opportunities to explore a damaged psyche.
FAMILY VALUES: There is gore, violence, disturbing images, sexuality, nudity and a good deal of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although dialogue places the film as taking place in “the Midwest,” it was actually filmed in Louisiana.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Polaroid
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sandy Wexler