New Chefs on the Block

Aaron Silverman gets intense.

(2016) Documentary (Lateral Line) Aaron Silverman, Frank Lynn, Michel Richard, Frank Lynn Sr., Konstantin “Kosta” Troupos, BJ Lieberman, Anne Lynn, Emily Sprissler, Mike Isabella, Dan Silverman, Libby Diamond, Michael McNamara, Drew Adams, Kate Diamond, Danny Meyer, Andy Erdmann, Elizabeth Parker, Scott Muns, Aziz Shafi, Justin Eobstel, Andi Chesser, Alison Danie. Directed by Dustin Harrison-Atlas

It is said that the second hardest thing to do in the small business realm is to open up a new restaurant. The hardest thing to do is keep it open. As most people are aware, restaurants come and go with almost a terrifying regularity. People tend to be fickle and may pack your eatery one day and the next day be on to the new flavor of the week. Banks are very loathe to give out small business loans for that reason, particularly for would-be restaurateurs with no track record.

One of the toughest markets for restaurants is the Washington DC area. This documentary follows two men with very different concepts and very different hopes; one is Aaron Silverman, a chef with a pedigree that has brought him under the tutelage of some of the best in the business, including Michel Richard (who sadly passed away shortly after filming concluded for New Chefs on the Block). He had an idea of a five star dining experience at two star prices. In order to accomplish that he loaded up his kitchen with experienced chefs.

He also gave his staff health and dental benefits (a rarity in the food service industry) and regular hours, giving them the ability to plan their lives. This is also revolutionary stuff in an industry well-known for creating personal life chaos. Silverman is something of a perfectionist and the price it would take to make his dream happen was a heck of a lot more than the second chef.

Frank Lynn (who in the interest of transparency is the brother-in-law of the filmmaker) had been operating a successful pizza-oriented food truck for two years and yearned to have a brick-and-mortar location to call his own. He found one in the Maryland suburbs of DC but the space would need some extensive work. Believing that the $86,000 he raised through family members and Crowdfunding would be more than sufficient to get his neighborhood pizzeria open, he set about remodeling his space mainly with the help of his family and friends.

Both project take longer than expected to reach opening night and both are fraught with issues that threaten to kill the dreams of their prospective owners before they even get started. We see pretty much everything; the process of getting permits, the physical construction, ordering a pizza oven that turns out to be defective, the compromises and calamities all told.

Many restaurant owners are going to see this and chuckle ruefully to themselves. Others who are thinking about opening a restaurant might turn white as a sheet. However, the cautionary tale is that Harrison-Atlas turned out to be extraordinarily lucky; most restaurants don’t make it to their first anniversary and the number that make it to their second is terrifyingly low. Still, this is a fascinating behind the scenes look at how your neighborhood restaurants came into being. That the two owners are engaging and charismatic fellas makes this a lot more palatable because some might find the somewhat clinical view of the start to finish process a bit of a slog. However I assure you that you’ll leave the theater (or your home couch if you are watching through streaming or home video) a little bit more educated about the business and, even more likely, craving something good to eat.

REASONS TO GO: An informative look at what goes into opening a restaurant. A rooting interest is maintained even when the expectations aren’t realistic.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little bit too “nuts and bolts” for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some profanity occasionally.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rose’s Luxury would go on to win the James Beard award for Best New Restaurant, Mid-Atlantic Region in 2014.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
NEXT: A Quiet Passion


Jackie (2016)

A White House isn't necessarily a home.

A White House isn’t necessarily a home.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson, Beth Grant, John Carroll Lynch, Max Casella, Sara Verhagen, Héléne Kuhn, Deborah Findlay, Corey Johnson, Aidan O’Hare, Ralph Brown, David Caves, Penny Downie, Georgie Glen, Julie Judd. Directed by Pablo Larrain


One of the most iconic women of the 20th century was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onasis. She epitomized elegance, grace, charm, culture and beauty in her era. To many, she epitomized the ideal of what a First Lady should be. Fiercely private, she rarely discussed her innermost feelings with anyone, even her most intimate confidantes. Riding in a motorcade in Dallas at her husband’s side, she would be the closest witness to one of the most singularly dramatic events of American history and yet she spoke very little about it after the fact.

This biopic mainly covers three separate events in the life of Jackie Kennedy (Portman); her 1961 televised taping of a personalized tour of the White House, for which she led an important restoration work; the assassination of her husband (Phillipson) and the events of the following week leading up to the funeral procession and an interview a week later with an unnamed journalist (Crudup) but who is mainly based on Theodore White of Life Magazine.

Portman nails her unique voice, a combination of New England patrician and breathy Marilyn Monroe sultriness. She portrays the First Lady as a woman knocked completely off-balance by the murder of her husband, and somewhat uncomfortable with the limelight. During the taping of her show, she is urged by her assistant Nancy Tuckerman (Gerwig) to smile which she does, somewhat shyly but she seems unsure of herself, as if she hasn’t quite memorized the lines she’s supposed to say. In the week following the assassination, she shows a hidden core of steel to Jack Valenti (Casella) who is LBJ’s (Lynch) chief of staff, as well as to her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Sarsgaard).

She realizes her husband’s legacy will be incomplete and that if he is to have one, she will have to orchestrate it. It is she who comes up with the Camelot analogy, based on the hit musical of the time which she claimed her husband was quite fond of (and he may well have been – he never commented on it during his lifetime). While most believe that she made the reference off-handedly, the film (and writer Noel Oppenheim) suggest it was a deliberate attempt to give his presidency a mythic quality. If true, it certainly worked.

Portman is brilliant here; she is quite rightly considered the front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar and a nomination is certainly a lock. She has to tackle a great number of emotions; grief, frustration, anger, fear, self-consciousness – and hold it all under that veneer of charm and civility that Jackie was known for. The First Lady we see here is vastly different than the one that history remembers. In all honesty, who’s to say this version is wrong?

Larrain gets the period right from the fashions to the attitude of the people living in it. The Presidency at the time is not something that is bartered to the highest bidder; it is a position of respect that is won by the will of the people. The Kennedy clan understood that quite well and Larrain also understands it. The Presidency was held in a higher regard back then.

We get a Jackie Kennedy here who is much more politically savvy than history gives her credit for; she knows exactly what the right thing to say is and she holds herself in a way that reflects positively on her husband more than on herself. It is forgotten now but while her husband was President Jackie was considered to be a bit of a spendthrift. Much of her standing was achieved after she was no longer First Lady, but then an assassination of one’s husband will do that.

I do have a bone to pick with the film and that is its score. While the music of Camelot is used liberally and well, the score penned by Mica Levi is often discordant and sounds like it belongs on a European suspense thriller rather than a biography of the widow of President Kennedy. When the music becomes intrusive, it takes the viewer out of the film and that’s exactly what this score does; it gets the viewer thinking about the music rather than the film as a whole. Larrain also jumps around quite a bit in the timeline, showing the movie mainly as flashbacks and flash-forwards. It isn’t confusing so much as distracting and once again, the viewer is often taken out of the movie by being made aware that they are watching a movie. Good movies immerse their viewer and make them part of the experience and at times, this movie does. Then again, at times it does the opposite.

While this is essentially a biography, it is also very much conjecture. Most movies about the Kennedy assassination see it from the eyes of the President or from the witnesses; none to my knowledge have even attempted to view it through the First Lady’s perspective. I would imagine that largely is because we don’t know what the First Lady’s perspective was; she kept that well-hidden and knowing what I know about her, that isn’t surprising. I don’t know what she would have thought about this film but I suspect she would have been appalled by the rather graphic scene of her husband’s assassination and perhaps amused by what people thought she was thinking. I don’t know that Larrain and Oppenheim got it right; I suspect they got some of it right but we’ll never know. And perhaps that’s just as well; we need our myths to be inviolate. When Jackie, portrayed as a chain smoker here, icily tells the journalist “I don’t smoke,” when he wonders aloud what the public would think of her smoking, she’s making clear that she understands the need for mythological figures to be pure and that she has accepted her role as such.

Just as Lincoln, whose name is often bandied about in the film, belongs to the ages, so does John Kennedy – and Jackie as well. This is a strong film that your enjoyment of is going to depend a great deal on your opinion of the Kennedys to begin with. Some will be irritated that her carefully manicured persona is skewered here; others will be irritated that she is given a certain amount of sympathetic portrayal. In any case, anyone who loves great performances should make sure they see Portman’s work – it is truly worth the price of admission.

REASONS TO SEE: Portman gives a tour-de-force performance that is justifiably the odds-on favorite to win the Best Actress Oscar. The era and attitudes are captured nicely.
REASONS TO MISS: The soundtrack is annoying.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity and a scene of graphic violence and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Producer Darren Aronofsky (who at one time was set to direct this with Rachel Weisz in the title role) also directed Portman to her Oscar win for Black Swan.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
NEXT: Manchester by the Sea


A loving couple.

A loving couple.

(2016) True Life Drama (Focus) Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Nick Kroll, Marton Csokas, Jon Bass, Will Dalton, Sharon Blackwood, Christopher Mann, Alano Miller, Winter Lee Holland, Bill Camp, Terri Abney, David Jensen, Michael Shannon, Matt Malloy, Jennifer Joyner, Quinn McPherson, Dalyn M. Cleckley, Brenan Young, D.L. Hopkins, Keith Tyree, Coley Campany. Directed by Jeff Nichols


At one time in our history, interracial marriages were illegal in a number of states of the union. Those who supported such laws often cited the Bible about how God never meant the races to intermix. This is living proof that the more that things change, the more they stay the same.

Richard Loving (Edgerton) is a hardworking construction worker in rural Virginia, a town called Central Point. He lays bricks to build homes. He also has fallen in love with Mildred Jeter (Negga), a woman of African descent. The feeling is mutual and he gets her pregnant. Richard is over the moon about this in his own stolid way; he proposes marriage and she accepts. However, in order to marry her, he’ll have to drive to Washington DC where interracial marriages are legal. The couple returns home to live with Mildred’s parents.

Five weeks after the ceremony, Sheriff Brooks (Csokas) and his deputies kick down their door and arrest the couple who had been sleeping soundly in their bed. Richard is bailed out but Mildred is kept several days as the obsequious county clerk refuses to allow anyone to bail her out until after the weekend. The couple engages a lawyer (Camp) who is acquainted with Judge Bazile (Jensen) who is hearing the case. He agrees to drop the charges – if the couple leaves the state of Virginia immediately and vow not to return for 25 years.

The Lovings are willing to comply but life in Washington DC (where they’re staying with a member of Mildred’s family) is a far cry from the peaceful rural life they loved. Homesick and without anywhere to turn, Mildred writes a letter to Bobby Kennedy, then the Attorney General who refers the matter to the American Civil Liberties Union. The case is assigned to lawyer Bernie Cohen (Kroll) who knows that this could be a landmark case – but it will require much sacrifice on the part of the Loving family.

The case is an important one, one that was used as a precedent in striking down recently the Defense of Marriage Act that prevented same-sex marriages. There is certainly a modern parallel to be made here but director Jeff Nichols wisely chooses to play that aspect down. He seems to prefer making his point quietly and subtly.

There is no speechifying here, no grand courtroom arguments and no stirring orchestras highlighting moments of great sacrifice. Mostly, Nichols portrays Richard and Mildred as ordinary folks who just want to be left alone. They are thrust into the national spotlight somewhat unwillingly; they never set out to be civil rights symbols but they certainly had to be aware that they would become one. We aren’t privy to that side of them however; what we see is the couple going about their lives while coping with what had to be immense pressure.

Negga’s name has come up this awards season for Best Actress honors and she’s almost certain to get a nomination for the Oscar (although she will have an uphill battle against Natalie Portman’s performance In Jackie which is currently the odds on favorite to win the award) . It is Mildred’s film and mostly seen from her point of view. A shy and retiring sort, she is by necessity the spokesperson for the couple; Richard is so taciturn that he is almost surly. Negga plays Mildred with grace and dignity, and at no time does she ever give a hint of feeling sorry for herself, although Mildred had plenty of reason to.

Edgerton has much less dialogue to deliver although he has maybe the most emotional scene in the movie when he breaks down when things are looking their bleakest. Richard was not a very complicated man and certainly not a loquacious one; he just wants to be left alone, but he realizes that he can’t have the life he wants in the home he’s always known if something isn’t done and so he simply allows those who have the savvy and the education to get things done to guide his steps, although he clearly isn’t always happy about it.

The overall vibe is very low-key; there are few scenes that are loud and I don’t mean just in volume. Mostly Nichols keeps things quiet and simple. He resists the urge to portray the couple as heroic in the traditional sense; they were heroic simply by saying “we only want to love each other and build a life together.” They weren’t activists, they weren’t firebrands and Nichols prefers to stick to history here. Some might even call them dull.

But they were heroic nonetheless. Many thousands of people who have married outside of their race owe their freedom to do so to Richard and Mildred Loving. Both of them are deceased at this point so there’s no way to know what they thought of this portrayal of them; something tells me that had they lived to see this movie, they probably would have wondered what all the fuss is about. This is an outstanding movie that portrays the kind of people that I think should truly considered American heroes. Heroes don’t always run into burning buildings or run onto battlefields; sometimes a hero is the one who simply says “this isn’t right” and sees things through until real change occurs. The Lovings certainly did that.

REASONS TO SEE: A story with reverberations that make it timely even now. Understated but powerful performances from Negga and Edgerton elevate the film. The film doesn’t hit you over the head with a political message.
REASONS TO MISS: May be too low-key for some.
FAMILY VALUES:  The themes are pretty adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Nichols, Edgerton and Shannon previously combined on Midnight Special.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
NEXT: Allied


Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Tom Cruise finds his “make the ketchup bottle disappear” trick didn’t work as well as expected.

Tom Cruise finds his “make the ketchup bottle disappear” trick didn’t work as well as expected.

(2016) Action (Paramount) Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Aldis Hodge, Danika Yarosh, Patrick Heusinger, Holt McCallany, Judd Lombard, Jason Douglas, Madalyn Horcher, Robert Catrini, Anthony Molinari, M. Serrano, Nicole Barre, Jessica Stroup, Sharon E. Smith, Teri Wyble, Sean Boyd, Austin Hébert, Sabrina Gennarino, Ernest Wells, Lizbeth Hutchings. Directed by Edward Zwick


Most of us have some sort of moral code. It might not be straight and narrow and it might be more flexible than most, but it’s there. For most of us, there are things that just cannot stand. Then again, there are those whose codes, for better or worse, are about as flexible as the Rock of Gibraltar. Sometimes, that can be a good thing.

Jack Reacher (Cruise) was once in charge of a Military Police investigative unit until he retired from the armed forces. He prefers to live off the grid, moving from place to place and living off his pension which he collects in cash. He hitchhikes to get from place to place. He’s a loner by nature and will never initiate a conversation without reason to, but if you get up in his grill he absolutely will mop the floor with your carcass.

His successor in the unit is the ramrod-tough straight shooter Major Susan Turner (Smulders) on whom Reacher asks a favor from time to time. The two have developed a friendly, semi-flirtatious repartee that doesn’t seem to have much expectation that anything will come of it, but there is clearly mutual respect between the two and Reacher doesn’t respect a whole lot of people. After she arrests a group of human traffickers operating from a military base (and rescuing Reacher from being arrested himself for assault in the bargain), he tells her that he owes her a dinner and she can collect the next time he’s in D.C.

But by the time Reacher gets there, things have turned upside down; Major Turner has been arrested for espionage, something Reacher thinks smells fishy. And the more he talks to her commanding officer (McCallany), the fishier the smell. Pretty soon, he discovers that two of her direct reports in Afghanistan turned up dead. Quickly Reacher’s nose indicates that there’s a nasty little conspiracy going on and that Major Turner – whom he scarcely knows but considers a friend – is not safe in jail. He breaks her out and goes on the run, pursued by – well, everybody including a black-gloved assassin (Heusinger) with no name who might just be Reacher’s equal in hand-to-hand combat.

To further complicate matters, there’s a teenage girl (Yarosh) who may or may not be Reacher’s daughter and because she might be, she’s in the crosshairs of the killers. Whether she’s his progeny or not, he can’t just leave her in the hands of the wolves, so Reacher knows he’s going to have to do what he does best – kick ass and dig until he finds the truth, assuming you can handle it (see what I did there).

The Reacher book series penned by author Lee Child is at 21 books as of this writing and continuing to climb. The series has a fairly rabid fan base, not all of whom are especially pleased over the two films that have been adapted, particularly as the hero is 6’4” in the book, nearly a foot taller than what Cruise is in real life. Short of budget-busting special effects, nothing is going to make Cruise that tall. He is then forced to take up the slack with attitude.

And to a certain extent, it works. Reacher feels dangerous here. Maybe it’s the way he looks at you sideways or the coiled spring tension in Cruise’s body language but you get a sense that rubbing this guy the wrong way would be a bad and potentially fatal idea. I will give Cruise that – he gets the attitude of Reacher right.

But that makes it a bit of a hard sell. Reacher as written isn’t the sharing kind. He’s taciturn, sullen, often hostile. He’s smart in a predatory kind of way. He’s also self-disciplined as you’d expect for an elite military officer but that doesn’t mean he can’t explode into violence when the need arises. It’s the kind of character that Clint Eastwood might have owned a few decades ago, or more recently maybe Schwarzenegger. In many ways, Jack Reacher isn’t much different than a number of action hero loners with faulty social skills and therein lies the rub.

Much of the movie (particularly in the second half) requires Reacher to be something of a father figure and it just comes off…wrong. Reacher is loyal to a fault but that doesn’t make him an ideal family man. The interactions between Reacher and Samantha (said sullen teen whose moral compass is a bit shadier than his) are awkward as they should be, but that ends up making you feel uncomfortable, like listening to Florence Foster Jenkins singing karaoke.

The action sequences are decently staged, although unremarkable in and of themselves. The climactic fight between the assassin and Reacher on the rooftops of the French Quarter (and it must be said that the Big Easy looks pretty great here) is lengthy but it feels predictable. I’m not saying that it’s horrible, it just didn’t wow me. Perhaps I’ve seen too many action movies.

All in all, this is entertaining enough to recommend but not enough to recommend vigorously. I think that a good movie can be made from the Child novels but thus far the movies have been decent but not memorable. They make for some nice time fillers if you’re bored and want to kill a couple of hours, but if you’ve got a yen for an action movie that’s going to leave you breathless with your heart pounding, this isn’t the one to select.

REASONS TO GO: Some pretty decent action sequences highlight the film. The filmmakers utilize the New Orleans location nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: For the most part the film is pretty unremarkable. It loses steam in the second half.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and action movie goodness, a bit of profanity, some adult themes and a couple of bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on the eighteenth book in the series; its predecessor was based on the ninth book.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
NEXT: Denial


Jason Bourne

Matt Damon espies a Trump for President sign.

Matt Damon espies a Trump for President sign.

(2016) Spy Action (Universal) Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Styles, Riz Ahmed, Ato Essandoh, Scott Shepherd, Bill Camp, Vinzenz Kiefer, Stephen Kunken, Ben Stylianou, Kaya Yuzuki, Matthew O’Neill, Lizzie Phillips, Paris Stangl, Matt Blair, Amy De Bruhn, Akie Kotabe, Robin Crouch, Gregg Henry, Ava Katharina Maria Hoeller. Directed by Paul Greengrass


It’s been nine years since the most recent Bourne movie and that’s a long time for a spy to be on the shelf. Can the franchise that was once set to overtake Bond in the spy market recover?

Jason Bourne (Damon) has been living off the grid, but that’s what happens when the CIA wants you dead. He’s been making a living doing underground fights in Macedonia which is essentially a one punch affair for the world’s most dangerous assassin. Maybe all the blows to the head in the first three movies have jarred something loose but he remembers his past now, all of it. And he remembers in particular a meeting with his father (Henry) just moments before he was assassinated and at about the time that he – then known as David Webb – was recruited for Treadstone.

But as his long-time ally Nicky Parsons (Stiles) says, just because he remembers everything doesn’t mean he knows everything and he’s clearly got a lot to learn and he’s gonna go find out what he needs to know. New CIA director Robert Dewey (Jones) has a lot of skeletons in his closet and he doesn’t want Bourne opening his closet door. He sends an operative known only as the Asset (Cassel) after Bourne and Parsons, which doesn’t bode well for either of them.

Dewey in the meantime has an agreement with tech billionaire Aaron Kalloor  (Ahmed) who made his billions with a Facebook-like social media site that hides a nefarious secret and Kalloor is about to come clean, something Dewey cannot allow. Working on Dewey’s team is Heather Lee (Vikander), a CIA analyst and computer expert who is figuring out that there is a game afoot, but the players are playing for keeps and may well be out of her league. She will be the wild card when the end game makes its inexorable appearance.

I left the theater feeling a sense of déjà vu and not in a good way. There were high hopes for this franchise; not only was it making monster profits but first director Doug Liman and then Greengrass created bold, kickass movies that not only redefined the spy genre but made it relevant in the 21st century; even the James Bond franchise seemed to borrow from Bourne tonally once Daniel Craig was aboard. This feels like it cribbed a lot of its material from previous Bourne movies.

Greengrass likes to use the handheld camera for fight scenes and that does, I’ll admit, create a very kinetic action sequence. It also makes it nearly impossible to tell who is doing what to whom, and as a result it tends to waste the choreography and skill of those doing the fighting. I’m already prone to vertigo and those scenes don’t do me any favors; friends who have seen the movie who have no balance issues have reported feeling queasy during the fight scenes and having to look away from the screen. I get that this is something that Greengrass is known for and it’s tough sometimes for a filmmaker to give up a trademark of their style but perhaps he should consider it in this case.

Damon however, having won an Oscar since the last time he played Bourne, still is as Chuck Norris as they come in the role and yes I’m using the actor’s name as an adjective. He scowls with the best of them – in fact, I don’t think anyone cracks a smile in the entire movie that I could remember – and kicks bootie as well as any actor who doesn’t have a martial arts background to begin with. Bourne may well end up being his signature role (as Bond was for Sean Connery and Harry Callahan was for Clint Eastwood) and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Tommy Lee Jones is also fun to watch; he’s a crocodile in a business suit with a lapel pin and you can feel the slime dripping off of him as he works his magic. Hero or villain, Jones is one of the most reliable actors there has ever been; I can’t remember him ever phoning in a performance. French superstar Cassel (who is badly underrated here in the States) is almost Damon’s equal as the villainous Asset.

Despite the tendency towards overly kinetic camera work, Greengrass still knows how to mount edge-of-your-seat action sequences and the car chase down the Las Vegas strip near the movie’s conclusion may well be the best of the entire series. It is a thing of beauty and is worth seeing the film for all by itself. It is by no means the only well-staged action sequence in the film, however and in many ways other than Damon’s performance the action pieces are the best thing about the movie.

I don’t know if the franchise is getting a bit tired; something tells me that Greengrass probably has done about everything he needs to as far as Jason Bourne is concerned and while I think Damon is amazing in the role, it also might be time to put another actor into it if they are going to continue the franchise and if Damon won’t work with anyone else but Greengrass in order to play the part. Jeremy Renner will be returning in the not-too-distant future in another movie set in the Bourne universe, and perhaps it is time to see what other directors, writers and actors can do with it. I think that there’s a lot more that can come out of the franchise but this movie seems to indicate that those who have guided it successfully so far have essentially run out of steam.

REASONS TO GO: Matt Damon is as badass as ever. The Las Vegas car chase is a classic.
REASONS TO STAY: Shaky handheld camera work smacks of “Look, Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome. Too many elements are just like other Bourne films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence as well as a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Part of the film is set in Athens, Greece but due to the high taxes and bureaucratic obstacles, filming for that portion took place in Tenerife in the Canary Islands instead.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
NEXT: Nerve


The Purge: Election Year

Ol' Honest Abe hates what his country has become.

Ol’ Honest Abe hates what his country has become.

(2016) Thriller (Universal) Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson, Joseph Julian Soria, Betty Gabriel, Terry Serpico, Edwin Hodge, Kyle Secor, Barry Nolan, Liza Colon-Zayas, Ethan Phillips, Adam Cantor, Christopher James Baker, Jared Kemp, Brittany Mirabile, Raymond J. Barry, Naeem Duren, Naheem Garcia, Steven Barkhimer, Tom Kemp, Portland Helmich. Directed by James DeMonaco


We are a violent nation. There’s no disputing it. It runs in our veins, out the pores in our skin, and in every crack and crevice of our souls. We never left the gunfight at the OK Corral; we’re still out in the middle of the noonday sun, blazing away with our Colts – or just sitting on the side of the street, watching the carnage from a safe distance.

But there are those who are tired of it, who think that the Purge is being used to cleanse the poorer neighborhoods so that the government doesn’t have to spend as much on social programs. Senator Charlie Roan (Mitchell) is running for President on a platform of bringing the Purge to an end. She has seen how the New Founding Fathers, in the person of candidate Minister Edwidge Owens (Secor) who is running against her, have been lining their own pockets.

Of course the powers that be can’t have their cash cow being threatened, so they conspire to bring the crusading Senator to a sticky end. They enact a law which exempts nobody from the Purge – which the Senator would be because of her office – and look to place some moles in her team. The only one she can really trust is her security chief, Leo Barnes (Grillo) who was the subject of the previous Purge is now in the Secret Service and he is constantly exasperated by the Senator’s willingness to go walking into a crowd of supporters to press the flesh. Of course, it’s a nightmare for those trying to protect her from nutjobs and assassins.

With the new law in place and little time to shore up the security at the Senator’s home in suburban DC, Leo sets up what is essentially a fortress and leaves the Senator with the only person he can trust – himself, and maybe her campaign manager (Phillips). Unfortunately, his security team has been compromised and when the Purge starts in earnest, her home is attacked. Leo barely gets her out alive. They are rescued by Joe (Williamson) who owns a deli he’s desperately trying to protect, and his employee Marcos (Soria) who has a vested interest in keeping the deli safe. After an attack by a couple of spoiled bitches who were caught shoplifting by Laney Rucker (Gabriel), a sort of local hero from the Purge a couple years previous (essentially taking over from Carmen Ejogo in a role rewritten for Gabriel when Ejogo turned down a repeat performance), the Senator and Leo make their way to a safe zone operated by the legendary anti-Purge activist Dante Bishop (Hodge), who has plans of his own. Can the Senator survive the night and end the Purge once and for all?

I have long since held that the Purge series is a metaphor for modern politics. The New Founding Fathers are essentially Donald Trump in John McCain’s body. This being lefty Hollywood, you can kind of guess the dim view of the NFFs that the filmmakers take. I am not so naive to think that the right are all monsters and the left are all heroically fighting for the rights of the little guy. As the recent WikiLeaks release has shown us, there is plenty of corruption in the DNC to go around as well.

Grillo, who is mostly known for being  a Hydra agent (Crossbones) in the Captain America movies, takes the unfamiliar heroic role and runs with it pretty well. He is not the matinee idol kind of guy; more of a rugged manly sort. Still, he has a future as an action hero if he chooses to go that route. Mitchell, best known for the TV show Lost, is luminous as Charlie Roan. Even the butt-ugly glasses she is forced to wear don’t take away from her natural glamour. Although some are comparing the character to Hillary Clinton, I think she is meant to be more of an Elizabeth Warren sort, although some may disagree. Secor is not really a Trump sort per se, but some will see certain figures of the Conservative Christian group in the good Minister (who is far from good). Mike Pence, anybody?

DeMonaco has helmed all three of the Purge movies and went from a home invasion story to a kind of overview tale to now one that attacks the mythology behind the story, which is a natural progression in my book and lets us see more into the circumstances in which the Purge would be allowed to continue for so long. In doing so, DeMonaco has helped create a cogent cinematic universe which is all the rage these days. Don’t be surprised if this does well that you don’t see a couple of spin-offs headed our way.

Politics aside, there is kind of a neo-Clockwork Orange vibe going on that is fascinating. It is also interesting that a film that is purportedly against the expression of violence is itself so violent. Some might find that a little hypocritical but I think that the irony is intentional; I’m big on giving Lefties the benefit of the doubt. What is less encouraging is that the movie seems a little more self-repetitive; I suspect the franchise could use a different perspective the next time around, assuming there is one. If there is, I wouldn’t mind but frankly, this was the most meh of the franchise so far.

REASONS TO GO: The movie really drills down into the Purge mythology more than any other film in the franchise.
REASONS TO STAY: Seems to be running a little bit out of steam.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, some of it graphic and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Edwin Hodge is the only actor to appear in all three Purge movies.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
NEXT: The Perfect Husband


The Exorcist

The Exorcist

Linda Blair goes full demon.

(1973) Horror (Warner Brothers) Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Rev. William O’Malley S.J., Barton Heyman, Pete Masterson, Rudolf Schûndler, Gina Petrushka, Robert Symonds, Arthur Storch, Rev. Thomas Bermingham S.J., Vasiliki Maliaros, Titos Vandis, John Mahon, Mercedes McCambridge (voice). Directed by William Friedkin

6 Days of Darkness 2015

The devil is more concept than reality for most of us. We see the devil as a representation of our darker nature, the part that is less Godly, less good. We don’t see the devil as a physical, real being. At least, we didn’t before The Exorcist came along.

Based on a best-selling novel by acclaimed author William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist shattered box office records and caused a furor; some condemned it as a glorification of Satan, others as horror pornography. Others praised it for pushing boundaries. In any case, it re-defined horror movies from the stylized costume epics of Hammer and their ilk and brought realism into the genre. The shock waves it created reverberate today.

Regan Mac Neil (Blair) is the loving, sweet daughter of famous actress Chris Mac Neil (Burstyn) who is in Washington DC to film her latest movie. After playing with a Ouija board, strange things begin to occur around Regan; odd noises, suddenly using foul language (something she had never done before) and showing abnormal strength. When the bed she’s in shakes without apparent cause, Chris starts consulting doctors to see what’s wrong with her daughter. Nobody can find anything medically amiss.

Then Regan kills Burke Demmings (MacGowran), the director on Chris’ new film and a close friend. That prompts a police detective Lt. William Kinderman (Cobb) to investigate. Kinderman, a movie buff, is a little star struck but doesn’t let that prevent him from investigating thoroughly. What he finds is disturbing.

Father Lawrence Merrin (von Sydow) is a Catholic priest who was an exorcist earlier in his career. During that time he defeated a demon named Pazuzu. The experience so unsettled him that he hasn’t performed an exorcism in years. Now summoned by the Church to help the Mac Neil family which is running out of options, he is teamed with Father Damien Karras (Miller), a psychologist who has lost his faith in God since the death of his mother.

The two will face a foe unlike any they’ve ever seen, the tired old priest and the young disillusioned one but they are all that stand between Regan and a life of possession and horror. Can they stand up to something so powerful with only their faith as a weapon – and even that is eroded?

The Exorcist as I mentioned was not just a watershed moment in horror films but in cinematic history. The frenzy around it would predate future blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars, which would lead Hollywood to the blockbuster mentality it has today, for better or for worse.

For its time, the scares were incredible. The actors reactions were often prompted by extreme measures; he fired off a gun beside Miller’s head in order to provoke a startled reaction, something Miller didn’t take too kindly to which led to an acrimonious dispute. He also put the women in harnesses and threw them around in order to show the power of the demonic entity; Burstyn sustained permanent spinal damage during one of these takes.

By modern standards, the practical effects are somewhat primitive but still effective. It’s refreshing to see images not made with computers but are still terrifying and realistic nonetheless. One of the things that made The Exorcist so frightening at the time was how realistic it was in terms of how it portrayed life in 1973. It could have happened anywhere. It could have happened in your neighborhood.

Von Sydow, who was only 44 when this was filmed, had already been a major star in Europe and was well-known in the States but this was a career maker for him. In the 70s and 80s he became a very popular actor, often as a villain. He continues to be very active today at 84. Burstyn, who was a respected actress whose performance in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore garnered her an Oscar nomination, never really did a part like Chris Mac Neil again but she is astonishing in it. Miller, a respected playwright, had a distinguished acting career following his work in the film

And as for Linda Blair, The Exorcist made her a household name. She will never be completely divorced from Regan; even now, a middle aged woman, she is associated with that little girl. Regan has haunted her career pretty much all her life, which is both a good thing and not. Her name was enough to get her some roles she probably would like to see forgotten; but it has also maybe made people not take her as seriously as she deserved to be as an actress.

For many, this is the ultimate horror movie, the one by which all others are measured. There are also those who would argue for other films, but a very compelling argument can be made that The Exorcist is the most important horror movie of all time, not merely of its generation and those of us who are old enough to remember when it was released (I was 13 at the time) will be affected by the frenzy that accompanied it. For any horror fan, this is a must-see.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the greatest horror movies ever. Standout performances from virtually the entire cast. Intelligent and realistic.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some may find it too intense; others too bland.
FAMILY VALUES: Extremely foul language, scenes of terror and horror, some disturbing images and violence. There are also some graphic sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Not only is The Exorcist the highest-grossing Warner Brothers film of all time (adjusted for inflation) but also the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time (again, adjusting for inflation).
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains both the original 1973 version and a 2000 Director’s Cut by Friedkin. There’s also a featurette on some of the locations from the movie; what they looked like back in 1973 and what they look like now as well as a featurette on knock off versions that were made after The Exorcist became so successful. There’s also a feature-length documentary on the making of the film. The 40th anniversary Blu-Ray edition includes all those as well as a featurette on author William Peter Blatty, a featurette on the original incident that inspired the novel and an interview with the man who brought it to Blatty’s attention as an undergraduate at Georgetown and a hardcover book including excerpts from Friedkin’s memoir.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $441.3M on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu , M-Go
NEXT: A Brilliant Young Mind