Category Archives: Reviews

REVIEW: ‘White Boy Rick’ is Stirring and Heartfelt but lacks Authenticity and edge

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‘White Boy Rick’ is a coming of age story that aims high but falls short of a being full-fledged gangster epic. It is ultimately unsatisfying but for everything it lacks in cohesive morality, it mostly makes up for in the heartfelt tale of family at its center.

Based on the true story of an underage Detroit cocaine kingpin and FBI informant, the film takes place over several years in the 1980s and chronicles the brief rise and sudden fall of Richard Wersche Jr. Playing the titular role of Rick is newcomer Richie Merritt who is despite being overshadowed by magnificent performances by a cast including Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Jason Leigh is serviceable and non-offensive in a role that mostly demands he react to the things happening to him. Rick is like many teenagers. He is awkward and quiet, uncomfortable in his skin, and due to his environment in a constant state of tough-guy posturing. Rick’s take-no-shit attitude eventually earns him the respect of the local black crime organization. Rick is in business with his father as small-time arms dealer who buys AK-47s at gun shows and sells them to local gangs. For reasons that are never properly explained, no one respects Richard Wersche Sr. so it’s his son who does most of the business.

Rick begins to be seduced by the glamour of the criminal life and we are treated to some slickly-cool sequences in the roller disco which forgo the de-saturated color palette of most of the film for lush neon. These visually striking segments are where we see that the mayor and several members of the police force are mingling with the criminals. Detroit is shown to be a place where the corruption goes all the way to the top. For this reason, Rick is approached by the FBI who are investigating the corruption. They threaten that if he does not help them, his father could be put in prison. The AK-47s have been used in a rash of crimes lately and Richard Sr. is set to take the fall. Rick puts himself in danger and betrays the new friends he has made in the criminal world by becoming an FBI informant.

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In many ways this is a paint-by-numbers crime epic at first glance but it is the family story and casting where ‘White Boy Rick’ excels. Matthew McConaughey plays Richard Sr. as a loving father who is trying in vain to give his family the best life he can. His daughter Dawn is played by Bel Powley who is funny, defiant and progressively ravaged by drugs. She fights against her father’s efforts to keep her from the path she is going down and is so perfect as an empathetic and druggie burnout that it seems like the role she was born to play. Mike’s grandparents are played by a cantankerous Bruce Dern and a hilariously detached Piper Laurie. The cast is one of the strongest parts of this film and carry it through a lot of its weaker aspects. The FBI agents are always-stellar Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane who is permanently tremendous and never gets enough work. They are joined by Detroit Detective Jackson portrayed by Brian Tyree Henry who seems indistinguishable from his ‘Atlanta’ Paper Boi performance but he is always a joy to watch. Crime boss Lil Man is played with the right balance of warmth and intimidation by relative newcomer Jonathan Majors (‘Hostiles’) and Taylour Paige is memorable as his wife and alluring disco siren Cathy who is both a supportive mother figure and source of temptation for Rick.

This is the second feature film by French director Yann Demange who previously made 2014’s ”71′ and he handles the job well. His camera floats naturally and adds a sense of realism. There are quiet and beautiful moments that exist outside of the crime-ridden setting. It is in these tender moments such as Richard Sr. holding his baby granddaughter for the first time and a heartbreaking sequence where he carries his daughter away from a drug house that ‘White Boy Rick’ distinguishes itself among the countless true crime stories that have come before. At its best moments this plays out more as Terrance Malick than Martin Scorsese. Much of the credit for these luminous scenes must go to composer Max Richter. Whether crafting emotionally-wrenching scores for HBO’s ‘The Leftovers,’ the ‘Black Mirror’ episode ‘Nosedive’  or Ari Folman’s striking and experimental ‘Waltz with Bashir’ and ‘The Congress,’ Max Richter is a composer who demands attention. He is someone who invariably elevates any work he is involved with, this is no exception.

Where ‘White Boy Rick’ stumbles is in the script by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller. It often feels like it’s trying to be too many things at once. It wants to be a touching family story and a gangster epic. It wants to be a comedy and a drama. Perhaps in more capable hands this could have been pulled off but I found myself experiencing thematic whiplash as it struggled to find its footing. There are large swaths of the story that seem to be missing as we jump between plots and threads go nowhere. I wish the filmmakers would have committed to the much more engaging family story at its center rather veering into familiar (and incomplete) crime biopic territory. My favorite scenes are ones where a couple kisses on the hood of a car at the drive-in or roller skate surrounded by smoke and colored lights as 80s post-disco deep-cuts boom through unseen speakers. This film is best when it’s not trying to fit into familiar molds.

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One of the unavoidable issues in telling this story is the ambiguous morality of what is portrayed. Rick is largely shown as a sympathetic character who takes care of his family and is manipulated by the FBI. This may be true. I am not familiar with the true story and cannot speak to that. But what is obvious is that the rough edges are sanded down completely. We are told that Rick has become a drug kingpin but other than the occasional pile of money and him delivering groceries to the mother of his child, we are not shown any sort of lavish lifestyle. Rick is making a fortune selling life-destroying cocaine yet we are never shown the effects of this. His sister acts as a representation of the ravages of drugs but she is disconnected from anything that Rick is doing. Also omitted is the inevitable violence associated with the drug trade. Violence happens at the periphery, but it’s never by Rick or his family. Bad things happen to Rick, he does not do bad things.

Despite its many flaws, ‘White Boy Rick’ is very enjoyable. All of the performances are well-realized by its superb cast. I do wonder who this film is for. Fans of ethically ambivalent crime stories like ‘Scarface’ will find the sentimentality insufferable. People looking for a family drama will be turned off by the scattershot storytelling. This film is perhaps best enjoyed as a historical glimpse of a time and place as well as a showcase of acting talent. Also the emotionally wrenching scenes set to the Max Richter score are effective and stirring.

Unfortunately this is seems like a whitewashed version of history that acts as a defense of someone who made some very bad mistakes at a young age and paid too high a price. I do recommend it despite the lack of authenticity.

‘WHITE BOY RICK’ IS IN THEATERS SEPTEMBER 14TH, 2018

 

 

 

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The Nun (2018) Review

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The Nun

Directed by Corin Hardy

www.thenunmovie.com

Fifteen years ago, James Wan launched the most successful horror franchise of all time with the “Saw” series of eight entries and more than a billion dollars in box office receipts. While he has gone on to success in non-genre offerings like “Furious 7”and the upcoming “Aquaman”, he always comes home to the haunt. In the last half decade, Wan’s raised spirits and profits with “The Conjuring” which has birthed a unique universe of five films with a time-tested formula of small budgets with big returns and several recurring characters including the titular twisted sister Valak of “The Nun” introduced in “The Conjuring 2” whose origins are explored in this stand-alone just in time to start the Halloween season early.

A thankfully short but completely unnecessary Valak highlight reel from “The Conjuring 2” opens the film up which is a definite misstep but quickly locks back in place as we witness two cloistered nuns attempting to diminish a demonic presence results in one being attacked and dragged into darkness while the other elects suicide, hanging herself from a high-rise window jump, begging for forgiveness. The discovery of her body by a local deliveryman, Frenchie who notifies the nearby village with word eventually reaching the Vatican who entrust an experienced but tortured priest Father Burke and Sister Irene, a novitiate who is deeply unsure of why she was chosen to undertake this task, having neither vows taken or knowledge of their Eastern European destination. Upon their arrival and with the help of Frenchie, they soon discover why they were chosen and the evil within the abbey that must be stopped…

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For those familiar with the previous four films (“The Conjuring,” “Annabelle,” “The Conjuring 2,” “Annabelle: Creation,”) there is nothing new to be found with “The Nun” but it does have many of the hallmarks that make the series standout from similar studio dreck. Casting is always superb with an excellent choice of Taissa Farmiga (sister of “The Conjuring” series very own Lorraine Warren, Vera Farmiga) who is best remembered for her role in the landmark first season of “American Horror Story” and plays Sister Irene with a genuine and unyielding grace. It contrasts well and classically with Demian Bichir as Father Burke who, in his best impression of both Fathers Merrin and Karras, is a man whose faith has been deeply shaken. They are rounded out and complimented perfectly by Frenchie, played by Jonas Bloquet, overflowing with charm and comic relief but undoubtedly seeking his purpose in the world too.

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The sharp blend of humor and horror has always served the series well and “The Nun” is no exception and due to the tightknit trio here, some shortcomings that might have deeply undercut are dulled substantially. Have no doubt that this is still jump scare city, population you, but the most effective chills are in the first half of the film with others growing cheap and predictable towards the finale, a few still surprised. A standout is the abbess, immersed in black and veiled from the world is unsettling and slightly reminiscent of the confessional scene in “Legion: The Exorcist III” and Frenchie’s after dark graveyard encounter is old school frightening fun. (There’s also what I must believe is a nod to “Demon Knight” as the film winds down that is a real joy to see.)

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The gothic setting of rural Romania and its brooding, almost alien atmosphere adds a lot to “The Nun” but if they had focused more on classic suspense and practical effects, it could have harkened back to the glory days of Universal, Hammer and Amicus. Shades appear (as Wan is wont to do) but it comes up short as mentioned before because they slide back into the well-worn formula too fast. The score by Abel Korzeniowski keeps it wonderfully spooky, especially when used in tandem with the gorgeous set design and cinematography but gets a bit too glossy for its own good.

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Without disclosing too much, the events of previous films do come full circle here but it doesn’t feel as fluid or fulfilling as it could have been. The narrative is far from sturdy but the atmosphere and lead performances make it a competent and fun film but probably the least effective of all those in the Conjuring universe to date. Still, “The Nun” is in the spirit of the season and sure to delight longtime fans and recent novitiates….

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The Happytime Murders Review (2018)

 

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The Happytime Murders

Directed by Brian Henson

https://www.thehappytimemurders.movie/

Preceding the premiere of this year’s funniest feature to date (that’s Deadpool 2 in case you weren’t aware) was a red-band trailer for this puppets in peril picture from Brian Henson (yes, that’s Jim’s son) and the entire audience, myself included, were in tears from laughter and very excited for its potential.

Unfortunately, this proved to be a fatal clue in this noir lite clunker where the classic culprit is the 3 minute preview that allows you to skip the remaining 87 minutes and save some cash and brain cells. Now that’s not to say there isn’t some mindless fun to be had and it makes for a decent matinee but it could have been so much more.

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In short, I had hoped for “Meet The Feebles” was willing to settle for “Ted” and didn’t end up with either. What “The Happytime Murders” has is a hodgepodge of first rate puppetry, half assed acting and sight gags that delight at first but diminish quickly as the film drags on. The jokes get old quick and the few flashes of innovation, intrigue and intensity are wasted mainly on the bookends, leaving for a less than satisfying main course.

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“The Happytime Murders” occur in an alternate present where puppets and their non-felt human counterparts live in a world where the former isn’t exactly equal to say the least, largely relegated to a life of abuse and disrespect. The single source of acclaim and adoration stems from “The Happytime Gang” a beloved puppet sitcom from the 80s that’s recently achieved a lucrative syndication contract with a caveat that any deceased members share will be passed on the surviving ones. Private investigator Phil Phillips, the first puppet police officer discovers this and follows the trail with his hostile former partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) trying to save the rest of the cast.

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In a rare wise move, puppeteer and voice actor Bill Barretta is allowed to animate Phil Phillips and grant him a wry, deadpan personality befitting a classic gumshoe. While not earth shattering and I am sure it has a great deal to do with Henson heading the picture but it’s wonderful to see a master of their craft given the spotlight.

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The other standout here is Maya Rudolph who does an absolutely fabulous turn as Bubbles, Phil’s secretary, confidant and effervescent light with a 40s sense of fashion and sass. She shares a few scenes with her former “Bridesmaids” cohort Melissa McCarthy that is much better than expected and if they had just a few more minutes of run time might have fleshed out something more substantial. Far less impressive is the usually on point Joel McHale falling flat as an FBI agent but could have just as easily credited as “Joel McHale reprises his role from “Ted” and I wouldn’t have noticed. Finally, horror and genre fans will be happy to see the one and only “Tarman” Allan Trautman stepping out of his zombie outfit and into the role of an octopus who let’s just say wants something other than brains this go round.

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“The Happytime Murders” can be best summed up with the fact that Katherine Heigel passed on the lead in this – that pretty much says it all.

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Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)

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Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again does a good job of improving upon the concept of its predecessor. Rather the movie trying to fit the music, the songs in this sequel service the story.

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REVIEW: ‘Mission Impossible: Fallout’ is a Breathtaking Monument to Practical Stunts

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‘Mission Impossible: Fallout’ marks a departure for the franchise. Previous to this installment, every ‘Mission’ has had a different director and feel. The films often felt like they were not in the same genre. From De Palma’s 70s conspiracy-thriller meets 90s blockbuster, to John Woo’s over-the-top gritty action- this template was set early, and continued to evolve as J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird gave their respective auteur stamps to the series. When Christopher McQuarrie was announced as director for the fifth film, ‘Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation,’ I was skeptical. McQuarrie is a more well-known as a screenwriter. He won an Academy Award for penning ‘The Usual Suspects’ and contributed to the tremendous ‘Edge of Tomorrow.’ As a director however he only had few credits. I felt his 2000 film ‘Way of the Gun’ would have been much better with a more capable director and I found 2012’s ‘Jack Reacher’ completely forgettable. Somewhere along the line, Mission Impossible had become one of my favorite action series and while these films gave us both J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird’s live action feature debuts, I had doubts as to McQuarrie’s ability to carry the torch.

2015’s ‘Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation’ was well-received critically and financially and in a ‘Mission’ first, writer-director McQuarrie was brought back for a second film. Although competently-made, I did not end up connecting to ‘Rogue Nation’ as much as I would like. I felt the set-pieces lacked the iconic impact of the previous films and McQuarrie was so concerned with creating a complicated story that he seemed to forget that these films are meant to be fun. One of the things I especially took issue with was an underwater sequence that had heavy use of CGI, something that ‘Mission’ films generally stayed away from. Of all the directors to come back, McQuarrie would not have been my first choice. Luckily, ‘Fallout’ moves past most of the missteps of ‘Rogue Nation’ and ends up being a very strong entry in the series.

‘Mission Impossible: Fallout’ is not only the first film that sees a director return, it is in many ways a direct sequel to the events of ‘Rogue Nation.’ We start as Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) gets his “your mission if you choose to accept it” briefing. The remains of The Syndicate have formed into a group called The Apostles who plan to detonate three nuclear bombs. Returning as part of Hunt’s team are series mainstays Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg.) Ethan is forced to choose between letting one of his team members die or letting plutonium fall into the wrong hands. The beginning of the film is quite clever and leads to a late title card and the familiar opening sequence. This was refreshing as McQuarrie did away with the traditional title sequence in ‘Rogue Nation’ and it was one of the many things which made the film feel out of place.

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Joining returning characters Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) and Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) are the new additions of White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) and August Walker (Henry Cavill.) White Widow is particularly interesting. A black market dealer with a connection to an early film in the series, she is playful and dangerous. An early sequence set at a massive rave is gorgeously shot and bleeds cool. August Walker is a CIA agent placed with Ethan Hunt (against his wishes) as a balance. Hunt can always be expected to save his team members even if it means putting the world in jeopardy. Agent Walker is the opposite. His job is to secure the plutonium at any cost. As his CIA boss Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) says, Ethan is the scalpel while Walker is the hammer. And a hammer he is.

Henry Cavill sports a now-famous mustache which had to be (very badly) digitally removed when he appeared at Superman in Justice League. Ironically, Cavill is little more than a CGI character in this film. His job is to be tough and punch things. His character does very little other than get in Ethan’s way and make things more difficult for him. This has a frustrating effect and although some later plot developments give him more to do and cause his place in the story to make a bit more sense, Cavill does seem largely wasted in this film.

Ferguson is great as always as Ilsa Faust although her constant state of being at odds with Ethan does grow exhausting. There is even a segment involving a motorcycle chase between Ethan and Ilsa that is so remarkably similar to a portion of ‘Rogue Nation’ that its puzzling. This can be forgiven because of how it subverts the expectations set from the last time, but it did make me wonder is this would be just be a re-tread of the last movie. Even the villain Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) is back.

Thankfully, ‘Fallout’ really finds its footing and manages to become a much more cohesive and satisfying film than ‘Rogue Nation.’

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What ‘Fallout’ lacks in iconic action set-pieces, it makes up for in pure stamina. Anchoring the center of the film is one of the best car chases I have ever seen. Taking place in Paris, it moves from car to motorcycle and it’s duration and pitch-perfect planning elevates it to the pantheon of legendary chase sequences from films like ‘Ronin’ and ‘The Bourne Supremacy.’ This may not be as immediately recognizable as Ethan Hunt scaling Dubai’s Burj Khalifa or infiltrating CIA headquarters at Langley, suspended inches above a pressure-sensitive floor, but as an action set-piece it is immensely satisfying and I can’t wait to see it again.

Other set pieces of note are a rooftop foot chase in London and final climactic sequence involving a helicopter chase. As always, one of the most impressive things about the ‘Mission Impossible’ films and Tom Cruise as an actor is that he does so many of his own stunts. Whether sliding down a rooftop in Shanghai or free-climbing in Moab, the fact that we can see clearly that Cruise is the stuntman always adds to the sense of gravity and real danger. This series has always valued old school stunt work over CGI trickery and ‘Fallout’ continues that tradition beautifully. Even in the climax, Cruise insisted on flying the helicopter himself. Whether piloting a chopper, clinging to the side of a cliff or driving a motorcycle against traffic in a roundabout – this sense of realism cannot be understated and McQuarrie’s more grounded approach to his ‘Mission Impossible’ films allow Cruise’s stunt work to shine.

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When a series with this many films releases a new installment, there are always lists ranking them to follow. Having seen many of these lists it is remarkable how there is very little consensus. Whether in the articles themselves or the comments on them, people have wildly varying opinions on which of these films are the best or worst. It used to be understood that ‘MI2′ was a bad film, but perhaps fueled by 90s-nostalgia, that opinion seems to be changing. I was slightly underwhelmed by ‘Rogue Nation’ but many consider it to be the best of the series. To my eye, these different takes are a strength. Every different film has something to offer to different audiences. For me, McQuarrie’s entries are somewhere around the middle but if this series continues I will get the fun and cartoonish atmosphere of ‘Ghost Protocol’ again (my personal favorite.) Perhaps we will eventually see the David Fincher film that ‘MI: III’ was intended to be. The various personalities and auteur visions that fuel the ‘Mission Impossible’ series is one of the things that keep it so fresh.

While ‘Fallout’ is the first film that deviates from this formula, the refinement of Christopher McQuarrie’s approach and the resolution of this storyline make it a worthy addition to the franchise. Tom Cruise’s breathtaking stunts are worth the price of admission alone and the avoidance of computer generated effects in pursuit of an analog approach is admirable. Despite Cruise’s strong partnership with McQuarrie as of late, I do hope that the next film chooses a new director. The different approaches to each film are what give the ‘Mission Impossible’ films much of their personality and staying power. It is time to hand over the reins to a new director, perhaps another first-timer.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go see this movie again.

‘MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT’ IS IN THEATERS JULY 27TH, 2018

 

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