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The DVD-Blus: ‘Justice League Warworld’, ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘Asteroid City’, ‘No Hard Feelings’, ‘Are You There God?’, ‘The Blackening’, ‘The Machine’, ‘Fast X’ and More!

Welcome back to the latest review roundup of recently released media. This time we have some classic titles that have come to 4K UHD, plus super-heroes, animation, comedies, sequels and more!

Ladies and Gentlemen, Fire up your queue…

 

So I Married An Axe Murderer 4K UHD

Sony Pictures

When looking back on the beginning of Mike Myers’ film career, for most, the early 90s were synonymous with the duo of Wayne’s World blockbusters, but the year 1993 also saw Myers star in the off-beat rom-com, So I Married an Axe Murderer.

Here, Myers portrays beat poet Charlie, who has little luck in love. However, shortly after his latest relationship has failed – with his cat allegedly having been stolen in the process – Charlie quickly falls for Nancy Travis’ charming butcher, Harriet, and before long the two are inseparable, complete with a comically absurd romantic montage set in the butcher shop.

Soon, the pair is headed down the aisle, but Charlie’s anxiety grows as his mother’s obsession with trashy tabloids threatens to put a damper on Charlie and Harriet’s love, as Charlie begins to suspect his sweet butcher bride may actually be a homicidal maniac responsible for the deaths of several men.

The film has an eccentric character gallery that sees Myers’ first substantial big screen effort in terms of taking on double roles as he portrays both father, Stuart, and son, Charlie, and the beginnings of later characters from his Austin Powers films can certainly be seen here.

And the character of Charlie’s father Stuart is indeed a great example of Myers’ trademark caricatural performances, as the character is responsible for a significant amount of the hilarious highlights of the piece.

While Myers if of course the star of the show, some of the cameo roles also delight, with Charles Grodin’s trademark deadpan delivery being memorable in his small role as the less than delighted commandeered driver who has to put up with driving around Anthony LaPaglia’s oafish detective character Tony once the plot begins to thicken.

Continuing on the subject of cameo characters, the ultimate standout is Alan Arkin’s overly nice police chief, who keeps trying to learn to be mean in order to accommodate Tony’s incredibly stereotypical expectations of how a police chief should treat his detectives to make the job more like how it is depicted in fiction.

As 2023 marks the 30th anniversary of So I Married An Axe Murderer, the question is of course how the film has aged, and if it is deserving of a revisit.

Having a mixed reception during its original release, where the film underwhelmed at the box office, it quickly fell out of the mainstream but is fondly remembered by the cult following it has since amassed.

As such, the appeal is still there for those who enjoyed the film originally and have kept revisiting it over the decades, whereas mileage may vary for newcomers, as the film in spite of many great moments ultimately is an uneven Mike Myers showcase wrapped in a rom-com with a tinge of mystery and a sprinkling of suspense.

Etxras include deleted scenes and trailers.

Nonetheless, So I Married an Axe Murderer is still a fun little flick that will transport you back to the undeniable positivity found in 90s cinema, just as it offers a look at Mike Myers as he was transitioning from SNL regular to big screen comedy icon. (– Leyla Mikkelsen)

 

Needful Things 4K UHD

Kino Lorber

Stephen King has had a fraught relationship with cinema. Filmmakers either get the material or they don’t.

Tragically, 1993’s Needful Things falls into the “they don’t” category.

More tragic is that Castle Rock, the production company behind the film, previously had a knock out with Rob Reiner and William Goldman’s 1990 adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery.

I saw Needful Things in the cinema during its release in 1993. I remember being excited for it and being let down because it wasn’t anywhere near Misery’s level of excellence. Upon rewatching it 30 years later, now I know exactly why Needful Things was so mediocre.

The movie had everything going for it. It starts with another simple and genius novel by Stephen King published in 1991 about a mysterious trinket vendor setting up shop in a sleepy New England town. The charming vendor just happens to have exactly what you’ve been yearning, but at a personal cost. Chaos envelops the town as material desire spreads like the plague.

The screenplay was adapted by one of my favorite 1980’s filmmakers: W.D Richter, responsible for John Carpenter’s classic Big Trouble in Little China and directing the ahead of its time The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. He also penned the excellent 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The cast is stellar and every single one brings their A game.

Ed Harris, the town sheriff with a tragic past, is solid as always. Relatable everyman just looking for a quiet life. Bonnie Bedelia is his fiancé, stricken with a severe case of arthritis at a young age which interferes with her life passion: cooking for her neighbors at the town diner that she owns. JT Walsh is over the top and yet vulnerable at the same time as a reluctantly corrupt town elder and business leader. Arguably one of his better performances next to Pleasantville.  Amanda Plummer, as always, uses her gift of performing to play the odd as a small town battered widow making us both uncomfortable and sympathetic.

And then there’s the cherry on top: Max von Sydow as the unearthly mayhem bringer Leland Gaunt. Quintessentially magnetic, playing his nefarious demon-esque character to delicious perfection.

Yet, despite the top talent involved, there are two detrimental issues with this film: lack of focus and tone.

Needful Things opens with a mysterious classic black Mercedes with tinted window approaching and entering the featured town of Castle Rock. This nefarious automobile is carrying Leland Gaunt, the film’s antagonist. But you wouldn’t know it because we never connect the Mercedes with Gaunt and don’t see it again until the very end of the film, when Gaunt, having survived being blown up unscathed, delivers his dark parting remarks and climbs in and leaves town.

The disc includes both the theatrical and television versions of the film, as well as commentary,  an interview with Richter, and movie trailer.

Ed Harris’ Sheriff Alan Pangborn is clearly the protagonist and the film’s DNA is no doubt a mystery for the town’s inhabitants. Who is this charming new resident? Why the sudden increase in vandalism and hostility in our quiet town? Why is my fiancé turning against me? However, instead of getting to know the town and piecing together the clues through Pangborn’s eyes, like we do with Roy Scheider’s Sheriff Brody in Jaws, the film chooses instead to spend equal time with each resident. This results in us having no idea who we should be rooting for despite the across-the-board excellent characters and performances.

The combination of whimsical music, excessive swearing and made for television style directing also contribute to Needful Things’ uneven tone. The movie doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be. Thrilling? Dark? Dark comedy? Satire? Profound? It’s trying to be everything at once and failing at all of it.

For as frustrating as the film is to watch, there are however, two truly fantastic sequences.

First is the mid-point show-down between Amanda Plummer’s Nettie and Valri Bromfield’s Wilma. Director Fraser C Heston (son of actor Charlton) deftly delivers this brewing conflict, instigated by Leland Gaunt, with playful savagery highlighted by the perfect use of the 1875 classical score Hall of the Mountain King. This sequence is both fun and dark and packs punch by raising the stakes. Had the rest of film’s music mimicked the dark spirit of Hall of the Mountain King, it would have gone a long way in shaping the feel of the film as a whole.

Then there’s Brian Rusk’s attempted suicide scene. Played by Shane Meier, Brian is Gault’s teenage first victim having been offered a rare Mickey Mantle baseball card, signed to a Brian, no less, in exchange for some nefarious deeds against Wilma who is generally disliked in Castle Rock.  Not only do we feel the heavy costs on one’s soul for giving into material desire, but Sheriff Pangborn is finally able to directly link Leland Gaunt to all the town’s troubles.

Needful Things is a film I desperately want to like, but the reality is it’s just not very good. It could have been, though. ( – Anthony Sword)

 

Justice League: Warworld 4K UHD

Warner Bros.

Justice League: Warworld from the DC Animated slate is the latest installment in the Tomorrowverse.

Tomorrowverse sets itself as a rebooted DC animated universe with a new shared cast, including Jensen Ackles as Batman, Darren Criss as Superman, and Stana Katic as Wonder Woman for DC’s familiar Trinity leading the Justice League.

Warworld is not a bad animated movie. There are some fun parts, and it is so violent that it justifies an “R” Rating.

There’s a very real superhero and multiverse fatigue in pop culture, and Warworld has the unfortunate timing of hitting this nexus in time. We’ll get to the film’s main conceit, but as an anthology of fun Elseworlds stories, each stands on its own, and viewers can pick a personal favorite. Fans of anthology feature-length animation like Heavy Metal might feel at home in Warworld. DC fans looking for the Trinity to kick some ass in costume will have to wait until the movie’s end for that.

Our heroes have amnesia on Warworld and do not remember who they are or what is happening around them.

The first story is about Wonder Woman arriving in a spaghetti western town to be thwarted by an evil Jonah Hex. It’s a sendup of these Clint Eastwood westerns, and some jokes will make your eyes roll back like Doc Brown downing some wake-up juice in 1885. Overall, I like a Western movie, and seeing Diana in this setting with Jonah was fun. The prostitutes and out-of-character bloody face pummeling seemed off, even for an Elseworlds tale, in my opinion.

Were they trying to justify the R-Rating? I don’t know what else would constitute the MPAA rating here. It’s pretty milquetoast standard DC animated storytelling otherwise.

Cut to our hero Bruce Wayne, also amnesiac, as an imprisoned Conan The Barbarian. Certainly not as compelling as Grant Morrison’s Batman: Return of Bruce Wayne, but a tinge of that flavor is here. The mood of the animation for this and Diana’s stories refer to 70s mid-to-low budget action flicks and the style of a minimal soundtrack. As far as the mood is concerned, Batman as Conan is all right with me. Plus, mystical beasts and a realization that they are being manipulated. Diana joins the fight later in the Batman story,

Superman’s solo story places him in 1950s America as he is a junior G-Man in black and white, again finding himself in a diner. Unlike the previous two stories, where Diana shows up to help Bruce fight amongst a pile of gold after being chased by dinosaurs, Diana and Bruce are characters in this play. They are in the diner already as his mystery unfolds. It is important to remember what is happening, as each of our heroes has no memory of their true selves but has the same powers and an innate capability to use them. They do not ‘wake up’ until nearly the film’s end. This is possibly my favorite of the segments, with Clark using his powers but being surprised by them.

Those more steeped in DC than this reviewer will recognize some of the other key players. Mongul is the biggest bad. He is the ruler of the “War World.” Travis Morgan, the Warlord, is the one who is seeking the enslaved Bruce Wayne’s help. Warlord could well have been DC’s answer to the popular Conan character and sword and sandal craze, created by Mike Grell in the 70s.

It turns out that “someone is behind this,” and all of the fighting in the individual stories were happening inside the minds of our heroes. Spoiler alert, but the savvy can read through the lines. Another Justice League member, Martian Manhunter, has been manipulating these fantasies and is forced to do so before being released by our increasingly self-aware team.

Overall, my biggest criticism comes with the idea that this movie ends on a cliffhanger when it absolutely does not need to. We’re teased that there is a bigger threat, but I don’t need to find out how or why. I felt many times watching this that I just wanted it to be over with, but then it turns out we’re maybe not even halfway there. I want to move on, especially because one personal bias is that I think the “Super Mario Bros. 2” problem (spoiler: It was a dream!) is one of the most disappointing tropes to fall into. And I love tropes! But not dream worlds presented as reality. And yes, Virginia, I still don’t understand Inception.

Extras include two brief featurettes.

This reviewer gives Justice League: Warworld three stars. I had some fun, but I don’t want to go back there to find out the bigger threat. I’m awake now and want to get on with my day. ( – Clay N Ferno)

 

Serpico 4K UHD

Kino Lorber

It’s amazing to think there was a time in American film where police corruption was a verboten topic, but Serpico endured a torturous development cycle of cast, script, and director changes partly because everyone involved knew that the film could easily blow up in their faces.

In our current age of “Defund the Police” and ACAB it’s hard to see just how transformative Serpico was, or why it occupied a place amongst the great Hollywood “social change” films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? or Network.

What has endured in the public consciousness to the point where the titular character is still slang for a policeman, is the central performance by Al Pacino. Situated a year after his star-making turn in The Godfather and a legendary outing in Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino was probably the best actor in the world at this point and his driven, committed performance as Frank Serpico is the main draw of this film.

Serpico is an adaptation of a series of New York Times articles that made public the story of Frank Serpico (Pacino), an NYPD officer with big ideas to improve the department’s relationship with the communities it polices and who is willing to deviate from protocol to do so. The entire film is told as a flashback from the night Serpico is seriously wounded by a gunshot and privately the Chief (John Randolph) fears that the culprits may have been other policemen. Over the course of the film we see Serpico’s entire career and how his refusal to participate in the culture of bribery and corruption on the force made him first a pariah to his fellow officers and eventually a target.

As I watched Serpico I was deeply reminded of Alan J. Pakula’s film adaptation of All the President’s Men: both films have big movie stars playing real people in extreme circumstances. I think Pacino is far more successful than Redford or Hoffman were at disappearing into the role, but that Paukla’s film because it hues closer to the form of a conventional thriller is more disciplined and tighter. Both are essentially 20th century hagiography (Author’s Note: that’s an old word that means “the biography of a Saint”) and have some real reticence about getting to the core of the humanity of their subjects because they’re a little in awe of them.

Serpico is one of the great artifacts of the “New Hollywood: of the 1970’s, and the image of Pacino as Serpico undercover with long hair and an unkempt beard is up there with Brando as Vito Corleone or Nicholson as Jake Gittes in defining an era where Hollywood was really concerned with telling important stories again. As I alluded to early this can give films, if they’re not careful, a moralistic, preachy quality.

Now at the time, Serpico was highlighting police behavior with a brutal realism that would have softened that sermon quality, but we’re so far removed from being shocked by police corruption, real or fictional, that much of what made Serpico a cultural landmark in its day has not held up particularly effectively. Where the film truly congeals and finds footing is when Lumet allows Pacino to inhabit the scenes and carry them by sheer force of personality.

I find Lumet to be a hard director to talk about a lot of the time because he was so workmanlike in the technical sense that there’s no stylistic flourishes that are unique to him and so varied in the projects he chose that he doesn’t really have thematic constants in his career.

However, here I think his real gift is for filming New York City in such a way to absolutely capture that moment in time. Anyone who has seen Death Wish or The Taking of Pelham 123 knows that the New York City of the early 70’s is such a vibe– part dystopia and part cornucopia. Lumet shows incredible commitment to truthfulness in his depiction. There are so many scenes where I feel like I’m in Bed-Sty or Astoria but not the ones I’ve seen with my own eyes.

This is truly one of the great “New York” movies.

Extras include commentary, Sidney Lumet interview, featurettes, photo gallery with commentary and trailer.

In summation, Frank Serpico famously left the premiere of this film before it finished because he felt the action of the film was too clean, that it reduced years of professional impotence and personal danger to too clean and easy a “Hollywood story.”

I wasn’t there so I can’t comment on the reality of that, but I will say that Serpico feels artificial on the script level– the kind of film that made audiences cynical about the designation “Based on a True Story.” That said, I still think the film is worth checking out if only for the committed performance of Pacino at the absolute peak of his powers and Lumet’s great eye for the city of New York. Your mileage may vary. ( – Will McGuire)

 

Kandahar Blu-ray

Universal Studios

“Kandahar is like Cold War Berlin”

This film doesn’t really start until you hear that line. Unfortunately you don’t hear that line until 45 minutes in. Honestly, for the first 45 minutes of Kandahar I thought it was a reasonably well written derivative Syriana clone, misusing Gerard Butler badly.

Then you hear, “Kandahar is like Cold War Berlin.”

Not soon after we have a chase and shootout in a market in Afghanistan and a Pakistani agent gets into it with Iranian intelligence while Gerard Butler and his translator escape into the desert.

This film was made for a Western audience, but about halfway through I realized there is a much deeper story available. It may have been made for a middle eastern audience, but the Persian/Arabian conflicts are a running subtext in this film and the layers are fascinating. I want to see a film about this complex and important subject.

Navid Neghaban plays Gerard Butler’s translator and if you recognize him, you shouldn’t be surprised. He has been playing Islamic characters in western cinema and TV for a LONG time. (23 years to be exact) He is Iranian by birth and came to the US through Germany. He has a gentle speech pattern and soft eyes and is instantly likeable. I think he’s most famous for his role in Homeland, but I haven’t seen it. He is a great actor. He’s eminently believable in everything I’ve seen him in and this is no different. He gives a small monologue in the desert about grief and loss that hits like a sledgehammer.

As great as Navid is, for some reason the director cuts a song into the score right after the speech which totally diminishes its impact. About 2/3 of the way through this film I realized this was a great movie that had bad infrastructure. 45 minutes to get into the actual plot is too long, especially in a movie that clocks in under 2 hours.

Soon after Navid has one of the most dramatic scenes I’ve seen in a film in a long time. I didn’t love a lot of the directorial choices in this film, but the subtlety leading up to the dramatic conflict is excellent and Navid once again delivers a short monologue that is devastating, emotional and perfect.

That might be the issue with this film more than anything else. There are amazing choices made and incredibly good writing for part of it and while the good writing persists, some of the directorial choices are questionable at best and WTF worthy at worst. (The musical score choice I mentioned earlier being especially cringy).

Ric Roman Waugh is a middling director who may have gotten caught in one of the biggest challenges in film. He had a script that was better than his ability to bring it to the screen. A top tier director would have cut the plot setup to 20 minutes or less, asked for minor rewrites to accentuate some of the conflict in the desert, specifically around Navid’s backstory and layered in some of the deeper complexity around intra-Islamic politics. They would have turned this into a drama, with some action elements vs what it is, which is an action-ish movie that was begging to be more. They also would have put a campaign together to get Navid nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar because he would have absolutely delivered.

This is a good film that could have been great, I just realized I didn’t talk about Gerard Butler much because we get what Gerard Butler gives us. He gives us rugged good looks, a cool accent, reasonable acting, some emotional range and a solid silhouette against an action backdrop. You aren’t getting more and you aren’t getting less. All in all, that’s pretty good. It certainly wasn’t Gerard Butler’s responsibility to smooth out the bumps in this film. ( – David Landsman)

 

Asteroid City Blu-ray

Universal Studios

When you watch a Wes Anderson film, the star of that film is Wes Anderson.

It really doesn’t matter at all that you have what passes for an all-star cast these days in Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Ed Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, Maya Hawke, Adrien Brody, Matt Dillon, and Jason Schwartzman.

The plot itself isn’t really all that important, either. No, like Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch, with a Wes Anderson picture, what you watch for is how the whole thing is distilled through the creator’s unique and somewhat warped vision and presented to you in true cinematic fashion (as opposed to someone just pointing a camera and yelling “Action.”)

And unlike Tarantino, whose films are strained through all that has gone before, and Lynch, whose movies are like a bad acid trip on a dark carnival ride, Anderson’s tend to mostly be playful—if at times incomprehensible—romps through various film industry tricks and tropes. All three of these men understand the difference between film and real life in ways that other directors, no matter how popular, do not.

Asteroid City is a Wes Anderson film and, as such, the only thing you’ve ever seen even the least bit like it would be another Wes Anderson film.

It’s tough to even talk about this without spoilers, so be warned. What passes for the picture’s plot is that various people find themselves stuck in a tiny little Nevada tourist trap town in the mid-1950s when an alien spaceship arrives.

But the actual plot is about a playwright and the play he has written about the above.

Although shot in Spain according to the closing credits, the incredible cinematography of vast scorching deserts is striking and the absolute highlight of the entire picture is the amazing color palette chosen to represent this world with its atomic bomb testing going off nearby on a regular basis.

Bryan Cranston is the film’s narrator…or rather, the play’s narrator. He appears throughout—mainly in the stark black and white segments—echoing not just the on-set Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, but also The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling. He shows us the writing of the play, the casting of the play, and various behind-the-scenes aspects of the play, but it’s the muted color scenes in-between that supposedly ARE the play.

Characters? Well, what passes for our main character is a widowed, pipe-smoking photographer with a teenage son and three little girls. Their rich grandfather comes to town to pick them up and gets stuck there with everyone else. That includes a movie star and her daughter, one of a handful of science nerds in town for a small exhibition.

The town is called Asteroid City because of a small asteroid that fell there years before and is on display. The alien who arrives takes the asteroid with him.

Don’t try to make sense of it. The fun, as I say, is in the WAY it’s told. Not the story itself. The characters are purposely unrealistic but get some funny, funny scenes throughout. Hanks shines as the reluctant grandpa, presiding over the ersatz burial of his daughter’s ashes. Brody is great as the play’s director, and Schwartzman carries it all as both his character and the character underneath his character.

Add to this the wonderful train scenes (I’m a sucker for a good train scene), a fun running gag of a gun-shooting car chase past the desert town, impressive sets, an incredible music score, and a dancing road runner in the closing credits, and Asteroid City gets my highest recommendation.  ( – Steven Thompson)

 

The Little Mermaid Digital 4K UHD

Disney Digital

There’s something special about a singing cartoon animal that should not be underestimated. The charm in anthropromorphic interpretation comes from the same place that great animation does – just enough of the real thing to form a frame and then exaggerated features laid on top. But the lessons from the lackluster The Lion King live-action film seem lost here. Everything is quieter, softer, and lesser than the original cartoon version. There is too much realism and not enough joy in this adaptation, no matter how hard Halle Bailey works to imbue warmth in each of her scenes.

In the most recent rehash in the Disney Princess series, an updated The Little Mermaid adds in new songs, new side characters, and a few story updates. Musically, the additonal songs are hit and miss. While pleasant enough, nothing approaches the swell of emotion from the original score. Ariel sings one of the most iconic “I Want” songs with “Part of Your World”, and it is a tall order to do anything but homage to Jodi Benson’s standard-bearing take. Bailey adds her signature sound (she’s one half of the popular music duo Chloe x Halle) but maintains the heart of the song with only a few additional runs and lilts.

Melissa McCarthy did a reasonable job with the booming “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, but it lacked the power of recent takes like Queen Latifah’s during the ABC live broadcast version. Her Ursula is less of the sly, showy sea witch of yore and more a petulant sister with a fair amount of magic on her side. It was almost jarring to see someone so known for over the top performances turn in a relatively straightforward performance.

Like many of her colleagues, McCarthy seemed almost wooden, with the energy in her voice rarely matching her movements. The undersea scenes are beautifully animated with shimmering sand and seamless transition from fin to torso on each mermaid. But the effect across the faces of the human actors seemed to flatten their ability to emote. Watching Ariel conversing with Sebastian under water versus on land is night and day in difference in the way micro-expressions can make a scene. Bailey gets to use her entire face but misses her voice on land. This inability to use more than half of her gifts at almost any time can be frustrating.

Ariel’s animal friends cannot save a scene with eyebrow raises, dances, or any other fun gags you need from a four-legged or finned companion. On top of this, there is a particularly awkward rap duet with Daveed Digg’s Sebastian (a lost opportunity for Caribbean casting) and Awkwafina’s Scuttle. Poor Flounder is a shadow of himself, shrank from a fish the size of Ariel’s head that could be hugged or held on by Sebastian for rides, to a tiny palm sized guppy that gives more Jiminy Cricket than partner in crime.

Extras include featurettes, song selection and trailer.

Changes to main characters are just as difficult to understand in utility. Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) has a truly outsized presence that makes no sense for a film focused on a princess’ life changing decision. While some backstory is appreciated, there are several scenes that should not simply be cut, but replaced with more information about Ariel’s take on the outside world. He also receives his own lackluster song, which does little to further endear him to the audience.

The movie is sweet enough and a strong step for diverse representation in the Disney film canon. Yet it still falls short of even a televised stage version of this beloved story. Small children who have not made strong ties with the original may find this enchanting, but most adults will let this sink to the bottom of the ocean. ( – Kristen Halbert)

 

The Anderson Tapes Blu-ray

Kino Lorber

The Anderson Tapes is the sort of picture that ought to be remade, because conceptually the film is brilliant: Sean Connery plays a professional thief, Duke Anderson. Anderson gets out of jail and pretty much instantly decides to infiltrate the high-rise his beautiful girlfriend, Ingrid (Dyan Cannon) lives in. A complex scheme is devised, multiple weirdos and screwballs are smacked into orbit around our charming lead rogue, a perfect plan is devised, and everything goes wrong. All of that sounds standard, but what makes The Anderson Tapes conceptually so intriguing and why I would welcome a remake is because the film is told primarily through state-of-the-art surveillance footage of the building in question.

And here’s the rub with The Anderson Tapes: the gimmick of the characters being “overheard” over security footage that’s neither directed at them specifically, or able to stop them for most of the running time, is what makes the film interesting and a gimmick that holds the film back cinematically. The film is based on a novel by Lawrence Sanders, that used transcripts of security footage in the same way that Bram Stoker used journals and letters as the structural basis for Dracula.

And so, a heist movie starring Bond-era Sean Connery, with the best supporting cast he’d ever worked with in his career to that point, stumbles because it has to work around a format choice that prevents it from being as cinematic and seductive as the film ought to be.

The caper movie lives on suspense and visceral energy: consider the brilliant caper that forms the middle portion of Brian De Palma’s 1996 film Mission: Impossible and how, as the tension builds and Tom Cruise gets closer and closer to his goal, the camera slowly draws in closer and closer the agents until the entire enterprise literally hinges on a single bead of sweat. You just can’t use your entire toolkit as a director working under the limitation of seeing the action through early 70’s security cameras.

Extras include commentary, tv spot, and trailer.

Connery is still cool and the cast, from legendary character actor Martin Balsam to Christopher Walken making his feature film debut, is great but I would adore seeing this picture with modern technology and recording equipment that could make the action of film more dynamic while keeping the gimmick that makes the film worth talking about to this day. ( – Will McGuire)

 

The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster Blu-ray

RJL Entertainment

The success of 1972’s Blacula brought about a wave of blaxploitation horror movies aimed at drawing Black audiences hungry to see themselves represented on screen. Of course, like any wave of films following a hit, the quality varied wildly. For each Sugar Hill or JD’s Revenge, you had, well, Blackenstein.

With the success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Black horror has seen a resurgence, with a veritable tsunami of movies once again aimed at hungry Black audiences. The bar, however, has been raised, and it isn’t enough to just show Black faces on screen; authenticity to the Black experience matters just as much, if not more.

The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster is thankfully not a Blackenstein update, despite sharing the same source material. Writer/director Bomani J. Story’s feature debut is an interesting take on Mary Shelley’s tale.

Story asks probing questions about the value of life and the impact of trauma on youth. He paints a convincing portrait of a family constantly on the brink of collapsing under the weight of the violence visited upon it. Unfortunately, it’s the Frankenstein story that is the weakest part of the enterprise.

The strongest aspect of the film, inarguably, is star Laya DeLeon Hayes (The Equalizer TV series — and, I swear this is true, the voice of Doc McStuffins), who carries the movie on her shoulders through her dynamic performance. She plays Vicaria, a genius teen whose life is shattered by the violent deaths of her mother and older brother Chris.

Theorizing that death is itself a disease, Vicaria devotes herself to finding a cure, and uses her late brother as a test subject. She miraculously resurrects Chris, though he isn’t the same person he was. Reborn as a hulking creature quick to violence, Chris plunges Vicaria into his old world of drug dealing and danger.

Hayes is a marvel, her eyes twinkling with devious intelligence in one scene and burning with anger in the next. She brilliantly embodies the vulnerable young girl intelligent beyond her years, but without the wisdom to ground her. In fact, she’s so good, it’s easy to get wrapped up in her performance without noticing how the movie falls apart after she brings Chris back to life.

The biggest problem with The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster is the monster.

Chris is inscrutable, hewing closer to James Whale’s monosyllabic interpretation of Frankenstein than Mary Shelley’s original, cunning creature. He and Vicaria barely get any time together to establish a relationship before their paths deviate. It’s hard, then, to feel as invested in what he does later, despite Edem Atsu-Swanzy gamely portraying him.

Fortunately, Story has a better handle on Vicaria’s other family members. Chad L. Coleman (The Wire, The Walking Dead) leads an excellent supporting cast that brings to life a caring community doing their best to support one another. Denzel Whitaker, as the antagonist Kango, is also very good, but the dealer characters aren’t served nearly as well by the script.

Story is good at handling his cast, and even inserts some moments of visual flair into the film. His script is the biggest drawback. There are moments of great relatability and thought when it comes to Vicaria and her life. But the genre elements are clumsy at best and the plot discards character development in favor of a third act heavy on cliché.

Still, it’s a first film, and it’s one that has its moments. The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster shows some promise for Bomani Story as a writer/director, but it’s even more of a showcase for Laya DeLeon Hayes. The rest of the movie may not entirely be alive, but she certainly is. ( – Andre Bennett)

 

Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret Blu-ray

Lionsgate

In the annals of middle-grade books that have managed to influence a generation of girls, none has had the impact of Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret.

None.

I cannot express what it was like to grow up in the 70s/80s as a voracious reader and to finally find a story that was not only  written in a way that an actual 11/12 year old girl would act or think, but also give voice to the deeply terrified part of yourself that had BIG questions about life that you were too afraid to ask anyone about. Ask any 40 or 50-something year old woman about that book, and I swear their eyes will glaze over and they will instantly be transported back to their preteen years. Trust me, middle-grade and young adult books that dealt with “controversial” topics like mensuration, religion, atheism, peer pressure and falling in love for the first time were very few and far between in those decades, and certainly not written in the way that Blume did. She captured every nuance, debilitating anxiety and enormous pressure of being a preteen girl and did so in a way that made all of us eternally grateful.

The fact that Blume consistently refused to allow an adaptation of the book for over 50 years shows just how much her work means to her and how passionately she felt that it had to be done right in order to give her consent. Enter writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig (Edge of Seventeen) and James L. Brooks (The Simpsons, As Good As It Gets, Edge of Seventeen) whose adoration for Are You There God allowed Blume to finally feel confident enough to say yes.

And boy did they get it right.

The first admirable thing they did was keep it set in the year it was written (1970). After all, updating it to the 2020s to appeal to a generation that is far more knowledgeable about themselves and the world around them would have significantly reduced its impact. The fact that kids had very little access to information about their own changing bodies back in the 70s is a huge plot point and adds to the overarching theme of confusion and self-doubt.

The second thing that Craig and Brooks did right was in the casting. The Simon family, Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson, Ant Man), her mom Barbara (Rachel McAdams, Mean Girls), her Dad Herb (Benny Safdie, Oppenheimer) and her grandmother Sylvia (Kathy Bates, Misery) are pitch perfect and manage to create a believable close-knit crew that Margaret desperately adores and also wants to pull away from. A

ll of Margaret’s friends and frenemies look like tweens (seriously, they look like kids which is almost refreshing) and portray that weird combination of innocence and worldly knowledge that comes from knowing not a damn thing but thinking you do. From Nancy’s (Elle Graham­, Secrets of Sulphur Springs) mean girl bossiness, Jane’s (Amari Alexis Price) sweetness and Gretchen’s (Katherine Kupferer, Widows) awkwardness, all of the members of the secret club (in the book it is known as the PTS- the Pre-Teen Sensations) should be commended on their degree of subtlety in their performances.

The tension between the girls feel real, especially at that age when you’re about to leave childhood and friends behind as you start to discover who you are. It takes a real talent to show the barbarism of a preteen girl wrapped up in the painfulness of early adolescence without it becoming a caricature, and every one of these young actors did a fantastic job of toeing that line.

The third and final thing that Craig did correctly was to not significantly change any of the major plot points that made the book so special. Margaret’s class assignment on her resolve to figure out her lack of religious identity (she’s from a dual religious family – Jewish and Christian – and was raised agnostic), her desperate desire to start her period and be normal like her friends, the “We Must! We Must! We Must Increase Our Bust!” chant, her jealousy of Laura Danker (Isol Young) who hit puberty early and has to deal with the viciousness of her classmates, her secret love of Moose Freed (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong, I Am Not Okay With This), her incredibly strong bond with her grandmother Sylvia…all of these have stayed intact and make Are You There God such a great film.

Extras includes an EPK, featurettes, deleted scenes, and a round-table discussion.

One change from the book that I really enjoyed was the small, and (I hate to repeat myself here but it’s the only word that fits) subtle way the film gave Margaret’s mom Barbara a chance to echo Margaret’s self-evolution. Yes, this is Margaret’s story but at the same time you get to see Barbara dealing with the same kind of emotional change that her daughter goes through. Here’s a woman who moves to the suburbs of New Jersey from NYC, whose life was energized by the creativity and business of that city, and who now has to figure out how to fit in with the women around her in world that idolizes sameness. These scenes are short and interspersed at specific “life moments” that Margaret experiences, and it is within these little moments that an audience who grew up identifying specifically with Margaret (and are now in our late 40s and 50s) suddenly find kinship with Barbara.

Let’s face it, middle-age is filled with the very same potholes for women as it did right before we started our periods, and with this new adoration of Barbara, it feels like we’ve come full-circle.  Margaret and Barbara are the flip-sides of one another as we are to our own past, and this examination of Barbara’s life was such a special and necessary surprise to the film. I absolutely loved it.

This is a period film (in more ways than one) that gets it right from beginning to end and should be seen by everyone. I can’t recommend it highly enough. ( – Elizabeth Weitz)

 

No Hard Feelings Blu-ray

Sony Pictures

No Hard Feelings is billed as a comedy, but it’s more about two people who are coming of age at different points in their life. Jennifer Lawrence (Maddie) is paid By Andrew Barth Feldman’s (Percy) parents to help bring him out of his shell before he leaves for Princeton that fall. Percy’s well meaning, but toxic parents are played by Matthew Broderick and Laura Benanti.

Everyone in this film is a professional. Feldman, Broderick and Benanti are all Broadway stars. The writer/director, Gene Stupnitsky, knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t have a lot of writing credits, but the ones he does have are for solid things. He also executive produced 9 episodes of SMILF which does not get enough credit for being awesome. (It was)

Unfortunately for us, you can’t just take talent, throw it in front of a camera and expect magic to happen. This is supposed to be a comedy, but the dialogue isn’t funny or biting, except in a few small moments. There isn’t enough physical comedy for it to be really slapstick. There are a couple of bizarre car stunt scenes and a fight on the beach that is great, but kind of jarring and out of place in the context of the movie. It’s almost like Stupnitsky was sitting in front of his script after they cast Jennifer Lawrence and said to himself, “Jennifer Lawrence is an action heroine. We need to have her kick someone’s ass… yeah, but how is that funny? Well, let’s have her do it on a beach in the nude. YEAH! That’s the ticket.” Narrator: “It was in fact not, the ticket.”

It just doesn’t fit with the tone of the film, which is to say most of this film just dips its toe into the comedy realm. I won’t say I never laughed, but I didn’t laugh enough. Stupnitsky has some credentials from The Office, but the film never really makes you cringe, so it wasn’t that kind of funny either. It was a cliche plot with enough talent in the cast to make it watchable… just.

SIDEBAR: Natalie Morales has a small role as Jennifer Lawrence’s best friend and she’s great. Morales has worked consistently since 2006, but has never been a household name or a real star. She’s awesome. She should work more than she does and she should be 10x more famous than she is. Is she great in this film? There wasn’t a lot for her to work with and like the rest of the cast she was saddled with a middling script. However, she seems SO genuine and natural in EVERYTHING she does. She had a small recurring role (2 episodes) in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom where she played the daughter of a Cantor Fitzgerald executive who happened to be in the studio the night Bin Laden was killed. She delivers a small monologue about what she thought it was going to feel like when Bin Laden died vs what it did feel like that hits like a hammer. It was 11 years ago and I remember it. If she was ever cast in a role that let her fully explore her talent she would get an Oscar nomination. She’s that good. END SIDEBAR

Another problem with this film is the location. It’s shot in Montauk, NY, the far eastern edge of Long Island. It is home to the summer homes of some of the wealthiest people in the world and is generally magnificent. There is a whole undertone of class warfare in this film that goes nowhere and more importantly, you don’t really get to see any of Montauk’s opulence. I mean, if you are going to focus a story on a place at least give us a 2 minute drive-around montage of some of the beautiful homes or the beach in daylight or SOMETHING to support the plot. This is a film with a $45 million dollar budget. They could have given us some eye candy.

There’s a lot of, “Well we should probably include…” feel to the film. They have so many Broadway people it was like they were sitting around a table and someone said, “Um, shouldn’t we have someone sing at some point?” And everyone else chimed in that it was a good idea and a scene was written in to have Feldman sing. (This scene actually works and is a little funny, but it still felt like an afterthought.)

The technical side of the film is fine. The editing makes sense and there is actually a pretty solid score, but if I tell you one of the best things about the movie is the inclusion of some good background music, I am telling you a lot about the film as a whole.

Extras include featurettes and outtakes & bloopers.

Jennifer Lawrence is too big a star for this film. It’s not dramatic enough for her to stretch her acting abilities. It’s not funny enough for her to stretch her comedic abilities. It almost feels like she did this as a favor to someone who needed a star to get a green light. Realistically it shouldn’t have been green-lit. It’s not bad, it’s just nothing we haven’t seen before.

Watch it on a rainy Sunday morning as you’re scrolling through one of your streaming services wondering how you’re going to kill the next couple of hours. It isn’t worth much more than that. ( – David Landsman)

 

Swamp Thing 4K UHD

MVD Rewind

Swamp Thing is an acquired taste.

Made in the era where comic book movies came with an apology from the filmmakers, Swamp Thing isn’t so much a camp classic, like Flash Gordon, but a production whose limitations force camp upon it. Five years previous to this film’s release the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno incarnation of The Incredible Hulk debuted with a TV movie that was probably the most serious and grounded comic book adaptation of all time to that point. Swamp Thing reminds me in many ways of that film’s approach but without much of the humanity that grounded the big green good running around throwing about all the bad guys.

Ray Wise (Twin Peaks) plays Dr. Alec Holland, a brilliant biologist looking to cure world hunger by creating plants with the survival instinct of animals. He’s doing this research in the deep swamp, a location dangerous enough that it claimed the life of one scientist and forced a beautiful replacement Alice, played by Adrienne Barbeau (Escape From New York), to join the team. Just as Holland has achieved his breakthrough his lab is attacked and destroyed by Arcane (Louis Jourdan), a non-specific terrorist. Holland’s sister is killed and Holland is presumed dead after being fully immolated and falling into the swamp. That stunt, by the way, is the very best thing in the movie.

When the thugs try to drown Alice and remove the last loose end from their attack on Holland’s lab, she’s helped by a green creature. Soon, she discovers the creature is a mutated Holland, and with his work lost Arcane wants him as the last means of replicating his work. Cue one backwoods super hero story/gothic romance.

Or it would if the monster wasn’t clearly a man in a green wetsuit, the actor playing the villain wasn’t so clearly bored, and the direction wasn’t so flat.

I normally don’t complain about production values, I believe in the dictum that James Cameron once famously gave that “you have to look at it with better eyes”, and my abiding love for Hong Kong cinema makes me feel somewhat hypocritical for deriding anyone else’s special effects. That said, the whole movie is shot flat, in the daytime, with no attempt made to keep the monster’s mystique intact. If the director isn’t interested in accentuating the positives and hiding the negatives, I don’t feel bad telling you that Swamp Thing himself took me out of the film.

This gets compounded by the normally excellent Louis Jourdan acting like he’s suffering from insomnia between working days. Just compare how low energy he is here to the way he crosses swords with Roger Moore just a year later in Octopussy. With the hero buried underneath so much latex, a great villain was necessary to make the film work and I think Jourdan just wasn’t interested in the material.

Finally, I don’t think director Wes Craven did the material any favors. Shot like a television show for most of the film’s running time, other than a fantastic stunt with fire, there wasn’t a single memorable composition or shot in the film.

This one hasn’t held up unfortunately.  ( – Will McGuire)

 

Babylon 5: The Road Home 4K UHD

Warner Bros.

Sci-fi fans of J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 have a reason to rejoice with Warner Animation’s latest, Babylon 5: The Road Home. Cast members and JMS have reunited for a brand new, original, and continuing adaptation of the popular ’90s space station show. Famous for a niche audience, that’s for sure, as the property was similar to Star Trek and, more specifically, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (chicken and egg), but with a diverse class of aliens on a space station and deep character moments weaved into the plotline of the five season show and subsequent movies, B5 is excellent television.

Babylon 5: The Road Home goes to the well once more and continues JMS’ singular vision of the space station that is “Our Last Best Hope for Peace.”

Bringing this property to animation, from stories simmering since the last air date, was a surprise to Babylon 5 fans earlier this year as JMS started to tease this project on social media to watch the skies for “something wonderful.” Now that the movie is out, and with fans speculating beyond the trailer for the film’s overall look, we can see how the Babylon 5 universe can expand beyond the live-action movie and comic book expansions.

At the core, this is excellent storytelling. At heart is the ability to reunite surviving members of the original cast and pay tribute to the Babylon 5 friends and family that played the live-action characters.

By recasting the voices of these key main characters, we are lucky that Bruce Boxleitner, Claudia Christain, Bill Mumy, Peter Jurasik, and Tracy Scoggins agree to the project and lend their voices.

Joining the cast are Paul Guyet as original B5 Captain Jeffrey Sinclair and Zathras, Phil LaMarr as Doctor Stephen Franklin, and Andrew Morgado as G’Kar. Rebecca Riedy takes on the crucial role of Deleen. Anthony Hansen voices security chief Michael Garibaldi. According to support materials and end credit dedication, JMS got full consent and approval from the surviving actors to move forward with Babylon 5: The Road Home and considered their personal feelings about the project before it hit production.

Delenn and Sheridan are about to head to Minbar and leave Babylon 5 in the hands of Captain Lyta Alexander. He can’t find the lucky socks he wore when he first took command of the space station, so he goes sockless.

While a metaphorical butterfly effect is undoubtedly in place here, it sets us up to expect the unexpected in the way only JMS can do. Minor character moments combined with big stakes and lots of heart.

On Minbar, as newly anointed President Sheridan, he’s invited to the opening of a new power source. Unfortunately, our sometimes time-traveling captain, the power battery is based on Tachyons, faster-than-light particles that resonate with Sheridan’s particular makeup. Delenn doesn’t reach him in time, and he sets out on this journey, lost in time and space.

A being and character from the series, Zathras, is similar to The Watcher from Marvel. He might be the cause of this happening or maybe the solution to getting Sheridan back on track, but what follows the explosion at the power factory is Sheridan visiting different timelines and critical moments in the series, albeit with slight variations.

I must hand it to JMS and stave off any general complaints about another 2023 multiverse story.

We know he’s not a trend follower. This was a backdoor plan to get the station back online for years. This is his beloved franchise, and a good old multiverse reset is a good way to return to the station. Will there be more of these animated movies? We sure hope so, and the platform is there to do it. With a live-action reboot still possible but also delayed at the CW because of the Hollywood strikes, Babylon 5 fans can revisit the series now, with the miniseries and movies plus this new tale in the meantime.

And what a tale it is.

The voice acting and animation are comfy slippers with great character designs and ship designs updated for a modern look. With over 50 DC Animated movies, the current Warner style combining 2D and 3D renderings is very slick. As someone who gasps at what a standard definition rendering of the Babylon 5 space station looks like in the pilot (Commodore Amiga, I want to say?) compared to what is available now, B5 fans will finally see what the vision looks like in 4K UHD. Some tweaks have made the ships look a little more modern and cool. Nothing major changed, just your standard space dock refit.

Babylon 5: The Road Home has plenty of action, big set pieces, time jumps, and even exploding planets. Londo and G’Kar get to rib each other again. Sheridan and Delenn’s love reigns supreme. Ivanova is dynamic and ready for whatever threats might face the station. Lennier is Lennier, and Bill Mumy is quoted as being excited to return to the character without sitting in the makeup chair for hours.

Extras include commentary and a featurette.

Truly, this is an unexpected treat for summer sci-fi. By (no spoilers) setting up a new status quo, the Babylon 5 Station is ready for its next adventure with some old and new faces behind the mics and in the director’s chair. Mike Peters directed this movie, Executive, produced and written by J. Michael Straczynski. Head of Warner Animation Sam Register and JMS are listed as executive producers.

Babylon 5: The Road Home is a stand-alone story that is both a love letter to the fans and an easy-to-follow watch for new fans, hopefully generating some interest in the old show. Babylon 5 has always existed as a self-contained story over the five seasons. However, every supplemental installment seems like something more than returning to the well; it does seem as familiar as a road home. ( – Clay N Ferno)

 

Enter The Dragon 4K UHD

Warner Bros.

The key moment that sums up the tension at the heart of Enter the Dragon comes just before the final showdown between Lee (Bruce Lee) and the villainous Mr. Han (Sek Kin). Han has just retreated to his trophy case of torture devices, filled with booby traps, secret passages, and weapons that he can insert into the stump where his right hand ought to be. He’s a bad guy somewhere between James Bond and G.I. Joe, but all that changes when Lee stares him down and tells him with calm assurance:

“You have offended my family, and you have offended the Shaolin Temple.”

Suddenly the ridiculous has been made authentic, transmuted by the incredible alchemy of Bruce Lee’s performance.

This tension is one waged between what a major Hollywood studio would accept from an action picture in 1973, and the meteoric charisma and career of star Bruce Lee, whose raw screen presence had not just made this project possible but had been the vanguard of an entire revolution in American popular culture: the “kung fu boom” of 1973-1974.

Today it’s easy to dismiss the Kung Fu Boom as a camp fad, but in this moment in time the tiny colony of Hong Kong had achieved what no other nation on Earth had ever done: the top three movies in the American box office were all Hong Kong kung fu films they had effectively conquered the American cinema, on zero budget. They had beaten Hollywood at their own game, and Hollywood was desperate to get a home grown picture that could capitalize on the success.

Bruce Lee, the biggest star of the Hong Kong cinema, who had also spent most of his adult life in San Francisco and was known to American audiences from The Green Hornet wasn’t just the logical choice, in many ways he was the only choice. Lee had just come off his directorial debut, Way of the Dragon and was hard at work on its sequel, Game of Death, when he got the call he was waiting for his entire career: Warner Brothers wanted him to star in a major motion picture.

In his own work Lee’s major preoccupation was translating the concerns of martial arts into dramatic terms through visual metaphor (think the cat playing with the rock as he fought Chuck Norris or the philosophical discussions that bookend the fights in Lee’s unedited pagoda footage for Game of Death), but Warner Brothers wanted something that would be palatable to the broadest possible audience: a James Bond pastiche where Lee would share the screen with John Saxon and Jim Kelly in an effort to hedge their bets against the gamble of promoting a movie with a non-white star.

Nevertheless, it was Lee by sheer force of personality who had the final say.

Saxon and Kelly are more than serviceable, excellent supporting players and enrich the movie greatly, but from the moment Lee steps up on the platform to spar with a very young Sammo Hung, to the brief lesson we see him impart to his student, to the legendary fight with O’Hara with all the raw emotion of his sister’s death sculpted into a final, indelible scream– Lee owns this film. Despite the best attempts of studio execs, Lee got exactly the showcase he always wanted and deserved.

Extras include an introduction by Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Cadwell and audio commentary.

Of course, it goes without saying that this should have been the beginning of a great screen career, merely the opening salvo of a career that would open up the concerns of martial arts to a whole new worldwide audience and continually push the limits of on screen physicality.

Instead, Lee died two weeks before the premiere and Enter the Dragon has the same sort of mystic energy about it as Rebel Without a Cause– the feeling of watching a candle burn at its brightest just before its snuffed out. Highly Recommended. ( – Will McGuire)

 

The Blackening 4K UHD

Lionsgate

In most horror films, it can feel like people of color are shoehorned in as a throwaway death or comic relief.

In The Blackening, racial and horror tropes combine for a bitingly funny satire of the genre, and the many jokes we make to each other when watching on the couch.

Everything about the movie is decidedly Black, to the point that some jokes may go over the head of audiences that were not invited to the cookout. But for those of us with a lifetime pass, the laughs are full even though the scares are light.

The Blackening follows a group of nine Black friends who decide to gather for Juneteenth weekend at a cabin in the woods. A search for their missing hosts turns up a creepy board game that forces them to prove their Blackness or lose their lives.

We all like to say that we would know what to do in a horror movie, and now that armchair knowledge is put to the ultimate test.

The tagline for the film claims “We all can’t die first,” referencing a 2018 3Peat comedy sketch written by Dewayne Perkins (who also co-wrote and stars in the film) that centered around the fact that Black people generally die first in horror films.
Several years later, it has expanded into a feature that keeps all the flavor and authenticity of the original sketch. The first 20 minutes are a bit heavy on setting the scene, leaning on low-hanging fruit like prolific use of the N-word and overreaction to clapbacks to establish the “Blackness” of the characters.

At the time, it felt almost lazy but the payoff in clever takes later in the movie was worth the initial awkwardness.

As the self-awareness of being the Black “stars” of a scary movie ramps up, so do the laughs. The friends openly talk about what to do and not do, conjuring Scream vibes, but with the added weight of race in the decision-making process.

Just like in life, people of color have fewer chances to make it out alive if they make the wrong decision but find a sense of gallows humor in the entire situation. It is never serious enough to stop the side comments, even as they are on the verge of being murdered. There are precious few actual frights, but being Black in a horror setup is scary enough.

At one point, bougie but friendly Lisa (Antoinette Robinson) starts to say “We should split up” but can barely get the words out as she dry heaves at the thought of even suggesting it. It comes back when one of the few white characters asks where the others are, and upon hearing they split up immediately responds “What? But…you’re Black.”

This type of self-referential humor where you know that you may have to recount these decisions and prove you made the Black culture-approved choice adds a level of representation that will have audiences yelling at the screen in a good way.  There’s a bracing honesty in the monochromatic cast that mirrors how people of color let their hair down when they are not in mixed company.

When they are trapped in the game room and forced to give up the “Blackest” among them, the hilarious confessions range from watching white sitcoms to voting for Trump to a suggestion of turning over the only African in the bunch because he is a “still-in-its-original-packaging” Black.

Extras include commentary, featurettes, deleted scene, outtakes, and trailer.

The Blackening is clearly targeted towards a specific audience, but the humor will hit with anyone who has yelled at their television when the main character decides to independently investigate what that strange noise is in the basement. These characters already know to mind their own business and turn up the radio. ( – Kristen Halbert)

 

The Machine Blu-ray

Sony Pictures

I’ve been a standup fan since I was a child. I had vinyl of Bob Newhart, Phyllis Diller, Bill Cosby (before he was a predator) and other icons of stand up. I knew Carlin’s “7 Dirty Words” inside out. I had Billy Crystal’s “Live from the Bottom Line” and Robin Williams’ “A Night at the Met” committed to memory and by the time Eddie Murphy took the comedy world by storm I might not have been able to articulate why it was genius, but I recognized it.

Bert Kreischer’s stand up bit, “The Machine”, is a top 10 stand up bit all time. It mixes an absurd fish out of water story with some danger, some general foppish cluelessness and a train. It’s hilarious.

When I heard they turned it into a movie, I sighed. Something great is usually only great in its original form. “The Machine”, the stand up bit is comedic art. The Machine, the film, is decidedly not.

That’s not to say it’s a terrible or unwatchable film. It is funny at times. It is sweet at times. It is a family redemption story wrapped up in a Russian mob ascension story. Basic plot, during the events of the original “Machine” story Kreischer and one of his mob buddies rob a train.

During that robbery the pocket watch of a Russian mob boss is stolen and he has been waiting 20 years to exact revenge. As that mob boss ages toward the end of his life, his children jockey for the crown and… hilarity ensues. Well, not hilarity, but definitely some amusement.

I’ve known people in real life like Bert Kreischer. They screw up or act especially dumb, but they wind up coming out ok because they are lovable dorks and people just don’t expect much out of them. The whole basis of The Machine is Kreischer being too unaware to know he could be in serious danger at any moment. When he knows what’s at stake like he does in the film, it doesn’t have the same kind of lighthearted feel.

Mark Hamill plays Kreischer’s emotionally closed off father and I think we’re at the point in his career where every time he shows up, he’s playing Mark Hamill. Luckily for us, that’s generally a successful formula and this is no different. If you ever wanted to see Luke Skywalker doing coke with Russian hookers, this is definitely the film for you.

I could have used a little more funny and a little less action. Once the plot gets us back to Russia there is a lot of shooting, gore, threats, drugs and flashbacks to the original story. That’s the primary problem with this film. At a certain point, it’s just too much action. I don’t really need to see Kreischer as a bad ass street fighter punching out Russian mobsters. As campy as it was, it wasn’t campy enough. Maybe if they slap-sticked it up it would have worked better, but it just didn’t.

However, Iva Babic, the Croatian sensation, plays Russian mobster, Irina, and she is totally believable as a badass.  The fight choreography in this film is actually amazing and Babic is a central figure in it. She has amazing one on five fight with a telescoping baton early and does some seriously John Wick-ish moves throughout the film. There shouldn’t have been so much fighting, but since there was, it was palatable because they did it so well.

Everything about this film is pretty much, ok. Kreischer is actually a pretty decent actor, but that could be his lovable dorkishness saving him again. Casting Hamill was a good choice and the rest of the cast was decent, although the only standout was Babic. She’s a secret agent in waiting.

The technical side of the film was pretty good. Generally what I look for is, nothing. I don’t want to think about shot choices or lighting or music or anything except the story I’m being told and in this aspect, The Machine delivers. It was well lit, well shot, well edited and had consistent production values throughout. There was also pretty decent music in the score.

Extras include featurettes, outtakes & bloopers, deleted scenes, and making of.

If you’re a Bert Kreischer fan you’ll enjoy this. If you’re not, watch The Machine stand up bit. If you don’t laugh out loud for a lot of it, I would suggest passing on the film. If you do, give it a try. You’ll probably get a kick out of it.  ( – David Landsman)

 

52 Pick-Up Blu-ray

Kino Lorber

In the halcyon days of the 1980’s, when a good director had fallen on hard times one way to break out of the funk was to do a quick, cheap, film in a style that the director had shown proficiency in the past and turn a quick profit.

In 1985, John Frankenheimer was coming off three critically panned, financially anemic, genre films: Prophecy, The Challenge, and The Holcroft Covenant. The latter of those films had been not just a disappointing result but a tumultuous production with fired stars, and overrun budgets. The director of The Manchurian Candidate found his career in legitimate jeopardy.

At the same time, beloved schlockmeisters Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of the Cannon Group had acquired the rights to Elmore Leonard’s 52 Pick-Up, with the idea of remaking its previous adaptation The Ambassador, for an Israeli audience.

Today Cannon remains in the public consciousness for their output of cheap, wild, action movies starring Chuck Norris and Charles Bronsan, but they tapped a wide variety of genres and quality levels through their long association. When they hired John Frankenheimer to helm the project, Frankenheimer suggested that they instead produce a faithful adaptation of the original novel and the result is maybe the best film the Cannon Group ever produced– a slick, stripped-down, mean thriller with a great villain.

Roy Scheider, with all his everyman charisma, plays Harry Mitchell. Mitchell is a construction magnate in L.A. whose wife Barbara (Ann-Margret) is realizing her long held political ambitions by running for city council. Unfortunately, Harry has been having an affair with an exotic dancer, Cindi (Kelly Preston), and even more unfortunately Cini’s employer is a vicious pornographer named Raimy (John Glover, who makes the entire film work) who decides to blackmail Mitchell with a videotape of Mitchell and Cindi together.

When Raimy violently escalates the blackmail after Cindi begins to show remorse, Mitchell decides to track down and wipe out the blackmailing crew on his own. The result is the kind of thriller they don’t make any more: clever, dirty, and mean. Scheider is great at keeping the audience on his side even after we learn about his character’s infidelity, always a tough assignment, and Ann-Margret is actually really good in the most thankless role possible: the wife who has been cheated on and is trying to move past it while not knowing what’s going on in the background.

But John Glover is the secret sauce that makes the whole thing work.

Glover’s Raimy is often described as a “charming” villain which is not accurate: he is one of the most reprehensible bad guys in a commercial film in the 1980’s. That’s paired with Glover’s trademark creepy charisma, and his character’s slightly manic delivery and tendency to comment on events in and notice details in ways that were unique for genre characters before Tarantino started writing them. The total effect is that Raimy feels real in a way that very, very, few crime film characters did. He’s paired with Clarence Williams III (Tales From the Hood) and Robert Trebor (Xena: Warrior Princess) as a drug addicted emotionless muscle and cowardly financial backer respectively but it is his murderous commitment to degeneracy that holds the crew and the film together.

What I like most about this picture, and what keeps it distinct in my mind from a million other really good thrillers is that structurally it begins like a crime picture, but the story proceeds like a classic detective story where Scheider’s character ability to deduce his blackmailer’s identities’ and predict their behavior as he turns them against one another turns 52 Pick-Up into a game of bluff and double bluff that comes down to the final moment of the film.

Frankenheimer’s direction keeps everything clear, even as all the disparate story elements begin to bounce off one another and you can tell he’s having a great time on this smaller scale project.

Extras include commentary, isolated music track, tv spots, and trailer.

52 Pick-Up became a critical and commercial success, and successfully rehabbed Frankenheimer with Hollywood, where he would continue to work until his death in 2002. It’s clever plotting and cynical amoral tone keep it feeling fresh even to this day. Highly recommended. (– Will McGuire)

 

Elemental Digital 4K UHD

Disney Digital

Elemental is a beautifully crafted love story that so frustratingly falls just short of Pixar’s uncompromising storytelling standards.

I’m not saying I didn’t love this film. I did.

This is the story of Ember, a fire element, daughter of immigrant parents, discovering who she is in a world that doesn’t easily accept her kind. Destined to assume proprietorship of The Fireplace, the corner store her father built, Ember’s fiery temper, no pun intended, threatens to destroy the family business her father worked so hard to create, just for her.

One of Ember’s blow-ups cause the hidden water pipes in the store’s cellar to burst. This is when she meets Wade, a dedicated, kind-hearted, water element and city inspector. Fire and water don’t mix. Wade discovers numerous plumbing code violations within The Fireplace and is compelled to report them out his unwavering sense of duty.

This will force the closure of The Fireplace.

Ember pursues Wade to convince him not to file his reports. As Ember and Wade get to know each-other, the film becomes Pixar’s second true love story, the first being WALL-E.

This film has everything we’ve come to expect from Pixar. The imagery is lush and aesthetically perfect as always. Never too busy for your eyes to digest. The world building is insanely meticulous. Each element, Fire, Earth, Water and Air, represented by clouds, exploit their earthly characteristics pitch perfectly, on cue.

One of the delightful examples is Clod, a prepubescent clump of Earth that has a crush on Ember. He brags that he’s maturing by showing the flower growing out of his arm pit. He then picks that flower (with a painful wince) and offers it her in an effort to charm. She accepts it mildly irritated, knowing it full well that it’ll just vaporize into ashes when she touches it. And it does. Because she’s fire.

Ember’s flaming hair changes intensity and color depending on her mood. A detail that the film never once draws attention to. Like all Pixar films, Elemental refuses to dumb it down for their audience. Ember also has the naturally ability to fuse broken glass and melt sand into useful glass objects, with a creative flair. For her, this is a seemingly unremarkable and obvious trait that becomes important in more ways than one later on.

Elemental is choked full of intelligent details like these and it’s impossible to catch it all in one sitting.  The hallmark of what makes Pixar films works of cinematic art.

Perhaps the most clever and beautiful moment in any film from this past year is the fortune telling sequence. Ember’s mother runs a side hustle as a fortune teller. She tells fire elements fortunes by reading the smoke from the candles they light. Not approving of Ember and Wade as a couple, we get a touch of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner vibes, she tells their fortune fully expecting, as we all do, that it is impossible for Wade to light the candle. Wade is water, after all.

Yes, Wade is water. Water refracts. Standing between Ember and the candle, Wade focuses Ember’s light through his body like a magnifying glass and lights the candle.

Pure cinema magic!

And then there’s the theme. The entire film is an inspiring metaphor for accepting others despite their differences.  We begin with Ember’s parents arriving in Elemental City, a stand-in for early 1900’s New York City. They’re not the most welcome. They’re fire after all, the most volatile of all the elements. They find a home in the small Firetown part of the city, much like a Chinatown or Little Italy. Ember’s Father opens The Fireplace and we watch as newborn Ember and their community grow and integrate. But not without conflict.

Prejudice is the only real antagonist throughout the film.

Ember is dubious of Wade because she rarely ventures outside her part of the city. On those few occasions, she and her family were rejected. However, Wade’s huge heart and ability to see the good in everyone chips away at Ember’s preconceptions.

I can go on and on about how wonderful Elemental is.

However, the fact of the matter is that Elemental uncharacteristically plays it safe for a Pixar film by sacrificing Ember’s journey of self-discovery in favor of the love story. They were choosing one over the other when in fact both could have existed simultaneously.

Pixar is known for not pulling any punches. I dare anyone to deny that they didn’t weep openly when Carl’s wife died in the opening sequence of Up!, or feel gut-punched with somber realization that Ian did the right thing by giving his only chance to meet the dead father he never met to his big brother Barley in Onward. Let’s not even talk about the masterful climax of Toy Story 3.

We know Pixar. Our favorite characters could have all died! Pixar COULD have done it.

Soul. The Incredibles. Ratatoulie. Coco. WALL-E. Each had moments that said — This is life. There are consequences for your actions.

With Elemental, the only plot point motivated by character is the inciting incident where Ember loses her temper, causing the pipes to break, bringing Wade into her life. All else is Deux ex Machina, including the most important plot point, the flooding of Firetown in the third act. Not having Ember or Wade cause the flooding because of their flaws blunts the impact of the heaviest scene in the film that occurs as a result.

The only moment that has true gravitas in Elemental is the death of Wade. The circumstances are tragic. Ember and Wade find themselves trapped in the brick oven inside The Fireplace surrounded by flood water. The water will extinguish Ember. But Ember’s heat is evaporating Wade, whom she loves. Wade sacrifices himself for her.

Wade’s death is caused by who Ember is, not what she does.  At least, not what she does based on her character flaw. It’s not the moment of revelation for Ember that this story was moving towards.

Yes, she realizes that she truly loved Wade in that moment, but doesn’t seem to realize that it’s the lack of her own inner peace that causes the chaos in her life.

This is why Elemental falls so short in the masterclass storytelling we’re used to from Pixar. But, again. I enjoyed Elemental immensely, and you will too.

Extras include commentary, featurettes, deleted scenes, and bonus short film.

P.S. Wade comes back to life. He is water after all. ( – Anthony Sword)

 

Rio Bravo 4K UHD

Warner Bros.

Recently, I reviewed Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy in this space. Now, part of the thesis of that essay was that the Dollars films represented a key turning point in the Western and that the detached cynicism of the characters gave the film an evergreen quality. To put it as simply as possible: Westerns before the Leone pictures feel like “old movies” because their characters reflect the ideals and attitudes of an America we no longer recognize whereas the Italian Westerns may be 50 years old, but feel contemporary because the ruthless, violent, characters who populate them feel modern. We more easily recognize ourselves in them.

As if to put that to the test I’m charged this week with reviewing one of the crown jewels of the Hollywood Western: Howard Hawks’ 1959 classic Rio Bravo. The film is one of three films generally considered by film buffs and fans alike to be the very best ever made by star John Wayne, the most iconic Western actor in the history of the medium.

Many of my retro reviews have essentially boiled down to “Yes, this is still a great film, and here’s why” but for this review I thought it would be more interesting to analyze this film with an eye to how it translates into contemporary sensibilities, as a kind of sequel to my earlier work.

When Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne), stops vicious rancher Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) from bullying his best friend, former deputy, and town drunk, Dude (Dean Martin, who is amazing in this film) the situation spirals out of control and an innocent bystander is murdered by Burdette. Soon, the town Chance and Dude protect is blockaded by a gang of killers led by Burdette’s wealthy brother (John Russell). Soon he’s mentoring a young gunslinger, Colorado (Ricky Nelson) and flirting with a reformed conwoman, Feathers (Angie Dickinson) as the situation outside town turns more desperate.

When Chance’s friend is murdered, Dude sobers up and proves himself to be every bit as skilled a lawman as Chance. Just as he’s regained his self-respect the gang that surrounds the town begins to play a haunting song that indicates that they’re going to attack they’ll take no prisoners. Chance must hold together his small band of defenders as they’re put under siege by a gang of ruthless killers.

Rio Bravo was recognized as a classic Western almost immediately upon release, to the point where Hawks himself remade the picture with star John Wayne twice (as El Dorado in 1966 and Rio Lobo in 1970). What makes the film work is, like High Noon, foremost its story construction.

The “town under siege” motif with a ragtag group of defenders each working through their own personal issues is a perfect vehicle for an adventure story because of how it elegantly builds tension as it gives ample opportunity for characterization on the run.

I mentioned that it was remade twice by Hawks himself but unofficial remakes are too numerous to count, beginning with John Carpenter’s excellent 1976 picture Assault on Precinct 13 and working its way all the way up to contemporary episodes of The Mandalorian.

John Wayne was, and is, a divisive figure in film criticism. Undeniably iconic and part of more great American pictures than almost any other actor, Wayne’s personal politics and behavior make him at times a difficult figure to root for. It also must be said however, that he’s unfairly pigeonholed as a “white hat”, and many of his greatest roles show a great deal more complexity and moral ambiguity than his detractors give credit for. Wayne is always at his very best with another strong personality to bounce off of: think Jeffrey Hunter in The Searchers, Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, or Henry Fonda in Fort Apache.

Rio Bravo provides Wayne with the best supporting cast of his career: John Russell is a tremendous ruthless heavy. Angie Dickinson is a perfect romantic foil; vulnerable without ever losing her appeal. Walter Brennan and Ward Bond do yeoman’s work in the same kinds of supporting work they’d made a career out of, but with the unusually long screen time for a 50’s Western of two and a half hours, they get more to do in this picture than in almost any other and they shine.  Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez and Estelita Rodriguez round out the cast as alternately bickering and affectionate Mexican innkeepers and they provide much needed comic relief.

That said, it’s two musicians who shine here: Ricky Nelson is Colorado, a young gunslinger whom Chance sees himself in and takes under his wing. Soft-spoken, polite, and deadly Colorado humanizes Wayne by allowing him to be a kind of surrogate father and in that role, all of Wayne’s shortcomings become strengths. Dean Martin is the best thing in the entire movie. Dean was always more a personality than an actor in the purest sense, and Dude carries this film. His struggles with alcoholism are an easy metaphor for any personal failing we have that keeps us from being the kind of person we want to be, and when he finally beats back the demon at the end it’s one of the all time great moments. Again, the dignity and compassion that Chance shows Dude humanizes Wayne without compromising him and it’s easy to see why this was always a favorite.

Extras include a commentary track.

But does it hold up?

Not in the same way the Leone films do.

The film is never cornball, and I think Dude’s struggle with addiction still resonates strongly but this film is theatrical in the way that studio system Hollywood can be– it plays to formula, it has a lot of schtick, and the action is rigidly regulated by the Hays Code.

That said, it is a studio film of the highest quality, and there’s a lot to love here. You just have to go in knowing that style and what to expect, if you can look at it with fresh eyes you’ll be transported. I just have to acknowledge that this picture probably won’t convert people to loving the Western in the same way the Dollars trilogy does. It doesn’t have as much saccharine sentimentality, and I think Dean Martin does much to keep it feeling relatable but save this one for when you’ve acquired the taste for the classic American western, because it is a product of its time.  Recommended. ( – Will McGuire)

 

Fast X 4K UHD

Universal Pictures

Okay.

Here we go.

Before I get started I need to tell you that I love The Fast and The Furious franchise.

But that wasn’t always so.

I used to make fun of it and mock the people who did like it. That all changed, however, when my wife Liz was asked to review Fate of The Furious for this site.

I had not seen any of the Fast films and so we set out to go back and watch all of the seven previous films. In our efforts to do so we discovered there are two ways to watch this series. There is the actual chronological release order 1-7 (at the time), the way they were released in the cinemas for us, the public. Then there is the “in universe” chronological order. I’m sure most of you, who care about this stuff, know what this means.

If you are not in the know, here is the jist. It means that the filmmakers of this series retconned some of the storylines to explain how a certain character could have died in the 3rd film Tokyo Drift and yet still be in the subsequent 3 films.

Yes, it’s Han.

Basically they moved its viewing order to between Furious 6 and Fast & Furious 7. There now you know. I know you will sleep better tonight.

Now that we have gotten that out of the way, I can begin.

Fast X is a mind-numbingly insane culmination of all the bonkers events of the last three decades of Fast films. The new catch phrase should be changed to “It’s all about finances” because this “final film” is actually going to take three films to tell.

Supposedly, this is the first of a whole new trilogy that will ultimately wrap up the entire Furious Universe.

This new entry in the Fast Saga introduces an amazing new villain in the form of the uniquely brilliant Jason Momoa. He is as flamboyant as he is maniacal. I have to say that not only is Jason Mamoa’s Dante Reyes the best character he has ever played, it is the best villain the Fast Saga has ever given us.

I will die on that hill.

Back to the review.

If you have seen Fast 5, the true beginning of the Fast Franchise, in my humble opinion (Fast 5 introduces Dwayne Johnson’s character Hobbs, and really sets the whole series on its current path of insanity towards it being basically some insane “superhero film series where normal humans can jump cars between buildings, into space, and can throw launched torpedoes at submarines like Scotsmen toss cabers).  Anyway, I digress.

Where was I? Oh yes, Fast X.

The opening of Fast X is a flashback sequence of sorts to the end events of Fast 5 where these VHS and stereo boosting car thieves steal an entire giant vault in Brazil by tearing it out of the wall it is encased in. I say ‘of sorts’ only because they have now retconned Jason Momoa’s character Dante into this sequence of events by reshooting key scenes of the earlier film, inserting him as the son of the dead bad guy, Reyes. This is something they love to do throughout the series.

See the aforementioned Tokyo Drift as well as Furious 6 and F9 amongst others.

Dante is out for revenge on Dominic Torretto and his entire family (read: literally anyone who has been in contact or helped him in some shape of form. And that is a lot of people) for killing his father and so the carnage begins.

This movie is incredibly dumb and like all the other films in the series completely ignores the laws of physics, gravity and the limitations of the human body. And it is amazing! This is why we keep coming back to this stupid series!

I think the BEST thing about this movie is the quote by the new director of the franchise, Louis Leterrier (Transporter 1 & 2) who said, “What I wanted to do on this one, because it’s very much my style, was to ground it more in reality. I wanted to -no pun intended -land it back on Earth. They went into space in number nine, and I was like, ‘Okay, they went to space, there’s no way I can top that.’ But what I can do is do stuff that we’ve never done before practically, such as rolling a one-ton bomb -an actual one ton metal ball in the streets of Rome, and hope not to destroy the Colosseum.”. You know, ground it more in reality.

What?!

This movie series has become such a batshit crazy sequence of “how do we ‘one-up’ the previous film” that it makes the Pierce Brosnan James Bond films look like they weren’t really trying hard enough with that invisible car driving up an ice wall and Bond parasailing a tsunami.

Extras include commentary, music videos, featurettes and gag reel.

Anyway, This film is definitely not the best of this over the top film saga about family, which Dom is totally terrible at protecting, by the way. It is also not the worst. I’m looking at you Fast & Furious. You know what you did.

However if you are looking to turn your brain off watch some insane stunts, some fun fight scenes and Jason Momoa chewing every scene he is in and really just being the only reason you need to watch this film, then roll up to the starting line in that white Toyota Camry and rev your engines for a silly but satisfying entry into the films series you should only take a quarter mile at a time.  And of course, don’t forget to watch the after credits sequence. ( – Benn Robbins)

 

The Last of Us: The Complete First Season 4K UHD

Warner Bros.

I did not want to like The Last of Us.

Not just on the moral principle that our world does not need another gritty, post-apocalyptic drama about ragged survivors in cargo pants questioning their right to survive while eating Beef-a-roni.

Not simply because I happen to enjoy mushrooms and don’t need any more reasons to worry about what’s in my pancake mix.

What kept me from the screen was the very weird way my friends were telling me to watch it. It’s a gut-punch. You’ll never ugly-cried this hard again in your life. It started to remind me of Deckard’s wife in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? who can take pills that simulate any human emotion but bizarrely keeps taking the one that triggers suicidal depression.

So I guess we need reasons to cry?

But I did finally stop bitching about my mushrooms and watched. And I found out it’s not the crying that makes the story work.

It’s the hope. More specifically, the hope of staying human: life isn’t just about survival, but who we’re living for.

As I came to discover, The Last of Us works as a series because it has great material to work with. Joel spends a lot of time collecting ammo—at one point, you’re required to put off a tearful cut-scene reunion with Ellie so Joel can grab some lighter fluid—but the things most worth preserving in The Last of Us are usually the ones that have the least to do with keeping us alive.

A strawberry. The dog tags of a fallen fighter. Or a giraffe that can apparently survive a winter in Salt Lake City.

So I went into the finale mentally preparing myself for the very real possibility that the ending might suck, because HBO finales so often do. At best, it would be another Six Feet Under (another show that deals with death but ultimately leaves us feeling ready to live).

At worst… well, you saw what they did to Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey in Game of Thrones.

So I watched the ending and it was… kind of both. It sucked and it was brilliant.

Okay, so I won’t take a show of hands, but it sounds like most people agree the whole let’s-remove-Ellie’s-brain dilemma makes zero sense.

Actual vaccine scientists have struggled to find any actual science in the Fireflies’ plan. It is a forced dilemma, and a weak one to boot. If you have one subject on the whole planet who is immune to a particular pandemic, literally the last thing you want is for that person to die. You want to keep pumping that person for samples as long as there is an ounce of fluid that can still be squoze out of them to extract those sweet, sweet messenger cells.

Not to mention it is possible to get a brain biopsy that does not kill the patient: sure, there’s a reason why “brain surgery” is a synonym for “something that not just any guy in a post-apocalyptic hospital can do,” but people get chunks torn out of their brains all the time and live (and are fully awake during surgery to boot). Not to also mention that even if “Cordyceps begins in the brain,” the so-called messenger cells would have to permeate your entire body in order for another infected to recognize it on you.

So taking out Ellie’s brain to get a usable sample in the highly unlikely hope that you’d be able to get a vaccine out of it is kind of sketchy, and the surgeon performing this operation is a quack. Which makes the whole trolley-problem angle kind of a non-starter from a plausibility standpoint.

The real answer to the dilemma—as opposed to any in-game answer that might satisfy us “well, actually” nitpickers—is that the game’s original creators at Naughty Dog needed a dilemma that would require little explanation, that would clarify the endpoint of Joel’s character journey, and that would force him to take immediate action so that we can get our rampage on.

In a video game, this is brilliant counter-programming: we all know what it’s like to accidentally shoot someone on our own team (and occasionally we do it on purpose), but this is one case in which you’re compelled to kill your allies or the game can’t end; the boss battle is against an unarmed, critically wounded person begging for her life. So it had to be a moral dilemma that didn’t demand a debate.

But they went for more than that. The finale’s dark irony is that the very people who wanted Ellie to survive also need her to die, and the person who had to be browbeat into protecting her discovers that her survival is the key to his own. This is one moment in which the TV finale truly shines: when Ellie suggests that time may have healed the despair that nearly drove Joel to suicide, he looks at her stone-faced (does Pedro Pascal have any other look? It’s definitely his “Blue Steel”) and says, “It wasn’t time that did it.” It’s brilliant underwriting that trusts the audience to understand.

Which brings me back to the ending, and why I think it sucks. And why in all of its suckiness, it’s also genius. Because it’s exactly where the story has been leading us all this time. “Either Ellie dies or humanity does” is the mission we’re on. Which forces Joel and all of us to ask: Who matters more, the lives we know or the ones we don’t?

This is not an abstract dilemma.

Schindler’s List—a post-apocalyptic drama in the darkest, truest sense of the word—is the true story of a man who saved 1,000 Jews simply because he had come to care about them as individuals. This is brought into sharp focus at a critical point in the story when he discovers that five hundred women under his protection have been sent to Auschwitz. Schindler puts his own safety at risk to get them back, even after he’s offered an equal number of other women in exchange.

The Nazi official he’s dealing with asks blandly, “Why these Jews in particular?”

To us the answer is obvious: because he knows them. It would be like a doctor killing your child and then offering you a different child as compensation.

But there’s a harsh irony underlying Schindler’s choice: by saving the 500 women he knows, he’s also rejecting 500 women he doesn’t, and those 500 women are going to die. Are they any less worthy of saving? Of course not. But he knows them and cares about them, and the other women are people we never meet. So we mostly don’t question Schindler’s choice.

For him, there is no choice.

The Last of Us makes that choice very simple for Joel: with the exception of the kind, decent people within his very small circle of trust (Jess, Tommy, Ellie, Sam, Henry, Bill, Frank), the bulk of humanity are not simply faceless but kind of awful.

So when Joel decides, screw humanity, it’s kind of hard to make a case for humanity. Because mostly they are the worst kind of humanity—and the Fireflies are the worst of all, revolutionaries posing as freedom fighters.

Pretty much everyone in The Last of Us is a killer, but these are killers who never question the morality of their actions. So of course they’re going to kill a kid in hopes of making their wacko vaccine that will probably work about as well as the magic blood Ellie tried to rub into Sam’s wound. That’s how revolutionaries see the world. The end always justifies the means.

And this is why I don’t think it matters whether Marlene’s wacko plan would have worked.

What matters is that the Fireflies not only believe the plan will work, they think it is the only thing that can work, alternatives be damned. That’s entirely consistent with the mindset of ideological radicals from the Jacobins to the Proud Boys. Right and wrong are always simple, sentimentality is weakness, and the only good bridges are the ones you burn.

Most democratic societies are predicated on the idea that the good of society and the good of the individual are ultimately one and the same: if one of us is in chains, then none of us are free. If I take a vaccine, it’s not just because I want to save my life but because I want to help protect everyone I meet. This is a great belief system but good luck getting everyone to live by it (no doubt the Fireflies would have run into magic-Ellie-blood deniers).

More often, we decide that as long as we and the people we love are okay, the rest of society can go to hell in its own way. That sounds selfish and harsh—maybe it is selfish and harsh—but it’s also very, very human. There’s a bit of Oskar Schindler in most of us.

After I watched the finale, I dove into a video walkthrough of the original PS4 game (I know, I know, it’s cheating, but I didn’t need 40 hours of getting my throat ripped out just to write this article).

There’s an odd theme in both the game and TV show, which is the tendency of various characters to treat Ellie as a possession.

David the cult leader is the most extreme version of this, but he’s not alone.

In the show, a Fedra lieutenant offers Ellie a chance to be the one taking the orders or the one giving them… never mind that to give the orders means also becoming a fascist puppet. Marlene and the Fireflies have basically been raising Ellie as an organ donor all these years.

When Joel comes for Ellie, the surgeon says “I won’t let you take her.”

And when Joel does take her, he says, “I’ve got you” (same words he said to his daughter Sarah). Nobody ever lets Ellie decide anything. Marlene lies because she’s afraid Ellie would say no to her sacrifice, and Joel lies because he’s afraid she would have wanted to say yes.

There is at least another season in this story, so I’m guessing we are only partway through Ellie’s journey to making her own decisions (and no, I don’t want to know what happens in the game sequel).

Extras include Inside The Episode for each installment, featurettes, actor spotlights, and Troy Baker (the game’s Joel) answering questions.

So yeah. I loved The Last of Us like Ellie loves bad puns, like Winston Smith loved Big Brother. I even loved the final episode, even if the ending is a foregone conclusion. If humanity is doomed, then these are the people I want to be doomed with.

To quote another line from Schindler’s List, “an hour of life is still life.” ( – Thomas Lakeman)

 

Robot Monster 3D Blu-ray

Bayview Entertainment

Robot Monster works differently from other camp favorites such as Plan 9, Cat-Women of the Moon, et al. Where the others are plainly laughable, and at least partially intended for cheap thrills, Robot Monster feels eerily serious. Once or twice it frightened me for real.

It was written by Wyott Ordung who also directed Monster From The Ocean Floor (from Roger Corman) and wrote First Man into Space. Producer-director Phil Tucker apparently meant it to be serious; in later years, amidst a continuous rain of ridicule, Tucker stated that he did the best he could under such a tight budget and that he didn’t think the movie was so bad. At one point he even attempted suicide. Yet a host of scenes, not to mention the ridiculous looking Ro-Man (a fat gorilla with a fishbowl helmet head), are astonishingly silly. ‘

Major Spoilers ahead.

The Phantom (Phantomess?) of the Movies offers an intriguing allegorical interpretation of the movie as a statement about the Holocaust; i.e. the leader of the humans has an Eastern European accent, the humans are housed in a bunker like Anne Frank, the Ro-Man is only following orders from a “Mengele-like master” who wants to cleanse the Earth of the verminous “race” of humans. This interpretation sounds fine to me, and I also think the movie works well as a general allegory about nuclear destruction.

The “six” remaining humans might even symbolize “six million” Jews killed. More than this, the electro-static sound effects are unsettling. The uncompromising Elmer Bernstein soundtrack (one of his first) adds interest and tension. The Ro-Man’s voice anticipates Darth Vader’s. I also like how Robot Monster takes things further than other movies of its time in more ways than one: the heroine gets the top of her dress ripped off, the hero gets killed, the little girl gets killed, the human race gets nearly wiped out.

But how serious was it, really?

The opening credits come to us above a montage of pulp magazines with titles like Fear, Space Cadet, and Strange Suspense Stories. This seems to place the movie alongside EC Comics rather than H.G. Wells. Further, the dialogue includes phrases like “pooped-out pinwheel” to describe the monster, which seems to indicate that Tucker is aware of how silly it looks. And further, the movie is presented as a quasi-dream sequence, usable as an escape route for viewers who just want a bit of fun.

Even further, it was originally presented in 3-D, not exactly the venue of choice for serious allegories.

Extras include both 2D and 3D presentation, commentary, featurettes, film shorts, galleries, digital 3D comic, and slideshow.

At any rate, Robot Monster is a unique and unforgettable B-movie experience.  ( – David E. Goldweber)

 

 The Venture Bros.: Radiant is the Blood of the Baboon Heart Blu-ray

Warner Bros.

20 years ago Jackson Publick aka Christopher McCulloch and Doc Hammer birthed the insane and brilliant show, The Venture Bros. A pseudo parody of the Hardy Boys and Johnny Quest generously laced with an entire galaxy of pop culture references and jokes.

It ran erratically over two decades, sometimes with three years between seasons. All the while dedicated fans tuned in whenever a new season dropped. Never missing an episode.

As the world changed around us, so did the show. It evolved and grew and yet kept true to its roots and heart. Themes changed, ideas changed, and the story evolved organically, never feeling forced which is quite a feat for any show let alone a cartoon.

Fast forward to this year and the release of the final chapter of the adventures of Hank, Dean, Dr. Venture, et al in the form of this 83 minute spectacular film.

Radiant is the Blood of the Baboon Heart literally picks up where season 7 left off.

Only a few days after Hank has gone missing, Brock and the O.S.I. are on the hunt for him. Meanwhile, an extremely guilt ridden Dean, with the help of Dr. Orpheus and Jefferson Twilight, begins his own search for his wayward brother. In true Venture Bros. style there are about thirteen plot lines all happening at once. All with their own slice of importance and mayhem. This is where McCulloch and Hammer shine though. They effortlessly interweave each mini storyline, criss-crossing them all until they all culminate into the finale where all is explained and resolved.

This is not a film for newcomers to the series. This film is 100% reliant on your having seen all 7 seasons of the previous adventures of the Ventures and their arch enemies, The Monarch and Dr. Mrs. The Monarch along with Henchman 21. This is a deep dive into the lore and the history of this show. Sure there are tidbits of exposition to assist you to remember things but at no point did I even remotely think that had I not watched the entire show I would have had no idea as to what was happening.

Normally I would be sort of against this sort of thing. However, this time it is fully warranted and acceptable. This isn’t some one-off movie based on a tv show where the first quarter is getting newcomers up to speed. No, they don’t have time for that kind of frivolity, this is the de facto final season of a two decade long storyline. They are not only tying up loose ends that have littered the previous 7 seasons but they are giving the long faithful fans closure on characters they have long come to love.

Extras include a mock tv interview and two audio commentaries.

What I found very impressive and a testament to how brilliant a writing team Doc and Jackson are is that they basically crammed an entire season’s worth of plot into this hour and twenty-three minute movie without it feeling rushed, shoddy, or overly confusing. They had a plan and they executed it with precision and the quality we have come to expect from them.

I very much enjoyed it and it made me want to go back and rewatch the entire series again. I have always been a Venture Bros. fan and this film is a wonderful send off to these characters and their crazy and heartfelt stories. If you are a Venture Bros. fan you absolutely need to see this. It is a very fitting end and a lovely ending to the show.

And should they feel the need to do another movie I would definitely not object. Just sayin’. ( – Benn Robbins)

 

 

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