Force of Nature

★★

There’s a whole helluva lot that’s problematic about “Force of Nature,” which is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD.

Let’s start with leading men Emile Hirsch and Mel Gibson. Hirsch choked Paramount executive Daniele Bernfield to the point of unconsciousness at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Gibson let loose with an anti-Semitic and sexist rant while being arrested on suspicion of drunk driving back in 2006. In 2010 Gibson was recorded dropping racial slurs while threatening then-girlfriend and mother to one of his nine children, Oksana Grigorieva. She also claims he physically attacked her in a drunken rage. Just last week news circulated that Gibson called actress Winona Ryder an “oven dodger” and made homophobic remarks to her friend, make-up artist Kevyn Aucoin, at a party back in the ‘90s.

Additionally, “Force of Nature” takes place in San Juan, Puerto Rico during a hurricane. I suppose it’s good that the filmmakers actually shot in Puerto Rico – infusing the U.S. territory with spending and jobs – but the production’s insensitivity is palpable. The primary heroes are all white and none of them speak Spanish. Hirsch’s cop character, Cardillo, is initially as apt to help the Puerto Rican people as Donald Trump was when he showed up after Hurricane Maria with rolls of paper towel and a shoddy jump shot. The flick didn’t have to take place in Puerto Rico and a hurricane wasn’t central to its conceit. Preying upon the territory’s recent misfortunes to goose B-movie schlock seems cheap and careless.

Lastly, the film’s sole black character, Griffin (Will Catlett), moved to San Juan after having been a victim of police brutality back in the continental United States. We’re introduced to Griffin during a scene in a grocery store where he’s attempting to buy 100 pounds of meat. Another patron is angered by Griffin’s purchase, flags down a security guard and lobs a false accusation at the black man. The patron is weaponizing his race against Griffin and the movie has no qualms with this.

The 100 pounds of meat was meant for Griffin’s pet tiger, Janet, who he’s trained to attack cops. (Holy foreshadowing, Joe Exotic!) In contrast to his actions, Griffin appears to feel guilt over living off “blood money.” “Force of Nature” seems be suggesting that Griffin’s guilt is justified, police brutality is fake news and his compensation was unwarranted. These sentiments are hammered home when Cardillo suggests to his rookie partner, Jess (Peruvian singer/songwriter and actress Stephanie Cayo, making her English language debut), that doing the right thing ultimately leads to gripes from ungrateful citizens, which will stifle your career ambitions. Gibson’s character, Ray, a former cop, further amplifies these sentiments, “The current PD’s full of pussies that care more about liabilities and politics.” These sentiments were outdated in the ‘80s action movies from whence they came … in 2020 they’re downright dangerous.

Grievances aside, “Force of Nature” focuses on Cardillo, a suicidal cop who screws off to Puerto Rico after having accidentally shot and killed a woman in New York City. (An early scene depicts Cardillo sitting in a bathtub with a gun in his mouth … Hirsch kinda feels like a baby version of Gibson’s Martin Riggs.) Cardillo and Jess are tasked with evacuating hangers-on when a hurricane’s about to hit. They eventually wind up at an apartment building housing Griffin and Ray. Other denizens include Troy (Kate Bosworth), Ray’s doctor daughter, and Bergkamp (Jorge Luis Ramos), an aged German expat who inherited priceless pieces of pilfered art from his Nazi Daddy. These works have drawn the attention of John the Baptist (David Zayas) and his goon squad, who will happily perforate anyone who stands between them and the paintings.

Hirsch and Gibson are both good actors … neither is especially impressive here. Hirsch is bland, which is unfortunate as he was so captivating as a younger actor in Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild.” Gibson comes across like a combination of the OG Mucinex Booger and whatever he thinks an East Coast Jew sounds like. (Problematic as its politics are, Gibson was much better in S. Craig Zahler’s last effort, the far more effective, entertaining and interesting “Dragged Across Concrete.”) Bosworth’s acting is fine, but as per usual she looks like she should eat a sandwich. I dig Zayas from his time on Showtime’s “Dexter,” where he was incredibly likable. He mostly just glowers and shoots people here, and he’s good enough at that I suppose.

“Force of Nature” is written by first-timer Cory Miller (it shows!) and directed by Bosworth’s husband, Michael Polish, who made his bones making indies such as “Twin Falls, Idaho,” “Jackpot” and “Northfork” with his twin brother, Mark. Polish’s career, which started promisingly, has devolved into making teen sex comedies like 2016’s “Hot Bot” and DTV dreck featuring two dudes on cancel culture’s shit list. He and his cinematographer Jayson Crothers (best known for lensing episodes of NBC’s “Chicago Fire”) don’t have a firm grasp on action geography, which is a cardinal sin when it comes to action-thrillers.

As bad as “Force of Nature” is … and it’s pretty effing bad … it’s also sorta entertaining at times. That said, I can’t in good conscience recommend it. You’d be better off watching 1999’s “Forces of Nature,” which also sucks, but at least Sandy Bullock’s cuter than Gibson and Ben Affleck seems like a cooler dude than Hirsch.

Best Picture Catchup: The Best Years of Our Lives, An American in Paris, Around the World in 80 Days

Recently I decided to try to catch up and see all of the Best Picture winners at the Academy Awards that I had never seen before.

I decided at first to narrow the mission to just winners since 1950 since some of the older movies are harder to find, even with streaming services. Although, as I near the end of that goal, I’ve decided I might try to watch all of the them if possible. I’ll still try to knock out the post-1950s ones first since I only have a few left but I’ve already started on a few earlier pictures.

I had a strong start to my mission, having seen 44 out of the 70 Best Picture winners going back to 1950 and I had not missed a winner going back until 1997.

I recently watched six Best Picture winners from the ceremonies of 1967, 1964, 1958, 1957, 1952 and 1947.

I only have 7 left to watch post-1950 (“The English Patient,” “Ben-Hur,” “Gigi, “My Fair Lady,” “All The Kings Men,” “The Greatest Show on Eart” and “All About Eve” and 15 to watch going back to 1929 (basically everything except the ones I’ve seen: “Casablanca,” “The Lost Weekend,” “Gone With the Wind,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “You Can’t Take it With You” and “It Happened One Night.”).

Without further ado, here’s three more entries to cross off my list.

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)

I was interested in watching this movie after I saw its inclusion in the American Film Institute’s top 100 movies of all time and honestly I had never even heard of this movie.
It’s directed by Wiliam Wyler, who might be the most underrated director in movie history. Recently, many of my Facebook friends were posting about their favorite directors ever and Wyler did not make anyone’s list.
But here are the numbers.
He has been nominated for Best Director at the Oscars a record 12 times, winning three times. Only Frank Capra has three Best Director wins and John Ford has four wins.
He’s the only person to have directed three Best Picture winners. He directed “Ben-Hur,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” and “Mrs. Miniver.” He directed 13 movies that were nominated for Best Picture, another record.
And — and this record is interesting — he directed more actors/actresses to Oscar-nominated and Oscar winning performances than anyone else. His casts earned 36 acting nominations and 14 wins, both are records.
In “The Best Years of Our Lives,” he tackles a subject that was taboo in 1946, shortly after World War II ended (the Japanese formally surrendered on September 2, 1945): what happens to the military when they come home? Sure, the soldiers get parades but the emotional baggage that they take home wasn’t really explored back then.
In this movie, he explores the stories of three very different veterans who return from WWII.
One man married his girlfriend (that he wasn’t dating for very long) right before he went off to war, a practice that was quite common in order to ensure the women would get war widow benefits if he died. When he returns home, he barely knows his wife and the quick marriage isn’t as strong as he’d expect and he finds himself attracted to another woman. His wife loves the idea of bragging to her friends about her war hero husband but she’s frustrated that he can’t find a high-paying job when he returns home. He’s now working at the same grocery store from before he left, only now he’s an underling to his former assistant.
Another older veteran returns to the bank where he once worked, only now he’s asked to deny loans to veterans who ask for money. The bank wants to use his military background as a sensitive way to politely turn down the loan requests and he doesn’t feel comfortable doing that. On top of things, his children are now all grown up and he’s having trouble sleeping due to PTSD from the war.
And finally, another solider comes home disabled. He’s lost both hands and now has hooks in place. He’s played by Harold Russell, who became one of only two non-professional actors to win an Academy Award for acting. He was an actual veteran who came home from the war and Wyler decided to cast him in the movie. After his Oscar win (he actually won an Honorary Oscar for bravery that same night) he had trouble getting other acting roles and ended up selling his statuette at an auction. His character feels depressed about his hooks and is reluctant to marry his longtime sweetheart, even though she doesn’t care about his disability. There are some beautifully poignant scenes involving his characters. There’s one scene where children are peaking at him through a window and he shouts, “Did you come here to see the freak?!” He tries to open the door to yell at them and show them his hooks but he can’t twist the door knob so he smashes both hooks through the window, saying, “Here! Now you can see them!” There’s also a sad scene where he explains to his fiancee the process he has to go through in order to get dressed or undressed every day.
I was pretty blown away by this movie. Every character is nuanced and realistic and the film beautifully illustrates how some casualties of war actually come home. I highly recommend this one.
It did beat one other amazing movie to win Best Picture: “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I’d probably rank “It’s a Wonderful Life” higher on my list of best movies of all time, but “The Best Years of Our Lives” is still a worthy choice for Best Picture that year.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951)

Vincente Minnelli, father to Liza Minnelli and one-time husband to Judy Garland, had the distinction of directing two Best Picture winner: “Gigi” and “An American in Paris.” The latter is probably one of the most famous musical movies of all time is often lumped in with “Singin’ In the Rain” another musical movie starring Gene Kelly that won Best Picture.
I had never seen this movie before but I’ve had it on my list for a while. Despite never seeing this one, I have a personal connection to this movie. My wife and I had our wedding reception inside The Palladium in Carmel and the room in which we ate and danced there’s a giant poster on the wall for this movie. Michael Feinstein, famed singer and artistic director for The Palladium, had the original billboard-sized poster as part of his personal collection (he’s an expert in the Great American Songbook) and he donated it as a decoration for the building.
The movie itself utilizes several existing songs by George Gershwin but brings them to live with new arrangements and thrilling dance numbers. Yes, it’s Gene Kelly so there’s a lot of tap dancing.
The movie is filled with bright technicolor hues and the set pieces — obviously filmed at a sound stage and not actually in Paris — are full of color and character. It’s almost like a dreamlike vision of Paris rather than a realistic authentic portrayal.
If you’ve seen the movie “La La Land” then you’ll see that it borrows heavily from “An American in Paris,” from the lighting and colors to the dance numbers. It straight up steals from it at times.
The highlight of the movie is a 17-minute dance number that is incredibly impressive but does grow a little tedious after the 10-minute mark. You can have too much of a good thing and it’s like watching a 30-minute battle/fight scene in an action movie. It’s great but you can only be on the edge of your seat for so long.
“An American in Paris” is a feast for the eyes and it hold up in many ways. But it’s an interesting contrast to its chief competition for Best Picture that year, which was “A Streetcar Named Desire.” You couldn’t find two more opposite movies. “A Streetcar Named Desire” was directed by auteur Elia Kazan and was based on a play. There’s no showy cinematography and it’s filmed in black and white. It boasted nominees in all four acting categories, winning three. Marlon Brando lost to Humphrey Bogart in “The African Queen” for Best Actor, but that seems to have been a “make-up Oscar” for Bogey since he had never won before and was getting up in years. Bogart died five years later.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” was a tour-de-force for acting while “An American in Paris” received no acting nominations. “An American in Paris” is beautifully shot in bright color while “A Streetcar Named Desire” is drab and simple. Two very different movies.
The plot of “An American in Paris” is pretty simple and it kind of just ends without really resolving anything. My wife was frustrated with the idea that Gene Kelly’s character snubbed the older rich lady, who was actually quite nice, for a very young girl he meets at a club. She didn’t think that reflected well on his character. I’d tend to agree. The connection between the two leads is mostly for their dancing, not their acting.
I don’t know which movie I prefer: “A Streetcar Named Desire” or “An American in Paris” but they’re both great.
There are images and scenes in “An American in Paris” that I’ll remember for a long time. The shot of him picking up the bright red rose and standing up is iconic to me.

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956)

Finally, we end with a little bit of a dud.
“Around the World in 80 Days” is not a bad movie. It’s funny. It’s fast-paced. It’s well shot and has colorful costumes and fun action scenes.
It’s just not an Oscar-worthy movie.
It feels like the old Disney family movies in the 1950s and 1960s. Nothing wrong with those, but just empty fun, not really award worthy.
It’s often referred to as the worst Best Picture winner ever. That’s not really fair. Maybe it doesn’t fit with the idea of what a Best Picture winner should be, but it’s still a well-crafted fun movie that I enjoyed. Other films that have that pedigree of “heaviness” or “gravitas” are sometimes just not enjoyable. I’m thinking of “Tom Jones” or “Out of Africa.”
“Around the World in 80 Days” is dumb fun. It’s not a technical marvel. It’s not groundbreaking. But it’s enjoyable.
It’s the 1950s equivalent of “The Hunger Games” winning Best Picture.
The biggest flaw in “Around the World in 80 Days” is it’s length. It’s three hours long which is OK for an epic like “Lawrence of Arabia.” It feels excessive for a silly comedy.
The opening intro about Jules Verne seemed unnecessary and as I understand it that was cut when the movie was broadcast on TV.
I didn’t really care about any of the side characters and I didn’t pay much attention to the plot because it didn’t seem to matter. The entire movie is a vehicle to explore different international settings and basically show the cultural stereotype of each country. It’s not offensive but it definitely paints in broad strokes.
David Niven stars as British adventurer Phileas Fogg but he’s overshadowed by Cantinflas who plays his assistant Passepartout. Cantinflas, the one-named stage name for hispanic actor Mario Moreno, is often called “Charlie Chaplin of Mexico” and he received top-billing in some countries when promoting this film. Indeed, he steals the show in this light-hearted travel film and is the source of most of the humor.
Is there another movie that should have won Best Picture instead? You could make an argument for “The Ten Commandments,” “The King and I” or “Giant.” The last one would have been my choice, having earned a Best Director Oscar for George Stevens (who previously won for “A Place in the Sun” and was also nominated later on for “The Diary of Anne Frank.”)

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

★★★

Remember when Will Ferrell was inarguably one of the funniest dudes in cinema? The cat was unstoppable in flicks like “The Ladies Man,” “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back,” “Zoolander,” “Old School,” “Elf,” “Starsky & Hutch,” “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” “Wedding Crashers,” “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” and “Step Brothers.”

My mother-in-law has frequently asserted her hate for Ferrell. I always assumed this was serving in contrast to my love for him, but his recent output (“The Campaign,” “Get Hard,” “Daddy’s Home,” “The House” and especially “Holmes & Watson”) lends credence to her proclamations. Ferrell’s latest, “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (now available for streaming on Netflix), isn’t a return to his glory days, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Ferrell stars as Lars Erickssong, an Icelandic singer/songwriter who’s dreamt of competing in the Eurovision Song Contest ever since he saw ABBA win it all as a tyke. His partner in crime and friend since childhood is Sigrit Ericksdottir (Rachel McAdams) – together they perform as Fire Saga. Lars’ father, Erick (Pierce Brosnan), doesn’t approve of his son’s aspirations and puts him down at every opportunity. Sigrit wants more from Lars than a platonic/professional partnership, but he fears coupling could cloud their creative pursuits.

Somehow Fire Saga unseats Icelandic favorite Katiana (Demi Lovato) to secure a spot at Eurovision in Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s there that they meet pansexual Russian crooner Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens), who takes an interest in Sigrit.

Ferrell rocks a look that’s a combination of “Die Hard” terrorist and Doc Antle from “Tiger King” as Lars. He doesn’t bring the laughs as consistently as he did in his heyday, but you’d be hard-pressed not to bust a gut when Lars repeatedly verbally assaults a quartet of American tourists or throws a hissy fit resulting in him tipping over numerous trash cans and one porta potty.

McAdams has proven time and again what a good comedic actress she is – see “Mean Girls” and “Game Night.” She’s not given anything overly comical to do as Sigrit, but she’s very likable and her singing, which is an amalgamation of McAdams’ voice with that of Swedish songstress Molly Sandén, is strong.

Stevens is an actor I often enjoy … especially in director Adam Wingard’s action/horror hybrid “The Guest.” I’m kind of surprised his film career hasn’t blown up bigger. Stevens doesn’t do any of his own singing here despite having sung in “Beauty and the Beast” a few years back. He’s doubled by Swede Erik Mjönes. Screenwriters Ferrell and Andrew Steele do Stevens a great service by not making his romantic rival character a complete cad. Alexander is ultimately very likable and even sympathetic.

“Eurovision” director David Dobkin previously worked with both Ferrell and McAdams on “Wedding Crashers” … easily the best comedic effort on a resume littered with dreck like “Fred Claus” and “The Change-Up.” This doesn’t hit the heights of that Owen Wilson/Vince Vaughn team-up, but it’s also markedly better than the aforementioned junk. Some of the earnestness Dobkin brought to his last feature, the 2014 Robert Downey Jr vehicle, “The Judge,” finds its way into “Eurovision.” At 123 minutes “Eurovision” would’ve benefitted from 15 minutes of trimming, which is also true of almost every other entry on Dobkin’s filmography.

“Eurovision” isn’t especially funny, but it is consistently entertaining and surprisingly sweet. I don’t know if it says more about the movie itself or me as a viewer, but I actually teared up a tad near the conclusion.

Best Picture Catchup: A Man For All Seasons, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Tom Jones

Recently I decided to try to catch up and see all of the Best Picture winners at the Academy Awards that I had never seen before.

I decided at first to narrow the mission to just winners since 1950 since some of the older movies are harder to find, even with streaming services. Although, as I near the end of that goal, I’ve decided I might try to watch all of the them, if possible. I’ll still try to knock out the post-1950s ones first since I only have a few left but I’ve already started on a few earlier pictures. 

I had a strong start to my mission, having seen 44 out of the 70 Best Picture winners going back to 1950 and I had not missed a winner going back until 1997.

I recently watched six Best Picture winners from the ceremonies of 1967, 1964, 1958, 1957, 1952 and 1947. 

I only have 7 left to watch post-1950 (“The English Patient,” “Ben-Hur,” “Gigi, “My Fair Lady,” “All The Kings Men,” “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “All About Eve” and 15 to watch going back to 1929 (basically everything except the ones I’ve seen: “Casablanca,” “The Lost Weekend,” “Gone With the Wind,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “You Can’t Take it With You” and “It Happened One Night.”).

Without further ado, here’s three more entries to cross off my list.

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966)

This didn’t look like a film that would interest me. A dry period-piece about religion and royalty. No battle scenes and the star actor is someone I’ve never heard of. But “A Man for All Seasons” really does hold up with great performances from Paul Scofield, Orson Welles, John Hurt and Robert Shaw. It tells the story of Sir Thomas More, a 16th-century Lord Chancellor who refused both to sign a letter asking Pope Clement VII to annul Henry VIII’s marriage so he could marry his mistress Anne Boleyn and have a son. He also wouldn’t take an oath and declare the king the head of the newly created Church of England (a move he made when the Vatican wouldn’t annul his marriage). 

Sir Thomas More is a man of principle and everybody pleads with him to just give in and take the oath, sign the papers and “go along to get along.” He sticks with his morals and principles, even though it leads to a tragic ending for him. It kind of reminded me of “The Crucible” in that vein. I love seeing stories about characters with strong moral compasses and this one is filled with quotable lines to use in any situation in which you might doubt yourself. 

One of my favorite lines that More says is: “When statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their own public duties they lead their country by a short route to chaos.” There’s a lot of truth in that. 

I also loved a line he says after he finds out he’s betrayed by a young colleague who now was appointed to a prime position in Wales.

“It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for Wales?” he exclaims.

Scofield deserved his Best Actor Oscar and I can see why this film took the top prize. Although you could make an argument for two other Best Picture nominated films that year: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which was nominated in all four acting categories and won two, and “Alfie,” a Michael Caine-starring vehicle that I absolutely adore (even if it drags toward the end.).

TOM JONES (1963)

So this might be my least favorite Best Picture winner I’ve ever seen. There are other winners that are just undeserving compared to the movies they beat, such as “Shakespeare in Love” beating “Saving Private Ryan” or “Crash” beating “Brokeback Mountain” or “Green Book” over “A Star is Born.” But those winners are still good movies that I enjoy. I didn’t enjoy “Tom Jones” and while other Best Picture winners like “Out of Africa” or “Chariots of Fire” might have been slow and kind of boring, I felt “Tom Jones” was just soul-crushingly pretentious. 

I have no problem with period piece movies. I just praised “A Man for All Seasons.” I’m OK with slow-burn movies that linger in silence. I loved the long patient scenes in “Lawrence of Arabia.” But “Tom Jones” doesn’t seem worth the pay off. It’s billed as a comedy. I did not laugh.

I really, really wanted to like this movie. I think Albert Finney is a great actor and “Tom Jones” is one of the lesser known Best Picture winners, so there was a desire in me to like this film. I like telling people about a great movie that most haven’t seen or have overlooked. But this one is tough. 

If you look on Rotten Tomatoes, critics loved this movie, making it 86 percent fresh. Audiences aren’t as kind, only giving it a 58 percent score. Every review written in the last 20 years looking back on this picture admits that it hasn’t aged well. 

It’s a bawdy sex comedy with British humor that perhaps doesn’t translate well to American audiences. Although, I like Monty Python and Benny Hill and Fawlty Towers. I keep trying to find a reason that I should like this movie that others love.

I know the humor is subtle, but it’s so subtle, I’m not even sure it’s there. It’s like putting only the tiniest dash of salt on a dish and then being surprised when someone calls it bland tasting.

I felt like I was dumb for not enjoying this movie but whatever: It’s as bland as his name.

I think Fellini’s “8 1/2” should have won, although it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture (only Best Director). You can also make an argument that “Cleopatra,” “How the West Was Won” or “Hud” would have been more deserving winners.

THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957)

A nice palate cleanser after that suspense-less period piece, this is a film that I immediately loved.

William Holden is becoming one of my favorite actors of all time. I’ve always loved “Sunset Boulevard” and I rewatched it recently and loved it even more. The same can be said for “Network” which I also rewatched. Both of those films are top 100 of all time for me. I recently checked out his Western film “The Wild Bunch” and while I didn’t love it as much as critics (they ranked it in the American Film Institute’s top 100 movies ever) I appreciated Holden’s performance. 

This movie is masterfully directed by David Lean, who would win Best Director and would later direct another Best Picture winner in “Lawrence of Arabia.”

It’s a big beautiful war movie about prisoners of war in a Japanese labor camp that are being forced to construct a bridge. Alec Guinness, best known as Obi Wan Kenobi, gives a fantastic performance as Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, a man who follows the rules to a fault, even if it isn’t in the best interest of his soldiers. He resists escape and instead begins to take pride in building the bridge for his captors, saying that decades from now people will see the bridge and know it was built by British soldiers. The Japanese commandant, Colonel Saito, is a man who is so insecure that he can’t figure out how to build the bridge that he resents the soldiers for their success. And Holden plays Lieutenant Commander Shears, an American who is reluctant to help and seems to really only care about his own personal safety. There’s no real hero in this piece.

I loved it because of its moral complexity. It asks difficult questions and doesn’t give easy answers. Even the final line of “Madness,” can be interpreted many ways. It would be overly simplified to say this film is just about “the violence of war.”

I recently watched Spike Lee’s masterpiece “Do the Right Thing” and what I love about that movie is that it’s hard to tell which character did the right thing. Every character has good points and bad points. It’s the same with “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” So much to analyze and deconstruct.

And yet it’s not just a psychological drama. There’s action. There’s suspense. There are big epic set pieces. It’s a long movie that never drags. That’s not an easy feat.

One of my colleagues said it’s the number one movie of all time. I wouldn’t go so far, especially since I just watched it for the first time. But I already know this film will earn a spot in my top 100 movies ever made. 

The King of Staten Island


★★★★

I wasn’t a fan of Pete Davidson’s when he first arrived on the scene. I kinda hated his face and thought his tattoos looked like they were ripped from a 13-year-old girl’s Trapper Keeper illustrations. Maybe it was the fact that he was dating Kate Beckinsale, which hurt my chances with her? (¯\_(ツ)_/¯)  I didn’t care about Ariana Grande because her name sounds like a beverage from Starbucks. I don’t often agree with Texas Congressman Dan Crenshaw, but I certainly respect his service as a Navy SEAL and didn’t think much of Davidson ripping on a wound he sustained in combat during “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live.” (That said, Davidson saying Crenshaw looked like, “a hitman in a porno movie,” was kinda funny, the insult was fairly benign and he did ultimately apologize directly to him on “SNL” for the crack.)

Somewhere along the line, my tune changed. I watched and enjoyed Davidson’s Hulu movie “Big Time Adolescence,” and dug him in it. He did a series of rap videos during “SNL at Home” – my favorites were “Stuck in the House” with Adam Sandler and “Danny Trejo” – which further endeared him to me. Knowing more about Davidson personally – his father, Scott, dying as a first responder firefighter in the World Trade Center on 9/11 when Pete was only seven; his struggles with depression, drugs and Crohn’s disease – has made me actively root for the guy. I actually kinda dig his goofy mug and the cornucopia of tattoos now … dude’s like a fungus – he’s grown on me.

This brings us to director Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island,” now available on VOD. It’s a semi-autobiographical star vehicle for Davidson, which he co-wrote with Apatow and former “SNL” staffer Dave Sirus. Davidson plays Scott, a 24-year-old ne’er-do-well who still lives with his put-upon nurse of a mother, Margie (Marissa Tomei). Scott’s fireman Dad, Stan, died when he was seven in a hotel fire, which retains the emotional honesty of Davidson’s real life without preying upon manipulative 9/11 sentimentality on screen.

Scott spends his days doing and selling drugs with his buddies Oscar, Richie and Igor (Ricky Velez, Lou Wilson and Moises Arias, respectively). He’s a burgeoning tattoo artist with aspirations of opening a tattoo parlor/restaurant called “Ruby Tat-Tuesdays.” Scott’s also sleeping with his childhood friend, Kelsey (Bel Powley). He thinks they’re just hooking up; she thinks it’s more than that.

Scott’s life is thrown into upheaval when his younger sister, Claire (Maude Apatow), moves out of the house to attend college and Margie begins dating Ray (comedian Bill Burr), another firefighter. Scott isn’t feeling Mom’s new suitor or his profession. He thinks it’s weird that she’s dating another fireman, she’s replacing his father and that firemen are selfish for attempting to have families or personal lives due to the inherent risk of their career. Margie and Ray have expectations for Scott if he’s going to stay in her home – he gets a job as a busboy at an Italian restaurant and must walk Ray’s children from a previous relationship (Luke David Blumm, Alexis Rae Forlenza) to school. Scott makes a connection with these kids and with the other guys at Ray’s firehouse (personified by former New York City firefighter-turned-beloved character actor Steve Buscemi, who actually assisted the FDNY after 9/11). Personal growth is within Scott’s grasp if he can simply get out of his own way.

Davidson capably headlines the picture. His Scott can be maddening at times, but he’s also sympathetic and funny. I wanted him to succeed in spite of himself. Tomei is a pro and could do this sort of role in her sleep – she’s reliably good – I just wish she had more to do. I haven’t seen Burr act much outside of supporting roles on “Breaking Bad” and “The Mandalorian,” but he’s very capable and lends the proceedings a great deal of heart. The stealth scene stealer is Velez (Davidson’s real-life best friend), who I was unfamiliar with despite him having been on “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore.” This dude’s line readings left me in stitches. Apparently, Apatow’s such a fan he’s now producing Velez’s hour-long HBO stand-up special.

I’m a BIG Apatow backer going all the way back to his work on “The Ben Stiller Show,” “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Freaks and Geeks.” I think “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” is one of the funniest movies of not only the aughts but of all-time. “Knocked Up” is great. “Funny People” is vastly underrated. “Trainwreck” is really good. His only “miss” is “This Is 40,” and even that’s like a 3.5 out of 5 star movie for me. The dude’s documentaries are also aces – especially “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling.” “The King of Staten Island” is middle-to-lesser tier Apatow and brings into crystal clarity the common complaint that his pictures are too long. At 137 minutes this thing’s flabby as fuck. A subplot about Scott’s buddies robbing a pharmacy for its OxyContin could be easily and entirely excised with very little lost. There’s absolutely no reason for “The King of Staten Island” to be longer than two hours. Apatow needs a strong editorial hand as badly as Davidson needs a therapist. Flaws and all, the flick’s inherently likable … much like its star. I do sincerely hope the process was therapeutic for him.

Scare Package

★★1/2

“Scare Package,” now available for streaming on Shudder, is a horror anthology film in the tradition of the “Creepshow” movies, “Tales from the Darkside: The Movie,” “Tales from the Hood,” “Trick ‘r Treat,” “Chillerama,” the “V/H/S” movies, “The ABCs of Death” movies, “Southbound,” “Tales of Halloween” and “Nightmare Cinema.”

The movie is comprised of seven stories (“Cold Open” directed by Emily Hagins, “One Time in the Woods” directed by Chris McInroy, “M.I.S.T.E.R.” directed by Rian Johnson staple Noah Segan, “Girls’ Night Out” directed by twin sister production designers Courtney and Hillary Andujar, “The Night He Came Back Again! Part IV: The Final Kill” directed by Anthony Cousins, “So Much to Do” directed by comedian Baron Vaughn and “Horror Hypothesis” directed by Hoosier native Aaron B. Koontz) and a wraparound (“Rad Chad’s Horror Emporium” also directed by Koontz).

My favorite segments are “Cold Open” and “One Time in the Woods.”

“Cold Open” is about a stock background character by the name of Mike – no kidding – Myers (Jon Michael Simpson) who assures things transpire the way they’re supposed to in horror movies whether that means selling a haunted house to unsuspecting buyers, pointing signage for an abandoned asylum the wrong way, performing an attic-based ritual to possess a doll or cutting the power at the most opportune time. Mike, wanting to help rather than harm others, attempts to assist a pair of babysitters (Luxy Banner, Sydney Huddleston) with disastrous results. Writer/director Hagins, who made her first feature, “Pathogen,” at the tender age of 12, gets the anthology off on the right foot by injecting some wonderfully-staged physical comedy into the proceedings.

“One Time in the Woods” is absolutely the best and bloodiest story of the bunch. Writer/director McInroy melds over-the-top body horror prevalent in Troma tripe with slasher flick conventions to make one scream of a segment. There are kills here that had me howling with laughter. I wasn’t familiar with McInroy prior to “Scare Package.” His output up until now has included shorts such as “Bad Guy #2,” “Death Metal” and “We Summoned a Demon.” Per McInroy’s IMDB profile, “His next project should be his first feature film, a horror-comedy with werewolves. He loves werewolves. He also loves dipping chips in dips.” I look forward to seeing it! This dude seems like he knows how to party!

I was a bit letdown by the directorial debuts of bigger names such as Segan or Vaughn, who also appear in their segments. To Segan’s credit, he had the good sense to cast comedian Jon Gabrus from one of my favorite podcasts ActionBoyz, which engenders goodwill. To Vaughn’s credit, his story had the most impressive visual effects and a bruising fight sequence – none of which could’ve been easily accomplished on a limited budget.

The last segment “Horror Hypothesis” is by far the longest of the bunch. This could be a tip of the hat to “A Fistful of Yen” from fellow anthology flick “Kentucky Fried Movie.” It could also be indicative of the fact that director Koontz, his co-writer Cameron Burns and their Austin, Tex.-based Paper Street Pictures are the driving creative and monetary forces behind the project. “Hypothesis” isn’t bad and features a fun performance from cult favorite Joe Bob Briggs playing himself, but its length makes the film feel unbalanced.

Each of these stories is a VHS cassette inserted into a VCR at Rad Chad’s Horror Emporium by Rad Chad (Jeremy King) himself or by new employee Hawn (Hawn Tran). As a kid I spent tons of time in video stores and even worked at one for a bit after college (Family Video represent!) so this motif was a fun stroll down memory lane for me. You can tell these filmmakers have a real reverence for the genre and might’ve even been frightened by the sleeve to “Ghoulies” like your intrepid reviewer was as a tyke. Seriously, I thought one of those critters was gonna emerge from the toilet and bite me on my little bum.

Da 5 Bloods

★★★★

You know a Spike Lee joint when you see one – “Da 5 Bloods,” now available for streaming on Netflix, is most assuredly a Lee joint.

The titular 5 Bloods are a squadron of African American soldiers serving in the Vietnam War. They are Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Eddie (Norm Lewis). Norman is the Bloods’ squad leader, but he’s more than that. Sure, he teaches his fellow soldiers how to fight, but also drops knowledge on their collective history and current plight as black men. The other Bloods describe him as a combination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

The Bloods find a cache of American gold in the jungle, which they stash with the intention of bringing it home and redistributing it through black communities at Norman’s behest. Shortly after the gold’s discovery, Norman is killed in combat and the cache is lost. Fifty years later the four remaining Bloods return to Vietnam in order retrieve Norman’s remains and the gold itself.

Complications arise in the form of Paul’s estranged son, David (Jonathan Majors), an educator who crashes their party, demands to join the Bloods on their adventure and wants his own piece of the pie. Further complicating matters is the fact that David’s cozying up to Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), a French heiress looking to demine the Vietnamese jungle alongside her colleagues Simon and Seppo (“BlacKkKlansman” Klansmen Paul Walter Hauser and Jasper Pääkkönen, respectively). Furthest complicating matters are French businessman Desroche (Jean Reno) and Otis’ former lover Tiên (Lê Y Lan), with whom the Bloods partner to transport their gold despite not knowing their intentions.

There’s much to admire about “Da 5 Bloods.” Lee said he didn’t have the budget to recast or digitally de-age his actors so Lindo, Peters, Whitlock Jr. and Lewis play the younger and current versions of their characters, which gives the proceedings a haunting quality suggesting these men never truly came home from the war. Additionally, this makes Boseman’s character seem even more fully formed and eternally youthful when you see him guiding his elders. Majors, Peters, Whitlock Jr. and Boseman are all excellent. If there’s a weaker link in the bunch it’s Lewis, who to be fair I’m less familiar with and isn’t given as much to do.

Lindo stands head and shoulders above his accomplished castmates. His Paul is interesting and aggravating in equal measure – he’s plagued by PTSD, was a bad Dad to David and incessantly sports a MAGA cap in modern segments. Lindo was a successful, working character actor prior to teaming with Lee on 1995’s underrated “Clockers,” in which he was chillingly evil as drug lord Rodney Little. That film and role upped Lindo’s profile. He worked incessantly in higher profile projects from the mid-‘90s to the mid-aughts. “Da 5 Bloods” is a comeback of sorts for Lindo, who’s absolutely electric here. A scene in which Paul is granted forgiveness in conjunction with a letter he wrote to David absolutely tore my heart out. This is easily the best performance I’ve seen this year. It’s truly Oscar-caliber work.

In addition to the aces acting on display, the proceedings both look good (cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel changes formats and aspect ratios frequently to great effect) and sound good (Terrence Blanchard and Marvin Gaye’s music is emotionally evocative). At 155 minutes, there’s an awful lot of “Da 5 Bloods.”  I genuinely feel the movie would’ve played better were it half an hour shorter, but it’s much more accomplished than Lee’s first foray into war films, “Miracle at St. Anna.” Some scenes run longer than they need to. Some characters (namely Hedy, Simon, Seppo, Desroche and Tiên) feel extraneous. Then again, Lee has a lot on his mind and these “extraneous” characters allow him to touch upon the impact both France and America have had on Vietnam. This bonus content also allows Lee to implement one of my favorite double dolly shots of his entire filmography at the end of the picture.

Nothing registered with me as deeply as material detailing what it’s like for the Bloods to fight for a country that doesn’t fight for them in return. Seeing these men hear about and react to the murder of Dr. King while in the jungle is tangibly powerful. It’s appropriate then that Lee concludes the picture with footage of Dr. King quoting Langston Hughes, “O, yes/ I say it plain/ America never was America to me/ And yet I swear this oath – America will be!”

Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street

★★★1/2

“Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street,” now available for streaming on Shudder, is a documentary concerning “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge” star Mark Patton and how the horror sequel affected his life and career.

Patton has lived A LOT of life. Prior to his “Freddy’s Revenge” gig he was directed by Robert Altman on Broadway and in the big screen adaptation of “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.” Patton is now openly gay, but was in the closet during the filming of “Freddy’s Revenge.” “Scream, Queen!” hammers the point home that it wasn’t feasible for a working actor to be out in the mid-‘80s because of the AIDS panic plaguing Hollywood following Rock Hudson’s passing from the disease. Patton was in a longtime, live-in, on-again, off-again relationship with another closeted actor Timothy Patrick Murphy (“Dallas”) prior to Murphy succumbing to AIDS in 1988. Patton himself was diagnosed with HIV on his 40th birthday. He subsequently moved to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and married a man named Hector Morales Mondragon. The couple own and operate an art store. Patton was entirely out of showbiz prior to appearing in directors Dan Farrands and Andrew Kasch’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street” documentary “Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy.” He now tours horror conventions as cinema’s first male “scream queen” (There’s even footage taken from Indianapolis’ HorrorHound!) and donates most of his appearance fees to HIV treatment groups and charities benefitting LGBTQ youth.

“Scream, Queen!” deals much more directly with gay culture from the ’80s and Patton’s own life than it does with the making of “Freddy’s Revenge” itself. “Freddy’s Revenge” and Patton have received much scorn for how gay they are. By the same token, “Freddy’s Revenge” and Patton have gained cult status and appreciation for how gay they are. Screenwriter David Chaskin asserts that the sub-textual became textual thanks to Patton’s performance. Director Jack Sholder (“The Hidden”) claims to have been oblivious to the homoerotic themes present in “Freddy’s Revenge” due to stressors during filming – this despite a scene taking place in a gay bar and an S&M-inspired death sequence set in a gym shower replete with bare-assed towel spanking. Patton blames his collaborators for not reining him in more during his infamous bedroom dance or “girlish scream.”

Patton serves as a producer on “Scream, Queen!,” which was directed capably but unspectacularly by Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen. The project veers from vanity to vendetta when Patton all but demands an apology from Chaskin. “Scream, Queen!” is not as solid as the aforementioned “Never Sleep Again” nor “Horror Noire:  A History of Black Horror” (another socially-conscious horror doc available for streaming on Shudder), but Patton makes an interesting enough subject that genre fans could do worse during Pride Month even if he’s more drama queen than scream queen.

Artemis Fowl

When COVID-19 hit and movie theaters shut down, studios had to make a decision about what to do with movies that were scheduled for summer release. Disney decided to push back several of their theatrical releases including “Black Widow” and “Soul.”

They did announce that one large-budget movie — costing $125 million to make — would be not be released in theaters and instead would come straight to their streaming platform Disney+. Studio acted like they were being gracious by releasing “Artemis Foul” online to stream, especially considering the new service has been light on new, exclusive, original content. “The Mandalorian” is great but the rest of the original content on the site is quickly thrown together reality-based shows and docu-series.

Turns out Disney wasn’t doing us a favor by releasing “Artemis Fowl” on their streaming service. They were dumping a stinker to avoid the embarrassment of a box office dud. Even if there were no virus to harm movie theater sales, “Artemis Fowl” is a disaster of a franchise starter. A joyless CGI-spectacle that crams an entire sci-fi/fantasy novel into 90 minutes, leaving us with a very confusing plot and characters we just don’t care about.

It would be a cliche “dad joke” to say in jest that: “‘Artemis Fowl’ is truly fowl” but this movie is so bad that it deserves such an unoriginal insult. A lazy insult for a lazy movie.

“Artemis Fowl” is based on a 2001 young adult novel by an Irish author and was immediately optioned to become a film series, likely another “Harry Potter” but with a mix of sci-fi and fantasy. It tells the story of a 12-year-old criminal mastermind who kidnaps a fairy.

The movie was in production hell and kept changing writers and directors. Eventually Kenneth Branagh, the acclaimed Shakespearean actor/director took a stab at it, following up his other big CGI productions such as “Thor” and “Cinderella.” (He’s much better at Shakespeare, by the way).

Now I haven’t read the books (I was a senior in high school when this came out) but apparently this film version is not very faithful, turning Artemis Fowl from a criminal mastermind to just a really smart kid who wants to save his dad. They removed any anti-hero element in this adaptation. Colin Ferrell plays his father and apparently he was just added in reshoots and they completely changed the plot.

I don’t like to criticize child actors but Ferdia Shaw doesn’t come off as promising, but it’s not really his fault given the awful screenplay. Josh Gad, more of a veteran of Disney fare such as “Frozen” and the “Beauty and the Beast” live action remake, does a better job at elevating a weak script and provides some mild comedic relief (although he’s not in it enough). Judi Dench looks like David Bowie with a strange hairstyle in the movie.

The story itself is pretty nonsensical and they try to help you follow along with endless exposition and characters repeating things that were just said. It’s as if the focus group told people they found the story confusing so they just added bad writing.

I think the real problem with the plot is that the movie is only an hour and a half long and that might seem merciful for such a bad movie, but perhaps a few extra minutes to build the world and flesh out the characters would have helped. Maybe. I’m not sure, but it’s possible.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t have to drive a pack of kids to the movie theater and pay an insane amount of money to sit through this stinker. I watched it at home while I did other things. My investment is low and so the bar was set pretty low. But even then I really can’t say I enjoyed watching this one. If it’s just to entertain the kids for 90 minutes, you can put on a much better that you all can enjoy (try “Onward”). If you’re just putting on background noise while you organize your sock drawer, then just watch that episode of “The Office” for the umpteenth time. If you were a huge fan of the books, my guess you’ll be disappointed. It’s not the worst movie ever made but just one you don’t need to waste your time watching.

Who knows. Maybe “Artemis Fowl” will follow the path of “The Golden Compass,” “Lemony Snicket” or “Percy Jackson” and earn a streaming-platform reboot in the form of a TV series rather than a movie (“Percy Jackson” series was announced for Disney+ after the two failed film adaptations).

In the end, “Artemis Fowl” joins a long list of failed YA-novel adaptations that were trying to be the next “Harry Potter” or “Hunger Games” or “The Hobbit.” It joins the likes of the three I already mentioned, along with “Ender’s Game,” “Mortal Instruments” and “Beautiful Creatures.” Even the franchises of “Divergent” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” started to lose their appeal in later entries.

There are nine books to mine material from and so this is a movie yearning for a sequel. But to do that would truly be fowl (sorry).

Becky

★★★1/2

I’m not gonna lie, after the last week or so we’ve all endured it was therapeutic watching a 13-year-old girl straight merc a quartet of neo-Nazis.

“Becky” (available on VOD as of Friday, June 5) focuses on our titular heroine (Lulu Wilson) who’s just recently lost her Mother to cancer. Her father, Jeff (Joel McHale), is moving on from their mutual loss faster than Becky would like. He’s dating Kayla (Amanda Brugel of “The Handmaid’s Tale”) and has invited she and her son, Ty (Isiah Rockcliffe), to spend the weekend at their lake house where he intends to propose marriage.

Jeff’s plans become derailed when Becky gets bummed by these developments and bails to her fort in the woods. Matters are further complicated when a stranger named Dominick (Kevin James) shows up to their front door claiming to have lost his dog. Dominick’s intentions become clearer when he begins disparaging the mixed race couple – he’s the leader of a hate group who’s escaped from prison and is currently looking for a key within the house that’ll grant him access to the movie’s McGuffin. Dominick’s crew comprised of Apex, Cole and Hammond (Robert Maillet, Ryan McDonald and James McDougall, respectively) join him in holding the burgeoning family hostage. Their only hope for survival and/or rescue is Becky.

Wilson does an admirable job in the titular role, but isn’t given much to play aside from sadness and anger. McHale is much more earnest here than I’ve seen him before. The real headline-grabber is “The King of Queens” himself going full-on Paul Blatzi: Neo-Nazi. I’ve always thought of James as the poor man’s Chris Farley, but he proves himself to be both adept and threatening in a serious role. I wish writers Nick Morris and Ruckus (Awesome name!) and Layne Skye gave James more scenery to chew, but it’s fun to see the comedic actor dismantle his nice guy image.

The actor who impressed me most was Maillet, a giant of a man whose height is listed anywhere between 6’ 10” and 7’ 00”. Audiences will likely remember Maillet from his days wrestling as Kurrgan in the WWE or a fight sequence against Robert Downey Jr. in “Sherlock Holmes.” Apex is a horrendous human being, but Maillet convincingly conveys decency and regret that serve in stark contrast to the character’s abhorrent actions.

“Becky” has often been referred to as a Hard R “Home Alone.” There’s merit in that comparison, but the movie this most reminded me of is Steven C. Miller’s “The Aggression Scale” from 2012. That was a good flick; “Becky” is a better one. It’s lean (93 minutes) and mean (there’s eye trauma reminiscent of Eli Roth’s “Hostel”). That said, it’s also capital “S” sleazy. I dug it enough that I plan to backtrack and check out directorial duo Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion’s previous efforts, the Elijah Wood/Rainn Wilson horror-comedy “Cooties” and Dave Bautista actioneer “Bushwick.”