The United States vs. Billie Holiday

★★★

It’s always impressive to see an actor or actress take a mediocre script and elevate it to new heights with a transcendent performance.

It’s even more remarkable when the actor or actress is making their feature film debut.

R&B singer Andra Day is the perfect person to take on “Lady Day” Billie Holiday the new biopic “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” which is free to stream right now with a Hulu subscription. And it’s not just her similar surname that creates that connection.

She channels the legendary blues singer as if she were possessed by her spirit. She nails the emotion and the singing voice in a way that even surpasses previous portrayals of the iconic star (Diana Ross was nominated for an Oscar for playing Billie Holiday and Audra McDonald won a Tony and was nominated for an Emmy for playing her as well).

Unfortunately, Andra Day’s Golden-Globe-nominated performance is trapped inside of a mediocre film that is disjointed, unfocused and at times cliche. She deserves better and it’s a shame.

It’s a surprise that the screenplay is so weak considering it’s helmed by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. Apparently Parks should stick to the stage instead of the big screen (her filmography is less than stellar and her biggest movie is “Girl 6,” one of Spike Lee’s lowest rated films).

Parks focuses on the last 10 years of Holiday’s life when the singer’s voice became hard and raspy, as did her guarded demeanor.

Even though they don’t tell Holiday’s entire life story it feels like this movie tried to tackle too much and sometimes doesn’t know what it wants to be. At times, it’s a political drama and other times it’s a story about drug abuse. It’s even a love story in parts.

During this decade, Holiday is already addicted to heroine and the FBI has targeted her because they feel her song “Strange Fruit” — which is about lynchings in the South — is dangerous and must be stopped. The government sends undercover FBI agents to nail her on bloated up drug charges to silence her Civil Rights credibility.

It’s the third film this awards season to focus on J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI targeting and discrediting black activists, following the documentary “MLK/FBI,” and the excellent film “Judas and the Black Messiah.” In this Billie Holiday biopic, the FBI is treated like a cartoonish super villain, lacking the subtlety and complexity in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” I almost expected Garrett Hedlund’s agent to twirl a handlebar mustache like he was Snidely Whiplash.

Parks gives considerable screen time to a romance subplot featuring Holiday and the black FBI agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes of “Moonlight” in a disappointingly flat performance). I looked it up and this romance is actually based in factual events but the way it’s written in the movie you would bet big money that it was fictionalized and contrived in order to create a narrative for the film.

Therein lies the biggest problem with “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” While the events in the film are factually accurate, it fails to feel real or authentic. That’s because too many lines in the movie are meant to just set up background information that the audience might not have or emphasize the themes of the work. Subtlety is not present in this movie.

Characters recite lines that no actual human would utter, like, “You can’t sing ‘Strange Fruit.’ Don’t you know that the government doesn’t want you singing that song because it brings up uncomfortable truths about our society nowadays?” OK, that literal line isn’t spoken, but it’s not far from what is actually written.

I’m reminded of another awards contender this year in “Nomadland,” in which Frances McDormand’s character doesn’t have to give a big speech about her inner monologue because it’s all shown in the expressions on her face. In “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” they don’t give Andra Day that same luxury and instead feed her clunky lines in which she emotionally vomits up every single feeling.

The film is directed by Lee Daniels, a former Best Director nominee at the Oscars for “Precious: based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.” I’ve never been a huge fan of Daniels’ work. His film “The Paperboy” was one of the worst to come out that year. I saw not much more than melodramatic Oscar bait in his foray into political history with “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (an unfortunate and arrogant title due to a lawsuit from another film called ‘The Butler.’) I even think “Precious” is a little over the top.

But Lee Daniels’ real strength might be that as a producer rather than a director. He’s responsible for hit TV shows like “Empire” and every single of his movies — even the bad ones — are full of amazing acting performances. He absolutely knows how to cast a film and put the right actors in the right place to succeed (the one exception would be his presidential portrayals in “The Butler.” I mean, John Cusack as Nixon?! C’mon!).

Lee Daniels nails the casting by selecting little-known singer Andra Day for the lead. She is a revelation. It’s another example of an amazing acting performance in an average-to-weak biopic. We saw it last year with Renee Zellweger in “Judy” and a few years back with Meryl Streep in “The Iron Lady.” Both took him Oscars for their performances while the movies themselves were not nominated.

Previously I said that Andra Day was better than Diana Ross and that might song like sacrilege but it’s true. Although it’s been many years since I’ve seen 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues,” I never felt that Diana Ross became Billie Holiday. Her voice wasn’t as raspy (although she was playing a younger version) and I still saw Diana Ross on the screen.

Perhaps it’s because Day was unknown to me before but I really felt she inhabited this character. Her singing performances are mesmerizing and as a result Daniels inserts many, many on-stage songs throughout the film. Almost too many. There was one point where we see a three-minute performance at Carnegie Hall and then after a minute and half of story in between we get another three minutes of her singing in a smoky jazz club. It was a bit much.

There are many aspects of Holiday’s life that they barely touch on. Unlike biopics like “Ray” or “Walk the Line,” this film doesn’t feel the need to start at childhood and reenact every single event in her life. That’s a good thing though. Some audiences might be disappointed that more screen time isn’t given to the sexual relationship with actress Tallulah Bankhead. Although I was confused by Natasha Lyonne’s almost-British accent while playing the Alabama-born actress.

There are moments of brilliance in Lee Daniels movie but unfortunately they are quickly followed by scene so trite and cliche that it feels like a moment from the biopic-parody-comedy “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” I wouldn’t have been surprised if Tim Meadows offered her heroine.

Despite all of these flaws in screenplay and direction, Andra Day is so very good that she nearly erases any missteps. I hope she continues to act in feature films and next time gets a chance to work with a stronger script.

Wrong Turn

★★★1/2

I have a fondness for the “Wrong Turn” franchise. A lot of this probably stems from having bailed on it after the second installment. (Sorry, folks, I missed entries three through six.)

Director Rob Schmidt’s Stan Winston-produced original is an entertaining-enough combination of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and “The Hills Have Eyes” that I’ve wiled away more than one afternoon watching on Cinemax. I dig Joe Lynch’s sequel “Wrong Turn 2: Dead End” what with former “American Idol” contestant Kimberly Caldwell (playing herself) having her lips bitten off before being split in half with an axe in the opening scene (That’ll get your attention!) and Henry Rollins co-starring as a badass/smartass U.S. Marine-tuned- reality show host.

This brings us to “Wrong Turn” (2021), which played briefly in theaters last month as a Fathom Event before being released on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, Feb. 23. (It’s also returning to Goodrich Quality Theaters locations in Brownsburg and Lafayette, Ind. beginning Friday, Feb. 26.) This “Wrong Turn” isn’t so much a remake or a sequel as it is a reboot or a reimagining. Whereas Schmidt’s flick drew inspiration from seminal works by Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven, director Mike P. Nelson and screenwriter Alan B. McElroy (who also penned the 2003 original) owe a debt to John Boorman’s “Deliverance” and Ari Aster’s “Midsommar.” Gone are the cannibal mutant hillbillies – they’re replaced with red herrings and antagonists that feel much more pertinent to the last four years we’ve endured.

A group of six friends comprised of three couples – Jen (Charlotte Vega) and Darius (Adain Bradley), Milla (Emma Dumont) and Adam (Dylan McTee) and Gary (Vardaan Arora) and Luis (Adrian Favela) – leave the big city to take a rural vacation hiking the Appalachian Trail. The locals embodied by Nate Roades (Tim DeZarn, who played similar parts in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” and “The Cabin in the Woods”) don’t take kindly to the group as they contain couplings both interracial and gay and they’re all damned dirty hipsters in their eyes. It doesn’t help that Adam audibly judges and antagonizes the townies.

The local yokels are the least of these youths’ problems when they veer off the main trail for further exploration despite warnings from Aileen (Amy Warner), the proprietor of the bed and breakfast where they’re lodging. The sextet runs afoul of The Foundation, a sect that’s decided to live separately from society since America’s inception. The Foundation operates by its own rules and is led by Venable (Bill Sage, a natural for the role after having appeared in Jim Mickle’s “We Are What We Are”). Once the youngsters have been missing for six weeks, Jen’s Dad Scott (full-on silver fox Matthew Modine) takes it upon himself to investigate their disappearance with Aileen and her kinfolk’s assistance.

While it’s sorta draggy and entirely too long at almost two hours, I found a lot to enjoy in “Wrong Turn.” Vega and Modine admirably give audiences characters to care about and the picture itself some emotional heft. I dug the politicization employed by Nelson and McElroy – this movie actually has something to say, which separates it from so much horror schlock. The kids aren’t entirely innocent and their captors aren’t entirely guilty, though the punishments they enact are undeniably brutish. There’s gray area and gray matter (so many heads get gooily caved in) aplenty. I was impressed enough by Nelson’s work here that I feel compelled to backtrack and catch his 2018 effort “The Domestics.” Pro tip: Stick around through the closing credits – they’re some of the best I’ve ever seen.

I Care a Lot

★★★★½ 

I’ve been kinda surprised that Rosamund Pike didn’t receive better roles after knocking the part of Amy Dunne outta the park in David Fincher’s 2014 adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.” I suspect many in Hollywood might’ve confused Pike with Dunne and were scared to work with her as she so thoroughly and convincingly inhabited the titular sociopath. (Then again, Pike has young children. Maybe she simply took some time to be a Mom? Regardless, the only role and movie of hers that’s really registered with me since is Rosalee Quaid in Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles.”) I’m glad the industry has finally taken a “if we can’t beat her, let’s join her” approach to Pike by gifting her the arguably even scarier role of Marla Grayson in writer/director J Blakeson’s new Netflix dark comedy/thriller “I Care a Lot.”

Grayson works as a guardian, placing elderly people in assisted living facilities if they’re deemed a danger to themselves and taking control of their homes, finances and medical treatment whether they want it/need it or not. She’s assisted in this task by her business/romantic partner Fran (Eiza González, sporting Jennifer Beals’ “Flashdance” hair). The ladies receive their marks from Dr. Amos (Alicia Witt), who refers patients who annoy her. Grayson’s granted countless guardianships by Judge Lomax (Isiah Whitlock Jr. – “Sheeeeeeeit!”), an adjudicator she has wrapped around her finger. Grayson also has an in with Sam Rice (Damian Young), the administrator of a convalescent home who takes his marching orders from her, but also isn’t above extorting funds from Grayson when the opportunity presents itself.

Grayson and Fran set their sights on Jennifer Peterson (Diane Wiest), whom they refer to as a “Cherry.” She’s the perfect candidate on paper – with no ostensible family and reams of money. Unfortunately for the predatory pair, Peterson is connected to Russian mobster Roman Lunyov (the ever-consistent Peter Dinklage). If Lunyov can’t extricate Peterson via legal means spearheaded by slick attorney Dean Ericson (a very entertaining Chris Messina – I could’ve used more of him), he won’t hesitate to employ more aggressive and violent tactics.

Pike excels at playing ice queens. She truly ups the game on her already boffo “Gone Girl” bonafides. Grayson’s no Boy Wonder, she’s a Woman Reprobate. Pike undoubtedly deserves the Golden Globe she’s been nominated for and an Oscar nod should follow. It’s no small feat to make women as gorgeous as Pike and González so thoroughly grotesque through their character’s actions and “I Care a Lot” does just that.

“I Care a Lot” will anger a lot of its audience and with good reason. Elder abuse is a serious issue in this country – those who engage in such behaviors are cowardly and the absolute worst of the worst. (I’d lump ‘em together with those who abuse women, children and animals. If I were “King of the World” and someone were caught dead to rights perpetrating any of these misdeeds, there’s no trial, you do not pass Go, you do not collect $200, you’re simply dragged into an alley and shot in the face. And I’m a liberal, folks!) I audibly asserted while watching this movie that Grayson deserved to have her ears and nose cut off, eyes gouged out, hands chopped off and to be dumped in a landfill, which prompted my wife to tell me just how profoundly fucked up I am.

It’s a huge credit to Blakeson as a filmmaker and Pike as an actress that they drew such a visceral reaction from me as a viewer. Some might find it distasteful that they’ve grafted a darkly comedic thriller to the theme of elder abuse, but the resulting product is undeniably entertaining, funny and suspenseful and most importantly it’ll hopefully shine a light on this important issue. The movie also gave me pause to think about quitting vaping as Grayson is so damned draconian incessantly doing it and that ain’t a bad thing.

Burn It All

★★1/2

I’m really kinda torn when it comes to “Burn It All” (now available in select theaters and on VOD). On one hand, it’s super-sloppily made. I’m not sure if this is the result of budgetary constraints, a lack of talent on behalf of Seattle-based writer/director/editor/cinematographer/composer Brady Hall or perhaps both? (Most likely it’s a combination of meager funds and Hall being spread thin by wearing so many hats.) On the other hand, Hall should be applauded for making an unabashedly feminist flick as a man. The resulting product reads like a woke iteration of those Cynthia Rothrock PM Entertainment entries from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s only minus the martial arts pyrotechnics. Its shoddiness also recalls ‘70s grindhouse pictures, but with more of a social conscience.

Stuntwoman-turned-actress Elizabeth Cotter stars as Alex, an Army veteran who’s on the brink of committing suicide during the opening scene. Prior to doing the deed she’s interrupted by a phone call informing her that her estranged mother’s had a stroke and is at death’s door. Alex drives to her hometown, but doesn’t arrive before her Mom passes. She hopes to see her mother’s body, but it’s already been absconded by an organ thievery ring.

Alex has gone from having nothing to live for to having a very particular focus – retrieve her Mom’s corpse, dismantle the criminal organization from soup to nuts and protect her younger sister Jenny (Emily Gately), with whom she hasn’t spoken in many years. In order to achieve these ends Alex will have to ascertain whether her abusive ex-boyfriend-turned-cop Travis (Ryan Postell) is an accessory to these misdeeds and run roughshod over the chess piece-named hierarchy of this cabal – King (John Branch), Rook (King Amir Allahyar), Knight (Alexander Kiwerski) and Bishop (Greg Michaels).

Cotter is rough around the edges as an actress, but has a physical presence that sells her role. She’s like that little girl with the little curl right in the middle of her forehead – when she’s good, she’s very, very good, but when she’s bad she’s horrid. To be fair, not even Meryl Streep could sell the line, “Anything you can do, I can do bleeding.” “Burn It All” is Cotter’s first performance in a feature (she appeared as Trump Monster in the short “Trumpocalypse”). She excels in the action sequences (I just wish Hall captured them more capably) and her performance improves in the back half of the picture when she has Gately to play opposite of and greater emotional heights to hit.

The long and short of it is this – in the world of “Burn It All” every single solitary man is a piece of shit from babies (an infant’s seen wearing a onesie reading, “Make me a sandwich, bitch.”) to geezers (during the opening credits when Alex is driving home and stuck at a stoplight an old codger flashes a sign that reads, “Show your tits.”). One baddie’s dying utterance to Alex is simply, “You’re a cunt.” Hall deserves some modicum of credit for reckoning with his gender’s shortcomings while uplifting the fairer sex – I just wish he’d done it with more skill and subtlety. Then again, “Burn It All” derives whatever personality it has from its sloppiness.

The Violent Heart

★★★

William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” has undoubtedly stood the test of time. It has been reinterpreted on screen countless times (Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation or Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 effort “Romeo + Juliet” for instance). It’s also inspired musicals (“West Side Story”), Troma gutter trash (the James Gunn-penned “Tromeo and Juliet”), action movies (the Jet Li vehicle “Romeo Must Die”) and animated pictures (“Gnomeo & Juliet”). The latest film to tip its cap to Shakespeare’s most famous work is “The Violent Heart,” which is now playing in limited theatrical release and on VOD.

It’s the early 2000s. Lee (Cress Williams of The CW’s “Black Lightning,” seemingly only filming for a day) is a Marine who’s returned to his wife Nina (Mary J. Blige) and children Wendy (Rayven Symone Ferrell) and Daniel (Jordan Preston Carter) in Tennessee from combat in Afghanistan. Nine-year-old Daniel is excited to see his Dad. Teenager Wendy is far less so – she seems preoccupied. Her preoccupation is explained when Daniel sees her sneak off in the middle of the night with a mystery man. He follows them on his motor scooter only to witness Wendy get gunned down by her shadowy shooter.

We flash-forward 15 years – Daniel (now played by Jovan Adepo) is working as an auto mechanic after having been imprisoned for blinding a classmate in one eye during a school-based fistfight. He meets Cassie (Grace Van Patten, daughter of go-to HBO director Tim Van Patten) when she brings her car into the shop for an oil change. She overhears Daniel saying he has to pick up his younger brother Aaron (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) from school. Cassie asks him for a lift since she’s a senior at the same school. She’s chatty. He’s reserved. Despite their differences, a connection is made.

Cassie is studious. Her father Joseph (Lukas Haas, bringing an appropriately odd energy to the proceedings) is her English teacher. The two of them strangely eat lunch together in the cafeteria. Looking to sow some wild oats and having heard Daniel say he has a preliminary interview for the Marines in Nashville, Tenn., Cassie asks if she can return the favor and give him a ride there. Daniel rejects the offer, but counters with taking her there on his motorcycle. The friend Cassie was supposed to visit at Vanderbilt University is otherwise preoccupied, so she and Daniel spend the entire weekend together. Their connection deepens.

Upon her return, Joseph and Cassie’s mother Rose (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) forbid their daughter from seeing Daniel again. Perhaps it’s their age difference (she’s 18; he’s 24)? Perhaps it’s that she’s white and he’s black? Perhaps it’s his criminal record? Perhaps it’s something else entirely?

“The Violent Heart” is melodramatic as all get-out. It has twists and turns and appropriately enough concludes violently. It’s cheese, but well-performed cheese. This is both a slight and a credit to writer/director Kerem Sanga. He coaxes two good, restrained performances out of lead actors Adepo and Van Patten. It probably also helped that I liked each of these performers coming into the film. Adepo made quite the impression in “Fences” and “Overlord” and on HBO’s “Watchmen;” Van Patten – who reads like a less-weird Shailene Woodley – certainly charmed as Adam Sandler’s character’s daughter in Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories.” “The Violent Heart” if nothing else, further cements these folks as two talents to watch.

Body Brokers

★★★★

Opioid addiction is one of the biggest crises facing this nation right now. “Body Brokers” (available in limited theatrical release and on VOD beginning Friday Feb. 19) tackles the problem and those who prey upon the afflicted in a head-on manner.

Utah (Jack Kilmer, son of Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley) and Opal (Alice Englert, daughter of director Jane Campion) are a pair of junkies living in Columbus, Ohio subsiding by sticking up convenience stores and Opal prostituting herself. Wood (Michael Kenneth Williams), sensing that these kids are struggling, offers to buy the pair a meal and propositions them to take a flight to Los Angeles in order to enter a rehabilitation facility. Opal has zero interest in the offer whereas Utah bites because he’s sick of the life.

Utah’s checked into the clinic by a kindly nurse named May (Jessica Rothe of the “Happy Death Day” movies) and is soon ushered into a group therapy session overseen by Dr. White (Melissa Leo). The facility is owned by Vin (my main man Frank Grillo), himself a recovering addict. Vin narrates the picture with voiceover reminiscent of “The Big Short” breaking down how “caregivers” scam the insurance industry to line their own pockets without actually assisting their patients. In spite of this, Utah thrives in rehab. Now clean, he works with Wood and for Vin recruiting users into treatment centers and shuttling patients to the office of Dr. Riner (‘90s mainstay Peter Greene) for Naltrexone implants that will later be removed. Utah also enters into a relationship with May.

I wasn’t especially familiar with Kilmer coming into this flick having only seen him in Shane Black’s “The Nice Guys.” He looks a good deal like his Pop and also reminded me a bit of the actor Shawn Hatosy (who you might remember from late ‘90s movies “The Faculty” and “Outside Providence”) in his younger years. Kilmer’s Utah is utterly sympathetic even when both he and the audience know he’s doing wrong. You root for the kid as he’s grappling with his own sense of decency.

I knew Williams was in the movie going in, but had no idea he was ostensibly the second lead, which made me very happy. Williams is one of my favorite working actors having played Omar Little on “The Wire” (arguably one of the greatest characters featured in any medium IMHO). Wood isn’t as altruistic as he initially seems, but you never get the feeling he doesn’t care about Utah in spite of using him. This is a credit to Williams’ abilities as he’s always flourished in playing the gray areas of a character’s psyche. Williams’ wardrobe is also a sight to behold chock full of Western wear (cowboy boots and hats, big-ass belt buckles, bolo ties). Ever since he appeared on Sundance TV’s “Hap and Leonard,” Williams seems to have gotten a knack for dressing like he’s Charley Pride, which I’ve got no beef with as he looks like a boss doing it.

Kilmer and Williams are ably supported by their castmates. Englert excels at being truly unlikable as the hugely hissable Opal. Rothe and Leo lend some much-needed warmth to these dark proceedings. Grillo and Greene exude a scummy sleaziness that exemplifies the absolute worst of the treatment industry.

“Body Brokers” is written and directed by John Swab (best known for the Marilyn Manson vehicle “Let Me Make You a Martyr”). It’s an angry movie and with damned good reason. An addict’s sobriety shouldn’t be sold to the highest bidder. Actual recovery should take precedence over simply filling beds.

We Bare Bears: The Movie


★★★1/2

Full length movies based on animated TV series are usually somewhat of a letdown. Often, they feel like just long episodes of the TV show and don’t warrant a trip to the movie theater unless you’re dying to get your kids out of the house.

TV series like “Rugrats,” “Hey Arnold,” “Doug,” “Teen Titans,” “Spongebob Squarepants,” “My Little Pony,” “The Powerpuff Girls,” “The Simpsons” and more have all debuted in movies theaters and none of them were particularly special. “South Park” might be one of the few to actually break new ground with a feature length debut.

“We Bare Bears” has had a nice four-season run on Cartoon Network, telling the endearing and zany tales of three bear roommates in the San Francisco Bay area: a panda, a grizzly bear and a polar bear. It’s filled with jokes that children wouldn’t get about food trucks, hipster culture, viral videos and obscure movie references. It’s built up a cult following among adults who enjoy cartoons but it’s never inappropriate for young children. There’s nothing vulgar or obscene hinted at in this sweet natured TV series that actually shows up under kids’ choices in the Netflix categories.

Creator Daniel Chong has directed a 70-minute feature to serve as the series finale of the beloved show, which was released as a rental option during the pandemic and is now free to stream on HBO Max. The plan is to launch is spinoff series about the three bears as young children, which we’ve seen in the series before during flashback episodes.

The feature-length movie doesn’t fall under “must watch” territory and owning a DVD/Blu-Ray copy would only be needed for huge fans of the show, but given that there are so many terrible kids movies that bore parents to tears while entertaining only the littlest children, this is a welcome respite from the “Trolls: World Tour”s of the world.

While you don’t have to have seen the series to enjoy this movie, there a few minor references to recurring characters from the show, such as Nom Nom, the arrogant koala who is Internet famous and voiced by Patton Oswalt, and Charlie, the Bigfoot-like creature voiced by Jason Lee.

The plot of this movie is pretty simple. The entire town has grown weary of the three bears’ antics and an overzealous wildlife officer (voiced by Mark Evan Jackson, who you might know as Shawn from “The Good Place” or Kevin on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) decides to lock them up in a bear sanctuary. The three escape and go on a high speed road trip as they try to find refuge in Canada. Hijinks ensue along the way, including a hilarious detour as the stumble upon a viral video animal rave, featuring such luminaries as pizza rat, Doge the Shiba Inu, Grumpy Cat and Lil’ Bub.

The three bears are voiced by comedians Eric Edelstein, Bobby Moynihan and Demetri Martin. For those that haven’t seen the show, you’ll enjoy the distinct personalities of each one and likely will want to watch the series after checking out this movie.

I have to knock a few points off because a few jokes don’t land, such as the road trip song they sing. And yes there are episodes that a lot funnier than this movie.

But the movie really distills the themes of the TV series. It’s about friendship and acceptance and being there for people.

I probably laughed more at this silly cartoon than many comedies aimed at adults. If you already subscribe to HBO Max, it’s worth a watch.

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar


★★★★

Good comedy isn’t meant for everyone.

It’s nearly impossible to create an incredibly funny movie or TV show that is universally loved by everyone. That’s because if you focus-test something to death and make it easily accessible with jokes that everyone can get, you lose a lot of the humor.

That’s been the issue with “Saturday Night Live” sometimes. They focus so much on characters with catch phrases and easy-to-predict punchlines that there’s no daring or risk. It often just boils down to a funny voice.

I’ve always been more of a fan of edgier sketch comedy like “Mr. Show,” “Kids in the Hall,” “Human Giant” and “Upright Citizens Brigade.” When I do like “Saturday Night Live,” my favorites are the sketches that air right before 1 a.m. The throwaway, weird, bizarre stuff that makes you say, “What the heck was that?!”

Kristen Wiig became a household name on “Saturday Night Live” doing funny voices and repeating characters again and again.

In 2011, Wiig, along with comedian Annie Mumolo, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for “Bridesmaids.” Now she reteams with her co-writer (who also stars alongside her this time) in the female-friendship comedy “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar.”

The trailers for this movie told us virtually nothing except that it was a comedy about two middle-aged women with strong Midwestern accents who go on a trip to Florida. They’re adorned with seashell necklaces. They wear culottes and have hairdos that make you think their names might be “Karen.”

At first, you might think these are the same broad, irritating characters that “Saturday Night Live” would repeat to death. Like Target Lady or Coffee Talk.

But what we discover is the screenwriting duo has veered into more adventurous territory and this movie’s DNA is more aligned with the last 30 minutes of an episode of SNL rather than the first few sketches. It’s a strange and silly movie with bizarre moments that make it destined to find cult comedy status in the near future. It’s the kind of movie you watch by yourself on cable late one night after a few drinks and you laugh your butt off alone. You run out and buy a copy to show a sibling or a friend, only to see them sit there in silence wondering why you found this so funny.

This is the definition of niche comedy. It is not for everyone.

Personally, I immensely enjoyed this scatterbrained romp because it surprised me at times. Maybe I had low expectations, but when a talking blue crab has the voice of Morgan Freeman, I can’t help but laugh.

The movie tells the story of two unmarried middle aged friends, Star (Wiig) and Barb (Mumolo, who you might remember as the dim-witted housewife in “Bad Moms”),  who spend every waking moment together. When they lose their job at Jennifer Convertibles, they decide to shake up their routine and try to rediscover that “shimmer” that’s been lost since they’ve aged and lost their husbands. So they go on a trip to this fictional resort town to drink cocktails with tiny umbrellas, ride on a banana boat and get matching friendship bracelets.

Their plans are upended by a spy subplot that is so ridiculous that it makes “Zoolander” look ultra realistic. Wiig doubles up her acting credit by also playing the albino-skinned cartoonish super villain who orders her man-slave, played by Jamie Dornan, of “Fifty Shades of Gray,” to implement her ridiculously silly terrorist attack on the quiet beachside town.

What you end up with is an uneven comedy with lots of jokes that don’t land particularly well. But given the rapid fire succession of gags, there are quite a few chuckles though. I’m sure movie producers would have loved this screenwriting duo to create another massive hit like “Bridesmaids” but what they’ve churned out instead is more like “MacGruber,” “Hot Rod,” “Pop Star” or “Wet Hot American Summer.” Even if COVID didn’t exist, this one would likely be discovered more on rental than in the theaters.

Some characters are unnecessary, such as Damon Wayans Jr.  playing a not-so-secret agent or Andy Garcia as the literal embodiment of Tommy Bahama. Some jokes are so stupid your eyes will roll, such as riffing on how great the name Trish is. And the runtime is probably too long at nearly two hours.

Despite all of its flaws, it’s hard to not like a movie that’s so insanely positive. These two might have “Karen” haircuts, but they never ask for an manager. They’re loving and supportive and enthusiastic. This PG-13 comedy never relies on gross out humor, political jabs or racist stereotypes for shock factor. Besides a few subtle sex jokes, it’s pretty wholesome.

It’s the kind of “girls night” movie that would be perfect for a Galentine’s Day celebration. Like a middle-aged, less fashionable version of “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.”

Willy’s Wonderland

★★★

To have any chance of digging the latest Nicolas Cage cheesefest “Willy’s Wonderland” (now on VOD and playing in limited theatrical release – including runs in Lafayette, Lebanon and Mooresville, Ind.) you must have at least one of the following attributes: 1.) You gotta dig Cage. 2.) You need to be familiar with or have played the video game “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” of which this is a blatant rip-off. 3.) You need to have been to or have familiarity with Chuck E. Cheese (OGs like me are partial to ShowBiz Pizza). The more of these attributes you have – the better you’ll enjoy “Willy’s Wonderland,” which admittedly isn’t especially good but it’s awfully entertaining.

Cage stars as The Janitor, a silent (and I mean SILENT … Cage doesn’t utter a single solitary word during the flick’s duration) drifter whose cherry Camaro has its tires popped by a spike strip in the backwater town of Haysville – home of the shuttered family eatery and arcade Willy’s Wonderland. The Janitor doesn’t have the funds needed to get his car fixed so mechanic Jed Love (Chris Warner) brokers a deal between him and Tex Macadoo (Ric Reitz in a role that seems like it was written for Mickey Rourke or Don Johnson, but they couldn’t afford either of ‘em), owner of Willy’s. If The Janitor stays in Willy’s overnight and gets the place cleaned up and ready to reopen his repaired ride will be awaiting him.

Complications arise in the form of Sheriff Lund (ace character actress Beth Grant), her adopted daughter Liv (Emily Tosta) and Liv’s friends Chris (Kai Kadlec), Kathy (Caylee Cowan), Dan (Jonathan Mercedes), Bob (Terayle Hill) and Aaron (Christian Delgrosso). The teens hope to set Willy’s ablaze as numerous horrors have transpired there, but cannot do so in good conscience while The Janitor’s locked inside.

Further complicating matters: The Janitor is engaging in full-blown combat with the reanimated animatronic robot animals that inhabit the joint. They are Siren Sara (Jessica Graves Davis), Cammy the Chameleon (Taylor Towery), Tito the Turtle (Chris Schmidt Jr.), Arty the Alligator (Chris Bradley), Knighty Knight (Duke Jackson), Gus the Gorilla (Billy Bussey), Ozzie the Ostrich (BJ Guyer) and last but certainly not least, Willy the Weasel (Jiri Stanek).

Cage is fun in the flick despite not speaking. He brings a palpable physicality to the role that primarily consists of him doing janitorial work (there are three separate cleaning montages), beating the bots to an oily pulp, playing pinball and slugging back a plethora of Punch pops (a soda that sports the slogan, “A fistful of caffeine to your kisser,” that sorta serves as spinach to The Janitor’s Popeye). Unfortunately, the fights are sort of a jumble (probably to obscure budgetary limitations) due to the disorienting cinematography and editing of David Newbert and Ryan Liebert. That said Cage’s The Janitor ups the ante on Edward Norton in “American History X” by stomping Gus the Gorilla on a urinal as opposed to a curb.

“Willy’s Wonderland” is directed by Kevin Lewis (who hasn’t made a movie in 14 years) and written by G.O. Parsons (whose only previous writing credit is “Killer Sharks: The Attacks of Black December” from Shark Week 10 years ago). It’s fairly shoddily made and sports more lens flares than the filmographies of Steven Spielberg, John McTiernan and J.J. Abrams combined. (I shit you not – there are even lens flares over the closing credits.)

The movie has a reported budget of $5.5 million, but looks closer to the 20 bucks I spent renting it. I suspect the bulk of the filmmakers’ budget went towards the Lynyrd Skynyrd “Free Bird” needle drop during the finale. In spite of all these criticisms, I still enjoyed “Willy’s Wonderland.” It probably helps that I’m a Cage fanboy and watched the flick projected on a 106-inch screen in my buddy’s basement while eating breakfast burritos and drinking Screwdrivers (Thanks, Ross!). This is a cult movie in the making. I can’t in good conscience recommend you spend $20.00 renting it as I did, but wholeheartedly suggest renting it from Redbox or streaming from whichever service lands it somewhere down the line. It’ll be all the better watched with friends (either in person or virtually) and chemically altered.

Judas and the Black Messiah


★★★★

The story of the Black Panther Party is a perfect example of how our high school history books don’t always tell the whole story.

Vilified by white audiences and portrayed as militant, radical and violent — especially compared to the more peaceful civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. — the Black Panther Party doesn’t always come off great in historical accounts.

Shaka King’s new feature film “Judas and the Black Messiah” (available in theaters and on HBO MAX on Feb. 12) attempts to show the other side of the Black Panther Party that wasn’t known to many people, especially white audiences. They show the political leaders uniting hispanics and poor whites to create a “rainbow coalition.” They show free lunches and educational seminars.

And yes, the movie portrays the Black Panthers taking it too far and committing violence against the police.

The honest “warts and all” depiction is led with masterful sincerity by former Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya playing Fred Hampton (recently portrayed by a different actor in “Trial of the Chicago 7.”

Kaluuya shines with oratorical brava but it’s really an ensemble film that touches on a variety of perspectives. Underrated actor Lakeith Stanfield plays William O’Neal, a thief turned FBI informant who infiltrates the Black Panthers. Jesse Plemons (also underrated) melts into his character as Agent Mitchell, a conflicted soul who’s somewhat prejudice but not full of the hate spewing from his boss J. Edger Hoover (played by Martin Sheen, who unfortunately has too much makeup and prosthetics on).

One scene in particular between Plemons and Sheen is quite powerful, exemplifying how the government wasn’t content with just locking up Hampton in jail to silence them, they were going to turn him into a martyr with actions that can’t really described any other way rather than assassination.

Given all we know about Hoover, it’s shocking that we still have government buildings named after him.

The only downside to this film is it often feels like a collections of sketches rather than a cohesive narrative flowing from one scene into another. But when you have powerhouse acting from three of the most underrated young talents in Hollywood, any minor quibbles can be overlooked.

Ryan Coogler, the acclaimed director who serves as a producer on this movie, said “Judas and the Black Messiah” can be greater appreciated when you consider the context of today’s events.

“The people that were responsible for this, a lot of them are still alive,” he said in an interview with the BBC. “These ideas are still ever-present, these systems that Chairman was fighting for to be demolished — the constant attacks on poor people, on black people — those systems are still here. We’re still fighting the same beast, we’re still fighting the same monsters, we are still fighting the same system, you know, and they haven’t gone anywhere.”

Which brings up the question: who is the monster here? Who is the villain of the movie?

Is it the undercover rat betraying the Panthers? Is it the FBI agent? Or is it the system itself that seems to perpetuate?

This intense drama brings up a lot of bigger themes about racism and government overreach but what I was most fascinated with is the relationship and conflict between these imperfect souls doing what they think is best. Nobody is 100 percent evil or 100 percent good in this tale and that makes it interesting and real. Despite the title referring to religious overtones, this movie isn’t an allegory. It’s more complicated than dealing with broad archetypes.

It’s a story about the late 1960s but it’s also a story about today. About struggle, both societal and internal. I suspect only those with truly closed minds will fail to get at least something from Shaka King’s electrifyingly suspenseful drama.