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Fantasy Island

Fantasy Island

★★★

The lame, boss! The lame! Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island is dumber than a doornail, but not without its charms. The whole enterprise kinda plays like an extended, rebooted pilot of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s television series. Only the filmmakers take the show’s template and overlay cinematic/thematic elements from sources such as the Dennis Quaid/Jim Caviezel vehicle Frequency and the Final Destination franchise atop it.

I have to give Fantasy Island this – it’s certainly progressive for something that seems to solely exist to display its diverse cast in various states of undress. There are Hispanic, Asian, black and gay characters. The crux of the film finds its eclectic ensemble coming to the titular island in order to live out their deepest fantasies. There’s the ugly duckling-turned-swan, Melanie (Pretty Little Liars’ Lucy Hale), who’s seeking revenge against Sonja (Portia Doubleday) for bullying her in high school. There’s Elena (Maggie Q), who regrets turning down the marriage proposal of Rocklin (Robbie Jones) five years earlier and longs to be a mother. There’s Randall (Austin Stowell), a cop who wants to be a hero. Last but certainly not least are Bradley (Party Down’s Ryan Hansen) and Brax (Silicon Valley’s Jimmy O. Yang), step brothers who want it all and serve as the flick’s primary comedic relief. Facilitating these fantasies is Mr. Roarke (Michael Peña, surprisingly menacing stepping in for Ricardo Montalbán), the island’s steward who advises that there’s only one wish per person and all wishes must be played out to their natural conclusion.

Fantasy Island has been advertised as a horror film … albeit a PG-13 one … but in actuality it’s more of a thriller with fantastical (See what I did there!) elements. Directed and co-written by Jeff Wadlow, the picture is sort of all over the place … there are zombies, war sequences and enough cheesecake to elicit memories of USA Up All Night. Wadlow has been a bit of a mixed bag as a filmmaker. In 2005 he made the boarding school slasher flick Cry Wolf (also PG-13 … boo!) co-starring Jon Bon Jovi, current Sam Winchester/future Walker, Texas Ranger Jared Padalecki and Lindy Booth (the cute redhead from the Dawn of the Dead remake … now relegated to Hallmark movie hell). He followed this up with 2008’s guilty pleasure banger Never Back Down, a Karate Kid for the Monster Energy crowd and my first exposure to actor Evan Peters (American Horror Story, recent X-Men outings). The flick was slick enough that I thought Sean Faris and Cam Gigandet were gonna become Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt respectively … instead they simply remained Sean Faris and Cam Gigandet. A young Amber Heard was also on hand playing a character named Baja Miller, whom my wife and I affectionately call Baja Gordita. In 2013 Wadlow helmed Kick-Ass 2, which was a huge step down from its Matthew Vaughn-directed predecessor and yet featured an inspired performance from Jim Carrey. I never did see Wadlow’s next few films – a Kevin James Netflix original called True Memoirs of an International Assassin and fellow Blumhouse joint, Truth or Dare (also co-starring Hale). With a reported budget of 7 million USD, the money’s certainly onscreen in Fantasy Island. The film looks as if it could cost three to four times as much. Wadlow smartly peppers the picture with crackerjack character actors like Michael Rooker and Sons of Anarchy’s Kim Coates, who lend the proceedings much-needed gravitas and cheesy humor … and all in a few days of filming no less.

Fantasy Island leaves itself wide open for a sequel. If the budget remains low and the box office is big enough there will likely be another installment. I had a good enough time that I’d be open to a return trip to the island. My biggest takeaway however is that more movies need to feature characters feeding hand grenades into pitching machines.

Featured Movie of the Month: Amelie

February 2020

The Oscars have just wrapped up and the big winner of the night was “Parasite,” which has the historic distinction of being the first foreign film to ever win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Others have been nominated. In my lifetime, I remember “Life is Beautiful,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and recently we saw “Roma” come very close to winning.

While some people argue that “Parasite” wasn’t the best movie of the year (I think it’s pretty dang close), I think most people were happy because a foreign language film finally won best picture (“The Artist” might have had a French director and cast and producers, but it had very little dialogue and it was set in the United States and the very few spoken words in the movie were in English. In fact, a few American actors appeared in the film and it did not qualify for Best Foreign Language film that year).

Director Bong Joon-Ho of “Parasite” said something very powerful when he accepted his award at the Golden Globes this year: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

I couldn’t agree more.

While subtitles can be a hindrance at times (they require more concentration and might be harder on the eyes), they shouldn’t be a huge barrier. So many countries have amazing movies to offer and you shouldn’t limit yourself when it comes to artwork.

That’s why this month I wanted to highlight the first foreign language film I truly loved: “Amelie.”

This 2001 French romantic comedy is the highest grossing French film every released in the United States. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best foreign film, best original screenplay, best cinematography, best production design and best sound editing.

This lighthearted film follows a young woman who secretly orchestrates the lives of the people around her. She helps other people find their true selves but she neglects her own needs and wants and instead retreats into her world of imagination and fantasy.

I saw this film in theaters when I was in high school and I marveled at the screen. The colors. The symmetry. The characters. Later I would see this same artistry in films released by Wes Anderson but that director had not hit his stride yet at this time (The Royal Tenenbaums had not been released yet).

It was a revelation.

This might not be the world’s greatest movie but I sure did love it.

It’s hard to not be drawn in by this film. The music by Yann Tierson is gorgeous and I’ll listen to that soundtrack to this day. Never has accordion music sound so lovely. The plot keeps moving and it’s never boring. And the overall message of this film is that the world is a beautiful place and people are generally good. Who doesn’t want to curl up and watch that?

Some call this film corny or sappy. Oh, well. Perhaps it hit me at the right time. I was either 16 or 17 at the time. I was idealistic and full of hope. And here’s this story of a beautiful French woman with a childlike wonder of the world who just wanted to make people happy. She didn’t know her place in the world or what she was supposed to be or do. But she wanted to help others. When you’re a high schooler figuring out your way in life — getting crushes on girls in your classes and dreaming of the future — this kind of movie is very appealing.

One thing I think I found appealing about this movie is I could relate to Amelie, the protagonist played by Audrey Tautou. Not to sound sexist, but it’s strange for a high school boy to relate to a 25-year-old French woman. But her struggles are similar to what many of us face.

In the movie, she finds a collection of photographs in a book and she falls in love with the collector. She catches a glimpse of him when she attempts to return it and her love overwhelms her and she gets scared. She’s never had a real relationship. She doesn’t know what to do. So instead she plays a cat-and-mouse game with her would-be paramore and keeps avoiding her possible happiness. The idea of having what she wants in life scares her. She seems content to sit on the sidelines. She’s happy to pull the strings and help the love lives of others but doesn’t want to take control of her own life.

Amelie has a friend who advises her throughout her journey. A neighbor in her building called Mr. Glass (not the Samuel L. Jackson character). He’s a man with bones so brittle that he has to cover his television set with pillow cushions tied to it so he doesn’t hurt himself. She brings him gifts on occasion to cheer him up and he paints a portrait, again and again. It’s a famous painting he’s trying to recreate and he’s trying to get it just right. She looks at the woman in the painting and he tells her what the woman in the painting is thinking. Really, she’s talking about her own feeling and fears but she can’t admit them to anyone else, even a friendly hermit with nobody else to tell.

The old frail man tells Amelie she can’t be afraid of having her heart broken. She’s young and she should take the chance. Even if it doesn’t work out, she’ll be OK.

“Your bones aren’t made of glass, you can take life’s knocks,” he tells her.

Again, that quote hit me at that age. For a high school boy (almost a man), trying to get the courage to ask a girl out or to tackle the things in life you want, there’s always this fear of failure.

And it doesn’t go away in your twenties.

I would watch this movie again and again. In college, it was a mainstay in my DVD collection (this was pre-streaming). I would watch it when I was sad or when I was home sick. The themes still resonated with me but on a different level as my life progressed.

Now in my mid 30s, I watched the movie again recently before my trip to Paris with my wife. The film had a different effect on me in my current stage of life. No longer do I have the fear of jumping into something new or different. I don’t have fear of failure. I’ve started a business. I got married. We had a child. I ran for elected office. I’ve learned the lesson that I don’t have bones made of glass. I can take the knocks.

But I still loved the movie. I enjoyed seeing the character discover the truths in life that I eventually discovered myself and reflecting on my own journey to become who I am today.

When we went to Paris, we stayed in the Montmartre region. This is the neighborhood where Amelie was filmed and most of the movie takes place. It’s a part of Paris with narrow cobblestone roads, local butchers/artisans, sloping hills, vespa scooters and a Red Light district in Pigall if you turn on the wrong strong (the famous Moulin Rouge is in this area).

We ate lunch at the actual restaurant where Amelie works at in the movie. The once quaint restaurant has now turned into a tourist trap. They serve creme brulee there since Amelie mentions in the movie that she loves the sound of creme brulee cracking with a spoon (it’s never served at the restaurant in the movie).

The layout has changed from the film and there are plenty of displays of movie memorabilia and posters. Actually, the food was pretty good and it’s not a bad restaurant but the obvious appeal is that the movie was filmed there.

I know it sounds corny but I enjoyed looking at the bar where the characters overhead conversations and even use the restroom where two characters “fornicated” in the movie (it’s not a X-rated scene, I promise).

There’s something otherworldly about standing in the setting of one of your favorite movies.

There were a few other Montmartre landmarks from the movie that we passed by. We saw the fruit stand where Amelie tortured the merchant. And obviously Sacre Coeur is in a key scene of the movie.

While “Amelie” isn’t the most expertly made movie of all time, it certainly holds a place in my heart. It opened my eyes up to the artistry of foreign films and it made me feel something. That’s what great movies do. The help us reflect on our own lives. This is my first entry in my Featured Movie of the Month series and each month I plan to continue to share movies that affected me emotionally.

2019 Oscars Preview

I’ve been following movies and the Academy Awards for as long as I can remember and for more than a decade I’ve made it a point to see all of the Best Picture nominees prior to the big ceremony. I will release a ranking of my favorite Best Picture nominees and which ones I think will win.

Most years it’s pretty clear which two or three films have a chance to take home that golden statuette.

Last year, I assumed Roma, A Star is Born and Green Book would be the best contenders and Green Book was victorious.

The Shape of Water was no surprise to me the year before that, although Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri had a chance to upset. 

And the battle between La La Land and Moonlight was pretty clear, although little did we know the announcement would be so complicated.

For this year, there’s four or five films that have a chance, which is kind of odd.

Parasite, 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Irishman and Jojo Rabbit all lead the pack when you consider wins in previous award shows leading up to Oscar night. Awards like the Golden Globes, Critics Choice, Screen Actors Guild, the BAFTAs, Writers Guild and more are all predictors of who will win. But no clear frontrunner has emerged.

So here’s who I’m predicting will take home the gold this Sunday.

BEST FILM: PARASITE

This will be historic because it’ll be the first time a foreign language film takes home Best Picture. Considering there’s no real frontrunner, I think that history will persuade voters and they’ll choose this genre-bending thriller from South Korea. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if 1917 or Once Upon A Time in Hollywood win since they won best drama and best comedy at the Golden Globes.

BEST DIRECTOR: SAM MENDES (1917)

There’s a good chance that Bong Joon-Ho (Parasite) or Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon A Time in Hollywood) win, but I think the voters will split the vote between best picture and best director and honor Mendes, who previously won in his debut film American Beauty. 1917 is a technical marvel and while it might not have the acting or emotion of Marriage Story or the other nominees, it’s definitely a superbly crafted film that’s amazing to look at.

BEST ACTOR: JOAQUIN PHOENIX (JOKER)

Like the rest of the acting categories I’ll mention later on, he’s been sweeping the award show circuit and his win is nearly guaranteed. Not only did he give an excellent performance in Joker, but he’s long overdue for this award after giving amazing performances in Walk the Line, The Master, Her and more. Personally, I also really like Adam Driver’s performance in Marriage Story and he’s an Indiana native but I think he’s going to have to wait for another year.

BEST ACTRESS: RENEE ZELLWEGER (JUDY)

I watched this movie and while I didn’t love the film I was impressed by her performance. She inhabits the role of Judy Garland and she’s been sweeping the awards circuit. Personally, it felt a little Oscar-baitey to me and I would have preferred Saorise Ronan in Little Women, but Zellweger will likely take home her second Oscar on Sunday.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: BRAD PITT (ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD)

Brad is due. Again, another actor who’s been sweeping the awards and he’s been around for so long and has appeared in so many Best Picture nominees and his only Oscar win so far was as a producer for 12 Years A Slave. He’ll finally win an acting Oscar and it’s fine by me since he gives a career-best performance and shines in a film that I really liked but I didn’t love. Despite any of my issues with the movie he was in, Pitt was electric on screen and I applaud his win. I am disappointed though that Willem Dafoe wasn’t nominated for The Lighthouse, a small black-and-white indie film released by A24 this year. You’re glued to the screen when he acts in this film and Dafoe is past due for an Oscar win (I was disappointed that he lost Best Actor to Gary Oldman two years ago. Dafoe was fantastic in The Florida Project that year).

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: LAURA DERN (MARRIAGE STORY)

This might be the only win for this fantastic movie made by Noah Baumbach, husband of another Best Picture nominee director Greta Gerwig. Dern brings her character to life and shines in only a few scenes and she’s also sweeping the awards leading up to the Oscars (notice a pattern?). I don’t see her having much of a threat but Scarlett Johannson could upset. I’m happy that newcomer Florence Pugh received a nomination but she won’t win. I was surprised that Jennifer Lopez was snubbed for Hustlers. I wasn’t surprised but disappointed that Zhao Shuzen wasn’t nominated for The Farwell. She was the heart of that movie.

MY PERSONAL RANKINGS (1 BEING MY FAVORITE):

9. JOJO RABBIT

8. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

7. THE IRISHMAN

6. JOKER

5. 1917

4. LITTLE WOMEN

3. MARRIAGE STORY

2. PARASITE

1. FORD V FERRARI

Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) 

★★★★ 

Birds of Prey was pretty fuckin’ dope. It kinda plays like a cross between A Clockwork Orange and Tank Girl. It’s a strange cocktail of deviance and decency. The lead actresses all slay and Ewan McGregor appears to be having a blast playing the Big Bad. It’s cool to see a major motion picture directed, written and fronted entirely by women. Birds of Prey is gurl power AF in its conception and execution, but never preachy about it … it’s too busy setting up its next elaborately-executed fight sequence or paying off a punchline. 4.25/5 stars.

The Gentlemen

The Gentlemen

★★★★½ 

Matthew McConaughey is the central figure of The Gentlemen and the most prominent fixture in the picture’s advertising. That said, while great in the film he’s not in it a ton and probably gives the fourth best performance. I was more impressed by Charlie Hunnam, Hugh Grant and Colin Farrell – all of whom shine brightly here. The soundtrack is chock full of bangers – I especially enjoyed a sequence set to El Michels Affair’s cover of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.” This is a return to Guy Ritchie’s roots and can stand toe-to-toe with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. It’s arguable that the picture is unnecessarily complicated, too clever by half and unrelentingly un-PC. That was true of Ritchie’s calling cards and it’s true here, but who really gives a Phuc when the flick’s this fucking fun. You either dig this stuff or you don’t. I mostly just wanted a tartan tracksuit and a pint of Gritchie afterwards. Long live and God bless the Toddlers!

Just Mercy

Just Mercy

★★★★★ 

Just Mercy is the best film of 2019. The fact that it got no Oscar love is an immense oversight and injustice. Jamie Foxx’s performance was the one hyped before the movie dropped (and he’s admittedly very, very good), but this is undoubtedly Micheal B. Jordan’s movie. I feel privileged as a moviegoer that I’ll hopefully get to see decades upon decades of Jordan’s work. Sidney Poitier passed the baton to Denzel and now the baton is being passed to Jordan. There’s a bunch of performances worthy of nominations here – Jordan’s, Foxx’s, Brie Larson’s and Rob Morgan’s. Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton and the film itself deserved Academy love too. More important than Oscar consideration is that Just Mercy could actually effect change. We need more Bryan Stevenson’s in this world – the more people who know his story and the stories of the men he advocated on behalf of the better. 5/5 stars and my highest recommendation … also, bring Kleenex.

Bad Boys for Life

Bad Boys for Life

★★★★ 

I’m not gonna lie – I got a big ol’ nostalgic, movie nerd boner seeing that Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer Films lightning logo up on an IMAX screen.
Bad Boys for Life is a lot of fun, but it’s probably my least favorite of the franchise. There’s a cool twist that I didn’t see coming. There are also some horrendous special effects and new characters that I liked and loathed in equal measure. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence bring it though. The filmmakers also reprise a character who I was overjoyed to see return. This installment simultaneously has the most heart while being the most violent.
The flick leaves the door wide open for another sequel. Given the commercial and critical reception to this one, it’s Bad Boys for Life indeed.

Underwater

Underwater 

★★★½ 

A movie made for those who wanna see Kristen Stewart run around in her underpants while sopping wet and get thrown through the air repeatedly in slow-mo. Underwater alternates between visual dynamism and incoherence. The monsters are pretty cool-lookin’ … what you see of ’em. The cast is generally pretty likeable … yes, even T.J. Miller … too bad he seems like such a shitbag in actuality.

1917

1917 

★★★★ 

Take Saving Private Ryan, Dunkirk, Gravity and Battlefield 1, throw ’em all in a blender, hit puree and the result is 1917.
Sam Mendes’ movie is undeniably beautiful – it’s one of the best-looking films of the year as shot by esteemed cinematographer Roger Deakins. It also sports a splendid score from Thomas Newman. All that said, it’s kinda boring.
Saving Private Ryan and Dunkirk mop the floor with this movie. 1917 lacks the tension of Gravity. The picture kinda feels like it’s on rails like Battlefield 1, but your buddy’s hogging the controller and you’re stuck simply watching. 1917 ultimately packs some emotional wallop in the late goings, but most the movie you’re stuck with ciphers you don’t really get to know. The picture also strains the realms of believability – there are some A-Team gunfight dynamics at play here – our primary protagonist is pretty much a crack shot and the Jerries can’t hit the broad side of a barn.
Ultimately, 1917 AKA Saving Leftenant Blake is a technical marvel that veers into emotional hollowness. It’s more sizzle than steak, but what sizzle …

Little Women (2019)

Little Women 

★★★★★ 

Quite simply Little Women is exquisite. Greta Gerwig improved upon the already impressive game she displayed with Lady Bird to make one of 2019’s absolutely best films. Its cast is uniformly excellent. The costumes, sets and cinematography are stunning. Alexandre Desplat’s score is gorgeous. Gerwig fucking with Louisa May Alcott’s chronology further plumbs emotional depths. Feminist, humanist, funny and moving – Little Women’s a damned near perfect movie. The student’s exceeded the teacher as the new Gerwig > the new Noah Baumbach.