Ben Affleck is underrated. There, I said it. For every Gigli or Surviving Christmas there are a handful of other credits that outshine the missteps. Dude’s done more right in front of and behind the camera than he’s done wrong. He was the quintessential asshole of some teenage favorites (Dazed and Confused, Mallrats). He was the misguided albeit well-intentioned heart of an indie classic (Chasing Amy). He co-wrote, co-starred in and won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for one of the best movies of the ‘90s (Good Will Hunting). He held his own in a supporting role in one of the most misguidedly decided Best Picture winners of all-time (Shakespeare in Love … still good, but Saving Private Ryan like a muthafucka!). He’s four for four as a director … I’m still stan for Live by Night (crappy Sienna Miller performance and all) … gimme Robert Richardson photographed noir-tinged crime pictures seven days a week and twice on Sunday. He’s been an entertaining and thoughtful guest on Real Time with Bill Maher and is entirely amusing on numerous supplementary feature commentary tracks (see the aforementioned Mallrats and Armageddon). He may have tackled his toughest role to date in The Way Back, playing a washed-up high school and college basketball star-turned alcoholic-turned high school basketball coach … all while trying to maintain his own sobriety in actuality (Affleck entered a rehabilitation facility shortly before shooting the film.).
Affleck reteams with his The Accountant director Gavin O’Connor to portray Jack Cunningham, recently separated from his wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar – Shivakamini Somakandarkram!), day drinking his way through a construction job and going full bore boozehound by night. Jack’s substance abuse issues have distanced him from his sister, Beth (SNL alum Michaela Watkins). He’s offered a position to coach basketball at his Catholic high school alma mater by Father Edward Devine (E.R. alum John Aylward). Jack struggles to maintain a balance between boozing and b-balling and the team loses often at the onset, but he’s eventually able to break through to his ragtag group of players and the tides turn. Rounding out the cast are comedian Al Madrigal as Jack’s assistant coach, a perfectly cast Matthew Glave (The Wedding Singer’s Glenn Guglia) as a dickhead rival coach and T.K. Carter (Mylo from Good Morning, Miss Bliss AKA middle school Saved by the Bell only set in Indianapolis as opposed to Los Angeles) as the star player’s distant Pop.
O’Connor has proven himself to have a great proficiency when it comes to making sports pictures. The Way Back is the weakest of the bunch, but when the competition is Miracle (2004) and Warrior (2011) that’s not really a slight. The movie is less focused on sports than it is on being a character study. The basketball sequences aren’t given too many flourishes, but one could argue the game isn’t nearly as cinematically dynamic as say football or boxing. It’s in these character moments that The Way Back truly shines. This is one of the best performances of Affleck’s career … he’s extremely vulnerable and even surprisingly comedic in the role. Basketball, the team, everything takes a backseat to Jack, his quest for sobriety and the stumbling blocks that come along the way. I venture to guess The Way Back was a therapeutic experience for Affleck … I certainly hope it was and the proof appears to be in the pudding.
Richard Stanley is one kooky cat. He burst onto the cinematic scene with 1990’s well-received, cult sci-fi/thriller, Hardware, co-starring Iggy Pop, Dylan McDermott and Lemmy Kilmister. The South African filmmaker followed this up with horror flick Dust Devil in 1992. Stanley was then slated to helm New Line Cinema’s big budget The Island of Dr. Moreau redux back in the mid ‘90s before being ousted by Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer’s inflated egos and spats of bad weather in favor of veteran director John Frankenheimer. Stanley, unwilling to part with the gig, donned a mutant animal costume and often returned to set as was chronicled in the entertaining documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau. Stanley didn’t make another feature film until the recently released on home video adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s Color Out of Space.
COoS focuses upon the Gardner family. There’s patriarch Nathan (Nicholas Cage), matriarch Theresa (Joely Richardson), eldest son Benny (The Guest’s Brendan Meyer), mid kid daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) and the family baby Jack (Julian Hilliard). The Gardners have left life in the big city in favor of living on and working Nathan’s late father’s farm. Things take a strange turn when a meteorite strikes the family farm. Hydrologist Ward (Elliot Knight) is on the case trying to make heads or tails of the oddities occurring. He takes a shine to Lavinia and she to him. The cast is rounded out by Q’orianka Kilcher (Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s The New World) as the bitchy Mayor of their small town and Tommy Chong as … you guessed it … the old stoner who squats on the Gardner’s farm.
COoS is gross with a capital G. There are things in this movie I wish I could unsee and unhear. I will most assuredly never be able to look at Richardson the same way ever again. The picture isn’t fun like Re-Animator – another Lovecraft-inspired flick – but that’s not to say it’s without its charms either. Cage mega-acts his way through the proceedings and is a hoot and a half while doing so. Despite being disgusting – much of this is also beautiful. Stanley and his crew shot in Portugal (strangely subbing for the fictional town of Arkham, Mass.) and beautiful scenery (both natural and artificial) abounds. The VFX are awfully impressive for a modestly-budgeted $12 million film. There are plenty of trippy colors to be enjoyed by those inclined to watch in an altered state. Stanley even cheekily tosses in a clip of an old Brando movie.
Elijah Wood’s SpectreVision genre label produced COoS, which reteams him with Cage after Panos Cosmatos’ 2018 offering Mandy. The two first worked together as co-stars on 2016’s crooked cop picture The Trust and seem to have a good rapport with one another. COoS doesn’t reach the visual heights of Mandy nor is Cage as enthralling in it as he was in the earlier entry, but that’s not for lack of trying. COoS isn’t my particular brand of vodka, but for having been made by a dude who hasn’t finished a feature in nearly 30 years it’s an impressive feat. Stanley seems to be saying something about environmentalism and consumerism with COoS, but I can’t quite put my finger on what that is. Having knocked the rust off here perhaps the message will be clearer next time out?
New Zealand filmmaker Jason Lei Howden (Deathgasm) stirred up quite the Internet shitstorm in the week leading up to the release of his second feature, Guns Akimbo. Howden took to Twitter to defend Much Ado About Cinema website editor-in-chief Dilara Elbir, who used a racial slur in a private group chat. Many of Much Ado’s writers quit, Much Ado was later shuttered and Elbir apparently attempted suicide in wake of the leak. Howden employed his personal Twitter as well as Guns Akimbo’s Twitter to attack two women of color (Valerie Complex and DarkSkyLady) amongst many others for their perceived involvement in Elbir’s anguish, which in turn left them being threatened with bodily harm by anonymous trolls. Not a great look. Many outlets have chosen to boycott Guns Akimbo as a result. I’m not here to judge Howden as a man – simply as an artist – and on that front in Guns Akimbo’s case, (I didn’t much care for Deathgasm) he’s a success.
Ironically, much of the Internet bullying Howden decried in actuality is also tackled in Guns Akimbo. This is the story of Miles (Daniel Radcliffe), video game programmer-by-day Internet troll-by-night. Miles was recently dumped by his girlfriend, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo). He spends his evenings slamming beers and slamming boors on Skizm, an online snuff site in which two people (most of whom are criminals and misfits) fight to the death with a wide array of weapons. He talks smack to the page’s patrons and purveyors alike raising the ire of Riktor (Ned Dennehy of Peaky Blinders and Mandy). Riktor deploys a goon squad to Miles’ “fap cave.” They kidnap the bloke and bolt guns to either hand. Miles is an unwitting entrant in Skizm and must face off against reigning champ, Nix (Samara Weaving). Along the way Miles encounters homeless crackhead, Glenjamin (The Flight of the Conchords’ Rhys Darby), ‘80s tunes are given heavy work-ups, there’s a sick Cypress Hill needle drop (“When the Shit Goes Down”) and countless cats are capped.
Radcliffe is immensely likable in the flick and I actively rooted for his character. It’s hard not to pull for a dude who rocks Rambo: First Blood Part II and Commando posters on his living room walls. Howden takes full advantage of the film’s central conceit and much humor is derived from seeing a guy with guns bolted to his hands attempt to take a leak, put pants on, use a cell phone, turn a doorknob, drive, etc. As good as Radcliffe is (and he’s quite good), the picture ultimately belongs to Weaving. She’s proven time and again (Mayhem, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Babysitter, Ready or Not) just what a captivating screen presence she is. Without eyebrows this chick’s still appealing and she doubles down on the badass bonafides she displayed in Ready or Not here. I’ll eat my hat if Weaving’s not one of the biggest stars of the silver screen within the next five years.
Guns Akimbo certainly isn’t for all tastes – it’s lewd, crude and sports plenty of ‘tude – fans of flicks like Crank, Crank: High Voltage and Shoot ‘Em Up should dig it. We’re not at Hogwarts anymore.
A little backstory on my history with invisible men on screen: it’s a shameful admission, but I’ve never seen the 1933 Universal Classic Monsters classic The Invisible Man directed by James Whale and starring Claude Rains. My only treks through cinematic translucence prior to seeing writer/director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man were John Carpenter’s 1992 Chevy Chase-fronted flop Memoirs of an Invisible Man and Paul Verhoeven’s uber-rapey 2000 Kevin Bacon vehicle Hollow Man – neither of which I especially cared for. All that said, I was pretty stoked for Whannell’s take on the material.
I have a mixed history with Whannell’s output. I didn’t dig Saw (which he wrote and co-starred in) in the slightest. Dead Silence, which he wrote, was a dud. I haven’t seen a single Insidious (he’s acted in and written every installment and made his directorial debut on Chapter 3). What upgraded Whannell in my estimation was his 2018 action/body horror picture, Upgrade, which played like a hybrid of Carpenter and Verhoeven and sported a gamely fun lead performance from Logan Marshall-Green AKA Baby Tom Hardy. Whannell teamed with producer du jour Jason Blum on that picture and reteams with him here. Upgrade sported a meager 5 million USD budget; The Invisible Man a modest $9 million one. While I think Whannell stretched those bucks a little further on Upgrade – it’s gorier and more kinetic – it’s evident that he’s putting every red cent on screen in both instances.
The Invisible Man focuses primarily upon Cecelia (Elisabeth Moss), an architect who puts her professional life on hold to engage in a relationship with Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Adrian has made a fortune at the forefront of the optics industry, lives in a bitchin’ beachside mansion and is a controlling, abusive, gaslighting douche. Having tired of Adrian’s behavior, Cecelia seeks escape. Assisting her in this pursuit are her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer), childhood friend-turned-cop, James (Aldis Hodge) and James’ daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid of HBO’s Euphoria). In wake of Cecelia’s departure Adrian offs himself and leaves her $5 million (She could have funded Upgrade!) in a trust being doled out by his lawyer brother, Tom (Michael Dorman). The trust is contingent upon her having no criminal record and being deemed mentally sane. A bunch of sideways shit transpires from there bringing those qualifiers into question.
Moss is an incredibly talented actress (mostly by reputation as I haven’t watched Mad Men, Top of the Lake or The Handmaid’s Tale) and is great here, but for whatever reason I don’t totally dig her. Maybe it’s the Scientology? Maybe it’s that her face often seems to suggest that she’s just farted or smelled someone else’s fart? I also probably shouldn’t rip on an actress’ appearance in what’s essentially a #MeToo sci-fi/horror flick, but I keeps it real. I really liked Hodge in the flick and always enjoy seeing him in things because whether he’s playing MC Ren in Straight Outta Compton or a police officer as he does here I’ll always remember him from his cinematic debut as one of Samuel L. Jackson’s nephews in Die Hard with a Vengeance.
The Invisible Man sheds light upon some important issues and could very well be empowering to female audience members. Some might argue that it’s a bit tasteless to tackle such weighty subject matter in what’s essentially genre drivel, but I don’t think that’s the case. The picture’s a bit overlong at 124 minutes, but I think its length is mostly in service of building tension. Whannell and his Upgrade cinematographer Stefan Duscio often employ long, lingering shots and inventive compositions to further the frights. The Invisible Man engages in horror in the early goings before devolving into action later on, which might be a turnoff to some viewers. That said, it’s a worthy enough genre entry that I’d recommend seeing it on the big screen before it disappears from theaters.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.