Horror Film Review: Wendigo (dir by Larry Fessenden)


The 2001 film, Wendigo, tells the story of a family in the Catskills.  Some families go to upstate New York and they hang out with the dance people and learn a lesson about tolerance, class conflict, and dirty dancing.  Others leave New York City and head up north because they’re trying to get away from the stress that comes from being a New Yorker.  The film is about the latter and, to be honest, I don’t blame them for leaving the city.  While it’s true that I don’t live in New York, I’ve seen enough clips of Bill de Blasio speaking to know that I also would want to get away from that 8 foot monster.

Of course, there are monsters in upstate New York as well.  Just as South Texas has to deal with chupacabras, it would appear that Upstate New York has a Wendigo problem.  According to the film, the Wendigo is a man who turned into a monster after committing cannibalism.  The Wendigo can assume any shape and …. well, it’s basically just a real bitch to be around, I guess.

At least, that’s how it inititally appears when George (Jake Weber) and his wife Kim (Patricia Clarkson) and their son Miles (Erik Per Sullivan) are just starting out their trip upstate.  George accidentally crashed into a deer and gets into with a local hunter named Otis (John Speredakos).  Otis is really upset that George took out that deer before he got a chance to.  George apologizes but it doesn’t seem to do much good.  Later, when the family reach their cabin …. well, things just continue to get out of hand.  Are they being harassed by the hunters or is it the Wendigo?

Or could it be both!?

As you may have guessed, I had a bit of a mixed reaction to Wendigo when I saw it.  On the one hand, I appreciated the way the film captured the feeling of isolation and there’s a few nicely surreal dream sequences.  If you’ve been reading this site for a while, you know how much I appreciate an effective and surreal dream sequence.  However, Wendigo is also a rather slowly-paced film.  It’s only 91 minutes long but it felt much longer and Otis is such a total caricature that it made it difficult for me to take his character seriously as either a hunter or, for that matter, a legitimate threat to anyone’s safety.  As a viewer, I took one look at Otis and I thought to myself, “There better be an actual monster in the film because if this guy is the villain, it’s going to be a long 90 minutes.”

As for the cast, Patricia Clarkson and Jake Weber were believable if not terribly interesting as the parents.  It was especially interesting to see Clarkson in a horror film, as this isn’t a genre with which one really associates her.  (Jake Weber at least has Medium on his resume.)  Erik Per Sullivan also did an okay job as Miles.  I was glad that he wasn’t as annoyingly precocious as a lot of a child actors tend to be.  The supporting cast is a mixed collection of performers who try too hard and those who don’t seem to be trying at all.

Wendigo has got some effective, Shining-influenced visuals and it ends on an appropriately ambiguous note.  The film has its moments but, ultimately, it was a bit too slow-paced and uneven for me.

The Pledge (2001, directed by Sean Penn)


Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) is a detective who, on the verge of retirement, goes to one final crime scene.  The victim is a child named Ginny Larsen and when Ginny’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) demands that Jerry not only promise to find the murderer but that he pledge of his immortal soul that he’ll do it, it’s a pledge that Jerry takes seriously.  Jerry’s partner, Stan (Aaron Eckhart), manages to get a confession from a developmentally disabled man named Jay Wadenah (Benicio del Toro) but Jerry doesn’t believe that the confession is authentic.  When Wadenah commits suicide in his cell, the police are ready to close the case but Jerry remembers his pledge.  He remains determined to find the real killer.

Even though he’s retired, the case continues to obsess Jerry.  He becomes convinced that Ginny was the latest victim of a serial killer and he even buys a gas station because it’s located in the center of where most of the murders were committed.  Jerry befriend a local waitress named Lori (Robin Wright) and, when Lori tells him about her abusive ex, he invites Lori and her daughter to stay with him.  Lori’s daughter, Chrissy (Pauline Roberts), is around Ginny’s age and when she tells Jerry about a “wizard” who gives her toys, Jerry becomes convinced that she’s being targeted by the same man who killed Ginny.  Even as Jerry and Lori fall in love, the increasingly unhinged Jerry makes plans to use Chrissy as bait to bring the killer out of hiding.

The Pledge was Sean Penn’s third film as a director.  As with all of Penn’s directorial efforts, with the notable exception of Into The Wild, The Pledge is relentlessly grim.  Freed, by virtue of his celebrity, from worrying about whether or not anyone would actually want to sit through a depressing two-hour film about murdered children, Penn tells a story with no definite resolution and no real hope for the future.  The Pledge is a cop film without action and a mystery without a real solution and a character study of a man whose mind you don’t want to enter.  It’s well-made and it will keep you guess but it’s also slow-paced and not for the easily depressed.

The cast is made up of familiar character actors, most of whom probably took their roles as a favor to Penn.  Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Noonan, Patricia Clarkson, Sam Shephard, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, and Mickey Rourke have all got small roles and they all give good performances, even if it’s sometimes distracting to have even the smallest, most inconsequential of roles played by someone familiar.  Most importantly, The Pledge actually gives Jack Nicholson a real role to play.  Jerry Black is actually an interesting and complex human being and Nicholson dials back his usual shtick and instead actually makes the effort to explore what makes Jerry tick and what lays at the root of his obsession.

Though definitely not for everyone, The Pledge sticks with you and shows what Jack Nicholson, who now appears to be retired from acting, was capable of when given the right role.

An Offer You Can’t Refuse #20: The Untouchables (dir by Brian DePalma)


“Let’s do some good!” Eliot Ness shouts as he and a platoon of Chicago cops raid what they believe is a bootlegger’s warehouse.

That line right there tells you everything that you need to know about the 1987 film, The Untouchables.  In real life, Eliot Ness was known to be an honest member of law enforcement (which did make him a bit of a rarity in 1920s Chicago) but he was also considered to be something of a self-promoter, someone who tried to leverage his momentary fame into an unsuccessful political career.  In the 50s, after Ness had lost most of his money due to a series of bad investments and his own alcoholism, Ness wrote a book about his efforts to take down Al Capone in Chicago.  That book was called The Untouchables and though Ness died of a heart attack shortly before it was published, it still proved popular enough to not only rehabilitate Ness’s heroic image but also to inspire both a television series and the movie that I’m currently reviewing.

None of that is to say that Ness didn’t play a role in Al Capone’s downfall.  He did, though it’s since been argued that Ness had little to do with actual tax evasion case that led to Capone going to prison.  It’s just that, in real life, Eliot Ness was a complicated human being, one who had his flaws.  In The Untouchables, Kevin Costner plays him as a beacon of midwestern integrity, a Gary Cooper-type who has found himself in the very corrupt city of Chicago in the very corrupt decade of the 1920s.  The film version of Eliot Ness has no flaws, beyond his naive belief that everyone is as determined to “do some good” as he is.

So, The Untouchables may not be historically accurate but it’s still an entertaining film.  It’s less concerned with the reality of Eliot Ness’s life and more about the mythology that has risen up around the roaring 20s.  Everything about the film is big and operatic.  In the role of Al Capone, Robert De Niro sneers through every scene with the self-satisfaction of a tyrant looking over the kingdom that he’s just conquered.  While Costner’s Ness tells everyone to do some good, De Niro’s Capone uses a baseball bat to keep his underlings in line.  He goes to the opera and cries until he’s told that one of Ness’s men has been killed.  Then a big grin spreads out across his face.  It’s not exactly a subtle performance but then again, The Untouchables is not exactly a subtle movie.  It’s not designed to be a film that makes you think about whether or not prohibition was a good law.  Instead, everything is bigger-than-life.  It’s a film that takes place in a dream world that appears to have sprung from mix of old movies and American mythology.

In real life, Ness had ten agents working under him.  They were all selected because they were considered to be honest lawmen and they were nicknamed The Untouchables after it was announced to the press that Ness had refused a bribe from one of Capone’s men.  In the film, Ness only has three men working underneath him and they’re all recognizable types.  Sean Connery won an Oscar for playing Jmmy Malone, the crusty old beat cop who teaches Ness about the Chicago Way.  A young and incredibly hot Andy Garcia plays George Stone, the youngest of the Untouchables.  Best of all is Charles Martin Smith, cast as Oscar Wallace, a mild-mannered accountant who first suggests that Capone must be cheating on his taxes.  There’s a great scene in which the Untouchables intercept a liquor shipment on the Canadian border, all while riding horses.  Sitting on the back of his galloping horse and trying not to fall off, both Oscar Wallace and the actor playing him appear to be having the time of their lives.  For Oscar (and probably for much of the audience), it’s a fantasy come to life, a chance to “do some good.”

The Untouchables was directed by Brian DePalma and his stylish approach to the material is perfect for the film’s story.  DePalma fills the film with references to other movies, some from the gangster genre and some not.  (In one of the film’s most famous sequence, DePalma reimagines Battleship Potemkin‘s massacre on The Odessa Steps as a shoot-out between Eliot Ness and Capone’s men.)  DePalma’s kinetic style reminds us that The Untouchables is less about history and more about how we imagine history.  In reality, Capone was succeeded by Frank Nitti and The Chicago Outfit continued to thrive even in Capone’s absence.  In the film, Nitti (played by Billy Drago) brags about killing one of the Untouchables and, as a result, is tossed off the roof of a courthouse by Eliot Ness.  It’s not historically accurate but it makes for a crowd-pleasing scene.

Big, operatic, and always entertaining, The Untouchables is an offer that you can’t refuse.

Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface (1932)
  3. The Purple Gang
  4. The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
  5. The Happening
  6. King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein 
  7. The Roaring Twenties
  8. Force of Evil
  9. Rob the Mob
  10. Gambling House
  11. Race Street
  12. Racket Girls
  13. Hoffa
  14. Contraband
  15. Bugsy Malone
  16. Love Me or Leave Me
  17. Murder, Inc.
  18. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
  19. Scarface (1983)

What If Lisa Had All The Power: 2019 Emmy Nominations Edition


In a few hours, the 2019 Emmy nominations will be announced!

Since I love awards and I love making lists, it’s an annual tradition that I list who and what would be nominated if I had all the power.  Keep in mind that what you’re seeing below are not necessarily my predictions of what or who will actually be nominated.  Many of the shows listed below will probably be ignored tomorrow morning.  Instead, this is a list of the nominees and winners if I was the one who was solely responsible for picking them.

Because I got off to a late start this year, I’m only listing the major categories below.  I may go back and do a full, 100-category list sometime tomorrow.  Who knows?  I do love making lists.

Anyway, here’s what would be nominated and what would win if I had all the power!  (Winners are listed in bold.)

(Want to see who and what was nominated for Emmy consideration this year?  Click here!)

(Want to see my picks for last year?  Click here!)

(Want to see my picks for 2012?  I know, that’s kinda random.  Anyway, click here!)

Programming

Outstanding Comedy Series

Barry

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

GLOW

It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

One Day At A Time

Veep

Vida

Outstanding Drama Series

Better Call Saul

Dynasty

Flack

Game of Thrones

The Magicians

My Brilliant Friend

Ozark

You

Outstanding Limited Series

Chernobyl

Fosse/Verdon

The Haunting of Hill House

I Am The Night

Maniac

Sharp Objects

True Detective

A Very English Scandal

Outstanding Television Movie

The Bad Seed

Bandersnatch (Black Mirror)

Brexit

Deadwood

King Lear

Native Son

No One Would Tell

O.G.

Performer

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series

Iain Armitage in Young Sheldon

Ted Danson in The Good Place

Bill Hader in Barry

Pete Holmes in Crashing

Glenn Howerton in A.P. Bio

Andy Samberg in Brooklyn Nine Nine

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series

Penn Badgley in You

Jason Bateman in Ozark

James Franco in The Deuce

John Krasinski in Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan

Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul

Dominic West in The Affair

Outstanding Lead Actor In a Limited Series

Hugh Grant in A Very English Scandal

Jared Harris in Chernobyl

Jonah Hill in Maniac

Chris Pine in I Am The Night

Sam Rockwell in Fosse/Verdon

Henry Thomas in The Haunting of Hill House

Outstanding Lead Actor In An Original Movie

Benedict Cumberbatch in Brexit

Anthony Hopkins in King Lear

Rob Lowe in The Bad Seed

Ian McShane in Deadwood

Timothy Olyphant in Deadwood

Jeffrey Wright in O.G.

Outstanding Lead Actress In A Comedy Series

Melissa Barrera in Vida

Kristen Bell in The Good Place

Alison Brie in GLOW

Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep

Zoe Perry in Young Sheldon

Outstanding Lead Actress in A Drama Series

Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones

Gaia Girace in My Brilliant Friend

Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Deuce

Laura Linney in Ozark

Margherita Mazzucco in My Brilliant Friend

Anna Paquin in Flack

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series

Amy Adams in Sharp Objects

India Eisley in I Am The Night

Carla Gugino in The Haunting of Hill House

Charlotte Hope in The Spanish Princess

Emma Stone in Maniac

Michelle Williams in Fosse/Verdon

Outstanding Lead Actress in an Original Movie

Shannen Doherty in No One Would Tell

Chelsea Frei in Victoria Gotti: My Father’s Daughter

McKenna Grace in The Bad Seed

Paula Malcolmson in Deadwood

Molly Parker in Deadwood

Christina Ricci in Escaping The Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story

Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Comedy Series

Fred Armisen in Documentary Now!

Andre Braugher in Brooklyn Nine Nine

Anthony Carrigan in Barry

Tony Hale in Veep

Sam Richardson in Veep

Stephen Root in Barry

Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Drama Series

Jonathan Banks in Better Call Saul

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in Game of Thrones

Peter Dinklage in Game of Thrones

Giancarlo Esposito in Better Call Saul

Peter Mullan in Ozark

Luca Padovan in You

Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Limited Series

Stephen Dorff in True Detective

Timothy Hutton in The Haunting of Hill House

Chris Messina in Sharp Objects

Stellan Skarsgard in Chernobyl

Justin Thereoux in Maniac

Ben Whishaw in A Very English Scandal

Outstanding Supporting Actor In An Original Movie

Jim Broadbent in King Lear

Bill Camp in Native Son

Theothus Carter in O.G.

Rory Kinnear in Brexit

Gerald McRaney in Deadwood

Will Poulter in Bandersnatch (Black Mirror)

Outstanding Supporting Actress in A Comedy Series

Caroline Aaron in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Alex Borstein in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Anna Chlumsky in Veep

Sarah Goldberg in Barry

Rita Moreno in One Day At A Time

Sarah Sutherland in Veep

Outstanding Supporting Actress In A Drama Series

Summer Bishil in The Magicians

Elisa Del Genio in My Brilliant Friend

Julia Garner in Ozark

Lena Headey in Game of Thrones

Elizabeth Lail in You

Shay Mitchell in You

Outstanding Supporting Actress In A Limited Series

Jessie Buckley in Chernobyl

Patricia Clarkson in Sharp Objects

Sally Field in Maniac

Patricia Hodge in A Very English Scandal

Connie Nielsen in I Am The Night

Emily Watson in Chernobyl

Outstanding Supporting Actress In An Original Movie

Kim Dickens in Deadwood

Florence Pugh in King Lear

Margaret Qualley in Favorite Son

Emma Thompson in King Lear

Emily Watson in King Lear

Robin Weigert in Deadwood

 

Here Are The Winners of the 24th Annual Critics Choice Awards!


TSL writer Patrick Smith has referred to The Critics Choice Awards as being his “fifth favorite awards show” and that seems like the perfect description of where they fall in awards season.  People do pay attention to them and, in the past, they’ve been a pretty good precursor as far as the Oscars are concerned.  At the same time, there always seem to be confusion as just who exactly votes for the Critics Choice Awards.

Well, the answer to that question is that the Critics’ Choice Awards are voted on by the Broadcast Film Critics Association and, tonight, they announced their picks on the CW.

It was interesting night — two ties and Christian Bale was named Best Actor twice, which of course meant we had to suffer through his “I’m just an ordinary working bloke!” routine two times too many.  By far, my favorite winner was Amy Adams for Sharp Objects.

(On another note: Taye Diggs was an interesting choice to host.  I thought he did okay but, with his talent, he really should be receiving the awards instead of talking about them.  Someone write a great role for Taye Diggs ASAP!)

Here are tonight’s winners!  (Check out the nominees here!)

Movie

Best Song — Shallow from A Star is Born

Best Young Actor or Actress — Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade

Best Supporting Actor — Mahershala Ali, Green Book

Best Supporting Actress — Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk

Best Sci-Fi or Horror Movie — A Quiet Place

Best Acting Ensemble — The Favourite

Best Action Film — Mission Impossible: Fallout

Best Animated Film — Spider-Man Into The Spider-Verse

Best Foreign Language Film — Roma

Best Original Screenplay — Paul Schrader, First Reformed

Best Adapted Screenplay — Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk

Best Actress In A Comedy — Olivia Colman, The Favourite

Best Actor In A Comedy — Christian Bale, Vice

Best Comedy — Crazy Rich Asians

Best Cinematography — Alfonso Cuaron, Roma

Best Production Design — Hannah Beachler and Jay Hart, Black Panther

Best Editing — Tom Cross, First Man

Best Costume Design — Ruth Carter, Black Panther

Best Hair and Makeup — Vice

Best Visual Effects — Black Panther

Best Original Score — Justin Hurwitz, First Man

Best Director — Alfonso Cuaron, Roma

Best Actress (tie) — Glenn Close, The Wife and Lady Gaga, A Star is Born

Best Actor — Christian Bale, Vice

Best Motion Picture — Roma

Television

Best Supporting Actor (Drama) — Noah Emmerich, The Americans

Best Supporting Actress (Drama) — Thandie Newton, Westworld

Best Supporting Actor (Comedy) — Henry Winkler, Barry

Best Supporting Actress (Comedy) — Alexis Borstein, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Best Supporting Actor (Limited Series or Made-For-TV Movie): Ben Whishaw, A Very English Scandal

Best Supporting Actress (Limited Series or Made-For-TV Movie): Patricia Clarkson, Sharp Objects

Best Movie Made For Television — Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert

Best Animated Series — BoJack Horseman

Best Actor (Limited Series or Movie Made-For-TV): Darren Criss, American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace

Best Actress (Limited Series or Movie Made-For-TV): (Tie) Amy Adams, Sharp Objects and Patricia Arquette, Escape at Dannemora

Best Actor (Comedy Series) — Bill Hader, Barry

Best Actress (Comedy Series) — Rachel Brosnahan, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Best Actor (Drama Series) — Matthew Rhys, The Americans

Best Actress (Drama Series) — Sandra Oh, Killing Eve

Best Limited Series — American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace

Best TV Drama Series — The Americans

Best TV Comedy Series — The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

 

Here Are The 64th Annual Golden Globe Winners!


Here are the winners of the 64th annual Golden Globes!

(Check out the nominees here.  Needless to say, the film winners have all received a huge boost to their Oscar chances.)

Best Actor (TV Series, Musical or Comedy) — Michael Douglas, The Kominsky Method

Best Animated Feature Film — Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Best Actor (TV Series, Drama) — Richard Madden, Bodyguard

Best TV Series (Drama) — The Americans

Best Supporting Actor (TV Series or Miniseries) — Ben Whishaw, A Very English Scandal

Best Actress (Limited Series or Made-For-TV Movie) — Patricia Arquette, Escape from Dannemora

Best Original Motion Picture Score — Justin Hurwitz, First Man

Best Original Song (Motion Picture) — “Shallow” from A Star is Born

Best Supporting Actress (Motion Picture) — Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk

Best Actress (Drama Series) — Sandra Oh, Killing Eve

Best Supporting Actor (Motion Pictures) — Mahershala Ali, Green Book

Best Screenplay (Motion Picture) — Peter Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie, and Nick Vallelonga, Green Book

Best Supporting Actress (TV Series or Miniseries) — Patricia Clarkson, Sharp Objects

Best Actor (Musical or Comedy) — Christian Bale, Vice

Best Foreign Language Film — Roma

Best Actor (Limited Series or Made-for-TV movie) — Darren Criss, American Crime Story

Best Director (Motion Picture) — Alfonso Cuaron, Roma

Best Actress (Comedy Series) — Rachel Brosnahan, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Best TV Series (Musical or Comedy) — The Kominsky Method

Best TV Limited Series or Movie — American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace

Best Actress (Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical) — Olivia Colman, The Favourite

Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) — Green Book

Best Actress (Motion Picture Drama) — Glenn Close, The Wife

Best Actor (Motion Picture, Drama) — Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody

Best Motion Picture (Drama) — Bohemian Rhapsody

 

An Olympic Film Review: Miracle (dir by Gavin O’Connor)


(Back in 2011, Chris Mead — who wrote under the name Semtex Skittle — reviewed Miracle for this site.  At the that time, I had not seen the film.  Below are my thoughts but please, also be sure to read Chris’s review as well.)

 

Like all good people, I’m currently obsessed with the Winter Olympics.  Earlier this week I asked a couple of friends if they could recommend some good Winter Olympics movies.  A lot of movies were suggested but, without fail, everyone thought I should see Miracle.  (A lot of people also suggested Cool Runnings, which I’ll be watching next week.)  Having watched Miracle earlier today, I can see why everyone recommended it.

The year is 1980 and two hockey teams are about to face off at the Winter Olympics in upstate New York.  (The location, to be exact, is Lake Placid.  Fortunately, the giant alligators are nowhere to be seen.)

On one side you have the Russian team (or the Soviets as they were known back then).  They are widely considered to be one of the greatest hockey teams in history.  They are big, fierce, and determined.  Coming from a system that has declared individuality to be a crime against the state, the Soviet team plays like a machine.  The Soviets have won the gold in the last four Olympics.  As one American coach puts it, their greatest strength is that every other hockey team in the world is terrified of them.

On the other side, you have the American team.  However, this isn’t the type of American dream team that one would expect to see today.  In 1980, professional athletes were not allowed to compete on the U.S. Olympic team.  Instead, the 1980 hockey team is made up of amateurs and college players.  Unlike the Soviet teams, the American don’t have a government that grooms and supports them.  Instead, win or lose, they have to do it on their own.

Of course, it’s not just two hockey teams that are about to face off.  It’s also two super powers and two very different ways of life.  In 1980, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were the two most powerful rivals in the world.  The Soviets were trapped in an endless and unpopular war in Afghanistan.  Meanwhile, in the U.S., the economy was shaky, American citizens were being held hostage in Iran, and an ineffective President gave long-winded speeches about how unhappy everyone in the country appeared to be.  Both countries needed a victory but only one could win.

And it would take a miracle for that winning team to be American…

I don’t think it requires a spoiler alert to tell you that’s exactly what happens.  I mean, after all, I’m reviewing a film  called Miracle!  On top of that, it’s based on true events.  The U.S. hockey team — made up of college students and led by Coach Herb Brooks (played, in one of his best performance, by Kurt Russell) — not only managed to defeat the highly favored Soviet team but they went on to win the gold medal.

Even if you didn’t know that the Americans beat the Russians, you would never have any doubt about how Miracle is going to end.  Miracle is a film that utilizes almost every sports film cliché but it manages to do so with such sincerity and such style that you don’t mind the fact that the movie doesn’t exactly take you by surprise.  Is there any actor who is as good at project sincerity and human decency as Kurt Russell?  Whenever he says that he’s going to make his team into champions, you believe him.  When he says that he’s being hard on them because he wants them to be the best, you never doubt him or his techniques.  When he says that he’s proud of his team and his country, it brings tears to your eyes.  If there’s ever a movie that deserves a chant of “USA!  USA!  USA!,” it’s Miracle.

Film Review: Maze Runner: The Death Cure (dir by Wes Ball)


Here are a few good things about Maze Runner: The Death Cure.

First off, and most importantly, Dylan O’Brien is still alive.  When The Death Cure first went into production way back in 2016, O’Brien was seriously injured on the set.  While it’s never really been disclosed just how serious the injuries were, they were bad enough that it took O’Brien several months to recover.  There was even some speculation that his career might be over.  Fortunately, that wasn’t the case.  Last year, O’Brien returned to the screen and gave a superior performance as the lead in American Assassin.  In The Death Cure, O’Brien returns as Thomas and even if the character is still a bit of cipher, O’Brien does a good job playing him.

Secondly, Gally lives!  In the first Maze Runner, Gally was a villain but, because he was played by Will Poulter, he was also strangely likable.  Maze Runner was the first film in which I ever noticed Will Poulter and I have to admit that I’ve always felt that both the actor and the character deserved better than to be casually killed off at the end of the first movie.  Since Maze Runner, Poulter has given great performances in both The Revenant and Detroit.  (He was also briefly cast as Pennywise in It, though the role was ultimately played by Bill Skarsgard.)  In The Death Cure, it is not only revealed that Gally is still alive but he also finally gets to be one of the good guys.

Third, the Death Cure confirms what I felt when I first saw The Maze Runner.  Wes Ball is a talented director.  Despite whatever narrative flaws that the Maze Runner films may have, they’re always watchable.  Death Cure opens with a genuinely exciting action sequence and there are more than a few visually striking shots.

Fourth, Death Cure actually ends the Maze Runner saga.  That may sound like a strange or back-handed compliment but it’s not.  Death Cure resists the temptation to try to milk more money out of the franchise by unnecessarily splitting the finale in two.  I’ve always felt that The Hunger Games made a huge mistake with its two-part finale.  (The first part was good but the second part dragged.)  Divergent appears to be destined to be forever unfinished because the first part of it’s two-part finale bombed at the box office.  Death Cure refuses to indulge in any of that nonsense.  Unfortunately, this also means that Death Cure ends up lasting an unwieldy 142 minutes but still, that’s better than forcing the film into two parts.  With the current YA dysptopia cycle winding down, now is the right time to end things.

Finally, I appreciated the fact that the bad guys in Death Cure were named WCKD.  There’s nothing subtle about that but this isn’t a movie the demands subtlety.  As opposed to many other films based on dystopian YA fiction, The Maze Runner films have always been aware of just how ludicrous they often are.  Unlike the Divergent films or The Fifth Wave, the Maze Runner films have always been smart enough not to take themselves too seriously.

Anyway, as for Death Cure itself, it’s big and noisy and your enjoyment will largely depend on how much you remember about the first two films.  It’s been nearly three years since The Scorch Trials came out, which is an eternity when it comes to a franchise like Maze Runner.  Death Cure pretty much jumps right into the action and if you don’t remember all of the details from the first two films … well, good luck getting caught up!  (Unfortunately, it doesn’t help that, while the first movie was fun, Scorch Trials was a lot easier to forget.)  It’s pretty much a typical tale of YA dystopia, complete with tragic deaths, shocking betrayal, and a chosen one.  If you’re a fan of the previous two films or the books, you’ll probably enjoy Death Cure.  For the rest of us, it’s a bit of a confusing ride but at least there’s a lot of up-and-coming talent on display.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #119: Shutter Island (dir by Martin Scorsese)


Shutter IslandThe 2010 film Shutter Island finds the great director Martin Scorsese at his most playful.

Taking place in 1954, Shutter Island tells the story of two detectives, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, giving an excellent performance that, in many ways, feels like a test run for his role in Inception) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo, also excellent), who take a boat out to the Ashecliffe Hospital for The Criminal Insane, which is located on Shutter Island in Boston Harbor.  They are investigating the disappearance of inmate Rachel Solando, who has been incarcerated for drowning her three children.

Ashecliffe is one of those permanently gray locations, the type of place where the lights always seem to be burned out and the inmates move about like ghostly visions of sins brought to life.  It’s the type of place that, had this movie been made in the 50s or 60s, would have been run by either Vincent Price or Peter Cushing.  In this case, the Cushing role of the cold and imperious lead psychiatrist is taken by Ben Kingsley.  Max Von Sydow, meanwhile, plays a more flamboyantly sinister doctor, the role that would have been played by Vincent Price.

When a storm strands Teddy and Chuck on the island, they quickly discover that neither the staff nor the patients are willing to be of any help when it comes to tracking down Rachel.  As Teddy continues to investigate, he finds himself stricken by migraines and haunted by disturbing images.  He continually sees a mysterious little girl.  He has visions of his dead wife (Michelle Williams).  A horribly scarred patient in solitary confinement (Jackie Earle Haley) tells him that patients are regularly taken to a lighthouse where they are lobotomized.  When Teddy explores more of the island, he comes across a mysterious woman living in a cave and she tells him of even more sinister activity at Ashecliffe.  Meanwhile, Chuck alternates between pragmatic skepticism and flights of paranoia.

And I’m not going to share anymore of the plot because it would be a crime to spoil Shutter Island.  This is a film that you must see and experience for yourself.

This is one of Martin Scorsese’s most entertaining films, an unapologetic celebration of B-movie history. He knows that he’s telling a faintly ludicrous story here and, wisely, he embraces the melodrama.  Too many directors would try to bring some sort of credibility to Shutter Island by downplaying the film’s more melodramatic moments.  Scorsese, however, shows no fear of going over the top.  He understands that this is not the time to be subtle.  This is the time to go a little crazy and that’s what he does.

Good for him.

Shattered Politics #76: Good Night, and Good Luck (dir by George Clooney)


Goodnight_posterOne of my favorite episodes of South Park is called Smug Alert!  As you may remember, this is the episode where the citizens of South Park all buy hybrid cars and end up getting so self-satisfied that a dangerous cloud of smug forms over the town.  At the same time, another smug storm is racing across the United States.  This smug storm was created by the speech that George Clooney gave when he won the Oscar for Syriana.  When those two clouds of smug meet, it’s the perfect storm.  It also ends up destroying San Francisco.

The same year that Clooney was named Best Supporting Actor for Syriana, he was also nominated for directing the 2005 best picture nominee, Good Night, and Good Luck.  In his speech, Clooney specifically said that he felt he was winning supporting actor to make up for not winning director and proceeded to give the speech that he would have given if he had won director.

And looking back, I think that we do have to admit that it was a very smug speech.

Fortunately, Good Night, and Good Luck has aged better than Clooney’s speech.

I do have to admit that, when I recently rewatched Good Night and Good Luck, I was a little concerned.  I always manage to forget that the film starts on a really bad note.  The year is 1958 and news anchorman Edward R. Murrow (played by David Strathairn) is receiving an award.  As Murrow stands behind the podium, he proceeds to give a long and self-righteous speech about how television should be used not to entertain but to educate as well.  And, quite frankly, he comes across like such a pompous blowhard that I was dreading the idea of having to spend the next 90 or so minutes with him.

But then, fortunately, the film entered into flashback mode and, until the final few minutes of the film, we didn’t have to listen to anymore of Murrow’s speech.  The majority of Good Night and Good Luck takes place in 1953.  U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (who appears in archival footage throughout the film) has declared that he has the names of communists who hold important positions in both the government and the media.  Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly (George Clooney) defy the corporate overlords of CBS and bravely investigate and challenge McCarthy’s claims.  McCarthy and his henchmen respond by trying to smear both Murrow and one of his reporters (Robert Downey, Jr.) as a communists.  As always seems to happen in films about McCarthyism, another supporting character reacts to the change of communism by committing suicide.  And, in this particular vision of the fight against Joseph McCarthy, Edward R. Murrow and the media save America.

Of course, if you actually make the effort to learn history, you’ll discover that it wasn’t just Edward R. Murrow who stood up to McCarthy.  In fact, you’ll discover that Murrow stood up to McCarthy after several other prominent people — on both sides of the political divide — had already done so.  If anything, the real-life Murrow seems to have more in common with pompous scold seen at the beginning and end of the film, as opposed to the one that we see standing up to McCarthy.

One can very legitimately debate whether or not Murrow deserves all of the credit that he’s given in this film.  Still, the film does make a larger and very important point.  We, as Americans, have to always be on guard against witch hunts and against demagogues and the forces of fear and paranoia that are always trying to shape our politics.  And, whether or not Murrow was a hero or just a bystander, one cannot deny that the larger message of Goodnight, and Good Luck remains as relevant today as when the film was originally released.

Judging from some of his other films — The Monuments Men and the Ides of March — I don’t particularly feel that George Clooney is that good of a director.  But he does do a good job with Good Night and Good Luck.  (In fact, he does such a good job that you can’t help but feel that it’s the exception to the rule as far as Clooney the director is concerned.)  Filmed in wonderful black-and-white and full of good performances, Good Night, and Good Luck remains surprisingly watchable.

Just avoid any George Clooney Oscar speeches while watching it.  San Francisco has never recovered.