Friday, May 17, 2019


In 1989, Kenneth Branagh made his auspicious film-directing debut with an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play HENRY V. Branagh’s gritty and intense take on the material was heralded the world over and garnered Oscar glory, including two nominations for Branagh himself as director and star. Since then, Branagh has directed or starred in no less than six major big screen productions adapted from Shakespeare, pulling double duty for acclaimed hits like MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and HAMLET. Now, Branagh directs and stars as the Bard himself in the new character piece ALL IS TRUE. It’s not much of a title, but it’s a terrific work.

 The title is taken from the last play Shakespeare wrote. It was the alternative title of his play HENRY VIII, and indeed the story of the film begins with a performance of that play at the Globe Theatre in 1613. During the show, a cannon shot, employed for special effects, ignited the theater’s thatched roof enabling the Globe to burn to the ground. Fittingly, the opening image in ALL IS TRUE is a silhouette of Shakespeare as a wall of flames from the fire towers in front of him. It’s also the first metaphor in a film thick with them, suggesting that not only has Shakespeare’s livelihood been reduced to ashes, but his personal life will likely be set ablaze as well.

Indeed, returning home to Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire is not a happy move for Will. He’s filled with anger about the fire and being away from home all those years for his career has not endeared him to his family. His wife Anne (Judi Dench) is a humble and religious woman who virtually raised their three children alone and feels almost estranged. She also cannot read or write and knows that her husband condescends to her because of it. Even more troubling for Will is his strained relationship with his oldest daughter Susanna (Lydia Wilson). She was named publicly in a case of adultery that dragged the Shakespeare name through the mud and led Will to stay away from her in addition to his home.

Even worse is the tempestuous relationship Will has with his second daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder). He cannot understand why she’s not married yet, nor why she talks back to him with such fervor. Could it have something to do with the fact that he favored her twin brother Hamnet over her in their youth, and that dad’s never gotten over the boy's early death at age 11? Indeed, this is where the crux of the drama is for Will as he must come to terms with various truths in his family, most of them exceedingly ugly.

The film is a fascinating character study of a middle-aged man’s reckoning. As a metaphor, it’s all about his rewriting of history. As unsavory truths are revealed about his family, Will must reshape the narrative that he's come to believe for years. He can no longer cherish the idealized memories of his son, nor can he regard the women in his life as secondary or inferior. Quite the contrary, he is forced to realize that Judith was the talented child, not Hamnet, and that Anne is far steelier and confident in her choices even though she’s illiterate. 

Even Shakespeare’s own insecurities about his talent get a rewrite when he’s visited by the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen). Shakespeare questions aloud what good his plays and poetry have done and whether words truly mean anything. Then the Earl quotes some Shakespearian poetry eloquently and Will realizes that they have. Indeed, the Earl all but acquisces to Will's artistry, helping the Bard further realize that stature or station have little to do with a man’s genuine standing. He starts to evolve how he thinks and even uses some of the Earl’s arguments in defense of his writing against a snide aristocrat who puts down the theater later in the film.

The entire film is written with immediacy and heart by Ben Elton, making for a genuinely moving character study. Surprisingly, the story also serves as a vivid evisceration of England’s caste system driven by patriarchal control. As each of the women in Will's home life stand up for themselves, assert their rights, as well as their desire to be seen and heard, Will doesn’t revolt stubbornly against them. Instead, he stands anew as well. He may have felt that he was written out after the destruction of the Globe, but his rewrite of his misconceptions of family history will be the most important of his life.

Branagh has a reputation for running hot and cold as a filmmaker, but anyone who can deliver the numerous Shakespearian marvels he has onscreen, not to mention the deft adaptations he’s done of CINDERELLA and THOR, deserves boisterous plaudits. Here, he keeps the story tight and focused, extracting superb performances from all, especially a reserved and exceedingly vulnerable Dench. His Will is one of the best screen performances he’s ever given, and even the fake nose and hairline he wears convince thoroughly. ALL IS TRUE convinces too, showcasing the world of a storyteller and the idea that it’s never too late to rewrite. Bravo!

Wednesday, May 15, 2019


Original caricature by Jeff York of the cast of JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM
(copyright 2019)
Some may love the JASON BOURNE and TAKEN franchises for action/adventure, but the JOHN WICK series strikes me as far superior. The newest chapter entitled JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM opens Friday nationwide and it's another incredibly well-made, rollicking entertainment, just like the first two chapters. What distinguishes the Wick series, however, is how easy it is to follow visually. That's exceedingly important in the genre where grasping what's going on is essential. Yet, it's funny how many actioners are a jumble onscreen because they're edited to cover the limitations of their stars. (Ahem, Matt Damon and Liam Neeson.) That’s not a problem with the man playing Wick. Keanu Reeves is clearly doing most of his own stunt work, and the camera lingers on his moves to accentuate that fact. That elevates the Wick series as you believe what the assassin character is doing because you see Reeves doing it. He performs the intricate choreography so convincly, it takes your breath away. 

This time out, Reeve’s Wick is on the run from a slew of assassins out for blood. In JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2, the brooding hit man committed a no-no when he killed a double-crossing bad guy in the Continental Hotel. That exclusive sanctuary is a war-free zone, so for his breaking of the rules, a bounty's placed on Wick's head. The hotel’s stern proprietor Winston (Ian McShane) even declares Wick excommunicado. Soon, the message that Wick is now fair game goes out to hundreds of assassins, thugs, and miscreants that hope they'll be the lucky killer to claim the multi-million dollar reward, as well as bragging rights that they offed the world's greatest gun for hire.

PARABELLUM starts with Wick and his dog on the lam, huffing and puffing as they hightail it through a rainy Manhattan night towards the New York City Library. Wick has stored some valuables there that he'll need if he hopes to escape the city in one piece. Just as he's retrieving his markers and gold coins to ensure safe passage out of the States, an over-eager thug (Boban Marjanovic) appears and the first set-piece kicks into high gear. Literally, it kicks and chops and thwacks. The men battle brutally, even using heavy books as weapons in a nasty, yet thrilling smackdown.

Director Chad Stahelski stages the action ensuring that every punch land, both between the pugilists and with the audience. His camera stays back at the mid-range to show all the movements and through-lines, sparing the editor the task of having to cut to cover for the actors. Reeves and Marjanovic mix it up incredibly well with each move and damn, if it isn't all ridiculously convincing.  

From there, Wick wisely leaves his dog in the adroit care of the Contintental Hotel concierge Charon (Lance Riddick) as he rushes off to bargain with a Russian oligarch living in the Big Apple who can help smuggle him out of the country. The Director is one tough cookie however, not easily persuaded, and as played icily by Anjelica Huston, you're not sure if she's a friend or foe. In Wick's world, true blue friends are very hard to come by. Here, the film displays its franchise's signature wit with the two veteran actors sparring with each other verbally, tossing bitchy quips back and forth, executed with a similar sting as all the pugilism. 

Wick manages to convince the Director she owes him one and he's on his way to Morocco. There, he joins forces with a fellow assassin named Sofia (Halle Berry), who owes him a favor for saving her daughter. (The Wick films are about nothing if not calling in favors.) Soon, they're mixing it up with local baddies, and Berry and her two attack dogs prove to be able stunt performers as well. 

The film becomes one big battle scene after another, similar to the previous entries, but the extremism and hilarity of each new situation Wick finds himself in this time makes for an  exceptionally comedic romp. Wick fights in horse stables and smacks equestrian bottoms to kick his attackers at key moments. Ninjas with swords chase Wick on motorcycles as they weave through Brooklyn Bridge traffic. And when he's attacked in tony settings filled with exquisite art and architecture, you know they're going to be destroyed. Destruction has never been so amusing.

Other stars show up in cheeky supporting parts, most notably Asia Kate Dillon (BILLIONS on Showtime) as The Adjudicator, a sort of auditor for the High Table. She’s flying about and doling out punishment to those who've aided Wick in his escape, including Winston and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, again having a ball in a boisterous performance.) Dillon relishes her role too, using  her staring eyes to elicit big laughs as her by-the-book accountant has trouble fathoming all the over-the-top shenanigans she witnesses.

Other pleasures, in addition to the cartoon carnage, are plentiful in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM including a game Mark Dacascos playing a sushi chef who moonlights as a killer. He's got the moves and the quips. Even better is the gleaming production design which deserves Oscar recognition come 2020, but I won't hold my breath waiting for the Academy to recognize the stunning contribution of art director Kevin Kavanaugh. The sad fact is that genre pieces seldom get their due.

The script by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Marc Abrams manages to invest plenty of verbal wit in the proceedings without resorting to the kind of stale jibes that doomed too many Eastwood, Stallone, and Schwarzenegger vehicles. Reeves is a good comic actor as evidenced by his work in the BILL & TED films, but here the veteran performer wisely lets most of his actions speak for him.  

For my entertainment dollar, the JOHN WICK films stand as one of the better trilogies in the history of movies, and easily one of the most satisfying action franchises. And it looks like the fun and froth isn't going to end anytime soon. A battle with the Illuminati-like High Table one-percenters is hinted at in the last minutes and sounds promising. I'm sure John Wick will continue to kill it.

Thursday, May 9, 2019



The term “dirty, rotten scoundrels” may not get uttered in THE HUSTLE, but make no mistake, the new film is a faithful remake of the 1988 comedy of that name which starred Michael Caine and Steve Martin. It itself was an update of the 1964 farce BEDTIME STORY that starred David Niven and, in a rare comedic role, Marlon Brando. In this take on the material, the bad boy con artists competing with each other in the south of France have been replace by bad girls. Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson assume the roles, and while they’re not quite up to the level of the others, they acquit themselves nicely in this often amusing adaptation. 

Beat for beat, scene for scene, this is one loyal remake, even though the two leads are now women. In fact, it’s so close to the previous films, original scripters Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning receive story and screenplay credits, as does Dale Launer, the writer of the ’88 version. Screenwriter Jac Schaefer softens her adaptation here by giving the grifters a mission to thwart sexist, pawing men with a savior complex. Such tweaks add a #MeToo flavor to the proceedings, yet they also take a lot of the edge off the story. Meanwhile, Hathaway and Wilson do their best to ensure their characters’ elaborate criminality is funnier than preachy.

Hathaway plays Josephine, an elegant, British hustler duping easy marks in the casinos of the French Riviera town of Beamont-sur-Mer. She assumes all kinds of guises to do so, including a dumb bunny American persona that a sleazy playboy (Casper Christensen) is all too eager to bed and rob. Instead, she ends up turning the tables on him by substituting an expensive bracelet in his possession with a counterfeit one. A local cop (Ingrid Oliver) is in cahoots with Josephine and together they ensure those duped are none the wiser and escorted out of town quickly.

The Oscar-winning star has a ball in the part, yet at 36, Hathaway is a lot younger than Niven and Caine were when they did the roles at 54 and 55, respectively. Still, she summons a similar élan, bearing, and seductiveness as those two did, while cutting loose in a physical performance that harkens back to her PRINCESS DIARIES days. (With her gifts for comedy and singing, some producer out there who should put Hathaway in a reboot of MAME.)

The big departure from the original material lies in how the story sides more with Wilson’s low-rent character Penny. In the previous two films, the loyalties leaned toward Niven and Caine, but here, the film asks us to connect more with the penny-ante grifter. The film even starts with Penny pulling a con on a Tinder hook-up played by Timothy Simons. He’s playing a sexist pig close to his role on VEEP, and from there the die is cast that we cheer on Penny.

That may be due to the fact that Wilson is one of the executive producers here, and while it’s fine for her to develop such an ideal project as this, her part shouldn’t be softened to near pathos. In fact, even when she’s supposed to be at her most deplorable, the film pulls its punches regarding her character. If there’s one thing a dark comedy doesn’t need, its asking us to feel sorry for such a vulgarian.

The missed opportunities are apparent in two crucial parts of the film. The first is when Josephine agrees to tutor Penny in the fine art of the long con, and they cook up an elaborate ruse to bilk a Texas oil man (a completely unfunny Dean Norris). Penny is supposed to be Josephine’s psycho sister, but the best the film can offer is her acting like Ophelia from HAMLET while knocking about with mannequins dressed in Victorian clothing. It’s mildly amusing but cannot hold a candle to Steve Martin’s indelible turn as “Ruprecht the monkey boy” who in DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS asks to go to the bathroom while at the dinner table and proceeds to urinate in his pants while sitting there. This film needs more of such outrageousness, but it shies away from it. 

Things improve when Penny and Josephine become rivals again and fight over a vacationing tech millionaire (Alex Sharp). They wager that the first person to separate the Mark Zuckerberg-esque character from $500,000 will get to stay and rule the roost of the Riviera. To gain his sympathies, Penny pretends to be blind in need of medical treatment that costs half a million. Josephine counters by pretending to be a Dutch physician who can cure Penny of her hysterical blindness. Watching the two one-up each other is the funniest part of the movie, yet it doesn’t come close to the vicious slapstick that Caine and Martin engaged in.

There, Martin’s character pretended to be a cripple bound to a wheelchair. Caine assumed a physician who resorted to caning Martin’s legs to try and get the feeling back in them. Watching Martin have to swallow the pain, pretending his lame legs experience no discomfort was one of the funniest scenes ever put on film. (Brando’s tears were pretty funny too.) Yet, in this remake, all Josephine really does is blow into Penny’s eyes to see if she can feel anything. You tell me what’s funnier.

By the time, Penny is falling in love, and milking scenes for a lump in our throat, the film starts to stall. Granted, director Chris Addison keeps things moving along briskly, but he should’ve injected more teeth into the show like he does when he directs VEEP on HBO. Wilson and Hathaway do well when they’re trading jibes back and forth, but their quips needed to be sharper. Wilson is always funny barreling around in scenes with her typical “bull in a china shop” style, but she’s actually been more outrageous in the PITCH PERFECT trilogy. Even Sharp does little to make his character interesting, let alone comical. The late, great Glenne Headley made the mark she played opposite Caine and Martin markedly more zany and attractive.

The original title for the film was NASTY WOMEN, a riff on Donald Trump’s description of Hillary Clinton in their last debate together in 2016. The fact that the powers that be changed the moniker to the more generic THE HUSTLE suggests punches were pulled throughout the production. If only the film had let their leads be as dirty and rotten as their male counterparts in previous adaptations, this would be a more worthy outing. That’s not misogyny, that's comedy.

Friday, May 3, 2019


Why does documentarian Penny Lane’s new film HAIL, SATAN? end with a question mark? It does so because this fascinating study of The Satanic Temple showcases all kinds of motives for people joining this organization and very few of its members actually participate with the idea of worshipping the Prince of Darkness. That’s right, ol’ Beelzebub himself is just window dressing for the most part. Instead, those interviewed in the film use the temple as a means to be provocative and get attention in their fight against authoritarianism and the squelching of constitutional rights. Why, the name Aleister Crowley isn’t even mentioned in the 95-minute film. So much for the father of modern paganism.

Lane’s film cleverly exposes that the Temple of Satan, despite its gothic and scary image, is actually just another PAC or influential organization using their resources to impact the issues they care about in their communities. Arguably, they’re not much different from many civil rights, libertarian, or even progressive groups on the playing field today, as the Temple is concerned about the environment, women’s productive rights, and upholding the separation of church and state established by the Founding Fathers centuries ago. 

Not only is all of that quite relatable to most, but the members showcased in the film are everyday sorts, and hardly the clichés that film and TV have given us of devil worshippers in films like ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE DEVIL’S RAIN, or THE OMEN. Take away the tattoos, piercings, extravagantly theatrical aliases, and black clothing, and you could have folks who could be the members of any book club or social organization.

The star of the film is the leader of the Temple named Lucien Greaves (That’s not his real name, of course.) He founded the Temple to be less of a modern take on Crowley’s belief system or those hedonistic desires at play in Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan during the 60s and 70s, and more of a lightning rod to bring swift attention to the causes the Temple is championing. The film focuses on their core issue of how the Christian right continually wants to make the state reflect their religious ideals, even though the Constitution is strictly against such partisanship.

Specifically, the conflict in the doc comes down to a marble statue of the Ten Commandments that the right wants to place in front of the Little Rock, Arkansas Courthouse. State Senator and Christian minister Jason Rapert believes that the United States is a Christian nation and that’s why he wants the laws of God placed on the steps entering the building. That leads Greaves to fight to have another statue placed in front of the public building too, one of Baphomet, a winged creature with a goat’s head signifying the Satanic Temple.

Greaves finds the fight rather bemusing, and that rattles Rapert all the more. It is a credit to Lane though that she doesn’t go out of her way to demean the Christian right. Instead, she lets facts and history present most of her argument. She explains how much of the fear of Satanism stems from fighting the godless Russians in the 50s, and how the phrase “One nation, under God” was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance by President Eisenhower to shore up America’s differences from its enemy in the Cold War. 

Lane also explains what Satanism does and doesn’t stand for, including the spelling out of the seven fundamental tenets of the Temple that have a “Golden Rule” ring to them. Two of them are as follows: 

One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason.

The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.

Nothing too scary there, is there?

In fact, Lane’s clearly out to tear down the image of terror that Satanists still have in the nation, but she misses some points that give credence to those fears. Yes, there was a misplaced and almost comical “Satanic Panic” in the ’70s and ’80s due to the proliferation of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, let alone the rise of the Moral Majority and Reagan, but there was plenty of the genuine devil to go around too. It wasn’t all just playing metal band records backward to identify hidden Satanic messages. 

Lane misses the opportunity to remind the audience of how Charles Manson and his followers blended the idea of Jesus and the devil into one uneasy and murderous mix and its legacy. Additionally, she never brings up that the Son of Sam murders were connected to a Satanic cult. Interestingly, investigative reporter Maury Terry, who covered Sam in his crime bestseller The Ultimate Evil, appears on an old clip of THE GERALDO RIVERA SHOW as it focused on Satanism in the '80s, but nothing else comes of the clip. 

Who can argue with Lane’s pointing out the hypocrisy of Christians protesting Greaves and his followers in Boston, knowing how systematically the Catholic church has covered up rape and molestation for centuries? Yet as the film goes on, one can’t help but wonder if the Temple is hurting their cause by some of their own hypocritical stances. Most of the members are political activists and hardly those hellbent on selling their souls to serve in Hades. In fact, the Temple’s website advises those interested in joining to sell their soul, ask the devil for riches, or become part of the Illuminati, to “please look elsewhere.” Does the cover of the devil hurt their ultimate cause? 

In the end, HAIL SATAN? is a compelling study of power and religion in America. It is a fairly sobering examination, yet one that manages to earn plenty of laughs. (Not for nothing is its musical score by Brian McOmber more carnival in sound than Jerry Goldsmith.) It invites us to admire and laugh along with these puckish purveyors as they stir the pot to fight pluralism and prejudice. Despite all the window dressing of blood and upside down crosses and the Gothic apparel, these activists are exercising their Constitutional right to protest. Hell, you can’t get much more American than that. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2019


Original caricature by Jeff York of Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron in LONG SHOT. (copyright 2019)

In early April, Charlize Theron told People magazine that she is “shockingly single” and more than “ready to date.” Perhaps too many men are intimidated by her success, her smarts, and her looks. Maybe it’s the fact that her last boyfriend was Sean Penn. Could it be her ass-kicking roles in MAD MAX FURY ROAD and ATOMIC BLONDE have scared away suitors? No matter, her new movie manages to blend Theron’s screen persona and personal life into one meta mix. She plays a high-powered single woman who’s running for president, and inexplicably, the only man who answers the call to be her partner is a shlub played by Seth Rogen.  

Rogen has dated out of his league onscreen before. Playing Katherine Heigl’s one-night stand which ends up becoming her "baby papa" in 2007’s KNOCKED UP made him a star. Here, he’s playing a similarly brash fly in the ointment, though this time those characteristics have a higher purpose. They serve his job as a muckraking reporter named Fred Flarsky (Oh, that name!). Fred's the kind of gonzo journalist who jumps out of a window to escape the neo-Nazi group he’s infiltrated…two stories up. 

The ever-righteous Fred soon quits his job when the online magazine he works for gets sold to a sleazy corporation. Accepting an invitation to a high-powered party to balm his fury, he joins his bestie Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), an entrepreneur. The most prominent guest at the party happens to be Charlotte Field (Theron), the Secretary of State. Fred is petrified of having to face Charlotte again because she was his babysitter decades ago. When he was 11, and she was 17, he had a big crush on her, manifesting itself into an embarrassing boner poking at his shorts. The film goes there, showing it in flashback, and will continually push things to the R-rated edge like that.

When Fred finally talks to Charlotte, he brings up the embarrassing incident from the past, but she remembers it as more of a sweet, natural kind of occurrence and not something to be humiliated over.  Suddenly, the film blends the genial in with the outrage, and that potent and provocative mix will inform the rest of the story. Fred starts working for Charlotte as a speechwriter, and while their relationship is often oil and water, it's also an adult one, full of nuance and complexity. 

The film will continue to paint Fred in various shades of buffoonery, but he's also shown to be one smart cookie. Charlotte needs someone has unfiltered and blunt as he is to keep her honest, especially given all the DC BS circling around her constantly. No matter how many tumbles Fred will take, including some down flights of stairs, he's her best speechwriter. And no matter how awful he dresses, favoring ball caps and color-blocked, nylon hoodies), the man ends up being Charlotte's best accessory.

That’s especially important when they travel to Europe as part of a tour aimed at shoring up her experience to enable a run for the presidency. The current POTUS (Bob Odenkirk) is a buffoon, yet he's promised Charlotte that he’ll endorse her. As Charlotte goes from one big international meeting to the next, Fred is by her side to guide her, keep her policies consistent, and coax out the better person inside. 

He helps her get in touch with her more authentic self, and soon they're both falling in love. Perhaps the film’s slyest twist lies in having Charlotte end up being a lot more like Fred than first suggested. Yes, she can rock international meetings and evening gowns with equal aplomb, but deep down she wants to be as genuine as Fred, and he brings out her inner geek, rebel, and progressive politico. 

Rogen can often be funny just standing there, what with his scruffy beard and hoarse-voiced bluster, but in this film, he manages to be all that and also a mature romantic lead. He and Theron do have undeniable chemistry together, and when the story calls for them to kiss or make love, it’s entirely believable. Hilarious in parts, yes, but sensual too. 

The film doesn’t shy away from its liberal politics any more than its sex scenes. Climate change, political corruption, and sexism are issues that drive the story. Charlotte is an expert politician, as shrewd as any leader she meets, yet because she’s a woman, every instance is an uphill climb to be taken seriously. LONG SHOT refers to Fred's chances with her, but more importantly, that title describes every attempt by Charlotte to change her station. The odds are against her because she's a woman and a beautiful one that too many can't see past cosmetically. The part is perfect for Theron and how it dovetails into her personal life makes this performance all the richer.

And who knew that the Oscar-winning actress could be so utterly hilarious? One scene where Charlotte is stoned from doing drugs with Fred, and yet must handle an impromptu international incident over the phone, is side-splitting. And in those moments where Charlotte must make hard choices regarding her affair with Fred, Theron knows how to break your heart too. 

Director Jonathan Levine manages to blend the silly and the serious throughout the film's three acts, never letting the comedy go too far afield. If anything, he handles the more serious moments in the movie the best. I like how he enables the camera to sit on his two leads so much more than in most rom-com’s. We get to see these two think, as well as take the time it takes for them to fall in love. The script by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah manages to make their dialogue ring honestly, albeit with a Tracy and Hepburn style that makes for sophisticated banter. Sure, these scripters love writing dirty humor too, especially at the (ahem) climax when a particular bodily fluid plays heavily in the mix, but overall, their script is deft and adult. 

LONG SHOT may be raucous and sharp-edged, riffing on sex, drugs, and politics, yet such acidity never overwhelms its sweetness. This movie believes in love and wears its heart all over its sleeve. In these cynical, bitter, and discombobulating times, that may be the most provocative stance for any big screen romance to take.