“The Glass Castle”



Familial dysfunction hits its peak in “The Glass Castle,” a sprawling tale of growing up poverty-stricken in the rural West Virginia mountains. The film is based on author Jeannette Walls‘s best-selling memoir about her real life struggle with her sometimes appalling parents and her three close-knit siblings. Like the book, the film is told from the point of view of the middle girl, giving viewers a focused perspective of the relationship between an alcoholic father with big dreams (Woody Harrelson) and his daughter.

Ella Anderson tackles the role of Jeannette as a kid while Brie Larson takes over for the teenage and young adult years. These are extremely tough parts to play yet both actresses are absolutely stellar here. Naomi Watts plays her eccentric artist and anti-establishment mother Rose. There are Oscar caliber performances all around, from the child actors (Sadie Sink, Iain Armitage) to the adults (Harrelson and Watts, two actors that I think are sorely underrated, are at the top of their game too). There’s a sense of distinction to everyone’s work and the cast remains dedicated until the closing credits.

It’s no secret that Walls’s childhood was less than rosy, but the uncomfortable material apparently has been even further sanitized from the true story on which its based. The film tries so hard not to be too alienating or distressing and at times isn’t dark enough, barely touching on the fact that these children were never properly schooled, lacked the basic comforts and care like running water or electricity, and often didn’t eat for days. The feeling that something is completely “off” about the storytelling lingers from scene to scene.

What sours all of the things the movie gets right is the oddly uncomfortable ending. Instead of choosing to end the film on a high note by celebrating one impoverished young woman’s determination to make a successful life for herself, screenwriters Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham opt to go with a sappy conclusion that comes across as an insincere celebration of an awful man’s life. It’s quite a shame because the rest of the film is so strong.

“A Ghost Story”



“A Ghost Story” is true indie art house cinema, which means you’re either going to hate it or love it. I love it. This heartbreaking story of a man (Casey Affleck) and his wife (Rooney Mara) isn’t a cheap jump scare horror thriller: it’s a complex, dreamlike journey through the past, present and future, and one that makes you question your very existence in the enormity of the universe

Affleck’s character (we never learn his name) dies and instead of choosing the light-filled door into the great beyond, he opts to walk the Earth in the white sheet that was used to cover him at the morgue. He quickly learns that he cannot leave his house, becoming imprisoned in his former life as he stands day after day watching his grieving wife cope with the unbearable loss of her young husband. In flashbacks we see that Affleck’s character had a strong attachment to this particular house while his wife begged and pleaded for them to move. The physical place mattered so much that even as a ghost, he can’t bear to leave. But after his wife moves out and moves on and as he remains trapped in that same space for decades and through many transformations, it becomes clear that he’s haunting the house and not his partner. It’s a man who is hanging on forever, afraid of letting go.

He sits and waits in the house as his wife brings home a new suitor (he responds by causing the lights to flicker), scares a young single mother and her two kids out of the home (when he makes their dishes go flying), listens as a group of squatters waxes poetic about the desire to leave a lasting legacy (when in reality we’ll all die when the universe implodes on itself and we disappear into nothingness), and watches as the home is eventually bulldozed to the ground and a high-rise is erected in its place.

The second half of the film grows more abstract, especially when the ghost travels back in time to the days of early settlers. There’s a lot left to interpretation here, but it’ll have your brain working overtime. Nothing is really right nor wrong as you’re challenged to find your own meaning.

This is truly a poetic, spiritual movie about grief and loss that relies heavily on imagery and very rarely on dialogue. It’s a film that you feel and experience, one that is rewarding if you truly let yourself be immersed in its atmospheric power. Everything about this film is hypnotic in a sense, from the realization that we all will one day cease to exist to the sensation of a fluid time and space where days and hours lose all meaning. The film moves slowly but it has such a powerful visual rhythm that is never feels slow. (Yes, even the three minute scene of a grief-stricken woman gorging herself on a chocolate pie).

Affleck spends most of the movie hidden beneath a white sheet with ghastly cutout eye holes. Never did this feel like a silly idea to me. The simplicity of the symbol becomes its biggest strength, and the shots of this eerie draped white sheet wandering through the afterlife creates a powerful symbolism. What’s truly brilliant about it all is that with this eerie, beautiful blank canvas and only simple body gestures, most everything is left up to the audience to project onto the character. Every person will have their own different read and take on this story, and that’s what makes it all the more profound. Add Daniel Hart’s mournful, melancholy score to the mix and the distress becomes even more palpable.

Director David Lowery shoots the film in a small 1.33:1 aspect ratio, making the project feel like a vintage home movie. It works in more ways than one, but clearly conveys the idea of a person trapped and unable to let go of their former life. He as a remarkable understanding of visually expressing grief and despair creatively, and one of the best scenes in the film is a heartbreaking encounter with the ghost across the street. It’s so elegantly sad that it punched me in the gut (I still can’t stop seeing those images in my head and I doubt I’ll ever forget it).

This is a sad, haunting, original film that has affected me like no other this year — and that’s the sign of something truly special.

“The Hitman’s Bodyguard”



With its tongue-in-cheek advertising campaign and two of the most likeable male stars working in film today, “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” should’ve been a slam dunk. The fun banter between Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson keeps this movie from being a total disaster, but overall it’s just another bland and forgettable action movie. There is one bright spot that makes this film worth seeing, and it will surprise you. That reason? Salma Hayek.

Hayek has been a roll lately and has been giving extraordinary performances in every single film she’s in (see “How to Be a Latin Lover” and “Beatriz at Dinner”) and her foul-mouthed, bone snapping, bar brawling wife is a total riot here. I’d like to see her character get her own spin-off movie. Reynolds is enjoyable as affable former CIA agent Michael, a man who serves as a driver and bodyguard to some of the world’s baddies. Jackson plays Darius, one of the world’s most notorious hitmen. When the odd pair are teamed up on a drive from England to Holland so Darius can testify against some really bad guys (lead by Gary Oldman), henchmen shoot at them and chase them the entire way.

It’s the classic buddy formula and it works well enough because of the undeniable chemistry between the two leads. These two actors pair well together and if this had been a better script, the film could’ve become a classic action comedy. It’s not a total stinker, but it’s not as good as you hope it will be. Lovers of bloody gun violence will be satisfied and there are a couple of pretty good high speed car chases, including a fun (sort of) boat chase through the canals of Amsterdam.

The fight scenes are just okay too, but most are well choreographed and filmed without that dreaded shaky cam. Director Patrick Hughes takes a page from the “Atomic Blonde” playbook and misuses pop love songs to score some of his violent shootouts and brawls. Here’s hoping this trend will end very soon.

This uninspired bromance is not creative and it’s far from original, but who isn’t entertained by Samuel L. Jackson loudly spouting off his dialogue with all manner of creative “motherf%$&ers” peppered throughout?

“The Battleship Island”



“The Battleship Island” reminds me of the Korean version of Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” The film liberally fictionalizes a real (and horrific) WWII event to rewrite history into a much more satisfying outcome. It’s a patriotic, elaborate film that feels as confusing as it does epic. This is an interesting bit of history (although most of it is dramatized or even imagined), but it doesn’t detract too much from the actual historical event. If it makes just one person pick up a world history book, it’s worth it.

During the Japanese occupation of Korea in 1944, several hundred Koreans were misled into believing they were headed for good paying jobs but instead were forced into slave labor on Hashima island. The Koreans faced heinous abuse and torture under the Japanese rule, with the young (and old) men working in undersea coal and gas mines and the young women held captive as “comforting” prostitutes for the soldiers. This part of the story is true; it’s the convoluted fictionalized plot that becomes revisionist history (and a kick-ass action film).

In this movie, the Koreans plan a massive uprising and fight their way out to escape their captors. The action set pieces are spectacular and the bloody, violent escape is just as thrilling as any mainstream action film. Things get even more violent when the United States launches its atomic bomb attack on Nagasaki, and the Japanese decide to blow up the island to hide the truth about their treatment of the Korean slave laborers. All of this aftermath of the bomb never really happened, but it certainly makes for a rousing movie.

At times, the film seems to be at odds with itself — especially in terms of tone and performances. There are oddly misplaced musical cues and some acting that comes across as more slapstick than its intended gravitas, and half of the background actors are so absolutely terrible that they detract from every single scene they proceed to ruin. Thankfully there’s the uber talented Su-an Kim (giving another leading star performance, just like the one in last year’s phenomenal “Train to Busan“), Jung-min Hwang, and Ji-seob So to carry the material.

The heavy handed ending feels more hokey than profound too, but I get what director Seung-wan Ryoo is trying to do. He’s such a visually skilled artist that even when the movie’s plot gets totally convoluted, there are a wealth of jaw-dropping shots to keep audiences engaged. This one is definitely worth seeking out if you’re a fan of Korean cinema.

“The Dark Tower”



For a lifelong Stephen King fan like me, watching “The Dark Tower” is both fun and frustrating. The movie’s storyline does not closely follow the one set in King’s epic eight-book series; as close as I could tell, the movie takes elements of books one, three, four, and six and somehow reduces them to a 90-minute story with more of a beginning, middle and end than one would think possible.

Truth be told, it’s more like an alternate version of the story I’ve been reading since I was in middle school. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, necessarily; in some respects, director Nikolaj Arcel and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman have captured the essence of the story: the man in black (Matthew McConaughey) fled across the desert, and the gunslinger (Idris Elba) followed. But watching it is akin to listening to only a few bars of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”: you get the idea of the thing, but you are missing so very much.

That said, the movie is decent enough. McConaughey chews scenery as Walter, the man in black, and Elba turns in another reliably good performance. The story moves along briskly enough, and there’s a memorable sequence at the Dixie Pig that alone is worth the price of admission. King fans will delight in some of the Easter eggs and well-placed references to other books he has written. And seeing these characters brought to life on the screen is satisfying in its own right.

It’s clear that The Dark Tower books deserve a much more comprehensive treatment, which the planned television series could deliver. This movie is better than nothing, but not as good as you want it to be.


“Logan Lucky”



I can’t really recommend “Logan Lucky” to anybody I know because I can’t think of one person who would actually find the movie enjoyable. Steven Soderbergh‘s redneck heist romp isn’t a terrible movie, but it isn’t a whole lot of fun either.

The story centers around the blue collar Logan brothers Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver) who plan to execute an elaborate heist during the big Memorial Day NASCAR race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The comparisons to 2001’s “Ocean’s Eleven” are inevitable, but instead of the suave, suit-clad sophisticate played by George Clooney, we have a ragtag band of rednecks with Charlie Daniels t-shirts and really, really bad Southern accents. It mirrors far better stories that are grounded in the same type of absurdity, plodding along like a poor man’s Coen brothers movie while borrowing heavily from the greatness of similar films. All of this adds up to more than a shade of mediocrity.

As is to be expected, the actual heist (get ready for those requisite twists and “gotchas”) is the best part of the film. What a pity that you’re forced to sit through a lengthy, excruciating, off-key performance of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by an untalented child in a beauty pageant.

Luckily the talented cast of actors are more than enough to keep audiences engaged. Daniel Craig hams it up as incarcerated career criminal Joe Bang, a scene stealer like you’ve not seen in a long while. Tatum brings yet another charismatic riff to his charming doofus persona, Driver is given little to do as a one-armed bartender, and Riley Keough is wasted in a lame supporting role as their sister Mellie. With a cast like this, the film should’ve been way more fun that it actually is. There are some funny moments, but nothing comes close to classifying this one as a bonafide comedy.

The clunky story feels slow, and the oddly uncomfortable supporting performances from Hilary Swank as an FBI agent on the trail and Seth MacFarlane in a completely pointless and distracting role as a British energy drink purveyor don’t help matters at all. The movie has an air of an undeserved pedigree that hovers throughout as if it’s straight up daring audiences to say they don’t like it.  Perhaps this will be one of those movies that failed to resonate with me upon first viewing but will later become a classic. I suspect not, but it’s hard to say.

“Logan Lucky” is made by talented people but it is never successful in finding the right tone, causing a strong feeling that something really important is missing.





Biopics can sometimes be an unusual animal, but films like “Maudie” are especially interesting because the subject is a little known person with a smaller scale story. The film tells the abbreviated life story of Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis, a disabled woman with an emotionally abusive husband who found her calling by painting cheerful scenes of rural life in Nova Scotia.

Sally Hawkins, as with most everything she does, is good in the role as the titular character. While her performance is being lauded, it does feel at times that she’s overplaying the artist. Her exaggerated eccentricities are so over the top that I thought the actual subject was mentally handicapped (she wasn’t). The real stellar performance here is from Ethan Hawke as Everett, Maud’s curmudgeonly and abusive husband. Hawke gives this man, who has a serious mean streak as well as a devastating bitterness, a tiny glimpse of likeability — even when he slaps Maud around for speaking out of turn. That takes skill.

The film is technically a romance but it’s certainly not of the fairy tale variety. The dysfunctional, emotionally and sometimes physically abusive relationship between the couple makes the movie hard to enjoy. The pair lived like near recluses in a plain, decrepit house on the outskirts of town, living a simple life that feels trapped in the past.

In fact, there are periods of time where audiences must guess the actual year when the story is taking place. The film cleverly shows the passage of time in the most subtle of ways, where the only clues are the cars on the street when the pair head into town, the dogs that are no longer barking in the yard, or the crummy looking aging makeup with fake wrinkles and greying hair (“Maudie” isn’t going to win any awards for its makeup).

While Maud’s story is interesting enough, the film suffers from distracting, sluggish pacing. The narrative becomes burdened with too much melodrama and a late hour “twist” that feels hollow. While this isn’t a bad movie and the acting is on point, the story just isn’t compelling enough to overcome the problems with the filmmaking.

“An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power”



If you want to feel like you’ve been sitting in one of Al Gore‘s slideshow-heavy environmental lectures for two hours, then by all means go buy a ticket to “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.” This boring follow-up to David Guggenheim’s controversial 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” has all the charm and engagement of watching paint dry (in this case, it’s watching slide presentations, graphs, and former Vice President Gore repeatedly change his boots).

Climate change is an important issue for all humans and saving our planet should be near the top of our to-do list, but bland movies like this one are not the best way to spread the message to the masses.

Parts of the film are persuasive enough, yet there’s no big bombshell and more often than not, directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk unsuccessfully try to tie climate change to some of the most ridiculous events ever (sorry, but repeated massive rainfalls, the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, and his presidential loss to George W. Bush all being attributed to global warming? This is why conservatives hate those of us on the Left). Most with a brain, no matter on which side of political spectrum you fall, will heartily call bullshit on some of the statistics or far-reaching scare tactics presented here.

If the idea behind this film is to mobilize and inspire the younger generation to care about climate change, then sorry Al, you ain’t gonna do it with a snoozefest like this. It’s a thoroughly mediocre movie that’s nothing more than a talking head documentary with charts and stale photography — there’s no flair whatsoever. The film feels like Cohen and Shenk either never had or have lost all passion for the material.

The most compelling story line here is Gore’s visit to Paris for the climate accord but even that gets confusing when we are shown phone call after phone call after phone call between him, a solar company executive, and what I think were government policy wonks (it’s unclear). Everything is so choppily presented that while you can follow along, there’s zero engagement in anything and the international climate policy he’s attempting to change isn’t presented in a clear manner.

The bulk of the doc seems hell bent on scolding climate deniers and responding to skeptics than presenting clear, sound science on the issue. (For the record: just in case anyone thinks I’m one of these skeptics, I am not. I fully support all efforts to combat this serious issue).

As much as I respect Gore and as important environmental causes are to me personally, I must call a dud when I see it.



“The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature”



“The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature” may be a throwaway animated film but it isn’t as awful as you’d think. It’s another sequel nobody wanted, but surprisingly it’s not half bad.

Surly Squirrel (Will Arnett), Andie (Katherine Heigl) and various rodent friends, shallow characters whom nobody really liked in the first place, are back for round two. This time the evil mayor of Oakton (an amusing turn from funnyman Bobby Moynihan) and his obnoxious animal-hating daughter Heather (Isabela Moner) decide to terrorize the park’s furry residents and bulldoze the lush space to build a rickety amusement park, causing the animals to band together to save their home.

The plot is concise, the film is short, and everybody buckles down to quickly get to the point. There are plenty of lame kid jokes and some modern day sass lingo thrown into the mix (with nary a fart joke in sight for once!), but overall the energetic yet formulaic story is mostly entertaining throughout and at times, genuinely touching. This isn’t high art by any means but the wild antics, slapstick visual gags, and flashy action scenes should please most young ones and even some adults. Although one could argue that this sequel is half baked, it’s certainly superior to the original.

The low rent animation is ugly and the voice talent is mostly terrible (with Heigl and Jackie Chan sinking to the very bottom of the barrel), but for some reason the movie is better than simply ‘good enough.’ I enjoyed it in spite of myself.

“Annabelle: Creation”



“Annabelle: Creation” is a relentlessly scary movie. The film creates a sustained sense of dread that, once it starts, does not let up for almost all of its 109 minutes of running time. It’s a near-perfect horror film and the best one I’ve seen in years.

In this prequel to both “Annabelle” and “The Conjuring,” Esther (Miranda Otto) and Samuel (Anthony LaPaglia) Mullins are a middle-aged couple grieving the loss of their young daughter, Annabelle. In order to fill their empty house, the Mullinses invite Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and her charges, six teen and pre-teen orphan girls, to live with them. But the presence of the girls has awakened an evil presence in the house, something that lives in a doll once owned by Annabelle.

In “Annabelle: Creation”, director David F. Sandberg (“Lights Out”) and producers James Wan (“Saw,” “The Conjuring”) and Peter Safran (“Annabelle,” “The Belko Experiment”) display a keen understanding of horror that most strive for but few achieve. The pacing is deliberate but never slow. The set design is incredibly well-conceived; the Mullinses house has the sort of architectural features that are perfectly integrated into the plot. Set pieces are created and props are placed that you just know will figure into the story later, and they do. The sound design integrates creaks, scrapes, and distant tinkling of bells, framed against the deafening silence of a big, isolated country house to ramp up the dread. And director Sandberg once again (as he did in “Lights Out”) makes expert use of light and dark — and more particularly, the terrifying dark that is just outside of that ring of light.

I didn’t care much for the first “Annabelle” and I was underwhelmed by “The Conjuring 2.” Unlike those two films, “Annabelle: Creation” is not a shameless cash-grab in an attempt to wring every possible cent from the new horror franchise. It is a movie that displays the sort of deft talent and fluency in the language of horror that make this movie perfect both for casual thrill-seekers and true fans of the genre.