The untapped young female audience is the driving force behind “Leap,” a lively animated version of “Flashdance” that’s aimed at the very specific target audience of tween girls who are wannabe ballerinas. It’s a formulaic underdog story that, while mostly tiresome and bland, could prove to inspire some of the budding dreamers who watch it.

Elle Fanning voices Félicie, a dance-loving orphan who escapes to Paris with her wannabe inventor best friend Victor (Nat Wolff) to pursue their dreams. The film is set in France in the 1800s, but why? Only two of the characters speak with an accent and the setting, save for a partially constructed Eiffel Tower and the absence of cell phones, do nothing to serve the story.

Félicie befriends a hobbling former dancer (Carly Rae Jepsen) who now scrubs floors for the wicked Régine (Kate McKinnon) and her equally nasty daughter Camille (Maddie Ziegler). When presented with the opportunity to pull one over on her bullying nemesis, our young heroine pretends to be from the rich family in order to secure a spot at the prestigious ballet academy.

You can probably guess what happens next. I will admit that it’s a little refreshing to see a female protagonist who shows that with hard work and determination, you can change your life and live your dream (even if she comes about it in a dishonest way). The plot may be uninspired and predictable, but at least it never sinks into the dreaded brainless, dopey territory that derails so many kid movies (that is, until the big chase scene finale where the filmmakers throw in a dated MC Hammer reference. Really). The blandness of the story is overshadowed only by its all-too-tidy, perfectly wrapped in a big, pink bow fairytale ending — because it would just be far too irresponsible of us as adults to deliver kids in the audience with a hard dose of reality, right?

Thanks to the technological advances in computer animation, the film at least looks marginally polished and professional, but combined with the lackluster vocal talent (including Mel Brooks as the orphanage’s caretaker) and the stiff visual design (giant heads on tiny bodies), the characters leave a muted, lifeless impression. The film’s strength comes from its nicely choreographed animated dance sequences (set to out of place modern pop music) that may motivate the middle school set to twirl their way out of the theater.

Although this movie smacks you in the face with its low-budget feel, it’s just good enough to warrant a theatrical release instead of being handed a direct to video sentence, destined for a lifetime of half-hearted viewing by your fidgety kids in the backseat of the minivan.

“Good Time”



The sleazy, bleak, and primal low budget crime thriller “Good Time” feels like a cinematic punch in the face. The more I think about this film through my figurative black eye, the more I like it. It’s rare to find a movie so confident and wholly committed to its bleak tone, bursting onto the screen in its opening scene with a disarming, bold swagger. This one is reminiscent of Scorsese’s early works but it never once feels like a cheap rip-off of the auteur.

A nearly unrecognizable Robert Pattinson (kudos to him for taking on challenging and unglamorous roles like this) is incredible as scumbag Connie, a low level criminal who has industrious and ambitious ideas but is far from smart. After persuading his developmentally challenged brother Nick (a fabulously understated Benny Safdie) to serve as his wing man in a bank robbery, everything goes wrong and his brother is captured and arrested while Connie runs free. The next hour is spent riding shotgun with this despicable man as he tries to free Nick from police custody.

Connie traverses the city streets throughout a sleepless night and grows increasingly trapped in this nightmare. As the evening progresses, he becomes even more desperate and begins mentally or physically harming everyone who crosses his path, from an amusement park security guard (Barkhad Abdi), a teenage girl (Taliah Webster) and her immigrant grandmother, and a newly paroled drug dealer (Buddy Duress) with a soda bottle full of LSD.

Connie isn’t a nice guy. He exploits his brother as a criminal pawn, he verbally abuses his unstable girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh), he has harsh racist tendencies that subtly manifest in different ways, and he takes advantage of nearly everyone who crosses his path. He’s not really nice to anybody except his brother and a dog, but Pattinson is so incredibly amazing in the role that I actually became disgusted with myself as I inexplicably began rooting for this amoral, predatory man to get away from the cops. This is one of those defining moments for an actor, and Pattinson is unforgettable. Comparisons to a young Al Pacino are inevitable.

This film oozes indie spirit throughout and feels intimately personal, which isn’t a surprise because bothers Benny and Josh Safdie had a hand in just about every aspect of the movie, from writing and directing to editing, sound design, and acting. The film’s phenomenal sound is particularly effective, with a harsh, pressure cooker of an original score to the ear-splitting sound effects that serve as a mirror to the overall discomfort and discord of the script. The story is simple yet filled with so many abrupt narrative jolts that it shocked and surprised me more than a few times.

The only criticism I have for the entire film (besides its irritatingly ironic title) is the epilogue, which I won’t spoil in this review. It has a pronounced tacked-on vibe, an unnecessary piece that the directors should’ve cut but just couldn’t let it go. Yeah, I get what they’re trying to say here, but there’s no sense in beating audiences over the head with it. We’re much smarter than that.

This movie accurately echoes the desperation in last year’s bleak “Hell or High Water,” telling a similarly mesmerizing story of an American man who has nothing to lose and will therefore take anything he can. The grimy urban landscape of New York City manifests itself through intense, textural, dreamlike visuals that feel more like a nightmare. Every scene is alive with a squalid vibrancy and a pulsating tension, yet it’s beautifully done and never showy.

“Good Time” may have a morally repugnant protagonist, an unpleasant narrative, and an unsettling vibe, but it’s also one of the best movies of the year.

“Tulip Fever”



I have learned more about the tulip craze in 17th Century Amsterdam than I ever care to hear about ever again thanks to “Tulip Fever,” a lifeless, insipid mess of a movie. Alicia Vikander and Christoph Waltz may headline this ill-advised project and while they are proficient, their performances aren’t enough to recommend suffering through this mess.

The film is based on the novel by Deborah Moggach and as is usually the case with intricate books turned into movies, there are just far too many storylines competing for attention within the entrapments of a 90 minute run time. It’s such a convoluted jumble of confusion that at times the plot doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, and it doesn’t help that almost all of the characters feel paper thin.

Vikander is adept as Sophia, an orphaned girl who is forced into an arranged marriage to a wealthy merchant (Waltz). Unhappy in her emotional prison and unable to conceive an heir for her husband, she finds a confidant in her housemaid Maria (Holliday Grainger). When the lady of the house starts to have a passionate affair with a portrait painter (Dane DeHaan), all hell breaks loose.

There are way too many subplots that throw far too much information at the viewer, from an inept attempt to explain the underground tulip bulb market that ran rampant in the early 1600s, an unconvincing romance storyline with the local fishmonger (Jack O’Connell), scenes of a humorless nun (Judi Dench) tending to her flower garden, a drunk screw-up (Zach Galifianakis) ruining an epic plan after he intervenes to stop someone from beating a donkey, and a slightly pervy underground wannabe gynecologist.

Perhaps if this film had been crafted as a screwball comedy it would’ve been more effective.

The truly unsexy sex scenes notwithstanding, the filmmaking is at least skilled, and plot-wise there’s just enough to keep audiences barely hanging on to discover where the story ultimately goes. “Tulip Fever” is thankfully interspersed with some gorgeous shots of the most lovely flowers and the lavish costume design is an additional feast for the eyes. The movie isn’t bad to look at it, it’s just dull, hollow and ultimately confusing.




The worst movie of the decade? So bad you’ll want to poke your eyes out? A snoozefest of epic proportions? Come on, now!

If you love the language of cinema and you are constantly bitching that “nothing original comes out of Hollywood anymore,” then you should be a champion for Darren Aronofsky‘s “Mother!” regardless of whether you love it or hate it. A lot has been said about this divisive film but proclaiming this a bad movie isn’t correct or fair. I wouldn’t even call it self-indulgent, and I’ll admit that I fully expected it to be. While intense and aggressive with a bloody, head-scratching, harsh finale, this is an eyeball-popping, darkly gorgeous film that has a lot to say in the most creative, ghastly way possible.

Aronofsky has created a fully realized abstract artistic vision that will of course be loathed by any fan of “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.” The studio has done this film a true disservice by choosing to market it in the most misleading way possible: as an exciting retro horror flick. The film is horrific, but it’s horror aimed at the art house crowd and not for those enjoying bargain night at their local cineplex.

I’m not implying that only smart people will enjoy this film and it isn’t my intention to pat myself on the back or sound like a film snob, but I do believe that only those who are film literate will be able to appreciate Aronofsky’s shocking vision. That’s also not to say that this is a great movie (it isn’t), but it’s definitely not nearly as awful as its ‘F’ CinemaScore would lead you to believe.

I do feel for the folks that innocently buy a ticket for this film and expect a conventional psychological thriller. Think of it as less of a “Scream” and more of a mashup of “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Only God Forgives” that’s been co-directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and Lars von Trier. On the mainstream accessibility scale, with 1 being “straightforward and easy” to 10 being a “what the hell is going on, Mildred?,” I’d place this one at about an 8.

As is the case with all abstract expressionism, the theme is what you bring to the table, with your personal experiences ultimately shaping the message you take away from this one. The easy elements are the overt Biblical references, from Cain and Abel to Adam and Eve to a flood with fire and brimstone. Him (Javier Bardem) is portrayed as a god-like figure, if not a god himself. It’s how these references are utilized and displayed that leave them wide open to individual interpretation.

At times I took the film to be all of the following: a stern lecture on the evils of organized religion, a warning of humankind’s abuse of our planet and global warming, a condemnation of the current U.S. political system, a cautionary tale for the Instagram crowd about blurring the line between celebrity and commoner, a rebuke of obsessive creativity and its many tolls, and a brutally accurate opus on what it feels like to be a woman in the age of Trump. As a politically active female, I chose to ride with the last one and it shaped my perception of the story.

The film presents a disturbing, savage, and violent hatred towards women, with poor Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) being verbally, mentally, and physically abused at every turn. Strangers are intent on destroying her home and invading her personal space, her own husband loves parading around in the spotlight more than caring for his family, and murderous houseguests leave a bloody mess for her to wipe clean. She is always barefoot and often alone, crying out for a companion in the secluded, empty rooms. Mother is seen working on her house or doing laundry in the basement or cooking in the kitchen — the very definition of a homemaker. While she struggles in her gender role as a fixer, her husband serves as a creator (not only as a writer but as a god, and eventually as an actual father). Note that men aren’t portrayed in a positive light either, with Him seeking praise and adoration at the cost of his own family and privacy.

Terror and paranoia begin to take hold when Mother starts seeing strange things like the floor oozing blood, oil flooding the cellar, and a disgusting creature swimming down the toilet. Is she simply mentally imbalanced or is it something far more sinister?

My review is purposely abbreviated in order to avoid further spoilers, but I highly encourage everyone to see this film (if only to partake in the massive, impassioned debates it is certain to inspire). This is an ambitious work of extreme cruelty and a legitimately demanding test of endurance, but it’s also one of those films you simply have to see to believe.


“Mother!” may be the newest member of the Misleading Trailer Hall of Shame (“Drive” and “A Cure for Wellness” are other members), but that doesn’t make it a bad movie. It’s certainly a singular vision from director Darren Aronofsky and watching it, you have the feeling that he said exactly what he wanted to say . . . whatever that is (more on that later).

Don’t go to “Mother!” expecting a horror movie. It’s not — at least not really. Yes, there are some horrific elements, but it’s more of a psychological mind-F than a straight up scary movie (“Antichrist” and “The Neon Demon” come to mind as other films within this category). But what else would you expect from Aronofsky?

Jennifer Lawrence is Mother, who has lovingly restored and maintained the house where Him (Javier Bardem) was raised. Yes, these are really the character names. The film spends most of its time with GoPro-style close-up tracking shots of Lawrence traversing the house she has maintained, befuddled by what’s happening to her and her house. She has a deep love for Him, but his affection for her doesn’t often translate to concern. He does and says things that she doesn’t understand, invites people into their shared home without ever consulting her. As more and more of these unknown and unknowable visitors arrive, Mother’s alienation from the rest of the people in the house becomes increasingly pronounced. You know this is all going to reach a boiling point, but are uncertain what will happen when it gets there.

What I enjoyed most about the film was trying to piece it together to determine what, exactly, Aronofsky (who also wrote the script) is trying to say. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a fun movie to watch, but it is interesting. Clearly, what we’re watching here is an allegory. But for what? There are Biblical and religious overtones here; many parallels can be drawn between this movie and the creation story, in particular, but the film also uses organized religion as a tool to drive the story. But the movie isn’t about religion. It’s about climate change. And as a parable about climate change, it works fairly well.

Don’t go see “Mother!” if you want thrills or chills, or if you want something to veg out to after a long day at work. But if you’re interested in apologal storytelling, it is worth your time.


“American Assassin”



The well made, enthusiastic “American Assassin” feels crafted to appeal to the “rah-rah for ‘Mericuh” set but thankfully is more than watchable for the rest of us. If you’re looking for exciting escapism that’s packed with bloody violence and well choreographed fight sequences, this one delivers.

When a group of terrorists guns down his fiancée at a swanky beach resort, Mitch (Dylan O’Brien) vows to deliver his own brand of revenge by infiltrating a terrorist cell in the Middle East. Over the course of a year, he becomes a one-man stabbing, shooting, biting, bare hands killing machine. Once the CIA catches wind of this vengeful young man they approach him to join their super elite black ops team, and the hotheaded Mitch begins top secret training with grizzled ex-Navy SEAL Hurley (Michael Keaton).

O’Brien is cast well here and makes a pretty damn good young action star, racing around and falling and throwing deathly punches with confidence and flair. He’s believable as an anti-terrorism hero, a rogue young man with nothing to lose. Unfortunately this is far from Keaton’s best work, but at least the two men play well off each other.

What makes this film such an unexpected surprise is that it packs in far more ‘action movie’ than ‘dramatic espionage suspense.’ At times I had no idea where the story was headed, which kept things interesting through the plot’s hokey timeline, the unpleasantly racist hero, and the laugh out loud overacting delivered by the film’s big name star.

There’s a lot of information crammed into the story (this movie is based on a series of spy books by Vince Flynn), but it feels like the very best elements from each novel were condensed into one slam-bang action packed thriller.

Director Michael Cuesta doesn’t shy away from showing blood-spattered violence, a relentless, unflinching brutality that may make some folks cheer but encourages a deeper reflection by more sophisticated moviegoers.

Don’t mistake this for high art masquerading as pulse-pounding popcorn escapism, but there are some serious issues of morality simmering underneath all the bloody gunplay.

“Home Again”



The innocuous, good-natured “Home Again” is a sweet little doe-eyed rom-com that delivers more than it promises. What a pleasure to see a film that’s lighthearted and free from the raunch that dominates most chick flicks nowadays.

Reese Witherspoon brings her usual plucky persona to the party as Alice, a recently separated mother of two who has moved from New York back to her childhood home in Los Angeles. On the night of her 40th birthday, the newly single woman meets a trio of broke aspiring filmmakers (Pico Alexander, Nat Wolff, and Jon Rudnitsky) at a bar and after an evening of drinking (among other things), she decides to let the guys move into her guest house. Soon after, a May-December romance blossoms with one of her hunky tenants.

Before you dismiss this as nothing more than a cougar’s fantasy, the film tells a surprisingly emotionally authentic story. Alice acts like a real woman would act in this situation, as do her two daughters. Writer / director Hallie Meyers-Shyer sometimes stumbles over writing credible male characters, most notably Alice’s estranged husband Austen (the ever-charming Michael Sheen), and the group of young guys (have you ever met a twentysomething bachelor who purposely buys flowers at a farmer’s market to decorate his apartment)? But Meyers aces the dialogue that’s designed to appeal to the over 40 set (“You’re telling me you have live-in child care, 24/7 tech support, and regular sex?,” snorts one of Alice’s best friends).

There’s nothing even remotely offensive about this fizzy, feel-good movie and the performances (including a truly enjoyable turn from Candice Bergen as Alice’s former movie star mom) mirror the overall tone with their light and breezy air. Some of the characters are paper-thin, however, and have no reason to exist (like Lake Bell‘s demanding socialite), and several scenes fall flat under the weight of their predictability.

Still, this is a harmless, simple and straightforward movie with appealing actors and a kind-hearted tone. Overall it’s a sweet movie that will entertain its target audience.

“I Do…Until I Don’t”



The cookie cutter “I Do…Until I Don’t” quickly falls victim to crappy directing, lousy writing, and indifferent acting. The lackluster ensemble comedy of marriage is the brainchild of the usually funny Lake Bell, and it’s so bad that this one can’t simply be dismissed as a case of the sophomore slump. The film is so bad that if she doesn’t bring it with her next effort, this could end her career as a director and screenwriter.

Premise-wise, the movie doesn’t even start off with a good one. A jaded British documentary filmmaker (Dolly Wells) comes to Florida to find three dysfunctional couples as subjects for her movie. Alice (Bell) and Noah (Ed Helms) own a window coverings store and are unhappily trying to get pregnant, Harvey (Paul Reiser) and Cybil (Mary Steenburgen) are long-time marrieds who are tired of being together, and Fanny (Amber Heard) and Zander (Wyatt Cenac) are free spirited hippies with an open relationship. There’s nobody to really root for and I found myself almost instantly disengaged with the unlikable characters and the unpleasant story. If you enjoy watching couples fight for 90 minutes, be my guest.

Dreadfully slow and completely uninteresting for its first half, the film rapidly goes downhill — and things don’t get much better until Heard shows up. She and Reiser are the only bright spots in this mess.

What follows are repeated unfunny, clunky attempts at humor, and the few lines that are funny are due to reference humor more than being anything original or inspired. Across the board, the jokes fall flat and the premises that glisten with the slightest hint of comedy potential (like Alice getting hired at a rub and tug massage parlor) ultimately go nowhere.

Worst of all, Bell can’t decide between making the film a biting indie or a crowd-pleasing, maudlin, feel good movie and the tone is uneven. In one word, this one is “lacking” in all areas.

“Ingrid Goes West”



The perfect casting is a large part of what makes “Ingrid Goes West,” an uncomfortably biting satire of our social media obsessed culture, work. Aubrey Plaza truly becomes Ingrid, an unhinged wallflower turned stalker of the popular boho photographer and self-made Instagram star Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen). While the film doesn’t go quite as dark as I had originally hoped and ultimately fails to live up to the full potential of its timely premise, it’s full of smart humor that by design is made to challenge and disturb.

After a brief stint in a mental hospital for violently attacking a supposed ‘friend,’ Ingrid begins to interact with Taylor online. When she gets a friendly and generic response, Ingrid heads to Los Angeles to meet her new ‘best friend” in person. Things start out just fine with Ingrid obsessing over and copying everything the object of her affection does, from eating at the same restaurants, ordering the same food, and buying the same clothes. An actual friendship eventually develops but when Taylor’s obnoxious bully of a brother (Billy Magnussen) shows up, things take a dark turn.

There are a bevy of first class supporting performances here, from O’Shea Jackson Jr. as a Batman obsessed, pot smoking landlord and Wyatt Russell as Taylor’s unhappy wannabe artist husband. Plaza turns in yet another terrific performance as a pathetically needy narcissist who, while bordering on being an actual sociopath, never goes total “Single White Female” on anybody.

While the film could’ve pushed the envelope even further, it’s still a sometimes thoughtful and savage take on cyber bullying and the emptiness of social media that consumes most of our everyday lives. Through the internet and with myriad social media tools, we can create any persona we wish to be no matter how great our insecurities, hiding behind our Instagram filters and Twitter hashtags and Facebook emojis. What’s the most disturbing about this film is that Ingrid suffers with a serious mental illness but it’s all sort of brushed off in a bevy of “likes.”

There’s your damning social commentary right there.




Some ideas strike a collective chord with all of us. Take clowns, for example. Sometime within the last 30 years, there was a collective realization that clowns are kinda scary. What was the genesis of that idea? Was it the doll in “Poltergeist?” Was it the capture of John Wayne Gacy? Or was it when Stephen King (still my favorite writer) published “It?”

In “It,” King somehow was able to distill the scary clown concept down to its essence in a way that managed to tap into this fear in a novel way. What makes King’s creation, Pennywise the Dancing Clown, so frightening is that It is also able to take the form of the thing you fear most in this world… and he feeds on us when we’re most vulnerable: when we’re children.

“It” remains one of King’s seminal and most well-regarded works, so it’s particularly important that any adaptation gets it right. This movie does. This version of Pennywise, played by Bill Skarsgård (proving, once again, the Skarsgård rule*), is particularly terrifying. The kids, led by Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) are all well-cast. Director Andy Muschietti (“Mama”) is fluent in the cinematic language of horror and understands the importance of framing a shot. The sets are well-conceived (in particular, the house on Niebolt Street where the kids have their first showdown with It).

My only nits to pick with the movie are that first, it relies a little too much on nostalgia, sometimes to the point of distraction. References to 1980s pop culture do the story a disservice, begging Generation Xers to force a laugh every time we recognize the name of a song by the New Kids on the Block (at times, the movie was so heavy-handed in its references that I was reminded of this pitch-perfect scene from “Bojack Horseman”). For all of the tweaks made to the story, the climax of the story – easily the weakest part of King’s book – was a bit of a letdown.

Overall, however, “It” is effective at bringing the thrills and chills.

* The Skarsgård rule: if a Skarsgård is in the movie, he’s the bad guy. Exceptions to this rule are “Good Will Hunting” and “Thor.”

“Patti Cake$”



That “Patti Cake$” is the first feature film of writer / director Geremy Jasper bodes very well for his future as a serious indie filmmaker. This coming of age story about a big girl with even bigger dreams has a distinct, visionary voice that makes it as meaningful as it is memorable.

Danielle Macdonald is Patti, an underprivileged, overweight young woman who longs for a better life and a way out of her gritty blue collar New Jersey town. Patti dreams of becoming a rap star, spending her very little time between juggling multiple jobs scribbling lyrics in her notebooks and spitting rhymes with the locals. She lives with her ailing grandma (Cathy Moriarty, a real hoot here) and her man-juggling mother Barb (Bridget Everett) who gave up rock star dreams of her own when she became pregnant as a teenager.

Patti’s loyal best friend Jheri (the utterly charismatic and charming Siddharth Dhananjay) provides backup to her freestyle rap songs, and the pair find unlikely solidarity and inspiration in the reclusive homeless musician Bastard the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie). The rag-tag group of truly talented misfits band together to create original music, forming the rap group PB&J.

This is a classic underdog story that’s actually a little unpredictable. It sticks to the formula of its origins, yet the story so genuinely eccentric that it creates a fresh spin on the classic genre. The film is extremely rough around the edges, but it’s this roughness that gives it a powerful authenticity. The cast of unknowns give impressive, convincing performances, and the theme of self-expression through music is realized with sharp-tongued, funny, and very raw original rap tracks. (You’re going to want to buy the soundtrack to this one).

There are a couple of stumbles, mostly due to some forced sentimentality surrounding Barb and Patti’s mother/daughter relationship, but it doesn’t slow the film down for long. Instead, the raw energy of the movie takes over. “Patti Cake$” celebrates artistic determination and the joy that derives from chasing your dream while never failing to march to your own beat, but it also is an unexpected ode to entrepreneurship. Work hard and do what you love, even if you never realize any rewards.