The 88th Academy Awards: What did we learn, anything?

oscar-2016-07Like an M. Night Shyamalan plot twist Chris Rock did in fact show up to host the 88th Academy Awards, and the event did go off without a hitch — no crazed protestor drove their car into the Dolby Theater anyway. This night wasn’t at all Billy Crystal-y; this was definitely more Degeneres-ish with Rock shouting loudly from the stage, shouting his way through the cues that were going to make him the evening’s secondary centerpiece hopeful (the main attraction obviously being the sight of Leo with the Oscar in his hands finally). And there was a lot of talk about the lack of racial diversity amongst this crop of nominees, stuff that once sounded like rumors were now things Chris Rock was spurting out loudly on stage — calling out Jada Pinkett Smith and by extent William over there, and other actors who were protesting the Oscars for the lack of inclusion of black nominees. He got some kind of a mild reaction from the audience.

Rock was good though, even after a somewhat Rock-y start (cha-ching!). He hesitated not one second to delve right into the controversy of the perceived white-washing of the nominations — not even Comedy Central’s comparatively conservative usage of the ‘bleep’ button would’ve allowed him to say what he wanted to say here. Rock does address the issue and he even (considerately) redirects the focus away from the nature of this year’s nominees and towards an industry that continues to struggle including more roles (not necessarily high-profile ones) for a variety of ethnicities.

Interesting how this ceremony didn’t for one second address the even smaller chunk of the Role Playing pie, those representative of the LGBT communities. Successes like Tangerine are just going to have to sit tight for now. Those minorities will be addressed at the next telecast. Rock’s an odd choice though for this event, as his performance recalls his meta performance in his recent comedy/drama Top Five. With that, naturally, come the expectations of profanity and vulgarity and in these ways he’s certainly restricted but he makes some pretty good stabs with some visual gags and a trio of Asian kids who essentially become props to one of his jokes.

In the brightest spotlight imaginable Rock largely succeeds as a host, he doesn’t tiptoe around as if there’s broken glass everywhere. Rock’s never been one to care if a feeling or two gets maimed in the process. So while this definitely wasn’t, and was never going to be the Obscenity-Laced Oscars this was about as memorable as any other and there is already speculation as to who will be the host next year. There were surprises while some really good guys were finally rewarded for their efforts (and patience). Fury Road won like, everything. Someone sang. There were too many commercials. Too many names mentioned during the In Memoriam segment that I did not recognize. And there definitely weren’t enough Girl Scout Cookies.



(Winner / What I picked)

Original Screenplay: Spotlight / Spotlight

Adapted Screenplay: The Big ShortThe Big Short

Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander Alicia Vikander

Costume Design: Mad Max: Fury Road Mad Max: Fury Road

Production Design: Mad Max: Fury Road / The Martian

Hairstyle/Makeup: Mad Max: Fury Road Mad Max: Fury Road

Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki Emmanuel Lubezki

Film editing: Mad Max: Fury Road The Big Short

Sound Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road Mad Max: Fury Road

Sound Mixing: Mad Max: Fury Road Mad Max: Fury Road

Visual Effects: Ex Machina Mad Max: Fury Road

Animated Short Film: Bear Story World of Tomorrow

Animated Feature: Inside Out Inside Out

Supporting Actor: Mark Rylance Mark Rylance

Documentary Short Film: A Girl in the River . . . . . . um . . . .yes

Documentary Feature: Amy Amy

Live Action Short Film: Stutterer . . . um . . .sure

Foreign Language Feature: Son of Saul Son of Saul

Original Score: Ennio Morricone (The Hateful Eight) John Williams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens)

Original Song: Writing’s on the Wall (Sam Smith) ‘Til it Happens to You (Lady Gaga)

Best Actress: Brie Larson Brie Larson

Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio LeoSchmardo DiSiprico

Best Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Best Picture: Spotlight Spotlight


 OBSERVATIONS FROM THE NIGHT (like a Twitter feed but way less redundant)


Chris Rock seems uncomfortable. Wow he’s jumping into the race thing head-on, eh?

Jacob Tremblay is standing up in his seat to get a better look at C-3P0 and R2-D2 when they come on stage. Heh. That was funny-bone-tickle worthy.

Chris Rock is currently shamelessly selling his daughters’ Girl Scouts Cookies to random members in the audience, meanwhile Olivia Munn is hoarding them by the box.

Chris Rock seems uncomfortable again.

Why is Mad Max winning everything?

Pete Docter seems to be the only one (so far) who has really grasped the concept of the Academy tweaking the acceptance speech formats (scrolling across the screen a list of the names the winners would like to thank and thus saving all of us from listening to that trollop). Good for you, Pete. I hope others follow because really so far nothing has changed.

Ennio Morricone seems genuine. That was a highlight moment, especially because I totally didn’t peg his work as the winner this year. Cool.

Hooray for Emmanuel Lubezki and Alejandro G. Iñárritu on their back-to-back wins. That’s three in a row for the incredible cameraman and dós for Iñárritu for his expertise in the director’s chair. Birdman and The Revenant couldn’t be two more different films; this is an incredible filmmaker who has seriously earned himself a new fan. (He did last year, actually.)

Who’s the most deserving of their awards? I’ll list my Top 5: 1) Leo (Best Actor); 2) Brie Larson (Best Actress); 3) Spotlight (Best Picture); 4) Jenny Beavan, Mad Max: Fury Road (Best Costume Design); 5) Inside Out (Best Animated Feature)

Leo got the Oscar you guys. His acceptance speech was about as quality as his name being called was predictable, but predictable sounds really negative. His words were from the heart and certainly important and powerful. Good for him for, as per usual, using the stage to talk about something much bigger than himself and his chosen profession.


What were your thoughts of the winners and the overall show this year? 

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'Race' movie poster

Release: Friday, February 19, 2016


Written by: Joe Shrapnel; Anna Waterhouse

Directed by: Stephen Hopkins

No sports film is strictly a celebration of athleticism. Tethered to that name or group of names is the burden of understanding, not of themselves — the athlete knows specifically what he or she is — but rather that their actions represent a broader community even beyond family. Some names simply become associated with significant social, cultural or political shifts because of who, what and when they are. Timing certainly factors into the story of Jesse Owens.

It took 40 years before the White House officially recognized Owens’ accomplishments, before President Gerald Ford in 1976 bestowed upon him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and another 14 years (and several more presidents) before he earned the Congressional Gold Medal. Just as his accomplishments took far too long to become engrained into American culture, the wait for the definitive movie about the man is going to last a little longer.

The bluntly-titled Race is a film that dutifully serves as a highlight reel of an extraordinary figure, but its movements are a far cry from the elegance and power of this sprinter/long-jumper. As a dramatic reenactment of two key moments on the track — Owens’ record-setting performance at the Big Ten meet during which he broke three world records and tied a fourth and his four-time gold medal appearance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics — the film is a decent watch. Even though these insights come so infrequently as to threaten the film’s status as a sports film, at least the action looks good.

Race is thoroughly burdened by the weight of its champion on its back. Unfortunately it couldn’t even make that aspect entirely captivating either. Stephan James is nice enough as the mild-mannered and gifted young track star but this is a forgettable performance. Quiet power is actually a thing, but that’s not what we get with the 22-year-old Canadian actor, whose stoicism often teeters on the edge of being boring. Who knows though; if meeting the icon in real life were still possible perhaps the moment would be surprisingly innocuous. But boring?

The film opens as a baby-faced Owens is preparing to leave behind the grayish-blue of his Cleveland community, the first in his family to board the bus to college. The scene is as expected: mother hurries through a few last-minute words of wisdom while father, who has been out of work for some time, sits silent. The burden’s on us to interpret what he’s feeling. The departure happens with little fanfare. So far, so good. Race is clearly born out of a deep respect for the athlete’s humble beginnings. It’s unfortunately once he steps foot on Ohio State campus where the film starts stumbling over its feet uncontrollably.

Owens finds himself immediately embroiled in the racial tensions of the day, a major state university seemingly serving as the epicenter for hatred. (“But just you wait,” the film seems to caution us. “Wait until you get to Germany . . .”) Not even the locker room is safe. It’s not long before he’s summoned by Coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), and the ensuing Obligatory Scene In A Coach’s Office deals with business as matter-of-factly as possible: “Your life is now mine. I don’t care about the girl you have back home, you have to prove to me how serious you are about winning. Blah, blah, blah.”

Sudeikis’ first lines are a literal check list of sports coaching clichés. Like a timid Owens we kind of just sit there, accepting them as they’re forced upon us. Sudeikis, typically a source of hilarity, takes on a seriousness that’s hard to take seriously. Lines that are meant to resonate prophetically, such as his dreaming of becoming an Olympic-bound coach once more, fall surprisingly flat. As it turns out, his hard-ass demeanor is just a front for a much more amenable, softer personality, one that’s even easier to access than the end of the 100 meter dash.

Less difficult to believe is Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage, President of the United States Olympic Committee. Irons exudes the kind of intensity suited to a role of this magnitude, as a man who finds himself in an uncomfortable position negotiating with Hitler’s close associate and Olympic overseer Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), telling him America is prepared to withdraw their competitors given the ongoing persecution of the Jews and the German government’s exclusive list of who they want competing in the Games. Brundage may have to sell his soul if he is to get what he wants out of these talks.

Irons may stand out as the only Olympic Committee member worth talking about — heck, one of the only characters in the film worth talking about — but not even he is immune to awkwardness in a story that’s written with such a sense of conformity. Race is a passionless affair, so obliging to the typical structure it’s hard to reconcile the unique brilliance of Owens the racer with Owens the cinematically bland inspiration.

At least the moral conundrum is presented clearly. In that way, it’s even more frustrating that it’s the less tangible stuff that the film actually juggles better than anything. There are a few scenes where hostility is truly palpable and the way the political climate is taken into consideration is well-handled. The Americans believed withdrawing would show solidarity with the oppressed while participating would carry with it the burden of winning, for the alternative would mean allowing the Nazis to keep thinking their Aryan competitors — their RACE — are superior. In big open rooms surrounded by his stuffy-looking peers Irons commands attention. And he must, because this is by design.

As is everything else here, including our desire to connect with Owens on a personal level. Nothing is executed with emotion, it’s all mechanical. Hagiographic may be one word to describe Stephen Hopkins’ big screen treatment of an American icon, a once-in-a-lifetime athlete, but definitive it definitely is not. It’s more of a burden to have to watch it.

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Recommendation: Utterly mechanical, obligatory, routine, predictable and any other adjective you might necessarily associate with a sports film, Race falls well short of the potential it had to tell the definitive story about Jesse Owens not just as a competitor but as a member of Ohio State’s elite team and as a citizen of the United States. Only those with almost no knowledge of Owens at all might stand to benefit from this thoroughly uninspired telling. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 134 mins. 

Quoted: “You can run. And boy, can you jump. What I want to know is — can you win?”

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About Elly

'About Elly' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, April 8, 2015 (limited)


Written by: Asghar Farhadi; Azad Jafarian

Directed by: Asghar Farhadi

This film originally debuted in Iran in 2009 but American markets did not get it until last year, hence the film qualifies as a ‘recent’ release on this site.

Asghar Farhadi is an extraordinarily perceptive filmmaker with a profound ability to distill the ‘ordinariness’  of the human experience into cinematic form. Whereas even the most discerning of dramas manifest as art imitating life, About Elly sits on a lonely shelf above, becoming life itself and told artfully through an empathetic lens.

Heartbreaking and thrilling in almost equal measure (it’s certainly more the former), Farhadi’s fourth effort simultaneously explores tenets of Iranian culture — honor, loyalty, family values — while cutting the shape of humanity’s oh-so-imperfect design. Even with the best intentions at heart, we are still capable of such remarkable destruction. In this case, destruction of a most personal and emotional nature. At its core, About Elly is about a lie or a series of lies that start off as minor omissions of facts but quickly swell to potentially world-shattering cover-ups. And then, the revelations.

Here is a complex mystery that smartly leans on fundamentals: powerful performances and engrossing storytelling. About Elly sees a trio of middle-class couples, the majority former law school friends, taking a weekend trip to a seaside villa in northern Iran, an excursion that goes horribly awry after the sudden disappearance of Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), a young schoolteacher who is brought along by her friend Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani). The resultant turmoil whisks viewers far away from the bon mot of its beguiling beginnings and towards a wholly befitting if not still surprising conclusion. Along the way some brave directorial decisions are made that, in retrospect, make the experience what it is.

The discovery process is so utterly immersive the lack of music of any kind goes unnoticed until the closing credits where a suitably melancholic ode to the titular character strikes the heart with a note of bittersweet finality. That absence isn’t a case of careless oversight; Farhadi seems to subscribe to the notion that if a story is good enough it should sustain itself on its own merits. He isn’t denouncing soundtracks and scores as frivolous, unnatural embellishments as aural stimulation plays a crucial part in generating and sustaining tension. (As one character claims late into the affair, “I want to go back to Tehran. The sound of the waves is driving me crazy.”)

Also missing are major dramatic setpieces, save for one sequence that, once explained, would diminish the impact of the experience. Suffice it to say the drama is kept low-key, with Farhadi choosing to emphasize the physical and psychological changes in his performances as things go from bad to worse. And on the subject of acting, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a rather unknown group of contributors who do finer work than this particularly attractive but otherwise convincing collective of Middle Eastern performers. It is their collaboration that lends this puzzle its density — their feeding off of one another’s rapidly deteriorating optimism as the mystery as to Elly’s whereabouts intensifies. You can almost disregard the English subtitles: context clues are less than subtle. It’s not difficult to see these people are reeling in the shock of how a fun trip could turn out so miserable. Finger pointing begins and won’t stop until all possible assumptions have been made.

About Elly has a bleeding heart for humanity. Subtle social faux pas become pivotal plot points. How one’s trust in another can be so easily betrayed; how a careless laugh might upset someone else who doesn’t understand the joke. How manners and customs seem completely alien to another person — this isn’t a direct reference to the western viewer of course, although that certainly applies as well — while also appearing roughly congruent to those of another society’s. (Familial love and acceptance, religious faith and civil obedience isn’t exactly a regional thing.)

That may be me reaching for themes that aren’t necessarily priorities for Farhadi, but extrapolation is totally a function of his ability to convince us this is all too real. Sure, it’s a product of Iranian culture but there’s something much more universal about the design. Even if the film took its sweet time to earn an international distribution, the quality of its contents more than justify why it absolutely deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

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Recommendation: Thought-provoking, deeply involving and emotionally devastating, About Elly is a rare breed of drama that places emphasis on humanity rather than melodrama. An absolute must-see for those trying to diversify their tastes in world cinema. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 119 mins.

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Paul G — #1

Paul G logo

The spotlight turns to another actor I consider quite the chameleon. It’s Paul Giamatti, of course, a guy who could do pretty much anything. Hand him some oranges and he’d make some delicious apple juice out of it. The 48-year-old New Haven, Connecticut native has contributed his talents to an impressive range of films of both comedic and dramatic appeal. The guy has rarely plays someone who isn’t complicated on some level, and he’s just as good at the sleaze ball villain as he is the nice guy you kind of want to be neighbors with. It’s time now to talk about Paul G, the man, the myth, the legend. But more than anything else, he’s the man. 

Paul Giamatti as Kenny in 'Private Parts'

Paul Giamatti as Kenny “Pig Vomit” Rushton in Betty Thomas’ Private Parts

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Comedy/biopic

Plot Synopsis: The autobiographical story of Howard Stern, the radio rebel who is now also a TV personality, an author and a movie star.

Character Profile: Kenny is the program director at WNBC in New York City, the very radio station the controversial disc jockey Howard Stern aspires to join. When Stern is hired by the station, upper management isn’t prepared for the shitstorm that is to come. Kenny voluntarily shoulders the burden of corralling Stern himself. There will be no bringing women to orgasm over the air like he did in Washington D.C. This is a serious station with standards to meet and Kenny threatens to fire him should anything get out of hand. Things soon get out of hand.

Why he’s the man: Giamatti plays up the corporate slime ball perfectly, assaying a role that’s as fun to root against as it is to root for Stern. Classic antagonistic relationship, despite its many embellishments, earns Private Parts much of its reputation. This may be a dramatization of the meteoric rise of a different kind of radio personality, but you simply cannot talk about Stern’s success without talking about his struggles, and Giamatti seems more than prepared to offer up himself as one of his great career hurdles. It’s too much fun watching how quickly and effectively the two drive each other to the breaking point.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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The Witch

'The Witch' movie poster

Release: Friday, February 19, 2016


Written by: Robert Eggers

Directed by: Robert Eggers

In Robert Eggers’ feature film debut a certain amount of faith is required. Faith in a relatively unfamiliar cast, in the Colonial-period pressure cooker a young writer-director throws us into; faith that something terrible is going to come of all of this. Much of that faith won’t go unrewarded, for The Witch, in all its creepiness, sends chills down the spine á la The Babadook, the magnificent debut of Aussie Jennifer Kent.

Unlike that stress-inducing exercise, Eggers’ film doesn’t quite manage to cap off 80-something minutes’ worth of nervous anticipation with a suitably nerve-shattering climax. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Witch is something special, containing its madness within a world so authentic you’ll find yourself walking out of the theater babbling in Olde English about what Ye have just witnessed. Indeed production design is crucial. The very environment itself is beyond creepy. Costuming, lighting, even the score — all are tinged with an archaicness that horror hasn’t seen in some time.

Story is set in the early 17th century, and follows the degradation of a family recently shunned from their Puritan village for their — and get this — extremist religious views (how intolerant do you have to be in order to get banned from a community that exiled itself from England because they wanted to exercise their own religious freedoms?). William (Ralph Ineson, who played essentially the European version of Dwight on the original, British version of The Office) is the head of his clan and is happy to take them — a wife and five children — to a cabin at the edge of the dark and ominous woods where they’ll be free to honor God as they so please.

It’s not long before strange things start happening. Disappearing infants. Blood-squirting goats (where there ought to be milk). Paranoia runs rampant, threatening to tear the entire family apart. The devout William and Katherine (Kate Dickie) believe these situations are tests of their faith and find that they must endure, even if it’s becoming increasingly obvious their trials are a result of witchcraft and black magic. The episodes almost seem to be stemming from behaviors exhibited by one of their own, a concern that in turn ramps up our dread ten fold as things get uncomfortably personal.

Sharing Kent’s affinity for building and maintaining suspense, Eggers spends much time depicting this particular family, one that, not unlike those they’ve left behind in the security of the gated community, feels a certain sense of longing for where they came from. The Witch thrives on emotional isolation as much as it does the physical, securing solid characters and a relationship dynamic between the eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her stern parents: mother is far more hostile toward her than her gruff father. It helps that the acting is top-notch as well. The Witch proves to be yet another addition into contemporary horror, a genre in which scream queens are being drowned out by the long-suffering quiet child.

But Eggers posits that all of the bizarre activity around the settlement — crops of corn going bad, the aforementioned bloody goat (one goat in particular is likely to play a role in my nightmares tonight), and people wandering off into the woods — isn’t just a matter of circumstance. There’s an eerie connection associated with the strict adherence to religious doctrine and daily behavior. Thomasin likes to tease her younger siblings with tall tales of her being an actual witch, particularly her younger twins. Meanwhile there doesn’t seem to be a moment that goes by where William and/or Katherine aren’t questioning themselves and the innate goodness of their children.

Eggers is clearly of the thinking that less is more, employing several techniques to slowly tease out the phantasm from our minds and provide a physical rendering of it on screen. It’s an occasionally frustrating approach, given such technically impressive world-building and characters. We end up wanting more, and not for a lack of entertainment. Eggers simply concocts such an engrossing environment we want to see what kind of evil is out there, something that might intellectually match the physical authenticity of this place. Even if The Witch doesn’t quite delve deep enough into those dreadful woods, this New England folktale is likely to be seared into the memory for some time. It seems Eggers, like the witch, is for real.

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Recommendation: The Witch serves as a fascinating study of religious belief and how effective (or, if you are less trusting, ineffective) faith can be in the face of pure evil. Austere production design effortlessly transports us back to a time and place far less forgiving of human error (or weakness, for the lack of a better word). Given that there are multiple scenes in which you could cut the tension with a knife, it actually might be best to think of the film as a thriller with horror elements rather than as pure horror.

Rated: R

Running Time: 92 mins.

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Turbo Kid

'Turbo Kid' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 28, 2015 (limited)


Written by: François Simard; Anouk Whissell; Yoann-Karl Whissell

Directed by: François Simard; Anouk Whissell; Yoann-Karl Whissell

Nostalgia will wash over ’80s kids in waves in this hugely enjoyable and hyper-violent action-comedy that takes place post-apocalypse and on a brilliantly reimagined scorch of land that resembles more an alien world than our once luscious planet Earth. This is ‘The Wasteland,’ a desperately arid place where humanity clings to the fraying edges, brutally suppressed by a vicious overlord who converts human blood to drinkable water. (Yeah, I know — ew.)

Turbo Kid, a hybrid of Mad Max and RoboCop (sharing the former’s flare for awesome Halloween costumes and the latter’s penchant for extreme violence), chronicles the adventures of a young survivor simply referred to as ‘The Kid’ (Munro Chambers) after he meets an eccentric, ice-blue-eyed girl named Apple (Laurence Leboeuf). The Kid is something of a comic book geek but his favorite is Turbo Rider, a superhero with a nifty Iron Man-esque weapon on his wrist.

Surviving on his own in his underground shelter having been made an orphan by the terrible Zeus (Michael Ironside) who became enraged having learned his parents were “stealing” water, The Kid is surprisingly resourceful, constantly scavenging for nicknacks he hopes to trade in for more useful items (like comics and bottled water . . . again, ew). He tries to avoid other people as often as possible, and knows the dangerous areas of The Wasteland and has even mapped out the vicinity in a notebook with crayon. Besides the comics, his most prized possession is his old BMX bike.

When his new friend is kidnapped by Skeletron, one of Zeus’ henchmen — a mask-wearing psycho straight out of Bartertown — The Kid finds himself transforming into the very action hero he’s looked up to all his life as he sets his sights on freeing the girl and ridding The Wasteland of its tyrannical water-hording ruler. But he’ll have to go through an army of Zeus’ bike-riding thugs (seriously, biking is the way of the future) to do so. Dig out your wet weather gear, kids; it’s about to start raining body parts.

Revenge plot is both refreshingly simple and emotionally gratifying. The straightforward approach affords the trio of writer-directors more time to play around with characters and relationships. The youthful Chambers and Leboeuf give Turbo Kid a real, pulsating heart. Apple may be the more intriguing presence — crazy face masks and human-blood-as-drinking-water notwithstanding she might be the most intriguing element, period. But she also benefits from the efforts of her co-star, who imbues The Kid with a sense of innocence and innate goodness that’s difficult not to be won over by.

They share an easy chemistry that’s essential for us to buy into the dangers of this place and to actually care about the results of such balls-to-the-wall encounters, all of which culminate in a spectacularly gory climax. Turbo Kid is mostly reminiscent of earlier Mad Max installments with an early confrontation in a repurposed warehouse serving as a flashback to Mel Gibson’s trespassing into Tina Turner territory — I still maintain he should have had to sing for his life — while Ironside’s eye-patch-touting bastard is Hugh Keays-Byrne’s Toecutter reincarnated (or, okay, Immortan Joe with the whole hording of water thing).

Canadian electronica artist Le Matos amplifies the atmosphere ten fold with a soundtrack that positively aches with nostalgia for a bygone era of ultra-violent cinema. The music is a character unto itself, translating the unspoken sensations of finding hope and friendship amidst endless desolation. It’s brilliantly retro and fits the scene in ways thousands of well-judged soundtracks have failed to.

Turbo Kid is a gleeful throwback to action hero flicks of the ’80s and even though not every element is created equal — supporting characters are quite forgettable if we’re not talking about Zeus or Skeletron — they all contribute in some minor way to a production that knows exactly what it wants to be and then becomes just that.

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Recommendation: Production values, quirky characters and a memorable soundtrack converge in this giddy and occasionally squirm-inducing action flick. As ridiculously violent as it is funny, Turbo Kid is a contemporary production that feels as though it has just recently been released from development hell after 30 years of suffering. But that’s not the case. It came out only last year. Amazing. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 93 mins.

Quoted: “Eyes, throat, genitals!”

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Death in the Desert

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Release: Friday, October 9, 2015

[online screener]

Written by: John Steppling

Directed by: Josh Evans

This piece is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. I’d like to thank James for giving me the opportunity to give it a look!

Death in the Desert is yet another film about the failure that is Las Vegas, not as a city or an institution, but as a place to start relationships. What at first seems like a metaphorical title for a way of life perpetually disregarded as ‘rock bottom’ turns into an apt description of one tiny thing that happens in the movie. I wish it weren’t so literal; that way I could pretend to defend the creativity of such a title.

Josh Evans adapts true crime journalist Cathy Scott‘s novel about an heir to a casino on the neon-lit Strip whose fatal drug overdose in 1998 had been contested as a murder at the hands of his live-in girlfriend. Names and likenesses have been changed to protect identities, with Michael Madsen playing the seedy Ray Easler (read: Ted Binion), a second-generation casino owner with millions of dollars in silver that he’s trying to stash away in the desert, and Shayla Beesley as former exotic dancer Kim Davis who falls for Ray’s charm.

The story focuses on the tension between two apparently lonely and wayward people, separated by a rather substantial age gap, who find comfort in one another’s own problems. The relationship begins out of nowhere. Admittedly, there are several factors working against the story, including some not so great acting — Madsen’s okay when he’s not yelling — and aimless directing. Death in the Desert is a film with neither style nor much substance, mumbling its themes (Las Vegas is filled with lonely, broken people; never trust a man who doesn’t look at all trustworthy) while offering occasionally flashy shots of western sunsets and setting its stars against the nightlife to give the impression the film is truly immersed in its environs.

Unfortunately this isn’t the extent of the issues. The navel gazing and awkward line delivery is less problematic as more technical aspects, such as editing. The editing is disastrous, giving the film a choppy, contrived pace that lacks both rhythm and in worse cases, even logic. In fact some transitions are so careless and random you swear you’ve missed something and want to go back and rewind. But then the jump happens again and now it’s obvious. Either the crew experienced a stunted post-production or there wasn’t one at all. The package is so slapdash intervening circumstances almost had to have come into play at some point.

Madsen is a strong presence, but he’s not good enough to make Death in the Desert watchable. He displays the kind of abusive behavior towards his “girl” you’ve seen a hundred times over; there’s nothing remarkable about his emotional outbursts, except for how random they are. If you’re particularly cynical you might even consider his involvement an additional sleight, at one point left to wonder what it was about this script that caught his eye. But then, another revelation: this was a favor to a friend. Still, it’s a credit to Madsen that he doesn’t completely phone in his performance. His toughness, even if it’s slightly manufactured at times, is welcomed in a story that really needs life injected into it.

In short, this breathtakingly bad film’s stars (and interesting subject) deserve more than what they get here. Death in the Desert will leave you feeling just as dejected and cold as a bad weekend in Vegas.

Michael Madsen in 'Death in the Desert'

Recommendation: A few edits shy of a good draft, Death in the Desert features some of the worst editing this reviewer has ever seen in a movie, a setback that unfortunately is glaring enough for someone like me to pick up on (I’m not one to usually complain about ticky-tacky stuff like scene transitions). But in the interest of full disclosure, it’s also a production that could use some inspiration on most every front to become something that’s worth spending time with.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 80 mins.

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'Deadpool' movie poster

Release: Friday, February 12, 2016


Written by: Rhett Reese; Paul Wernick

Directed by: Tim Miller

I hope someone is going to pay for it, because that fourth wall is destroyed. And I know Ryan Reynolds ain’t gonna put up the money, even if he is about to make millions upon millions with this future franchise.

STOP! READERS! HI, HELLO — THIS IS RYAN REYNOLDS AND I AM TAKING OVER THIS BLOG. I REPEAT. DO NOT . . . oh, fuck you caps-lock. Anyway, don’t listen to . . . er, well, I guess read . . . a word this cream-puff so-called ‘critic’ says about the Deadpool movie! He’s going to try to sell us (me) short, go see the movie for yourselves. You have a choice here, people — do not become passive, put in your place! Break out!

Ryan, I never said I was trying to talk them out of seeing the movie. 


Alright. Well, what I was going to say. . . 

I SAID SHUSH, YOU MUPPET! . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . OK, so what were you trying to say about Deadpool? I’m sorry, this wasn’t . . . you know, like this wasn’t meant to be a hostile takeover, nothing permanent or anything — I just wanted to prove that there was in fact, another domain I could go into and try to be more meta with this movie. FIFTH WALL BROKEN!

See, I’m already confused. Who’s now talking?

You are, Tom. Well, you were in italics before, so . . . I mean, this is me. I’m regular font.

Yeah, you’re right I just forgot to italicize that last line. Well, still. 

You’re welcome! Your blog is yours again. K thanks for the promo and everything! . . . . . . . . (p.s., Julie — call me 😉 )

Oh, really? I can have my blog back now? [Ponders how to translate unenthusiastic sarcasm through typing.]


Alas, this is what you pay to see in the much-anticipated and appropriately-rated comic adaptation for the snark-and-sexsass Wade Wilson/Pool of Deadness — the over-the-top meta humor. 21 and 22 Jump Streets have nothing on this. Not even The LEGO Movie got the audience to feel like such an active participant in the events.

Deadpool is so relentlessly self-aware and rather clever it’s easy to forget how generic the story is. When we’re not kebab-ing the bad guys we’re fumbling hopelessly for dramatic realism — I’m not feeling the multiple-organ-cancer as an excuse for him to undergo this radical ‘transformation’ bit — it’s delivered ably enough but there’s very little original about this origins story. However if you’re of the sort who like films with as many ridiculously well-written, well-thought-out-but-even-more-expertly-articulated-and-delivered jokes packed into a single frame as possible, Deadpool is probably going to bring you to your knees.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 2.50.54 AM

Recommendation: Ryan Reynolds cranks up the snark to 15 debuting the red-and-black form-fitting man suit. Its merits far outweigh the weaknesses, of which there are several, and there’s enough commitment from the rest of the cast to ground the film somewhat in its slower moments. I’m also still trying to decide if it definitively benefitting from the R rating makes the content stronger or weaker. How would this have worked if it were packaged as a Marvel-friendly PG-13? 

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “Crime’s the disease, meet the cure. Okay, not the cure, but more like a topical ointment to reduce the swelling and itch. Hi, Tom!” 

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Hail, Caesar!

'Hail Caesar!' movie poster

Release: Friday, February 5, 2016


Written by: Ethan Coen; Joel Coen

Directed by: Ethan Coen; Joel Coen

There’s a new Coen brothers film out in theaters and it is called Hail, Caesar! It chiefly depicts a day in the life of a 1950s Hollywood fixer, a man charged with ensuring that studio productions stay on track and avoid disruption or shut-down due to various intervening factors, not least of which being a movie star’s actions away from the set. Call it a function of public relations but this custodial role actually seems even more thankless.

As a modest Coen brothers fan, I bought a ticket. I watched as the film played. When it was over, I got up and headed for the exit. I got into my car and drove home. Such is the perfunctory, mechanical, obligatory, bland, boring manner in which the Coens chose to “make” their new film. This is a total head-scratcher, a real WTF-er.

All the elements seem to be in place for an uproarious, clever comedy. The talent is there behind the lens and the pens. The cast is the sort only directors with the kind of pull brothers Joel and Ethan now have can afford: Josh Brolin is the fixer, Eddie Mannix. George Clooney stars as Baird Whitlock, a name as epic as the film he’s starring in (you guessed it, Hail, Caesar!). Scarlett Johansson reinvests in her native New York accent playing DeeAnna Moran, the star of a spectacular water-themed production that will apparently involve lots of synchronized swimming, while Ralph Fiennes is a British director unhappy with a miscast  Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in his stage drama. Frances McDormand isn’t exactly Marge Gunderson this time around but she does have the distinction of being in the film’s funniest scene (and it is great). Channing Tatum plays a tap-dancing Communist and Tilda Swinton has a double role as twin sister journalists.

Oh yeah, I think I forgot Jonah Hill but that’s okay, because so did the Coens. Hill’s cameo barely registers as it seems to have already had its time in previews that have played to death the little flirty moment he gets to have with Johansson. No harm, no foul though. At least I can say Hill is consistently compelling with the two lines of dialogue he gets.

Hail, Caesar! can hang its hat on other things besides its staffing. Visually, it’s a beautiful piece and a love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood. A sparkling sepia filter bathes the backlots of 1950s studios in a warmth that belies the business-like approach of both Brolin and the narrative at heart. But it’s not all glamorous, for the Coens seem to be indicting Big Business while celebrating the end product, the beauty of filmic imagery and the devotion of a cast to see its completion. Hail, Caesar! is, if nothing else, confirmation that the ‘magic of movies’ really lies in the sequence and number of phone calls a studio exec happens to make. But please, I turn to the Coens to be entertained, not educated. Or maybe I came to be educated, too, but I still put my needs in that order.

The film does very little entertaining. In fact it’s a surprisingly meandering, mindless affair where plot threads begin and taper off out of nowhere; where the comedy comes in spurts and the weirdness rules with an iron fist. Hail, Caesar! is perhaps at its worst when tracing Mannix’s single biggest problem of the day: locating and returning Baird Whitlock who gets kidnapped from his own trailer. This is a subplot that goes nowhere. A group of Communist sympathizers explain to Whitlock the arrogance of studio executives and how they get off on making millions for themselves (and their higher-ups) while never properly paying those who contributed their creative talents — several of the members of this clandestine group are screenwriters, you see — thus the reason why they are holding one of Hollywood’s biggest names for ransom.

Yeah — take that, you big meanies! This arc would have been compelling had it made any effort to engage the audience but philosophical and ideological ramblings (which seem to have this weird effect on the movie star) offer a painfully obvious exit for any theatergoer not well-versed in the Coens’ tendency to wander aimlessly every now and then. This time I don’t blame those people that couple for leaving; Hail Caesar! spends way too much time indulging.

And then it leaves such little time for other stories, such as DeeAnna’s concern over raising her soon-to-be-born child and Hobie Doyle’s aspirations. Mannix offers to protect the former’s image of having a baby out of wedlock (this is the 1950s, remember) by allowing her to put her baby up for adoption until she can claim it without the public becoming any wiser. Doyle is having a hard time fitting into a more talky role and must decide if he wants the western to define him as an actor or if he wants to grow and develop into something more. At least he seems to be comfortable finding a date to the premier of one of his own movies.

There’s another half-baked story involving entertainment beat reporters Thora and Thessaly Thacker — anyone notice a pattern yet? — in which both are morbidly curious about the disappearance of Capitol’s prized possession in Baird Whitlock, and both still have questions about his legitimacy as a star in the first place. Some scandal about sleeping with a male director to get a role early in his career? What? You could almost consider the Thacker sisters prototypes of the folks over at TMZ, their ability to show up at any time and out of thin air simultaneously alarming and amusing.

The Thackers’ presence is microcosmic of the Coens’ unusually tedious throwback: at its best it is a mildly amusing, grin-inducing gossip column. At its worst it is a waste of time, with some moments so dreadfully boring it’s a wonder how a film that’s critical of the film-making process managed to keep them in the final cut.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 4.23.51 PM

Recommendation: One of the Coens’ weakest efforts to date, Hail, Caesar! has its moments but too often the laughs are lost in an unfocused narrative that spreads itself too thin across an arguably too ambitious cast. That said, those who are cast in the film fit right into the scene and do well with what material they have. There’s no such thing as a bad performance here but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a cast this good fail to compel in any significant way. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “Would that it were so simple . . .”

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Genre Grandeur – World of Tomorrow (2015) – Digital Shortbread

It’s time again to throw my hat into the ring with another Genre Grandeur (although this was last month’s theme and I’m posting this a little belatedly). Come check out what I and others chose to talk about!




For this month’s next review for Genre Grandeur – Sci-Fi, here’s a review of World of Tomorrow (2015) by Tom of Digital Shortbread

Thanks again to Natasha of Life of This City Girl for choosing this month’s genre.

Next month’s Genre has been chosen by Dan of Slipthrough Movies We will be reviewing our favorite Crime Movies.

Please get me your submissions by the 25th of February by sending them to  Try to think out of the box! Great choice Dan!

Let’s see what Tom thought of this movie:




World of Tomorrow


by Tom Little



Number of times seen: 3


Brief synopsis: A little girl is taken on a mind-bending tour of her distant future.


My take on it: Profundity runs rampant in Don Hertzfeldt’s latest short film, World of Tomorrow. While a departure from his painstakingly hand-drawn catalog, the…

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