Gosnell: The Trial Of America’s Biggest Serial Killer – A glorified TV movie that still packs a sickening punch. Based on the true story of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia area abortion physician who was convicted of murdering three children after they were born, the film reenacts the investigation and subsequent trial that led to the doctor’s downfall. While on the surface this appears to be a pro-life, anti-abortion film, it is less about that hot button issue and more about this particular true crime case. That’s not to say there isn’t an anti-abortion tone that permeates the film; there is, but it’s not overtly preachy. It is merely conveyed by the details of the case itself. Of course, with a Christian production company helming the production, there are certainly some manipulative moments. Cross-cutting fetuses in jars to lively children playing at home would be an example. Thankfully, this is kept to a relative minimum and even the more gruesome aspects of the crime are kept offscreen. Even the damning photo that ultimately convicted Gosnell is not shown to the viewing audience (although a disclaimer at the end of the film notes that you can see the actual photo on the Gosnell film website if you are so morbidly inclined). The cast is solid, but unspectacular, featuring several television veterans such as Dean Cain (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman), Nick Searcy (Justified), Janine Turner (Northern Exposure), Sarah Jane Morris (Felicity, NCIS), Michael Beach (ER / Third Watch) and Earl Billings (a sitcom regular since the mid-1970s). Cain plays a police detective investigating the abuse of prescriptions by doctors which leads him to the Gosnell clinic in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia. After learning that the staff is liberally evading the law, he gains a search warrant and uncovers a house of horrors – unsanitary conditions, fetuses left out in the open, poorly trained staff and a variety of other violations. Upon interviewing the young nurses on the scene, it is soon discovered that the doctor is not only aborting babies past the legal period allowed for such procedures, but in some cases, he is even delivering babies and having them killed while alive. The District Attorney’s office reluctantly takes the case, not wanting to stoke the flames of the abortion issue, but desiring justice for not only the infants killed in Gosnell’s care, but also for a woman who died in his operating room. The prosecutor (Morris) focuses on the abuses while the defense attorney attempts to drum up the abortion issue to defend his client. The rest is typical trial drama. Really a TV movie level production if a mainstream media company was willing to even air such subject matter, the power of the film is really in the story itself. Pulled straight from the headlines, it forces the audience to examine the issue at hand and discern if the doctor went too far in his actions. There’s nothing particularly memorable about the production itself and yet you will likely be thinking about this film long after you leave the theater.
Bad Times At The El Royale – A movie of diminishing returns. El Royale is one of those films where the setup is far better than the payoff. It is one of those features where you will find yourself entertained in spots but wonder what was the point of taking the journey in the first place. In other words, an underwhelming mixed bag, which is a shame because the premise of the movie is quite good. Various odd characters converge at seedy Tahoe motel in 1969 which is situated on the California – Nevada border. In fact, the motel is designed so that the state border runs right through the center of the building so you can choose to stay in either the Cali side or the Nevada side. Getting a room at the El Royale are an R&B singer (Cynthia Erivo), a priest with early onset Alzheimer’s (Jeff Bridges), a short fused hippie femme fatale (Dakota Johnson) and a fast talking appliance salesman (Jon Hamm). They are taken care of by a junkie concierge (Lewis Pullman) who seems reluctant to have any guests at his establishment. Of course, none of the characters are who they say they are and each has a different motive for being at the El Royale. Even the motel itself has its sinister secrets. I won’t spoil any of the twists but let’s just say the film involves government surveillance, stolen armed robbery money, a Charles Manson-like flower cult, Motown, a kidnapped woman and lots of guns, knives and fire. Writer and director Drew Goddard, who gave us the absolutely insane comedic-horror film “The Cabin In The Woods” decides to tackle the neo-noir genre this time around, and although the tone is right, there’s something off kilter about the entire proceedings and not in a good way. Goddard appears to want to explore the degrees of good and evil that men (and women) have the propensity to carry out as well as how sin decent necessarily define a soul. Profound yes, but in this Tarantino-esque setup, the message is muddled amidst the mayhem. The pulpy first half of the production is more fun as you try to figure out what’s going on, who each character really is and process the sudden jolts of violence and humor that appear. The second half follows through to a crazy, but logical conclusion (there’s no all out insanity like there was in Cabin) and it doesn’t feel fulfilling in the slightest. Ultimately, you’ll enjoy the ride for a bit, but you’ll leave the theater a bit hollow.
A phenomenal achievement in every sense of the word. First Man is the best film ever made about the space program and that is saying a lot when there are great films like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff out there. Director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) steps away from his musical background and focuses on the story of man’s attempt to land on the moon. In doing so, he hits all the right notes. In his typical unorthodox fashion, Chazelle peels away all of the hero worship and manic patriotism that is often attached to space exploration with a focus on the mission itself. The audience sees the fears, uncertainty, political pressure, family divisions, personal and professional tragedies, etc. which fueled the mission. There’s very little in the way of stand up and cheer moments or ticker tape celebrations in this production. Ryan Gosling is superb playing Neil Armstrong, who gains the singular focus of stepping on the lunar satellite at the expense of everyone, including family, friends and colleagues. Claire Foy is equally good as the silently suffering wife who sacrifices much despite seeing her husband become more and more distant. A veteran group of character actors like Jason Clarke, Ciaran Hinds, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll and Patrick Fugit among others all lend credible performances in support. But the key selling point of First Man is its technical prowess. The cinematography is crisp and clean with wide open vistas of space. The sound effects are top notch as are the visual effects. Even the musical score is expertly crafted to keep the viewer at the edge of their seat. This is auteur film-making, borrowing a little here and there from masters like Kubrick and Ron Howard, while producing something wholly original. You may know the story of the moon mission, but First Man proves to be a minor miracle by making it all seem fresh, new, dangerous and compelling. First Man qualifies as one of the best films of 2018 and its a feature I’ll likely go back and watch a second time. It’s that good.
The Old Man And The Gun – Lightweight fluff that serves as an entertaining send-off for actor Robert Redford in his last film role. Despite not much substance, there are still plenty of reasons to watch this movie. The story is simple enough. An aging thief uses his experience and charm to steal from banks throughout the midwest while evading the authorities and wooing a local woman he met in the course of his business. Robert Redford is suave as ever playing the gentleman bandit who lives by a noble code of non-violence, using his personality and wiles to coerce bank employees to hand over the money. Sissy Spacek is in fine form as well as the love interest to Redford’s witty rogue and Casey Affleck provides adequate support as the cop who wants to bust the elusive criminal. The film also has actors Danny Glover, Tom Waits and Elisabeth Moss in supporting roles. But this film belongs to Redford. If it wasn’t for the fact that Redford has stated this film is the last of his illustrious career, one could dismiss this feature as a mere star vehicle or vanity piece. However, in this case, the movie serves more as a career retrospective and tribute to the actor. The script is full of witty dialogue and subtle homages to Redford films of the past. There is a running joke about how his character has never ridden a horse (Redford was the Sundance Kid for cryin’ out loud!), references to his crime films of the early seventies such as The Hot Rock and The Chase, and even his old mugshots are photos from The Sting and Brubaker. The Old Man And The Gun is a nostalgia piece, but a very good one; just the type of old-fashioned film-making that you rarely see any more. It’s no classic, but it has its moments of movie magic and is a quality end to a fine career.
22 July – Devastating, hard to watch, yet impeccably made docudrama recounts the worst terrorist attack in Norway’s history in the summer of 2011. At nearly 2 and a 1/2 hours, the film lags at times, but for the most part, is a compelling portrayal of the tragic events. Director Paul Greengrass (United 93, Captain Phillips, several of the Jason Bourne films, etc.) utilizes his hyper-reality style of film-making to dramatic effect in a film which is essentially divided into three parts. The first third of 22 July depicts the actual bombing of the Norwegian Prime Minister’s office in Oslo and the subsequent attack on the summer camp of the island of Utoya. In total, Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people and injured hundreds more in the name of extreme Right-wing nationalism. The middle third of the film is the weakest, depicting the immediate aftermath of the incident on victim’s families, the defense attorney assigned to Breivik’s case, the government and others involved. The human element is present, but it lacks the immediacy and drama of the previous opening moments of the movie. It’s also a section that we’ve seen done better in films like Stronger (with Jake Gyllenhaal). Fortunately, things pick back up in the final third of the feature which focuses on the trial of Breivik, the fight of victim’s families to keep him from speaking in court, and the push for one victim to testify against him. Overall, 22 July is an excellent, but uneven production that shows the graphic effects of terrorism. The Norway attacks in 2011 have been called that country’s 9/11, but I would say they are more akin to the Oklahoma City bombings by Timothy McVeigh. This is a case of a homegrown terrorist, acting on a delusional political mission, who felt he was fighting in a larger ideological war. Due to the nature of the killer, his sequences are far more intriguing to watch than the stories of the victims, which may not have been the director’s intentions. Still, it is a quality overall effort and director Greengrass continues to make some of the best “based in real life” dramas in cinema. 22 July is available to watch on Netflix and a few select theaters.
Mandy – Bonkers, over-stylized, and over the top grindhouse exploitation flick that is not nearly as good as some critics have made it out to be, but is certainly more fun than it really has any right to be. And Nicolas Cage gives another one of his bat-sh!t crazy performances. The premise is simple and you’ve seen it before. Man has girl. Man loses girl to psychos. Man left for dead but lives. Man returns for extreme vengeance. For those who love splatter films and gore, this should certainly quench that thirst, but the film also has some great one liners, some hilarious violence and style up the wazoo (although its a bit overbearing at times). At times it feels that director Panos Cosmatos (son of George Cosmatos who directed 80s schlock such as Rambo First Blood Part II, Stallone’s Cobra and Leviathan) is trying a little too hard to make this a midnight cult classic, and it may very well become one, but there are some scenes where the style outweighs the substance (there are some animated sequences; some work and some don’t / also a lot of psychedelic coloring) or a sequence becomes unintentionally funny. Cage plays a logger in the Pacific Northwest who is living a peaceful life with his artist girlfriend Mandy in relative peace. They share past traumas with each other but seem to be two wounded souls who have found each other. Mandy excels in fantasy art and unaware to Cage’s logger, she has taken to reading about the occult. Following her readings, she begins to have visions and makes an inadvertent telepathic link with the head of a drug cult family. The cult leader summons his followers to kidnap Mandy which they do with the help of some demonic bikers called up through a human sacrifice. They drug Mandy and try to make her the lover to the cult leader but she sees through her hallucinogenic haze and laughs in the face of the cult leader. Enraged, he proceeds to torture the logger and then make him watch them burn her alive. Eventually the cult leaves and the logger is left for dead. Of course, he frees himself, finds some weapons and vows to kill them all in very creative ways. What the film lacks in originality, it more than makes up for with Cage’s hysterical, way over the top performance, some unexpected humor and a great early 80s vibe. This won’t appeal to everyone but if you like low grade, exploitation blood and guts, you will likely enjoy this.
The Predator – Ridiculous fun, but by saying that, I don’t want to sell this film short. My first instinct was to write that this was a check your brain at the door and go for the ride kind of movie. However, on closer inspection, there are some smarts behind what is presented to the audience. That determination is made by seeing that the writer and director of The Predator is Shane Black. Black is more of a screenwriter than a director who has always had quirky, humorous takes on his subject matter. He has given us classic screenplays such as Lethal Weapon, The Monster Squad and The Last Boy Scout. When he has stepped behind the camera as director, he has given us features like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys. All of these projects are action-centered with doses of humor. So knowing this, you realize when watching The Predator that nothing going on is truly serious and most is tongue-in-cheek. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is a veiled spoof of the Predator franchise. If you are looking for a straight forward action film, this is not it, although there are plenty of great action sequences. Instead you get a lot of play on 80’s sci-fi adventure cliches and the genre in general. A large, self important music score. Un-PC humor. Over the top action sequences. Plot points that are never explained or preposterous. Cheesy one-liners, etc. etc. The basic story of this film is that a renegade predator crash lands on Earth fleeing a more monstrous hybrid of his species. Actor Boyd Holbrook (of Narcos fame) plays Quinn McKenna, a covert military sniper who witnesses the crash landing of the space pod while attempting to free some hostages in South America. The government has been tracking the spacecraft and bring in McKenna for questioning. When he mentions that he saw an alien being leave the ship, he is sent to military prison with a bunch of misfit, borderline insane outcast soldiers. And I mean over the top bonkers. Keegan-Michael Kay tells inappropriate jokes at inappropriate times, Thomas Jane has Tourette Syndrome, actor Augusto Aguilera takes everything in a literal biblical context and so on. Meanwhile, the head of the government team Traeger (played by Sterling K. Brown of This Is Us and Black Panther) and his team have captured the predator and are searching for his spacecraft and its military grade alien hardware. Little does he know, but McKenna has mailed the predator’s helmet and tracking device to his autistic son (Jacob Tremblay from the films Room and Wonder), who, being a genius, unlocks the alien code. Throw in a female scientist (Olivia Munn) who somehow knows everything about alien culture (which is conveniently never explained) and you have quite the motley cast of characters. Eventually the prisoners break free to fight what they think is the Predator, but there is actually a hybrid Predator chasing the first predator which has acquired super-DNA from warrior creatures around the universe that is even deadlier. He’s even got monstrous, predator dogs with him. As mentioned, everything is over the top here, with blood and limbs flying everywhere, coincidental plot twists and hammy acting. And it’s all the more fun for it. In the spirit of films like The Ice Pirates, The Delta Force, and D.A.R.Y.L., along with nods to classics like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this is nothing like the original Predator with Arnold Schwarzenegger, but is the most entertaining sequel yet in the series.
A Simple Favor – A strange hybrid of different genres that I really liked, but didn’t love. Now don’t get me wrong, this movie has a lot going for it: style in spades, humorous moments, an intelligent twisty screenplay and a quality performance by Blake Lively as a conniving, cosmopolitan b!tch. The primary issue? Just not a fan at all of actress Anna Kendrick. Let’s face it, outside of an adequate performance in 2009’s “Up In The Air” alongside George Clooney, she’s really not a very good actor. She’s been typecast as this perky nerd who comes across as naive when in fact she’s really smarter than she’s letting on. Kendrick is supporting actress or ensemble material; not the stuff of lead actress quality. And unfortunately, she’s more grating and annoying than ever in this feature, which is a shame as this movie has a lot going for it. Of course, if you like Kendrick, you may love this movie. She plays Stephanie Smothers, a single, widowed mom who is that school mother that the community loves to hate. One day, her son befriends another boy and they ask to have a play date together. When this boy’s mother Emily Nelson (Lively) shows up, she reluctantly agrees to have Stephanie and her son come over to her house. Stephanie is enamored with the wealthy, vogue lifestyle Emily is living as a Director of Public Relations at a high profile fashion firm, but soon learns that Emily and her husband Sean are having financial difficulties and everything is not as it seems. When Emily gets caught at work, she asks Stephanie to watch her son, but then never shows to pick him up. Days pass and Stephanie reaches out to Sean and people at the fashion firm trying to figure out what’s going on with the disappearance. Let’s just say things get a lot more convoluted from there. A Simple Favor is a mix of black comedy, Hitchcock suspense thriller, society drama and con artist feature which has some very clever moments but also some cliche moments along the way. Most plot points work, but some don’t. In the end though, it is eminently watchable, but that may be tempered by how you feel about the two lead actresses who take up just about all of the screen time.
The Nun – While adequately creepy and atmospheric, the Nun fails to generate the thrills, chills and suspense of previous entries in The Conjuring universe. Whereas previous movies like The Conjuring, The Conjuring 2 and Annabelle: Creation (let’s face it; the first Annabelle was a lemon) effectively generated suspense that exploded into non-stop terror over the entire length of their run times, The Nun settles for cheap jump scares and an eerie environment. In this one, the setting is 1952 Romania where strange things are occurring at a cloistered abbey. The local village sees the location as cursed and one day a French-Canadian expatriate working in the village as support for the nun’s at the abbey discovers one of the sisters has hung herself outside the walls of the castle. Upon hearing of the incident, the Vatican calls upon a priest who is an expert in unexplained phenomena (Demian Bechir of A Better Life and The Hateful Eight fame) as well as a young sister about to make her vows as a nun who also has experience in visions (Taissa Farmiga – sister of actress Vera Farmiga in her first major starring role outside of the FX American Horror Story series). The expat, priest and sister walk into a bar (kidding)…they investigate the abbey and attempt to find out what lead to the death of the nun. Upon their investigation, various demonic forces attempt to thwart them from discovering the secrets of the abbey. In time, they discover that the abbey was originally a castle built by a Duke in the Dark Ages who was obsessed with witchcraft and demonology. He attempted to unleash hell on earth but Europe’s Christian Crusaders had stopped his plans and driven back the evil entities deep within the castle which they claimed as their own. Since that time, nuns have prayed in perpetual adoration to keep the evil spirits at bay while also housing a chalice with the Blood of Christ. Unfortunately, since WWII, bombings in the area began to break open the portal from which the demons were banished and they have been slowly been wrecking havoc on the nuns, killing them off one by one in the form of a sinister looking demonic nun (the same one introduced to us at the end of Annabelle Creation). The rest of the film has the various characters running through dark hallways and creepy antechambers looking for a way to stop the presence. The Nun isn’t terrible, but it feels like a step back in this series. Most of the other films have been very well made with fair amount of suspense and wow moments. Those don’t materialize here. The abbey itself is creepy, the sound effects intriguing and the acting decent, but in the end, it feels like a franchise going through the motions. Not the worst film in the Conjuring series, but far from the best…
Searching – Excellent mystery / suspense film about a widowed father desperately looking for his missing 16 year old daughter in the media and internet age. What could have easily been a gimmick movie is grounded by a sharp, clever script and a tightly constructed production. Actor John Cho (of Harold and Kumar fame) plays David Kim, a father who is trying to raise his daughter Margot the best he can while grieving for his recently widowed wife. One night, Margot never comes home after an after school study class. As the hours pass, David becomes more worried and more desperate. After calling everyone he knows in his frantic search, he finally calls the police and enlists the help of a detective played by actress Debra Messing. While the detective conducts the ground level investigation for the missing girl, David explores Margot’s social media world and begins to realize that he really doesn’t know his daughter. He begins to question every contact he can find leading him to various dead ends, potential motives and devious behavior. I’ll stop there because the twists that arrive at this point you will not see coming for a thousand miles, and they’re GOOD twists. Not the kind that makes you roll your eyes. The entire film is made to appear as if it is being viewed through various forms of modern technology (basically taking the idea from horror movie “Unfriended”) and expanding it to every format you can think of: Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Venmo, etc. etc. If this film should be considered for any kind of award, look no further than best editing. It’s a marvel of a production. This is smart, sophisticated filmmaking where, even though I didn’t totally buy the final denouement, the journey presented is crafted so brilliantly, you end up admiring the production on the whole.