This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the films being covered here wouldn't exist.
by Julian Spivey
In December I saw something called the “12 Movies Challenge” on Facebook. The premise was that you would have 12 months to watch 12 movies recommended by 12 friends. I don’t often participate in such social media challenges but being a movie buff I felt this might be an interesting way to get out of my comfort zone a bit when it comes to watching movies.
My Facebook buds gave me some films that I’ve been meaning to watch and I pretty much front-loaded those on the list – though not explicitly stated in the challenge rules I am opting to watch one film a month.
A Best Picture winner like “Out of Africa” is an obvious choice for me to get to at some point – that point is now going to be March of this year. But there are certain movies I’m not really looking forward to all that much – I’m looking at you “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” my August selection. Then there’s the acclaimed stuff that isn’t really up my alley like the anime feature “Spirited Away,” which I’ve scheduled for November. That will truly be me getting out of my comfort zone.
Here are the 12 movies recommended to me and the months I’ve assigned myself to watch them:
January: “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983)
February: “Till” (2022)
March: “Out of Africa” (1985)
April: “Legally Blonde” (2001)
May: “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006)
June: “The Birdcage” (1996)
July: “Morning Glory” (2010)
August: “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” (1966)
September: “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)
October: “Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975)
November: “Spirited Away” (2001)
December: “The Last Laugh” (1924)
The movie recommended for me that I chose to watch for August was “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” – a 1965 Universal Pictures comedy starring Don Knotts. It was recommended by my friend Felicia Reynolds.
This was the first film project Knotts did after leaving “The Andy Griffith Show,” for which had won three Emmy Awards (he would win two more as a guest returner) as bumbling deputy sheriff Barney Fife.
So, that’s already one strike against “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” a clever play on “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” a 1945 novel and 1947 film starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison, because I’m a huge fan of “The Andy Griffith Show” and both that series and Knotts’ career were never really the same after he left.
Despite being a fan of Knotts on “The Andy Griffith Show,” I hadn’t seen many of the Universal Pictures comedies he left the show for. I had seen 1967’s “The Reluctant Astronaut” as a teen on TV and I think I enjoyed it. I also have some feint memory as a young child of Knotts as a talking fish in “The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” which he made for Warner Bros. while still on ‘Griffith.’
In “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” Knotts plays Luther Heggs, a newspaper typesetter with dreams of becoming a reporter in the town of Rachel, Kansas. Luther is a bit of a scaredy cat and has a reputation for being a bit of a dunce and the main target of bully Ollie Weaver (Skip Homeier), a reporter at the newspaper. When the 20th anniversary of the supposed murder-suicide at the local Simmons Mansion comes around, it’s thought of to have Luther spend the night in the house for a prospective story. Spooky things take place while Luther spends the night at the mansion like a blood-stained organ playing by itself and the portrait of Mrs. Simmons is stabbed with pruning shears and bleeding.
The story of Luther’s experience in the murder house makes him a bit of a town hero and makes him all of a sudden interesting to local beauty Alma (Joan Staley) – was this the beginning of the schlub gets the girl too beautiful for him comedy trope? – but it also pisses off the nephew of the Simmons who’s trying to sell the property and it being haunted may not be the best for the sale. So, the film culminates with a trial to prove Luther made the whole thing up and ends in some surprises.
Luther Heggs is just a different variation of Barney Fife. It’s Knotts’ schtick. If you don’t like the schtick you’re not going to like this movie (or probably anything Knotts has done). I enjoy the Knotts’ schtick when there’s a witty, sarcastic performer to play off of it – which is what made the relationship between Andy Griffith and Knotts so great on “The Andy Griffith Show.” There’s really nothing to play off of Knotts’ goofiness in ‘Mr. Chicken.’
It’s not a film I particularly enjoyed, but it’s too inoffensive to hate on or even dislike. It was a way to spend 90 minutes and I’m sure would make for good viewing for a family feature between grandparents and grandkids.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the films being covered here wouldn't exist.
by Philip Price
Director: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Jason Statham, Jing Wu & Shuya Sophia Cai
Rated: PG-13 (action/violence, some bloody images & language)
Runtime: 1 hour & 56 minutes
In 2015, I took my one and only trip to the Toronto International Film Festival. At the festival, I had my first encounter with a Ben Wheatley film. The guy was coming off a couple of well-reviewed indie features I hadn't seen but was premiering his Tom Hiddleston-fronted “High-Rise” at the festival that year. I remember coming out of that experience bored and thinking the film felt like something made with ideas loftier than its writer could convey and for an audience where such allegories were overlooked anyway. It wanted to be something it wasn't, in short, but come to find out eight years and five Ben Wheatley films later that it wanted to be something it couldn't; at least not with Wheatley at the helm. I don't like to straight dump on people or wholly place the shortcomings of a film on the shoulders of one person, but there was no reason to believe “Meg 2: The Trench” was going to be good, especially with Wheatley directing.
In all honestly, ‘Meg 2’ isn't as bad as I feared and certainly isn't as bad as the Tomatometer would lead you to believe, but it isn't the kind of so bad it's good or fun either. Opening with a prehistoric prologue followed by a needle drop of Queen and Bowie's "Under Pressure" I thought we might be headed in the right direction, but while we're immediately given shark bites and Jason Statham action the three-man screenplay then slows to plot out the plot no one really cares about. Li Bingbing's character is immediately noted as having died two years ago, her daughter (Shuya Sophia Cai) is now being co-parented by Statham's Jonas and the girl's Uncle (Jing Wu) who is some type of scientist himself working for an environmental corporation that may or may not be evil (definitely is) that keeps a baby meg in an enclosed area for "research purposes".
Anyone who has seen a single piece of entertainment can figure out where this is going, but for one stupid reason or another the movie then decides to take our core characters down to the titular trench in order to try and map the unknown. Admittedly, the deep darkness of the ocean is a good idea for jump scares and forcing the characters to utilize anything other than guns to defend themselves, but it's so visually bland that there is a solid 20 minutes of this alleged $185 million production where it feels like you're watching a black screen with Statham grunts looped over the top of it. Experimental! Worse, that aforementioned evil corporation somehow built a whole base 25,000 feet underwater on the ocean floor (though more absurdities of this nature would have been appreciated) making the movie more about man versus man rather than man versus fish. There was a point in this exploration of the trench that I was hoping they'd go full Indiana Jones and have Statham and co. discover a lost civilization of sophisticated megalodons, but alas...I guess they're saving that for “Meg 3: Won't You Be My Neighbor”?
Fortunately (or unfortunately), this sequel will satisfy more of your average movie-goers than it won't. No, we don't get to what we pay for until the final half hour of this two-hour movie that should have been half an hour shorter in the first place, but it's hard to argue people don't get what they pay for in that climactic sequence. As someone who goes to the movies each week and hopes/expects a little more though, the Shark on Statham action never fully or properly utilizes the scale of the megs and the fact the shark is completely CGI was never not at the forefront of my mind. So little tension. There are a few solid comedic bits throughout, most due to Page Kennedy doing his best Tyrese impression, but apart from the broad comedy we get an antagonist who wears an old lady vest, a terrible unknown actress as the woman who runs the evil corporation who definitely should have been a bigger, Jodie Foster-esque name, as well as Wheatley throwing in the Spike Lee shot for good measure (insert Tom DeLonge GIF). So, while I wouldn't classify this as bad as it's not not entertaining, it is pretty standard and that's the last thing you want your Jason Statham fights a prehistoric shark movie to be.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the films being covered here wouldn't exist.
by Aprille Hanson-Spivey
“It is literally impossible to be a woman.”
As soon as the words fell gracefully, yet painfully, from actress America Ferrera’s mouth as exasperated married mom Gloria in the summer blockbuster “Barbie,” I zeroed in. I couldn’t have known what she was going to say at that moment would hit me so deeply forever.
And not only hit me but haunted me.
The messages of female empowerment embody director Greta Gerwig's “Barbie” at a time in society when a movie like this is desperately needed. The amount of pressure put on women every single day of our lives is staggering.
I’m not a mom, but I feel the enormous weight of excelling in my career, constantly battling to keep my house clean, deciding and cooking or ordering take-out every single night – a must, especially since I tend to forgo lunch, instead snacking on chips or quickly shoving a granola bar in my mouth to continue working.
Then there are all the “side hustles,” a cute little term we’ve coined as a society to put more work on ourselves. For me, it’s writing – writing for a newspaper, attempting to write a children’s book, writing for this website and mentally hoping to write a nonfiction book relating to death (what a Barbie thing to do).
Let’s not forget the “hobbies” and other responsibilities – dinners, drinks, celebrations, book club with friends, caring for our three dogs and cat (feeding, letting them out, walking them, playing with them, taking them to training classes, etc.) and adding a foster dog to the mix to put even the tiniest dent in the South’s overpopulation and cruelty toward animals. Fosters come with their own unique responsibilities – potty training, kennel training, vet appointments.
I coordinate a grief ministry at my Catholic parish, hopefully utilizing some of the talents God gave me in my own struggles of losing my Mama to help others see hope as they trudge through grief. I have an adoration hour, praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament each week to give me the peace I so desperately need outside of the regular weekend Mass I attend.
And remember, I’m not a mom. I don’t have human children, yet I want them. Why? Because I know ultimately it’s an unmatched joy in this life that will outweigh – but not eliminate – all the hard times parenthood brings.
Or maybe it’s because I’m a woman, and apparently, we are gluttons for punishment.
This isn’t meant to be just a laundry list of my busy life. Any woman you see on the street, tap her on the shoulder (but not in a creepy way, we’re all on alert) and ask about her schedule and I’m sure you’d find each has either an equally hectic life or is a million times busier. I am constantly in awe of women who have more irons in the fire than me, thinking, “How does she possibly do it?” I settle on divine intervention usually.
Last year, I made a massive career change that sent me into a tailspin. I did what most journalists eventually do and hopped on over to the “dark side” of marketing. Thankfully, it’s for an organization that is literally in the business of saving lives, but still, add identity crisis to the list of things I deal with every single day.
So, when Ferrera launched into her monologue about how it’s “literally impossible to be a woman,” it was literally impossible not to cry the two times I’ve seen it so far. Because I felt the weight of the impossibility of what society wants me to do and has wanted me to do my entire life with every single line she delivered:
“It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful and so smart, and it kills me that you don't think you're good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we're always doing it wrong.”
Not feeling enough is a constant struggle. I started to tear up immediately.
“You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin.”
Every day I think, “I’m going to eat healthier.” I tell my husband, “We really need to be healthier.” And I want to be “healthy,” but I also want the fat gone from my thighs … but it’s a little too vain to explain to people. And oh yeah, I need to make time to exercise.
“You have to have money, but you can't ask for money because that's crass.”
I swear I have PTSD from every past job in asking to be paid what I’m worth. Ask any journalist and they’ll have the same story. Add extra trauma for us female reporters.
“You have to be a boss, but you can't be mean. You have to lead, but you can't squash other people's ideas.”
If you are leading anything and come off as a bitch, you’ll be written off as such.
“You're supposed to love being a mother, but don't talk about your kids all the damn time.”
My heart ached for my mom friends.
“You have to be a career woman, but also always be looking out for other people.”
At this point, my eyes have really welled up.
“You have to answer for men's bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you're accused of complaining.”
How dare I ever question men in power, especially in the workplace?
“You're supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you're supposed to be a part of the sisterhood.”
Ah, the constant societal-forced competition with other women. We’ve been comparing ourselves to other women since middle school.
“But always stand out and always be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged. So, find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful.”
I mean, who wouldn’t be grateful, right men?
“You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It's too hard! It's too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.”
And I’m crying again even as I write this from the weight of impossibility. Because who else would be at fault? After all, Eve ate the apple first, right?
“I'm just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don't even know.”
I am tired too. Every single woman on this planet is collectively tired because of the pressures society has placed on us. As a devout believer, I know it’s not what God wants for us. But even if you’re not at that place in whatever spiritual journey you’re on believe me when I say that I think we can all agree it’s also not what the universe wants for us.
It’s amazing that it took a bright pink movie about an iconic doll to lay out all the heartbreaking ways society is getting it so wrong.
I know it feels impossible ladies, but we really are enough. Let’s start believing it.
by Philip Price
Director: Danny & Michael Philippou
Starring: Sophie Wilde, Alexandra Jensen & Joe Bird
Rated: R (strong/bloody violent content, some sexual material & language)
Runtime: 1 hour & 35 minutes
“Talk to Me” is a mix of tension and transgressions without being straight-up terrifying at any given point. The power of YouTuber's Danny and Michael Philippou's feature debut is not necessarily that it scares or frightens, but more that it makes you feel the guilt and anxiety that Mia (Sophie Wilde) is dealing with in the wake of doing whatever it takes her to get back to a place of peace.
Like many a movie in the horror genre as of late, “Talk to Me” also deals in coping with grief, loss, and ... you guessed it ... the trauma caused by such experiences. Unlike many of these similarly themed therapy sessions though, Mia, while being the protagonist of the piece, is not our hero. Mia is the lead, but also the leading cause of our frustration in this twisted game of possession as she’s the kind of main character who brings everyone around her down with her due to her own troublesome experiences. And it’s not that her struggles shouldn’t be or are not supported, but worse - it’s that they are - and that support is taken advantage of. Furthermore, she is so desperate to return her life to what she always imagined it would be rather than how it's turned out that she has no sense of remorse or awareness of the implications of her actions. Mia becomes so wrapped up in fulfilling her own desires to the point she is blinded to all the wreckage she’s left in her wake.
To this extent, we are still naturally invested in Mia's arc, but what this more hostile relationship with our protagonist does is allow the sympathy for the supporting cast to increase. This is especially true with Mia's unofficial adoptive family made up of her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen), Jade's little brother Riley (Joe Bird), and their mother (Miranda Otto). While Wilde is the breakout star of the piece and deservedly so as my reaction to her complicated character clearly implies she handled her job well the turn that was most surprising for me was Bird. There is an immediate empathy you feel for this younger, often neglected but largely endearing presence who is torn between his own, immature friends and Jade and Mia, whom he feels he fits in with more. There are two scenes between Mia and Riley that establish their dynamic, but the key interaction is their first one in which they come across a dying kangaroo from a car strike on their drive home (this is made by, produced by, and set in Australia). Riley tells Mia they need to put it out of its misery, but Mia can’t follow through. This concept of putting someone in pain out of their misery is something Mia simply can’t process on either side; whether death is peace or a direct result of her actions – she can’t deal with the consequences. There are reasons these traits and these dynamics are emphasized early on though as they not only remain relevant but pay off tremendously throughout the prime middle section of the film before the film slightly deviates by devolving into a mix of possible outcomes for the established premise that ultimately never feel as satisfying as one might have hoped given the strength of the first two acts. That is, until the final moment swoops in to salvage what felt like a mounting set of, “but why?” questions as that final frame both answers and astounds in a positive fashion.
Much of what elevates the Philippou's thoughts on trauma and grief is the way in which they stage and personify their source of evil. The whole bit is that a couple of kids Jade and Mia know from school have this embalmed hand – the horror trope of a possessed object being passed from one person to the next – that allows spirits to be conjured should you perform the right steps. This is initially looked at as nothing more than a game, a party trick, but Mia has her own intentions with this possible gateway to the other side. There isn’t time or space for skepticism around whether this is legit or not as we’re 20 minutes in and the characters, plot and motives have been established and the action is underway. The first time we experience the ritual is when Mia “goes under” and the camera movement changes from a casual floating observer to a locked-in, roller coaster track that pushes the viewer into this underworld. We see glimpses of the tormented souls Mia meets, but it is the amped-up sound design with extra, stomach-churning effects and throat-gurgling sounds that add to the ambiance. Best make-up shouldn’t be out of the question come awards season either as the consistent and ever-intensifying darkness of the eyes and around the nose and lips - as if a disease is spreading further the longer they remain under this spell - is really effective in communicating how far down the rabbit hole they’ve run. The Philippou's ensure these symptoms and the effects of this experience remain consistent throughout – especially with Bird’s character – but are smart enough to change up and differentiate how this ritual is portrayed the more comfortable our characters become in performing it. There’s a wonderful little insert shot of a dog sitting outside the room where a previous run of the ceremony went sideways that is pretty cheeky, but much needed in terms of levity and worth noting as the directors sprinkle a few of these throughout.
Effective. Effective and efficient. These are the key words that kept springing to mind the longer “Talk to Me” went on. It became more and more evident with each passing scene how precise these guys were in their depiction of the story they desired to tell and how unrelenting they wanted the film to feel in how they dealt with the pacing. Whether it be around the imagery, the way the sound design works in accordance with the editing, or countless other little facets that help heighten the intensity of the experience it’s beyond clear these brothers have a knack for conveying what they want to say in an effective manner. The issue “Talk to Me” encounters is if what they want to say is interesting or at least made to feel fresh enough through this effective execution to remain engaging or feel insightful. That is to say, “Talk to Me” left me very conflicted in that I had a hard time reconciling both how much this pissed me off narratively along with how irritating Mia becomes in her choices with how much I admire how well the Philippou's seemingly achieved what they set out to achieve. I certainly don’t need to like or agree with a film's protagonist in order to like or appreciate a movie, but some of the character choices here are so infuriating and only negated, again, by how effective the storytelling is that it was difficult to decipher between disappointed and disturbed. This is best equated to the kind of “scary” this “scary movie” is meant to be as this isn’t the type of horror film meant to frighten, but more the type of horror film meant to haunt. There is some genuinely upsetting and unsettling imagery in the film to the point I wanted to look away not because I was scared of what was happening or going to happen, but because I couldn't (or didn't want to) deal with the reality of what was unfolding in front of me. I couldn’t help myself though and naturally had to stay glued to the screen to know what was coming next because I was engaged because even if I couldn’t reconcile my own instinct with the film’s choices, it was still … you guessed it … too damn effective to ignore or dismiss.
by Philip Price
Director: Justin Simien
Starring: LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish & Owen Wilson
Rated: PG-13 (scary action)
Runtime: 2 hours & 5 minutes
It's kind of wild that less than a decade ago director Justin Simien made "Dear White People," a searing and sometimes absurd satire of college life set around systematic racism that dealt in both grounded and nuanced commentary and somehow that same guy is now making a theme park movie. I don't begrudge anyone a paycheck job, but everything about this feels kind of ... pointless?
In a sense, basically the complete opposite of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” which could have felt equally tired, but instead feels inspired due to its execution rather than unnecessary due to its reliance on familiarity. Worse, I have no familiarity with or nostalgia for the theme park ride or the Eddie Murphy version (I’ve never seen it) and still found this to be a rather unimaginative slog.
All this to say, I would love to have seen an original film Simien might have written for LaKeith Stanfield and Tiffany Haddish with supporting turns from Rosario Dawson, Danny DeVito and Owen Wilson (whose casting is admittedly inspired), but if your only opportunity with this cast is a remake of a movie based on a park ride then at least find what about that idea inspires you before signing on only to turn on autopilot.
It somewhat felt as if there might have been something akin to inspiration or at least re-creating that comforting yet creepy Halloween spirit that remains reassuring no matter how old you get in the opening moments prior to the title card as the New Orleans setting and complimentary Kris Bowers score made for something that might have its own flavor rooted in this logical setting, but once the plot itself kicks in the pacing unspools completely. Despite the dire circumstances, there is no sense of urgency to any of the situations or within any of the characters. What should feel immediate instead feels, simply, inconsequential.
As we lurch into the second full hour there is no need to even pretend one might fully grasp what is going on or why Stanfield, DeVito and Wilson are going on another excursion together as the countless diversions from the titular mansion feel more like diversions from the fact the premise of the ride has little to offer and therefore, we are taken elsewhere so that Winona Ryder and Dan Levy can show up for no reason.
To counter, there are some interesting shot selections in one of the hallway sequences early on that look as if they were shot with longer lenses so as to feel more immersive, but when the secret of that hallway is later revealed this style isn't recalled. In fact, this is the only time in the movie this visual style is utilized therefore making it feel more out of place than intentional. Another neat technique used to illustrate where these somewhat hazy, mostly transparent ghosts are in the frame and how they're moving is a single shot panning across multiple picture frames and portraits with the apparition moving from one to the next becoming a part of the picture or painting, but these moments of (divine?) inspiration are too few and far between to register or validate the existence of this product.
Speaking of products, the fact that will live on longest about this “Haunted Mansion” is how unabashedly it slips in brand names and product placements (including the whole of whatever/whoever Jared Leto is at this point) should tell one all they need to know.
by Philip Price
Director: Jeff Rowe
Starring: Shamon Brown Jr., Micah Abbey & Jackie Chan
Rated: PG (sequences of action and violence & language)
Runtime: 1 hour & 39 minutes
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” is something we, especially myself and my millennial brethren, have seen done multiple times before, but this time it’s possibly been done the best we've ever seen it. Having been born three years after the first TMNT comics were released and the same year the more brightly-colored animated series debuted the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been a part of my entire life and hold a special place in my own sewer of nostalgia. The ‘90s movies (yes, even the third one) are a cornerstone of my childhood and yet, ‘Mutant Mayhem’ might just surpass them on the sheer charisma of the cast and genuine camaraderie of our heroes. Not that those live-action features didn't have well-defined characters with interesting arcs, but they couldn't help but to feel a little stiff whereas here things are as natural and effortless as could be if not more so given we're talking about "turtle mutant karate teens".
Effortless is maybe the key word here as everything in this latest animated incarnation - from the music to the execution of age-old ideas and of course the animation style itself - feels effortlessly cool and surprisingly fresh. Director Jeff Rowe (“The Mitchells vs the Machines”) seemingly utilizes every tool at his disposal to emphasize the unrefined quality of our heroes and push that mentality to the forefront of the film. The style of animation will undoubtedly be compared to the ‘Spider-Verse’ films, but in all honesty, they each convey a different energy as the film’s “rough around the edges” approach simultaneously lends the tone a bit more of an edge while still maintaining a child-like wonder as the turtles long to be part of a world that fears them. We can see the sketch marks, the incomplete outlines, and not only this but the way the city, the sewers, as well as the people and/or mutants are depicted is far rawer - almost ugly - in a way we haven’t seen before. It’s not that the film itself is revolutionary, but what does feel so is how unconventional and hip they have managed to make a piece of IP and furthermore, the coming-of-age story it’s telling. Like, another ‘TMNT’ movie could have very well felt played out and tired, but instead, this feels very much akin to a "cool kid club" you'll want to be in on. This a real statement on how much execution truly elevates.
The film also does well to focus on each of the four turtle’s personalities and fighting styles giving each a moment to utilize their different weapons which was such a crucial part of picking which turtle you were as a kid. Moreover, the actual (and well-realized) teenage approach to the film works on multiple levels, but maybe - most importantly - it makes the whole experience a fun one. Yes, the look, the style, and the personalities all contribute to this sense of fun, but obviously what pushes Mutant Mayhem into extreme rewatchability territory (key for any Turtles movie made for tweens) is simply how funny it is. And again, effortlessly. Nicolas Cantu (Leo), Brady Noon (Raph), Shamon Brown Jr. (Mikey), and Micah Abbey (Donny) each possess a distinct tone to their voice that kind of immediately identifies each of our heroes' temperament and how they fit with one another which, as the umpteenth version of these characters, is a dynamic the movie didn't have to define yet is so organic it never feels like it takes away from the plot or that it short-changes any of the supporting players; in fact, it is this inherent brotherhood among the four turtles that helps define the attitude of the movie overall.
Add in another banger score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that combines the angst of early-‘90s rock with the high-energy, synth and percussion-infused tracks that scored any number of ‘80s films aimed at youths as weaved freely with a soundtrack that features the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Ol’ Dirty Bastard and it’s hard to resist. The needle drops are crucial and work well to highlight fight sequences that have, up to this point in the turtle’s big screen history, been hindered by limited practical effects and costumes or an over-reliance on CGI. While the dingy but never dull animation style already gives these sequences a kind of unexpected brutality they are also insanely stylized though not to an obnoxious level, but rather just to the point of being as effortlessly cool and impressive as everything else around them.
As a lifelong ‘TMNT’ fan who has found something to like and appreciate about each of the films and TV series that have come out over the years (I mean it when I say 2016's ‘Out of the Shadows’ is severely underrated) and there have been some odd ones (looking at you, ‘The Next Mutation’) it was a nice change of pace to not have to necessarily try and find the good in ‘Mutant Mayhem’ because of how overwhelmingly energetic and compelling everything about it is. Director Rowe and his team along with writers/producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg go all in on the mayhem of the mutants they promise in the title while giving vets like Jackie Chan some of the funniest lines and running gags as Splinter while Ice Cube and Paul Rudd do what they do best in the supervillain department. Of course, as with many a Rogen/Goldberg production, ‘Mutant Mayhem’ circles back around to key themes of those transitional moments in life where the expansion of one’s world helps them understand themselves better and where/how they might want to fit into that world. Acceptance is a key word here, but the film is tactful about presenting its ideas and opinions regarding not doing things only for the sake of having others like you which, again, makes it...ya know...cool. Oh, and there’s plenty of pizza too.
by Julian Spivey
One of the greatest months of the year for classic film buffs is August because every August Turner Classic Movies (TCM) breaks out its “Summer Under the Stars” programming featuring movies from a single actor or actress for 24 straight hours every day of the month.
Typically, each year the schedule for Summer Under the Stars features a mixture of legends who’ve had days in previous installments of the series and those who are making their ‘SUTS’ debut.
This year there are eight first-timers on the ‘SUTS’ schedule, including some surprises like Anthony Perkins (August 2) and John Carradine (August 31). The other six first-timers are Stella Stevens (August 3), Jackie Cooper (August 4), The Nicholas Brothers (August 9), Rhonda Fleming (August 10), Katy Jurado (August 16) and Geraldine Chaplin (August 22).
I highly recommend watching as much of the ‘SUTS’ programming as you can or DVRing as much as you can so you can watch at a more convenient time, but every year I like to showcase my favorite days on the ‘SUTS’ schedule and recommend some can’t-miss flicks on that particular day’s lineup.
Paul Newman is one of my all-time favorite actors and he’s featured on the Summer Under the Stars schedule on Sunday, August 13. Among the Newman classics I hope you make time or DVR space for that day are 1967’s prison drama “Cool Hand Luke,” (4:30 p.m.) which is arguably his finest performance. I’m personally excited to see some of his films I haven’t had the pleasure of viewing yet like “The Long Hot Summer” (7 p.m.) and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (9:15 p.m.).
By sheer happenstance, it looks like TCM has scheduled my all-time favorite actress Barbara Stanwyck and my all-time favorite actor James Stewart on consecutive days, so I highly recommend keeping your TV tuned to the classic movie channel for 48 straight hours on Sunday, August 20 and Monday, August 21. For your Stanwyck picks on Sunday please watch the hilarious screwball comedy “Ball of Fire” co-starring Gary Cooper in an atypical Cooper role at 1 p.m. and perhaps the greatest film noir ever made in “Double Indemnity” at 3 p.m. I hope to check out one of Stanwyck’s earliest star-making roles in “Baby Face” for the first time at 7 p.m.
What I think are two of Stewart’s finest performances ever – and that’s saying something because he had so many – are scheduled for his ‘SUTS’ day in director Frank Capra’s political drama “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” where Stewart plays the idealistic young politician Jefferson Smith who’ll make you believe in politics for a brief time, and the dark Western “Winchester ’73,” from director Anthony Mann. These two performances really show Stewart’s range and a drastic change in his performances from the late ‘30s into the ‘50s. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” airs at 1 p.m. and “Winchester ‘73” at 7 p.m.
Another one of my all-time favorite actors – and one who’s always been a clear favorite on TCM – is Humphrey Bogart, whose movies will be showcased on Sunday, August 27. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen a complete list of the schedule for Bogart’s day – TCM.com isn’t the shining beacon of a website it once was (probably because Warner Bros. Discovery is cutting costs wherever it can) – but I do know all-time classics like “Key Largo,” “The Maltese Falcon” and “In a Lonely Place” are airing that day. Please mark all of them on your calendar if you haven’t yet seen them.
My final recommendation is Woody Strode’s day on Tuesday, August 29. Strode was a terrific actor who took to Hollywood after the end of his football career, where he was a trailblazer. He became something of a Hollywood trailblazer too as a black actor who had a lead role (though he noticeably wasn’t billed first despite being the titular character) in director John Ford’s 1960 Western “Sergeant Rutledge.” I fully believe Strode would’ve been a star if he hadn’t been an actor in the era he was. I also highly recommend Richard Brooks’ 1966 Western “The Professionals,” where Strode teams in the ultimate badass cast with Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Lee Marvin.
by Philip Price
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr. & Emily Blunt
Rated: R (nudity & language)
Runtime: 3 hours
Given Christopher Nolan accomplishes as much in-camera as possible there is little left to the imagination in Oppenheimer. From the bomb to the billions of stars and even boobs, Nolan gives us everything that made J. Robert Oppenheimer (the J apparently stands for nothing) tick. Was he a neurotic loner who was also a womanizer? A cold-hearted physicist as well as a bleeding-heart liberal? That seems to be the case and maybe the best case for why Nolan’s historical biopic about the “father of the atomic bomb” is so successful: it seamlessly integrates these contradictions into the narrative surrounding the moment that set the course of humanity on a different trajectory. Nolan's trademarks are well-suited to the story of a(nother) tortured genius who faces the greatest moral dilemma - possibly in history - and must come to terms with both his ambition, understanding his actions, and eventually wrangling with his legacy as he sees it being maligned and he himself being exiled by those with real power.
Though technically a biopic, “Oppenheimer” doesn't necessarily carry a weight of obligation to feel like a fully formed portrait of the titular man, but rather Nolan's focus and more importantly his technique add more thematic and worldly weight to the proceedings rather than simply amounting to a highlight reel of Oppenheimer's most notable moments. This is also a more roundabout way of saying Nolan moves through much of his subject's life at a breakneck speed, especially in the beginning as Oppenheimer goes from student to well-renowned physicist in a handful of scenes, with little handholding, while still elegantly establishing what inspires, drives and irritates his main character propelling us into the second - most electric - hour of the film.
Almost too dense to feel like writing anything about it would scratch the surface of Nolan's intent, what stands out as the throughline is the fragility of the egos many of these men possess and the extent they/we go to achieve if not then secure a certain status, reputation or lasting importance. Funny, of course, that in searching for validation from the world that Oppenheimer then creates what is “a destroyer of worlds” but Oppenheimer – at least as played by Cillian Murphy – conveys a man who would have us believe he’s chasing a better society and not solely a self-fulfillment only such recognition could fulfill. Nolan crafts both Oppenheimer’s frame of mind and the results of his pursuits through several separate timelines and distinct perspectives allowing for those represented via color to feel more organic and unrefined given much of it is Oppenheimer’s distinct perspective whereas the legal proceedings we see in black and white are much more static and procedural.
When I say technique I mean the execution in terms of the sound design, the score, the way in which Jennifer Lame cuts and intercuts Nolan’s timelines together and of course the scope at which cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema composes his shots even when it’s simply people talking in a room; even if the setting or location may not feel staggering or even aesthetically unique, Hoytema and Nolan are able to emphasize the magnitude of the moment through their visual instincts. The story, the people involved, the psychological effect on those people not to mention the ramifications on the world at large are all at the forefront of our minds as we watch Murphy walk into a crowded gym of cheering contemporaries waiting to hear Oppenheimer’s reaction to the dropping of the bomb. This moment, in what is maybe the sequence of the year and crystallizes why this film is exemplary, utilizes every tool in Nolan’s bag to not only put us inside Oppenheimer’s mind but utilizes its optical and aural opportunities to transcend the screen and make us genuinely feel the anguish and fear and uncertainty about what this man has done, what he’s responsible for, and what this means for the future of the human race.
Not strictly concerned with the male ego but permeating throughout, Nolan’s entire reasoning for the third hour seems to be to not only show the external and self-inflicted consequences on Oppenheimer, but more to address the systemic issues of putting lowly shoe salesman in positions of authority over the thinkers and creators. To this extent, the who’s who of supporting actors is obviously impressive. Robert Downey Jr. is the second lead and gives a largely non-RDJ performance while still maintaining being the wisest person in the room even if he might not be the smartest. Florence Pugh and Emily Blunt are the principal women of the cast each with key scenes that aid in Oppenheimer’s arc if not their own relationship's dissolution. In the true supporting roles, David Krumholtz helps lend Oppenheimer sympathy, Josh Hartnett does the same with equity and Matt Damon comes in clutch to deliver a crusty general who is snappy in his assertions and commands lending some much-needed levity; all are fantastic. Furthermore, each seems to understand the tone and capacity of their role and it is through this that the film melds their performances instinctively with Ludwig Göransson’s score to create these ominous, montage-like storytelling moments to convey how the ideas of this group of people whose convictions and intelligence were exploited for the sake of the war still attempt to remain pragmatic in the face of reality.
Staggering, monumental and haunting, “Oppenheimer” is the kind of achievement that stays with you, that bleeds into your everyday thoughts and makes you consider things just a hair longer than you might have before. Nolan is a technical wizard with past complaints about his films being that they are cold, too forthright in their themes, and don’t handle their female characters well. Nolan has grown in each of these respects, but more “Oppenheimer” signals what may be the filmmaker’s biggest leap thus far as it is almost undoubtedly his greatest triumph, a culmination of his career up to this point, his magnum opus, a crowning achievement. This is a masterwork of storytelling that will take multiple re-watches to grasp the full depths of everything Nolan is using this historical figure to illustrate.
The final 10 or so minutes of the film are both a literal ticking bomb (via the score) and a psychological one as Oppenheimer is forced to hastily confront those aforementioned choices, actions, and the conflicting evidence of what he did versus how he felt. Nolan typically leans on the science of his premise to provide the meat on the bones of his films should the characters and emotional beats not feel sufficient. This would obviously seem to be the case with a story like “Oppenheimer,” but while we see visual interpretations of theory early on Nolan largely abandons both these cues and much talk of the scientific process for creating the weapon to lean more into the politics, but more firmly in the direction of his subject’s mounting contradictions through every aspect of their life and how both Oppenheimer’s work and thoughts ultimately consume him.
by Philip Price
They Cloned Tyrone
“They Cloned Tyrone” is of the best of the post-‘Get Out’ generation at mixing genres and tone around social commentary. Not sure the commentary comes together as seamlessly as the rest of the movie is sure it will, but the filmmaking is assured enough to convince the viewer to stay with the story. On the cusp of being great, but a lot of fun nonetheless, much of this due to the performance Jamie Foxx turns in. I’m optimistic Foxx will pick more projects like this in the future and that director Juel Taylor will have the opportunity to make more like it.
“They Cloned Tyrone” is streaming on Netflix.
While a quick Google search of Richard Montañez, the hero at the center of Eva Longoria's directorial debut “Flamin' Hot,” will offer some conflicting reports on the truth of the story this film tells it would seem (as always) that the truth is somewhere in the middle meaning “Flamin' Hot” is probably about as historically accurate as something like “Argo.” While there may or may not be cause for some type of moral debate around the authenticity of Montañez's story what I tend to look for when these types of questions arise is the intent of the film. If Longoria's intent was purely to heap praise and adoration upon Montañez said complications around whether or not this guy is telling the absolute truth might be more relevant, but that is not why Longoria seemingly chose this as her first film. It's obvious Longoria desired to tell this story because outside of it following the underdog "American Dream" arc it is about a Hispanic underdog who not only wants to prove to himself, his father and his community that he's more than what society has labeled him, but also wants to prove to white corporate America that both he and his community are good enough; that he and they are worth listening to. To this end, “Flamin' Hot” is just inspiring and entertaining enough without ever feeling like it captures the spice that made its namesake a national craze.
“Flamin’ Hot” is streaming on Hulu and Disney+.
As someone who isn't an avid sports fan in general and even less enthusiastic about baseball I'm not sure how much of what is included in Sam Pollard's documentary “The League” is common knowledge to those who are and how much of what is presented here is rather revelatory. Either way, Pollard presents a sturdy, clear-eyed look into what is a seemingly (if not unsurprisingly) overlooked aspect of baseball's history: the Negro League.
This is rather by the books as far as documentaries go a la lots of archival footage and talking head interviews but given I didn't know much about the subject matter beforehand I found this enlightening, but I was fascinated by the conflicted feelings this seemed to conjure for many of the subject matter experts that were interviewed. Beyond being introduced to characters such as Andrew "Rube" Foster who deserves his own narrative feature and batting phenom Josh Gibson whose eyes, in any picture, have the ability to pierce your soul there is this complicated notion of avoiding integration. Not necessarily avoiding it, but at least acknowledging how much the owners and many of the players involved in the Negro League would have to give up in order to get in.
Writing and watching from a place of privilege I was disappointed in myself for not recognizing that even when the needle was moved in the right direction morally and socially for the world at large it still came at a cost for those who'd already lost and sacrificed more than they should have.
You can rent “The League” for $6.99 on Amazon Prime Video.
by Philip Price
Director: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling & America Ferrera
Rated: PG-13 (suggestive references & brief language)
Runtime: 1 hour & 54 minutes
“Barbie” has its fake plastic cake and eats it too. When the first note of Lizzo's "Pink" drops accompanying the reveal of production designer Sarah Greenwood's "Barbieland" as these real-life dolls dressed in Jacqueline Durran‘s wardrobe descend from their Dreamhouses there is a sense that what we, the audience and spectator, are being welcomed into are images and feelings that possess an equal amount of simplicity and elegance. There is the immediate sense of influence in that one can easily see images and references from this movie integrating themselves into the culture; stills painted in Hollywood murals alongside classics like “The Wizard of Oz” or characters standing next to Marilyn Monroe. At the same time, there is an adventurous sense that one has no idea what they're truly getting themselves into or at least, where this movie might go both literally and thematically. By the final scene (or two) of the film it is clear this duality of simplicity and elegance is wholly intentional so that the film works on different levels for different audience members whether that be someone who currently plays with dolls, someone who once played with dolls, or even those who always felt too boxed in by expectation to either play with dolls themselves or at least acknowledge the appeal of them.
Yes, this is a movie about a doll, but the “we’ll sell more toys” aspect didn’t bother or invade my experience because of how intelligently writer/director Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird,” “Little Women”) uses this packaging to tell the story she and co-writer/life partner Noah Baumbach decided to tell or how it emphasizes the themes they wanted to explore and discuss. In addition to the levels and ideas (or levels of ideas), “Barbie” is also just a Technicolor fever dream of musical numbers and comedy bits that land with such frequency that even if your sympathy for Ken is maybe greater than it is for Barbie or even if Allan weirds you out a little bit (which we’ll get to) there is plenty here for all to enjoy if not hopefully (eventually) consider.
As an (almost) middle-aged male with no emotional or nostalgic connection to the Barbie brand, I recognize I’m not the “target audience,” but I can’t help but feel this film was made just as much for the purposes of informing and enlightening me and those like me as it was to empower and highlight the women and young girls it was ostensibly made for. That is to say, Ryan Gosling’s Ken and his arc play a major role in the journey and arc of Margot Robbie’s Barbie; not all of it (Barbie couldn’t care less about Ken in any romantic sense), but more than I initially expected. While I am always happy to see Gosling play to his strengths a la his slapstick abilities and just as funny dry sense of humor that inform his line readings I half-expected his portrayal of Ken to be a crutch the movie would lean on in intervals strictly for said comic relief … it is not.
Again, as an (almost) middle-aged male I realize this is a very (almost) middle-aged male reading of the film, but this is just as much a journey of self-discovery for Ken as it is for Barbie and while I’m sure there are many viewers of my sex, age and ethnicity that will be threatened by a movie sending a message of empowerment and self-discovery to women who hold positions outside of marriage and motherhood (I can’t believe I even have to type this still) it is also fascinating so many will fail to see themselves so strongly represented in a movie made for women. It would be easy to get into the weeds, but ultimately the structure of the ideas is, again, fairly simple in their elegance in that “Barbieland” posits a world that is the inverse of our own. This naturally gives rise to both very comedic and very affecting moments as Barbie and Ken each come to their own realizations about how their assumptions about the real world and how it parallels "Barbieland" are incorrect. That, of course, is the intent – to wrap the contradictions and complications of being a woman in a society built by and for men – in a digestible, Technicolor comedy and yet, even as “Barbie” gives more time and thought to its male lead than a movie about a man having an existential crisis would give to his wife or partner there are those who interpret this as a threat rather than as the extremely creative, well-drawn, and incredibly funny case for some semblance of equality and validity that it is.
While watching the film I wrote down “In a world of Ken’s, be an Allan.” Michael Cera’s Allan doesn’t get much screentime and works more in the capacity I expected Ken to in the film at large, but what Allan and his singular presence do illustrate is what both Barbie and Ken are trying to investigate and discover which is how to be one’s self apart from pre-ordained expectations. Allan isn’t looking to impress a Barbie every day, he couldn’t be bothered by what “job” he has that might otherwise lend him credibility or status while also having the confidence to easily leave the only place he’s ever known as well as the strength to beat up a couple of construction workers when the situation calls for it. Cera delivers one of the biggest laugh lines of the film for me simply because of my points of reference, but he also serves as a perfect conduit for this kind of neutral, well-balanced cynic who is still affable in the company of others. Sure, the fact he’s unique in that he’s the only one of his kind is a little on-the-nose in terms of what Gerwig and Baumbach as well as their main characters are chasing thematically, but Allan is used in such a specific way that the point he illustrates only emboldens the larger ideas being conveyed through the plight of the main characters.
That was probably too much about a small, supporting character in a movie led by Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling so I should clarify that both Robbie and Gosling aren’t playing around here despite literally playing dolls. Both actors are fully invested not only in the physicality required to bring Gerwig’s ideas to life, but also in the sincerity of the journey they each go on. Gosling is getting the buzz and will inevitably be the number one thing people are talking about as they leave the theater and deservedly so. The man absolutely kills every funny line he gets and then straight-up murders his big musical number, but he does get the bigger, funnier, showier role and thus the reason it is being talked about most. No hate. I’m all in on Gosling getting a Best Supporting Actor nomination if not a win and can only hope the “I am Kenough” hoodie he sports at the end of the movie is available for purchase soon because I want one, but Robbie (who has been captivating since showing up 10 years ago in “About Time”) does the heaviest lifting here. Not only is Robbie embodying this nearly 60-year-old ideal of stereotypical female perfection, but she is selling the comedy of "Barbieland" as well as turning around a couple of scenes later and making the audience feel genuinely upset by how the first tween (Ariana Greenblatt) she encounters in the real world interprets the whole of her being. Robbie gives a performance that not only rings true in both of these facets but must also solidify what everyone else in the cast is doing as well as support what everyone else behind the scenes has built. It is quite the ask, but Robbie makes it feel effortless. Though I doubt Robbie will receive the recognition she should for it, her performance opposite Rhea Perlman in the film’s closing moments almost guarantees Perlman’s performance will.
America Ferrera, Kate McKinnon and Will Ferrell are also of note in this world and while McKinnon and Ferrell are each given their moments to deliver their own brand of off-kilter it is Ferrera who has the show-stopping moment in which she delivers the thesis, the culmination, the coup de grâce to the patriarchy if you will, the treatise of the movie’s exploration on the feminist investigation. It’s a moment one can see coming from a mile away and yet Ferrera’s delivery in this one moment swiftly swings from rage to impassioned to sentimental and back as she inspires the recently brainwashed Barbies to play on the egos and petty jealousies of the Kens in order to take back their rightful place as the rulers of "Barbieland". While anything but subtle and despite Ferrera’s character and arc otherwise feeling like more of a function of the plot to this point it is this turn that integrates her character, Gloria, into the fun of the film as Sasha (Greenblatt), her daughter, looks on proudly and finally drops her angsty façade to join her mom for some rebellious, liberating fun that also sends a message.
I maybe admire “Barbie” more so than I actually love it, but I do feel a deep adoration for what Gerwig and all involved have accomplished here. Not only for the aforementioned musical cues, production and costume design, as well as Rodrigo Prieto’s candy-coated cinematography but for the small directorial flairs included such as the matching of the offices down to the light fixtures and of extras walking through the background when going to a split screen or – as someone who is admittedly logic-driven – trusting her audience with the lack of logic or explanation for how the connection between "Barbieland" and the real world and dolls and their owners actually works. There is no science to the way these things are connected and one either has to accept that and stick with the idea that this is a fantasy land and everything might not make sense in the same way it does in the real world or just not, but even to that extent Gerwig and Baumbach are sure to include a line of dialogue late in the film that is spoken by one of the Kens in the denouement of battle about how we “make things up just to deal with how uncomfortable it is” and while not explicitly referring to the plot machinations of the movie one gets the sense this is one part commentary, one part suggestion.
The degrees to which this got weirder than believed would be permitted is truly rewarding though, as the broadness to which the existential crisis is played make it work as a legitimate conflict while the smaller moments between characters are authentic to the point the film delivers a real weight for viewers to carry with them once the film is over. It is the balance of that simplicity or the more obvious targets at which a ‘Barbie’ movie would be obligated to take aim and the elegance with which Gerwig handles these ridiculous scenarios that not only emphasizes the immediate vitality the film has injected into the culture, but more that the film itself is a statement for how Gerwig didn’t allow herself to be put in a box that will help this product, this art, last far longer than any of us.