by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Salma Hayek
My Rating: 5/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 61%

PLOT: An outsider marries into the Gucci family, and her unbridled ambition triggers a downward spiral of betrayal, revenge, and violence.

Watching Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci was a curious experience.  I could see glimmers of a great entertainment through bars of slow pacing, a meandering story, and unanswered questions.  The performances are top-notch, no question, but they are at the service of a movie that doesn’t seem interested in meeting their level of passion.

Inspired by true events, the movie tells the story of Patrizia Reggiani, a young woman from humble beginnings who meets and eventually marries Maurizio (Adam Driver), one of the heirs to the Gucci fashion empire.  Patrizia is played with fury and fire by Lady Gaga, who seems destined for another Oscar nomination.  Her character is portrayed as a latter-day Lady Macbeth, someone who sees through the deceptions of her new husband’s business associates and manipulates people and events for her family’s benefit.  In true tragic form, her ambitions threaten to derail everything she loves.

Adam Driver plays Maurizio as a rather slow fellow who disinherits himself so he can marry Patrizia but finds a way back into the fold via his uncle, Aldo (Al Pacino), who sees Maurizio as a good substitute for his own disappointing son, Paolo.  Paolo is played by Jared Leto, in another of the film’s performances destined for Oscar recognition.  Buried underneath flawless makeup and a skin cap, Leto portrays Paolo as a self-deluded buffoon whose fashion designs aren’t so much daring as unfortunate.  (Apparently, pastels and brown were never meant to mix…who knew?)

I mention the performances because they are the sole highlights of the film.  For two-and-a-half hours, these performances play against a backdrop of one dreary scene after another. Sure, the performances are fun to watch, but at the end of the day, if they don’t have anything interesting to say, it gets a little boring.  We get behind-the-scenes intrigues and betrayals that seem to owe more than a little to earlier crime epics by Scorsese and Coppola, but there was nothing to get really excited about.  Nothing grabbed me.

Ridley Scott’s films are normally way more imaginative than this.  They look better.  The cinematography is usually more inspired.  I’m not talking about his action or sci-fi epics, either.  I mean his small-scale triumphs like Matchstick Men or Thelma & Louise.  What happened here?  Was he not inspired by the story?  There is great material here, more than enough back-stabbing and lying and cheating to go around.  Yet everything is subdued, and plods, and inspires more yawns than anything else.  I didn’t experience any kind of excitement or passion one way or the other for any of the characters, or for the story.  It just didn’t make me care.

By the time House of Gucci is over, we’ve seen betrayals, marital infidelity, divorce, back-stabbing business deals, sex, and murder.  I have a friend who wrote a stage play that has almost all of those things, and it was WAY more entertaining than this film.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Todd Solondz
Cast: Jane Adams, Jon Lovitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle, Louise Lasser, Ben Gazzara, Camryn Manheim, Molly Shannon
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 81% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Various characters, some linked, some not, struggle with the search for happiness in their lives.

A little history:

Todd Solondz’s film Happiness was so controversial that the Sundance Film Festival actually refused to screen it.  It was originally financed by October Films, but upon seeing the final product, October’s owner, Seagrams, dropped the film like a hot potato.  Happiness initially received an NC-17 rating, which would have immediately limited distribution opportunities, as well as created advertising difficulties.  Therefore, it was released unrated, uncut, and unaltered.

I remember reading about this movie years ago in Roger Ebert’s four-star review; he eventually labeled it one of the top ten movies of 1998.  I got curious, so, since this was in the days before Netflix – and I’m not sure Netflix would have made it available anyway – I snapped up the first DVD copy I could find and watched it.

And…um…oh my.  There are dark comedies (Pulp Fiction), and there are Dark Comedies (Dr. Strangelove).   And then there are DARK COMEDIES.  Happiness is a DARK COMEDY.

Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction when Marvin gets shot in the back of the car?  Remember the blood that covered the rear windshield and the blood and pieces of flesh and skull that were peppered all over John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson?  Horrific, right?  But it was such a shocking moment that I remember laughing hysterically for the first few seconds after the incident, so that I missed the next few lines of dialogue from Vincent and Jules.

Happiness is like that.  You’re watching scenes of emotional devastation, but the circumstances under which they’re happening are…kinda funny.  Or at least funny in that shocked kind of way.  Your brain can’t quite believe what your eyes and ears are feeding it, and so you laugh.  At least, I did when I recently re-watched it with my girlfriend last night.  She didn’t do a lot of laughing, for the record.

The plot: We meet three sisters, Joy (Jane Adams), Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), and Trish (Cynthia Stevenson).  Joy is an aspiring 30-something songwriter who still lives at home and has just broken up with her boyfriend in a scene that’s right at the top of the film and sets the appropriate mood: somewhere between funny and discomfort.  Helen is a moderately successful writer who has written a bestselling collection of poems about childhood rape.  Cynthia is a mother of two boys, married to a successful psychiatrist named Bill (Dylan Baker).  She seems to be the happiest of the three sisters, but she’s that kind of person who says things like, “You know, we all thought you would never amount to much, but NOW look at you!”

Cynthia’s husband, Bill, has a dark secret, one which I will not divulge here, but it’s revealed fairly early in the film.  He is a man so desperately in search of happiness that his efforts to fulfill his desires dance on the edge of farce.  He is so compelled to be happy (or at least what passes for happy in his mind) that he is, at one point, reduced to, um, “interfering with himself” in the backseat of his own car in broad daylight, risking discovery at every second by passers-by.

I haven’t even mentioned the part where he drugs the tuna fish sandwich.  Or ditches the PTA meeting for an impromptu “rendezvous.”  Or has a conversation with his 11-year-old son about why length doesn’t matter.  But enough about Bill for now.

Helen, the author, feels like a faker because she was, in fact, never raped as a child, so her happiness and success is built on lies.  She wishes her work could have more immediacy or legitimacy.  Then she could be REALLY happy.  And she might have a way: Daryl (Philip Seymour Hoffman), her next-door neighbor, is so obsessed with her that he finds it impossible to talk to her in person.  So he starts making obscene phone calls to her while he’s at work.  He gets the shock of his life when, after one call, she star-69s him and says, “I want to see you.”

And Joy…poor, ironically-named Joy.  Her trials and tribulations in the movie are more relatable than the others I’ve mentioned previously, so I’ll leave them alone for now.

Now, the subject matter of the movie has sparked controversy, as I mentioned earlier.  Are we, as an audience, expected to empathize with these characters?  Speaking as a guy who has had his fair share of heartbreaking crushes, I’ve gotta say I did empathize a bit with Daryl, the phone pervert.  I certainly don’t condone his behavior, but I was achingly aware of his thought processes as he stood in the elevator next to the object of his desire, desperate to talk to her, certain that she represents true happiness, but eternally unable to do anything about it.

I also identified a little with Kristina, played by Camryn Manheim.  She lives a couple of doors down from Daryl and is always knocking on his door to deliver tidbits of news.  (“Our doorman was found bludgeoned to death in his apartment this morning…supposedly his penis was missing.”)  She is clearly crushing on Daryl, but Daryl is oblivious in the face of his own crush.  Their relationship, or lack thereof, pays off in a scene set in a diner during which a secret is revealed that sees the Marvin scene from Pulp Fiction and raises.

But what about Bill, Cynthia’s husband with the dark secret?  While I can relate to characters like Kristina and Daryl and Joy, what is this distasteful nonsense doing in this movie?  Let’s make no bones about it: Bill is a monster, enslaved to desires he can’t understand; he can only bend to their will.  Does that make him an object of sympathy?  SHOULD that make him an object of sympathy?  There’s an excruciating scene where Bill’s son asks him very, VERY specific questions about his compulsion, and to our amazement, instead of shying away from them, Bill tearfully answers them honestly and directly, including that last question that I had completely forgotten was in the movie.  Does this honesty make Bill honorable?  Previous scenes have shown that Bill is always honest with his son, and he makes the decision not to break that streak, even when the answers are shameful and, probably for some, gag-inducing.

My take: Bill’s crimes and desires have made him irredeemable, in my book.  But…BUT…he did the right thing by being honest with his son.  In that ONE sense, I have to give the character props.  If I were in his place, I’m not sure I would have done the same thing.

Geez, I just realized I haven’t even mentioned another subplot about the parents of the three sisters who have relocated to Florida and are undergoing a separation (NOT a divorce!), even though they’re still living in the same house.  Eh, I’ll leave that one alone, too.

So anyway.  Whenever I read a review that gets this long-winded, I always find myself asking the question, “Yeah, but is it any GOOD?”

Yes, it is.  It’s literate, compelling, and funny, but you may hate yourself for laughing afterwards.  That’s the genius of the movie.  It creates these situations that you laugh at, but when you try to describe the scene to your friends, they just stare at you in abject horror.

(I give it an 8 instead of a higher score just on the basis of the “icky” feeling I get when watching some of the scenes.  You’ve been warned.)

LA LA LAND (2016)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 91% Certified Fresh

PLOT: While navigating their careers in Los Angeles, a jazz pianist (Gosling) and an actress (Stone) fall in love while attempting to reconcile their aspirations for the future.


La La Land was greeted by the American public in one of two ways.  There was no middle of the road.  You either loved it or hated it.

Critics loved it.  It broke records at the Golden Globes that year and was the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture at the Oscars (Moonlight took the prize instead, and deservedly so).

When it came to the viewing public, people were immediately divided into opposing camps, with each trying to convince the other they were wrong.  “It’s homage!” cried one camp.  “It’s derivative and sad!” cried the other.

Me?  I’m part of the “loved-it” camp.  And after re-watching it tonight, for the first time since seeing it in theatres, I have no plans to change my mind.

I once wrote that there is no movie more in love with “old Hollywood” than The Artist.  Well, La La Land is more in love with classic movie musicals, specifically, than any other modern movie in recent memory.  It opens with an astonishing musical number, “Another Day of Sun”, set on a Los Angeles overpass.  In a breathtaking feat of choreography and cinematography, scores of dancers perform nifty moves in and around a traffic jam, incorporating a live band inside what looks like a UPS truck, in one single take…or at least what LOOKS like one single take.  Could be some CG in there.  Who cares?  It’s awesome, and it sets the tone right away: this will be like one of those old musicals where people break into song and dance without warning.  You can stay where you are or you can leave now, but this is what’s happening.

After that, we settle in to a tried and true story of boy (Sebastian [Ryan Gosling], a jazz pianist who wants to start his own jazz club) meets girl (Mia [Emma Stone], an aspiring actress looking for a break).  This part of the story was old when Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland did it in countless other films, so yeah, I get it.  I can see why some folks called it derivative.

But that criticism neatly dismisses the underlying subplot about the Old vs. the New.  Sebastian desperately wants to start a jazz club that plays the greats – Monk, Coltrane, Davis – because, as he says in a passionate speech to Mia, jazz is dying.  Nobody wants to hear it anymore.  It’s old.  (He decries a nearby club that combines jazz, samba, and tapas, or some such nonsense.)  “They worship everything and value nothing,” he laments.

But Keith, a fellow musician (played by John Legend) tries to get him to see sense.  (“How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?”)  History is written by the people who strike out in a new direction.  Sebastian himself uses this philosophy with Mia, who has gotten tired of auditioning for the same teachers and doctors and coroners over and over again.  He tells her to do something different if you’re tired of the same old/same old.  She takes his advice and starts writing a one-woman play about her life.

And here’s where it gets cool.  While the characters in the movie are urging each other to embrace new concepts, La La Land still has one foot firmly in the past, i.e., the grand musical traditions of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, etcetera.  Two later numbers stick out in my mind.  One is a twilight duet between Sebastian and Mia, shot on location in the Hollywood Hills when the sky is that perfect shade of somewhere-between-pink-and-purple.  They sing a little and then they do a beautiful dance together, but they’ve just met, so they’re careful to dance ALONE together…watch it and you’ll see what I mean.  Right out of Vincente Minnelli.  (Let’s be clear…Gosling and Stone are not exactly Fred and Ginger, but they do a damn sight better than I could do myself, so I give them props.)

Another number with classic-musical overtones is set during the first giddy months of their relationship.  With little or no singing (can’t remember which), we follow Sebastian and Mia as they tick off Los Angeles landmarks, finishing at the famous Griffith Observatory.  They enter the planetarium, and in a gloriously giddy moment of cinematic fantasy, they rise into the air and dance among the stars and galaxies before falling perfectly into their seats and sharing a kiss.  I no longer remember what I did the first time watching this movie, but this time around, I watched that whole sequence with a goofy grin on my face.  If you can’t enjoy watching people dancing in the stars, well…

At one point, Sebastian tells someone, “You say ‘romantic’ like it’s a dirty word.”  I like that.  This movie is, above all, romantic, in spite of how it ends.  It’s romantic in the sense that it revels in the unreasonable, illogical hope that everything will work out okay in the end.  Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still dream.  (There’s even a song about this exact thing, sung by Emma Stone in a sequence near the end that oozes romance and heartbreak.)

But all of this is nothing…nothing…compared to the emotional roller-coaster of the last thirty minutes of the movie.  It’s here that La La Land gets all serious in the middle of the fluff, because it explores the nature of success and what is necessary to achieve it.  Sebastian is touring with a band that pays well…but it’s not exactly a jazz ensemble.  Mia is just about ready to give up acting…until a casting agent gives her an opportunity to star in a movie shooting in Paris for four months.  These two characters, for whom the audience has been rooting for the previous 90 minutes, are on a downward spiral, and the only way to save their relationship would be for one or the other to completely give up on their dreams.  But neither of them would ask that of the other.  So they go their separate ways.

WHAT?  After all this they don’t wind up together?  Well…what would you have preferred?  An ending that awkwardly keeps them together, with him, say, playing jazz in a French club while she shoots a movie in Paris during the day?  Enjoying success together?  Having kids?  Sure, that kind of ending is POSSIBLE.  (In fact, in one of the many highlights of the movie, you even get a tease of what that might have been like.)  But, hey.  Isn’t that just the traditionalist way of looking at things?  Why not strike out in a different direction?  Do something no one’s doing.  End your movie where each character gets what they’ve always wanted their entire lives…even if that means they don’t get each other.

Boy, that last sentence sounds harsh.  But that’s what this movie’s about, and I think the film’s detractors simply couldn’t get past the grand tradition that demands the two leads wind up together.  They wanted Singin’ in the Rain, and instead they got the musical equivalent of The Remains of the Day.  (Maybe not quite that extreme, but I trust the point is made.)

ANYWAY.  Like I said, I just finished watching this a couple of hours ago, and I am no less convinced of its greatness.  Even though it’s a wrench watching their relationship head towards the rocks, the movie makes up for it at the end with half an hour of glorious, emotional catharsis that left me feeling wrung out, but in a good way.  It’s not quite a tragedy, but not quite a comedy.  Like life itself, it falls somewhere in between.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 83% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Two men go on the run with a child in tow, pursued by federal agents and by members of a cult who believe the child has special powers.

The general concept of “mystery” in a film is a subtle art.  Not enough mystery, and people will say they’ve seen it all before.  Too much mystery, and people will wonder why they’ve spent good money to be confused for two hours.

Every now and then, though, a movie comes along that shows everyone else how it’s done.  It manages to plunge the viewer headlong into the story with little to no exposition, provides just enough clues to keep things intriguing without giving the game away, and supplies a climax that is not just satisfying, but revelatory.  Prometheus is one of those movies.  So is Freaks (2018).

And so is Midnight Special, from director and screenwriter Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud).

This movie grabs you right from the opening minutes.  Two men appear to be holed up in a hotel room with a young boy wearing blue swim goggles.  Cardboard and duct tape cover the windows.  A news broadcast on the TV reports on the young boy’s kidnapping.  However, he does not appear to be distressed in any way.  One of the men may or may not be his father.  He goes willingly when they vacate the room and hit the road.

In another part of the country, a pastor watches the same newscast with concern.  He later leads a church service, but the scripture reading consists of non-sequiturs and random numbers.  The FBI interrupts the service and hauls each and every church member in for questioning about the missing boy.

What the deuce is going on here?  How is this church connected to the boy?  Where are the two men taking the boy?  What’s with the blue goggles?  What is so important about this boy that the two men with him would be willing to kill for him?

These are all very good questions.  Whenever the movie takes the time to answer one of the questions, two more spring up in its place.  And I may as well tell you now: not every question will get an answer.  But instead of feeling frustrated, I just got more and more involved in the film.  I felt like I was an active participant in figuring out the story, along with the characters.  There’s nothing quite like feeling involved in a movie, rather than simply watching a movie.

When the revelations arrive about where the men are headed with the boy, why they’re headed there, and why the FBI is interested, I’m not gonna lie, I was gobsmacked.  In retrospect, I suppose I should have seen some of the plot points coming a mile away.  But that’s the beauty of the screenplay and the direction.  I wasn’t interested in trying to second guess what surprises were in store.  As a result, when the surprises arrived, I was constantly in a state of jaw-dropping amazement.

I would also like to point out the great restraint used by the filmmakers when it came to the few scenes that required CGI enhancement.  There are a hundred ways these scenes could have gone wrong, resulting in a shot that completely takes you out of the movie.  They avoided all those pitfalls and instead created scenes of startling beauty, even when things seem to be going wrong…or when they at last go right.

This is a movie that deserves to be seen with as clean a slate as possible.  It didn’t exactly make a dent in the pop-culture zeitgeist, so it’s not likely you’ll see any spoilers on the internet without Googling the movie, but why would you want to do that?  Keep an open mind, don’t ask how it ends, and find a way to see this movie.  You won’t be disappointed.

LOOK WHO’S BACK (2015, Germany)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: David Wnendt
Cast: Oliver Masucci, Fabian Busch, Christoph Maria Herbst
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: No score [never released in the U.S.]

PLOT: Without a single word of explanation, Adolf Hitler materializes in modern-day Berlin and, thanks to an unscrupulous TV station, begins to once again take the world by storm.

In the comedy documentary The Aristocrats, scores of comedians tell different versions of the same hilariously dirty joke.  In one scene, the staff of the parody website The Onion gets together in a room and tries to construct the perfect Aristocrats joke by combining every known shocking and taboo subject into their version.  Nothing is off the table: religion, politics, graphic sexual acts, nothing.  We never hear their version of the joke, but their discussion is hilarious by itself.  Look Who’s Talking, a shocking comedy from Germany, feels like someone took all the notes from that meeting, pulled out all the Hitler material, and put it all in this one movie.

…this has happened to me before.  I started a review of this movie earlier this week and abandoned it after I realized I had written over 1,500 words of mostly summaries of the action and plot.

I think the reason is because the plot and the comedy in Look Who’s Back are so outrageous and shocking that I felt I HAD to give context to my reactions.  And the only way to do that was to summarize this scene and that scene and the next.

I simply am unable to put my feelings about this movie into words, at least none that would do justice to this stunning, effective, supremely disturbing satire.

The story: For reasons that are never explained, Adolf Hitler materializes in modern-day Berlin…well, Berlin in October, 2014.  After some initial confusion, he marches to the Brandenburg Gate and tries to get some answers from the crowds of people regarding his situation.  No one will answer his questions…but a bunch of people take a second for a quick selfie with this crackpot in a Hitler costume.

At first, Hitler concerns himself with short-term goals.  After befriending a newsstand vendor, he is informed that he smells.  He needs to get his uniform laundered.  And if you don’t think the sight of Adolf Hitler trying to communicate with a laundromat clerk, who doesn’t speak German very well, about when he can pick up his dry cleaning is hysterical, this movie may not be for you.

The story expands.  A TV producer on the skids at work discovers Hitler at the newsstand and convinces his bosses to allow him to take Hitler on a road trip across Germany.  (They’re convinced because a short video of him railing against German politics has gotten a TON of views on social media.)  Then he lands a spot on a live TV show, and things REALLY start to snowball.  He writes a book.  The book is optioned for a movie.  And so on.

I assure you, this is just the bare bones of the story.  I haven’t even gotten into the innumerable scenes that made me laugh like a hyena on acid.  But I can’t describe those scenes in detail, because I don’t want to get banned from the internet.

Here is a list of the scenes that struck me as the funniest or the most disturbing.  Usually both at the same time.

  • The dog.
  • The discussion about rap music.
  • The “hand puppet.”
  • Hitler drawing sketches (badly) in a public square to earn some money.
  • The TV host in blackface.
  • The scene at the soccer stadium.
  • When Hitler visits a pro-Nazi demonstration.
  • When Hitler compares the TV network manager to Leni Reifenstahl

…and on and on and on.

The true horror/comedy of the movie comes when you realize that, for the VAST majority of scenes where Hitler interacts with people on the street, those are real people having real reactions, not actors. The things that come out of the mouths of some of these people is beyond belief. One guy tells Hitler point blank that he had the right idea about concentration camps. A shop vendor says he had the right ideas about how to run the country economically, and she’d support him if he ran for office. All on camera.

There are other genuine laughs, to be sure. The sequence where Hitler discovers the internet for the first time is worth the rental/streaming fee. But by the time the movie is over, I was left with a distinct feeling of unease. The movie depicted the sinister way in which someone with extreme views can manipulate popular opinion and catapult themselves into a position of power. And it’s not so hard to imagine what it must have been like in the 1930s when Hitler did it all the first time.

The film closes with Hitler being driven down a public street in a convertible, saluting random people as they go by. Most people are shocked. A lot of them flip Hitler the bird. But there are some who give the Nazi salute as he drives by. Are they joking?

This is one of the most effective, provocative satires ever made, and it was never released in the U.S. due to the controversial nature of some of its funniest scenes. If you can stream this somewhere, you won’t regret it. Then ask yourself: could it happen this easily today? This movie provides its own answer. Compare and discuss.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 98% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A widowed mother and her precocious but troubled young son experience some strange goings-on at home after reading a disturbing pop-up book about a malevolent spirit called The Babadook.

All due respect to the classics of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but some of the greatest and scariest horror movies have been released in the 21st century.  Paranormal Activity, The Descent, Hereditary, A Quiet Place, The Cell, It, and many, many others, including, of course, The Babadook.

However, The Babadook stands out because, not only does it achieve its scares with an ingenious less-is-more approach, but it’s actually about something.  Only the best horror films can say that.  And it’s not about some corny love-conquers-all theme.  It’s very specifically about people who have experienced a great personal loss, what that loss does to those people, and how a healing process can hopefully begin.

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a struggling single mother who was widowed on the day her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), was born.  Samuel is now six.  He loves his mother, but he does a lot of acting out…the kind of acting out that earns judgmental stares from other parents.  He builds crude but working weapons, including a catapult he can wear on his back.  (Assuming he lives to see college, this kid’s going to be an engineer.)

Amelia appears to be hovering on the edge of a breakdown.  She loves Samuel, but she’s painfully aware that his behavior, and her inability to control it, is causing problems at school and with other family and friends.

One night, he chooses a book to read as a bedtime story.  Amelia doesn’t recognize the book – where did it come from?  It’s a pop-up book about a nightmarish creature called The Babadook.  (For the record, the last syllable of “babadook” rhymes with “book.”)  In the annals of film history, few books are creepier and more disturbing than this freaking book.  I want one.

After reading the book, the mother starts hearing noises in the house.  Sam believes The Babadook is real.  He has nightmares.  Amelia tears the book to pieces and throws it in the garbage outside.  The next morning, there’s a knock at the door…and the book is sitting on her doorstep.  The pages have been re-assembled and pasted together…except now there are new passages at the end that include some troubling visuals of her, her son, and their dog.

Even without the subtext I mentioned earlier, this is some seriously scary s**t.  If the movie had been stripped of all its intelligence and insight, this would still be a horror classic.

The performance by Essie Davis as Amelia is as horrifying and memorable as Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining.  She’s that good.  She convincingly portrays a woman slowly descending into madness, faced with making impossible decisions while trying to shut away the crippling grief she still feels over the death of her husband.  In her mind, the best way to move on with her life is to pack all of her husband’s belongings, pictures, and clothes into the basement and keep it all locked up.  One interesting clue to her true mindset is that Samuel is not allowed to celebrate his birthday on his actual birthday, since his father died that same day.

Things get worse.  Amelia finds shards of glass in her porridge.  She discovers a hole behind her fridge with…things coming out of it.  Samuel becomes so terrified that he has a fit.  Amelia starts to see quick glimpses of what may or may not be the Babadook itself.  After one particularly horrific encounter, Samuel becomes afraid of his mother.  She seems to be changing…

It all comes together in a final sequence that includes some of the most terrifying scenes I’ve seen since The Exorcist.  (Fair warning: it’s not graphic, but some violence is perpetrated on a four-legged animal.)

What elevates The Babadook is the aforementioned underlying message of the story.  It provides a glimmer of hope for anyone who has suffered the kind of loss Amelia has suffered.  It reminded me of a famous poem by Stephen Crane, “In the Desert.”

          In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

At this point, everything else I want to say about The Babadook would involve giving too much away about the climax.  I am just amazed at how well this movie combines genuinely frightening material with an insightful look into correcting destructive human behavior, and not just in some general way, but very, very specifically.  It’s a modern masterpiece.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Scarlett Johansson
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 84% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A beautiful, mysterious young woman seduces lonely men in Scotland and takes them to her home, where something very strange indeed happens to them…

Under the Skin captivated me in a way that I did not expect.  It is a sci-fi mystery that stubbornly refuses to supply neat and tidy answers, and yet is spellbinding to watch. How director Jonathan Glazer accomplished this is no less mysterious to me than the origins of the movie’s main character, a solitary young woman played by Scarlett Johansson in a bravura performance that must have required a great deal of courage and trust in her director.

After a cryptic opening sequence involving some trippy visuals accompanied by an eerie musical score, Johansson’s character (listed only as “The Female” in the credits) gets down to business.  With the help of a mute motorcyclist (???), she acquires a van and trolls the streets of Scotland for young men on their own in the city.  She lures them into her van with pleasant conversation and a smile, which is easy enough to do when you look like Scarlett Johansson.  She then takes the men back to a deserted house in the country where I wouldn’t DREAM of revealing what happens.

The appeal of this movie is not the story, although that is obviously a big part of it.  It’s the storytelling.  Director Glazer works from a script that has the bare minimum of dialogue, usually when The Female is convincing men to get in her van.  Everything else depends on visuals.  It’s the kind of movie my friend Marc would enjoy, as it uses the camera to tell the story much more so than the soundtrack.  It shows us images and challenges the viewer to put two and two together to figure out what’s happening.

This visually-heavy strategy is a tightrope walk.  One false step and, instead of a mind-bending masterpiece, you get a head-scratcher that leaves you feeling cheated.  Under the Skin manages it.  There is one specific visual sequence that sealed the deal for me, a scene that provides a more detailed explanation of what happens to the men once they’re inside The Female’s house.  The real genius of the scene is that it provides information without fully answering the questions going through your head.  What is that black liquid?  Are the men hypnotized?  Their behavior would make it seem so.  And exactly how big is that house?

I’m being deliberately obscure because the delight of the film comes from discovering the thread of the story and following it along with The Female.  Her discoveries were just as interesting and scary to me as they were to her, because I felt really in tune with her character while I was watching the movie.  The closest I can get to describing it is…a long, LONG time ago, there was a computer game called Hacker that I got for my Commodore 64.  It came with literally no instructions beyond putting the disk in the drive and loading the game.  Then your screen went blank and it just displayed: “LOGON”.  And that was it.  As the gamer, it was up to you to figure out what to do in order to keep playing.  As you discovered more clues to the object of the game, you became more and more involved.

That’s how I felt watching Under the Skin.  Those opening visuals start you off thinking, “What the f@#k???”  Then the movie progresses, and the wheels start turning, and you realize what’s happening, and what The Female is attempting, and the discoveries she’s making about herself, and before you know it you’re as wrapped up in the story as she is.

I remember there was a lot of talk when this movie came out, but I never really hear anyone discuss it any more, outside of movie-centric blogs and Facebook pages.  If I can convince just one person who hasn’t seen it that this movie is worth their time, I will be happy.  Under the Skin deserves to be seen, discussed, and puzzled over.

P.S.  Under the Skin is, in fact, mildly famous because, yes, Scarlett Johansson gets naked.  But don’t get too excited.  Her nude scenes are utterly drained of any sexuality or eroticism whatsoever, due to their context.  You’ll see what I mean when you watch it.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta Jones, Channing Tatum
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 83% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A young woman’s world unravels when an anti-depressant prescribed by her psychiatrist has unexpected side effects.

Side Effects is a rare creature indeed: a movie released during the first two months of the calendar year that is not only good, it’s stunningly good.  It’s too bad almost no one even remembers this movie exists.

Steven Soderbergh’s film tells the story of a young woman, Emily (Rooney Mara), who suffers from depression after her husband returns home from serving a prison term for insider trading.  After a series of events where she apparently tries to harm herself, she sees a psychiatrist, Dr. Banks (Jude Law) who prescribes a brand new anti-depressant called Ablixa.  While it is effective, it also comes with some side effects, including sleepwalking.

One day, Dr. Banks gets a call: Emily has stabbed someone to death, and she did it while sleepwalking, which was caused by the Ablixa.  Banks interviews her; she remembers nothing of the incident.  But now the doctor’s professional and personal life is in turmoil as well.

What we have here is a classic Hitchcockian story…actually, two stories for the price of one.  You’ve got Emily, the wrong woman in the wrong place at the wrong time.  She didn’t ask for any of this.  She just wanted to feel better, be a better wife, be a better person.  And the drugs were working: she was feeling better, doing better at work, doing better with her husband…but now, thanks to this drug and its unintended side effects, people think she’s crazy.

And you’ve got Dr. Banks, the wrong man also in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He was doing his job, prescribing medication that he felt would help…and it WAS helping.  But thanks to this unforeseeable tragedy, his practice dries up.  Who wants to see a psychiatrist whose patient killed someone due to medicine he prescribed?  This creates problems in his personal life: he just bought a new apartment, but now his income is severely diminished.  He and his wife fight more than they used to.  And so on.

…and that’s where I’ll leave it because, like all the best films, it’s better if you watch Side Effects cold, not knowing what to expect.  No doubt there are people out there who saw the various twists and turns coming, but I am not one of them.  I was utterly hoodwinked, and I loved it.

We are a culture of pills and quick fixes, the quicker the better.  Side Effects is remarkably even-handed in presenting us with both sides of the worst-case scenario involving this culture.  (Or I guess one of the worst-case scenarios, but I don’t want to get sidetracked.)  Not only is this strategy effective in providing mental fodder while watching, but it’s also a great storytelling device.  Whose side should we be on?  Historically, “Big Pharma” has been one of the handiest movie villains since the Nazis.  The public perception of mega-corporations with billions of dollars at their disposal, dollars that are used to cover up embarrassing media stories and pay off corporate whistle-blowers, is just too perfect not to use in movies.  But Side Effects gives us the other side of that coin, the dedicated physicians and psychiatrists who are committed to helping people using the best available methods.  If a pill can help people, who would blame a doctor for wanting to prescribe it?  …unless the side effects turned out to be a little extreme?

That conundrum is at the heart of the movie.  But on the surface, it’s just a fantastic mystery/thriller.  Soderbergh directs with restraint, using very few camera moves.  Everything we see is presented with a minimum of flash and maximum impact, so when you’re watching the third act of the movie, you can remember everything you saw in the first two acts with great clarity.

It’s a little bit like a Gene Kelly dance routine.  You know he must have worked for hours to get those moves down, but when you see him in action, he barely looks like he’s working at all.  That’s what Side Effects feels like.  The film is telling a complicated story, but it doesn’t feel like it’s working hard.  It’s just gliding along, showing you this scene, showing you that scene, ho-hum, pay attention now, all leading to the fantastic payoff at the end.

I don’t know if Side Effects is available to stream or not, but I heartily recommend it regardless.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Directors: Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski, Tom Tykwer
Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 66%

PLOT: An exploration of how individual lives impact one another in the past, present, and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.

Okay, faithful readers, I hope you’re comfortable.

Cloud Atlas is one of those movies like Baraka that leaves me with the urgent need to tell people how amazing it is.  It’s visually spectacular, thought-provoking, and hopelessly optimistic about love and the good side of human nature, even in the face of the worst humanity has to offer.

Based on a critically acclaimed novel by David Mitchell, the movie tells six separate stories, linked by the fact that a core group of actors plays all the principal roles in each story, and by the fact that at least one actor in each story carries a curious birthmark shaped a bit like a comet or a shooting star.  Each story is separated from the others by decades or centuries, taking place in the years 1849, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2144, and an apparently post-apocalyptic 2321.

I cannot imagine the lengths to which the filmmakers, and the film editor in particular, went to make this movie work.  The film jumps freely from one story to another, forward, back, forward, and back again, somehow maintaining a clean flow and keeping each storyline absolutely clear.  Although the stories are unique, the editing keeps the idea of connection alive for nearly three hours.  Just based on the editing alone, that makes Cloud Atlas kind of exhilarating to watch, especially when things heat up in the 2144 segment.

Let me see if I can quickly summarize each story, without giving too much away:

  • 1849 – An American lawyer visits property holdings overseas and witnesses the brutal whipping of a slave, who stows away on the lawyer’s ship returning to San Francisco; meanwhile, an unscrupulous doctor has plans to steal the lawyer’s gold en route.
  • 1936 – A struggling composer, Robert Frobisher, is hired as an amanuensis (a fancy word for a music stenographer) to another aging composer, which allows Frobisher to compose his own masterpiece, The Cloud Atlas Sextet. The aging composer demands credit for the piece and threatens to expose Frobisher’s bisexuality, including his deep, unconditional love for a gentleman named Rufus Sixsmith.
  • 1973 – An investigative reporter stumbles onto a conspiracy at a nuclear power plant, thanks to a whistle-blowing report written by none other than Rufus Sixsmith, now in his sixties.
  • 2012 – An author on the run from hooligan creditors takes refuge in what he thinks is a hotel, but is in fact a nursing home, to which he has inadvertently committed himself.  He and three other residents plan a daring jailbreak.
  • 2144 – Set in a vastly futuristic New Seoul, a renegade “fabricant” is brought in for questioning by the ruling government known as Unanimity.  The fabricant, known only as Sonmi-451, spins a tale of oppression, liberation, and horrific realization as she becomes the voice of a revolution that will ripple across centuries.
  • 2321 – In a post-apocalyptic Hawaii, peaceful Valleysmen live in constant fear of attacks from vicious cannibals, the Kona tribe.  They also receive periodic visits from Prescients, a highly advanced society that apparently lives offshore.  One day, a Prescient, Meronym, asks a Valleysmen leader to guide her to a remote mountain peak where she hopes to send an SOS signal to off-world colonies.

Confused yet?  Don’t be.  The editing keeps everything crystal clear.

But that’s just the clinical description of the movie.  What catapults Cloud Atlas into the stratosphere is how the fancy editing and visual effects occasionally take a back seat to a really deep philosophical question that leaves me with a sense of awe.  It’s really a what-if question, one of the greatest what-if questions of human existence.

What if…death isn’t the end?

I know that countless other movies have asked this question. We all have our own answers and beliefs.  I am not suggesting that Cloud Atlas has somehow figured out THE answer to this question, or that the answer it provides somehow trumps your own beliefs. But of all the movies I’ve seen on this topic, Cloud Atlas is the only one that really, genuinely, truly left me in awe of the possibilities it proposes.

I mentioned earlier that key roles are played by the same actors over and over again in each of the stories.  While that was initially distracting, I realized that the filmmakers were actually making a genius move.  It was nothing more than a simple way of illustrating the concept that a life in one era is echoed in another, decades or centuries later.  Heavy makeup is used to indicate how one person’s life as an Asian woman could, in theory, be echoed in the life of a Mexican woman in another era.  Or perhaps the life of a British man might be echoed later as a British woman.

And then there’s the question of that recurring birthmark.  One key character from each storyline bears a birthmark that resembles a shooting star.  So many people (including me the first time around) wanted to attach some kind of conventional story-based meaning to that birthmark.  Did it mean these characters were all somehow blood-related?  Was it a prophecy of some kind?  Something mentioned in the book, perhaps, that had to be left out of the film for pacing reasons, or some such thing?  No.  It’s just another visual reinforcement of the idea of recurrence, or reincarnation.

And that’s where I get awestruck by the movie.  Reincarnation is not a new concept in films, but Cloud Atlas really got under my skin.  Imagine.  What if…the person you love, your soulmate, the one you’ll love until the day of your death…what if, centuries hence, you’ll meet each other again?  Maybe you’ve walked down the street, or been eating in a restaurant, and for a fleeting second you lock eyes with a total stranger across the room, and you think, “I KNOW that person,” but the moment passes and life goes on.  What if that happened because you have met in some past life?

Or maybe you go on a date, and it goes phenomenally well, as if you’ve known each other for ages?  Well…maybe you have.  It’s your destiny to meet and love this person because you’ve already done it before.

I know I’m getting a little woo-woo/touchy-feely here.  It’s not a new idea.  It’s just that Cloud Atlas presents the idea so well that my breath gets taken away when I think about its implications.

I just have to bring up the stunning visuals again.  There’s a scene where the composer, Frobisher, is writing to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith, and there’s a passage where, in his mind, he meets Sixsmith in a china shop.  In a wonderfully poetic moment, they start smashing the china in slow motion as Frobisher’s composition plays in the background.  Then, just as the music reaches a crescendo, the two of them stop in place, and hundreds of china vases and plates rain down from the ceiling in slow motion, hanging in space, descending slowly to the ground like gigantic snowflakes.

I’m at a loss.  I’ve come to the end of whatever I can discuss about this movie without repeating myself endlessly.  I want to reiterate that I don’t believe this movie has THE answer to what lies beyond death.  But it has a truly lovely hypothesis, one that leaves me awestruck with its implications.

So let me just end with a line from the movie that makes my heart swell every time I hear it.

“I believe there is another world waiting for us, Sixsmith. A better world…and I’ll be waiting for you there. I believe we do not stay dead long. Find me beneath the Corsican stars, where we first kissed.”


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Logan Marshall-Green
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 73%

PLOT: A deep-space research vessel arrives at a distant moon, searching for clues to the origins of mankind.  What they find instead threatens their lives and the lives of everyone back on Earth.

I am at a loss to explain the mediocre Tomatometer score for Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s long-awaited return to the universe he created in Alien [1979].  Intellectually, I can hear the arguments:

  • “Where’s the Xenomorph?”
  • “So did the ‘Engineers’ create humans or what?”
  • “Is that planet at the beginning supposed to be Earth?”
  • “Where’s the Xenomorph?”
  • “Why did that idiot scientist approach the snake-looking creature?”
  • “How is the android able to break almost all of Asimov’s Laws of Robotics?”
  • “What’s with the open-ended ending that provides no resolution?”

I get it.  You hear Ridley Scott is making a prequel to Alien and you build up a lot of expectations, especially after watching some of the sorrier sequels that piled up after Aliens [1986].  When you go into a movie expecting one thing and get another, people get hacked off.  I feel you, bro.

But to those people who dismissed Prometheus because it didn’t deliver what they expected to get, all I can say is: your loss.  Because Prometheus is one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time, in my humble opinion, and it’s mostly for the very same reasons that people disliked it in the first place.

After a brief prologue set in an unknown time in an unknown place, we jump to the year 2093, when a deep-space research vessel arrives at a far distant moon, searching for clues to the origin of mankind.  Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) says they were led to this specific moon by “Engineers”, humanoid beings who are visible in ancient cave drawings from across the globe.  She believes the Engineers can provide an answer, THE Answer, to Life, the Universe and Everything. (Apologies to Douglas Adams.)

Instead of Engineers, Dr. Shaw and her expedition discover miles of underground caverns and a room full of canisters that turn out to contain a horrifying contagion that attack the body at a cellular and/or genetic level, creating painful mutations that, if they don’t kill the host outright, turns them incredibly violent.  We also get a glimpse of the famous “space jockey”, the fossilized alien creature seated in some kind of contraption inside the spaceship in Alien.  So at LAST we’re in familiar territory.

But still no Xenomorph.

The story progresses, the shipboard android turns out to be less than trustworthy, people die in creative and horrifying ways, an Engineer actually turns up, we get a couple more visually spectacular tie-ins to the first Alien…but by the time we get to the end, what gives?  The movie’s obviously over, but we haven’t gotten any answers to the burning questions: Who are the Engineers?  If that was an Engineer in the prologue, was that supposed to be Earth?  If it WASN’T Earth, why even HAVE that prologue?  And don’t try to tell me that was a Xenomorph at the end…

Well, here’s my two cents.

First, of all, expectations are tricky.  They can color and compromise your entire movie-watching experience.  When I went to see Prometheus, I did have my own set of expectations, but as the movie settled in and it became clear that the movie had other designs, I had to consciously shake myself loose of my expectations and embrace what was being presented to me.

Second of all, the visuals are stunning.  I happened to see this in 3-D, and it’s one of a handful of movies where the technology was used PERFECTLY.  No gimmicky shots of spears or harpoons or whatever being pointed out of the screen.  It was used as it should always be used: as a tool to further immerse you into the world of the film without overloading you or being ridiculously obvious.  The gorgeous landscapes during the prologue and during our heroes’ descent to the surface are awe-inspiring.

And then, the story.  I was completely okay with the open-ended nature of the story, and I’ll tell you why.

There are some films out there that play Prometheus’s game of asking questions and not answering them.  One of the most famous examples is Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968].  If you’ve never read the book, I defy you to provide a concise explanation of the last thirty minutes of that movie.  But that didn’t bother people, because the goal was to get the viewer to ask questions, to provoke discussions about the movie that would eventually get around to some of the same questions asked in Prometheus: Why are we here?  What is our purpose?

And then there are other films that play that open-ended game and fail.  The one that comes immediately to mind is Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain [2006].  By the end of that movie, my head was locked in a tilted position like a cocker spaniel hearing a strange noise.  If I had been a cartoon character, the word balloon over my head would have been all question marks.  I once read a full description of what was really going on in that film, but to the degree that I understood it, I simply didn’t care.  If I have to go that much work to “get” a movie, the movie didn’t do its job.

There are those who say that’s what Prometheus did, throwing us in the deep end and making us do some mental heavy lifting with no payoff.  But I disagree.

I think, for me, it has to do with the very nature of the questions Prometheus is asking.  “If we could discover the answers to the riddles of our existence, to what lengths would we go, or should we go, to get those answers?  And do we even want to know the answers?  Are we better off NOT knowing?”  These are questions that, almost by definition, can’t be answered in any satisfying way.  So Prometheus presents a possible answer, but then teases it away so there is still some mystery in the story.  If the characters in Prometheus had discovered some kind of document that laid out the Engineers’ plans in detail, I would have felt cheated.  It would have been woefully anticlimactic.  I liked it better that the biggest questions went unanswered, so I could formulate my OWN theories about the Engineers, their plans, their methods, their history, their future, etcetera.  It’s much more stimulating to let my imagination run riot.

(Granted, some of those questions are answered in Alien: Covenant [2017], but that movie still had the guts to leave some things to the imagination by the end.)

Prometheus couches deep philosophical riddles about our very existence within a crackling good thriller with spectacular visuals from beginning to end.  It stands tall as one of the best prequels ever made…Xenomorph or no Xenomorph.