By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Shane Black
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 85% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A murder mystery brings together a private eye (Kilmer), a struggling actress (Monaghan), and a thief masquerading as an actor (Downey Jr.).

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is so good, it’s a total freaking mystery how this same director, Shane Black, wrote and directed one of the worst movies I’ve seen in the past 20 years: 2018’s The Predator.  Just had to get that out of the way.

I envy you if you haven’t seen this movie yet, because one day it’ll be on Netflix or something, and your curiosity will get the better of you, and you’ll experience for the first time one of the great comedy mysteries ever written.  The dialogue flies faster than an episode of Gilmore Girls, so prick up your ears and stay on your toes, cause this train waits for no one.  The laughs are big and genuine.  The surprises are legion.  The mystery itself is a bit of a head-scratcher the first time around, so maybe watch it again, and you’ll get it.  Trust me…you’ll want to watch it again.

Downey Jr. and Kilmer exhibit the kind of unforced chemistry that deserves comparison to Newman and Redford.  If they decided to stage a two-person show consisting of nothing but the two of them interrupting each other, I’d pay to see it.  The actor in me gets a rush watching them play off each other, with Kilmer tossing off some of the great movie insults of all time.  Example:

Harry (Downey Jr.): “Do you think I’m stupid?”
Gay Perry (Kilmer): “I don’t think you’d know where to put food at, if you didn’t flap your mouth so much. Yes, I think you’re stupid.”

The screenplay is just one of the many delights of this movie.  It’s full of “meta” scenes and dialogue.  A scene occurs, and the movie pauses while the narration tells us, “That is a terrible scene.  Why was it in the movie?”  Or the movie is clicking along and suddenly it pauses again and the narrator tells us, “Oh, s**t, I skipped something!  That’s bad narrating.”  Brilliance.  To paraphrase Bugs Bunny, they do that kind of thing all through the picture.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang utterly flopped in 2005, grossing a paltry $4.2 million domestically, against a $15 million budget.  What the heck happened?  You’ve got charismatic leads (especially Downey Jr., who was, even then, starting to resemble the Tony Stark we know and love), a beautiful femme fatale (Michelle Monaghan, hubba HUBBA), an intriguing mystery, lots of laughs, surprises galore, a snarky screenplay…this should have been a hit.  Did Warner Bros. refuse to advertise it?  Or did they advertise it incorrectly?  (20th Century Fox did that with Fight Club.)  Was it – gasp! – too smart for the general public?

Who can say?  Regardless of box office performance or name recognition, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang will always stand, for me, as one of the greatest comedy mystery meta-noirs of all time.  (Of course, with that many genre tags, it may BE the only one of its kind…)

QUICK TAKE: A History of Violence (2005)

By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Viggo Mortenson, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 87% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A mild-mannered husband and father (Mortenson) becomes a local hero through an act of violence, which sets off repercussions that will shake his family to its very core.

A History of Violence is an art film disguised as a Hollywood thriller.  It makes some statements about the nature of violence that would be at home in an Ingmar Bergman film, but cloaks them in a conventional plot that, unbelievably, is based on a graphic novel.  (I’ve read that graphic novel, which goes down some gruesome paths not explored by the movie.)

It’s riveting.  As a pure thriller, this movie is gangbusters.  (I thought the ending was a tad abrupt, so I take away a point.)  The central mystery, about an everyman who is mistaken for a ruthless killer, will keep you guessing.  It also has some troubling things to say about violence itself.  Through various events in the film, it’s almost like the moral of the story is the equivalent of Patrick Swayze’s famous line from Roadhouse: “Be nice, until it’s time to NOT be nice.”  Gandhi would not have approved.

I can’t recommend this movie enough.  Find it, watch it, do it.

QUICK TAKE: Serenity (2005)

By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Summer Glau, Adam Baldwin, Chiwetel Ejiofor
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 83% Certified Fresh

PLOT: The crew of the ship Serenity tries to evade an assassin sent to recapture one of their members who is telepathic…and perhaps something more…

In a perfect world, Han Solo would still have shot Greedo in cold blood, not self-defense.  Universal would have stopped with Jaws 2.  Heath Ledger would still be around for at least one more Dark Knight film.

And in that perfect world, Serenity would have spawned two more films, each better than the one before, for a trilogy that would be in the conversation for greatest science-fiction franchise ever.

I do not say this as a fan of Firefly, the short-lived, devoutly-worshipped television show upon which Serenity is based.  When I first saw this movie in 2005, I had no idea why the pilot had dinosaurs on the cockpit dashboard.  I didn’t know why it was such a big deal to see River Tam, this wisp of a girl, performing intricate fight scenes right out of a Jackie Chan movie.  I didn’t know why the characters sprinkled Chinese or Japanese phrases in the middle of their dialogue (sometimes cursing in those languages).  Or why they talked like it was the old West instead of hundreds or thousands of years in the future.

Know what?  It didn’t matter.  Serenity is so well-made and well-written that, after the two main opening sequences, I rolled with it.  I had an immediate sense of the vast history of this “used” universe and the characters within it.  In this world (taking a cue from “Star Wars”), the good guys fly rust-buckets, not sterile starships.  It’s a pure visual pleasure from start to finish.

The great story, screenplay, acting (from actors who are clearly enjoying themselves), effective usage of visual effects, genuine surprises, and one bona fide shocker that had audiences gasping and yelling at the screen…it’s all here.  Shiny!

QUICK TAKE: Thank You for Smoking (2005)

By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Jason Reitman
Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, Adam Brody, Sam Elliott, Katie Holmes, Rob Lowe, William H. Macy, Robert Duvall
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 86% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Nick Naylor (Eckhart), Big Tobacco’s chief spokesman, spins the facts on behalf of cigarettes while trying to remain a role model for his twelve-year-old son.

I’ll keep this one brief.

There is a LOT to unpack in this movie: satirical effectiveness, logical arguments, debate about an intensely divisive topic.  And no, I’m not talking about race, I’m talking about cigarettes.

A full discussion would run a full twelve inches down this page.  Don’t wanna do that.

I’ll just say that this is one of the funniest, sharpest satires I’ve ever seen.  It makes a good guy out of the chief spin doctor for an industry that kills, quote, “two jumbo jet plane loads of men, women and children” a DAY.  (That’s from the film, not actual research, so take it with a grain of salt.)  It demonstrates how the art of deflection during an argument can be perfected to prove virtually anything.  It’s a commentary on both the pro- and anti-smoking movements, and how they’re both right, and they’re both wrong.  (That’s right.  I said it.)  It advocates choice over blind obedience.

And it’s funny, funny, funny.  Another one of those movies designed to be discussed afterwards in conversations that could NEVER be contained within the words of any movie review I could write.  Just take my word for it.  You won’t regret it.


By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Louis Leterrier
Cast: Jason Statham, Alessandro Gassman, Amber Valletta
My Rating: 6/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 51%

PLOT: An extremely skilled mercenary driver (Statham) is implicated in the kidnapping of the young son of a powerful USA drug official.

When an action film includes a shot of the good guy flipping his car off a ramp so a dangling crane hook can clip off a bomb stuck underneath the car mere SECONDS before it goes off…you either laugh and roll with it or scoff and leave the theater.  I laughed.

Transporter 2 is an example of a movie not really intended for American audiences.  From top to bottom, this is a European action movie, made in the States with the kind of budget unknown in foreign studios.  It was produced by none other than Luc Besson, director of cult classics like Léon: The Professional and The Fifth Element.  Here he farms out directing duties to Louis Leterrier, a genre specialist known for Jet Li’s Unleashed, the original Transporter, and, later on, an honest-to-God entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Incredible Hulk.

This movie is utter junk food.  It aspires to the kind of delirious cartoonish heights that would later be achieved by Shoot ‘Em Up (2007), but it fails due to too many breaks in the action.  And if you have too many breaks in a movie that’s barely 80 minutes long, something has gone wrong at the screenplay level.  In a movie like this, adding depth of character just gets in the way of the action.

The action itself, while mildly stunning visually, is too sparse.  There’s an extended fight scene in a basement that’s imaginative and well done, making creative use of a fire hose.  There’s a one-sided gun battle in a doctor’s office.  The lone car chase in the film sees the infamous building-to-building car jump from Lethal Weapon 2 and raises it.  And, of course, the bomb-removing flip to a crane.  (I can’t even discuss the finale aboard a plummeting private jet without wincing.)

Other than that, not much here, folks.  For me, this is an all-too-obvious guilty pleasure, something to toss into the player and jack the volume up so the gun battles rattle the walls.  The absurdity of the action allows the movie to flirt with camp classic status, but I usually just fast-forward to the parts where stuff gets blowed up real good.


By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: David Lowery
Cast: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Will Oldham
My Rating: 9/10
PLOT: A white-sheeted ghost…on second thought, I’d better not say.



There is no way to discuss or review this movie without giving away certain key plot points that are more effective when you don’t know they’re coming, so please, if you have any intentions of seeking this movie out, ignore this or ANY other review until after you’ve seen the movie.

All good?  Okay, let’s begin.

A Ghost Story is more like a meditation on its subject than any movie I’ve seen since 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Like Kubrick’s sci-fi epic, A Ghost Story contains long, VERY long stretches of film that involve little or no dialogue.  Sometimes there are stationary shots that simply sit and regard a scene and just…wait for something to happen.  One shot especially struck me, where a character just sits on the kitchen floor and eats some pie.  No dialogue, just eating.  For four minutes.  That’s a LOT of screen time for a film that clocks in at 92 minutes, WITH credits.

So what’s going on here?  On the surface, I’ve just described the most boring film ever made.  But in this case, director David Lowery’s method of storytelling is vital to what the movie’s really about.

[Here’s where the spoilers really start, last chance to bail.]

Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play a young couple who live in a small house in what appears to be Texas or some other Midwestern state.  Tragedy strikes early on when Casey Affleck’s character (listed in the credits only as “C”) is killed in a car crash.  After Rooney Mara’s character (“M”) identifies his body at the morgue, we’re treated to the first of several long takes as the camera watches her leave but stays with C’s body covered in white cloth.  The seconds tick…tick…tick by, and by this time we’re wondering why we’re still here.  Rather than boring me, this had the effect of moving me to the edge of my seat.  I was pretty sure I knew what was about to happen, but as more and more time elapsed, my certainty ebbed away and I became galvanized.  What IS going to happen?

Well, whatever it is happens, and C is now a ghost covered in a white sheet with two eye holes, looking for all the world like someone wearing a Charlie Brown Halloween costume.  (“I got a rock.”)  After apparently declining the opportunity to “move on”, he returns to his house, and here’s where the movie got to me.  C’s ghost is now a mute witness to his wife’s grieving.  We’re not quite sure what his purpose is, at least not right away.  There’s no mystery to solve, no unfinished business to deal with.  He just watches her.  (She obviously can’t see him.)

During this segment of the movie, I was mesmerized.  It’s hard for me to describe or even understand what gripped me so much in scenes where very little is happening.  I found myself empathizing, not with the wife, but with the ghost.  It’s one of those “what-if” questions that you pose to your friends.  If you COULD come back, would you?  “C” made his decision, and here he is, but his presence is bittersweet.  He can see her, but she can’t see him.  I felt the longing that is only apparent onscreen.  Maybe this part of the movie is a Rorschach test.  We see what we want to see, which makes us feel what we expect to feel.  I don’t know.  But I can’t deny the effect these scenes had on me personally.

As the movie progresses, we are also treated to sudden jumps forward in time.  Rather than the usual fades or segues, months or years suddenly go by in a single hard cut.  Time behaves differently for the ghost.  He’s got nothing BUT time.  Like many literary and movie ghosts, he’s rooted to one physical location, unable to leave, while the living get on with living, year after year, decade after decade.  This made me empathize with him even more.  How sad it must be for a spirit to bear witness to decades, even centuries passing by him, with no way to interact with the living.  Oh sure, he can make light bulbs flicker and he’ll have the occasional tantrum with broken plates and floating cups.  But nobody can talk to him.

Well, that’s not quite true.  He has one companion.  One day, through the window, he spots another ghost in the house next door.  This ghost is also covered in a bedsheet with holes cut out for the eyes.  They seem to communicate by, I guess, telepathy, because we don’t hear their voices, but subtitles tell us they are indeed having a conversation.  In one of the saddest moments of the film, the other ghost tells C that he or she is waiting for someone…but he/she can no longer remember who it is.

If there was ever a case to be made for someone to “head toward the light” rather than remaining on Earth, that’s it.  Far better, in my opinion, to complete the journey to “the other side”, whatever it may be, rather than endure an eternity of waiting for…what?

Look at me.  Philosophy.  That’s the effect this movie had on me.  It got me to really THINKING about the kinds of topics that I normally avoid thinking about.  The inevitability of death.  The efforts we make to keep our memories alive after we’ve gone.  Remembering those who are no longer with us.  Heavy, man.

After some time, “C” eventually does find a reason to stay, beyond attachment to his wife.  I won’t reveal what it is, but it’s organic, and it’s something I would certainly be invested in if I were in the ghost’s place.  His attempts to fulfill his goal are poignant, and constantly being frustrated.

The final reel is where the movie may potentially lose a lot of viewers.  It even lost me a little bit while I was watching it, but upon reflection, I can see where it’s going.  After all, any movie made about the afterlife is pure speculation anyway, so who am I to say their concept makes no sense?  There is a certain sad logic to it, after all.

There’s that word again, “sad.”  This is definitely not a popcorn movie, that’s for sure.  This is a thought-provoking film designed to inspire introspection and reflection.  AND it’s entertaining, make no mistake.  But, yes, sadness is a big part of the film.  I didn’t tear up or anything, but it is filled with overwhelming heartbreak.

And yet, with that final shot, there’s a kind of triumph to the whole thing.  Not the kind of triumph like at the end of Rocky or your average Spielberg movie, but a sense of completion, of sudden realization.  It won’t please everyone, but it works.

A Ghost Story will mean many things to many different people.  If there’s a better definition of effective “art”, I don’t know what it is.