by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Robert Eggers
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 90% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Two lighthouse keepers try to maintain their sanity while isolated on a remote New England island in the 1890s.

tone poem
NOUN, a piece of orchestral music typically in one movement, on a descriptive or rhapsodic theme

As I watched Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, that term “tone poem” kept leaping to my mind.  It’s not told in a standard or familiar fashion.  There are scenes where we’re not sure, until they’re over, whether they’re real or not.  The Willem Dafoe character, Thomas Wake, makes references to behavior in the past by the Robert Pattinson character, Ephraim Winslow, that Winslow never committed…or did he?  We are certain that Wake is the character who is going mad, if he’s not there already.  But what if it’s the other way around?  Or are they both going mad?

The mood or tone of the piece seems to be insanity and how one might get there given the right circumstances.  In many ways, it has quite a bit in common with another sensational tone poem of madness, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).

Two men, Wake and Winslow, are lighthouse keepers in the late 19th century.  They are brought to a remote island in the stormy waters off the New England coast and left to fend for themselves for four weeks until the next tender brings supplies.  Wake (Dafoe) is a crusty old veteran lighthouse keeper whose speech and mannerisms appear to be based on Long John Silver, right down to the gimpy leg.  Winslow (Pattinson) is a much younger and, let us be honest, handsomer gentleman who keeps to himself whenever possible.  He tends to his duties, sometimes grudgingly but mostly not, but wonders why Wake flatly refuses to share the duty of tending the actual light source at the top of the lighthouse.  That mystery lies at the heart of the film, but don’t expect all your questions to be answered by the time the credits roll.  Fair warning.

A key decision by director Eggers was to shoot in black-and-white and in a very old screen format, 1:19, so the picture area is a virtually square space in the center of the screen, with black bars on either side.  (The Coen brothers did something similar with their brilliant adaptation of The Tragedy of Macbeth [2021].)  This visual language creates a uniquely claustrophobic atmosphere, especially in scenes taking place in Wake’s and Winslow’s quarters.  The walls are closer together, the ceiling feels lower, and the actors’ faces seem much closer to the screen than normal.  Even exterior shots seem more constricted and confining.  Wide open sky doesn’t look as inviting as it might to someone essentially imprisoned on a storm-lashed island for four weeks.

Like all the best films, The Lighthouse begins its descent into madness slowly and gains momentum as time passes.  Winslow discovers a mermaid figurine stashed inside his mattress.  That night he dreams about a mermaid in the surf.  Or was it a dream?  We glimpse Wake standing naked at the top of the lighthouse, almost as if he’s worshiping the light itself.  When Winslow tries to get a closer look at what Wake is doing up there, he glimpses something…supernatural.  Or does he?  The film is brilliant at not only portraying mounting madness on the screen, but also at conveying the tone of madness in the cinematography and editing.  If we’re not quite sure what is happening, even when we see it happening, that’s on purpose.  The audience is meant to be kept off balance throughout the movie to put us in the heads of the two main characters.

Another factor that I found riveting was the acting workshop on display from both Pattinson and Dafoe.  We’ve seen this kind of thing from Dafoe before.  He chews the scenery with Nicolas Cage-like gusto, spittle flying, prosthetic teeth flashing in manic sneers, and that crazy piratical accent.  If it had been revealed during the film that his character’s last name was Osborne, and that he was a distant relative of Norman Osborne from Spider-Man (2002), I would not have been the least surprised.

But equally impressive is Robert Pattinson’s performance, which must be seen to be believed.  Here is an actor who is set for life after being a part of two of the most profitable film franchises in history (Twilight and Harry Potter) and who has just rebooted a third (The Batman [2022]).  But in this film, he easily keeps pace with Dafoe’s quirkiness, which is not easy.  As his character descends into madness (or does he?), Pattinson dances a jig while singing a sea shanty that devolves into complete gibberish.  He laughs like a loon.  He, ah, takes some time for himself while fondling that mermaid figurine from earlier.  It’s the kind of performance that might be described as “courageous.”  He swings for the fences with abandon.  In so doing, he helps to make The Lighthouse one of the most unique movies I’m ever likely to see.

But what is really going on at the top of that lighthouse?  Why do seagulls pester Winslow so often, seemingly unafraid of him in any way?  Why does he continue to dream about mermaids?  IS he dreaming them?  Is Wake actually a merman?  Did real foghorns sound like that?  Why is one seagull missing an eye?

Well, come on, I’m not actually going to ANSWER those questions, but those are questions that occurred to me.  The movie does answer quite a few of them, but not all.  The point of the movie, like The Shining, isn’t about solving the mystery.  It’s about conveying the mystery, creating a mood of dread, and wallowing in it for a good 110 minutes.  It’s not the happiest movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely one of the most original films of the last ten years or so.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Richard Stanley
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Tommy Chong
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 86% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A secluded farm is struck by a strange meteorite which has apocalyptic consequences for the family living there and possibly the world.

Some backstory…

Once upon a time, there was a film director named Richard Stanley.  He made a few unremarkable films in the early 1990s, toiling in relative obscurity, until he hit the big time in 1996 when he got the opportunity to direct his dream project: a remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau starring none other than Marlon Brando.  The story of that film’s troubled production inspired a documentary all by itself (Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau [2014]).  Stanley himself was fired after only four days of shooting and replaced by John Frankenheimer.  Rumor has it that Stanley secretly convinced the makeup crew to turn him into one of the background mutants so he could keep tabs on his dream project.  After Moreau bombed, Stanley’s career imploded, and he never directed another feature film.

…until over twenty years later when an enterprising film production company expressed interest in allowing him to direct another dream project: an adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story from 1927 called The Colour Out of Space.  To say that Stanley redeemed himself with this film would be an understatement.  This is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen.  It was supposed to be the first part of a Lovecraftian trilogy, but alas, Stanley was accused of domestic abuse in March of 2021 and the trilogy was scrapped.  One hopes that someone like Guillermo del Toro or Jordan Peele might pick up the promising threads here.  [insert good mojo dance here]

Anyway, the movie.

Color Out of Space is, at first glance, an amalgam of previous horror films.  One can easily spot elements of The Thing (1982), Annihilation (2018), and David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986).  But when you consider the screenplay has been adapted from a 95-year-old short story, the movie takes on a prescient nature.  Here are all the elements of a solid contemporary horror film, in a story that was published the same year sound was introduced to motion pictures for the first time.  Remarkable.

The Gardner family lives on a secluded farm in the forests of New England, where the nearest township, Arkham, is an hour’s drive away.  (No, Arkham isn’t a Batman reference, it’s Lovecraftian…which might explain why the very name “Arkham Asylum” has always felt a little creepy all by itself.)  One night, a meteorite lands with a crash in their front yard.  This is no ordinary meteorite.  It glows with an unearthly magenta light, and by the following morning it has disappeared.  Shortly thereafter, the youngest son, Jack, starts hearing strange noises outside.  Mrs. Gardner (Joely Richardson), who is recuperating from cancer surgery, keeps getting disconnected from her business calls.  Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage) takes a shower one day and discovers what looks like a cake of soap covering the shower drain.  He picks it up…and experiences something NO ONE wants to experience after picking up a cake of soap.

Things get stranger.  A local hydrologist takes some water samples and urges the Gardner family and their squatter, Ezra (Tommy Chong), who lives in a shack on the Gardner’s vast property, not to drink the water until he gets some test results.  Meanwhile, Jack, the youngest son, takes a peek down their well and watches as an alien-looking egg hatches and releases a magenta-colored praying mantis.  Mrs. Gardner gets distracted by…something…and has a kitchen accident with a knife.  Their daughter, Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), who dabbles in Wiccan rituals, hears a noise that makes her sick to her stomach.  Time passes in fits and starts.

And the whole time, new vegetation has sprouted up around the well.  All the same magenta color…

Experienced moviegoers might be able to plot the film’s course from A to B to the climax, and they might be right on.  But Color Out of Space has one or two surprises up its sleeve that elevates it into the same level as other modern horror classics like Hereditary (2018) or The Babadook (2014).

There are scenes involving a small herd of alpacas – oh yeah, they raise alpacas – that are as unsettling as anything from John Carpenter.  At one point, mother and son are caught in the “grip” of the alien color/light.  What happens to them sets up one of the biggest jump scares I’ve ever had in my life.  I yelled so loud and long that my girlfriend ran to the back of the house wondering what was happening.

Color Out of Space is one of the most effective horror movies I’ve seen in a long time.  Naysayers may refuse to watch it because of Nicolas Cage’s presence, but I can assure you, his “hammy” talents are put to good use and are always in service of the story.  It’s not for everyone.  It’s not for the squeamish.  But for those who dare…Color Out of Space is a horror-film lover’s dream.


By Marc S. Sanders

What a huge loss it is to no longer have Chadwick Boseman after being taken so early in life by cancer.  His heroic role in Black Panther is what is arguably celebrated most.  However, even a small, standard cop film like 21 Bridges is evidence of his magnetism on screen.

In this movie, Boseman portrays Andre Davis, a New York police detective who is under investigation by Internal Affairs for an abundance of shooting incidents.  Yet he is still on the beat.  When he is summoned to the aftermath of a violent crime scene after midnight in Manhattan, it is up to Andre and his new partner Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller) to track down two killers who ran off with a large supply in cocaine while taking out seven police officers in the getaway.   The best way to catch the bad guys is to shut down the twenty outlets off of Manhattan Island. That means all bridges, tunnels and ferries are closed off until sunrise.  Now it becomes a closed off maze to locate and apprehend the men.  One problem for Andre and Frankie is that the entire police force is looking to taking out the suspects as punishment for killing their comrades.  Andre is actually not the shoot first cop he’s unfairly being characterized as, though.  Sounds simple and familiar, yes.  However, Andre slowly realizes that there may be a complicated conspiracy involved. 

Directed by Brian Kirk, 21 Bridges won’t rank up there with Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive or even the best of the Dirty Harry installments, but the film moves at a brisk pace and the action is spectacular, and at times unexpected.  The early heist of the drugs from an underground wine cellar is fast and shocking when a shootout erupts that goes for a thankfully suspenseful long time.  Kirk doesn’t make it easy for the bad guys (Steven James, Taylor Kitsch) to make their escape.  When they do, the desperation is engaging. 

While this picture didn’t generate much box office success, there’s no question that Boseman would have been a go to leading man in the same vein as Keanu Reeves or Tom Holland has become. My theory: it should not have been released against blockbuster power hitters. Had it come out in January or February, this would have been a sleeper hit for sure. Boseman looks great as the hero and righteous cop, competing with the standard police veterans (JK Simmons) who remind the hero he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, etc.  We, the viewers, know better though.  Boseman looks very cool and athletic in his dark blue overcoat and drawn pistol, running through the streets of Chinatown or within apartment staircases and hallways as he maintains the chase.  Chadwick Boseman is just a solid leading man.  No question about it.

The script by Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan is full of surprises that fit in the sense of the picture.  Nothing comes out of left field, but I wasn’t looking for surprises either.  So, when a new development presented itself, I appreciated it.  It kept the movie alive.

So again, Chadwick Boseman is huge loss within the Hollywood ranks.  I read that a sequel was considered.  I would have liked to see that with Boseman reprising his role because it’s a good part for him.   

If you have grown tired of watching the Marvel and Star Wars films and series for the 50th time and you’re looking for something new, seek out 21 Bridges.  It’s a first-rate solid crime thriller.

KLAUS (2019)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

KLAUS (2019)
Directors: Sergio Pablos, Carlos Martínez López
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, J.K. Simmons, Rashida Jones, Norm MacDonald, Joan Cusack
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 94% Certified Fresh

PLOT: The origin story of a certain jolly fellow in a red suit is told with beautifully enhanced hand-drawn animation in a film that deserves to be ranked with the best holiday classics.

I was not prepared for this.

Netflix’s Klaus from 2019 is one of the most beautiful, magical, and relentlessly original holiday films I’ve ever seen.  And heart-rending.  There are emotional beats in Klaus that rival anything in Pixar’s catalog, from the opening sequence of Up to the finale of Inside Out.

Short review: Go. Watch it now. Why are you still reading this?

Long review:

It starts an unspecified number of years ago somewhere in what appears to be Scandinavia, but it could be anywhere.  Or nowhere.  Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) is the ne’er-do-well son of the postmaster general, or something like that.  Determined to make a man out of his son, Jesper’s father assigns him a task: start a post office in a remote northern village on a desolate island and generate 6,000 letters in a one-year period or get cut off from his family’s substantial wealth.

The visuals in this forbidding village could warm the surrealist cockles of Tim Burton’s heart.  Rooftops aren’t so much pointed as sharpened.  Wide-eyed children make snowmen that would give Calvin nightmares.  A generations-long feud between two families on either side of town seems to be their only purpose for staying in town in the first place.

(So far, I’m thinking, okay, kinda weird, not sure where they’re going with this…is this scrawny dude gonna be Santa?)

One thing leads to another and Jesper travels to the other end of the island to visit the isolated house of someone known locally only as the woodsman.  Here he discovers shelves and shelves of handmade toys, gathering dust.  One of these toys finds its way into the hands of a child back in town who wrote a letter asking for a toy…

And here is where the story’s streak of inspired originality really took off.  Virtually every aspect of the legendary Santa Claus is given its own special origin story, from the reindeer to the sleigh to the concept of a Naughty List, right down to getting coal in your stocking instead of a present.

Aha, you say, but this has already been done!  I liked it better when it was called Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, on TV in 1970, with Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, and Keenan Wynn!

True enough.  But Klaus ups the ante by imagining this tale in a way I’ve never seen before.  I’m finding it difficult to express my admiration without giving away key aspects of the film that make it such a delight.  It’s all done so organically, so naturally, that something happens, and you think, “Well, of course they think reindeer can fly, after seeing that!”  I found myself laughing out loud due to the sheer ingenuity on display.

I think it’s a great companion piece to that much-maligned holiday classic, The Polar Express.  Both films approach the Santa legend from different angles, but neither one talks down to its intended audience.  Here is a mystical figure, possessed of magical abilities beyond mortal man.  Both films treat him with the kind of childlike reverence he deserves, and if he’s a little scary sometimes, well…he is always watching…

But none of that would be enough to achieve perfection on its own.  What makes this movie perfect are the heart-rending emotional beats that come as complete shocks to the viewer.  You may notice that I haven’t mentioned Mrs. Klaus, nor is she listed on IMDb.  There’s a very good reason for that, but you won’t get it out of ME.  You may also be asking yourself, well, if this hermit woodsman turns into Santa Claus, what’s the deal with the postman?  Great question!  Watch the movie and find out.

(Pay attention to the wind…that’s all I’ll say.)

These and other surprises pop up here and there, like searching through old clothes and finding folding money in the pockets.  The finale might make you cry like a baby if you’re not careful.  You’ve been warned.

Klaus is buried treasure, lost amid the hubbub of many other films from that year that have been forgotten.  This one does not deserve to be forgotten.  It belongs on any list of classic holiday films, old and new.  If you’ve made it this far in the review, congratulations, thanks for reading, but now it’s time to GO WATCH THIS MOVIE.

Now available on Netflix.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Bong Joon Ho
Cast: Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 99% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Ki-taek and his family, all unemployed, take peculiar interest in the wealthy and glamorous Parks, as they ingratiate themselves into their lives one by one.

Watching Parasite reminded me of the first time I saw Pulp Fiction.  I told my friends that it was like being on a roller-coaster at night wearing a blindfold: you have no idea where you’re going or what’s coming, but the ride is exhilarating.

That’s Parasite.  The hype is real.  This is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, and if you plan on seeing it, I would highly recommend you do so BEFORE reading further.  I have no plans to spoil ANYTHING, but the less you know about the movie before going in, the better.

(You’ll have to bear with me, I’m writing this shortly after seeing the movie myself, it’s currently 11:14 PM, and I’m starting to get a little tired, but I want to get this all down before I pass out, so it may get a little “rambly” for a while.  You’ve been warned.)

Parasite is many things.  It’s a social commentary, a black comedy, a family drama, and a Hitchcockian thriller all rolled into one delicious Korean dish.  (The film and filmmakers are Korean.)  The beauty of the movie is that it manages to be all those things without losing track of itself.  I can’t count how many movies I’ve seen that attempted a tonal shift in the middle or at the end, and it just falls flat.  Where lesser movies failed, Parasite succeeds.

The plot involves a nuclear family, the Kims (father, mother, college-aged son and daughter), living in near-poverty in a sub-basement.  They fold pizza boxes to make a little cash.  They steal wi-fi from a shop next door.  When fumigators spray outside their street-level window, they open it wide to take advantage of the free pest control.  They aren’t starving, but they are desperate.  Yet they don’t appear to be beaten down by their condition.  They’ve become a family of hustlers, not in any criminal manner, but in ways that enable them to get by on the bare minimum until one of them can get a leg up.

Opportunity knocks one day when a friend of the son, Ki-woo, gets him a job as an in-home tutor for the high-school daughter of a wealthy family, the Parks.  Ki-woo changes his name to Kevin, then suggests to Madame Park that her 7-year-old son could use an art tutor.  This gets his sister, Ki-jung hired.  She changes her name to Jessica and finds a creative way to get her father hired as Mr. Park’s personal driver.  Then the Parks’ long-time housekeeper somehow has to be eliminated so the MOTHER can get hired.

Before long the entire family is working for the Parks, though it’s important to note the Park family has no idea their new employees are all related.  This is all done with great humor, not in a farcical way (that will come later), but in such a way that you find yourself rooting for this down-on-its-luck family of con artists to finally get a taste of the good life.

There’s a long scene where the Parks have gone camping, and the Kims gather in the enormous living room of the Parks’ lavish home and just sit and eat and drink and talk and get drunk.  This is the family drama/social commentary part of the movie.  There’s something a little sad about seeing these people who are like any other people, who seem no less deserving than the Parks, but their best-laid plans have come to nothing, and the highlight of their lives is to get hammered in somebody else’s house.  Suppose Kevin falls in love and decides to marry the girl he’s tutoring, when she’s a little older.  Who will they get to be his parents?  Will they need to hire actors?

Trust me, I haven’t spoiled ANYTHING.  Swearsies.  This movie is brilliantly, ingeniously split into two parts.  The first half is prologue.  The second half is genuinely, literally breathtaking.

Something happens that forces the Kim family to examine and re-evaluate their life choices up to the present.  It also forces them to do some very fast thinking indeed, which is where some of the funniest and darkest comedy takes place.  This is where the movie really takes off, where it had me reminiscing about the twists and turns in Pulp Fiction.

And nothing…nothing can prepare you for the finale.  About which I’m saying nothing.  Again.

From a cinephile’s perspective, Parasite is miraculous.  It manages to be several different things all at once, allowing you to savor every individual aspect of it without any one part of it overpowering the other parts.  The screenplay is unbelievably inventive.  The direction is sure-footed and masterful.  The acting is pitch perfect throughout.  It made me think, it made me laugh, it made me cringe, it made me say, “Oh S#i+!” MANY times, and it made me bring my hand to my mouth like a shocked Victorian-era woman many, MANY times.

I say again.  The hype is real.  You owe it to yourself to see this movie whenever you can.

[Ed. note: the Criterion blu-ray of Parasite contains an interesting experiment: a black-and-white version of the film, which is apparently how the director originally envisioned the film, and which might account for its stark imagery in places.]

1917 (2019)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 89% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Two British soldiers during the First World War are given an impossible mission: deliver a message deep into enemy territory that will stop 1,600 men, including one of the two soldiers’ brothers, from walking straight into a deadly trap.

Bear with me for a second…I promise I’ll actually get to the movie in a second.

I’m not a professional movie critic.  I write reviews simply because it amuses me to do so, and because one of my friends made it possible for him and I to post our reviews in an online forum.  For about two months, though, I haven’t written a single review.  I pondered this with Marc a little while ago, and the only reason I could come up with was that I didn’t feel INSPIRED to write something.

Not that I haven’t seen good movies in those two months. Waves, Uncut Gems, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Jumanji: The Next Level, Frozen 2, Little Women, Bombshell, maybe one or two others – they were all good, even great.  (In the case of Uncut Gems and Waves, I’d even call them “must-see” events.)  But I never felt compelled to run home and put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.  I simply felt that I had nothing to contribute where those movies were concerned.

Well, tonight I saw 1917, and now I have to say, this is a different case altogether.

For anyone who’s not quite aware of why this movie is so special, aside from it just being really good, 1917 was hyped as being told in one single shot with a camera that follows two soldiers through battlefields and countrysides as they attempt to deliver an important message to a distant company of English soldiers.  No cuts to different angles, no cuts at all, in fact.  (Actually, there IS a single cut, but more on that later.)

While I originally felt it was a bit of a stunt to get it noticed at Oscar time (remember Birdman [2014]?), after seeing the movie it was abundantly clear that this was no mere trick to dazzle an audience with.  This specific story is particularly suited to this specific method of filming.  It forces the audience to empathize with these two soldiers immediately, and only them.  I was reminded for some reason of Saving Private Ryan, and a line spoken by Tom Sizemore: “This time the mission is a man.”  Well, this time, the men are the mission, and the mission is paramount.  The single-take strategy has the uncanny ability to put us in the shoes of these soldiers more so than many other war films.  You feel like you’re right there in the mud with the empty artillery shells and the corpses and the rats.

And that’s the supreme achievement of the movie: its ability to put us there and KEEP us there for two hours without ever calling attention to the fact that, “Hey, we haven’t cut yet and it’s been over a half hour!”  A lot of that has to do with camera placement and movement and, of course, the actors’ ability to keep us engaged.

But one thing that I kept noticing throughout the movie was the small details.  I’m not going to remember them all, but they included:

  • At one point, the British soldiers walk through an abandoned German bunker.  In a throwaway detail, the name “KLARA” is seen scrawled on one of the walls.  The camera doesn’t focus on it, but it just passes by.
  • We encounter a group of British soldiers, and of them is a Sikh.  The other soldiers are doing bad impressions of their superior officers, but the Indian’s impression is clearly better than the other Englishmen, with proper diction, upper-class accent, everything.
  • In the British trenches, various sections have unique names.  The one I remember most clearly is “Paradise Alley.”
  • As they walk, one of our two heroes notices cherry trees, and he quickly rattles off several different varieties of cherries.  He knows them because his family has an orchard back home.
  • An intense scene where someone has to literally wade through dozens of corpses.
  • In one remarkable scene, the movie pauses to listen to a song. Fighting is imminent, death may arrive at any moment, but for a brief moment, everything stops. It’s a brilliant moment…almost holy.

Little things like that.  The reason I bring them up is because some of them seemed unnecessary to the story, but they colored the story so that it felt more real than most.  And the closing credits reveal that this movie is based on stories told to director Sam Mendes by his grandfather, who served in World War One.  So many, if not all, of those little details were probably one hundred percent REAL details, the kind of details that could only be remembered by someone who was there.

Another reason the movie is so suspenseful is because we’ve become subtly programmed to believe that, in a war movie, the ending can’t be too Hollywood; otherwise, it’s not real enough.  The soldiers must deliver a message.  Will they even survive long enough to deliver the message?  Assuming they do, will the officers receiving the message even follow the order?  A civilian appears at one point…will they live?  They engage in combat…who will live and who will die?  I was on edge the whole movie because I never really felt “safe”, which was EXACTLY the kind of feeling you want when you’re watching a war movie.  In my opinion.

Now, about that whole single-shot thing.  There actually IS one cut, a SINGLE cut, during the whole movie.  You’ll know it when it happens.  But when you’ve seen as many movies as I have, you’ll also notice “invisible wipes”, where the camera passes by something in the foreground – a pillar, or a rock, or a tree – that comes in between the camera and the person/object being filmed.  Using clever editing and lighting, you can cut two shots together using that pillar/rock/tree as the splicing point.  And there is a LOT of that going on in this movie.

I’m not taking anything away from the achievement of the film, it’s spectacular.  It’s just something I noticed that I could not UN-notice for the duration of the film.  A minor quibble, nothing more.

1917 is definitely a top contender for Best Picture of 2019.  I have only seen a handful of World War I movies, but this is certainly one of the very best.  I’d rank it up there with Kubrick’s Paths of Glory any day.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Mike Flanagan
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 76% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Nearly forty years after the events of The Shining, an adult Danny Torrance makes contact with someone else who can “shine”, and is soon drawn into a war with a band of people who hunt gifted people like himself.

If you had asked me a year ago to list movies will never get a sequel, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of The Shining would have been near the top of that list.  As adaptations go, it has its share of fans and detractors, but as a stand-alone horror movie, it’s a stone-cold masterpiece that has never been equaled.  When I heard that they were actually making a sequel based on Stephen King’s own sequel to The Shining, I was extremely skeptical.  The last time someone made a follow-up to a Kubrick film was 2010 (1984), and while that film was a decent sci-fi flick, it didn’t come close to the spectacle of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  So my expectations were, as they say, tempered.

After watching Doctor Sleep earlier tonight, I can say, unequivocally, that while the film is not perfect, I could not have asked for a better sequel to The Shining.  It’s a treasure trove for fans of the original, and also for fans of the extended universe that King has created for his novels, starting with the Dark Tower series forward.  (For those particular fans, you’ll be glad to see a very specific two-digit number making a conspicuous cameo…)

To begin with, the story is classic King.  Danny Torrance has grown into an irresponsible adult with a drinking problem, marking an unfortunate parallel with his father, Jack.  He hits bottom and takes up residence in a sleepy New Jersey town, joins AA, and works as an orderly at a local hospice.  Up to now, he has done everything in his power to keep his “shine” in check, but he finds a pragmatic use for his gift working with terminal patients, with the help of an inscrutable cat who can sniff out which patient is going to die next.

Eventually he comes into contact with a young girl named Abra, who lives in another part of New Jersey, but who can “shine” like he can.  And then there’s this nomadic group of people, calling themselves The True Knot, who are apparently hunting down other people with the “shine” for their own nefarious purposes.

It all wraps and weaves into a thrilling tale that skillfully retains the feel of Kubrick’s film.  Doctor Sleep works on its own merits, but the more you know about The Shining, the more thoroughly you’ll enjoy this new film.  Sharp-eyed cinephiles will be amazed at how many times, and in how many different ways, Kubrick’s style is echoed and referenced in this sequel.  These include liberal use of fade transitions, lots of static shots, Steadicam shots, use of natural lighting, those shots with the axe (!), even the aspect ratio that the film was shot in.  I got a giddy little swoop every time I saw how carefully the director, Mike Flanagan, was working the master’s craft into his film.  It was like watching a very subtle Kubrickian version of Ready Player One.  And it never comes off as plagiarism…it’s definitely homage, not theft.

Another aspect I really enjoyed was how the movie doesn’t rush through anything.  It’s two-and-a-half hours long, longer than average these days, which is yet another echo of The Shining.  When it works, that kind of pacing and running time gives the viewer the luxury of settling into the rhythm of the characters, makes them feel more like real people instead of cardboard cutouts hurrying from one milestone to the next.  For example, there’s a scene where one character performs a kind of astral projection to find someone.  There is a rather long series of shots showing her traveling through space that I can easily imagine would have been truncated in a lesser film.  Doctor Sleep, instead, gives us a good long look at her journey, to really feel the distance involved.  It’s quite a beautiful sequence, in fact.

This was a much better movie than I anticipated, which is good, because I never believed it was necessary.  It’s a relief to see that the continuation of Danny Torrance’s story has been handled in such a respectful manner, both towards the first film nearly 40 years ago and towards the viewers and fans.  It’s not perfect (I could pick nits about one particular aspect of the finale if I wanted to), but it’s a worthy successor to Kubrick’s masterpiece.  This belongs on the list of the best Stephen King adaptations along with It (2017), The Green Mile, and The Shawshank Redemption.

P.S. The blu-ray edition of Doctor Sleep contains a director’s cut that extends the running time by thirty minutes, adds more details about Abra’s powers, among other things, and inserts “chapter breaks” that almost make it feel like a miniseries.

JOKER (2019)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Todd Phillips
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beets
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 68%

PLOT: In early-‘80s Gotham City, mentally-troubled comedian Arthur Fleck, disregarded and mistreated by society, embarks on a bloody downward spiral of crime and social revolution.

Most comic book movies, by default, require at least a little pre-existing knowledge of the universe inhabited by these characters, in order for the stories to make sense.  There are precious few exceptions.  Batman Begins (2005) is one.  Superman (1978) is another.  And now we have Joker, an origin story like no other, presented to the viewer as if no previous Batman movies existed, as if the Joker was a creature as new and original as Hannibal Lecter was nearly thirty years ago.  (Or, dare I say, Travis Bickle, over FORTY years ago…)

It’s incredible, if not impossible, to believe this film was directed by a man (Todd Phillips) whose most famous movies to date have been the Hangover trilogy and Old School.  There is nothing in this gritty psycho-drama that bears any resemblance to anything Phillips has directed before.

And I haven’t even mentioned Joaquin Phoenix’s performance yet.  More on that later.

The story: Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is an everyman, your average nobody, living in Gotham City in the early ‘80s, a time of garbage strikes, graffiti-riddled subways, and a porno theater on every downtown corner.  He lives with his invalid mother and pays the bills as a clown-for-hire, doing everything from entertaining bedridden children to sandwich-boarding on the street.  His real dream is to be a stand-up comedian and appear on a late-night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), whom he idolizes like a long-lost father.

(The similarities of this plot point to The King of Comedy [1983] have been well-documented and need not be explored here; that would require a whole separate article.)

So far, this is really heavy material, a real downer.  But then the screenplay strikes gold.  It turns out Arthur suffers from an unsettling, but very real, affliction, although it’s never quite named in the film: Pathological Laughter or Crying (PLC). Also known as the pseudobulbar effect, it is a neurological condition defined by episodes of uncontrolled laughter or crying.  People with PLC often laugh out loud or cry for no apparent reason.

In other words, Arthur simply bursts out laughing for no reason, and often, as we’ll see, at the most inopportune or inappropriate moments.

To me, this was genius.  It gives a legitimate grounding for the Joker’s iconic laugh.  What would normally be comic-bookish or hammy in previous incarnations becomes a little sad.  I felt empathy towards this guy whenever his affliction overcame him, especially in the scene on the bus when he’s amusing a little kid by pulling goofy faces, and the kid’s mom tells him to stop bothering her child, and he starts laughing despite his obvious disappointment.  The empathy for me came when I could see through the laughter, could see Arthur’s face contorting with genuine sadness and misery even as he guffawed helplessly.  It was touching.

The real turning point of the movie comes when he is accosted by three drunken yuppies on a subway, and he starts laughing uncontrollably, and the yuppies start beating him up…but they don’t know about the gun he’s carrying for protection.

But that’s enough of the plot.  I think I’ve described only the parts of it that you might have guessed anyway from the trailers.  The sensationally well-told story, not to mention the complexity of the story itself, is only one half of the movie’s greatness.

The other half, it must be said, is Joaquin Phoenix’s performance.  The trailers don’t do it justice.  A lot of the performance has to do with his tortured facial expressions when he has a laughing fit.  There are a couple of extraordinarily long shots where Arthur SHOULD be crying, but is instead laughing, and his agony is evident.  He WANTS to cry properly, but he can’t.  I don’t know how he pulled it off, but you can see both emotions on his face at the same time.  It’s a masterstroke.

Another remarkable factor at work in his performance is his subtle nods to previous Jokers in movies, and even TV.  If you watch really carefully, you’ll notice a quick reference to Mark Hamill’s celebrated voice work as the Joker in the Batman animated series and films; Cesar Romero’s eccentric dance moves from the ‘60s television series; and Heath Ledger’s hair.  (If there’s a reference to Nicholson, I must have missed it.)  I just thought it was a brilliant touch to bring in all of those influences and incorporate them into this newest incarnation, as if to acknowledge the pop-culture roots of this character, while still breaking new ground.

Joker is the comic-book movie for people who don’t like comic-book movies (even Deadpool).  It’s The Dark Knight crossed with Se7en and Taxi Driver.  It’s utterly unlike any comic-book movie I’ve ever seen, and I doubt anyone will ever be able to make another one like it without comparing it to this one.

FREAKS (2019)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Directors: Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern, Lexy Kolker
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 87% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A sheltered young girl (Kolker) discovers a bizarre, threatening, and mysterious new world beyond her front door after she escapes her father’s protective and paranoid control.

In the tradition of one of my very favorite sci-fi films, Midnight Special (2016), Freaks is a sci-fi mystery that doesn’t pander, doesn’t spoon-feed (except when it HAS to), and doesn’t insult my intelligence.  It premiered in 2018 at the Toronto International Film Festival, was picked up by a distributor two days later, and surfed the festival circuit for over a year, winning multiple awards, before finally getting a US/Canada release in 2019.

The story opens with a young girl, Chloe (a brilliant performance from Lexy Kolker), who lives with her father in a ramshackle house with covered windows and locked doors.  She takes a peek out the window through curtains that have been duct-taped to the windowsill and sees an ice cream truck outside; in the sky above she spots birds that seem to be…frozen in place?  Hm.  THAT’S weird.

As the opening section unfolds, we learn that the father is doing everything in his power to keep his daughter safe from something dangerous in the world outside their front door.  (She has never set foot outside.)  The movie is cagey at this point about explaining exactly what that something is, and immediately I thought, “Aw, man…is this gonna be another rip-off of A Quiet Place?”  The father walks around the house performing maintenance on drapes and boards and locks, and constantly reminding her daughter how dangerous it is outside, and how he’s doing all this to keep her safe.  Shades of Stranger Things, right?

So the first couple of acts of the movie felt like rip-offs of…sorry, homages to previous contemporary sci-fi entertainments.  The girl portraying Chloe delivers a fantastic, natural performance, but that wasn’t enough for me to shake that feeling of, “Man, I’ve seen all this before.”

At random intervals, Chloe starts to see things.  People in her room, in her closet.  Sometimes these people talk to her, and she talks back.  Are they ghosts?  We’ve learned that Chloe’s mother is dead…could one of these visions be her mother?  And what’s the story with that weird ice cream truck at the beginning, with the creepy, smiling old man who seems to know more than he’s letting on?

These are all threads that make you THINK you know where the story is headed, and you may or may not be right.  You may already think you know what the rest of the movie’s about just based on my description above.  Fair enough.

As for me, I was bamboozled when the true nature of the girl, her father, and the world outside her house was revealed.  I’m not talking about a Sixth Sense kind of reveal that’s kept a secret until the last 5 minutes of the movie.  This movie makes its “reveal” with about an hour left (I’m guesstimating), so I basically felt like I got two movies in one.  Or maybe two episodes of an EXCELLENT cable miniseries.  Once the “reveal” is, well, revealed, the movie shifts into high gear and doesn’t ease off until literally the final frame.

The joy of Freaks is that reveal at the halfway point, and what they do with it afterwards, so it’s extremely hard to know what else I can say without spoiling the fun of discovering it for yourself.  I could mention the visual effects, which are relatively minimal, but EXTREMELY effective, especially during the finale.  I could mention the screenplay’s deliberate attempts to make certain plot points analogous to the current immigration debate.  (I’m gonna mangle this, but one of the lines goes something like, “If you attempt forced relocation, that will only force them underground.”)  I could mention the way certain clues are hidden in plain sight, once you get to the endgame of the movie.

But you won’t get another word from me about the story.  You deserve to discover this one yourself.  I cannot recommend this highly enough.  It’s not quite a PERFECT film, but what are you gonna do, they can’t all be Midnight Special.  I never saw one trailer, not one Facebook ad or YouTube video about Freaks.  I only saw it by pure luck tonight because the showing was at a better time than Ready or Not.

I’m telling you.  Seek this one out. It’s a winner.

GOOD BOYS (2019)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Gene Stupnitsky
Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Will Forte, Stephen Merchant
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 79% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Three sixth-grade boys ditch school and embark on an epic journey while carrying accidentally stolen drugs, being hunted by teenage girls, and trying to make their way home in time for a long-awaited party.

You will either love Good Boys for the humor, or you will hate it for exactly the same reason.  There can be no middle of the road.  You will either guffaw through the entire film, as I did, or you will gape in shock at the behavior and language demonstrated by tween boys.

If you’re one of those people who cannot comprehend the humor to be derived from watching curious boys who haven’t yet hit puberty staring at sex toys and wondering what the hell they’re for (“What are ‘a-nahl beads’?”), then this movie is not for you.  It’s just not.  No amount of philosophizing or rationalization will make it “okay.”  The fact that the movie made me laugh pretty much beginning to end carries no weight.  I respect your opinion.  If you want to stop reading this review, I wouldn’t blame you.  Now’s your chance.  I don’t want to waste your time.  Quit now.


If you kept reading, you’re one of those people like me who laughed through every second of the trailers for this movie, hoping against hope that they didn’t just show us all the funny bits in the trailer.  Thank the comedy gods, they didn’t.  Good Boys is the funniest movie I’ve seen this year so far, and it may wind up being the funniest comedy of the year.

If you’ve seen the trailers, you know the plot: three 6th-graders accidentally steal some “molly” from two college girls, who offer to trade it for an expensive drone they captured while the boys were using it to spy on them.  See, the boys have been invited to a “kissing” party, but they know nothing about kissing, so they were using the drone to spy on these two college girls to see if they would kiss.  Before that, they tried using the internet, but instead of just searching for “how to kiss a girl”, they jumped right into searching for “boobies” and “porn”…which did not end well.

Read that last sentence.  If I were the father of one of those kids, I would not find that funny.  I can understand from an intellectual standpoint how a kid that young can be curious about such things, but if I found out my kid had been searching for that stuff online, as a parent, I’d be upset.  So I can see how this movie might put some people off.

But I promise you.  This movie magically takes what would be uncomfortable in real life and mines those situations for the kind of belly laughs that I haven’t had in a movie theater since The Hangover.  And it’s not salacious or prurient, because they have NO IDEA what they’re looking at, or even talking about.  (The description one of them gives for what a tampon is used for is worth the price of admission.)

As the movie progresses, the screenplay doesn’t forget to give us reasons to like these kids.  We get glimpses of one of their families in particular, as they inform him they’re getting divorced.  (“You’ll get TWO Taco Tuesdays now!  Just…one of them will be on Wednesday.”)  One of them has a real gift for singing, but doesn’t want to look too uncool, so he doesn’t sign up for an audition.  One has a crush on a girl, but is so nervous about her that he talks to his friends about how he hopes one day to make actual eye contact.  Too many comedies make the GAGS the point of the film instead of the characters.  While the gags are fast and furious in Good Boys, they MEAN more, and are funnier, because we know who these kids are, and what makes them tick.

I’m trying to think of what else to write, but it would just be a catalog of the best gags and lines in the movie.  (“I’m gonna be a social piranha!”)  I don’t believe finding this movie funny is bad or immoral.  I know there are people out there who might think so, and I empathize.  But I know what makes me laugh, and I have to be true to myself, so…there you go.