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The Devil All the Time

A Big Bummer All the Time
Depravity and delusion coarse through this movie. Radical religious figures suffer punishment. Decent folks in unfortunate situations suffer punishments. Murderers suffer too. In this story, there is only pain and suffering. That, and death.

I suppose the movie delves into the troubles that arise when faith morphs into fanaticism. The story also examines blasphemy, religious corruption of the highest sort. Some of these explorations appear deep and artful, but I'm not so sure. After doing some exploration of my own, I could not find any clear messages, lessons, or meaningful conclusions. As far as I could tell, the religion-laced intertwined tales do nothing more than present brutality and misery for the sake of... entertainment? This is no wise sermon. It's unpleasantness for unpleasantness' sake.

Ultimately, the move suffers from its overstuffed plot. The effort put into establishing multiple characters whose fates eventually intersect years down the road is all for naught. The moment when the characters crash into each other is meant to serve as the ultimate payoff, but since not enough time is given to the supporting subplots, the climax feels a little undercooked.

There are times during the movie when I believed I understood the meaning, when I felt I grasped when the writer had in mind. But that feeling always faded away, and the messages only became murkier.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

Will Ferrell Can Still be Funny
I very nearly ignored this movie entirely because Will Ferrell's recent run of laugh-free pseudo-comedies, like 'The House,' 'Holmes and Watson,' and the sequel everyone asked for 15 years ago but stopped asking for five years ago, 'Zoolander 2.'

Will Ferrell, one of the beloved comedy gods of my youth, had forgotten how to be funny.

This reality devastated me. I had spent hours watching and re-watching his early movies, always laughing uproariously. These were movies Ferrell not only starred in, but movies he often wrote. The guy was a one-man comedy tornado. And then he wasn't.

So, when I saw the promo for 'Eurovision' I was content to give it a hard pass. I was not about to let Will Ferrell hurt me again. But then one friend told me the movie was funny. Then another. I decided to give it a shot.

Remarkably, within the first five minutes, I could already tell this movie was different than Ferrell's recent bombs. It was sweet, and it was endearing, and most importantly, it was funny.

Granted, it is not masterpiece. Sure, Rachel McAdams' accent disappears and reappears, often in the middle of a sentence. It's okay. I accept the flaws, because Will Ferrell showed me he could still be funny.

'Eurovision' tells everyone it's okay to believe in your dreams. I'm telling you it's okay to believe in your past-their-prime comedy heroes. They just might come through for you.

Hubie Halloween

A Little Light Halloween Fun
I turned this movie on the other night and figured I would take a small taste, spit it out, and move on. But that's not what happened.

I watched the first few moments and rolled my eyes, but I did so in a loving way, the way a child might at his dad for being slightly embarrassing, yet charming and undeniably himself. That's Adam Sandler in 'Hubie Halloween.' Sure, he's silly and slightly embarrassing, but I love him and accept him for who he is.

And another thing: he made me laugh and smile. I can't help but like the guy. He has a way of winning people over, even in movies that are less than stellar.

Fortunately, this movie truly is not bad. It has quite a bit going for it, including an endless supply of recognizable actors, a cute romance warming slowly throughout, and a mystery with just enough juice to keep the action moving. I wanted to keep watching. I wanted to see what happened next. Did I expect a shocking twist to make me gasp or some profound revelation to make me think? Not really, and I was okay with that.

This is a breezy movie that features people I like and centers on Halloween. That's all I wanted. If I had one bone to pick, I wish Sandler's Hubie character was bit more Mr. Deeds and little less Bobby Boucher ('The Waterboy'). That change plus a couple plot tweaks and this could have been a real Halloween classic I would watch every year. Alas, this version will do just fine.


It's a Cage Match
Here's what you need to know: Nicholas Cage is a dangerous big game hunter (in the movie, and also possibly in real life - who knows). He tracks and captures a rare and valuable white jaguar, then, hoping to cash in on his prize, he boards a ship along with cages full of his other animals, including venomous snakes and vicious monkeys.

Sure, the animals are dangerous, but they're all in cages. They can't possibly get out of those cages. The ship ride should go just fine.

It seems simple enough, right? Not so fast! When it comes to Nicholas Cage nothing is ever quite so simple.

The complication in this case arrives in the form of a deadly assassin. Thoroughly chained, he boards the ship and pops a squat in - guess what - a cage.

So now the obvious question becomes, 'who is the most dangerous animal in these cages?' Probably the one who can operate a gun, but I'll let you count who ends up with the most kills by movie's end.

Anyway, if you can believe it, the assassin manages to escape the cage. And what does he do? He releases all the dangerous animals, is what he does. So now, we have ship full of loose deadly animals and a very deadly assassin.

No one could possibly conquer the animals and the assassin, I thought. But then, Nicholas Cage does all sorts of Nicholas Cage things, and I think at one point Nicholas Cage the actor believed he actually was a hunter trying to save the people on board the ship from a killer man and killer animals. Needless to say, the action is spectacular.

If I'm really being honest with myself and anyone who happens to be reading this, the movie isn't actually spectacular. It's a hunter on ship pursuing dangerous animals and an assassin - it's not exactly 'Citizen Kane,' you know? But I had fun watching it. If you're willing to turn off your brain for 90 minutes, you can have fun watching it too.

True Romance

Crazy Meets Crazy and Falls in Love
Quentin Tarantino had a certain flare and unmistakable voice as a writer right from the very beginning. 'True Romance' makes that very clear.

In this early work of Tarantino, he treats viewers to an avalanche of action and escalating stakes: A kung fu movie buff who works at a comic store (vaguely reminiscent of who Tarantino saw himself to be in his younger days) meets a call girl, falls in love, confronts her pimp, and ultimately flees to California with his new lover and a half million dollars worth of cocaine in a briefcase.

The couple are a perfect pairing because they can match each other's crazy. They appear to genuinely fall for each other and support each other's wild choices. Actually, they seem to be turned on by each other's craziness. With a tiny excusal of their warped perception of reality, it becomes easy enough to like these two. If liking them is asking too much, at the very least viewers will be interested in what happens to them.

Of course, that is not to say these are good people. Their behavior is questionable at best. But, moral judgment isn't really the point of this movie. It's an elaborate and entertaining story told with witty dialogue and explosive violence.

In other words, it's a Tarantino movie.

One more thing: the music. Director Tony Scott opted for a score rather than the classic soundtracks Tarantino routinely assembles in his later movies. It turns out the score was the perfect choice. The delightful melody provides dashes of much needed levity in the midst of the carnage.

Ready or Not

It's All Fun and Games
What a fun movie this is. For a joyous hour and a half, you can step into a simpler world. There's a likable hero (Samara Weaving) facing off against an unlikable villain family of psychotic satanic kooks.

Psychotic satanic kooks, you say? Right, so what happens is the hero marries into a rich family who has amassed its fortune in games (think Parker Brothers or Milton Bradley). When the family insists that the wedding night end with a game, the hero views it as a quirky but harmless escapade. Oh, how wrong she is. Because of her misfortune of randomly drawing the card to play Hide and Seek, the entire family now believes they must kill her before dawn or suffer the wrath of a gamesman spirit that is responsible for their family fortune, or something like that. The details of the plotdon't matter a great deal other than to understand that the family is trying to kill her, so she runs around in a wedding dress trying to survive.

Tonally, the movie is much more funny and exciting than it is scary. Even if you frighten easily, you should be able to tolerate this one. Though, a fair warning is needed about the violence. There's a lot of that. Much of it is comic violence, but a queasy stomach might act up anyway. Again, I'm just giving a fair warning.

In a world where everything is politicized, you might have seen some people doing so with this movie. To me, that's a bit of a reach. At most, I would admit there is some fairly obvious social commentary, as the rich family members ridicule and look down their noses at this woman who isn't wealthy and is marrying into their world. The groom's aunt takes particularly aim at the bride, attacking her with her eyes and then later on literally attacking her with an axe.

The message is clear, but I didn't bother exploring it too deeply because the movie doesn't appear to be asking for that from viewers. What I would encourage viewers to do instead is to enjoy the marvelous work of Weaving as she fights for her life in the most charming way possible. She's an absolute star, and the movie does not succeed if she is not able to balance being equal parts tough, cunning, and amused by the absurdity of her situation.

Requiem for a Dream

It will leave you with an Emotional Hangover
"Requiem for a Dream" is a little too depressing to be a movie I would say that I like a lot. I don't mean that as any sort of disrespect, because it absolutely is a well made movie.

It is apparent that writer and director Darren Aronofsky successfully put together the movie he intended to make. Every character development point along their arc, every scene and even every frame fulfills its purpose. Drugs enter the lives of each character - an aimless young man, his girlfriend, his friend, and his widowed mother. They all experience the euphoric highs when using drugs, and they experience the swift and devastating lows. Desperation flows through each character.

Aronofsky creatively makes use of disorienting camera angles to illustrate the unhinged frame of mind that these people deal with while high. Closeups are meant to make viewers uncomfortable, as we are forced to closely encounter a manic drug addict. Aronofsky also uses intentionally repetitive drug use sequences to make clear how often they are using and how completely consumed their lives are by the drugs. Another creative touch I'll mention is his use of split screen of two characters who are lying right beside each other. At first it seems like a superfluous choice, but after consideration I realized that it is meant to show how alone these characters are, even when they are together.

What a depressing thought.

Fair warning to anyone who hasn't seen this yet: the movie is a bummer. Brace yourself.


Nothing is as Certain as You'd like it to be
When a friendly priest appears to become a little too friendly with a young altar boy, he must be guilty of something. Or does he?

A couple of nuns, one the principal of the Catholic grade school and the other a teacher, suspect the priest of inappropriate behavior after he called a boy into a private meeting for no reason in particular. The priest is kind, especially to the boy. The priest is so caring that the boy would even say he's fond of the priest. After all, the boy is the lone Black student, he's new to the school, and this story takes place in the 1960s. He has trouble fitting in, so he's grateful to have anyone he can consider a friend.

So, what's the truth? With a title like "Doubt" you would be right to suspect that the facts might remain uncertain. The principal, Sister Aloysius, maintains a steadfast resolve of the priest's guilt. She seems so certain about everything - her disdain for the modern world, including all of its most gruesome amoralities, like Frosty the Snowman and ballpoint pens.

Of course she resents the priest for his forward-thinking ways and willingness to adapt to the changing times. He represents a threat to her pious way of life. To her, things should stay as they have been, now and in perpetuity. Anything else is blasphemy.

In the movie's most powerful scene, Sister Aloysius tells the boy's mother about her suspicions about the priest. The mother's reaction and reveal catch her off guard. Suddenly the situation isn't so simple.

The movie brilliantly dangles hints but is careful not to reveal too much until the very end. Even then, you may not find the clarity you hoped for. Watch "Doubt" if you want to think, but happy times should be sought elsewhere.

Can't Hardly Wait

Light, Funny, Heartfelt Teen Movie
For as superficial and unoriginal as the "Can't Hardly Wait" is, I must admit that I found it be entertaining in the early moments. The conversations, music and bouncy energy of it all is funny in a frivolous way, which is enough for a movie like this one. It's all perfectly benign, intermittently charming enough to elicit a smile but not funny enough to make anyone laugh out loud. It's noisy enough to make its presence felt but not so loud that anyone is rattled. And It's considerate enough to cause an occasional slight head tilt in thought but not provocative enough to lead to any serious exploration.

An average guy and his platonic female friend fill the roles of the two lead characters. I won't mention their names because I don't remember and honestly it doesn't matter anyway. The guy has obsessed over some pretty girl for years despite never uttering so much as a single word to her. Through high school he has remained convinced that they are cosmically tethered because they both ate strawberry Pop Tarts in class once (he talks about Pop Tarts as if they are some sort of immaculate French pastry, which illustrates precisely how distorted this dude's world view is).

His female friend rolls her eyes at him because she rolls her eyes at everything. What's her story? Not much. She goes to high school and doesn't like it. Cool. She must be a blast to hang out with.

The guy learns that the popular jock dating the girl of his dreams has recently dumped said girl so he can date college women. This is average guy's chance, he decides, so he plans to give dream girl his letter that professes his love to her. It's a silly plan, but this is a silly movie, so it is to be expected.

All the characters are delusional, caring deeply about the shallowest of everyday things. Everyone feels like a token representative of one group or another, even if many of these groups are not representative of a real high school student body. The jocks are at their jockiest, the overachiever strives to conquer one more challenge, the disillusioned girl thinks this is all lame, the band thinks this could be their big break, and yada yada. Each of the kids is a caricature of some broadly defined click. Cartoonishness is not limited to the people at the party - the part itself is a caricature. Somehow the whole movie manages to be completely cliché without being in any way accurate.

Amidst all the shallow events that litter the movie, there is one genuinely tender moment. After the jock decides he wants to get back with dream girl, she rejects him. Embarrassed, he calls her out in front of a crowd, exclaiming, "Who would want you now?" It's a brutally dehumanizing thing to say. But she stands strong and replies, "Somebody." The moment is sweet and would actually be moving, except the moment is undercut by the fact that this girl is beautiful and has had guys chasing her constantly from the second she became single earlier that day.

Still, I must admit, I kind of liked the scene. That's how I felt about the movie overall. It's flawed in very obvious ways that are easy to make fun of (which is why I made fun of it), and yet it still has a certain level of likability. All things considered, I'm glad I watched it.

Just Mercy

Powerful Story but Movie Falls a bit Flat
With source material (based on a true story) this compelling, a cast this littered with star power and legitimate award-winning talent, and a respected director (who directed "Short Term 12"), this movie should be been an unstoppable smashing success. It should have been GREAT. It should have won Oscars. But it didn't. It didn't because something is missing.

What exactly is missing is a bit hard to put a finger on. For some reason or another, the movie simply misses the mark. Part of the explanation involves the approach the film takes. Filmmakers clearly had seen other successful true stories that let the events speak loudly rather than attempt to falsely drum up intensity. They trusted that the story would be enough. And it is unquestionably an engrossing story, but that does not necessarily mean the movie will reach the heights that it should. Ultimately, the miscalculations of tone and lack of a visceral kick lead to the movie falling a notch below understated and landing somewhere in the dull zone.

I love Michael B. Jordan. He's one of the most talented actors of his generation and has been one of my favorites for the past decade. That's why I was disappointed by his performance here. He's a bit flat. In all the scenes featuring lingering shots of his face as he smolders with anger and sadness, I see very little depth. These sorts of shots appear in the film many times, and each time I kept searching for the layers of emotion in eyes and on his face, only to realize that there isn't much there. His emoting contrasts greatly with the instances when Jamie Fox and Rob Morgan have their opportunities. The deliver an emotional wallop whenever given the chance. Their towering displays make it all the more obvious that Jordan did not perform on their level in this movie.

It pains me to type this. I know in my heart that Michael B. Jordan will once again reach his top form in one of his upcoming movies. He's far too talented not to do so.

Overall, the movie needed a little bit more. The dialogue needed to be a bit sharper, for one. The story building also left a bit to be desired. In no way am I suggested that this is a bad movie - it's not. Actually, it's a pretty good one. Unfortunately, it had the potential to be so much more.

Escape from New York

Stylish, Gritty Ation Sci-Fi Movie with Incredible Music
It's 1997 (but it's the future since this movie was made in 1981) and the United States crime rates have skyrocketed, particularly in New York City. To handle the rising prison population and abundance of violent inmates, the government opts to turn New York City into a maximum security fortress for individuals who have committed the most vile crimes. There are no guards inside the prison, only inmates. They form their own society. Guards only intercede if a prisoner attempts to escape. No one gets out alive.

When the president's plane is hijacked and terrorists bring him into the prison city, convicted felon and soon-to-be resident of the prison, Snake Plissken is asked to do the impossible and bring the president out alive.

The setup is rich and compelling, yet there's a tremendous amount of backstory that is left untold in "Escape from New York" and that's part of what makes it work. There's an air of mystery wafting through the movie that continually begs questions but leaves it up to the viewer to imagine what the answers might be. "Why does Snake have an eyepatch?" "What caused the explosion in crime rates?" "Why does the president have a British accent?" All these questions and more make the movie fun to discuss and re-watch repeatedly, searching for hints that help unravel the mystery.

Kurt Russell is unforgettable as Snake, who should be a loathsome character but instead becomes a hero we have no trouble rooting for. He practically growls every line of dialogue because he crackles with too much anger to simply speak. Somehow, despite everything about him being ostensibly unlikable, he's still charming in a way. He would make for an incredible dinner party guest. On one hand, he would likely scare most of the guests and make them feel dumb. But on the other hand, he would probably make all of the guests think, "wow, if you have a friend like this guy, you must be a really interesting person." Inviting him is a big gamble, for sure. Though, it just might pay off.

Along with Snake, the highlight of the movie is John Carpenters music. Find another 1980s movie with a cooler score. I dare you. Carpenter has created two of the most recognizable and undeniably excellent theme music tracks of the 70s and 80s ("Halloween" is the other). And he directed both movies. What an achievement.

The Lovebirds

Not Exactly Original, but still Fun
Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani make for an instantly believable couple. The first moments of "The Lovebirds" establish that these two have obvious chemistry, they seem like a real couple (maybe even one that you know), and most importantly, they're undeniably likable. The entire success of the movie hinges upon the actors' ability to be charming and witty and enjoyable as a duo. If they do not play off each other in a fun and funny way, no viewer is going to want to hang out with them for 90 minutes.

Fortunately, these two have chemistry in spades. It's their genuine connection and Michael Showalter's directing flair that keep the movie tumbling along in a semi-coherent direction despite a plot with holes large enough to fit a small yacht.

In the ilk of fellow couples comedies like "Date Night" and "Game Night," "The Lovebirds" takes place over the course of a single day - at least, aside from the opening scene depicting the couple fully engulfed in the early honeymoon stage of their relationship. Jump ahead four years and we see the two of them suddenly arguing about the most frivolous of hypotheticals. The one we witness happens to be about how well they would fare as contestants on The Amazing Race. It's a funny and seemingly ridiculous conversation since they certainly will not ever find themselves involved in such circumstances. But then they witness a murder, flee the scene, evade the police, and believe that they need to investigate the situation themselves to prove their innocence. From there, they are forced to follow a set of enigmatic clues leading them in a desperate dash from one destination to the next. It's their very own amazing race to avoid prison.

Each scene rolls rapidly into the next and the banter crackles with just as much energy. The filmmakers hope the pacing and humor will provide enough joy that viewers will not stop laughing long enough to scrutinize the feasibility of the story. It mostly works out fine, thanks to the co-stars.

By the time the ride rolls to halt, there are enough unanswered questions and jokes left untold for a sequel. If the opportunity for a second round should ultimately arise, most would happily accept. Count me in for "The Lovebirds 2."

The Wrong Missy

Relentlessly Dumb
On the recommendation of a few friends, I gave this movie a shot. After watching the entire movie, I have concluded that I probably will not take their next recommendation.

I kept hearing that the first five minutes of "The Wrong Missy" made people laugh as much as any movie they have seen in the past few years. So, I figured I would give it five minutes, hopefully I would agree about how funny it was, and I would at least tolerate the remaining 90 minutes. But that didn't happen.

Including the first five minutes, this movie never felt like anything more than a complete waste of time. Inexplicably, I continued to watch the whole movie, despising it the entire time, hardly cracking a smile.

David Spade has been funny enough in certain past moments, but he is not funny here. His opportunity to elevate sunken material is limited, so it's hard to know how much blame he deserves. I will say definitively that I do not blame Lauren Lapkus for this film's failure. She commits to her role with admirable enthusiasm, never letting up for a moment. Kudos to her for trying her best. She clearly has potential. In a different role and movie, she could be very funny.

I'm a big fan of Adam Sandler. Let me be clear, I'm a fan of Adam Sandler, the person. By all accounts he is a genuinely kind and humble individual, and he seems like he would be a blast to hang out with.

However, many of the comedy movies he has made lately have been unwatchably awful. They have been lazy, broadly uninteresting and bafflingly stupid. And that's what "The Wrong Missy" is. It is relentlessly dumb. It never makes an effort to be even the tiniest bit believable.

If you're a fan of Adam Sandler, I recommend watching "Uncut Gems." It's not his typical performance or type of movie, but it's a wild, riveting ride. If you are in the mood for a comedy, then try "The Lovebirds." Both of these are on Netflix now.


Not as Charming as it Thinks it is
I had a tough time with this movie. I heard plenty of good things about it and was very much looking forward to watching what is considered a 90s teen movie classic. Try as I might to enjoy my viewing experience, I couldn't quite hurdle the barrier presented by an obnoxious and ruthlessly clueless lead character.

Cher (played with tireless busyness by Alicia Silverstone) is a rich spoiled 15-year-old student who manipulates everyone in her path, occasionally to their benefit. She possesses a pathologically enormous ego that makes it impossible for her to accept criticism or even the slightest suggestion that she is anything less than flawless. In her mind, she can do whatever she wants whenever she wants, and the world should simply bend to her will as soon as she smiles and offers a flimsy explanation.

Cher is meant to be bubbly and charming, but she comes across as unbearable and jarringly self-centered. She deserves a comeuppance or at least some sort of learning moment. I kept waiting for the story to weave its way in that direction, to the moment when she realizes she needs to improve as a person, but it never really happens. Instead, inexplicably yet to the surprise of no one, she gets exactly what she wants. All of it. Shortly after she comes to the realization that she's in love with a certain boy, the two get together. She wins. Does the story have a point? Is there a lesson? Unclear. If anything, we learn that spoiled rich girls get what they want, but we already knew that.

Aside from Cher, many of the other characters are fairly likable. No one jumps off the screen due to a unique personality, but plenty of guys and gals exhibit enough life from scene to scene to make me smile. There's the dopey skater boy, the guy trying way too hard to look cool, the awkward new arrival, and the teachers who tolerate all matters of unacceptable student behavior.

For as much as everyone lacks self-awareness, they show a remarkable acuity for assessing others. Cher rattles off descriptions of the various student groups that make up the school. Her explanations lack depth but so do the characters, so it's hard to hold that against her too much. And Cher isn't the only one capable of these keen observations. Her best friend Dion astutely describes a college guy as going through his "post-adolescent idealistic phase." Though, he is later seen reading a book by Nietzsche, so his nihilistic phase probably isn't far off.

If we had a different lead character/narrator, I probably would have enjoyed this movie much more. Alas, Cher put a hard cap on this movie, preventing it from rising to anything beyond a mediocre and forgettable shrug.

Weird Science

Has Not Aged Well in the Slightest
Sometimes I'll watch a movie from the '80s and wonder what the heck people were thinking. Then I remember the rampant cocaine use throughout the United States during the decade, and then things begin to make more sense.

This is one of the zaniest goofball comedies you'll ever see. It has absolutely zero interest in making any sense, so you might as well check your logic and your entire brain at the door. If you're willing to accept it for the fantastical farce that it strives to be, you'll enjoy yourself. For the most part.

The issue is that even without your brain you're going to have a hard time looking past the fact that these two 15-year-old boys have created a 23-year-old-woman to be their girlfriend. And she's totally down with it. She makes out with one of the boys for an uncomfortably long time (as if any amount of time would be comfortable). The scene is so creepy and cringeworthy that it's miracle that anyone thought it was acceptable to keep in the movie.

Perhaps no one batted an eye at the scene during the time of the film's release, though I find that hard to believe. Today, the scene has aged so poorly that it overwhelms the entirety of the movie and invalidates the whole thing. Though, to be fair, the rest of movie does little to deserve validation. We're talking about a movie that includes a toy Barbie turning into a real-life woman with superpowers, a motorcycle mutant whose day job is teaching, and a man being turned into a literal pile of talking feces.

I had heard people revere this movie as a classic, which is now unfathomable to me. The adult on child make out scene is going to haunt me for quite a while. I implore you to spare yourself that unfortunate fate and watch something else.


Mindless Action that's actuallly pretty entertaining
Netflix deserves praise for inserting some action in the form of a Chris Hemsworth-led action movie into our actionless quarantined existence. The movie zips along from one bloody shootout to another, maintaining a necessary level momentum to keep audiences intrigued.

Hemsworth is fine and the movie is fine. Two highlights stand out. For one, Hemsworth's character is named Tyler Rake, and he kills two people with a rake. It's a nice wink by the filmmakers. Another highlight is the extended tracking shot during the movie's strongest and most violent sequence. I'm not sure if it's the best tracking shot ever in an action movie, but it very well may be the longest.

If you enjoy action movies, you'll probably enjoy this one. It's perfectly adequate.


It goes Downhill fast
Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus are two of the most talented and successful comedy actors in recent decades. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash form a Oscar-winning writing duo capable producing moving, thoughtful work full of heart and humor. Force Majeure, the film on which "Downhill" is based, is a powerhouse of picture, one of effective dark comedy and pungent drama. With all these forces seemingly playing in favor of "Downhill," it seemed like the movie was an inevitable hit.

So, why did it whiff so miserably?

A major issue with the film is its lack of subtlety. None of the characters' flaws or any of the developing sources of conflict are unveiled with any level of showmanship. They're clumsily slapped onto the screen with the same level of delicate touch that a toddler uses to finger paint. The only difference is what the toddler creates will ultimately be colorful and show signs of life.

Another massive flaw (I'll stop with two since I don't need belabor the point with excessive cruelty) is the apparent fear that went into the writing. All the punches were pulled. There are so many moments that walk right up to the edge of making an emotional impact, delivering laugh, or doing something of worth, but they cautiously pull back before completing the mission. We're left with an empty feeling at every turn.

For those who are unfamiliar with the film's premise, the plot revolves around a mom and dad who take their two kids on a ski vacation. During an avalanche that takes place while the family is sitting at the café table, dad runs away, leaving his family helpless and alone. It turns out the avalanche was controlled and posed no real danger, unbeknownst to the vacationers. Dad returns to his trembling family and acts as though nothing happened. Mom is ticked.

It's a rough look for dad, as he has lost the respect of his wife and kids. He proceeds to make excuses and deny responsibility for what happened. So, mom takes the atrociously bad advice of a concierge at their ski resort and decides to "live her best life" or something like that. Evidently, her best life includes breaking the fidelity of her marriage and touching herself in a bathroom stall. To each their own I suppose.

Mom's exploration of her true desires could have been funny and revealing. Eventually, one would assume, she would learn the error of that way of living. But she never learns that lesson. Instead, the movie simply abandons that plotline after 15 minutes or so. Oh well, her best life would have been a first round elimination at the best life qualifying tournament. Not much interesting stuff going on with her.

Mercifully, the movies sputters to a halt after a weakly realized pseudo-reconciliation for the family. Then, because the writers weren't quite finished firing blanks, the final scene orchestrates a scenario similar to the avalanche from early in the movie. This time, mom, dad, and the other adults involved all fend for themselves. The point exactly of this moment is unclear. It'll leave audiences everywhere shrugging as the credits roll and they turn to person next to them and exchange a look that says, "I'm sure glad that's over."

Down a Dark Stairwell

Justice is a Matter of Perspective
A police officer shot an unarmed Black man. One community is outraged. Another defends the officer. Sounds like a story we've all heard before. But this time, the officer is a baby-faced Asian man who had been with the force for less than a year, and there's compelling evidence suggesting it was tragic accident absent of any malice of any kind. A tragic accident with circumstances outside the control of the two men involved. This story is told with impeccable balance and fairness - a remarkable achievement given the complicated subject matter. When race gets involved, can anyone stay unbiased? You be the judge.

Welcome to Chechnya

Powerful and Disturbing
A troubling and powerful documentary, Welcome to Chechnya depicts the cruel and terrifying reality that people in the LGBTQ community face in the area. Through the united efforts of remarkably brave individuals, a few fortunate souls escape to more enlightened areas of the world. But not everyone is so lucky. The fight continues, and the Russian government continues to deny that the atrocities are taking place. Brace yourself before watching this one.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

Beneath the Booze and Cigarette Smoke, There's a Heart
Enter a Las Vegas dive bar on its final night before closing. The inhabitants are as shabby and unremarkable as you might expect, at first glimpse at least. When sticking around to observe them for an entire night, you begin to understand the humanity of these so-called societal rejects and failures. Sure, they might be unshowered, wreaking of booze and cigarettes, and unable to come up with a single answer to Jeopardy! but they are people who crave and deserve a sense of belonging just as much as any 9 to 5 office employee. There's a heart to this story that offers a dash of hope. Then the bar closes and everyone moves on.

Dick Johnson Is Dead

Death has never been so funny
To help her dad (and herself) cope with his declining health and eventual death, a woman stages fake accidents that kill her father. They're all fake, of course. They play to laughs, and inspire the title of the film, but they're really only a small aspect of the film on the whole. The story mostly focuses on their relationship and shows how special Dick Johnson is as a father, a grandfather, and a human being. He is lovable, hilarious, and perpetually happy. Everyone loves this man. You'll love him too. And you'll love this movie. It's an incredibly nuanced and intelligent examination of death, but it wisely disguises itself as a comedy so viewers can watch without openly weeping the entire time. In the end, you'll still cry, but you'll smile too.

Talking About Trees

A Noble Pursuit, but it's quite Boring
The innate goodness of the subjects' intentions is appealing enough - a group of filmmakers attempt to restore an abandoned outdoor theater to bring back film to their town - but the story moves far too slowly to muster up any notable momentum. The documentary mostly depicts the men sitting around chatting and walking around the abandoned theater, discussing the difficulty of their restoration efforts. In the screening I attended, it was obvious that viewers cared about the group's noble mission, but not enough to sit through the entire film. Several people in my screening walked out within the first hour.

El agente topo

A Silly Spy Movie Morphs into a Heartwarming Story of Human Connection
What begins as an amusing bumbling spy/detective movie, in the ilk of The Pink Panther or The Naked Gun, slowly transforms into one of the warmest and most heartfelt documentaries you'll ever experience. The transformation occurs gradually and subtly. About two thirds of the way through, we finally understand the type of movie we have been watching all along. This isn't a spy movie - it's a story about loneliness, growing old, and the importance of human connection. The story: When a woman suspects her mother is suffering abuse in an elderly home, she hires a private investigator. The private investigator decides to hire an 83-year-old man, Sergio to enter the home posing as a new member. But he's not there for living assistance. He's there to investigate the home's staff and members, reporting his findings to the private investigator. He's there to be the mole agent. Of course, the 83-year-old spy angle is merely a hook. While Sergio quickly proves to be a comically ineffective spy, he simultaneously reveals himself to be an endlessly charming gentleman who endears himself to other members of the home. His friendships form the heart the movie and will leave audiences rushing out to hug their loved ones.

To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You

Blander than the Original, but Still Netflixable
A lot of the charm from the first "To all the Boys" movie has worn off by "Part 2." The few characters with edge and potential to create conflict are largely defanged in this sequel. The kid sister has chilled out a bit and Peter's ex-girlfriend has become softer and even sympathetic. Also diminishing the conflict potential, Lana Condor's Lara Jean character is revealed to be more thinly written than we realized. This limits the movie's effectiveness. A character-driven story can only do so much when the character is underdeveloped. Throw in a plot that has such little advancement, a million and one forced musical queues, and we're left with a blander, less funny version of the original.

As you might have seen from the promos, another of Lara Jean's letters was delivered to an old crush of hers. This guy, John Ambrose, actually writes back. He clearly had feelings for her when the two were kids and he seemingly still does.

Lara Jean and the handsome John Ambrose end up volunteering at a retirement home together. Taken by his smile and their childhood connection, Lara Jean begins to wonder if Peter is the right fit for her. It doesn't help Peter's case that his ex-girlfriend constantly turns to him for support (her parents are separating), and his genuine kindness forbids him from turning her away. His behavior is defensible from a pure human decency standpoint, but it's reasonable to expect Lara Jean to be made a bit uncomfortable by watching her current boyfriend spend time with his former flame.

Lara Jean notices other red flags from Peter, like reading her a poem he didn't write and didn't explicitly claim to write, but he also didn't clearly say he didn't write it either. When he later fesses up, Lara Jean is disappointed and tad suspicious. Can she trust him? Lara Jean's insecurity as a first-time girlfriend and the influence from a resident at the retirement home (whose mindset is stuck in the swingin' 60s) both fuel her doubt in Peter. She wonders if John Ambrose is her true match. This is puzzling because the John Ambrose character is a perfectly nice, perfectly boring glass of warm milk. There's nothing alluring about him, and the actor playing him, Jordan Fisher, clearly has zero chemistry with Lana Condor.

Fortunately, Noah Centineo and Condor still click. Centineo does most of the heavy lifting, bringing to the table all his same effortless charisma and charm. Even when his character falters as boyfriend, he brings an unquestionable sincerity to his explanations and apologies. There's never any doubt that he's a good guy trying to do the right thing, even if he doesn't always know precisely what that is.

In the end, the movie is pretty watchable. Lara Jean's dad finds a potential love interest. Lara Jean's friend is quirky and fun. If you liked the first movie and can tolerate an assault of predictably placed popular songs meant to set the mood, you'll probably find this sequel to be Netflixable.

Fantasy Island

Nightmare Island
My search to find even a single redeeming quality of the movie came up empty.

It's beyond comprehension why a Blumhouse, a studio that has produced "Get Out" and the "Happy Death Day" films, continues to also lend its hand to atrocities like this predictably loathsome horror reimagining of the popular "Fantasy Island" TV series. Attaching the Blumhouse name to the project proved to a be a fatal mistake, which no one could have seen coming except everyone. I'm not sure there was really much juice to squeeze from this rotten fruit, but whatever there was, the filmmakers certainly made the least of it.

The lack of star power in the cast provides the first hint of the movie's pitiful quality. A startlingly overqualified Michael Pena stands out as the only exception. He plays the mysterious Mr. Roarke, the man running the island's resort. He's meant to be mysterious, at least. The big mystery to me is why Michael Pena agreed to be in the movie.

The guests on the Fantasy Island arrive as winners of contest, gifted a chance to live out their single most desired fantasy. Among the collection of annoying and moronic characters are two unfunny brothers whose veins run rich with alcohol and dimwittedness. They fantasize of having it all. Other guests include a late-blooming former social outcast who fantasizes about getting revenge on a junior high school bully, a career woman who regrets declining a past marriage proposal, and a cop who dreams of being in the army.

The story carries out much as expected, with Mr. Roarke giving warnings about their fantasies not panning out as they might expect, warnings the guests promptly ignore. The scenes in which the guests finally live their fantasies are not scary nor funny nor interesting in any way. Each story attempts to strike a jarringly different tone, which makes the movie feel a handful of separate stories that are haphazardly slapped together.

None of the story seems fully realized or even partially realized. Saying this script feels like a first draft would be generous - it's more like a few scribbled notes that were never once proofread.

After each fantasy takes a dark turn, there isn't much more that happens. The story doesn't advance in any meaningful way, never gaining momentum. Every few minutes a new scene will come to a grinding halt as a different character pukes exposition to let viewers know why things are happening. It's an offensive violation of the "show don't tell" rule of writing.

Of course, the writers save the worst for last. A third act plot twist comes out of left field and makes absolutely no sense when held to the slightest bit of scrutiny. The rest of the plot, which was already dangling by a single thread of coherence, is completely invalidated by the big reveal. Don't waste your time trying to figure out this movie if you've already seen it. Just cut your losses and move on. If you haven't seen it, don't. I urge you, don't.

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