‘Red Sparrow’ is flat spy flick that Jennifer Lawrence can’t even save

Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) had two choices: get a bullet in the head for witnessing the murder of a high ranking politician or became a Russian sex spy, aka “red sparrow”. The title of the movie probably gives away her choice.

A former world-renowned ballerina who suffered a career ending injury, Dominika will do just about anything for her uncle, Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts from Rust n’ Bone and The Drop) as long as her mother is taken care of.

That includes being sent to a spy school where students are taught how to seduce people with their bodies by the stingy Matron (Charlotte Rampling, having some fun). I’m not talking about punches and kicks; this is taking off your clothes, controlling sexually hungry minds, and changing the way people think. Continue reading “‘Red Sparrow’ is flat spy flick that Jennifer Lawrence can’t even save”


‘Game Night’ is a guilt-free hilarious time at the movies

Bateman, McAdams work well here

Certain films are made with the intention to win awards. For example, when Steven Spielberg picks up a camera and walks into a room, the intention is to walk out of it with an Oscar. This is the goal of many films.

Game Night is thankfully not one of those movies.

Co-directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who misfired with the lukewarm Vacation), this is a guilt-free and hilarious time at the movies. It will take your mind off real life and won’t ask you to think too much. It’s fun, something that Hollywood forgets about when they make movies.

Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams look like the perfect couple on the surface. Two ultimate competitors who fell in love at trivia night, Max and Annie were soulmates. They have a great house in the suburbs, even if it comes with the weird, widowed police officer neighbor, Gary (Jesse Plemons). Their friends, including the dopey yet lovable Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and the high school sweethearts Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury), come over for the weekly game night.

However, Max’s rivalry with his brother, the rich and charismatic Brooks (Kyle Chandler) hasn’t lost any steam from their childhood, which Brooks doesn’t hesitate to revisit with embarrassing stories and painful reminders. When Brooks rides into town and wants to host a “different” kind of game night, Max and Annie see this as an opportunity to finally take down the big brother.

They have no idea what’s in store for them, but let’s just say the audience benefits from the chaos.

I laughed a lot during this movie. It’s a good time. This is an easy going cinematic experience that doesn’t demand you to think too hard nor does it make you look at your watch constantly. Daley and Goldstein’s film, working from a script by Mark Perez, keeps moving, is never boring, and stays away from heavy themes that would have dampened the effect of the main ingredient, which is comedy.

So often with comedies, they tend to get melodramatic or mix in so many subplots that you forget what the main idea was. With Game Night, there is one goal: following a group of ordinary people around who find out something about themselves that only a little of suspense can unearth.

Is Brooks hiding a few secrets? Sure. Will those secrets get his brother and friends into trouble? You bet. Will the sight of a guy trying to scrub blood of a dog only to make it worse make you laugh out loud? Bingo.

“Laugh out loud” is thrown around these days, but I did it a few times during this movie. Seeing a grown man bite down on a squeaky pet toy as a bullet is extracted from his arm is one of them. Morris perfecting a Denzel Washington impersonation is endless fun. McAdams dancing around a bar with a loaded gun in her hand is just hot goodness. Every time Ryan calls his date British, when she is actually an Irish woman, you laugh as she scolds him. Let’s just say an Edward Norton joke goes a long way.

The cast was perfectly assembled. I like when Bateman stretches out in darker roles like Netflix’s Ozark and Disconnect, but this comedy zone is his sweet spot. He has an effortless, cynically based humor that borders on acerbic that never gets old. You could have plucked out Max from Bateman’s role in Horrible Bosses (which Goldstein co-wrote), added some seasoning, and arrived at the same character-but the actor makes it work.

McAdams adds a little spunk to her heroine in a part that most actresses would have played straight. The usually stoic Chandler cuts loose playing an imperfect man, and it’s a refreshing site. Plemons gives enough uncomfortable willpower to make you feel for Gary while keeping an eye on him.

Keep an eye out for a surprise casting choice that made me do a double take.

Game Night doesn’t wish to reinvent the movie wheel or gun for Best Picture. It just wants to make you laugh and forget about reality for a couple hours. You’ll get up from your seat as the credits roll, and laugh again at that one part. This movie should make even the coldest cynic giggle. The filmmakers and cast did a good job here.

When a comedy is done right, it can be as satisfying as a hardcore Oscar worthy drama.

Vince Vaughn electrifies in ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’

Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) doesn’t start fights; he’s “a finisher” who also happens to be psychotic.

An ex-boxer and auto mechanic with a penchant for violence, Thomas takes a job as a drug courier, a risk that ends up with him in jail after a job goes wrong. Once there, he finds out his pregnant wife (Jennifer Carpenter) has been kidnaped, and the only way Bradley can save his family is beating everyone up in jail until he gets to cell block 99.

Welcome to the action lovers delight zone, ladies and gentlemen.

Vaughn needed Brawl in Cell Block 99 badly. A comedic actor strung out on bad scripts and career choices, Vaughn swung hard and missed on HBO’s True Detective Season 2, a show that tried to exploit the actor’s dark side and missed. Writer/director S. Craig Zahler handed the 47 year old funny guy the role of a lifetime here. Thomas would be a challenge for most actors, but Vaughn leans into the role of this anti-hero that you can’t help but root for.

With a shaved head carrying a giant crucifix tattoo on the back of his skull, Vaughn’s 6’5″ frame cuts an imposing figure as an ex-con who is told repeatedly by prison wardens like Don Johnson’s Tuggs to not get into any trouble, but decides to get into fights, because he’s “psychotic”. The truth is, Thomas is merely a man trying to save his family, albeit through the most gruesome means necessary.

If you think you know what gruesome fight scenes look like on film, Zahler and and stunt coordinator Corey Pierno have a surprise for you with Brawl in Cell Block 99’s action sequences. In the trailer, you see Vaughn aggressively dismantle a car after he finds out his wife has cheated on him. He tears the hood off the car and hurls it across the grass. That’s nothing compared to what happens about an hour into the film.

For the first half of the film, Zahler and Vaughn cut an intriguing yet familiar picture about a man who makes bad decisions and punches his way out, but a certain scene involving Thomas and a prison guard (Mustafa Shakir) flips the entire film on its head.

From there, arms are snapped in half, skulls are literally crushed, and several other bone fragments are broken in a series of relentless yet impressively filmed fight scenes. Taking a page from the John Wick film universe (films directed by a former stuntman), the camera pans out during Brawl’s hand to hand combat moments, so the audience knows it is Vaughn and not a trio of stunt performers throwing the punches and taking the hits. It’s a startling and effective way to shoot a fight, and it keeps the bloody battles from becoming tiresome.

I couldn’t get enough of the realistic expressions on the characters faces as they were struck by a baton or elbow, before getting flipped to the ground. It looks and sounds real while also tapping into the gory movies from the 1970’s that used props so well that it made the film look like a pulpy comic book.

At the center of the action is Vaughn, who is a revelation as Thomas. This is what you call an actor taking a role and going for broke, throwing everything on the table. Forget what you think you know about the actor and his abilities, because you’re not ready for this flick. Stuck in mediocre mainstream comedy doldrums for years, Vaughn needed Zahler more than the filmmaker needed the actor. It’s like Denzel Washington in Training Day, but even better, because you’ve never seen this side of the actor before.

Vaughn was great in Mel Gibson’s Oscar nominated Hacksaw Ridge, but he’s in 99% of Cell Block 99’s scenes playing a character unlike anything he’s undertaken before. Washington’s menace in Antoine Fuqua’s gang thriller wasn’t as startling as Vaughn’s work here. Calling it his best work is an understatement; Vaughn’s acting in Cell Block 99 is one of the most underappreciated roles from the past five years.

Once Thomas lands in Red Leaf, which is overseen by Johnson (chewing scenery like a boss), things get bad very quick, which only means the brutality gets amped up 1,000 watts. Trust me when I tell you this movie is NOT for the squeamish. If you think Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez are violent storytellers, they have nothing on Zahler’s blood drunk methods.

If you wanted a humanized Terminator thrown into a prison with nothing to lose except blood, sweat, tears, and family, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is your film.

Yes, there’s a little heart thrown into the finale of the film, even if it is a fleeting moment. Yes, Zahler has a story to tell here, but the main theme is the most provocative. Just like he stated in his thrilling western, Bone Tomahawk, Zahler wants to talk to you about the violence that lives inside every single person, and how easy it is to tap into.

I praise the director and star for staying true to their brutal methods all the way up until the very end and the credits. If you need a happy ending, go watch a Stallone film from the 1980’s. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is hardcore madness with a need to impose its will.

Thank you, S. Craig Zahler, for resurrecting Vaughn’s career. You’ll never look at the actor the same way after this film.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 leaves a dent in you.

*The film is currently available on Blu Ray, DVD, and at your neighborhood Redbox as well as Video On Demand. 

‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ is a literal sleeper

This “Lifetime” movie is a literal sleeper

Gloria Grahame (played willingly by Annette Bening) lived a long and fruitful life as an Oscar winning movie star, so why did director Paul McGuigan chose an affair late in her life as the basis for a movie?

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool was adapted from Peter Turner’s (played here by Jamie Bell) memoir by Matt Greenhalgh, which documented his romance with Grahame after the bombshell’s better years were behind her. While it probably made for a good read, the cinematic treatment comes off like a Lifetime movie with a too good for the material cast.

Bening owns an Oscar herself, and sinks her teeth into the role of a woman desperately trying to stay trapped in that young actress’ body as she approaches old age and encounters health issues. She can play the role, but there isn’t much in the script that is demanding or revealing about this woman that couldn’t be found on a Wikipedia page. This is the kind of role/performance that was dreamed up as Oscar bait, but ended up being an ordinary portrayal with no real sizzle. Continue reading “‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ is a literal sleeper”

‘The Ballad of Lefty Brown’ is a kickass western

Bill Pullman turns in his best performance in years

Poor Lefty Brown (Bill Pullman) can’t get any respect.

The long time friend and colleague of Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda), Lefty is a slow moving yet wise aging cowboy simply trying to do what is right. A man whose lot in life is the loyalty towards his friends and the need to cover up a dark past, even though many around him doubt his ability and thinks he’s useless. When Edward, the newly elected Senator, is gunned down in front of him, Lefty takes it upon himself to find the people responsible.

The Ballad of Lefty Brown may redemption and betrayal flavorings, but its signature ingredient is friendship. What one will do to avenge their friend, no matter what it costs them personally.

Writer/director Jared Moshe’s tale can lift its weight in Western homage territory, but it also hits above average as an entertaining and unpredictable revenge tale. The film isn’t without its fair measure of pathos, but it also has a much needed sense of humor in certain moments that keeps it light on its feet. There are three well staged gunfights that aren’t too close together, giving the film a decent pace. Continue reading “‘The Ballad of Lefty Brown’ is a kickass western”

A towering Christian Bale makes ‘Hostiles’ truly special

Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) is a conflicted man as 1892 rolls around and the last of the Native Americans are being rounded up by the American soldiers. A legendary leader to so many, he quietly battles demons about the things he has done in honor of his country-and wonders about the toll it will someday take.

Director Scott Cooper’s new film, Hostiles, asks the age old question: are we all one incident away from becoming violent? Continue reading “A towering Christian Bale makes ‘Hostiles’ truly special”

‘Sweet Virginia’: Independent beauty with dark intentions

Sam (Jon Bernthal) is a simple man with a colorful past that won’t quite let him go. Once upon a time, he was a rodeo star with a family. Now, he is the manager of a motel with a hitch in his step, early on-set Parkinson’s, and is engaged in an affair with a married woman, Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt). Essentially, he is a man apart, trying to find his way.

When a troubled man named Elwood (Christopher Abbott) walks into a bar and kills three men, Sam’s small town and existence is shaken up, setting these characters up on a collision course.

Thankfully, director Jamie M. Dagg allows the events of his film, Sweet Virginia, to unfold at their own pace, resisting the urge to speed things up for the audience’s comfort. This is a tense film that doesn’t feel like marching to the drum of its genre’s beat, instead creating its own rhythm. You may have seen this before, but not done in this particular fashion. Continue reading “‘Sweet Virginia’: Independent beauty with dark intentions”