Movie Review ~ Class Action Park


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Explores the legend, legacy, and truth behind the world’s most insane amusement park.

Stars: John Hodgman, Alison Becker, Chris Gethard

Directors: Seth Porges, Chris Charles Scott III

Rated: NR

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I must have been born with an equilibrium that was out of whack because I’ve never felt the need for speed.  While my family and friends would count down the days until our local thrill park opened every summer, I would start to nervously think about the number of loops my stomach would make after taking my turn in whatever new upside-down steel contraption I’d get roped into riding.  The one area of the park that I always enjoyed was the water park because a waterslide was something I could handle and get some semblance of fun out of.  Maybe it was the anticipation that every ride ended with a literal splash and knowing I wouldn’t have to keep my eyes closed to enjoy it, but these created that zing of fun I never felt on any ride that didn’t require a swimsuit.

The best was when my family or summer activity group would make the trek an hour or so out of town to Wild Mountain which was almost exclusively a waterslide park.  Over time it would add a lazy river, Go-Karts, and Bumper Boats but when I first arrived it was just a bundle of slides offering various levels of thrills and the infamous Alpine Slide, a dry-ride that you had to take a ski-lift up the mountain to get to.  Oh, the days we spent there, going on endless runs down the waterslides before drying off on the chair lift eagerly riding to the top of the mountain for our smooth glide down on the Alpine Slide.

All the memories of my time at Wild Mountain came flooding back watching the new documentary Class Action Park, available to stream on HBO Max.  While I enjoyed numerous safe visits to my Minnesota oasis, the dangers of the New Jersey waterpark that was open from 1978 until 1996 is the stuff of lore.  Though the tale of the park had previously been loosely fictionalized in the 2018 Johnny Knoxville stunt comedy Action Point, directors Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III have gathered past employees, visitors, local residents, and others affected by the park’s raucous run to tell the whole truth about what it was really like to have lived through it all.  That some lived to tell their story could be seen as a miracle in and of itself.

The brainchild of former Wall Street investor Gene Mulvihill, Action Park was built on the site of two ski resorts and was intended to continue to bring in business during the summer months when resorts were typically quiet.  Growing quickly to a sprawling mecca that housed three distinct sections with everything from mini-speedboats to Go-Karts, a rapids ride and a gigantic wave pool – on paper the park appeared to be a paradise for kids looking for a good time.  It very well could have achieved what Mulvihill intended, for people pay admission and then be free to create their own entertainment experience within the dozens and dozens of thrill rides offered.  Featuring home grown entertainment that you couldn’t find anywhere else in the world, Action Park became known for their one-of-a-kind experiences.

So, how did Mulvihill’s huge amusement attraction earn the nicknames Traction Park, Accident Park, and, yes, Class Action Park over time?  For that, we turn to the former employees who recount the various safety measures that were ignored and recall horror stories of guests suffering ghastly injuries thanks to faulty equipment or poorly constructed rides that would literally fall apart.  As some of those interviewed who frequented the park remember, it almost became a right of passage to get hurt during a visit, a sign that you had arrived into a pseudo-adulthood.  Rides were designed for thrill, not function and would result in frequently dislocated shoulders, lost teeth, and lacerations from bodies scraping against said lost teeth that had become lodged in the rubber slide.  Guests would start fights in the middle of rides and finish them in the pool as hapless lifeguards watched, often to young or uninterested to intervene fully.  Then there’s the stories of visitors deliberately trying to injure others in bizarre (and, admittedly, hilariously mean-spirited) ways.

A good portion of the film is devoted to the war stories of these individuals yet all seem to consider their tenure as series of fond memories in some strange way.  For them, it was their first job and a chance to escape themselves from their own hormonal teenage years.  They were free from their parents and enjoyed a wild life when the park was closed.  Now parents themselves, it’s interesting to hear their reflections on how they’d react if their own children were heading off for a day at a similar theme park.  As is the case with many of these types of memory heavy documentaries, the themes get repetitive after a while but with so many areas of the park to cover and the insane number of unbelievable tales of survival to relay, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome past its short run time.

It’s a dramatic shift in the final twenty minutes that sets the movie slightly off kilter but it’s a necessary area the directors have to go to give a full picture of how Action Park forever changed the lives of its visitors.  Interviewing the family of the first person to die at the park, their story and how the park responded to the tragedy stands in stark contrast to the light-hearted tone of the previous hour.  It kicks off a somber final lap for the park and the film but in truth that’s the way the documentary was always going to end.  I wish there were more opinions gathered from the employees regarding their feelings about the individuals that died but perhaps for legal reasons the subject is only briefly covered and then only in mostly general terms.

Nicely narrated by John Hodgman and featuring good commentary throughout by comedian and former attendee Chris Gethard, Class Action Park wisely uses the majority of its run time to highlight the insanity on display in the New Jersey attraction.  We can look back and laugh at some of this now but when the narration details the average guest was often from a working class lower income background, you begin to see the appeal of the risks being taken but further question the morals of those offering it up in the first place.  Basically run by teenagers that barely could take care of themselves, how more people didn’t perish is beyond me.  As a time capsule of a less serious time, though, when summers were made up of trips to the waterpark mingling with large crowds, Class Action Park stands in stark contrast to the Twilight Zone summer we’ve all been getting through.

Movie Review ~ You Cannot Kill David Arquette

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Following his infamous championship as part of a marketing stunt for the film Ready to Rumble, actor David Arquette returns to the professional wrestling ring for a series of matches.

Stars: David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Patricia Arquette, Rosanna Arquette, Ric Flair, Diamond Dallas Page, Christina McLarty Arquette, Jack Perry, Luke Perry, Jerry Lawler

Director: David Darg & Price James

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Over the years, I’ve had a complicated relationship with the Arquette family.  For a while, when I was younger and browsing the video store I was totally confused over Rosanna (Draft Day) because the VHS cover of Desperately Seeking Susan made me think she was Madonna and vice versa.  What can I say, I was an easily confused child that didn’t see that particular film until I was an adult.  It wasn’t until the cult film The Big Blue arrived in 1988 that I finally figured out who she was and by that time I was already into Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors which starred her younger sister, Patricia.  Now this Arquette I really didn’t understand.  Over time, she’d occasionally pop up in something that would interest me but I largely found her a grating presence…until I saw 2014’s Boyhood in an early, early screening and knew right then and there it would win her an Oscar.  Father Lewis was a dependable character actor in so many movies including The China Syndrome and Waiting for Guffman and late sister Alexis also appeared in a fair share of eyebrow raising movies over the course of her career.

The really strange one, and I mean really strange, was David.  Now, I first remember him all the way back in the original film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer but he’s since become synonymous with both the Scream franchise and his future ex-wife Courteney Cox whom he met while filming the first of the four films (a fifth one is in the planning stages).  With the popularity of Scream, Arquette’s film career opened up and he became a go-to person for silly and outright stupid fare…pretty much anything Tom Green or Pauly Shore had turned down because they thought it was beneath them.  One such film was 2000’s wrestling comedy Ready to Rumble and that became a calling card pivot point of sorts because it was on that film where the producers of World Championship Wrestling did what some fans consider a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad thing.  They decided to fix it so Arquette (a huge wrestling fan in the real world) would be named WCW World Champion as a way to generate publicity for them and for the movie.  It didn’t go well.  Though Arquette donated all the money WCW had paid him for the stunt, the damage had been done and he became a joke within the wrestling industry and in some Hollywood circles.

The new documentary You Cannot Kill David Arquette takes a novel idea, that David could return to the wrestling world and do it for real this time, and creates something magical both for the viewer and for the actor himself.  Before the movie I considered Arquette to be a kind of clown.  Yes I admit it and I know that’s not a very nice thing to say sitting here from my perch in midwest MN.  Still, he’d fallen into a semi-slump in terms of high profile roles and suffered several medical and pharmaceutical setbacks in recent years and I just couldn’t take him that seriously.  At the beginning of the film, it appears that a lot of people were in my camp as well.  Even his no-nonsense, supportive wife Christina McLarty Arquette has serious doubts about Arquette’s plan to revive his wrestling character and give it another go in the ring.  I mean, the man had a heart attack but still pushes himself far past the limitations of endurance…sometimes just for a gag.

Directors David Darg and Price James follow Arquette over the next year and lets us watch as the actor suffers numerous beatdowns in amateur rings, south of the border lucha libre fights, and makes the rounds on the bloody indie deathmatch circuit.  It’s a brutal redemption tour and Arquette gamely puts his body, mind, and spirit to the test time and time again.  At first, I was sort of put off by the whole thing and found Arquette to be another washed up star looking for that final four minutes of fast fame.  Then, I dunno, something clicked and I saw the concerned people he was surrounding himself with and the sincerity in which he listened to their thoughts.  There’s a sadness in him that eventually becomes a winning quality and it transforms him from the outside in.  The Arquette at the end of the movie is totally different than the beginning…and I think the same goes for this viewer’s opinion of the actor himself.

With brief appearances from his ex-wife, sisters, and even the late Luke Perry in the kind of misty-eyed cameo you may only realize happened after the fact, You Cannot Kill David Arquette is a very Hollywood documentary that reaches far beyond the confines of the city for its best material.  Watching Arquette (also appearing in the recently released Spree) travel around the country to Podunk towns with makeshifts wrestling rings that fall apart on impact, you marvel at his willingness to put himself out there…and to be filmed while doing it.  In the end, it’s compulsive and oddly compassionate filmmaking that taps out at just the right time.

Movie Review ~ Centigrade


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A married couple find themselves trapped in their frozen vehicle after a blizzard and struggle to survive amid plunging temperatures and unforeseen obstacles.

Stars: Genesis Rodriguez, Vincent Piazza, Mavis Simpson-Ernst

Director: Brendan Walsh

Rated: NR

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Some people say that it’s never as fun to watch suspense movies alone as it is to turn off all the lights and hunker down with another person.  I could go both ways with that.  If you’re watching with someone that can handle the scares and will go along for the ride, sure, that’s fun but if you’re in the presence of an unwilling participant that’s going to make light of the frights as a way to relieve their own fears, then you’re in for a long 90 minutes.  Then there are the thrillers that sort of demand you have another viewer with you so you can commiserate on the people in the film and that’s where it’s always handy to know who you’re watching with.

I had intended to watch Centigrade all by my lonesome because it looked to be the kind of chilly thriller fare my partner just doesn’t go for but he stuck around for the first few minutes of this based-on-true-life events and was intrigued enough to put his feet up and hang out for a while.  This was a good thing for two reasons.  The first is I was glad he was around so I could vent my frustration at the situation the lone couple featured in the film find themselves in and the second was that this turned out to be one of those interesting relationship-building movies where you find yourself asking how you’d react if you were in the same situation with your significant other.

After stopping in the middle of the night on the side of a mountain road due to bad weather conditions, pregnant writer Naomi (Genesis Rodriguez, Man on a Ledge) and her husband Matt (Vincent Piazza, Jersey Boys) awake to find the blizzard they were in has covered their vehicle with ice and snow, fully trapping them in their rental car.  In Norway to promote her book, no one knows precisely where they were on this leg of their trip and with no cell phone reception, they aren’t even sure how far they were from their hotel when they pulled over.  Reasonably consoloed someone will be coming by their frozen fortress soon, they wait.  And wait.  The waiting turns to panic as they realize they are entombed in ice on a desolate stretch of road and with limited supplies may not be rescued for days.

At first, the couple is observant of the needs of their spouse and tries their best to accommodate the little things that might annoy them otherwise in consideration of the situation.  The space they have to move around in is small, though, and before long paranoia creeps in and begins to unravel husband and wife as the days stretch on and all hope seems lost.  When they disagree on how to move forward and with Naomi’s pregnancy coming to the forefront of their worry, bold choices have to be made that could end up being the difference between a cold death in the elements if they break free or a slow decline in the car if they choose to stay where they are.  Staying in the car has created an igloo effect which is keeping them relatively secure but would breaking a window and chancing the urge to dig their way out help their overall odds?

I’d imagine watching Centigrade with your loved one might inspire some debate over who is the in the right as the film progresses.  I definitely found myself talking back to the screen more than I had at other films lately and found that I alternated sides with Matt and Naomi throughout…the more they came to loggerheads the deeper I tended to dig my heels in for either party.  That should say something for both the performances of Rodriguez and Piazza and the writing of director Brendan Walsh and Daley Nixon.  While I could see this being written off as a one-note slog that begins to swallow itself into wallow territory around the 60 minute mark, I found it oddly compelling viewing…even when my thoughts drifted to thinking about where all the #2’s were being put.

Neither actor is any kind of household name but they both have the kind of movie-star looks that keep them from truly portraying “real” people.  Piazza tends to fly fairly under the radar and some attempts by Walsh and Nixon to flesh out his backstory don’t pan out as intended but he has a good chemistry with Rodriguez.  For her part, Rodriguez is saddled with a strangely half-explored medication issue but still manages to keep the fires of interest burning when things start to get cold in the final stretch.  I wish there were a few more of the heated exchanges we get early on in the film between the two but the need to conserve energy realistically sadly outweighs the desire for more dramatic tension and the liveliness peters out to a few random blips as Walsh moves the film toward its predictable conclusion.

While it could have tightened up a bit more heading into its last act, Centigrade makes for a mostly taut 90 minutes that could also double as a bit of easy couples shout therapy.  At several points, I was thankful that Walsh and Nixon’s script was so sparse because it gave us a chance to discuss what we’d do in the same situation…and then argue with one another as to why the other person’s plan wouldn’t work.  Lack of propulsive drive forward may knock it down a few degrees, but Centigrade is still good for a few chills.

Movie Review ~ Robin’s Wish


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An intimate portrait of Robin Williams and his invulnerable spirit, Robin’s Wish is the story of what really happened to one of the greatest entertainers of all time – and what his mind was fighting.

Stars: Susan Schneider Williams, Shawn Levy, John R. Montgomery, Rick Overton, David E. Kelly

Director: Tylor Norwood

Rated: NR

Running Length: 77 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Some days you’ll never forget.  The day Robin Williams died was one of them.  I know that it may sound strange in the grand scheme of life to mourn a celebrity death but Robin was one of the first stars I remember growing up knowing and recognizing.  Encountering him while I was a child as the Genie in Aladdin and the title character in Mrs. Doubtfire to becoming an adult and graduating to his less funny work in Insomnia and One-Hour Photo, I felt like I could chart my life, certainly my movie-going life, though him.  So thinking back to that day in August of 2014 when I got a text that asked me if I’d heard that Robin Williams had died will always bring a flush to my cheeks.  That night, I watched The Birdcage because I hadn’t seen it in forever and I wanted something that represented him well – solid comedy, solid heart.

In the days, months, weeks, and years since Robin left us, we’ve learned more about what he was suffering with that led him to commit suicide at the age of 63.  Though many assumed at first it was due to drugs or depression, it was revealed that although Robin had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease it was actually Lewy body dementia that likely led him to take his own life.  The implications of this are complicated and complex, requiring far more information that can be provided in a simple movie review.  Still, it gave a name and an explanation to what many of his close family and friends had been unable to pinpoint until after he was gone.

In the new documentary Robin’s Wish, Robin’s widow Susan Schneider Williams and director Tylor Norwood lay out this diagnosis and provide informative details about the series of events that, in hindsight, showed as early warning signs.  Interviews with several of those that knew him well in addition to neighbors in Marin, CA where he called home most of the time further color in the lines of the Robin off-camera that many of us didn’t see.  It’s a sweet, if not all-together enlightening, look at the actor that was beloved by many but struggled valiantly in his final years to stay afloat.

Those seeking an in-depth overall look at the life and times of Robin Williams won’t find it here, that’s been covered and done well in the 2018 documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind as well as several nicely researched biographies.  Although a brief overview of his early days at Julliard with classmate Christopher Reeve and their lasting friendship is mentioned, the majority of the film follows his later years with Schneider Williams, his third wife who he married in 2011.  More of a memory book on their life than anything, it definitely paints a picture of serenity in their union and how much they meant to each other…but it’s notable that none of his children are interviewed, seen, or even mentioned at all.  There’s not even a whisper of them when Schneider Williams was recalling how devastated Robin was when he found himself in failing health.  It all just seems, well, odd.  Like a piece of a difficult puzzle had been purposely left out.

What was nice to see were memories of Robin not from the usual suspects.  Instead of gathering a host of celebrities and recognizable names, Norwood interviews next-door neighbors, cycling buddies, and old comedy friends from back in the day.  Again, maybe this was something to read further into but I found it nice to hear from others that didn’t know Robin from the red carpet or movie sets but from seeing him walking his dog or taking out his trash.  Sometimes that’s when you get to know a person the best.  The film takes a sharp turn as it heads toward the finish line when it shifts to being all about Schneider Williams and her efforts to bring awareness to Lewy body dementia.  The jaded critic in me felt this smacked of infomercial-level filmmaking but there’s still a sincerity to her that appealed to me on a personal level.

Robin Williams left a large gap in the hearts of many movie fans and a larger one in those of his loved ones.  The movie never quite makes it clear what his “wish” was but raising awareness for this tragic disorder would surely be something he’d be a supporter of.  The film takes time to show his efforts with the USO and wounded veterans and his time with Comic Relief is well-documented.  It’s sad that he’s not here to help in the fight for a cure but perhaps this tiny film will inspire greater visibility to the cause.

Movie Review ~ Get Duked!


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Deep in the Scottish Highlands on a camping trip competition, four city boys try to escape a mysterious huntsman while the police trail behind, failing to provide assistance.

Stars: Eddie Izzard, Kate Dickie, James Cosmo, Kevin Guthrie, Jonathan Aris, Alice Lowe, Samuel Bottomley, Viraj Juneja, Rian Gordon, Lewis Gribben, Brian Pettifer, Georgie Glen

Director: Ninian Doff

Rated: R

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  A fun bit of movie trivia that always interests me is finding out the original titles of films that either went into production under a different name or saw their title get changed after their original festival run.  Most of the time, the change is for the better.  Would we still be talking about Alien today if it had been released as Star Beast?  How about imagining seeing Charlize Theron in Coldest City instead of Atomic Blonde?  Would Julia Roberts star turn in Pretty Woman had the same seismic impact if it came out as 3000?  Don’t even get me started with Warner Brothers desperately trying to get Tim Burton to swap out Beetlejuice for their preferred alternate House Ghosts.

A few months back, I reviewed and recommended The Shadow of Violence which was previously released and seen in its early film festival runs as the more interesting Calm with Horses and this week sees the debut of another film on Prime Video that’s had a title swap on its way to a wide release.  Filmed originally as Boyz in the Woods, Amazon Studios picked up the film after it played well at last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival and promptly gave it a new name.  While Get Duked! leans into the more playful aspects the viewing experience has to offer and steers clear from sounding like a sketchy film you may not want showing up in your queue, it also exposes some of the problems at the forefront of the movie that’s about as one-joke as they come.

Prior to firing Get Duked! up I had no awareness of the The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award which was started a half-century ago by the Queen’s husband and meant to attract youth that hadn’t yet found their group/club to join.  Designed to promote participation in volunteering, physical fitness, and an expedition to achieve the top rank, it has spread through more than a hundred countries since its inception.  So…clearly, it’s a big deal.  I’d imagine also, at least based on writer/director Ninian Doff’s wacky screenplay, it’s a program that draws some level of ribbing because the jokes at play in Get Duked! feel remarkably on pointe and specifically taking aim at several organizations throughout.

Doff gets things off on the right foot by staging an enjoyably cheeky first 1/3 that introduces us to the three slacker mates forced into participation for The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award by their teacher Mr. Carlyle (Jonathan Arias, Vivarium) and the one nerd-ish lad who was more than eager to volunteer.  While the three are hoping to find cell phone reception and a place to get high the moment the adult is out of sight, Ian, the sweet-natured fourth (Samuel Bottomley, Ghost Stories), just wants to make new friends and end the weekend with the Duke’s prize to top it off.  Ian learns quickly that Dean (Rian Gordon), Duncan (Lewis Gribben) and William aka DJ Beatroot (Viraj Juneja) have no outdoor experience (or many brain cells) and rely on him to get them through the terrain toward their final destination.

The four have more to worry about than mossy rocks and spoiled haggis though, because what they don’t know at first is that they’re the new prey for hunters out to “cull the herd” of the misspent youth in society and this weekend will be more about survival than they could have ever imagined.  Who is hunting them is a mystery that is solved fairly quickly – it’s a rather famous royal played by Eddie Izzard (The High Note) who has an even more famous wife as his accomplice.  At the same time, the local police led by Sergeant Morag (Kate Dickie, Prometheus) are attempting to apprehend a local bread thief (no joke) and somehow manage to get tangled up in the boys flight from their hunters, which only complicates matters in oddly decreasingly funny ways.  The more that Doff’s screenplay brings these disparate characters together, the funnier it should get, but to me it became less and less interesting instead.  It’s never as crackling as it is in those first 40 minutes and even brief moments of fun (a musical moment featuring DJ Beatroot and a crowd of blissed out country folk is gold) can’t quite drag the film back into alignment.

Now, I’m sure Get Duked! is going to play to crowds looking for that fun Friday night comedy like gangbusters and maybe it’s my problem for watching it on a late afternoon early in the week.  It’s one that has a bit of a party vibe to it, one that allows you to be distracted from the one-joke premise that gets old quickly and can’t hide that the endeavor would have worked better as a short or part of a larger anthology.  It must be said, though, that there’s no shortage of style or creativity in filmmaking and performers, especially Juneja as a freestyle rapper with flow but no show, are great.  Yet I never fully found myself loving it and that began to nag at me after awhile because it reminded me a lot of better movies like Shaun of the Dead, The World’s End, or Hot Fuzz.  Unlike those films, Get Duked! has a one-joke premise that it sticks to, for better or for worse.

Movie Review ~ The Personal History of David Copperfield


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A fresh and distinctive take on Charles Dickens’ semi-autobiographical masterpiece, chronicles the life of its iconic title character as he navigates a chaotic world to find his elusive place within it.

Stars: Dev Patel, Aneurin Barnard, Peter Capaldi, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Rosalind Eleazar, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Paul Whitehouse

Director: Armando Iannucci

Rated: PG

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Right about the time this pandemic hit and the country shut down, I was closing on a condo my partner and I were set to take our time painting and moving into with the help of our friends and family.  Now, this new social distancing term and all that went with it meant that our friends couldn’t help us move or be with us to paint so we were on our own.  To while away the hours slapping primer and two coats on the entire place, we decided to go all literary and listen to Jane Austen’s Emma because it was a rare Austen neither of us had read.  As a reward not just for toiling away in Behr Eggshell over the course of several weeks but for getting through the novel, we movie buffs thought it a good idea to make our way through the filmed versions of Emma before watching the 2020 version that arrived this year because, well, there couldn’t be that many to get through right?  Wrong. So wrong.

Watching the various versions of Austen’s tale come to life so soon after reading the book illustrated that there were different ways to breathe energy into a novel but that it’s all based on interpretation.  There was a four-and-a-half-hour version of Emma that in some ways moved faster than the 1996 much-loved Gwyneth Paltrow version.  You also can’t forget 1995’s Clueless which we all know was writer/director Amy Heckerling’s loosely inspired modernization of the classic.  It all goes to show that you can have your Austen fancy or you can have your Austen cool but when the characters are written so well to begin with no amount of fussing around with them is going to totally ruin the heart of the piece.

So, why all this talk about Emma in a discussion of a new view of Charles Dickens David Copperfield?  Well, it’s to address off the bat that this isn’t going to be the David Copperfield you have come to expect from your BBC adaptations or your Masterpiece Theater Sunday evening appointment television showings.  While certainly not in any way a faithful adaptation of a novel Dickens published in 1850 and was known to be his favorite, The Personal History of David Copperfield is a richly realized one that rather blithely removes the most despondent pieces and revels in the fanciful.  It also wisely knows the difference between modernization and revisionism and walks the line between the two with ease.  The result is one of the most surprising and surprisingly entertaining films of the year.

Director Armando Iannucci is likely a familiar name to those that followed the HBO series Veep.  As the creator and showrunner for the first four seasons, he helped establish that political satire and its irreverent humor so I went into this film expecting it to have that same fast style and brusque energy.  The quick interplay was there and it definitely has the energy that I’ve come to expect from Iannucci but not in that same kind of rough and hot to the touch feel it has had before.  It’s softer here and allows the story to be propelled forward by the characters and their choices, not by plot machinations.  That’s a significant achievement when you’re working within a storyline where a seemingly endless set of maladies befall our leading man throughout.

For those unfamiliar, David Copperfield is the story of a young man (Dev Patel, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) who spends the majority of his growing up years encountering one set of colorful characters after another.  At his birth, his arch aunt (Tilda Swinton, Suspiria) arrives to assist but leaves promptly when she discovers he is not a girl.  His young, widowed mother (Morfydd Clark, Crawl) marries again, this time to a wicked man with an even more wicked sister (Gwendoline Christie, Welcome to Marwen) and soon he’s living with an always in-debt landlord (Peter Capaldi, World War Z).  During a brief stay with his aunt he’s introduced to her eccentric cousin (Hugh Laurie, Tomorrowland) before enrolling in a respected school where he meets lifelong friend James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard, The Goldfinch) and first encounters the meek but not mild Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw, Little Joe).  He’s loved from afar by Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar) and pursues dotty Dora (also played by Clark) all the while hoping to secure his future happiness.

There’s a lot for Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell to cover in two hours and it’s a remarkable accomplishment that they managed to cram as much story in as they do.  Obviously, some of it has to go and a good chunk of the book’s latter half is missing, with several storylines either combined or excised.  What’s been removed are the sallower portions of Dickens novel, leaving the remaining moments more light-hearted and vibrant.  One could argue that the characters needed a little more strife but Iannucci and Blackwell give David and his extended family a fair amount of business to overcome.  The villains in a Dickens story are always of the scheming and grasping variety, making them perfect for the likes of icy Christie and the gleeful apathy of Whishaw.

Along with the sharp writing, Iannucci has cast the film with a spectacular amount of top-tier talent and it all starts with Patel’s nicely metered approach to the title character.  Patel is an actor that has grown on me greatly over the years and continues to get better with each new role he takes.  I also especially liked Jairaj Varsani as the young David, showing again that its possible to play precocious without losing your audience to alienation.   As usual, Swinton mines every syllable and skin cell for maximum effect, and you simply can’t end 2020 without seeing her go crazy over a persistent donkey presence on her property.   If the film has a drawback, it’s that it’s so packed with welcome faces in episodic segments you don’t always feel you’ve rounded out the corners with each character before they’ve vanished for good.  That goes for the strong supporting players as well, many of whom have but a few lines/scenes to make an impression yet manage to leave an indelible on in their wake.

Purists may scoff and, honestly, I see their point in some way, but there’s an abundance of joy in these 120 minutes that have been hard to come by.  That’s something celebrate and not over-analyze.  A week after the extremely nasty and unpleasant Unhinged became the first film to re-open theaters, here comes The Personal History of David Copperfield on its heels to remind the rest of us what possibilities there are on the big screen…though it works just as well on the small one too.  I was thankfully able to screen this one from my home and would not have reviewed it otherwise.  Please, decide carefully if venturing into theaters is the right choice for you as well as anyone in your home that you may be returning to.

In Praise of Teasers ~ The Addams Family (1991)

In 2013 I was feeling pretty blue about the state of movie trailers.  For a time, it was imperative for me to get to a theater in time for the previews or else some of the fun would be missing from the experience of going to the movies because, let’s face it, sometimes the coming attractions were more entertaining than the feature presentation.  That started to change when the previews became less of a creative way to market the film and more of way for studios to put all their cards on the table with little artistry.  Like I said back seven years ago, it seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

Sadly, in the years since I did my first run of the In Praise of Teasers series, not a lot has changed and it may have gotten worse.  It’s gotten to the point where I almost avoid watching a trailer all together because so much of the plot is given away.  This site used to feature a wealth of movie previews but I just can’t bring myself to post too many because they’re so spoiler-y.  Only the rare well-done coming attraction or preview for an “event” film gets through…and even then I can’t think of anything recent that could go toe-to-toe with the brief bites I’m going to share with you over the coming weeks.

That’s why I’ve decided to revive In Praise of Teasers now.  In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot.  Let’s revisit some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there; but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

The Addams Family (1991)

Any dissection of the art of the teaser trailer simply must include a look at the one for The Addams Family.  Notable for its length and also because it was produced solely for the teaser with no other footage from the final film used, it’s a real winner.  Personally, I always get a kick out of these cinematic moments that break the fourth wall and acknowledge the audiences.  Movie buffs that like to go over the finer details will notice actor Christopher Lloyd’s Uncle Fester’s make-up differs greatly from how he looked when the movie was released and there are some that speculate it isn’t even Lloyd you see here.  Reading the recently released autobiography of the films director, “Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother: Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker”, I found out how arduous it was to get the movie made but as you can see from the rarely seen short teaser below, the creative team assembled really got it right from the beginning, leading the movie to be a certified hit.  I do remember seeing this a few times in theaters the summer of 1991 but once the full trailer was released it understandably vanished, but it’s nice to see it again after all these years.  It also speaks to the audience recognition of the characters that there isn’t even a title listed at the end!

For a refresher on my previous series back in 2013, check out my posts on Alien, Misery, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Showgirls, Jurassic Park, Jaws 3D/Jaws: The Revenge, Total Recall, Halloween II: Season of the Witch

Movie Review ~ The Pale Door

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Available in theaters, on Demand and Digital August 21, 2020

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a train robbery goes bad, two brothers leading a gang of cowboys must survive the night in a ghost town inhabited by a coven of witches.

Stars: Devin Druid, Zachary Knighton, Melora Walters, Bill Sage, Pat Healy, Stan Shaw, Natasha Bassett, Noah Segan, Tina Parker

Director: Aaron B. Koontz

Rated: NR

Running Length:

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  When I was young, the phrase “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” always kind of creeped me out and definitely made me think twice anytime I got near a pig or a handbag.  What’s more, it never totally made sense to me until I had some real world uses for it that it would apply to.  Once, I had a birthday cake made and when I went to pick it up I found that it was decorated wrong.  When I pointed it out, the baker said they’d be happy to scrape off the decoration and put something new on top – but “ you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”  The cake was a bust but a friend came through in a pinch with a replacement.

In movies, every now and then you get a silk purse of a synopsis but a sow’s ear of a film.  Such is the case with the indie horror Western The Pale Door.  Here was one that had me all in based solely on the tagline that mentioned witches and cowboys…um, sold!  The poster looked ominously freaky, it had some interesting character actors involved and I was reasonably comforted that based on the previous credits of some of the filmmakers there was serious potential.  All signs pointed to the kind of selection that would have me clamoring into a theater had it been available at a film festival as a midnight selection.

Nope.  Sow’s ear.

The story goes like this.  Years ago two brothers were orphaned on a dark night but eventually went in different directions, taking separate paths forward in life.  One brother, Duncan (Zachary Knighton), becomes an outlaw, a member of a gang of ne’er-do-wells that get by thieving from town to town.  His kid brother Jacob (Devin Druid) opts for a more respectable life working for a local saloon and keeping his money safe and sound, planning for the day when he can secure his future.  When Duncan reappears and announces his intent to rob a train filled with gold, Jacob suddenly takes an interest in his older brother’s business and joins him and his crew for a fateful heist that doesn’t bring them to quite the bounty they had anticipated.

Instead of the train carrying money, they find it’s transporting a woman (Natasha Bassett, Hail, Caesar!) in a locked and guarded box who, when eventually freed, wants to repay their kindness by inviting them back to the brothel run by her friends that’s nearby and overseen by the mysterious Maria (Melora Walters, The Master).  Starved for food, drink, and something more carnal, the posse is all too happy to accept the company of the lovely ladies of the evening…who have a nasty habit of turning into ghastly beasts when the doors are locked for the night.  The rough and rowdy robbers must survive the darkness and protect Jacob, who the blood-hungry creates have their sights set on thanks to his pure and innocent spirit.

Giving the credit where it’s certainly the most due, the screenplay from Keith Lansdale, Cameron Burns, and director Aaron B. Koontz is quite clever at times and ranks high in the imagination factor.  It’s not going into the Smithsonian for it’s witty dialogue or complex construct but there’s been thought put in on how to get from Point A to Point B and that’s enough to keep the lights on for at least the first half of the movie.  Though it’s clearly cherry-picking the good stuff off of earlier adjacent movies like From Dusk Till Dawn and Near Dark, on paper at least it has the ring of a feature that would have worked quite well.

So…what’s the sow’s ear part you’re referring to, you say?  Well…it’s one of the cheapest looking movies I’ve seen in all of 2020 and maybe in the last several years.  A fine script is one thing but it can’t save filmmaking that is bargain basement throughout.  Costumes look like they were plucked directly (or stolen outright) from an Old Time Western Photo Shop, sets are straight-up in some touristy Wild West town that was shuttered for filming, and the hysterical props that are used are filled with jarring displays like Wanted posters you’d see printed on booths at an amusement park.  On top of all of that, the actual look of the movie gives the impression of a training video for a horseback riding camp.  The old TV show Hey Dude created a more convincing Western vibe.

Performances certainly don’t help things along either.  While Druid is a respectable, if mealy-mouthed, lead, he tends to disappear as the movie progresses…vanishing almost completely behind bigger performances just as he’s supposed to come to the forefront.  That’s partly Koontz’s fault for allowing some of the supporting players (which from the looks of past credits appear to be friends) to overact to an astonishing degree.  As the lone female bandit, Tina Parker does an amusing about-face from her tightly wound role in the excellent To the Stars released earlier this summer but Pat Healy (The Innkeepers) and especially Noah Segan (Knives Out) have the munchies for the scenery throughout.  Only Walters seems to gather what she’s gotten herself into and decides to go all out…and more’s the better for it.

A disappointment through and through, this is one door that need not be opened or even gazed upon with curiosity.  What a bummer this one was, mostly because I had some true high hopes for it.  It just goes to show that a tagline alone cannot (and should not) be the only thing that entices you into a film.  The script for this one might not be quite the silk purse that we discussed earlier but it’s at least a high-density cotton that stands up to inspection if you squint a bit.  The Pale Door itself needs a padlock, though.

Movie Review ~ Chemical Hearts


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A high school transfer student finds a new passion when she begins to work on the school’s newspaper.

Stars: Lili Reinhart, Austin Abrams, Sarah Jones, Adhir Kalyan, Kara Young, Coral Peña

Director:  Richard Tanne

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The other day I was revisiting an old chestnut romance that has become a favorite for many.  By “old” I mean 1992 and the movie was The Cutting Edge, that sleepover-ready PG lovey dovey figure skating film that did decent box office when first released but caught on like wildfire when it arrived on home video.  Aside from having major nostalgia pangs for non-stadium general admission theaters and remembering finding the show times for it on MovieFone, what struck me about the film was how it never would have worked the way it does, or held up the way it has, if it weren’t for the undeniable chemistry between the two leads.  It fueled the movie and gave credence to everything their characters said and how they acted – we believed them because we believed the actors.  It’s a rarity in film, especially in ones meant to appeal to young adults which often are targeted for something lower than the heart.

So it’s nice when a movie like Chemical Hearts arrives and you can witness that same chemistry on display for a whole new generation of viewers, albeit in a movie far more complicated than one about Olympic dreams.  An adaption of Krystal Sutherland’s 2016 novel “Our Chemical Hearts”, an added emotional element the filmmakers couldn’t have planned for is that the high-school set film is arriving on Amazon’s streaming service at the tail end of a summer when the future is uncertain about what the upcoming school year will bring.  This gives the film a palpable immediacy on top of several issues it attempts to tackle during its short run time.

Henry Page (Austin Abrams, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) is a high school senior that’s living your typical teenage experience.  He gets average grades but aspires to do better, holds his parents as a model for a healthy relationship though he hasn’t had one of his own, and simply aims to please everyone by being what they need when they need it, regardless if it pleases him in the process.  His life takes a swift turn when Grace Down (Lili Reinhart, Hustlers) transfers into the school and becomes not just his co-editor of the newspaper but also the object of his interest and, eventually, affection.  That love hits him so hard seems to both excite and scare him a bit, compounded by Grace harboring her own guarded emotions and heavy baggage.  During a tumultuous senior year, Henry and Grace will each have their own moments of growth and shared lessons in the strength found in working together.

We’ve seen countless movies about the boy/girl that likes another boy/girl who has an air of mystery to them and know that whatever love blooms will surely be tested by secrets that are revealed and Chemical Hearts is no exception.  That adapter/director Richard Tanne handles it all with such a fine hand is a breath of fresh air and I found myself growing closer to the couple the more the film progressed rather than keeping them at arm’s length in preparation for the other shoe to drop.  That’s partly due to that whole chemistry bit we discussed earlier but also because the characters have genuine interest and depth not often found in the YA genre.  Separately, Henry and Grace feel like people we can relate to and together they are a couple we want to root for, further illustrating how well-rounded Tanne, Abrams, and the quite mesmerizing Reinhart have made these leading players.

What doesn’t quite work, though, are the supporting group of friends and relatives that seem to interfere with the action more than they help propel it forward.  Truly stellar films have side characters that marry themselves nicely into plot points throughout but in Chemical Hearts almost anytime Abrams and Reinhart aren’t onscreen the movie feels like it slumps its shoulders.  That’s especially tangential plots regarding Henry’s friend pursuing a lesbian relationship and his weepy sister going through a traumatic break-up that doles out sage wisdom when the movie needs it.  With a bit more finesse, Tanne could have made this work but I wasn’t buying into it because while Tanne goes to the finish line for Henry and Grace, everything else becomes distracting footnotes.  Plus, I hate it when movies show long-time friends totally dumping one of their own the first time they don’t come through in a pinch for them.  That happens here and the pure forgiveness that comes lets the group off too easy, in my opinion.

Without much in the way of films that have spoken to this age group over the past several months, this is one of two movies released in the same weekend giving young adults mature entertainment that doesn’t speak down to them.  Along with Words on Bathroom Walls, Chemical Hearts doesn’t go for the obvious sentiments about how being young is hard and that school is difficult but aims for something deeper that yields more fruit in the end.  There’s honesty throughout (again it should be stated that Reinhart and Abrams are terrific) and a sweet sincerity in its final moments that should please more than just its target audience.

Movie Review ~ Hard Kill

Available On Demand and Digital August 25, 2020


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A team of mercenaries find themselves tricked into a deadly showdown with an old enemy —and racing the clock to stop a world-changing computer program from being triggered.

Stars: Bruce Willis, Jesse Metcalfe, Natalie Eva Marie, Lala Kent, Sergio Rizzuto, Tyler Jon Olson, Texas Battle, Swen Temmel

Director: Matt Eskandari

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review:  Over the past year, I seem to have found myself with a lot of Bruce Willis in my life.  Reading Demi Moore’s insightful autobiography, I learned a bit more about their marriage and got a glimpse into life outside of the spotlight.  I also happened to watch several episodes of Moonlighting, the mid ‘80s TV show that paired him with Cybill Shepherd and made him an overnight star.  His move from television to move stardom was swift and, for my money, well-earned with a series of interesting films that showed some range – even if they weren’t always totally within his grasp.  What came through more than anything was that he was willing to try and that effort was delivered with a defined, unmissable twinkle in the eye and loads of charisma.

Sadly, that sparkle Willis used to get him over the finish line for many years is gone and he’s now to be found in quickie action thrillers that feel far beneath him.  Looking over his recent credits on IMDb reads like a list of titles considered but thrown out for the latest Call of Duty video game.  Precious Cargo, First Kill, Air Strike, Acts of Violence, Extraction…all blandly blend together so you can’t tell one from the other; it doesn’t help Willis looks the same in each so he appears to be playing the same character.  Reteaming with director Matt Eskandari for the third time in two years (their Trauma Center was released in 2019 and Survive the Night arrived in early 2020), Willis is in full-on glide mode which might be marginally OK if he was surround by a decent script, creative direction, and a supporting cast that picked up the slack.  Instead, every element of Hard Kill takes the easy route to Dullsville and sputters out before it can even get that far.

Former combat soldier Derek Miller (Jesse Metcalfe) now works as a mercenary gun for hire, which is how tech magnate Donovan Chalmers (Willis, Split) finds him and enlists his protection.  Apparently, Chalmers, with the assistance of his daughter Ava (Lala Kent, Spree), have created technology that is of vested interest to a terrorist called The Pardoner.  The vaguely European-y villain is evidently someone Miller and his team are familiar with from past encounters and Chalmers doesn’t want it falling into his hands which is why he wants their expertise to take the extremist down.  If Miller and his group of rugged professionals can fend off the radical and his goons from gaining access to a much-discussed security code that would activate the next-gen software meant to infiltrate precious security systems, it could mean the difference between peace and war.

In its journey to the screen, what sounds like a relatively straightforward actioner was, surprisingly, scripted by no less than four writers.  There are some attempts to add personal hang-ups and dramatic complexities to give the characters some shading but the script isn’t sophisticated enough nor are the actors prepared to tackle the necessary ups and downs.  It’s a remarkably poorly acted film from the top down, Willis often can’t even be bothered open his eyelids all the way, let alone to stand up, for many of his scenes.  The main bad guy is played by Sergio Rizzuto and a quick Google search returns results that for a time he was best known for being on a 2017 episode of Love Connection as a “Secret Billionaire” – which should tell you all you need to know about his acting as the lame-o The Pardoner.  Forgettable is the kindest way to describe the rest of the cast.  Most look like they spent more time in the gym than doing anything acting-related that could have spruced up the dreary proceedings.

Cheaply made with most of the action taking place in a large warehouse that hosts an endless series of low impact, poorly staged gunfights as well as a number of melodramatic scenes to balance out the action, Hard Kill should be an easy hard pass for you.  Even if you’re a fan of Willis I wouldn’t get too choked up about the actor and his selection of roles as of late, if you skip this one I’m sure you’ll have another similarly titled/themed one available in six months or so.  Hopefully that one will have a little more style and energy.