Friday, February 24, 2017

Bitter Harvest and Get Out


This review originally appeared on

Bitter Harvest is a historical drama with good intentions, but terrible execution. Set in 1930's Ukraine, it tells the story of the relatively unknown holocaust known as the Holodomor, which was, essentially, the state sponsored starvation of millions of Ukrainians, as led by Joseph Stalin.

The story is told through the eyes of Yuri (Max Irons), an aspiring artist in small Ukrainian village. After the state takes over the village's land, via murder and intimidation, Yuri decides to leave his love Natalka (Samantha Barks) and his domineering grandfather (Terence Stamp), and get some state-sponsored art education in Kiev. Once he learns that the art is not only sponsored by the state, but also dictated by it, he decides to go back home, to his increasingly desperate family.

Director George Mendeluk begins the film with some lovely imagery, presenting early 20th century Ukraine as a colorful land straight out of a fairytale. But once the drama gets heavy, the film's use of English-speaking actors, digital cinematography, and simple sets gives it all a cheap, made-for-cable movie feel. And not an American made-for-cable movie. More like something you might stumble on while in a hotel somewhere in Europe, as you flip through the 10 available channels.

The script and hammy acting certainly don't help. Gary Oliver plays Stalin like a cartoon villain who, if his mustache were just a little longer, would certainly be twirling it before screaming lines like, "DAMN THOSE UKRAINIANS!" Equally silly is Tamer Hassan as a Commissar whose main job seems to be kicking villagers. He also decides to turn Yuri's wife into a sex slave, and all of his behavior may or may not stem from him having a bad mother, (it's a little confusing).

It's too bad Bitter Harvest is a failure, as it's a pretty good time to be telling a story about Russia, and Ukraine, and state-sponsored atrocities, especially an atrocity that many in power continue to deny even happened.

If it's well-timed social commentary you're looking for, I can't recommend the horror movie
Get Out enough. Written and directed by Jordan Peele, who is best known for his work as one half of the comedy team Key & Peele, it will probably end up being the best horror movie of the year, and easily one of the best of the past five years.

Starring Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams as Chris and Rose, the story follows the couple as they visit Rose's family for the first time. Meeting the parents is always tense, but Chris has the added anxiety of being a black man meeting his white girlfriend's family, who don't know beforehand that he's black.

Despite assurances that her family is the furthest thing from racist, ("My father would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have, and he'll let you know it," Rose tells Chris), Chris still can't help but feel a little put off by the family's intense openness. In addition, the live-in house and groundskeepers, who are also black, seem a little off. And when the weekend also turns out to be the same weekend as an annual family party, things get really weird.

This is Jordan Peele's directorial debut, which is pretty astounding; he's got a natural gift for horror. He's admitted it's his favorite movie genre, and nods to classics like Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives are peppered throughout. But Peele's greatest contribution to the film is humor. He recognizes that humor is one of the most important aspects of a horror movie. Horror without humor is just torture.

There are some plot holes towards the end, but really, most horror movies suffer from those if given any real scrutiny. I'll forgive Get Out those if only for its opening scene, which is both a classic horror movie opening, and a perfect commentary on the current state of male blackness in America.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Great Wall and Fist Fight

This review originally appeared on

It's probably mere coincidence, but the movie releases this week feel like a conscious reaction to last week's big Valentine's release, Fifty Shades Darker. Instead of a toxic female fantasy I'm sure more than one beleaguered boyfriend or husband was forced to sit through, we have Matt Damon fighting monsters in ancient China, and Charlie Day and Ice Cube beating the shit out of each other.

Of the two, The Great Wall is probably the better choice.

The Great Wall, which is a co-production between the U.S. and China, opened in China in December, and while not the box office record breaker it was designed to be, it was still a hit. It's faced some controversy, however, since the star is the definitely not Asian Matt Damon, with some accusing the movie of whitewashing. And while I understand that criticism, and the movie does suffer a bit from "white savior" syndrome, the fact remains the inclusion of a white actor in the predominantly Chinese production was a calculated move, the end goal being a film that would be a monster hit within both countries. Whether that works out remains to be seen.

Plus, this isn't some kind of historical epic we're dealing with. Set during the Song Dynasty, the film is pure fantasy, based on legends surrounding the Great Wall and just what it was built to protect China from. William Garin (Matt Damon), Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal), and their gang of mercenaries are crossing China in search of a new weapon known as "black powder." After most of their gang is killed by an unseen creature that Garin manages to kill, Garin and Tovar are captured by an army and brought to the Great Wall. They hope to learn just how Garin was able to kill the creature single handedly.

Turns out the Great Wall was built as protection against a horde of dragon-like creatures known as the Taotie. They number in the thousands and have a sole goal of reaching the capital and...eating everyone. Once they do, they will be able to multiply and take over the world.

The army guarding the Great Wall is known as the Nameless Order, and it's with them that director Yimou Zhang is able to employ his masterful use of color and spectacle, in battle sequences that are as beautiful as they are ridiculous. Each troop dons its own brightly colored battle gear (including one division whose sole purpose is beating giant drums), and has their own methods of fighting. My favorite was the electric blue Crane Troop, lead by Lin Mae (Jing Tian), who tie ropes around their waists, and leap off the wall holding spears, stabbing the Taotie before being yanked back up by the men controlling the rope cranks, ancient bungee style.

It's a good thing the Nameless Order is so entertaining and colorful, because the Taotie are kind of a visual dud, too often looking like nothing more than a mass of grey swarming warthogs. It's also too bad the action has to stop more than once to continue with the story of those two white guys--with the addition of Willem Dafoe, as another white guy in search of black powder--because frankly, it's boring. Plus, the less Damon talks, and the more he fights, the better. (I'm not sure what accent he's trying for--Irish? British? Really bad Scottish?--but I assume they just wanted him to sound a little less American, and let it go at that.)

The Great Wall is not a groundbreaking film by any means, but at least it's fun. The same can't be said for the comedy Fist Fight, starring Charlie Day as Mr. Campbell, and Ice Cube as Mr. Strickland, two teachers at an Atlanta high school, trying to survive the last day of the semester.

The last day of school is also senior prank day, which means a whole lot of pranks involving dicks, in some form or another, and the day the teachers will learn if they will still have a job come the new school year.

As one can gather from the title, and the posters, and the trailer, certain events of the day lead to Strickland vowing to kick Campbell's ass after school. The majority of the movie centers on Campbell doing everything he can to get out of the fight.

Besides Day there are some other funny actors in Fist Fight, including Tracy Morgan, Kumail Nanjiani, and Jillian Bell, and they all get maybe one or two laughs out a script that's loaded with complete duds. I think by the end of the movie I was so desperate for laughs that a moment of slapstick made me guffaw harder than I normally would. Still, to the woman next to me, who tried to laugh-shame me during that scene, all I can say is, if laughing at the sight of two idiot men trying to fight while sliding around a baby-oiled floor is wrong, I don't want to be right.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Wooden And Laughable 'Fifty Shades Darker' Is More Cautionary Tale Than Romance

This review originally appeared on

In hindsight, the ending of the first Fifty Shades movie, in which our once naive heroine finally recognizes the inherent cruelty in her lover's sexual proclivities and decides to walk away from him forever, was the only satisfying ending this story could have had. End it there, and it becomes a cautionary tale about how entering a relationship with the goal of changing a person to fit your preferences will only end in heartbreak.

Of course, it didn't end there, and now, two years later, we are cursed with Fifty Shades Darker, in which our heroine appears to have learned something, but really hasn't learned a thing.

As the film begins, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is about to start a new job as assistant to the fiction editor of a Seattle publisher. She gets a bouquet of flowers congratulating her on her new gig, reads the card, and promptly tries to throw them away. Ah, but they're too big for the trash, and gosh, they're so pretty....


It doesn't take fifteen minutes before her ex, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) shows up at her friend's photography show, buys up all the giant portraits of her ("I don't like the idea of other people looking at you," ugh), takes her to dinner, woos her back, and hands her an iPhone and laptop all preprogrammed and undoubtedly filled with the latest tracking technology.

Fifty Shades Stalker!

Ah, but Anastasia has changed, you see! She tells Christian his contracts, separate beds, and cruelty are all out the window if he wants to be with her, and he's like, cool, as long as you don't touch the front of my chest, we should be good.


Christian has boundaries, and I'm not talking figurative; I'm talking literal. So literal that he draws a circle in red lipstick around his torso, to help illustrate the issue. (After drawing this little map on his chest, he leaves it there. All night. Under his tuxedo. You know, just in case.)

Christian's issues are brought to further light this time, with flashbacks and nightmares about a mean man, and the death of his crackhead mother when he was four. ("Why didn't you tell me about that?" asks Anastasia. "I did. But you were asleep at the time," is his honest and unintentionally hilarious reply.) He even freely admits that when it comes to the bondage and sex play, he's not really a "dominant." He's actually a sadist who gets off on hurting women who look like his mother.

Oh, he's a keeper all right.

I tried so, so hard to root for Anastasia. She's given the glimmer of a backbone, insisting she isn't going to take Christian's shit anymore. But she does. She takes his shit. And when she's not taking his shit, she's talking about how she's not sure she'll be able to take his shit, and then she takes it some more.

All Christian and Ana talk about is their relationship, although when they're talking about their relationship, they're really just talking about Christian and his issues. And when they aren't talking about Christian, they're talking about Ben wa balls and nipple clamps. Anastasia, a supposed bookworm, also wants a career in publishing, but Christian doesn't have a single book in his penthouse. What are they going to talk about when the sex gets boring? And trust me, it WILL get boring, because it was certainly boring as hell to watch.

I'll give Fifty Shades Darker this: The sex is at least less clinical this time around. Sure, there's still a lot of blindfolding, and the attaching of various "spreaders," but the characters are at least a little more spontaneous about it all. (Although all those toys are put into use for about 10 seconds before they just get down to your basic banging. Again and again. Man, who knew watching people have sex could be so dreadfully dull?)

Both Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson are fine actors, doing the best they can with the ridiculous dialogue they are required to speak. They've also worked on their screen chemistry a bit since last time, and no longer seem like they'd rather be anywhere else. Dornan's also bulked up a bit, and is given a five minute workout montage to show off his bod, although there is STILL no glimpse of Christian's ultimate play toy, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

Johnson also manages to make half of the sex talk she's required to speak not completely laughable, or she at least makes it feel like we're in on the joke with her. ("You're NOT gonna put that in my butt!" is one choice example.)

The movie also has two genuinely inspired things. One is when Johnson, who is Melanie Griffith's daughter, uses a line of dialog straight out of Working Girl. And the other is the casting of Kim Basinger in a "Mrs. Robinson" type role. Her character could very well be the same one who crawled on all fours at the feet of Mickey Rourke (John Grey!) in 9 1/2 Weeks, and then left him and moved on to seduce a young Christian Grey, teaching him the ways of R-rated bondage.

Unfortunately, that's all the cleverness director James Foley is allowed to exhibit, and while the film is beautifully shot, with its subjects and its Seattle setting all looking luscious, all the prettiness in the world can't make up for the overabundance of musical montages, the wooden dialog, and the preposterous addition of "thriller" elements shoved into the plot.

It's bad enough that the film's villains are pure cartoons, both obsessed with Anastasia Steele (because apparently no one is immune to her), because the fact is, Fifty Shades doesn't need a villain; it already has one. Ladies, the villain is Christian Grey, and every narcissistic, damaged, possessive man like him you'll ever meet in life. So when you do meet him, try to be the girl at the end of the first movie, and not the girl in the sequels.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Maudlin Mediocrity Fills 'The Space Between Us'

This review originally appeared on

Sometimes you see a movie and the only reaction you can really have is, "Hunh. So, that's what they came up with? They had money, and a good cast, and an interesting story, and they came up with...that?" And then you scratch your head, and you never think about the movie again.

I knew The Space Between Us was going to be rocky from the its opening scene, in which Gary Oldman gives a presentation to a black tie NASA gathering. He reads from a sheet of paper (!) about the colonization of Mars on a settlement called East Texas (!!). NASA astronauts are trotted onto stage, but kept inside a plastic box (!!!). The doors to the hanger this ridiculous event is happening in open, and their rocket ship is right outside (!!!!). The guests then run out in their gowns and tuxedos to get an up-close and personal look at the ship's launch (!!!!!).

In the next scene, as the ship makes its way to Mars, we learn lead astronaut Sarah Elliot (Janet Montgomery) is pregnant. This turns out to be a major problem because the script requires it be. No, they can't just turn the mission around and let her have the baby on earth, are you crazy?! And no, they can't let the world know she's pregnant, are you insane?! And no, of course abortion isn't an option, are you nuts?! It takes place in 2018! It's Trump's America!

So, 15 minutes in, Sarah gives birth to a healthy boy then promptly dies, and NASA vows to keep the existence of her child a secret from the world.

Cut to SIXTEEN YEARS LATER, and that boy has grown up to be Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield), a nerdy and sullen teenager on Mars. He spends his days on a laptop with a transparent screen (why do movies think in the future we'll all want screens that are harder to read than they already are?), hacking into various security systems so he can do normal teenager things like stealing dune buggies to go joy riding.

Gardner (I have no idea why he's named Gardner, but can only hope it's some kind of reference to Being There) wants to go to Earth for many reasons, the main one being that he's in love with a girl named Tulsa (Britt Robertson). They met in some kind of chat room (I guess chat rooms make a comeback in 2034?), though she thinks he's just a teenager with a weird disease that keeps him homebound in a Park Avenue apartment. (That he somehow knows what Park Avenue is but doesn't know what a horse looks like is just one of many, many mysteries the movie never bothers to address.)

Gardner's entrapment on Mars has something to do with his bones, his blood, and his heart all being incompatible with Earth's atmosphere and gravity. Until, suddenly, the crew figures out how to cover his bones with mesh or...something (they're never very clear about it, but the x-rays look cool), and Gardner can finally go on a mission to Earth...where he promptly escapes his quarantine because ain't nobody got time for that!

And if all that wasn't preposterous enough, the remainder of the movie involves Gardner and Tulsa on the run from NASA, as they search for Gardner's long lost father, so he can....say hi? Not really sure. But it all must happen before he drops dead; apparently bone mesh isn't the miracle cure they thought it would be.

Part of me has some fondness for the ultimately very stupid The Space Between Us, mainly because it reminded me just a little bit of some 1980's sci-fi favorites like The Last Starfighter and especially Starman. Asa Butterfield has some funny moments as a Martian embracing Earth life, and a better director might have tried to play up the comedy more. But Peter Chelsom, whose previous credits include Shall We Dance?, Serendipity, and Hannah Montana: The Movie keeps the movie firmly grounded in maudlin mediocrity.