Seeking Out Cinema's Hidden Gems

Reviews - All | Reviews - Silver Screen Surprises | Features | Contact

Friday, November 11, 2016

Review: The Accountant

Convoluted But Compelling

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 14th, 2016 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
Running Time: 128 minutes
Director: Gavin O'Connor
Writer: Bill Dubuque
Cast: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, 
J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, 
Jeffrey Tambor, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, 
John Lithgow  

Chris Wolff (Ben Affleck) is "supernatural" at crunching numbers and even more adept at crunching skulls. Companies bring him in to look over the books – he is, after all, "The Accountant" – but he's willing to get his hands dirty with more than just ink if necessary.

He's also on the autism spectrum. This aspect of his character instantly elevates the film and makes it endlessly fascinating. I have no idea how accurate Ben Affleck's portrayal is – I'm no expert on autism – but it seems like a great performance to me. He dials down his natural charisma and charm without ever appearing robotic or losing his humanity.

I'm surprised there hasn't been more of an "uproar" about the movie and this character from various "rights" groups. Portraying someone with autism as an efficient killing machine has to be controversial to someone, right? But I think the film earns goodwill and a free pass because the main character's autism isn't ever just a one-note gimmick. You see his quirks (parking a certain way every time – diagonally, a compulsion to finish everything he starts, his lack of sarcasm), his strengths (numbers, efficiency, shooting), and the drastic steps he takes to function in the world as a person with autism (a long routine involving loud music and bright lights – a sensory overload nightmare). It also helps that his past history is explored and explained in great detail.

Chris's father (Robert C. Treveiler) realizes his son is "different" and forces him and his little brother (played as kids by Seth Lee and Jake Presley) to learn military-grade fighting techniques so they can eventually face the unforgiving world and defend themselves and each other if they have to. Again, whether this is plausible, I wouldn't know. Probably not, but it works for this particular story.

After a stint in the military, Chris ends up in prison, where he is mentored by an older inmate (Jeffrey Tambor), who furthers his training in a different way – by teaching him social cues and other basic human nuances.

Ray King (J.K. Simmons) is the head of the Treasury Department's Crime Enforcement Division. He recruits Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) and strong-arms her taking a job as his assistant by revealing that he knows about her past criminal record. That information is supposed to be sealed, she points out with outrage, but King obviously has his ways. He needs her help, her tells her, in locating The Accountant.

Meanwhile, a robotics firm run by Lamar Black (John Lithgow) hires Chris to inspect their finances. While there, he meets a pretty young co-worker, Dana (Anna Kendrick), who takes a liking to him despite his unorthodox demeanor.

Brax (Jon Bernthal) is a dangerous hitman with an intense dislike for fraudulent corporate activity. Through various twists and turns, he soon finds himself pitted against Chris.

All of these different characters and situations eventually come together in a frenzied finale.

"The Accountant" is a great blend of action, drama, and even some very well-timed black humor that had the entire theater chuckling almost inappropriately. Good luck trying to explain the finer details of the story to anyone afterward, though. The plot can be convoluted and the film feels overlong, but it's also undeniably compelling to watch. That's primarily because of Ben Affleck. An "accountant" with autism is undoubtedly one of the most original and interesting characters I've come across in a very long time.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Review: Denial

The Shocking True Story of the Court Case That Put the Holocaust on Trial

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 21, 2016 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Running Time: 110 minutes
Director: Mick Jackson
Writers: David Hare (screenplay), 
Deborah Lipstadt (book)
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, 
Andrew Scott, Tom Wilkinson

Attention, Academy: Give Rachel Weisz the Oscar! The London-born actress's startling transformation into a tough-talking teacher from Queens, New York, is nothing short of extraordinary.

I'll be honest: It's a pet peeve of mine whenever a performer attempts an accent that isn't their own. Let's face it: it doesn't always work – at least not 100% effectively. Oftentimes, you can almost see the gears grinding in their head as they concentrate on adjusting their vocal chords while simultaneously remembering and reciting their dialogue. Every word out of their mouth usually feels strained and unnatural. That's not the case here. If I had never seen Weisz before, I would swear she was born and raised in New York. She's that good in "Denial."

In 1996, historian and writer Deborah Lipstadt (Weisz) was sued for libel by Third Reich sentimentalist David Irving (Timothy Spall) because she characterized his beliefs as "Holocaust denial." His actual views: the Holocaust never took place. His argument: that "denier" has become a defamatory term with negative connotations – similar to "racist" and other such words.

The trial was lengthy and cost millions of pounds. Yes, pounds. Apparently, America isn't the only country that gets itself tied up in frivolous litigation.

But there is one very important difference to note: The American judicial system of "innocent until proven guilty" does not apply in England. Instead, it is up to the accused party to prove his or her innocence. In this case, that meant Deborah – and the Holocaust, by extension – was put on trial, even though the lawsuit was filed against her.

Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? But it actually happened.

Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) agrees to take the case. He was previously Princess Diana's lawyer, which means Deborah's defense is being handled by an elite legal team. The stakes are too high for anything less, and the ramifications of a loss would be devastating.

In another difference from the American judicial system, it isn't Julius himself who will argue the case in court. Instead, that important duty is given to a different lawyer entirely, Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson, who delivers yet another solid, reliable performance in a career filled with them).

Within the first few seconds of hearing David Irving speak out against the Holocaust, Silver Screen Sister shouted at the screen: "I'm already offended on behalf of all Jewish people."

That offense turned to grief as Deborah and Richard travel to Auschwitz on a "research mission." In a stunning scene, what at first seems like air in the sky ends up being a faded montage of concentration camp prisoners descending the stairs of Auschwitz to their impending doom.

Watching the intricacies of the English legal process unfold is fascinating. In a big American trial, you would expect Deborah to passionately take the stand, and for Holocaust survivors to do the same. Neither happens in "Denial" – for very good reasons I'll leave you to discover.

This film does a great job of creating suspense for what is otherwise a forgone conclusion.

Is a court of law the right place to decide the legitimacy of the Holocaust? That's the question I raised during the movie and one the people involved in the case struggled with as well. There are no easy answers, but what cannot be debated is just how important – crucial – it is to discuss a historical event of this magnitude. Perhaps the formality of a courtroom setting is as good a venue as any. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

Review: The Wailing (Goksung)

One of the Best Horror Films I've Seen in Years

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: June 3rd, 2016 – U.S.
Rating: Not Rated
Genre: Horror, Drama, Fantasy
Running Time: 156 minutes
Director: Hong-jin Na
Writer: Hong-jin Na
Cast: Do Won Kwak, Woo-hee Chun, 
Jeong-min Hwang, So-yeon Jang, 
Han-Cheol Jo, Jun Kunimura

"The Wailing" is an electrifying mixture of horror, mystery, and family drama; a whodunnit police story set in a small South Korean town; a bizarre blend of ghosts, zombies, religion, the occult, demonic repossession, and exorcism; a wild meshing of genres that will keep you guessing until the very end – and even beyond that.

It begins with a police sergeant, Jong-Goo (Do Won Kwak), investigating a series of bizarre incidents. The townspeople are picking up what appears to be a mysterious illness or infection. The side-effect: they violently turn on their own family and friends. The result: bloodshed and murder. The unwanted presence of an enigmatic Japanese outsider (played by Jun Kunimura) is blamed for the carnage.

The policeman initially comes across as a pudgy, goofy "Keystone Kop." He trips and blusters, screams and sputters. Tasked to solve the mystery and protect the villagers, he is clearly in over his head and ill-equipped. He wakes up from frightful dreams wailing like a small child. However, it isn't long before the situation impacts him directly – his own daughter eventually begins showing signs of the "disease."
When the cause is deemed to be more mystical than medical, a shaman (Jung-min Hwang) is called in. His rituals are a sight to behold. They are wondrously outrageous and over-the-top.

As the horror hits closer to home, the police sergeant's transformation is startling. He morphs from an absurd comedy character to a fearful but focused father who will stop at nothing to find answers and save his little girl from whatever – or whoever – has taken over her body and mind.

In contrast to the madness permeating most of "The Wailing," there's a quiet beauty to its lush but simple village scenery and ordinary but slightly rundown city buildings.

At 156 minutes, this is a long movie – but I was glued to the screen the entire time.

The ending, which I won't spoil, is the only aspect of the film that gives me pause. It feels like almost an anticlimax after two-and-a-half hours of frenzied hysteria. "That's it?" might be your first reaction. Yet, I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. According to the description on the back of the Blu-ray case, "fans made many return viewings in order to catch new clues and debate what’s sure to be the most talked-about ending of 2016." While that's partly marketing, there's a ring of truth to it too – you will undoubtedly want to seek out others who have seen the movie and look up what's being posted about its final moments.

I'm certainly anxious to start several conversations about "The Wailing" myself. That's the sign of a great film.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Review: Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders

Adam West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar Are Back in the Batcave Fifty Years Later

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 10, 2016 – U.S.
Rating: PG
Genre: Animation, Action, Adventure
Running Time: 78 minutes
Director: Rick Morales
Writers: Michael Jelenic, James Tucker
Cast: Adam West, Burt Ward, Julie Newmar, 
Jeff Bergman, William Salyers, Wally Wingert, 
Steven Weber, Jim Ward, Thomas Lennon, 
Lynne Marie Stewart, Sirena Irwin

"Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders" feels like an extended episode of the classic 1960s "Batman" TV series and a love letter to that more innocent and magical time in the "Caped Crusader's" long and storied history.

The most exciting news for Bat-geeks is that Adam West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar are back as Batman, Robin, and Catwoman, respectively. Even though it's been fifty years since the original series, they haven't aged a day thanks to the superpowers of animation.

This cartoon version of "Batman" perfectly captures the feel and nuances of the 1960s series. The signature comic book-style "Pow!" "Whap!" and "Bam!" appear on the screen when the heroes collide with the villains, and the famous tilted camera angle used during the fight scenes is even referenced literally at one point. More importantly, it retains the same clean cut humor and classic one-liners that made the show so endearing in the first place. If anything, "Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders" almost exaggerates and satirizes the purity Adam West and Burt Ward originally brought to their roles. In one clever scene, they have a conversation about the perils and pitfalls of jaywalking.

"Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders" is set in the 1960s, and the movie plays around with the era in fun ways. In one scene, there's a reference to the space race (the competition between Russia and the United States to be the first country to put a man on the moon) as Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara watch it unfold on TV. At first, it seems like nothing more than a throwaway nod to the time period, but it ends up being significant in ways I won't spoil. There are several other surprises too, particularly involving the heroes and villains – they intersect and crisscross in unexpected ways. Take special note of the plural at the end of this film's title.

Much like the original "Batman" show, the "Caped Crusader" and the "Boy Wonder" find themselves in various pickles that seem impossible to escape from. Part of me was hoping for the "Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel" intermission we would get at the end of every episode – there were several situations where that would have fit – but this is a movie, not a TV show.

My one nitpick: There were no mustache hairs showing through The Joker's paint, which was one of the gaudy highlights of Cesar Romero's delightfully over-the-top portrayal of the "Clown Prince of Crime."

I've come across some silly complaints online that Adam West "sounds old" in the trailer. Well, he is 88 now. As far as I'm concerned, he doesn't miss a beat for the most part. Listening to him voice this character again instantly transported me right back to my childhood sitting in front of the TV set watching Batman and Robin fight crime and foil the baddies. As for Burt Ward and Julie Newmar, Robin sounds like he's 15 again and Catwoman is every bit the foxy feline she always was. If you preferred the Eartha Kitt or Lee Meriwether incarnations of Catwoman, let's just say there's a tiny kitty treat waiting for you – and that's not the only reward this movie has for longtime Bat-fans. There are several eggs-cellent Easter eggs – it will probably require multiple viewings to spot them all.

The Joker, The Penguin, and The Riddler are back too. Sadly, the original actors – Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, and Frank Gorshin – are no longer with us. Instead, sound-alikes have been hired to take over their roles (Jeff Bergman as The Joker, William Salyers as The Penguin, and Wally Wingert as The Riddler). The same is true of the remaining regulars: Alfred (now voiced by Steven Weber, "Wings"), Aunt Harriet (Lynne Marie Stewart), Commissioner Gordon (Jim Ward), and Chief O'Hara (Thomas Lennon). To my ear, the new actors do an admirable job. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear the original cast had all returned. If the performances are not exact, they're at least close enough. The worst thing a replacement voice-actor can be is a distraction, and that's never, ever the case here.

After viewing the "extra" following the film, I became even more impressed. None of the actors playing the villains look or sound anything like their characters in real life. Steven Weber – who voices Alfred – isn't interviewed for this bonus segment, but I'm familiar enough with his work to know that he doesn't even remotely resemble a posh British butler.

Truthfully, though, I think hiring celebrities for most animated features is a waste of time – because unless you're Owen Wilson, Antonio Banderas, or William Shatner, I'm not going to be able to tell anyway. This, however, is the exception! It's a sheer stroke of genius for Adam West, Burt Ward and Julie Newmar to reprise the characters that made them so famous and beloved in the first place. Their involvement provides "Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders" with the credibility and warm sense of nostalgia it otherwise could not have had. (By the way, speaking of Shatner, he will reportedly voice Two-Face in the sequel. If that's not enough to get '60s fanboys salivating, I don't know what is!)

I could not stop smiling during "Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders." It's an absolutely joy to see these versions of the characters again and hear the distinctive voices that brought such pleasure and wonder to my own childhood.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

A Bedtime Story Brought to Life

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: September 30, 2016 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Adventure, Fantasy
Running Time: 127 minutes
Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Ransom Riggs (novel), 
Jane Goldman (screenplay)
Cast: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, 
Samuel L. Jackson, Judi Dench, 
Rupert Everett, Allison Janney, 
Chris O'Dowd, Terence Stamp, 
Ella Purnell, Enoch O'Conner, 
Lauren McCrostie, Pixie Davies, 
Cameron King, Milo Parker, 
Raffiella Chapman, Thomas Odwell, 
Joseph Odwell 

"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" is a whimsical fantasy from director Tim Burton, but like all of Burton's work, there's a darker edge too.

Jake (Asa Butterfield, "Hugo") is a lonely lost boy living in Florida. While the skies may be sunny, his life is anything but. His father (Chris O'Dowd, far removed from his usual friendly, folksy demeanor) is cold, distant, and doesn't understand him. His grandfather, Abe (the superb Terence Stamp, making the most of his limited screen-time), is said to be suffering from dementia. When Jake was younger, Abe would tell him fantastical tales about growing up in a group home surrounded by other children with special abilities and their mysterious headmistress named Miss Peregrine. It was the perfect bedtime story for a child to fall asleep to. But Jake is now a sullen teen. He no longer considers himself a child and has put away childish things.

If Jake wasn't a child before, he's forced to grow up quickly when he discovers his grandfather dead in the woods with his eyes sucked out. Nightmares and trauma follow, but his psychiatrist (Allison Janney) assures him he's not crazy.

Jake wants to visit the children's home of his grandfather's youth. It's a long way from Florida to Wales, but his father reluctantly agrees because the trip could provide a much-needed sense of closure.

These are rather weighty themes to explore so early in the film, but it isn't long before Jake ends up in the 1940s of his grandfather's childhood and discovers that all of those amazing bedtime stories were true. There really was a Miss Peregrine (a delightfully off-kilter Eva Green) and she really did run a school for peculiar children. Abe's past has become Jake's present. The boy hasn't landed in a fairy tale, though. Trouble is brewing.

The Peculiars, as the children are referred to, include:

  • Emma (Ella Purnell): Floats through the air.
  • Finlay (Enoch O'Conner): Brings inanimate objects to life.
  • Olive (Lauren McCrostie): Firestarter.
  • Bronwyn (Pixie Davies): A little girl with superhuman strength.
  • Millard (Cameron King): Invisible.
  • Hugh (Milo Parker): Bees live inside him.
  • Claire (Raffiella Chapman): An extra mouth resides in the back of her head.
  • Masked Twins (Thomas and Joseph Odwell): Short and creepy – somewhat reminiscent of Sam from "Trick 'r Treat."

Fans of the Ransom Riggs novel, which I have not read, will immediately notice one major discrepancy: The characteristics of Emma and Olive have been swapped – for reasons unknown. Silver Screen Sister lamented that there were many changes made from the book.

The Peculiars are eventually greeted by two guests: one welcome and one unwelcome – the wise Miss Avocet (Judi Dench) and the villainous Barron (Samuel L. Jackson). Meanwhile, back in the "real world," Jake's bird-watcher dad has bonded with a fellow ornithologist (Rupert Everett).

"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" is overflowing with creativity. Therefore, it is with a little guilt that I admit I was never quite able to love it. Don't get me wrong, it's still great fun. The Peculiars are interesting, the set-pieces are fantastic, the action is thrilling, and the emotional moments are well-played. Yet, all of those elements don't feel entirely cohesive at times. The same movie that deals with a boy's loneliness and grief also features Samuel L. Jackson mugging for the camera with wild white hair and garish fanged teeth. Because of that, the quieter human moments didn't affect me quite as much as they could have and the big battle scenes felt slightly lower-stakes than they should have.

Still, the ending sequence is amazing. Unfortunately, it's comprised of only rapid-fire clips and a quick explanation from one of the characters. I could have easily sat through another hour of the developments presented in those final few moments. What a missed opportunity! It almost felt like a TV show that was cancelled unexpectedly and had an epilogue added in post-production to wrap up any loose ends.

Even so, two of the characters who should have interacted in the final ten minutes of the film never did. But I guess that's what sequels are for. (Ransom Riggs wrote two more books in the "Miss Peregrine" series.)

"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" may not have captured my heart the way I was hoping for, but there's still plenty to like and recommend about it. If nothing else, it's another opportunity to take in Tim Burton's unique blend of oddity and spectacle. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Review: Waffle Street

From Finance to Fries

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: September 24, 2015 – U.S.
Rating: TV-PG
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 86 minutes
Directors: Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms
Writers: Autumn McAlpin, Eshom Nelms, 
Ian Nelms
Cast: James Lafferty, Danny Glover, 
Julie Gonzalo, Dale Dickey, Marshall Bell, 
Ernie Lively, William Knight, Adam Johnson, 
Yolanda Wood, Aubrey Reynolds, Sila Agavale, 
Jason Tatom, Michelle Lang

Papa's Chicken and Waffles is a combination of two of my favorite greasy spoons: Steak 'n Shake and Waffle House. When a financial fat cat loses his job, his next move – naturally – is to become a restaurant server. James Adams (James Lafferty) wants to do "honest" work like his father and grandfather (Ernie Lively and William Knight) before him. In a series of "comedic" vignettes, he applies to various "blue collar" jobs – auto mechanic, construction worker – but gets turned down for all of them. He's the picture of corporate cluelessness: clean cut, in a suit and tie, with no experience fixing cars or laying bricks. But he's a "quick learner," he says. That's enough to get him into Papa's – well, that and someone just quit right before he walked in.

Of course, a go-getter like James isn't content with waiting tables and sweeping floors for long. He crunches the numbers and sees the profit potential in buying his own Papa's Chicken and Waffles franchise. As luck would have it, the very one he's working in is up for sale. There's one hitch, though: According to the previous owner (played by "Total Recall's" Marshall Bell) and the Papa's handbook, James has to put in 1,000 hours of work before he can become eligible to buy it. That means taking double-shifts and working into the wee hours of the morning. Midnights at Papa's are like something out of an apocalyptic horror movie.

Throughout all of this, I never truly believed for a second that his long-suffering wife, Becky (Julie Gonzalo), would patiently and blindly go along with a cockamamie plan like this for as long as she did. (James is the type of guy who would probably use a word like "cockamamie.") I was never quite convinced. As it turns out, there's a reason for that: "Waffle Street" is based on a true story, but according to the memoir of the same name, "the screenwriter and directors created the plot device of my attempting to purchase the restaurant from the existing franchisee." Disappointing, but that's Hollywood! At least it explains why the wife's behavior never felt grounded in reality.

Meanwhile, Eddie, the grill cook (Danny Glover), warns James that a lot of people have talked about owning their own Papa's but none of them have ever done it. The best performance in the film probably comes from Glover, who is an actor I haven't always liked. While some of his dialogue can be ridiculous and over-the-top ("Well, consider me your waffle daddy!"), his character is probably the most realistic and grounded – at least at times. (This movie, as demonstrated by the absurd "waffle daddy" line, can't always help itself.) Glover's shining moment comes near the end. His character delivers a passionate speech about how much he loves grilling food. It doesn't feel like acting.

One nice touch: "Waffle Street" populates itself with the types of eccentric characters you'd expect to find in a 24-hour diner – Crazy Kathy (Dale Dickey), a disheveled customer always asking to borrow money; Jacqui (Yolanda Wood), the wise, friendly, and hard-working African-American who would be a stereotype if there weren't so many other similar people in various true stories about the restaurant business; Mary (Aubrey Reynolds), the teen or twenty-something server who's either just passing through or will end up becoming a lifer; Manuel (Sila Agavale), who is simply trying to earn a wage and keep his ahead above water; Matthew (Adam Johnson), the ponytailed manager with relationship issues; and Larry (Jason Tatom), a power-mad prick who isn't there to make friends and loves to write citations.

This story reminded me very much of the memoir by Michael Gates Gill, "How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else." His childhood was spent around literary legends like Robert Frost, followed by an Ivy League education and a six-figure salary. In his sixties, he lost it all and ended up cleaning toilets at Starbucks. Now, that would make a great movie. (Supposedly, it's "in development.")

"Waffle Street" could easily be called "White Privilege: The Movie." There's nothing subtle about the main character, any of the other performances, the dialogue, or the film in general. James may as well have the word "earnest" stamped on his forehead like a scarlet letter. But he – and this movie – won me over anyway. Yes, it's that gosh darn earnestness of his that did it. (James would probably use a phrase like "gosh darn.") This is not a great film, but it's warm, pleasant, and doesn't have a malicious bone in its body. Plus, it made me consider the possibility – at least for a fleeting moment – of opening up my very own Steak 'n Shake or Waffle House.  

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Review: Bazodee

Bollywood, Trini Style

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: August 5, 2016 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Drama, Musical, Romance
Running Time: 101 minutes
Director: Todd Kessler
Writer: Claire Ince
Cast: Machel Montano, Natalie Perera, 
Kabir Bedi, Valmike Rampersad, Staz Nair, 
Cindy F. Daniel, Teneille Newallo, Chris Smith, 
Kriss Dosanjh

Bazodee: The Trinidad word for someone who is disoriented or can't think straight.

"Bazodee" is a joyful celebration of Trinidad and Tobago – a Bollywood love story told through infectiously upbeat Soca music. Bright and colorful locations showcase the islands beautifully, but it's the even more colorful people in this film that really capture the country's spicy flavor. They're a unique cast of local characters that could come from nowhere else but Trinidad.

Ram Panchouri (Kabir Bedi) is opening a state-of-the-art resort in Trinidad. His innovative ideas have been described as "visionary." His daughter, Anita (Natalie Perera), is engaged to Bharat Kumar (Staz Nair), who is the son of his business partner (Kriss Dosanjh). Bharat's two brothers, Partiv (Rahul Nath) and Nikhil (Valmike Rampersad), could not be more different. Partiv is nice, shy, and unassuming; Nikhil is suspicious and bitter.

Even though Anita is about to be married, what really sweeps her off her feet is the music of a local legend named Lee (Machel Montano). Such is his level of talent that he was invited to play on the big stages of London. Then he gave up music and "disappeared."

A chance meeting – is there ever any other kind in the movies? – brings Anita and Lee together. His music makes her so "bazodee" that she doesn't think twice about singing one of his songs outside a crowded airport. (Maybe I'll try that the next time I'm in Trinidad!) He recognizes his own lyrics and joins his admiring fan in a duet. Then, just like that, he's back in the music game. It seems a bit sudden, but if someone came up to me and started reciting one of my film reviews, I might feel similarly inspired!

Romance and business, of course, will eventually intersect and inevitably clash.

"Bazodee" breathlessly bounces from one grand celebration to the next: an engagement party, a trip to Pigeon Point in Tobago, and – of course – Carnival (the U.S. equivalent of this world famous Trinidad celebration would be Mardi Gras in New Orleans).

Lee and Anita are such good, purehearted people that it's impossible not to root for them. Even when they're doing wrong, it's for the right reasons. Anita is a natural beauty. She's easy to fall in love with. Everyone will want to "thief" her away from the "Soca boy" after seeing this movie.

Of all the side characters, my favorite is probably Bud (Chris Smith), Lee's best friend and business partner. Like many of the people in this movie, he reminds me of someone I know.

There's a great scene near the end with Lee and his grandmother. Without saying a word, she speaks volumes.

"Bazodee" is filled with authentic Trinidad touches. A large part of the film's charm comes from listening to everyone converse – especially when they use Trini slang (Bazodee, Dred, etc.). Along with the British English accent, there is no accent more pleasurable to hear than a Trinidad accent. It has such a lyrical, rhythmical quality to it. It sounds like family.

Its mentions of London and Miami also ring true. When you're in Trinidad, every part of Florida suddenly becomes "Miami." Even people who have moved from "Miami" to Trinidad eventually start thinking of the entire state as Miami. During the movie, mention is made of someone now living in Miami. I wonder if it's actually Boca, Tampa, Jacksonville, or Tallahassee. Then again, maybe it really is Miami. Now, that would be a twist of M. Night Shyamalan proportions.

One nitpick though, from Silver Screen Sister: "They acted like they drove from Trinidad to Tobago, treating it like it was one island instead of an island nation." I wondered the same thing myself. Unless something has changed very recently, the only way to travel from one to the other is by plane or ferry. Then again, these people sing at the drop of a hat without anyone batting an eyelash. Alas, it is a musical, so such things are bound to happen. If only I could get away with that in real life...

As you walk out of "Bazodee," you might find yourself singing and humming. It's a lovely movie.

"Bazodee" is now playing in "Miami."

Friday, July 29, 2016

Review: My Breakfast with Blassie

A Biting Breakfast of Champions

By Chris Sabga

Where do I even begin with the bizarre "My Breakfast with Blassie"? It was, first and most obviously, a spoof of the movie "My Dinner with Andre." It was also a strange piece of performance art from comedian and actor Andy Kaufman, who was always looking for a controversial reaction. And it served as a late-career showcase for "Classy" Freddie Blassie, who was one of the most feared and despised professional wrestling villains of the '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s.

Some background:

Prior to filming "My Breakfast with Blassie" in 1983, Kaufman made the improbable decision to become a pro wrestler. He first faced women in inter-gender matches, much to the chagrin of just about everyone. A progressive Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs moment this was not – nor was it meant to be, of course. A far cry from the sweet and innocent Latka character he portrayed on the hit television show "Taxi," Kaufman's aim inside a wrestling ring was to anger and incite. That led, naturally, to a match between Kaufman and a male wrestler – Jerry "The King" Lawler – which ended with Kaufman's neck being "broken." Then Kaufman took it a step further by getting into an "altercation" with Lawler on national television during "The David Letterman Show."

All of this would be seen as an obvious show business stunt today, but things were much different back then. While enough people certainly understood that pro wrestling was more entertainment than sport, there were still fans who believed, or at least wanted to believe – and no one quite knew what was real and what wasn't when it came to Andy Kaufman. The actor and comedian even spent several days in the hospital after the Lawler match to sell the "injuries he sustained." To further the illusion, he wore a neck brace on-camera for "My Breakfast with Blassie."

Perhaps Kaufman was inspired by the villainy of Freddie Blassie? At one point, Blassie utilized a "vampire" gimmick where he would grotesquely file his teeth and bite his opponents until they bled. According to pro wrestling lore (and repeated in this movie), so shocking was this repulsive spectacle that it triggered a series of heart attacks and eventual deaths among some of the Japanese fans. I have my doubts, but why let that get in the way of a damn good story?

The movie itself:

"My Breakfast with Blassie" is not pretty to look at or listen to. It was shot on ancient videotape and it sounds tinny throughout. But none of that really matters. After all, no one is watching this curious oddity for its cinematography.

It takes place in California at a diner called Sambo's, which named itself right out of business by evoking harmful racial stereotypes. Somehow, I suspect Kaufman knew what he was doing when he chose the location.

Early on, Blassie paternally rubs a pregnant waitress's belly. However, before you think one of the great wrestling bad guys has gone soft, he cackles that they "don't have to tip her so much when we leave now." He later remarks that she's "another one we're gonna have to feed on welfare." It's a horrible, wince-inducing comment. Was Blassie part of the act, in on the joke, or was Kaufman stringing him along too? Keep in mind that Blassie was a consummate showman himself, and the last thing he would have done in his era was "break character" – especially in front of the camera.

Another great exchange involves wet wipes that Blassie brought with him from Japan (his wife was from there). Blassie tries to persuade Kaufman that they're useful for public bathrooms and dealing with fans. This was in a time before OCD was openly recognized, accepted, and celebrated.  

Even though we know now (courtesy of IMDb and other sources) that all of the "customers" in the restaurant were hired to be there, "My Breakfast with Blassie" still provides an interesting look at what celebrities have to go through day after day. Even something simple as eating breakfast is routinely interrupted by fans seeking autographs or just wanting a few moments of their time. "Don't sign autographs for these ding-a-lings!" Blassie barks at one point.

Two of the people in the restaurant were Lynne Margulies ("Legs"), Kaufman's future girlfriend – they actually met during the filming of this – and Bob Zmuda (as the fan who vomited on the table), his longtime writing partner. They were later portrayed by Courtney Love and Paul Giamatti, respectively, in the 1999 biopic about Kaufman, "Man on the Moon." The waitress, though, apparently really worked there.

Wrestling fans will enjoy hearing Blassie recount stories about his reigns as a "champeen" and matches against legends such as Rikidozan, and Kaufman aficionados will certainly appreciate this intimate glimpse of his creative genius and madness. (Sadly, Kaufman died a year later of lung cancer.)

When I first discovered "My Breakfast with Blassie" two decades ago, probably on Comedy Central, I think I took it at face value much more wholeheartedly. But with age comes wisdom, and my eyes were wide open during my most recent viewing. Still, that in no way diminishes the ridiculous kitsch appeal of what's on display here. While I cannot in good conscience call this a "great movie," if you're a fan of either Andy Kaufman or Freddie Blassie specifically, or Hollywood or pro wrestling in general, this "Breakfast" is certainly worth a bite. But you may need a wet wipe afterward.  

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Hidden Gems: Sci-Fi Movies That Don't Get the Recognition They Deserve

Four Films Worth a Deeper Look

By Caroline Black

I would like to thank Silver Screen Surprises for publishing this article on their site. I've found them to be a great resource for movie reviews, and I would specifically recommend their review of Little Boy for anyone interested.

It's always an amazing feeling when a hidden gem is found. No matter the medium you’re consuming, it's always an awesome feeling. The problem is that finding these hidden gems can be a major chore. It's funny because it seems like the best chance to find them is to randomly stumble upon them (unless someone catalogs them). Of course, there are also those occasions where a movie is well-known but doesn't get the recognition it deserves. We are going to be taking a look at both here, so here are a few films you should check out:

Men in Black II

Here is a movie that is well-known, but only because of the success of the first film. When "Men in Black" was first released, audiences all across the globe witnessed a critically acclaimed masterpiece. However, "Men in Black II" did not receive the same praise upon its release. As fans of the series know, at the end of the first installment Kay lost all of his memories. "Men in Black II" picked up after those events as Jay was flying solo. He simply couldn't find a good partner. However, later on in the movie, it's revealed that Kay is the only man in the world with the information necessary to save the earth. It’s then up to Jay to bring his partner back and restore his lost memories.

Much like the first installment, the reason "Men in Black II" is so good is because of Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. The way these two actors mesh on screen makes this movie worth the watch by itself. Admittedly so, "Men in Black" had a much better villain than its successor. Yet outside of this, "Men in Black II" did a tremendous job of keeping up to the standards of the first installment. It's tough to label this movie as a hidden gem because the franchise is very popular, but it’s absolutely worth a revisit.


"Equilibrium" is a movie that combines exhilarating sci-fi action with a rather bland story. If the only aspect of this movie that is being judged is the plot, this movie is not particularly outstanding. Yet there is more to movies than a plot. This movie has a breathtaking presentation that transcends its story. In a futuristic world, every single person is restricted from using emotions. If these rules are resisted, repercussions are delivered. However, one day when a government official (Christian Bale) misses his dose of Prozium (which restricts the mind from using emotions), he realizes that emotions are necessary.

"Equilibrium" seems like a clone of "The Matrix," yet we have to ask whether this is actually the case. Since "The Matrix" was a global phenomenon at its time, many movies took a similar approach. There is no doubt that "Equilibrium" felt like "The Matrix" in places, but that didn't ruin the movie. As a matter of fact, it probably ended up helping the movie. Some critics at the time panned it for being more of the same. What critics need to realize, though, is sometimes "more of the same" isn't always a bad thing.

Battle: Los Angeles

Sometimes people can't sit back and appreciate how entertaining a movie can be. This is exactly the case with "Battle: Los Angeles." If it’s taken for what it is, it will be enjoyed. Much like previous alien movies, "Battle: Los Angeles" tells the story of an alien force invading the planet. As the movie progresses, more and more cities are devastated by the alien invaders. The cast of characters then must somehow find a way to stop an enemy unlike any they have ever encountered. "Battle: Los Angeles" does a good job of telling this old, but good, story.

There weren't many aspects that critics enjoyed about this movie. It has been criticized for its lazy editing, lack of originality and poor writing. However, much like "Equilibrium," sometimes more of the same is not a bad thing. In the producer’s defense, alien movies have been done to death. It's not easy to come up with new concepts about them. On the contrary, they do get paid the big bucks for being professional storytellers. While it may not be the greatest movie ever made, it's still an entertaining movie worth a watch.


"Knowing" is one of the most creative sci-fi movies that has ever been made. The claim can be made that this movie is far from perfect, but the idea is absolutely amazing. Many years ago, a time capsule was buried and a cryptic message was left inside. Years later, the time capsule is dug up and the cryptic message falls into the hands of John Koestler (Nicolas Cage). The message was just a bunch of random numbers, but soon it is revealed that the numbers are far from random. The numbers document every single major calamity that will take place over the next several years. During his research, Koestler realizes that three of the dates have not happened yet, with the last date signaling the end of the world.

"Knowing" is great because of its plot. As mentioned earlier, however, that's not the only important aspect of a movie. What this movie also does a terrific job with is the suspense factor, as it will leave you on the edge of your seat. The ending of the movie may rub some people the wrong way, but it steered away from being predictable (without giving too much away).

Do you have any thoughts on the above films? Are there any other sci-fi films that simply don’t get the attention they deserve? Please leave a comment below and tell us what you think!

About the Author: Caroline is a freelance blogger and writer who writes mostly about technology and entertainment topics. She loves sci-fi and how it can make our dreams appear right in front of us. She hopes that you go back and check out all of these hidden gems.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Review: Adventures in Babysitting (1987 Original and 2016 Remake)

Three Babysitters in Two Adventures Almost Thirty Years Apart

By Chris Sabga

"Adventures in Babysitting" sits comfortably among the pantheon of 1980s movies not as a classic necessarily but certainly as a warmly-remembered time capsule of a sillier cinematic era. When the 2016 Disney Channel remake was announced, fans of the original expressed doubts. Surely it would be toned down and more childish than the "edgier" PG-13 original. What many people may not realize is that the 1987 version was also from Disney; it was released through Touchstone Pictures, which was Disney's label for films aimed at the teen and adult markets.

The premise of both versions is the same: A harried babysitter (Elisabeth Shue in 1987; Sabrina Carpenter and Sofia Carson in 2016) are forced to drag several children along (Keith Coogan, Anthony Rapp, and Maia Brewton in '87; Nikki Hahn, Mallory James Mahoney, Madison Horcher, and Jet Jurgensmeyer in '16) to rescue someone stranded in the big city (the hilarious Penelope Ann Miller in '87 and the much younger Max Gecowets in '16). Throughout the night, they're chased by bad guys. Wacky misadventures ensue. Can they get back home before Mom and Dad realize anything is amiss?

The Babysitters

Elisabeth Shue is radiant as babysitter Chris Parker in the 1987 original. Her facial expressions and reactions alone are classic. It is almost unfair to expect Sabrina Carpenter (or Sofia Carson) to live up to that. But Carpenter has a bright future ahead of her and will be a star. Her role in the 2016 film as the prim and proper Jenny Parker (a distant relative of Shue's Chris Parker, perhaps?) is a nice contrast to the wild child with a heart of gold she plays on "Girl Meets World."

It helps that Shue was legitimately an adult at the time compared to her younger co-stars (Keith Coogan, Anthony Rapp, and Maia Brewton). In the film, she's 17 and the two boys are 15, but their age gap was considerably wider in real-life (Shue was almost 24 at the time of the film's release). That made her seem so much more mature and worldly. She came across as a woman in charge of children.

In the remake, one of the babysitters (Carpenter) is the same age in real-life as one of the kids (Max Gecowets, who plays Trey). While there is an age difference between the characters in the movie, and it can be argued that the boy playing Trey probably looks slightly younger than he really is, the contrast between the babysitter and the "baby" isn't nearly as strong.

It also works in Shue's favor that she was already a major movie star in the '80s because of "The Karate Kid." That made her seem larger-than-life at the time, compared to Carpenter and Carson now, who are known primarily for their work on the small screen.

The Babies

The remake has double the cast – two battling babysitters and twice the amount of "babies" being "sat" – but less is more.

Of the new children, Jet Jurgensmeyer (what a name!) as budding chef Bobby – obsessed with culinary perfection and perpetually frustrated until he gets the right result – is easily the comic standout. On the other hand, while Mallory James Mahoney does a good job as the junior "fashionista" Katy, the character's costuming and makeup reminded me uncomfortably of JonBenét Ramsey – the little girl who competed in beauty pageants and was tragically found murdered in her own home. I realize Katy is probably meant to be a spoof of the ridiculous "Toddlers & Tiaras" reality show, but most reasonable people don't find much humor in that bizarre subculture.

In addition to that, it's a bit absurd that the 14-year-old boy in the 2016 version, Trey (Gecowets), still needs a babysitter and barely anyone acts like this is abnormal – other than one scene-stealing scene where a friend of the teenager's (Joshua Morettin) says breathlessly, "You have a babysitter?! I want a babysitter! She's hot." I laughed. At least in the 1987 original, the babysitter wasn't for the older boy (Keith Coogan's character was actually leaving the house for a sleepover with Anthony Rapp).

With only three kids in the 1987 version, there was ample room for all of them to stand out and shine. Coogan and Rapp are superb as the little teenage freshmen with a crush on the babysitter, but everyone who saw the original "Adventures in Babysitting" will instantly and fondly recall Maia Brewton's role as the little girl obsessed with the comic book hero Thor and her excitement when she finally gets to "meet him."


After rewatching the movie for the first time in years, I was shocked to discover that "Thor" is only in one scene. In my memory, Vincent D'Onofrio's role (credited as Vincent Phillip D'Onofrio) was so much bigger. That shows the power of his performance.

(By the way, in case anyone still doesn't realize this: Thor from "Adventures in Babysitting" and Private Pyle from "Full Metal Jacket" are portrayed by the same actor. I didn't realize that for twenty years. Yes, I saw "Full Metal Jacket" a child. When it finally dawned on me in the late-'90s or thereabouts that D'Onofrio played both roles, my mind was blown. Other future stars to look out for: Bradley Whitford, George Newbern, and Lolita Davidovich all make appearances.)

When the remake was announced, everyone was nervous to see how the "Thor" aspect of the story would be replicated. Well, as it turns out, the little girl this time (Madison Horcher) is a major roller derby fanatic. With the incredible cast of characters Disney owns, this was the best they could do?! The scene involving quarreling roller derby rivals in a police station is mildly amusing, but the poor kid isn't given much to work with this time around. No one is going to remember her character or obsession fondly two decades from now.

The Nightclub Scene

The big scene shared by both "Adventures" involves the babysitter(s) and kids being chased into a nightclub. In 1987, it's a jazz club and they're forced to sing the blues – "the Babysitting Blues" – in one of the movie's most memorable moments. The 2016 version pits the warring sitters against each other in a "battle rap." I prefer the original version of the concept, but the update is a clever enough modernization.

The remake features a few other scenes, lines, and nods to the original – such as a reference to going out for ice cream and the children's reactions to similar situations.

The City

In both films, the big bad "city" functions as a character of its own – a place where anything can (and does) go wrong, and danger lurks around every dark corner. Whether either movie is an accurate representation of Chicago, I wouldn't know, but they are accurate representations of each other. (The original was filmed in Chicago and Toronto while the remake was shot in Vancouver but is once again supposed to be set in Chicago.)

The Bad Guys

The villains in the 1987 incarnation were bumbling buffoons (after all, only an idiot is going to write important business information on a Playboy Magazine centerfold), but they still had an air of menace. The new bad guys are walking, talking, slipping, falling Disney cartoons. It is ironic that the original was directed by "Home Alone's" Chris Columbus, because it's the remake that's overrun with those types of juvenile gags. It's too goofy at times, even with the ridiculous standards set by the '80s version.

1987 vs. 2016

The original "Adventures in Babysitting" is remembered almost thirty years later for a reason: it's terrific escapist entertainment. The remake will get criticized for being too toned down and "Disney-fied." But let's face it: no "kids' movie" today would get away with the outdated gay and rape jokes that were in the '87 version. Plus, no one reads Playboy anymore. The modern equivalent of that – a kid looking up grown-up material on his iPad – would never fly in a Disney Channel flick, and it would probably bump any other studio's movie up to an "R" rating.

Look, the remake is certainly no classic and likely won't have the long shelf life its predecessor did, but there is still a lot to like about it. It's a fun and serviceable replica. It's more innocent, but the '80s were a tougher time with tougher kids.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Remembering Anton Yelchin

Soulful and Versatile, Anton Yelchin Lit Up the Silver Screen

By Chris Sabga

This one is hard.

Hearts in Atlantis (2001)

I first saw Anton Yelchin as a child actor. He had a small part in the 2001 thriller "Along Came a Spider," but where I really took notice of him was in the Stephen King adaptation "Hearts in Atlantis" released that same year. It was a starring role for him opposite acting heavyweights Anthony Hopkins and Hope Davis. He was every bit as good as they were. Hopkins was spellbinding on the screen with his commanding presence and quiet intensity, but Anton Yelchin matched the master every step of the way with his own pure-eyed performance that conveyed a genuine innocence.

The word "tragic" is overused, but that's the only way to describe Anton Yelchin's death on Sunday at the too-young age of 27. The Los Angeles County Medical Examiner's Office told that "Yelchin's body was found pinned between a car and a gate."

In a DVD extra for "Hearts in Atlantis," Hopkins raved about Yelchin's enormous acting talent and said he hoped his young co-star would stick with the craft. Yelchin did just that. He never stopped acting and became one of the rare few who transitioned seamlessly to adult roles.

A few weeks ago at the urging of a friend, I finally watched the flawed but fascinating "House of D" from 2004. Once again, Anton was paired up with elite actors – Robin Williams, Téa Leoni, and Frank Langella, among others – but it was his shining presence that gave "House" its heart and carried this messy, muddled, but ultimately memorable film.

Of all of Anton's performances as a child, he's probably best known for his memorable work as teenage kidnap victim Zack Mazursky in 2006's "Alpha Dog." I remember watching the trailer week after week. It seemed to run endlessly (the movie was delayed). I can still remember its voiceover narration describing "the rap version of the American Dream." Truth be told, I was so sick of hearing about "Alpha Dog" that I wanted nothing to do with it by the time it eventually came out. Of course, I eventually did see it. In a film filled with the most promising young actors of the day – including Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, and Ben Foster – it was Anton's honest and chilling performance that everyone walked away remembering when the credits rolled at the end.

Star Trek (2009)

After excelling in teen roles such as "Alpha Dog" and "Charlie Bartlett" (with Robert Downey Jr.), Anton got his first big break when he was cast as the young Russian genius Chekov in the 2009 "Star Trek" reboot and its subsequent sequels. Even though Yelchin was born in Russia and probably could have easily emulated a more natural Russian accent, he chose instead to honor the role the way it was originally portrayed by Walter Koenig. "There are certain things that I took, from the fact that he replaced every V with a W which is weird," he explained in an interview with Rotten Tomatoes. "I thought it was important to bring that to the character."

Yelchin was also wonderful in "The Beaver" – a bizarre but oddly compelling drama about the ravages of depression – as the son of Mel Gibson's puppet-obsessed character. In contrast, he was so much fun to watch in the "Fright Night" remake. Those two examples (among many) perfectly demonstrate Yelchin's versatility. He has 65 credits listed on IMDb – an incredible number for someone who was still so young – and he was great in everything I've ever seen him in.

This one is hard.