Friday, January 10, 2020


If you were to make a list of signs that a movie is in potential trouble, one of the first things that will jump out at you is the timeline from filming to release. "Underwater" was filmed in 2017, this is 2020, that means it has been percolating for three years. A second indicator that you are in trouble is that you have a horror film opening in January. The first month of the year is the graveyard of the dregs for new releases. It is for counter programming to the big holiday releases that are still playing and collecting on their critical acclaim. Studios notoriously put films they have no faith in out at this time of year. Horror films often are the pawns in a game of movie release chess and they are sacrificed at this time all the time. Finally, Kristen Stewart, action star, is just not a description that anyone will pull out of their memory. So "Underwater" has a few strikes against it before the lights go down.

On the other hand, there were some rumors from early punters that it is better than you would expect.  I don't think I've ever mentioned "Rotten Tomatoes" as a resource for any review I have ever done on this site, but "Underwater" was rated "Fresh" on the web site for the ticket purchase, so as I always do, I hoped for the best. Francis Bacon said "Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper." My dinner this evening was not very good. I can't say the film is terrible, but I can tell you it is not good, and there are several reasons.

To start with the first failing, the story attempts something that just doesn't work very well. Most films like this set up the characters by letting us meet them in the normal course of their lives. We usually get a map of the environment so we can get a fix on the eventual horizon. There will be some foreshadowing which increases the tension before the main story begins. "Underwater" eschews this approach, plunging us into the story without any set up except some cryptic headlines briefly flashed on the screen during the credit sequence. We know nothing about the job, the technology or the people before disaster strikes. So the film is going to depend on spectacle to draw us in, and this is a story set almost seven miles underwater, where there is no light and no horizon. We can't really tell what has happened to the station that the characters are on, except from the inside, and it looks like any other building collapse interior you have seen in a movie.

When we finally do get a set of six characters set up in an escape plan, you can pretty much say who is going to die and the order in which they are going to go. This is a horror film that is so conventional that it reinforces one of the oldest tropes a a black character in horror. This is a concept that has been parodied in horror comedies for years.  I'll let you figure out everything else, but if you have seen an action disaster film or horror film in the last fifty years, you will know. At least with "Alien" we got to care about those characters before their demise.

The dialogue in the film is almost imperceptible at times. Vincent Cassel's accent is laid on a little thick at times and everyone else practically whispers. Meanwhile, the dialogue and exposition are drown out by the cacophony of alarms, explosions and screaming. The exposition is so vague that we have no idea what the goal is that we should be rooting for. I guess we are just supposed to hope that they don't all die, but it is not clear before what. T.J. Miller, whose presence is another indicator of how long ago this movie was made, could easily be mistaken for playing the same part as he did in "Cloverfield". When we finally get the reveal of what is out there in the murky water, it looks like a prequel to that creature feature.

One other way that the film sinks to mediocrity, is by splicing on an environmentalist theme and then adding a dollop of corporate conspiracy to finish off the recipe. The end credits suggest more elements to the story that never appeared to be critical to what was happening. You can't just retro fit the movie which has played out with some theme that makes no sense.   Anyway, I am a sucker for crappy January films. So far this is my best film of the year and my worst. Let's see how it all pans out when "Dolittle" arrives in a week.

Monday, December 30, 2019

2019 on KAMAD in Review

Do You Feel Lucky?
The last year had a number of great movie moments for me. In addition to new films, there were Special Presentations, Film Festivals, and a few other memorable events that might be worth tracking down. I'm going to summarize some highlights (and low lights) and provide you with quick links if you are interested in exploring a little.

As you probably are aware, I have been the co-host of the LAMBCAST for well over a year now. In my capacity, I have appeared on 40 podcasts through the Large Association of Movie Blogs. Several of the shows were solo efforts when my Podcast Partner was unable or unwilling to cover a subject.  I won't list all of those shows here but there are a few I do want to draw your attention to.

Happy Birthday

As part of my benefit as co-host, all the choices for Movie of the Month in my Birthday Month of February were mine. The LAMB voted and "Tombstone" was the winner.

Journey into Espionage Territory

We began a year long discussion of all 24 EON James Bond Films in anticipation of the upcoming final Daniel Craig Bond film. These discussions go deep and sometimes the podcasts get a little long. If you are a James Bond Fan however, they are essential.

Bonus feature: 

I was invited to be a guest on the Exploding Helicopter Podcast totalk about "You Only Live Twice", with lots of chopperfireballs.

Podcast Highlight of the Year.

I traveled to London and we had a meet up with some of my fellow Lambs, Including the Host of the Podcast Jay Cluitt. We all went to a film together and then at dinner that night and breakfast the next day, we recorded a live podcast. It was a blast, and if you listen, you can hear us eating while we talk.

Oh Yeah,...

Amanda and I started our own Podcast also. It's called "Catching Up", we are covering old series of TV programs that we missed or never finished on their original go round. Currently we are working through "Supernatural", you can find the podcast here. Please follow if you are interested.

As usual, my movie going is not limited to new releases. Whenever I get the chance, I want to see classic films on the big screen.

So here are a few I revisited this year.

Malcolm McDowell

Summertime Fun

A Double Feature that includes the annual Jaws visit in the summertime.

Another Irresistible Force

Of Course

and then Again

Two From the Original Movie Blog Project

Classic Horror from the 1980s

All Day Marathon

TCM Film Festival


I enjoy a good documentary, but they are often screened on Television and fall outside of the purpose of the blog. This year however, I saw four documentary films in a movie theater and I am happy to recommend them all.

The Dregs

They can't all be great. Whenever you go to the movies, we all hope what we are going to see will be amazing. Sometimes however we are going to be disappointed.  Here are five films that really let me down. 

Two of these movies have been getting a lot of positive feedback from critics and other bloggers. "Us" was out loud laughable, I could not take it seriously. "The Lighthouse" I actively hated. Annoying and like watching through dirty cheese cloth. 

Personal Connections

Two of my friends were involved in movie related projects this year.

David Brook, one of the LAMBs we met up with was the editor on a terrific independent film that I would strongly urge you to search out.

My long time blogging Colleague Eric Friedman, who has a blog you all should enjoy reading, published a book this year and I was happy to review it. 

You can order it on Amazon as a Kindle or paperback. Do so, you will enjoy.

Happy New Year Everyone. 

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Personal Favorite Moments from 2019 Films

I saw quite a few movies this last year and almost a third of them would get a strong recommendation from me. Although there were some mundane films on my list (a top 10 is coming soon to a blog near you), even films without enough to recommend them to everyone might have something that is worth sharing. Be careful, there are mild spoilers along the way.

Night Time Running a Century Ago

We can start with something from the best films however. This is a clip from "1917" that illustrates why Roger Deakins will probably win his second Academy Award this year. The light and shadows in this chase scene are perfectly captured and you can still tell what is going on in the scene. The gunfire flare is shown in the dark as the ricochets bounce through the light. Great composition and fantastic lighting.

Embracing the Void

I had mixed feelings about "Joker"  but there is nothing wrong with the Joaquin Phoenix performance. I have heard some complain about the use of "Rock and Roll Pt.2" in this scene, primarily because of the issues surrounding the original artist. Try to ignore that and hear the music in your head as Arthur Fleck must have. Having given in to his murderous rage, Joker feels joyfully empowered and is living in the moment. Phoenix energizes the dance with that emotion and you can see the power flow into a dark purpose toward the end.

Gorey Violent Death Well Played

One of my favorite films this year that did not make my top ten was the terrific creature feature "Crawl". Basically it is an alligators gone wild movie, but it is well told and has a lot of fun but gruesome scenes like the one below. The first ten seconds or so should give you the idea.

A Dream within a Dream, If Only

The Beatles inspired "Yesterday" was charming in a number of ways, but the most emotional kicker for me was the scene that plays out one of the consequences of the alternate history timeline our hero finds himself in. Spoiler Alert!!!

Rule of Thumb, if there is a Dog in the Story, there is a Reason

John Wick 3: Parabellum was a lot of fun and does exactly what you want it to do. This is a violent action picture with a ridiculous premise and an outrageous number of deaths. That said, Halle Berry almost steals the show in the segment she is in, but her four legged costars steal the scenes from her. Here is a collection of dog material that will satisfy the animal lover in you.

In a Film Filled with Fan Service, This Paid Off for Me

In an incredibly long and complicated conclusion to the Avenger's story, a battle between all the MCU heroes and Thanos takes place at the climax, and we see what we always knew was true,
Captain America is worthy...

Sudden Self Awareness Hurts, and Amuses at the Same Time

Here is one that comes from a movie that did virtually no business. Five years ago, Seth Rogan was "it", but that form of humor seems to have passed with the times. I still found this turn in the film very funny and so damn true. From "Long Shot",a reveal that is NSFW.

Most of Our Communication is Non-Verbal

One of the criticisms of Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon A Time in Hollywood" was that Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate had so few lines of dialogue. This is the sort of thinking that we might have mocked if we were hearing about some star counting up the number of words in the script and comparing them to other actors on the shoot. The power of the performance is not necessarily in the dialogue. Look at these three moments. Sharon Tate was a vivacious young woman, who loved her life and was excited about even small things. She could show that without saying a word. It's a beautiful performance.

D.C. Remembers what Comics are for

You know what the DC Universe has been missing through all the iterations it has gone through recently? Fun.

That's right, comic books are supposed to be fun. I have nothing against the profound or surprising but I want a sense of excitement, adventure and enthusiasm to go with my superpoweres. You know who provided that this year? Not the MCU with three films but the DCU, with one that finally gets it right. Let's joyfully embrace the idea and have some kick ass fun. Shazam! if just damn fun.

Reconciliation with Yourself as Well as Others

The amazing Jessie Buckley gave my favorite performance of the year in a little movie that most of you will need to catch up with. "Wild Rose" is a film about a Scottish girl who wants to be a country singer, and has to learn the hard lessons that the songs she sings are about. The climax of the film features a song that the actress co-wrote and performs herself. Along with the injustice of being ignored by the Academy for her acting, she and her fellow scribes will probably be ignored in the song category here. People who don't like Country music, usually don't like the stereotype of that genre. This is the real thing, not a parody.

Those are a few of my favorite moments from the last year of cinema. What do you think? If you have some favorites be sure to share, I'll check them out, I promise..

Thursday, December 26, 2019


The reason you wait till the end of the year to give your top films of the year is simple, movies like this. Here is a film that has a limited release merely to qualify for awards consideration. It is currently playing in just 11 theaters across the country. It is however getting a major push from the studio, including TV advertising, to build for a wide release in January. That will attempt to capitalize on the critical response and word of mouth developed in the narrow window currently in place. It should work for some pretty basic reasons.

This is the Best film of the year. Maybe that is premature since there are still five days left in the year and several films I have yet to see, but I feel pretty confident of my claim. Writer/Director Sam Mendes has taken stories passed down from his grandfather to create a vision of "The Great War" which is horrifying, compelling and tension filled. He and his co-writer Kristy Wilson Cairns have crafted a straightforward, time based adventure story and told it as a real world event. This feels like an incident that could have been a part of the war, even if it is not based on a real historical event.

The camera follows two soldiers chosen for a time sensitive mission as they must cross into enemy territory to deliver a message. The plot is laid out in a single sentence but the movie is more compelling than that brief description. The film is shot as if we the audience were a third member of the mission, observing everything from the perspective of our two protagonists. We are briefed, we have to wade through the back field of trenches to get to the front and we need to crouch down with them along the way. Much has been made of the notion that it is shot as if it was all one take. Since it took three months to shoot, and we know how a movie is complicated to make, it obviously can't really be a single shot, but you will be hard pressed to see the seams. There were only two moments when Mendes used the same technique as Alfred Hitchcock when filming "Rope". We alo have a passage of time that is accomplished by a character blackout. The movie still feels all of a single piece and is all the more hypnotic as a result.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins has turned in another stunning piece of work for Mendes. Having made "Skyfall" the best looking James Bond film ever, he uses some of the same lighting tools to make the landscape of France in the Spring of 1917, alternatingly ugly to encounter and beautiful to behold.  The nighttime chase through the ruins of the town near the final destination of the mission, is imagined as a variation of hell, with red flames projecting shadows on rubble and destroyed edifices while gun shots ring out and ricochet with sparks in the gloom. Our protagonist and the enemy are all able to use those shadows to hide in, but unlike the mudpile that is "The Lighthouse", Deakins allows us to see what is going on and fear what we can see. Thomas Newman, who has scored 14 Academy Award nomination without winning, can clear a place on the shelf for this score which ratchets up the tension at the right moment, but does so in a sparse manner that does not draw attention to itself.

Landscapes and locations are a key part of the story telling and Mendes shows us these places in sustained tension filled reveals. The ruins of a farmhouse feel like a foreshadowing of a haunted moment. Cherry trees are shown as devices to covey the wanton destruction of war and simultaneously,  the promise that war is a passing moment in the land's history. There are desolate moments in the film where the bodies of the dead are an impediment to the mission, and the act of getting through a landscape without vomiting should be the basis for awarding a medal.  Years ago, I heard some film maker say that all war films are really anti-war films because inevitably, there is tragic waste revealed by the machinations of war. I don't know if that is true for all other films but it is certainly true with "1917".

There are two central figures we follow in the story and those actors, Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay are excellent in meeting the demands made of them. Lance Corporal Blake is determined  and motivated by his personal desire to save his brother. Lance Corporal Schofield is more cynical and war weary, but proves to be a stalwart partner in the enterprise. The physical efforts required to do the roles is daunting merely to think of much less to perform.

I suspect I will do a revisit on this film, and when I do I will have more to say about the themes and the story. For the moment however, my mouth is agape at the technical excellence of the film and the emotional experience that I was put into by the choices of the director. That's why I think it is deserving of the label I gave it at the start of this review. Best of 2019. 

Little Women (2019)

For forty years, I have gone to a movie on Christmas day with my family. Some of those choices were terrific ways to spend a family holiday, including "Galaxy Quest", "Dream Girls", and "The Greatest Showman". Other choices were dismal failures that we had hoped would be good but were in fact sad failures; "Toys" and "First Family" being the biggest let downs. Occasionally we made a left field choice, a film we wanted to see but was not exactly holiday fare, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and "The Hateful Eight" come to mind, not exactly heartwarming.

In 1994, our first year in the new house, I took my seven and five year old daughters to see "Little Women" starring Winnona Ryder and Susan Sarandon. It was a very fond memory and it stood as a pretty definitive version of the film as far as I was concerned. I was not particularly excited about this new version, even when I knew that it would feature Saoise Ronan and be directed by Greta Gerwig. Although I admired their previous collaboration, "Lady Bird", I was not blown away by it the way so many others were. I saw a few flaws and it probably did not quite resonate with me because of my age and gender. Well none of that effected me with this adaption of the Louisa May Alcott novel, this is a luminous telling of the story that is flawlessly performed, very well written, and may be the most beautiful film you see this year.

I must shamefully acknowledge that I have never read the original novel, in spite of the fact that my wife identified it as her favorite book when she was younger.  As a consequence of this oversight I can't say for certain how faithful to the book the story is, but it certainly feels authentic. The one minor criticism I have of the screenplay and direction is the non-linear approach to the material. It is structured as a series of scenes, some of which flash back seven years and some which are contemporary to the setting after the Civil War. The ages of the actresses in the main roles are such that they can pass for teens or twenties , but we don't always know which period we are in. A haircut helps in a couple of places, but a few times it took several moments for me to be able to contextualize what was happening on the screen at that moment.

The strongest addition to the film as told by Gerwig, the screenwriter as well as director, is the detail in the lives of two of the sisters who were often overlooked in earlier versions. Actress Florence Pugh infuses Amy March with more personality than any of the other versions, and the script shows her at both her worst and best. She is loathsome as a vindictive little sister who takes revenge on her sisters creative efforts but she is noble when it comes to choosing a husband and redeeming a character she has herself condemned. Emma Watson as Meg March also makes what is often a cardboard role into an important part of the narrative. Eliza Scanlen is heartbreaking as the sister with the darkest story resolution, but regardless of those characters, it is still a story about Jo. Saoise Ronan is front and center even when she is not on screen. Her frustrating petulance is matched by the frustrating limitations placed on a young woman of the time. You can choose to see this as a feminist screed but that is a mistake, this is a pretty accurate portrayal of a woman's life in the mid 19th century of the U.S. Ronan manages to be fierce so often that it is a shock when she is so effective as pitiful and desperate in a confessional moment with her on-screen mother played by Laura Dern. 

Some attention to the technical production should also be made. The set design is realistic and detailed. The selection of locations feels authentic and the world that the women occupy, even in a place that is hard to replicate like New York in 1865, is convincing. The number of extras in a scene, the mix of roads that are paved and unpaved and the signage on the stores will pass very critical inspection.

There are a variety of supporting players, such as Chris Cooper (my second film of his within a week) and Meryl Streep. Timothée Chalamet as Laurie was presented in the least sympathetic way I have seen in the four screen adaptions I will have on the podcast, but he does have a nicely executed scene of personal despair when he is rejected by Jo as husband material.

Maybe the one other criticism I have of the screenplay is the way the resolution is presented as a hypothetical writer's plot device rather than an authentic romantic climax. It plays out on the screen nicely, but it does seem to be tampering with the story for modern reasons rather than fidelity to the work. (Again, that may be inaccurate since I have not read the book).

"Little Women comes at the end of the year for the usual reason, it is a prestige picture that is hoping fpr awards attention to enhance it's potential box office and audience response. This is a strategy that should work. The theater was packed, there was a smattering of applause at the end, but more than that, I think I will be with the majority of critics who see this as one of the best films of 2019.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Jumanji: The Next Level

What can I say, it's a sequel to an entertaining film. It tries to up the ante and add more characters and change the location a bit, but it basically is a second round of the game and there is not much to add to that.

So here is a brief description of the updates that worked to make this feel a bit more unique. First, the elderly characters that have been added strain the story a bit. Danny DeVito is fine before they get to the game, but his persona as played by Dwayne Johnson is not quite as fun as it should be. The character is passive at first, slowly becoming more aggressive as he discovers his abilities, but that change is a little inconsistent. Danny Glover's character is a cliche that basically robs Kevin Hart of the ability to be as funny as he is capable of being.

Second, there are some new elements of the game that are fun. The characters encounter a mysterious water body that when they enter, their switch avatars. It is introduced in a side encounter and then completely discarded until later in the movie. When it does come back, we end up with the character assignments that worked so well in the first film and there is suddenly a lot more energy in the film. The concept that a player can take on the avatar of an animal is a fun one, and it does get the script out of a morose side story that was introduced for almost no reason.

Changing the local of the action from a jungle to the desert is not a bad choice. We still get a wild sequence with killer Mandrills and that felt a little out of place, but bouncing between scenarios of a video game probably is pretty standard stuff for players. I also liked that the game avatar moved from a jeep to a plane to deliver the original game plan for the crew. Suddenly it felt like an Indiana Jones rip off even more than it did originally. I enjoyed a couple of the pop song choices for this film. Having seen Chris Isaak just a couple of days ago, when "Wicked Game" started playing, my smile got a little bigger. I also enjoyed the call back of the character "Nora" and the casting choice there. I don't know if others will notice it, but I did.

I have to say pretty much the same thing for "The Next Level" that I did for "Welcome to the Jungle",  it's a perfectly acceptable family film that will entertain you for it's running time. It is not trying to be anything other than that, so it hits it target. I think I enjoyed it a little less than the previous entry, but like a lot of confections, the second helping is never as great as the first.