Category: Reviews in Short


The Killer


I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: David Fincher is possibly our finest working movie director. Any filmmaker whose resume includes Se7en, Zodiac, and The Game — yes, The Game; you can have Fight Club, I’ll take The Game — is top-tier to me.

But Fincher’s latest, The Killer, is an underwhelming disappointment. We learn about the life of a perfectionist assassin-for-hire played by Michael Fassbender and … well, that’s about it. A hit goes awry for our protagonist, and he spends the rest of the movie tracking down the bad guys who retaliated for his screwup by assaulting his girlfriend.

The movie is what we expect from Fincher in that it looks great, and sounds great, and it is absorbing. But the most important element, the story, is no great shakes. Release: 2023  Grade: C+


Would I watch it again?  Possibly, but only to see if there is some hidden genius at work that I might have overlooked. (I doubt it.)




No Hard Feelings


In my misspent youth, I used to devour movies like this one as a matter of course — especially the good ones, like Risky Business starring a fresh-faced Tom Cruise.

But that was back in the sinful ‘80s and ‘90s.

I had a bad feeling about a 2023 sex comedy starring Jennifer Lawrence. I suspected it would be one of two things: watered down thanks to “MeToo,” and/or saturated with political correctness.

OK, so I was wrong. No Hard Feelings is actually a sweet, sometimes raunchy, occasionally laugh-out-loud good time. Lawrence plays a cash-strapped woman who is hired by a wealthy couple to “date” (whatever that means) their virginal son, who is seriously lacking in social skills.

Despite its 1980s-style, ballyhooed skinny-dip scene featuring a fully nude Lawrence, No Hard Feelings is less Porky’s, more John Hughes. Release: 2023  Grade: B+


Would I watch it again?  Maybe. Or possibly just the skinny-dip scene. 


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Fair Play


Thinking about Oliver Stone’s masterful Wall Street (1987), it seems to me there were probably disparate audiences for his drama. Some viewers admired Gordon Gekko (“Greed is good!”), and others were horrified by the fate of poor Bud Fox, who wound up going to prison.

Fair Play, a drama set in the world of finance, targets the same two demos: people who salivate at the chauffeured limos and fancy meals available to Wall Street hotshots, and those who recoil from the human tradeoffs required to make it big in that profession. 

Fair Play doesn’t shy away from those moral questions, but it adds a new wrinkle: gender politics. When analyst Emily gets a big promotion that her lover/coworker thought was his, their relationship is put to the test. To put it mildly. Should Emily “stand by her man,” or should she subscribe to the feminist mantra, “you can (and should) have it all, baby”?  Release: 2023  Grade: B


Would I watch it again?  Probably not. The movie is well made and provocative, but its unlikable leads and downer resolution make it a once-is-enough-for-me, thank you.




Up the Down Staircase


Within a month of each other in 1967, two high-school-themed movies opened in theaters. The films were To Sir, With Love, and Up the Down Staircase. Chances are, you recall the movie with a big star (Sidney Poitier) and a titular song that topped the charts. The other movie might or might not be familiar.

I prefer Up the Down Staircase, starring Sandy Dennis as a teacher at an inner-city school who must choose between a job at a cushy, wealthy school, or the unceasing challenges of life at Calvin Coolidge High School.

Sir and Staircase both tug at the heartstrings, and they deal with similar themes. But to me the latter film is more realistic, and far less sappy. Release: 1967  Grade: A-


Would I watch it again?  I just did.




The Goldsmith


What I loved about 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was its tone of demented glee. When young people encountered a crazed family in Texas, we didn’t need (or want) “backstory” explaining the lunatics’ twisted history. We already know there are crazies in the world. Just bring on the madness, please. Chain Saw did just that.

The Goldsmith, another young-people-versus-loonies story, bores us with action-halting exposition in which we learn why the baddies are so bad. Also, it doesn’t help that the protagonists, a trio of thieves out to rob an elderly couple, are so unpleasant. When the movie degenerates into all-out body horror, I didn’t care what happened to anyone.

Goldsmith, from Italy, is a lot like its American cousin, Don’t Breathe. In both movies, what begins as a suspenseful break-in story morphs into something else entirely — but not in a good way.  Release: 2022  Grade: C-


Would I watch it again?  No.


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You Won’t Be Alone


“It may strike some as too artsy for its own good.” — from the critics’ consensus about You Won’t Be Alone on Rotten Tomatoes.

Yeah, that might be an understatement.

Actually, the film isn’t so much “too artsy” as it is bleak and slow-moving. The plot involves a peasant girl who, after a fateful encounter with a witch, becomes a sometimes-murderous shapeshifter seeking love and the meaning of life in 19th-century Macedonia.

Individual scenes are mesmerizing, many images are indelible — the photography and score are beautiful. But oh, man, is this movie slow going. Meaningful or meaningless, life is simply too short. Release: 2022  Grade: B-






Groundhog Day meets The Twilight Zone when a bickering couple goes for a scenic jog that never ends in this low-budget indie.

I love a good premise, but when said premise is nothing new, repeated ad nauseam, and leads to an ambiguous denouement that reeks of a screenwriter’s “I can’t think of a good way to end this, so I’ll just have them do something gross” … well, no thanks. Release: 2022  Grade: D




Happy Death Day 2U


Like its predecessor, 2017’s Happy Death Day, this sequel is a mash-up of Groundhog Day, Back to the Future, and Scream. Also, as in the original, the plot is a convoluted mess involving time loops, multiverses, and the “butterfly effect.” And if you’re looking for actual scares, best look elsewhere.

None of that matters. What matters is that it’s all consistently amusing, the characters are likable, and good lord — move over, Jennifer Lawrence. To my mind, Jessica Rothe is the best comic actress working in movies.

And did I mention that the story is also shockingly poignant? Release: 2019  Grade: B+






The first half of Barbarian promises to live up to its lofty 93 percent “fresh” rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. The movie is compelling, believable and, above all, suspenseful.

Georgina Campbell plays a young woman who, upon arriving in Detroit for a job interview, learns she must share a rental house with a man played by Bill Skarsgard. Can the handsome stranger be trusted? Are the two of them alone in the small house?

Alas and alack, the second half of the film, in which the story switches gears, is all too familiar to fans of horror flicks: It’s increasingly ridiculous, with our heroine making bone-headed decisions and the plot veering into genre cliches.

If you are a horror-film-lover, as I am, you understand that these days you can’t have nice things — just half of nice things. Release: 2022  Grade: B


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A teen girl has unprotected sex, gets pregnant, and gives birth — all within 24 hours.

Despite my rather grim synopsis above, 2019’s Snatchers is actually a madcap mash-up of movies like Mean Girls and The Hidden. Or possibly Gremlins.

The plot is ridiculous, and I wouldn’t describe the film as particularly “scary,” but the direction is fast-paced, and the girls and their Gen Z jargon are consistently amusing. As pleasant timewasters go, you could do a lot worse than this horror-comedy.   Release: 2019  Grade: B


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Willem Dafoe plays an art thief who, when things go wrong, becomes trapped in a high-tech, high-rise apartment in Manhattan.

Dafoe is always an interesting actor, with an interesting face and an interesting voice. But spending two hours watching his character struggle to survive entrapment in a fancy penthouse isn’t the same as, say, two hours spent watching Tom Hanks marooned on an island in the Pacific. The former simply isn’t sustainable. Release: 2023 Grade: B-






If you read the reviews of 65 on Rotten Tomatoes, you’ll notice that critics who give “thumbs up” to this science-fiction thriller feel the need to apologize for doing so. They imply: It’s not enough for a movie to simply set out to entertain its audience. Where is the Important Message?

65, in which space travelers Adam Driver and a tween girl get stranded on Earth — 65 million years ago — starts out silly and gets sillier as it progresses. But it has two likeable leads and never fails to entertain — more so than many overhyped, budget-bloated, three-hour blockbusters. Release: 2023 Grade: B


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Knock at the Cabin


I haven’t seen all of M. Night Shyamalan’s films, but of those I have, this is the first time since his breakout hit The Sixth Sense in 1999 that he sticks the landing. And the second act. (He always sticks the first act; nobody does initial “hooks” better than Shyamalan.)

Knock at the Cabin was such a pleasant surprise. It doesn’t have a twist to match Sixth Sense, but then very few movies do. But the suspense is there, and the actors are excellent all-around.

Plot: A vengeful God has decided the time is ripe for Armageddon. It’s up to a gay couple and their cute-as-a-button adopted daughter to pacify The Almighty (or something) — by making an unthinkable choice.

Shyamalan nails the premise, the characters, and most of all, the tension. Release: 2023  Grade: B+






Some thrillers are so dumb, stretching their credibility so thin, that you get tired of the nonsense and stop watching them. Other thrillers are also illogical, but it doesn’t matter because they find ways to compensate. Like Missing does.

The action in this film is so fast-paced and entertaining that it’s only after the end credits roll that the plot holes begin to nag at you.

Story: A teen girl’s mother goes missing and it’s up to her and her Gen Z computer skills to uncover skullduggery and save the day. You can probably guess if she’s successful. Release: 2023  Grade: B






Bill Nighy plays a British bureaucrat who, after learning he is terminally ill, attempts to rekindle a zest for life after years of a “zombie-like” existence as a repressed office drone. Through encounters with two young people, Nighy’s widower learns to live again.

This remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru was screen-written by my favorite living novelist, Kazuo Ishiguru (The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go). That makes sense, because no one depicts loss and death better than Ishiguru, and those themes are dominant in both Living and The Remains of the Day.

But Remains is the more powerful movie, I think, because the ending is so tragic. The stakes were higher for the butler played by Anthony Hopkins, who came oh-so-close to achieving happiness for the first time in his life with a housekeeper played by Emma Thompson.

Nighy’s bureaucrat might be equally stifled, but unlike Hopkins’s butler, he at least found joy earlier in life. Release: 2022  Grade: B+




Terrifier 2


I haven’t done this since I reviewed The Human Centipede, but I’m going to cop out when I grade Terrifier 2, the sequel from director Damien Leone to his 2016 horror movie, Terrifier.

I am not typically a fan of “body horror” (excessive gore, for the geezers out there) films. They are poor substitutes for genuine suspense and scares. But I admire solid craftsmanship, and the word “horror” does imply unpleasant things. On those counts, this long nightmare about “Art the Clown” is as effective as they come.

The upsides: Leone’s stylish direction has a 1970s grindhouse vibe; the Final Girl protagonist and her family are fleshed out (literally, at times) and likeable; money was well spent on production design and special effects; one sequence in particular — featuring Art and a poor girl who winds up with a stump where her arm used to be — is truly horrific.

The downsides: The movie is much too long; the plot is bare bones: homicidal, supernatural clowns terrorize and slaughter young people, ad nauseum, ad nauseous.

Release: 2022  Grades: A- if you like this kind of thing; F if you can’t stomach it.


Tragically, just about the only time director Leone’s camera shows LESS than what we might expect is during star Lauren LaVera’s shower scene. Above, what you see is all you’ll get.


© 2010-2023 (text only)


A Nightmare on Elm Street


It’s been years, probably decades, since I watched the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. I wanted to see how well it holds up — or doesn’t. My takeaways:


1)  Surprisingly, Freddy Krueger isn’t on screen all that much. Although his presence is very much felt, the emphasis is on the tormented teens and their bad dreams.

2)  The nightmare sequences, with their heavy dependence on set design and special effects, are dated. Sequels and other rip-off horror movies have left A Nightmare on Elm Street in the dust.

3)  The soundtrack is quite good.

4)  Johnny Depp’s debut performance: About what you might expect from a debut performance — not much. The future superstar is practically unrecognizable as one of the teens. And this movie confirms what I’ve always suspected: Depp’s later, odd accent seems to be an invention of his own choosing. There is no affected speech from Depp in this film; he is just an ordinary-sounding bloke.

5)  The indominable John Saxon: I’ll bet that when Saxon launched his Hollywood career, he had no clue that his eventual legacy would be starring in not one, but two groundbreaking horror movies (the other being 1974’s Black Christmas).


Overall, the movie does not hold up as well as contemporaries like Halloween or Alien. But as an example of typical 1980s white-kids-in-suburbia-terrorized-by-fill-in-the-blank, it’s nostalgic fun. It’s just not particularly scary.  Release: 1984  Grade: B


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It’s not easy assigning a grade to a documentary like Skin, which chronicles the history of nudity in Hollywood films, because it depends on what the viewer is seeking. So here is a tiered system, based on what I presume might be your expectations from this movie:


a) You are hoping to gain insight into the subject of nudity in mainstream movies, i.e., you want to learn something of value — Grade: C

Although scads of filmmakers, actors and Hollywood insiders are interviewed, their “insights” usually boil down to familiar banalities: “We only do nudity if the scene is integral to the plot,” or, “I was young and needed the money.”


b) You love juicy behind-the-scenes anecdotes about big stars taking it all off for the cameraGrade: B

There are numerous such stories, but your enjoyment will likely hinge on how familiar you are with the players.


c) You are an unabashed voyeur and want to see as many clips as possible of your favorite actors baring allGrade: A

I’m guessing there are hundreds of such clips. You are guaranteed naked nostalgia featuring the scenes that got you hot and bothered all those years ago. This time in high definition.


Release: 2020




Virtual Reality


The threat of artificial intelligence is dominating the news, so it’s little wonder that moviemakers — especially scary-movie makers — are attracted to A.I. themes. In Virtual Reality, a combination of A.I. and V.R. plagues the cast and crew of a slasher flick when they begin to suffer the same bloody fate, in real life, that befalls their counterparts on a movie screen.

Not a bad premise for a horror film, but after an intriguing opening, Virtual Reality doesn’t go anywhere interesting. The Argentinean movie quickly devolves into a frenetic series of predictable fight scenes. Release: 2021  Grade: C


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Everything Everywhere All at Once


“It is a tale told by an idiot former music-video directors, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing nothing much.”

— Macbeth



Make the edits above to Macbeth’s speech, and I think that sums up Everything Everywhere All at Once.

The Academy Award for best picture of 2022 went to this loud and flashy extravaganza last night and … I guess “diversity” was the big winner. Overlong and, dare I say it, over-directed, this science-fiction-slash-dramedy about a Chinese immigrant family is handsomely produced, well-acted, and often clever. But is it a film I’d care to watch again? Probably not. Not unless they cut 30 minutes from the run-time.

As for the plot — another reviewer said it’s basically It’s a Wonderful Life set in the “multiverse,” and I won’t argue with that. We know from the get-go that this rather bland family will live happily ever after; it’s just a question of sitting through two and half hours of multiverse-hopping, body-swapping, and special effects as family members grapple with (oh my!) the meaning of life.

There is simply too much jammed into such a simple story. It’s a film for movie geeks to endlessly rewatch and congratulate themselves on spotting allusions, symbols and metaphors. And it’s a film for Oscar voters to reward, if only to prove that they “get it.”  Release: 2022 Grade: B




Dragged Across Concrete


A confession: I saw the title of this Mel Gibson movie, took note of its genre (“action”), and assumed it was late-career Gibson following the precedent of late-career Liam Neeson and Bruce Willis. In other words, I figured Concrete was bargain-basement junk produced to rake in quick bucks — thanks in large part to the lasting appeal of its star.

But what a pleasant surprise! The movie has action, to be sure, but mostly it’s a thoughtful meditation on life as a cop in the age of “defund the police.” Oh, and it’s also got a suspenseful bank heist.

My only quibble — surprise, surprise — is that this is yet another film that’s simply too damn long. But overall, the film is an absorbing drama. Release: 2018  Grade: B+






The original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a classic of horror because its tone was crazed camp. You didn’t know whether to recoil or laugh at the family of manic cannibals who terrorized a group of young people. If you were like me, you just gaped at the crazies in wide-eyed disbelief.

X, writer-director Ti West’s salute to Chain Saw, gets some of this stuff right. The setting, somewhere in the rural South, is suitably eerie. The slow-burn setup isn’t bad. But this is the age of art-house horror and, if you want your movie to eventually be called “classic,” it must have Serious Themes.

And so out the farmer’s window goes crazed camp and lunatic action, and in comes soulful meditations on the sadness of aging by two actors wearing lots of makeup and trying their darndest to look and sound very old. But they aren’t particularly scary. And neither is the movie. Release: 2022 Grade: B


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Mads Mikkelsen stars as the unfortunate sole survivor of a plane crash in — you guessed it — the arctic. Will he have what it takes to get back to civilization? Does a polar bear shit in the snow?

The “Man vs. the Elements” storyline never goes out of fashion. Whether it’s Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, Tom Hanks (and “Wilson”) in Cast Away or, in this case, Mikkelsen in frigid Iceland, it’s a scenario that appeals to our survival-instinct roots.

In the movies, you just need a charismatic actor with an expressive face, and some realistic — preferably daunting — scenery. Arctic delivers on both.

If the film isn’t quite as moving as some of its Hollywood ancestors, it’s because Mads must go it alone (there is another character, but she’s barely conscious). He doesn’t have other actors with whom to share the drama, and the trauma. Not even a volleyball.  Release: 2019  Grade: B+




Top Gun: Maverick


I have hazy memories of watching Top Gun in the 1980s, whether in a theater or on VHS, I couldn’t say. I recall thinking it was entertaining, but not particularly original.

Flash forward to today and the long-delayed Top Gun sequel, which I watched last night and thought: It was entertaining, but not particularly original.

But that’s not completely honest. In today’s political climate, in which everything Hollywood produces seems either snark-filled or way too “woke,” old-fashioned Top Gun: Maverick feels paradoxically fresh.

One thing hasn’t changed over the decades — both movies are first-and-foremost Tom Cruise vehicles and, although his face is a bit saggier than it was in 1986, Cruise’s movie-star charisma hasn’t faded a bit. Release: 2022  Grade: B+


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