REVIEW: “Champions” (2023)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette)

Despite their predictability and penchant for re-plowing old ground, many of us still love sports movies. We love feel-good moments. We love rooting for the underdogs. We love redemption stories. We love the competition. We love the camaraderie. We love seeing individuals or teams overcome insurmountable odds. Borrowing the words of the late great Jim McKay, we love “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”.

This latest sports movie to come down the pike epitomizes what you get when the above two contrasting elements come together. “Champions” is every bit as predictable and formulaic as any sports movie that came before it. There’s hardly a story beat that you haven’t seen before, and you’ll know the outcome within the first 15 minutes. Yet it also checks some of the boxes that fans of sports movies are looking for. And as an added bonus it stars Woody Harrelson, a genuinely funny actor who can play snarky wisecracking characters in his sleep.

Harrelson plays plays Marcus Marakovich, an assistant coach for the Iowa Stallions of the G League (the NBA’s minor league basketball organization). Marcus has a brilliant mind for basketball, but is terrible at building relationships which has led to him being fired as the head coach for Ohio State and kicked out of several international leagues. So now he’s stuck in Des Moines, working under his friend and the Stallions’ head coach Phil Perretti (Ernie Hudson). But his eyes are set on making it to the NBA, no matter what it takes.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

But things go sideways after an ugly on-court incident with Phil. To make matters worse, Marcus gets behind the wheel after knocking back a few too many drinks at a local bar. He rear-ends a police car and is arrested and booked for driving under the influence. The judge gives Marcus a choice – 90 days of community service at a local recreation center coaching adults with intellectual disabilities or 18 months in prison. The choice he makes turns out to be life-changing.

Marcus meets the rec center’s manager Julio (Cheech Marin) who introduces him to his new team, The Friends. They’re a fun and charismatic collection of characters with disabilities. Among them is the animal-loving but shower-hating Johnny (Kevin Iannucci), a brainy fact-dropping chatterbox named Marlon (Casey Metcalfe), the hard-working and easy-going Benny (James Day Keith), the straight-shooting Consentino (Madison Tevlin), and the cryptic Darius (Joshua Felder), the team’s best player who refuses to play for their new coach.

At first, all Marcus sees in his players are their disabilities. But over time his eyes are opened and he begins to see them for who they are underneath. He begins to see them as people with their own personalities, their own feelings, their own backgrounds. He even strikes up a no-strings-attached relationship with Johnny’s sister, Alex (Kaitlin Olson). The closer he gets with the team, the better they begin to play. And before long The Friends find themselves in the hunt for a spot in the upcoming Special Olympics.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

“Champions” is the solo directorial debut for Bobby Farrelly, one half of the mischievous (or notorious, depending on how you look at them) Farrelly brothers duo. Written for the screen by Mark Rizzo, the film is an adaptation of a 2018 Spanish film of the same name. Rizzo reinvents some of the characters and changes some of the details, but the core story remains the same. Unfortunately the movie has its issues, some of which can best be described as the Farrelly effect.

By all accounts this could easily have been a funny feel-good movie for the whole family. But in very Farrelly fashion, the filmmaker can’t resist the urge to be bawdy and crude. It makes me wonder exactly what audience he’s targeting. Even worse, some of the gags seem to be taking advantage of the characters’ disabilities and exploiting them for laughs. That’s not me being overly sensitive as some of the humor from those same characters works extremely well. But you can tell when jokes seem written solely for affect. That happens too often in “Champions”

Yet despite its predictability and few instances of poor judgment, “Champions” has enough crowd-pleasing mojo to make it worth sitting through. And it also has Woody Harrelson who carries much of the movie on his back. It’s hard not to love the young cast of intellectually disabled actors who give their all and are clearly having a great time. But Harrelson is the anchor. He’s funny, even a little charming, and without him “Champions” would have a tough time staying together.


REVIEW: “Children of the Corn” (2023)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

I was a rural kid who first saw the 1984 supernatural horror film “Children of the Corn” thanks to our family’s giant (and admittedly gaudy) backyard satellite dish (kids, ask your parents about them). Ever since then, I’ve always had a soft for the film which was based on a 1977 Stephen King short story. It is unquestionably flawed in ways that stand out even more today. Yet I’ve always found myself entertained by the movie, drawn into its setting, and intrigued by some of the ideas that sit at its core.

Nine mostly straight-to-video movies later and we have yet another one. Completed in 2020 but just now getting its proper release, this new “Children of the Corn” doesn’t have much in common with the 1984 film. That story followed two travelers who seek help in a dead and abandoned Nebraska farm town only to discover its disturbing and deadly secret. This one actually shifts its focus to the small town itself and the bloody horrors that befell the people who lived there. It’s a cool idea and an interesting take on King’s story. Sadly, writer-director Kurt Wimmer can’t quite bring it all together as I had hoped.

Image Courtesy of RLJE Films

The small rural town of Rylstone is on the ropes. It lives and breathes on its corn production. But bad deals with the big corn industries has left their fields ravaged by harmful herbicides which have led to a devastating blight. With businesses closing and people losing everything, the townsfolk are desperate. For 17-year-old Bo (Elena Kampouris), watching her hometown erode has been heartbreaking. But she’s optimistic and believes it can be fixed. She’s about to head off to college in Boston much to the chagrin of her kid brother Cecil (Jayden McGinlay), but she tries to encourage her father, Robert (Callan Mulvey) and the other adults not to give up on their little town.

But Rylstone isn’t only struggling financially. There’s references to its moral decline, mostly from the mouth of the town’s frustrated preacher, Pastor Penny (a really good Bruce Spence). And there’s still the looming cloud of a recent tragedy – when a teenage boy, fresh out of the cornfield, grabbed a knife and walked into the Rylstone Children’s Home, carving up several of the adult staff members. During the resulting standoff, the town’s redneck sheriff and a dimwitted farmer gassed the children’s home thinking it would knock the killer unconscious. Instead they killed every adult and child inside. Brilliant.

Image Courtesy of RLJE Films

The creepy killer seemed to be acting at the behest of a creepy young girl named Eden (Kate Moyer) who the town’s creepy children follow with a creepy cult-like allegiance. Of course the reason for it all is out in the cornfields, and it eventually comes to light through the eyes of our protagonist, Bo. Much like the past “Corn” movies, this film’s mystery lies in those sprawling cornfields. Unfortunately there’s not much suspense to be found in this lukewarm update because the secret is so glaringly straightforward. Even more, it seems like there is so much information the movie leaves out which could have helped make this a more intriguing and detailed story.

So we end up with a new “Children of the Corn” movie that sets itself up nicely but that ends on a pretty flat note, highlighted by a mostly unintelligible final line that (I think) may be setting up a sequel. I still find the setting compelling and King’s original concept is chilling. But here the supernatural takes a backseat to something far less interesting. And despite taking an earnest swing, this is a remake that has a hard time justifying its existence. “Children of the Corn” releases in select theaters starting March 3rd before streaming on Shudder March 21st.


REVIEW: “Creed III” (2023)

Going into 2015’s “Creed”, I admit to being a little skeptical. After six Rocky installments I wasn’t convinced I needed a spin-off movie. As it turned out, writer-director Ryan Coogler had a pretty terrific story to tell, Michael B. Jordan showed himself to be genuine leading man material, and Sylvester Stallone’s presence in a supporting role not only linked “Creed” to his Rocky movies, but grounded the movie in a way I wasn’t expecting (him losing the Supporting Actor Oscar is still a travesty).

Coogler passed on the sequel due to scheduling reasons, yet “Creed II” didn’t miss a beat. In fact, in many ways it was even better than its predecessor, with Jordan taking a step up and Stallone giving yet another terrific supporting performance. And that brings us to “Creed III” which sees Jordan not only starring, but also making his directorial debut. And it’s a good one.

Much like the previous two films, “Creed III” once again gives us a story that focuses more on its characters and their relationships than actually boxing. In addition to Jordan returning to play Adonis Creed, Tessa Thompson is back playing Adonis’ wife Bianca, Phylicia Rashad as his mother Mary Anne, and Wood Harris as boxing trainer Duke Evers. There are several other familiar faces than fans of the Creed movies with enjoy seeing.

Image Courtesy of United Artists Releasing

New to the series is the adorable scene-stealing Mila Davis-Kent playing Adonis and Bianca’s hearing-impaired daughter Amara. She’s a delight and not only does she bring heart to the story, but she also adds stakes. But most will be talking about Jonathan Majors as Damian “Dame” Anderson, Adonis’ childhood friend with a big chip on his shoulder and an even bigger axe to grind.

Majors is currently all the rave, and along with his name comes an unbridled fan-fueled ‘can do no wrong’ adoration that has even crossed into some film critic circles. But don’t let all the hyperbole-soaked praise on your Twitter feed sour you. Majors is a legitimate star on the rise, and if you need more proof outside of the eclectic array of performances he’s already delivered, look no further than “Creed III”. Majors does some fiercely intense, nomination worthy work which I hope is remembered next Oscar season. He’s that good here.

From appearing on billboards for Ralph Lauren to running his own gym and boxing promotion called Creed Athletics, a recently retired Adonis Creed is enjoying a life of luxury. He has it all – celebrity status, a lavish mansion in an upscale neighborhood, expensive suits, even more expensive cars. Thankfully his wife Bianca, now a successful record producer after hearing problems cut short her singing career, keeps Adonis grounded. And the two are raising a sweet and spunky young daughter together.

But Adonis’ world is shaken when his best friend from childhood, Damian suddenly reappears after serving 18 years in a penitentiary. Damian was a boxing prodigy and a former golden gloves championship with a huge career ahead of him. “Diamond Dame” was a rising star and Adonis followed him everywhere. But while out together one fateful night in 2002, an incident outside of a liquor store changes both of their lives forever. Adonis gets away; Damian is arrested and sent to prison.

Image Courtesy of United Artists Releasing

Riddled with guilt, Adonis tries to help get his old friend back on his feet: inviting Damian into his home, introducing him to his family, and even setting him up in his gym. But as more details of their past comes to light, a steady tension boils up between them. It turns out that Damian is back to pick up where he left off, whether that means going through Adonis’ hot-headed protégé and new heavyweight champion, Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez), or (inevitably) Adonis himself.

Screenwriters Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin (working from a story they conceived with Ryan Coogler) continue the franchise’s long-running theme of facing and fighting your demons in more ways that just a boxing match. You might think that would get old. But the Creed movies (much like the Rocky films before it) tell stories rooted in the indomitable human spirit. Sure, they always end in a boxing ring with millions of people watching. But the undercurrent of humanity give the fights more weight. Never before has that been more true than in “Creed III”.

That humanity shines through in Jordan’s direction. His instincts transcends that of a first-timer, both in his wonderful command of the adult drama, and in his buildup and execution of the brutal showdown in a sold-out Dodger Stadium. Meanwhile Jordan the actor takes his character to some meaningful new places, and the scenes he shares with Majors are riveting. I do wish Rocky Balboa himself had gotten more than a single insignificant mention, and I’m always up for more screen time for Phylicia Rashad. But the film’s absorbing central conflict keeps us firmly in its grip. And by the time the Main Event comes around, we’re so invested that any complaint feels like nothing more than a quibble. “Creed III” is out now in theaters.


REVIEW: “Cocaine Bear” (2023)

It’s hard to go into a movie called “Cocaine Bear” without having at least some sense of what you’re getting into. And if you’ve caught even a glimpse of the trailer, it’s even clearer what director Elizabeth Banks and her attractive cast of friends are going for. But no amount of self-awareness can make this schlocky, gore-filled dark comedy as fun as it desperately wants to be. Not even close.

“Cocaine Bear” is a movie that begs to be judged by the “it knows exactly what it is” standard. Sure it has its moments, and Banks tosses out all the rules. But it works so hard at being wild and irreverent that it seems to forget everything else. Stuff like good characters, a remotely interesting story, genuine humor, or even the slightest reason to care about anything we’re seeing. “Just go with it” is sure to be a common response, and I’m happy for those who are able to do it. But I needed more out of Jimmy Warden’s threadbare script.

It’s true that “Cocaine Bear” is open and unapologetic about its intentions (again, just look at its title). And if you stretch it far enough you might get lucky and find an actual theme. But for the most part, whenever the movie departs from its undeniably goofy and entertaining central conceit, the cracks start to show. In other words, whenever the film’s blitzed CGI American black bear isn’t gnawing off human limbs or slicing open abdomens, the movie crumbles.

The story is very loosely based on true events. In December of 1985, former narcotics officer turned drug smuggler Andrew Carter Thornton II (played briefly in the film by Matthew Rhys) was transporting cocaine from Columbia in a Cessna 404. Feeling his plane was overloaded, Thornton began dumping packages of coke and eventually jumped out himself. But his parachute malfunctioned and he fell to his death near Knoxville, Tennessee. Three months later a dead black bear was found in the Chattahoochee National Forest, surrounded by opened packages of blow. It has been nicknamed the Cocaine Bear and is currently on display at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington.

All of that (except the part about the bear dying) takes place within the first two minutes of the movie. From there it’s all make-believe as the coke-craving bear slashes, maims, and mauls a gaggle of bland, disposable characters as it looks for its next fix. And that’s the film’s bread and butter. The problem is, we don’t get much of that at all. I only remember three noteworthy scenes of delightfully over-the-top bear savagery.

That means most of our time is spent stuck with the patently uninteresting and remarkably unfunny human characters. Paper-thin story aside, no one we meet are given an inch of depth and there’s barely a human trait to be found. It’s hard to even refer to them as sketches considering how shallow and fruitless they all are (and I do mean ALL of them). There are some really good names wasted here – Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, Margo Martindale, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Ray Liotta (in his final role). They’re all trapped inside a movie that spends more time aping other ideas that building on its one original one.

Russell plays a mother looking for her daughter (Brooklynn Prince) and her young friend (Christian Convery). Ehrenreich and Jackson Jr play smugglers sent by a drug kingpin named Syd (Liotta) to find and retrieve the cocaine. Martindale plays a forest Ranger while Jesse Tyler Ferguson plays an animal rights activist. Isiah Whitlock Jr plays a police detective trying to bring down Syd’s organization. Through their own simplistic and convenient reasons, all find themselves in the Chattahoochee National Forest with the eponymous bear running wild. And that’s the story. All of it. Seriously.

The bar for “Cocaine Bear” was pretty low meaning this should have been a slam dunk. It could have really went wild with the B-movie schlock. It could have worked great as a Hollywood satire. As it is, everything hinges on the one big joke, and that would be fine except Banks doesn’t do nearly enough with it. That leaves us in the company of a dull and witless collection of human characters, none of whom register as interesting or (more importantly in this case) funny. Their low-rung, force-fed attempts at humor land with a deafening thud. Yet another thing that left me thinking of the many ways that this could have gone better. But hey, at least it “knows exactly what it is”. “Cocaine Bear” is now showing in theaters.


RETRO REVIEW: “Chinatown” (1974)

Revisiting “Chinatown” for the first time in years was like digging up a decades-old time capsule and rediscovering everything inside as if it were the first time. I’ve always appreciated “Chinatown”, but perhaps not quite like I should have following my first watch back in the early 1990s. It wasn’t until a second viewing some 15 (ish) years later that the movie really clicked for me. Since then my appreciation has only grown.

I was inspired to rewatch “Chinatown” following the recent release of Sight and Sound magazine’s “Greatest Films of All Time” poll. For those unfamiliar with it, the poll has been taken every ten years since 1952. A select group of film critics and industry insiders are asked to vote for the ten greatest movies of all time. It has generally been a highly regarded poll partly due to the exclusivity of its voting body. But last year brought both controversy and skepticism, with S&S boosting its voters to 1,639 hand-picked participants (there were 145 in the 2002 poll; 846 in 2012). Naturally it resulted in some big changes to list.

But I didn’t revisit “Chinatown” because of its prominent place on the S&S list. No, instead it was because the landmark 1974 classic was booted from the list entirely. On the surface it seems like a mind-blowing omission and a real shock to the poll’s credibility (“The Godfather Part II”, “Rio Bravo”, “Raging Bull” and others also got the boot). So I fired up the film to see if something had changed. Nope, it still hits every mark and impressed me more this time than during any of my previous viewings. Sorry Sight and Sound. You got this one wrong.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

“Chinatown” comes from director Roman Polanski, a blemish that alone probably cost the film several votes. But the pure quality of the movie itself stands on its own. As does the exceptional Oscar-winning screenplay from Robert Towne. As does the cool and charismatic lead performance from Jack Nicholson – arguably the best of his career. As does the stellar supporting work from Faye Dunaway and John Huston. As does the period set design and costumes. As does Jerry Goldsmith’s transporting score. I feel like I could go on and on.

Set in 1937 Los Angeles, Nicholson plays a private detective named J. J. “Jake” Gittes. One afternoon a woman (Diane Ladd) identifying herself as Evelyn Mulwray comes to his office. She suspects her husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), is having an affair and she wants Gittes to find out. He takes the job and upon investigating learns that Mulwray is the chief engineer at LA’s Department of Water and Power. Gittes starts tailing Mulwray, eventually snapping some photos of him with a young woman – photos that mysterious end up in the newspaper.

The next day Gittes is confronted by the real Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway) who hits him with a lawsuit. Steamed that he’s been used by someone to disgrace Hollis Mulwray, Gittes and Evelyn cut a deal. He’ll find out who set up her husband, and she’ll drop the lawsuit. Seems simple enough, but of course it’s not. What started as an infidelity case soon gives way to lies, city corruption, and (as in most good noirs) murder. Even worse, there’s something far more sinister underneath it all.

For lovers of classic noirs, watching “Chinatown” is like putting on a soft warm sweater. It fits snugly within the bygone genre and feels right at home next to the many films that undoubtedly inspired it. Yet Polanski and Towne add their own special seasoning which makes this more than just a copy-and-paste experience. Much of it is in the way Polanski plays with POV or how he shoots his sun-baked Los Angeles (DP John A. Alonzo received an Oscar nomination). But it’s also evident in Polanski’s willingness to tinker with genre conventions, to the point that we’re never certain where he’s taking us.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Then you have Towne’s absorbing screenplay. It has a few signature noir movie twists with everything being revealed at the very end (Interestingly, Polanski added some grit to the ending, changing it up in a way that initially frustrated Towne. Later, Towne would admit that Polanski’s climactic finish was the right choice). But there is so much more to Towne’s dense and complex story. He offers a deep and compelling spin on the California Water War and all the political deception and chicanery that went with it.

Towne also does some incredible character work. Written specifically for Nicholson, Gittes is a cynical wisecracking sleuth but with an uncommon sense of decency at his core. Dunaway’s Evelyn is an elegant and high-class femme fatale who does her best to hide her fragility. And of course there’s the devilishly good John Huston playing Evelyn’s wealthy and powerful father, Noah Cross. Towne fleshes them all out through his crackling dialogue and his patient attention to detail. They all have roles to play within his winding story, but they are also given plenty of room to develop.

“Chinatown” spends a lot of time covering a lot of ground, yet it’s surprisingly efficient. There’s simply no wasted scenes, no meaningless lines, and no throwaway moments. And while the disgraced director’s vile, post-“Chinatown” offenses undoubtedly hang over his work, there’s a richness to Polanski’s direction, and I love how he entrusts his audience to follow along. In the end, every facet of great filmmaking can be found in “Chinatown”. And I’m sorry to say it, but it’s hard to take a “Greatest Films of All Time” list seriously that doesn’t include this 1974 classic.


REVIEW: “Consecration” (2023)

(CLICK HERE for my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

The latest entry into horror’s possession sub-genre is “Consecration”, a new chiller that plays more like a supernatural mystery than a straight up horror movie. Looking at it that way works in the film’s favor considering there isn’t a single scare to be found in the movie’s lean 85-minute runtime. Unfortunately the mystery itself is never that compelling, and sticking with the story as we wait for the eventual payoff ends up being a test of patience.

What’s frustrating is that there are several cool ideas baked into “Consecration” that simply don’t come together like they could have. Directed by Christopher Smith from a script he co-wrote with producer Laurie Cook, the movie borrows all sorts of religious liturgy, symbolism, and vernacular to create its familiar yet believable sectarian setting. And Scotland’s atmospheric Isle of Skye offers some fittingly spooky yet gorgeous locations.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

But “Consecration” lacks the engaging storyline to hold it all together. It’s bookended by a promising premise that both starts and ends in a interesting place. But it’s the sluggish middle that may have enough going on to hold your attention, but that never takes the story (or the audience for that matter) in any exciting directions. Instead it mostly sits in idle, slowing building up but ultimately teasing much more than it delivers.

Malone plays the ironically named Grace, an embittered atheist who more or less embodies the movie’s mostly cynical view of religion. A series of clunky flashbacks hint at a traumatic childhood. One marked by physical and mental abuse stemming from her father’s religious zealotry. These days she’s an eye doctor from the States who has worked hard to put her troubling past behind her. But being this is a horror movie, that proves to be easier said than done.

Grace is devastated after hearing that her brother Michael (Steffan Cennydd) has been found dead at a convent in Scotland. Michael, we learn, was a Catholic priest who was part of a devoutly rigid yet vaguely defined sect. Local police, led by DCI Harris (Thoren Ferguson), are investigating his death as a murder-suicide. They believe that Michael killed a fellow priest before taking his own life. But Grace isn’t buying it. So she flies to Scotland to identify her brother’s body and do a little investigating herself.

At the convent Grace meets the gruff and evasive Mother Superior (Janet Suzman) who claims Michael “fell into darkness”. She believes he killed himself fighting off a demon which a skeptical Grace immediately dismisses as nonsense. Then there’s Father Romero (Danny Huston) who is assigned by the Vatican to investigate the death and consecrate the convent of any residual evil. To Grace’s surprise, Father Romero pledges his full cooperation and support. Huston is such a good actor, and he craftily sells nobility while still leaving us suspicious of his character’s motives.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Unfortunately, he (like much of the movie) is left hanging by a script that simply doesn’t have the depth it needs. It tries to build on Grace’s backstory through the aforementioned flashbacks and a handful of semi-chilling visions that she experiences every so often. There’s also a revelation about some powerful mystical relic that the sect is after. And we get some hard to decipher references to a cult (I think) with connections (again, I think) to the ruins of an old chapel on a cliff. But again, none of that stuff gets the attention or the detail needed for us to really care.

Some of this may be easy to look past if the movie was remotely scary. Sadly, it’s not. It takes a few cheap swings, but none of it is chilling or unsettling which only highlights the film’s more glaring issues. Thankfully, Smith keeps things short and sweet. But actually, this is a movie that could have used another 20 minutes or so. Maybe with a little more time spent on fleshing out its story, “Consecration” could have been the movie it teases rather than the movie it ends up being. “Consecration” opens in theaters today (February 10th).