REVIEW: “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” (2023)

I won’t pretend to know much about Dungeons & Dragons other than it has been an immensely popular tabletop role-playing game for nearly five decades. That’s pretty much all I know about the game itself. I do know it has spawned several novels, some not-so-great feature films, a Saturday morning cartoon, and a number of video game spin-offs. To say it has impacted popular culture would be an understatement.

Still for me, seeing the name Dungeons & Dragons attached doesn’t exactly grab my attention. That was especially true when the new film “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” was announced. But this turned out to be one of those cases where the trailers and TV spots slowly won me over. Before long I had gone from “thanks but no thanks” to “show me where to buy my ticket”. So I checked it out. And wouldn’t you know it, “Honor Among Thieves” is one of the bigger surprises of the movie year so far. It’s not without issues, but it makes for a good time.

Directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, “Honor Among Thieves” is a fantasy action adventure comedy and a needed franchise reboot. And it’s no B-movie cheapie. The film has a reported $151 million budget which thankfully is put to good use – from its wonderful visual effects, exciting locations, fantastic action set pieces, and an immensely fun cast. That’s an overload of adjectives, but in these cases they fit.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

What drew me most to the trailers was the comedy, and for the most part the movie delivers the humor. Maybe not as much as I had hoped, but it’s there. It’s just goofy enough to not take itself too seriously which is a good thing. And you’ll find some genuinely funny gags scattered all throughout the 134-minute runtime. But what can I say? I was hoping it would be even sillier. But that’s a small quibble for a movie that’s actually a lot of fun.

In the mystical land of Faerûn, a doltish bard named Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine) and an exiled Barbarian named Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez) are serving time in a remote icy prison for “grand larceny and skullduggery”. During what amounts to their parole hearing, we learn that Edgin’s wife was killed by a Red Wizard leaving him to raise their daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman). He befriended Holga and the two became thieves, along with their friends – a cut-rate sorcerer named Simon (Justice Smith) and a cheeky con-man named Forge (Hugh Grant). The foursome swipe from the wealthy with Edgin using his part of the spoils to help better Kira’s life.

But when one particular risky heist goes bad, Edgin and Holga are trapped while their cohorts escape. Before leaving, Edgin charges Forge with taking care of Kira and keeping her safe until he can return. That was two years ago. Now Edgin and Holga are pleading their case before the prison “parole” board. But before they can hear a verdict, the two bust out of jail and head back home so Edgin can reunite with Kira. But wouldn’t you know it, a lot has changed in two years.

Edgin discovers that Forge has become the Lord of Neverwinter, living lavishly and ruling with the help of the mysterious wizard named Sofina (Daisy Head). Even worse, since taking over as Kira’s guardian, Forge has turned her against Edgin, filling her head full of lies. So Edgin and Holga hatch a plan to rescue Kira, first reuniting with Simon and then adding a shape-shifting tiefling druid named Doric (Sophia Lillis) to their ranks. They’re even joined a dashing paladin named Xenk Yendar (a scene-stealing Regé-Jean Page who unfortunately leaves far too early).

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Some may be wondering how much they need to know about Dungeons & Dragons in order to get “Honor Among Thieves”. I can say from personal experience – not much. The story (penned by Goldstein, Daley, and Michael Gilio) is pretty straightforward and easy to follow. I’m sure there are numerous nods and winks scattered throughout that fans of the game with pick up on. But they’re nothing that the uninitiated (like me) would see as egregious.

The performances are all spot-on starting with Chris Pine whose charisma allows him to be brazenly silly but also believably warm-hearted. Page is a lot of fun, right up until he vanishes. And Rodriguez, who’s no stranger to tough-girl roles, really shines. Then of course there’s Hugh Grant, so perfectly cast as the film’s roguish yet delightfully goofy antagonist. There’s even one particularly great cameo that everyone should enjoy.

Admittedly, while I liked “Honor Among Thieves”, I wasn’t as into its overall story as I wanted to be. That said, much of the enjoyment comes from simply hanging out with this ragtag group as they bop along to fantastical locales, encounter creatures of all kinds, and learn to work together in the process. Along the way we’re treated to some good laughs, some exciting action, and some fun camaraderie. It makes this a considerably more entertaining experience than I first expected. And it’s one worth catching on the big screen – where all its visual flourishes and flavor really stands out. “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” is in theaters now.


RETRO REVIEW: “Death Wish” (1974)

Few movies in the 1970s caused a stir quite like “Death Wish”. Upon its release, the 1974 neo-noir action-thriller was heavily criticized for its alleged support and glorification of vigilantism. Many critics shellacked the film, calling it “immoral”, “exploitative”, and “despicable”. But the film resonated with audiences and sparked an intense debate over how to deal with the rising crime rates of the time. As years went by, some opinions of “Death Wish” softened, and it would become a cult classic.

Based on a 1972 novel by Brian Garfield, “Death Wish” took a hard look at a side of New York City that was quickly becoming a reality for many residents. Garfield’s story was adapted by screenwriter Wendell Mayes (“The Poseidon Adventure”) who didn’t go as deep into the reasons behind the spiking violent crime. Instead his story focused more on its horrific effects, specifically on one man who only finds solace in doling out retribution on inner city criminals.

Sidney Lumet was originally set to direct but had to drop out to shoot “Serpico”, opening the door for Michael Winner. Jack Lemmon, Henry Fonda, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, and even Elvis Presley were considered for the part of Paul Kersey, but it eventually went to Charles Bronson. Known more for his tough-guy roles, Bronson originally felt he was miscast. But Winner convinced the actor to sign on, and he turned out to be a good fit.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Unlike the many half-baked sequels that would follow, the first “Death Wish” was more than just a genre movie. It may be tempting to dismiss it as an exploitation film, but Winner and Mayes had more on their minds. Without question it’s provocative and taps into the urban paranoia of the day. But there’s more to it than just an insular promotion of vigilantism. Again, unlike the sequels, you’re not to meant to feel comfortable with what your seeing.

Bronson’s Paul Kersey begins in a much different place than where he ends. He’s a successful architect at a big land development firm. He’s an unashamed bleeding heart liberal. He was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He’s happily married to his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) and they have a recently married twenty-something daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan). Again, he’s not the prototypical Charles Bronson character.

Winner starts the film with a stark yet effective contrast. The opening scene sees Paul and Joanna in Hawaii enjoying a quiet romantic afternoon on a beautiful sun-soaked beach. Almost immediately we switch to them arriving back home to a dark and grimy New York City, the gritty cinematography from Arthur J. Ornitz emphasizing the dramatic differences in the locations. It’s a tone-setting transition that Winner will come back to more than once.

But then Paul’s life is changed forever. One afternoon Joanna and Carol are followed home from the grocery store by three hoodlums (on a fun side note, a 21-year-old Jeff Goldblum is credited as Freak #1. It was his big screen debut). The thugs bust into the Kersey’s apartment, beat Joanna and violently rape Carol. Paul is notified by his son-in-law Jack (Steven Keats) and rushes to the hospital only to find Joanna has died from her injuries. And Carol’s trauma has left her in a catatonic state.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

After his wife’s funeral, Paul tries to resume his daily routine, but he struggles to cope with his loss. The police’s inability to make an arrest only makes things worse. So Paul takes his despair to the streets, roaming unsafe neighborhoods at night, and putting himself in dangerous situations (hence the film’s title). But when he’s attacked by a mugger, Paul shoots him dead with a gun given to him by a client. He promptly runs home in a panic.

But there’s a satisfying sense of revenge that leads Paul to go out again and again and again. And as the bodies mount, the police start making connections. Meanwhile, word of a vigilante spreads through newspapers, magazines, and billboards. Through it all several compelling themes are explored, from the traumatic effects of violent crime to society’s insatiable appetite for violence.

As the story intensifies, Winner challenges us by presenting a moral quandary that has no clean, clear-cut answer. Bronson gives a solid portrayal of a man who doesn’t enjoy killing, but who has lost his faith in justice. So he has taken it on as his duty while unwittingly losing his humanity in the process. It’s both fascinating and uncomfortable, as a story like this should be. Not everything clicks, especially in the final act. But it’s still a well-made thriller that’s worth more than a mere surface level reading.


REVIEW: “Devil’s Peak” (2023)

Based on the novel “Where All Light Tends to Go” by David Joy, “Devil’s Peak” is a modest crime thriller set in poverty-stricken, drug-infested rural Appalachia. It’s not the first movie to examine this troubled yet compelling region in the Eastern United States, but director Ben Young and screenwriter Robert Knott have some interesting pieces to work with. Unfortunately the material is plagued with overly simple story beats, thinly sketched characters, and an inescapable air of familiarity.

The story takes place in Jackson County, North Carolina and the roles are filled by a solid ensemble. Hopper Penn plays Jacob McNeely, the son of a hardcore drug dealer named Charlie (Billy Bob Thornton) who has had the impoverished local community by the throat for years. Jacob runs an auto body shop which is really a front for the father’s drug ring. We learn Charlie has had his son selling crystal meth since he was nine-years-old. It’s the family business.

But Jacob has a decency inside that sets him apart from his father. It comes out in his affection for his troubled mother and Charlie’s ex-wife Virgie (Robin Wright). We also see it in his love for his girlfriend Maggie (Katelyn Nacon) who is about to go to college in Wilmington. She’s the daughter of a crooked politician (Brian d’Arcy James) who’s not too keen on his daughter’s choice of a boyfriend. Jackie Earle Haley chips in as the local sheriff named Dwight while Emma Booth plays Charlie’s live-in girlfriend Josephine.

Much of “Devil’s Peak” focuses on the dysfunctional family tension between Jacob, Charlie, and Virgie. To no surprise Thornton, with his shaved head and bushy jet-black goatee, has no trouble playing a vile and irredeemable menace. It’s an effective performance that’s a little cartoonish but fittingly repellent. Wright brings more nuance, playing a junkie trying to overcome the mistakes of her past. Sadly Wright is dealt a bad hand and isn’t given much to work with. Penn isn’t quite as convincing. As Jacob struggles to get out from under his family name, Penn struggles to earn our empathy. His somewhat muted performance isn’t able to muster the excitement or emotion that the character and the movie needs.

“Devil’s Peak” could have taken its characters in a number of interesting directions. Instead it plays it safe, telling a story that follows its one trajectory to the very end. And despite the commitment of the cast, even the characters crumble under the weight of formula. To its credit, Young’s pacing ensures it’s never boring. But with so little under its Southern Gothic exterior, it’s hard to find much to get excited about. “Devil’s Peak” is now available on VOD.


REVIEW: “Devotion” (2022)

Two rising stars, Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell shine in “Devotion”, a war-drama based on the inspiring friendship between fighter pilots Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner. Jesse LeRoy Brown was the first African-American pilot to complete the U.S. Navy’s flight training program. Along with his wingman and devoted friend Tom Hudner, the pair would become two of the Navy’s best pilots during the Korean War, with Brown earning the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Directed by J.D. Dillard and written for the screen by Jake Crane and Jonathan A. Stewart, the film is based on the novel “Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice” by Adam Makos. Dillard hones in on a segment of Jesse Brown’s life, starting from the time he met Tom Hudner at Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island. He shows their eventual friendship, but even more time is put on Jesse’s struggle as a black man in the desegregated military of 1950.

Image Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

If you’ve seen the trailer you know “Devotion” has some war-time action and air combat scenes (they’re exhilarating and worth seeing on the biggest screen possible). But the meat of the movie is Jesse’s experience and the unexpected friendship forged with his wingman. For that reason, more time is spent building the characters (especially Jesse) and some of the story’s key relationships. And while it may take a little while to get off the ground, this development is crucial and ends up significantly helping things down the line.

When we meet Jesse (played with dignity and quiet resolve by Majors), he’s already an accomplished pilot who is generally respected for his skills yet still looked down on by many due to the color of his skin. New to his squad is Tom Hudner (an utterly convincing Powell) who is immediately assigned to be Jesse’s wingman. On top of earning Jesse’s trust in the air, the naive but genuine Tom also seeks to earn his trust as a man. But it takes some time, especially as we get a better understanding of the adversity Jesse has fought to overcome for his entire life.

While showing Jesse’s military service is a big part of the story, we also get a few touching moments with him at home with his wife Daisy (a really good Christina Jackson) and their young daughter. In many ways she’s his anchor, and the film uses her inclusion to reveal another side of Jesse – one as equally important to the story as his piloting scenes. Then there is the racial tension which comes in all sizes. Sometimes it comes from snide remarks that may seem harmless, especially when Jesse appears unfazed. But the film makes it clears that there’s no such thing as harmless racism, and over time it has taken a toll on Jesse despite his best efforts to hide it.

Image Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

The movie is also helped by the strong chemistry between Majors and Powell which makes what unfolds between their characters feel genuine and true. While the movie could have put a little more time into fleshing out Hudner, his eventual friendship with Jesse doesn’t come across as a made-for-screen concoction. There are actual barriers they must break down and hurdles they’re forced to navigate. It’s an honest and thoughtfully conceived relationship that’s cemented in the final 20 minutes when they’re called into combat as the Korean War intensifies.

The big fighter plane scenes leading up to the finale are a thrilling mix of practical and digital effects that look amazing and thrusts us into the heart of air combat. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to wanting more of it. But the heart of “Devotion” is with the characters, namely Jesse Brown. Dillard, Crane, and Stewart never lose sight of that which makes this more than your standard-issue war movie. Instead it shares the story of someone we all should know about while highlighting a friendship that we all could learn from. “Devotion” is now showing in theaters.


REVIEW: “Decision to Leave” (2022)

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

South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook is a very distinct filmmaker, yet he’s one who is impossible to put into a box. He has certain signatures fans will often look for. For example, he’s well known for his use of extreme violence, and it’s often fused with pitch-black humor. His subject matter and themes can be notoriously bleak and brutal. And his characters are often defined by their complexities and usually driven by some form of revenge.

But for every ”Oldboy” there is something dramatically different like “Joint Security Area” or “Stoker” (a vastly underrated 2013 English-language thriller). Now the 59-year-old Park is back with “Decision to Leave”, his first feature film since 2016’s “The Handmaiden”. It’s coming off a terrific festival run with Park winning Best Director at Cannes. Better yet, this very well may be his best film to date.

Park’s fans will notice the filmmaker’s fingerprints all over “Decision to Leave”, from his treatment of characters to his sheer technical savvy. His story (which he co-wrote with Jeong Seo-kyeong) revolves around two emotionally intricate people and their complicated relationship that uncoils over the movie’s 138 minutes. It’s not always clear where Park is going. But a big part of the movie’s allure is trying to piece together its knotty human puzzle while navigating the shifting emotions and shaky morality. It’s made even better with Park’s precision and DP Kim Ji-yong’s arresting visual language as our guide.

Image Courtesy of MUBI

Among the many joys of watching “Decision to Leave” is taking in Park’s use of genre. Early on his film plays like a Hitchcockian crime noir, complete with a hardboiled detective and a seductive femme fatale. Later it evolves into a simmering psychological romance – one that makes for an exquisite examination of obsession and the many forms it can take. Along the way we get pinches of dark humor that often come in the most unexpected moments. But it’s also a movie with a steady ache and full of longing. It all comes together into one spellbinding web that constantly has us questioning what we’re being shown.

Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) is a Busan homicide detective who’s dedicated to his work at the expense of his marriage. He and his wife of 16 years, Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun) have a stable relationship and a comfortable life. But their marriage has lost its spark. Hae-jun spends weekdays in the city close to his work, only coming home on weekends. There is no noticeable tension or hard feelings. They’re simply a couple who have grown apart, and they don’t know what to do about it.

Rather than finding fulfillment in his marriage, Hae-jun finds it in his work. So naturally he’s quick to jump on a new murder case. He’s sent to investigate the death of a mountain climber who plummeted from the top of a tall, oddly flat-topped mountain peak. After examining the scene, Hae-jun pays a visit to the deceased’s beautiful Chinese-speaking wife, Seo-rae (an absolutely magnetic Tang Wei). She doesn’t come across as mournful or even surprised by her husband’s death which immediately pique’s Hae-jun’s curiosity.

Image Courtesy of MUBI

Over time, that curiosity slowly evolves into an unhealthy obsession. Hae-Jun begins staking out Seo-rae’s home and following her to work where she’s a caretaker for the elderly (make note of that – there are no wasted details in a Park Chan-wook film). Soon he’s bringing her into the police station for dinner over “questioning”. The deeper we get into the story the more infatuated Hae-Jun gets. He begins using his detective status as a means of satisfying that infatuation. Never mind that he’s supposed to be determining whether Seo-rae shoved her husband off the mountain ledge.

Most interesting is that Seo-rae is perfectly aware of Hae-Jun’s evolving feelings for her, and she’s not above using them to her advantage. Yet over time she too shows a growing affection. How deep are her feelings? Despite the simmer between them, it’s always hard to tell. Seo-rae is a beguiling mystery, and much of what makes Tang Wei’s performance so great is her ability to keep so much hidden. One minute she has us convinced Seo-rae is crooked and playing Hae-Jun like a fiddle. But then she’ll catch us off guard with an unexpected line. Sometimes it’s a simple look. Tang Wei keeps us asking the question – is this a psychological chess match or is it a forbidden love story? Maybe a little bit of both.

Park keeps us guessing throughout. Even later on when it appears everything is taking form, he broadsides us with another jolt – one that eases the film towards a powerful and heart-rending conclusion. It’s an ending perfectly tuned for a movie so full of melancholy and longing. And the final few minutes offer yet another example of Park’s impeccable control of his characters and also his audience. “Decision to Leave” is now showing in select theaters.


REVIEW: “Dead For A Dollar” (2022)

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

Walter Hill making a new Western excited me. A cast that includes Christoph Waltz, Willem Dafoe, Rachel Brosnahan, and Benjamin Bratt was icing on the cake. That’s a lot of talent for “Dead For A Dollar”, a modestly budgeted embrace of a once thriving movie genre. As with the 80-year-old Hill’s past hits and misfires alike, “Dead For A Dollar” is effortlessly watchable. It’s straightforwardness and casual pace might be a hurdle for some. But there’s something about its easy-going style and intoxicating milieu.

One of the film’s most noticeable distinctions is how it often looks, sounds, and plays like an old Western serial. The sharp digital look, the framing of specific shots, the scene-to-scene transitions, even some of the dialogue seem like callbacks to classic television. It’s a cool style choice that actually fits well with Hill’s leisurely storytelling. For example, a big chunk of the movie has characters simply hanging out, waiting for the story’s inevitable climax, almost like filler episodes in a TV series.

But unlike filler episodes which are known for their lack of story progression and character development, Hill gives us plenty to soak up in these stretches of supposed downtime. It’s where his potpourri of players and the world where they exist begins to take form. It’s where grievances can be started or settled over a good card game. It’s also where everyone (and I mean everyone) packs a six-shooter, and they love talking about them just as much as using them.

Image Courtesy of Quiver Distribution

As for the story (conceived by Hill and Matt Harris), you’ll need more than ten fingers to count all the tropes you’ll come across. But this is no copy-and-paste effort. Hill is too savvy of a filmmaker for that. And while the story is soaked in nostalgia, Hill isn’t beholden to it. Instead “Dead For A Dollar” is a movie you absorb as you watch a filmmaker honor yet subtly subvert a genre he clearly loves. Equally fun is recognizing Hill’s many influences, whether it’s the simple nuts-and-bolts ethos of Budd Boetticher (to whom the movie is dedicated) or the violent jolts of Sam Peckinpah. Yet Hill still adds plenty of his own flavor, especially in the extended action-fueled finale that has his fingerprints all over it.

Set in 1897, renowned bounty hunter Max Borlund (Waltz) is called on by a prominent businessman named Martin Kidd (Hamish Linklater). According to Kidd, a buffalo soldier named Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott) abducted his wife Rachel (Brosnahan) and crossed the border into Mexico. He says Jones has demanded $10,000 which he refuses to pay. So he wants Max to go to Mexico and bring his wife back. The job may not fully pass the smell test, but it seems pretty cut-and-dry so Max accepts.

Since Elijah is also wanted for desertion, the army sends the chatty sharpshooter Alonzo Poe (Warren Burke) to accompany Max. The two cross the border, eventually catching up to Elijah and Rachel, and then escort them to a one-horse Mexican town where Max sends word to Martin that he’s found his wife and apprehended her abductor. As they wait for Martin to arrive, another side of Rachel and Elijah’s story emerges. Soon Max, a bounty hunter of principle with an affection for honesty, begins to question everything he’s been told.

Also in town is Joe Cribbens (Dafoe), a shady type from Texas who was just released from an Albuquerque prison. He’s come south to lay low a bit and play cards. But it just so happens that Max Borlund was the man who put him in prison, and Joe is the kind who holds a grudge. Add to the mix Tiberio Vargas (Bratt), a ruthless outlaw who (along with his gang of faceless final-act fodder) runs the territory and takes a special interest in the gringos new to town.

Image Courtesy of Quiver Distribution

It all makes for a combustible formula that (in true Western fashion) moves from a simmer to a boil. While we wait for the inevitable showdown (a beautifully staged extended flourish of gunfire and retribution) Hill and his cast have a good time unpacking this eclectic batch of characters. Waltz’s well-measured restraint is a solid foil for Dafoe’s gravelly scene-munching. Both are pitch-perfect. Brosnahan is a fearless straight-shooter and a strangely fascinating antithesis to the usual Western femme. And the steely Bratt, gets some fun mileage out of a fairly cookie-cutter heavy.

With “Dead For A Dollar”, Hill treats us to a buffet of gorgeous imagery, sweeping us away with his stunning widescreen vistas and sucking us in with his artfully blocked interiors. Nearly every scene radiates an alluring sepia-tinted glow reminiscent of an vintage photograph but with startling clarity. There’s never a shortage of pretty things to see.

“Dead For A Dollar” may not satisfy those hungry for a fresh spin on the classic Western. But there’s beauty in the way it tips its Stetson to its influences. And it’s not like Hill doesn’t have a few ideas of his own. Take the well-meaning revisionism that doesn’t play out as well as it could, yet adds a spirited contemporary twist. And then you have Hill himself. Just the richness of his style and his sheer filmmaking know-how makes this worth watching. Add in all its other strengths and you have a movie sure to be dismissed by some but cherished by others. Count me in latter camp. “Dead For a Dollar” opens today in select theaters.