REVIEW: “Empire of Light” (2022)

(CHECK OUT my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Sam Mendes the director faces off against Sam Mendes the screenwriter in “Empire of Light”, an ambitious undertaking that feels like about four different movies crammed into one. It’s a romance, a socio-political study, an ode to cinema history, a workplace drama. It’s bevy of themes includes racism, mental illness, sexual harassment, working class struggles. Some things fare much better than others. Ultimately it’s too much to juggle, and Mendes the director can’t quite compensate for Mendes the screenwriter.

“Empire” is chock-full of compelling pieces. It has Olivia Colman as its star. It’s shot by the great Roger Deakins. It has a wonderful period appeal. It has scenes that exquisitely celebrate the movie theater experience. All of these strengths work to realize Mendes’ big vision and are driven by his obvious passion for the many subjects he attempts to tackle.

But simply put, Mendes has too much on his plate. And while I love Colman’s brilliantly layered performance, Deakins’ sumptuous cinematography, etc., the story feels like a patchwork of loosely connected ideas with some carrying enough weight to be their own movie. But here, none of them get the attention they need to project the kind of “importance” Mendes is going for. So we end up with a film that feels stitched together and that never reaches the heights it’s clearly aiming for.

Image Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

The story is set in the early 1980s and spends most of its time at a movie house in an English coastal town. The Empire was once a prestigious theater with a restaurant, a bar, a ballroom, and five total screening rooms. But over time business dropped off, and the Empire was forced to downsize. Eventually everything was shutdown save two screening rooms, and it scrapes by with a small but dedicated staff (a well-handled the metaphor for the struggling theaters of today).

Colman plays Hilary Small, the duty manager at the Empire. We’re introduced to her through a terrific opening credits montage showing her opening up the theater. She unlocks doors, turns out the lights, checks on the candy display, and opens up the box office. The art deco decor, the red velvet curtains with gold trim, the shiny brass railings – its a transporting sequence shot with stunning detail.

While the movie house setting beams with nostalgic joy, Hilary is much the opposite. We can’t help but notice her lonely, detached, melancholy (at one point she fittingly describes herself as “numb”). Her eclectic blend of co-workers are an easygoing bunch, none more fun than Toby Jones as Norman, the theater’s projectionist. On the other end is Hilary’s weaselly boss Mr. Daniel Ellis (Colin Firth). He runs the theater behind a facade of respectability. In truth he’s an abusive slime who often uses his power to satisfy his sexual urges (something that gets more heinous as Hilary’s story unfolds).

Hilary‘s demeanor changes when a younger new employee named Stephen (Michael Ward) joins the Empire’s staff. Hilary is tasked with showing him the ropes and quickly becomes enamored with his youthful spirit and personality. Eventually, an unexpected and slightly underdeveloped romance develops. Mendes uses several aspects of their relationship for commentary (their age difference; she’s white, he’s Black). Some of it resonates. Some of it is glaringly on-the-nose.

Image Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Before you know it, Mendes is balancing his ‘love letter to cinema and movie theaters’ with a multi-faceted and frustratingly uneven character drama. The on-again-off-again chemistry between Colman and Ward doesn’t help. Both performances are solid, but the screenplay doesn’t always put them in the best positions. Things only get messier once Mendes shallowly digs into mental health, white supremacy, etc.

But then you have what works best, namely Mendes’ full-hearted expression of his love for movies, the theater experience, and the history of cinema itself. It shines through in several great bits, both big and easy to miss. Some are as broad as the evocative theater setting itself. Others are very specific scenes, none better than Norman giving Michael a detailed rundown of the projection room (It’s one of my favorite scenes of the year). Too bad it feels so at odds with other things the movie is trying to do.

And that gets back to the film’s biggest problem – it’s all over the map narratively, thematically, even tonally. And when making deep affecting themes part of your story, you want to give them the attention they need. That doesn’t always happen in “Empire”. It’s well-meaning for sure but pretty bare in its considerations, leaving some themes feeling tacked onto an already stuffed movie. Meanwhile we end up feeling torn between admiring the movie Mendes wanted to make and accepting the one we end up with. “Empire of Light” hits theaters December 9th.


REVIEW: “Enola Holmes 2” (2022)

One of the biggest surprises (and quite frankly one of the biggest treats) of 2020 was the jaunty mystery film “Enola Holmes”. Based on the young adult series of detective novels (that I know practically nothing about), the feature film adaptation sported good direction from Harry Bradbeer, a great script by Jack Thorne, and a terrific supporting cast that included Henry Cavill, Sam Claflin, and Helena Bonham Carter. But it was the magnetic charisma of its star, Millie Bobby Brown that made the film such a delight.

Following the success of its predecessor, Netflix was quick to green-light “Enola Holmes 2”. Brown reprises her titular role, brandishing the same personality and charm. Bradbeer returns to the directing chair with Thorne again handling the screenwriting. Also returning is Cavill as Enola’s brother, the renowned detective Sherlock Holmes, and Carter as her loving renegade mother, Eudoria who’s still on the run (see the previous film) and who has quite the affection for explosives. Several other familiar faces return along the way (but where’s Sam Claflin???).

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Following the success of her unofficial first case in the first film, Enola is all set to become a full-time detective. She opens up Enola Holmes Detective Agency, but quickly finds that securing clients isn’t easy for a young lady in her late teens, especially in the patriarchal Victorian England of the 1880s. She also finds herself still living in the shadow of her famous older brother Sherlock. After a long stretch of no cases and no income, Enola is set to call it quits and move back to Ferndell Hall.

But while boxing up her things Enola is surprised by a visitor – a young girl named Bessie (Serrana Su-Ling Bliss) seeking help in finding her missing sister, Sarah (Hannah Dodd). After doing a little investigating, Enola decides to take the case which (to no surprise) turns out to be more than a missing woman. Soon Enola finds herself in a web of greed, corporate corruption, extortion, oppression, and women’s suffrage. And as her case intensifies, she discovers that she doesn’t have to go at it alone. Sometimes everyone can use a little help.

While the first film was all about finding herself, “Enola Holmes 2” is a straight detective story, with Enola following in the footsteps of her famous older brother yet carving her own path and honing her young super-sleuthing skills. She’s still smart, perceptive, and fiercely independent. And she still routinely breaks the fourth wall to offer us some hilarious commentary or sometimes just to get things off her chest. This is where Brown’s performance really shines. Her ability to shuffle between comedy and drama is impressive. And she’s able to retain Enola’s playfulness from the first film while also showing some meaningful growth. Brown fully embodies her character.

While Brown is unquestionably the star, she’s surrounded by an array of wonderful supporting players. Cavill works at just the right temperature and fills his character’s sizable shoes well. He and Brown have a sweet chemistry and share some great scenes together, especially in Sherlock’s Baker Street flat. Louis Partridge remains a nice fit as the geeky yet noble Lord Viscount Tewkesbury. “He’s still a nincompoop,” Enola tells us as she tries to hide her fondness for him. Carter doesn’t show up much but is a lot of fun when she does. And new to the cast is David Thewlis, the film’s snarling heavy.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

As happens often in these kinds of movies, some aspects of the mystery are a tad too convenient, as some clues seem to fall right into Enola’s lap. And there’s a significant final act reveal that’s certainly ambitious but not as impactful as it wants to be. Those things aside, it’s hard not to be (once again) swept up in a playfully energetic Enola Holmes adventure. This well-oiled sequel has all the heart and humor of the first film, yet it’s also not afraid to dip its toes into some pretty weighty themes.

“Enola Holmes 2” might not be as light on its feet as its predecessor. But the snappy direction, the smart and witty script, a great supporting cast, and (most importantly) Millie Bobby Brown’s infectious presence make this a more than worthy follow-up. And best of all, it shows there’s plenty of mileage in this series if Netflix chooses to keep it going. So yes, the game is afoot…again. And I am completely onboard for more. “Enola Holmes 2” premieres November 4th on Netflix.


REVIEW: “Emily the Criminal” (2022)

When it comes to Aubrey Plaza, most people immediately think of her quick-witted poker-faced style of humor. And rightly so. The 38-year-old Delaware native has mastered the art of dry deadpan comedy, and her steely stare along with her pitch-perfect comic timing have become signatures. For that reason it may be easy to forget that Plaza is also a really good dramatic actress. Her lights-out performance in “Emily the Criminal” is a nice reminder than she is far from a one-dimensional talent.

“Emily the Criminal” marks the impressive and assured directorial debut for John Patton Ford. He writes and directs this thoroughly compelling crime drama that takes a hard look at a slice of the Los Angeles underworld. By centering on Plaza’s character, Ford is able to offer us a unique perspective, not only into the inner-workings of the LA crime scene, but also into the societal ills that can drive a smart and talented young woman to the point of breaking the law.

Plaza plays Emily Benetto, an aspiring artist in LA who was forced to put aside her love for painting in order to make ends meet. Buried under $70,000 of student debt, Emily is stuck working for a food delivery and catering service just to pay the monthly interest on her loan. She’s tried to get a better job, but two blemishes on her permanent record keep coming back to haunt her. Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Emily’s old high school friend who loves talking about her own successes, keeps promising she’s going to pull some strings to get Emily an interview at her ad agency. But like every other potential lead in Emily’s life, that has yet to happen.

Frustrated with her inability to get a “real job”, Emily takes the advice of her coworker Javier (Bernardo Badillo) and texts a number that he says will score her an easy $200. She followers the address she’s given to an old dry cleaners where a smooth-talker named Youcef (Theo Rossi) and his cousins run a ‘dummy shopper’ scam.

It goes like this: the ‘shopper’ is given a credit card and a fake ID. They then go into a designated store and purchase a flat-screen television with the fake card. They drop off the merchandise to Youcef and collect $200. Here’s the catch – the information on the card is stolen. “You won’t be in danger. You won’t endanger another person. But you will be breaking the law.” You have to give him points for honesty.

After some very brief hesitation, Emily pulls off the job, collects her money, and impresses Youcef in the process. He introduces her to some riskier but higher paying scores before hooking her up with her very own racket. Before long Emily has fully reached ‘small-time criminal’ status, but when she accidentally breaks one of Youcef’s cardinal rules, it brings the dangerous side of the criminal world to her doorstep.

From there “Emily the Criminal” plays out like part crime drama and part character study. The genre conventions work well in large part because Ford keeps things grounded. But the character study element, laced with some well-handled social commentary, gives the film a sharper than expected edge and places the characters within a world than will resonate with many viewers who will see glimmers of their own experiences.

The movie does lean on a few hard-to-miss tropes in the final act as it reaches its eventual climax. And there is an element of Emily and Youcef’s relationship that needed more attention. But there is a steady tension throughout the second half that keeps you locked in. And I can’t say enough about Aubrey Plaza’s performance. Not only does she keenly capture Emily’s vulnerability but also her toughness – both pivotal ingredients to this fascinating character. And while some of her choices are unquestionably dishonest, Plaza earns our empathy and helps us to see Emily’s many layers. “Emily the Criminal” is out this Friday in select theaters.


REVIEW: “Elvis” (2022)

I’ve never owned an Elvis Presley album. I’ve never been to Graceland. I’ve never watched his famous “Aloha from Hawaii” concert. I’ve never cared for his movies. Yet despite all of that, I fully understand the greatness of Elvis Presley. I’ve always recognized his long-lasting impact on American culture. And you can’t help but respect his legions of passionate fans who truly love the man dubbed the “King of Rock and Roll”.

Though I’m not what you would consider a true fan, I do like a handful of Elvis’ songs and it’s hard not to be fascinated by the larger-than-life presence he still maintains, some 45 years after his untimely death. That’s a big reason I was excited for “Elvis”, the new biographical odyssey from director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann. For me, the name Luhrmann comes packaged with uncertainty. I enjoyed his take on “The Great Gatsby” more than most. But I’ve struggled to connect with his style-driven filmmaking and haven’t particularly enjoyed his other movies (in fairness, I’ve yet to see “Strictly Ballroom”).

“Elvis” is quite the undertaking, and while Luhrmann’s style is certainly present, it never overpowers the film or festers into overindulgence. In fact, it often energizes the movie in a way similar to how Elvis himself would energize a crowd. Most importantly, Luhrmann shows enough restraint to keep this about the man himself. As a result, we get a film that brilliantly captures Elvis’ outer grandeur but also his inner demons. Call it an exhilarating cinematic portrait of triumph and tragedy.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

It can’t be easy taking on a lead role destined to be so heavily scrutinized. But Austin Butler not only takes it on, he gives a star-making turn that makes any qualms with his portrayal feel like nitpicks. It’s more than just a spot-on impression. Butler burrows into the very soul of Elvis, highlighting his many ups and later his devastating downs. It’s a tough ask for a young actor that’s made even tougher by Luhrmann’s feverish directing style. But Butler is magnetic in what is a nomination-worthy performance.

“Elvis” attempts to cover a ton of ground in its hefty 159-minute running time. From his poverty-ridden childhood to his final days pushing himself to perform despite his failing health. It makes many personal and career stops in between, never staying in one place very long (especially in the first half of the movie). I’m not sure how much will be new to the well-studied Elvis fan. But for people like me, there’s a lot to soak up. It’s like fever-pitch CliffsNotes for the Elvis uninitiated.

In an interesting move, Luhrmann and his team of co-writers (Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner) choose to tell much of the story from the perspective of Elvis’ long-time manager and promoter Colonel Tom Parker (played by Tom Hanks in various layers of latex and body suits). It’s framed as Parker on his deathbed, defending himself and his dubious reputation. Over the course of film, we’re asked the question: Was Colonel Tom Parker a villain or a visionary? The movie credits him as both, even making the case that Parker both made Elvis and killed him.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Col. Parker was a P.T. Barnum wannabe who saw gold in a good-looking young man from Memphis. Elvis was driving a truck by day to help support his family. When off work, he spent his time losing himself in the music of Beale Street. His long-held love for the Blues and African-American spirituals would forever shape his music. It was a song the younger Elvis recorded with Sun Records that caught the attention of Parker who quickly signed him and took him on his Southern tour which also featured country music artist Hank Snow (David Wenham).

Things take off in 1954 at the Shreveport-based Louisiana Hayride. That’s when Parker knew he had something special. Before long Elvis was his top draw. Parker secured his budding superstar client a deal with RCA Records, booked numerous television appearances, and tapped into the lucrative world of merchandising. Soon the “snowman” was raking in 50% of the “showman’s” earnings, taking advantage of Presley’s star wattage for his own personal gain

Luhrmann whips us through Elvis’ meteoric rise in popularity while also showing the harsh accusations of indecency and vulgarity he would face (The movie speaks to a deeper motive behind the outrage, namely Elvis’ connections with African-American music in the deeply segregated South). It touches on his short-lived tenure as a movie star, his triumphant comeback special in 1968, and his multi-year deal with The International Hotel in Las Vegas.

On the personal side, Luhrmann does a good job capturing Elvis’ closeness with his mother, Gladys (Helen Thomson) and the loving yet businesslike relationship with his father, Vernon (Richard Roxburgh). He shows us Elvis falling for and eventually marrying Priscilla Beaulieu (a very good but underutilized Olivia DeJonge). We see his purchase of Graceland and the pride he took in being able to support his family. And of course we see his genuine love for music and performing which shines most whenever Elvis took the stage.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

But there was also the dark side of Elvis’ story. Luhrmann shows the crushing loss of his mother; his disappointment in his father; the revelation of Col. Parker’s double-dealing. We see his marriage crumble, watch his health deteriorate, and witness his growing reliance on pills. It culminates in a heartbreaking yet undeniably beautiful performance of “Unchained Melody” from 1977, just days before his tragic death at the age of 42.

While Luhrmann’s direction is key, Elvis is most vividly brought to life through Butler who pours his heart and soul into his portrayal. Everything about his performance clicks, from the few quiet moments to the high-energy stage numbers where his resemblance to Elvis really kicks in. It leaves you wanting more screen time for Butler. Unfortunately too much of the focus is on Parker who is both narrator and a steady presence throughout. The performance is fine, but too often all I could see was Tom Hanks in prosthetics rather than Colonel Tom Parker. I wanted more Butler.

At times Luhrmann’s kinetic pacing can make things a blur. And it doesn’t allow you to settle down and get comfortable during any stop the story makes on the Elvis Presley timeline. Normally that’s something I would struggle with. But here it feels right, especially for such an electrifying roller-coaster of a life. To Luhrmann’s credit, his film had its hooks in me from its first moments. And even though I’m not a big-time Elvis fan, this movie brought him to life in ways I wasn’t expecting. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to plan a trip to Graceland. “Elvis” is now showing in theaters.


REVIEW: “11M: Terror in Madrid” (2022)

On March 11, 2004, one of the largest terrorist attacks in European history took place in Madrid, Spain. On that deadly Thursday morning, during the city’s busy rush hour, terrorists linked to Al-Qaeda detonated a series of bombs along Madrid’s commuter train system in an unprecedented coordinated attack. A total of 191 people were killed and around 2,000 were injured.

Now 18 years later, many of the survivors come together in the new Netflix documentary “11M: Terror in Madrid”. The film not only covers the horrendous attacks, but also the government’s handling of the investigation that followed and the various conspiracy theories that sprang up. And of course it examines the lasting impact the bombings have had on the city and on those who lived through it yet are still haunted by the trauma.

Director Jose Gomez covers a lot of ground in this documentary that delves into the violence of the attacks, the queasy politics, the media’s part in spreading disinformation, and the investigation that finally rooted out the real perpetrators. Gomez even goes back in time as far as 1994, showing the roots of the Al-Qaeda cell in Spain that eventually carried out the horrendous attacks. All together it tells a sobering, enlightening, and infuriating true story.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

For those not familiar with the meticulously planned attack, Gomez opens the movie by giving a detailed timeline of the events. He starts with survivors sharing how March 11th began as just another normal day. From there, the same people painful recall the detonations in crowded train stations as wagons begin exploding across the route. Gomez’s approach is sensitive yet also revealing. And we get an even fuller image of the devastating injuries and loss of life through the accounts of first responders, many of whom steal bear the scars of that horrific day.

But a bigger focus is put on the aftermath, mainly the government’s determined efforts to place the blame for the bombings on the Basque separatist group ETA. Designated as a terrorist group, the ETA made for an easy but also beneficial culprit for President José María Aznar. The problem is, there was no evidence linking the ETA with the attacks. But that didn’t stop Aznar and his cabinet from using the media to push their ETA ruse despite growing evidence pointing to Islamist radicals as those responsible.

Gomez lays out the politics behind Aznar’s actions and shows how it not only managed to influence the investigation but also the upcoming election. It’s truly appalling stuff. But Gomez makes sure the victims aren’t overshadowed by the unfathomable acts of the government and media. He circles back to them in the final minutes to ensure we remember those who suffered most. It’s the right move and it helps the movie anchor our emotions on top of opening our eyes to how ambitious leadership will go to any lengths to hand onto power. “11M: Terror in Madrid” is now streaming on Netflix.


REVIEW: “Star Wars: Episode V – “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980)

While perusing my website’s ever-growing archive of movie reviews (you can find it HERE), I eventually came to the Star Wars films. It was there that I made an alarming discovery. Out of all the Star Wars movies I’ve written about, there were only two I haven’t reviewed, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Return of the Jedi”. I won’t rehash my deep adoration for the franchise, but this was particularly jarring, especially since these are my two favorite Star Wars movies. So it’s time to plug those two gaping holes starting with “Empire”

“The Empire Strikes Back” is an important movie to me for a number of reasons. Not only do I think it’s the very best Star Wars film. I also think it’s one of the best sequels ever made. And on a more personal level, it’s the movie that really opened up cinema for me in an entirely new way. I remember leaving the theater as a kid in awe. Not just at the incredible world George Lucas had expanded on or the swagger and swashbuckling of my favorite character, Han Solo (Harrison Ford). But it was the storytelling which left the youngster me utterly amazed and wondering what was coming next.

“Empire” released here in the States on May 21, 1980 and was a box office smash. It opened to fairly mixed reviews, but over time and following countless reappraisals, the film is rightly heralded as a great Star Wars movie and one of the greatest movies ever made. Directed by Irvin Kershner and co-written by Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett, “Empire” mixes an immersive story with great characters and dazzling world-building. And it all emanates from the creative mind of George Lucas.

While 1977’s “Star Wars” ended on a high note for the fledgling rebellion, the fitting title of “Empire” hints at the sequel’s darker tone. We see little in terms of victories for the rebels beginning with the film’s epic opening as Darth Vader (David Prowse/voiced by James Earl Jones) and his imperial troops lay siege to the hidden rebel base on the snow planet of Hoth. It’s quite the opening; one that does a great job reintroducing the major characters and raising the stakes which only get higher as the story progresses.

After being forced to evacuate on the Millennium Falcon, Han, Leia (Carrie Fisher), the loyal furball Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) find themselves pursued through space by Vader and his fleet of Star Destroyers. Meanwhile Luke (Mark Hamill) and the spirited astromech droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) are on their way to a remote swamp planet called Dagobah following a vision from Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Luke’s old mentor (slain by Vader in the previous film) tells him to seek a Jedi Master named Yoda (puppeteer Frank Oz) who will complete his Force training.

Of course the movie finds a way to bring all of our heroes back together, this time in Cloud City where we’re introduced to fan favorite Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), the administrator of the floating mining colony. From there the movie gives Star Wars fans everything they could possibly want. There’s a daring escape, an epic showdown, a franchise-driving revelation, and an amazing cliffhanger that would set the table for the trilogy’s finale that would come three years later.

“The Empire Strikes Back” is a landmark movie for a number of reasons. Not simply because it’s a spectacular sequel with a great forward-moving story and cutting-edge special effects. But it also injected so much into pop culture, much of which still flourishes today. “Empire” launched Star Wars to heights that neither George Lucas or the world could have expected. And for many kids in the early 80s (like me), “Empire” etched Star Wars so deeply into from our childhoods that it left a permanent mark. And my love the franchise hasn’t waned a bit since.