REVIEW: “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox” (2013)

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The DC Animated Movie Universe kicked of with “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox”, a precursor of sorts to the sixteen-film shared world series that ran from 2013 to 2020. The movie is an adaptation of the 2011 comic book crossover event “Flashpoint” from writer Geoff Johns and artist Andy Kubert. “Flashpoint” dramatically altered the DC Comics landscape leading to an aggressive reboot of the entire DC Universe. This film (directed by Jay Oliva) doesn’t feel as weighty as Johns and Kubert’s work, but it is faithful to the source material which is both a strength and a weakness.

“Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox” is refreshing in the sense that it isn’t another Superman or Batman story. Don’t get me wrong, I love those superheroes and both have roles to play in this film (more so with Batman). But as the title suggests, Barry Allen aka The Flash (voiced by Justin Chambers) takes center stage. I’ve always liked The flash and I remember how much I enjoyed reading the 2011 “Flashpoint” event with him as the central character. Similarly it’s nice see Barry Allen leading a DC animated film, especially one this ambitious.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Home Video

“The Flashpoint Paradox” opens with a fairly inconsequential prologue. Barry Allen is at the Central City Cemetery visiting his mother’s grave when he is alerted to a break-in at the Flash Museum. He arrives to find a host of familiar rogues led by none other than his archenemy Eobard Thawne aka Professor Zoom aka Reverse-Flash (he’s voiced by C. Thomas Howell). With the help of his fellow Justice Leaguers, Flash intervenes and thwarts their plan to blow up the city.

The next day Barry wakes up at his work desk to find the entire world has been turned upside down. It starts with the discovery that his mother is alive and his wife is married to someone else. There is no Justice League and a bloody feud between the Atlanteans led by Aquaman (Cary Elwes) and the Amazons led by Wonder Woman (Vanessa Marshall) has the world teetering on the brink of war. To find out what has happened Barry seeks out Batman. But in this world young Bruce Wayne died in Crime Alley and a boozing grief-stricken Thomas Wayne (Kevin McKidd) dons the cape and the cowl.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Home Video

“Flashpoint Paradox” is filled with these types of character variations – Cyborg (voiced by Michael B. Jordan) is a government liaison working directly with the president of the United States, Lois Lane is an embedded reporter turned resistance fighter deep behind the New Themyscira border, and so on. In keeping with the comic series Oliva and writer Jim Krieg pour on the characters, but in the movie’s cramped 80-minute running time there are simply too many to adequately cover. Several amount to nothing more than cameos while others only seem to be there to be killed off in some shocking fashion. Those familiar with the source material know this isn’t the filmmaker’s intent, yet it’s an unfortunate result of the movie’s hurried effort to cover all its ground.

It’s a little unfair to compare “The Flashpoint Paradox” to the comic series considering they’re two completely different forms of media with their owns sets of strengths and limitations. But it’s hard to avoid doing so when the movie sticks this close to its inspiration. The animation is solid and the voice acting is even better. And as someone who read and followed  “Flashpoint”, I can’t help but appreciate the film’s loyalty. It’s the kind of thing that will certainly win over ardent DC fans, but as a standalone movie it feels rushed and it can’t quite capture the significance and importance that made the 2011 event such a game-changer.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

SUNDANCE REVIEW: “John and the Hole” (2021)

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The unusual and hard-to-categorize “John and the Hole” marks the feature film debut for Spanish director Pascual Sisto. It’s penned by Nicolás Giacobone (“Birdman”) who is adapting his own short story titled “The Well”. Built around a startling premise, the film takes an unconventional look at adolescence versus adulthood. At the same time it often plays like the origin story for soon-to-be psychopath. Is a coming-of-age story, a family drama, a psychological thriller? It’s a little of all three.

The film centers around 13-year-old John (Charlie Shotwell). He has all the markings of a normal kid, a little quiet and shy but normal nonetheless. He has a comfortable life with an affluent family. His parents (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) seem to care for him and there’s no sign of abuse or neglect. He butts heads with his older sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga) but nothing out of the ordinary. He’s on his school’s tennis team and enjoys video games online with his friend and classmate Peter (Ben O’Brien). There are those weird questions he begins asking about adulthood, but other than that he’s a regular kid.

Well, not exactly. A few scattered indicators later and we know something is a little off.

While flying his new drone over a nearby patch of forest John discovers a deep hole in the ground. When he brings it up at dinner his parents tell him it’s an old bunker started by the landowners but abandoned five years ago. Later that night John drugs his family and hauls them out to the hole. In an odd omission we never see how he gets them to the bottom. Does he lower them down? Does he drop them? The fall would be enough to severely hurt or kill them. Instead they all wake up laying side-by-side as if they had been carefully placed. The little details.

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Soon he’s living out his warped fantasy of independence – taking his dad’s SUV for a spin, withdrawing hundreds of dollars at the ATM, buying chicken nuggets and a new 4K television. He has his buddy over for pizza and video games, fending off any suspicions by saying his parents are away visiting a sick relative. We do get occasional hints of normalcy, but the chilling emotionless pathology that drives John’s thinking keeps things always uncertain.

Meanwhile his family languishes in the muck of the pit, swinging from panicked to angry to physically and emotionally worn down. John visits just enough to keep them alive, occasionally dropping food and blankets while giving them no explanation for his actions. It’s basically the same for us. Sisto soaks his film in ambiguity much to his film’s benefit and to its detriment. In one sense mining the story’s deeper themes and framing outcomes for ourselves is rewarding. But Sisto leaves some things so murky that it’s hard to come up with a satisfying conclusion. And then there is this seemingly random side-story about a little girl named Lily. Obviously there is some connection with the filmmaker and the story but I never found it.

“John and the Hole” is one of several festival films that went with a 4:3 aspect ratio. Here it contributes in a couple of interesting ways. Most obvious is the sense of confinement it brings to the scenes in the hole. It highlights the tightness of the space making it feel even more claustrophobic and suffocating. In John’s scenes the 4:3 emphasizes the smallness of the world he has created for himself. He thinks it’s freedom – an open and limitation-free existence where he’s the adult. He sets the rules and makes the decisions. Of course we know better.

Despite its hiccups and frustrations “John and the Hole” never loses its suspense and it keeps the audience interested and guessing. But with that comes a certain level of expectation which the ambiguous finish doesn’t quite satisfy. It leaves things too up in the air and the ‘little girl’ arc simply doesn’t land. Still there’s a lot to like about Sisto’s debut and I applaud not only the audacity of his vision but also his willingness to stick to it. I’m anxious to see what he does next, especially with a more fully realized script.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars 

SUNDANCE REVIEW: “Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021)

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Shaka King’s upcoming biographical drama “Judas and the Black Messiah” sets out to tell the story of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. In the late 1960’s Hampton rose to prominence as the chairman of Chicago’s branch of the Black Panthers. Known for his fiery and persuasive speeches, Hampton helped grow the leftist group’s influence and numbers. All of this was being watched and documented by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI along with local officials who deemed Hampton a radical threat to their morally corrupt ideals.

On the night of December 4, 1969 Fred Hampton was murdered in his Chicago apartment by members of a Cook County tactical unit during a pre-dawn raid. He was only 21-years-old. Other Black Panther Party members were killed or wounded in what was a coordinated effort between city, state, and federal organizations. FBI informant William “Bill” O’Neal provided detailed layouts of the apartment including where Hampton slept. By the end of the raid law enforcement had fired a total of ninety-nine shots. The lone gunshot from the Panthers was into the ceiling. Hampton was still in his bed, executed at point-blank range.

As the film’s title implies, “Judas and the Black Messiah” focuses on the relationship between Fred Hampton and Bill O’Neal and the betrayal that led to the bloody raid. The film is directed by Shaka King who produces and co-writes the screenplay with Will Berson. Ryan Coogler also gets a producing credit. The film made its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and brings with it quite a bit of awards season buzz.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The film stars Daniel Kaluuya who plays Hampton in a way that highlights his strengths as an actor while still showing his limitations. The hushed stoicism Kaluuya brings to his characters has almost become a staple. But it often comes at the cost of emotional warmth and complexity. As Hampton, Kaluuya’s quiet intensity comes in handy. He’s really good in the attention-getting scenes where he gives spirited speeches to hungry and frustrated audiences. But Kaluuya really shines when the movie stills and he speaks as much through his eyes as he does with his voice. That’s when we get the greatest sense of who Fred Hampton was.

Unfortunately there is still a coldness to Kaluuya’s performance that undercuts certain elements of the story, particularly his romantic relationship with a young disciple named Deborah (a sweet, delightful, and moving Dominique Fishback). The two meet after a Chicago rally and her admiration for Fred’s activism blossoms into something more intimate. But so much of their relationship is left on the sidelines, and what we do get is emotionally energized by Fishback far more than Kaluuya.

In fairness, Hampton’s romance with Deborah isn’t the film’s main interest. It adds some extra weight to the story but the movie is mostly focused on Hampton and William O’Neal. ‘Wild Bill‘ as he’s occasionally called is played by Lakeith Stanfield, an actor who may not have the steely super-seriousness of Kaluuya, but who brings a wider emotional range. When we first meet Bill he’s attempting to hustle some gang members by brandishing a fake badge and posing as a federal agent. They get wise pretty quick forcing him to escape in a stolen car. But he’s picked up by police and booked for impersonating an officer and grand theft auto.

Enter Jessie Plemons playing FBI Special Agent Mitchell. With consent from a laughably creepy looking Martin Sheen playing J. Edgar Hoover, Agent Mitchell pressures Bill into becoming an informant in exchange for no jail time. Over the course of the film Bill O’Neal joins the Black Panthers, rises through their ranks, and eventually becomes head of security and Hampton’s personal bodyguard. All while reporting back to Mitchell and getting paid by the government. It all inches towards the combustible finale full of heartbreak and anger.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

It goes without saying King and company have some meaty material to work with. That’s why it’s frustrating to see so much of it slip through the cracks. In the film’s defense there is a lot of ground to cover in a little over two hours, especially when you’re splitting your story and screen time between two main characters. But a few resonating moments aside, we mostly get a surface-level summation of Fred Hampton’s relationship with Bill O’Neal and neither character ends up getting the attention they deserve.

And despite their clear relevance to the story and heavy presence throughout the film, the feds and the police are mostly blank faces – more plot pieces than anything else. Only a dry and predictable Plemons and a wacky Martin Sheen (who mercifully only gets two scenes) give any voice to the animosity and rancor driving their disdain for Hampton and the Black Panthers. And barely a word about how the FBI and Chicago authorities secretly undermined Hampton’s social work and stoked violence between black street gangs. Again, not necessary to the story, but it’s yet another thing that would bring weight and insight.

Though partly true, it would be reductive and overall inaccurate to lump “Judas and the Black Messiah” in with other by-the-books biopics. Shaka King has good intentions and is trying to open eyes not just to history but also to the present day. The performances are generally good and both the cinematography (Sean Bobbitt) and the score (Mark Islam, Craig Harris) capture the right mood and the setting. But sadly the film skirts character depth in order to hit key moments on Hampton’s timeline while at the same time leaving too much out from the textbook version. It leaves the film in a weird place – bold and unflinching yet too broad and missing depth where it needs it most. “Judas and the Black Messiah” opens February 12th in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Jacinta” (2020)

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There have been countless movies, both documentaries and feature fiction, that have spoke to the issue of drug addiction. Few have packed the same raw and visceral punch as Jessica Earnshaw’s “Jacinta”, the winner for Best U.S. Feature at this year’s Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. With its crushingly intimate and unflinching perspective, “Jacinta” spares nothing in its depiction of dependency, capturing a painful reality that’s all too familiar for many Americans.

From the very start you can’t help but recognize the unprecedented access Earnshaw was given. Her film starts inside the walls of the Maine Correctional Center. There we meet 26-year-old Jacinta who’s serving the final days of a nine month sentence. We learn a lot about this young woman through her own words. She has been in and out of prison since she was 15. At 16 she had her darling daughter Caylynn. Jacinta is bright, spirited, and engaging. She’s also a heroin addict, the result of a deeply troubled upbringing.

During the early prison scenes we’re introduced to Jacinta’s mother Rosemary who’s serving a much longer sentence in the same facility. She has lived a hard life and many of her daughter’s problems can be traced back to her. Yet the two remain intensely close. We learn that Rosemary was pregnant at 14 and had three children by the time she was 18. An addict herself, she too has been in and out of prison, but it’s her vices within her family that are the most unsettling.

Jacinta and Rosemary at Maine Correctional Center, 2016. Photo © Jessica Earnshaw.

Photo Courtesy of Jessica Earnshaw.

Over the course of the film revelations come to light concerning Rosemary’s relationships with her children. Earnshaw doesn’t set out to paint her as the villain. Everything we learn comes from the people on screen and we are allowed to come to our own conclusions. One thing is certain, Rosemary loves her daughter in her own unhealthy way. But their codependent mother/daughter dynamic proves to have devastating effects especially for Jacinta, a young mother herself who is already at a dangerous crossroads.

After an emotional good-bye to her mother, an anxious Jacinta is released from prison. Earnshaw’s camera follows her as she’s greeted by her compassionate father Rick who helps her get settled in a sober house. There is an air of hope throughout these scenes especially when Jacinta reunites with 10-year-old Caylynn. The two spend a wonderful day together, connecting as if they had never been apart. All the pieces seem to be in place for an uplifting redemption story.

But we quickly learn that happiness is a brittle thing for an addict, and the lure of old hometown acquaintances is palpable. In one of the film’s most devastating scenes Jacinta tells her daughter she’s leaving the halfway home. Caylynn earnestly replies, “What if the sober house is the only thing that’s keeping you going where you’re supposed to?” Sometimes it’s kids who see things the clearest.

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Photo Courtesy of Jessica Earnshaw

Within 90 minutes of dropping off Caylynn (who lives with her paternal grandparents in New Hampshire) Jacinta is high and the feelings of hope evaporate right on our screen. It’s one of several uneasy situations for Earnshaw who also serves as the film’s cinematographer. No stranger to a camera, Earnshaw shoots each of these moments up close and with brutal honesty. Take when Jacinta is picked up by her friend at a shopping mall immediately after shoplifting a laptop. Earnshaw sits in the backseat filming as the two young women up front discuss the crime. Before they’re out of the parking lot Jacinta pulls out a syringe and shoots heroin. It’s harrowing and heartbreaking.

But nothing is as shattering as pre-teen Caylynn, mature beyond her years and acutely aware of her mother’s condition. Seeing her wrestling with her feelings and trying to understand her mom is hard to watch. Seeing her later resign to the belief that she has lost her mother for good is even harder. Like the bond between Jacinta and Rosemary (but in a much different light) it again highlights the intense bond between a mother and daughter. It also leaves us praying for the cycle of addiction to be broken and for Caylynn to have the life she’s longing for.

Despite all of her faults, there is never a moment we don’t root for Jacinta. The film never condones her actions, but it does offer perspective by plowing deep into her family history. Ultimately what the film provides is a raw, real-world observation of a young mother in the throes of addiction, her face often overtaken with sadness and defeat, yet yearning to be the mother she never had. It’s far from easy viewing, but it’s sure to open a lot of eyes. And many will be left thinking about Jacinta and her family for days afterwards. “Jacinta” is appearing in several film festivals across the country.

VERDICT- 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

RETRO REVIEW: “Jurassic Park” (1993)

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Normally my Retro Reviews are chosen by my Twitter followers who vote in a poll to determine what film I’m going to watch (you can follow me @KeithandMovies). But this week someone else inspired my choice of movie. My son just started his freshman year of college and he’s taking a film appreciation course. His first assignment was to write an essay on his favorite film. Interestingly he chose “Jurassic Park”. And guess what film was showing as part of our favorite theater’s ‘Welcome Back‘ promotion? It was written in the stars.

Many consider Steven Spielberg to be the father of the summer blockbuster. “Jaws”, the “Indiana Jones” films, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and of course “Jurassic Park” make a really strong case. “Jurassic Park” would become Spielberg’s biggest money-maker. It shattered box office records becoming the highest grossing film of all-time (until James Cameron’s “Titanic” came along in 1997). The film was a hit with critics and went on to win three Academy Awards. It’s still beloved by many including my son. After seeing it again on the big screen I was reminded of why it has such a following.

“Jurassic Park” was based on a Michael Crichton novel of the same name. Smelling a potential smash hit, Spielberg and Universal Pictures acquired the film rights to Crichton’s novel before it was even published. Crichton was then hired to write the screenplay with David Koepp. They set their story on a fictional island near Costa Rica where a wealthy entrepreneur and his team of scientists have created a theme park around the cloning of dinosaurs. It was a story ripe with potential, but only if the special effects could sell its ambition. “Jurassic Park” turned out to be an incredible visual achievement and a groundbreaking step forward for movie technology.

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Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Richard Attenborough plays businessman John Hammond, a gazillionaire who bought his own island to build his dinosaur park. After an accident leads to the death of one of his dino handlers, Hammond is pushed by his investors to bring in a team of experts to verify whether the park is safe for the public. Hammond invites paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neil) and paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern). The lawyer for the investors Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero) invites math whiz and chaos theorist Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum).

Once on the island the group are taken to meet Hammond. On the way they are astonished at the sight of a massive living, breathing brachiosaurus. They arrive at the park’s visitor center where Hammond gives them a tour of his laboratory. The group’s amazement turns to skepticism once Hammond reveals the science behind his venture. In one particularly terrific scene they all gather around a table for lunch and discuss the wisdom and ethics of Hammond’s venture. As Goldblum’s Dr. Malcolm candidly states, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

In a last ditch effort to impress his guests Hammond sends the group along with his two grandchildren Tim (Joseph Mazzello) and Lex (Ariana Richards) on an automated SUV tour around the park. Meanwhile Hammond’s disgruntled computer programmer Dennis Nedry (Wayne Night) has secretly been paid handsomely by an outside corporation to swipe dinosaur embryos from the park’s lab. Nedry shuts down the security systems enabling him to steal the vials and escape to a nearby dock where a boat awaits. But he inadvertently shuts down the SUVs leaving three doctors, a lawyer, and two kids stranded outside of a Tyrannosaurus Rex enclosure.

With the electric fences deactivated the T-Rex escapes attacking the two SUVs in what many consider to be the film’s most memorable sequence. Watching it again I was blown away by Spielberg’s masterclass on scene construction. The framing of his shots, the crisp editing, the impeccable sound design, visual effects wizard Stan Winston’s mind-blowing animatronics, and other details such as Spielberg using no score during the bulk of the sequence. It’s a scene full of nail-biting tension even for people like me who already knows what happens.

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Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures

In addition to the stand-out special effects, Spielberg, his DP Dean Cundey, and production designer Rick Carter deserve loads of credit for creating a convincing setting that grounds a fantastical concept. Shot mostly in Hawaii, the Dominican Republic, and on the Universal Studios lot, Spielberg and his team manage to sell Jurassic Park as a palpable place full of awe and wonder. And it still sparks the imagination after all these years.

And while I’m doling out credit, Crichton and Koepp earn their’s by putting together a fun and engaging array of characters. Neil and Dern are the leads and they fill the shoes of their characters well. And there is terrific supporting work from Attenborough, Night, Ferrero, Samuel L. Jackson, and Bob Peck. But there is one thing I distinctly remember from my previous viewings and it still holds true today – Jeff Goldblum steals every scene he’s in. His Malcolm is smart, weirdly charming, hilarious, even heroic when he needs to be. Unfortunately he gets put on the shelf in the last act, but Goldblum still makes every scene he’s in better.

This was easily one of my favorite Retro Review revisits so far. It was nice to see how remarkably well “Jurassic Park” holds up, but I wasn’t expecting to have so much fun with it. It’s a movie that really flourishes on the big screen and puts an emphasis on the value of that experience. I can enthusiastically say that I liked “Jurassic Park” more this time than during my original 1993 theater visit. Maybe I’m just starving for a good summer tentpole movie. Or maybe this is simply Spielberg once again proving himself to not only be the father of the blockbuster but also the king.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

RETRO REVIEW: “Johnny Be Good” (1988)

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If you were watching movies in the early to mid-1980’s you might have pegged Anthony Michael Hall as a sure-fire movie star in the making. He was the original Rusty Griswold in “National Lampoon’s Vacation”. He was the quintessential movie geek in the John Hughes films “Sixteen Candles”, “The Breakfast Club”, and “Weird Science”. Things were looking great.

But then Hall made a series of bad choices that ended up changing the course of his career. In fear of being typecast, he turned down meaty roles in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Pretty in Pink”. He was later offered the lead role in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” but skipped out after a lengthy contract negotiation. Instead he decided to star in the 1988 comedy “Johnny Be Good” with first-time director Bud Smith. It was a box office disappointment and a pretty dreadful movie to boot.

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I remember it being a bit jarring to see Hall go from lovable nerd to football jock in such a short span, yet that’s his character in this shallow and often annoying spin on the college recruitment process. Hall plays Johnny Walker, the star quarterback for Ashcroft High School. He’s the toast of his town and the top recruit in the nation.

After the final game of his senior year (and yet another state championship) the offers from major colleges start pouring in. Johnny’s erratic best friend Leo (Robert Downey, Jr.) thinks he should hold out for the highest bidder. His girlfriend Georgia (Uma Thurman) thinks he should stick with their plan of going to State college together. His slimeball high school coach (Paul Gleason) offers his influence to the highest college bidder.

Johnny eventually gets caught up in the attention and begins making campus visits where he’s wined and dined by coaches and alumni all wanting him to play ball for them. He is shamelessly offered money, cars, fancy clothes, even women. In other words, “Johnny Be Good” shows college recruitment in the dimmest and dumbest light – a crooked, hedonistic cesspool all played for laughs but with an utterly ineffective moral point tacked on at the end.

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Hall doesn’t give a terrible performance despite the often dreadful material he’s asked to sell. The problem is he’s miscast. At times you can squint your eyes and buy into him as a football jock. Other times it’s simply too much for him to pull off. At least he’s more tolerable than what we get from a painfully irritating Robert Downey, Jr. In his review for the LA Times, Michael Wilmington compared RDJ’s blatherings to “Pee Wee Herman emerging from a coma“. It’s one of the funnier lines I’ve ever read in a movie review, but it’s also shockingly accurate. Obviously Downey, Jr. has shown himself to be a fine actor, but here he’s asked to do the impossible – make us like and laugh at an obnoxious, doltish, and thoroughly unfunny character.

Uma Thurman may be the lone positive. The script barely allows us to see below the surface of her character. But Thurman does good with what she’s given, showing off why she would go on to have a great career. Unfortunately the movie itself can’t say as much. It didn’t do well in 1988 and it hasn’t stuck with many people sense. It was a serious misfire for Hall who never quite regained his early 80’s form and for Bud Smith who went back to editing and never directed another film. Unfortunately nothing has changed in 32 years. “Johnny Be Good” is still a bad movie and its faults stand out even more today.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

1-5-stars