REVIEW: “Peter Pan and Wendy” (2023)

There wasn’t anything that had me itching for a new Peter Pan movie. I’ve never been a big fan of his story and haven’t really connected with the various movie adaptations we’ve gotten over the years. But then I heard David Lowery was directing a new Peter Pan movie and my curiosity kicked in. Suddenly I found myself interested in seeing yet another version of the J. M. Barrie children’s classic.

Lowery is a fascinating director who has strikingly unique movies like “A Ghost Story” and “The Green Knight” to his credit. Yet interestingly this isn’t his first collaboration with Disney. He also made 2016’s charming live-action adaptation “Pete’s Dragon”. With “Peter Pan and Wendy” Lowery sticks pretty close to the source material, updating in a few places while expanding in some others. It’s certainly a well made movie with Lowery once again showing his knack for visual storytelling. Yet I can’t help but ask, did we really need another Peter Pan movie?

Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

I pose that question because there isn’t a lot in “Peter Pan and Wendy” that we haven’t seen before. There’s clearly passion in Lowery’s direction and in his faithfulness to the source material. He and his co-writer Toby Halbrooks have an obvious affection for Barrie’s original work and for Disney’s 1953 animated film, drawing inspiration from both equally. But even with the dazzling visuals, spot-on performances, and effervescent spirit it all feels a bit too familiar and lacks enough of its own flavor to make it seem necessary.

That said, I can still see long-time fans of Peter Pan really enjoying this most recent adaptation. And there’s enough eye-popping spectacle and wonder for children to enjoy. It follows many of the beats you expect. We meet Wendy Darling (nicely played by Ever Anderson, daughter of Paul W.S. Anderson and Milla Jovovich) on the eve of being sent off to boarding school.Wendy is at the stage in her life where growing up has become a reality and the pains of change are weighing on her. She wants things to stay the way they are.

Then one night Wendy and her two brothers, John (Joshua Pickering) and Michael (Jacobi Jupe) are paid a visit by an adventurous young boy named Peter Pan. Along with his best friend Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi), a sprightly little fairy who enables him to fly, Peter whisks Wendy, John, and Michael away from their home in London to Neverland, a magical island where you never grow old.

Neverland is gorgeously realized through Lowery’s lens. It a place of lush forests, tall cliffs, sun-soaked hills, and a sparkling sea. It’s a home for fairies, mermaids, a native tribe, and Peter’s gang of fellow children called the Lost Boys (but with girls). Oh, and there are also pirates – a ship full of them led by Peter’s arch-nemesis Captain Hook (played by a fun yet tame Jude Law). As you probably expect, their adventure eventually brings our young heroes face-to-face with Hook and his marauders. Through it all Wendy learns a few good life lessons and gains a new perspective on growing up.

Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

A few of Lowery’s changes are more noticeable. For example he adds a little more meat to Peter and Hook’s backstory. Tinker Bell feels less involved. And he plays around a bit with the ending. But none of the alterations to the story have much of an impact. They neither help or hurt. And that gets to the movie’s biggest issue. While it looks great, sounds great, and at times plays great, it doesn’t have much of a lasting effect.

Here’s the thing, there are a couple of terrific set pieces but it could’ve used more. It has a few tender moments but not quite enough of them. We get some laughs but not that many. Overall I can’t help but believe that with a few extra touches here and there “Peter Pan and Wendy” could have been truly memorable. As it is I’m guessing only the Peter Pan faithful will hold it dear. It’s hardly a bad movie. David Lowery is too good of a filmmaker for that. And anything he does is worth watching. But it doesn’t fully utilize his talents either. And ultimately that’s what left me feeling a bit indifferent. “Peter Pan and Wendy” is now streaming on Disney+.


REVIEW: “The Pope’s Exorcist” (2023)

Within the realm of horror movies lies a number of fun sub-genres. There’s zombie horror, vampire horror, haunted house horror, slasher horror, etc. etc. etc. Among the most explored over the years is the realm of supernatural horror. Movies from this sub-genre tend to branch out in a number of different directions. Possession films are a clear favorite of filmmakers and we get another one with the new Russell Crowe led chiller “The Pope’s Exorcist”.

Directed by Julius Avery from a script by Michael Petroni and Evan Spiliotopoulos, “The Pope’s Exorcist” is based on the memoirs of Gabriele Amorth, a Catholic priest and exorcist for the Diocese of Rome from 1986 to 2016. A controversial figure in modern Catholicism, Amorth gained international notoriety for the thousands of exorcisms he has performed. The film pulls elements of its story from two of Amorth’s books, “An Exorcist Tells His Story” and “An Exorcist: More Stories”.

Russell Crowe is a nice fit playing Father Amorth. He’s the movie’s biggest strength, selling us with his believable look, demeanor, and a really good handling of the Italian language. It’s the type of seasoned turn that can carry a film. And there are times in the movie where Crowe does just that. It’s a fascinating performance that’s sincere yet delightfully wacky. Whether Crowe was intensely going toe-to-toe with a malicious demon or puttering around Rome on an undersized Vespa while fully decked out in priestly regalia, I was onboard.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

Overall, there’s really nothing here we haven’t seen before, and if you have at least a couple of exorcism movies under your belt, there’s not much here that will catch you by surprise. Yet Avery builds some good atmosphere and cranks up enough tension to keep things entertaining. He even cooks up a fun but admittedly lightweight demonological Da Vinci Code-esque mystery that really emphasizes the movie’s open-armed embrace of the fantastical.

Set in 1987, Father Gabriele Amorth is summoned before a panel led by the insufferable Cardinal Sullivan (Ryan O’Grady). Sullivan is part of a youth movement who are anxious to move the Catholic Church away from its older practices and towards things that are more “relevant” in their modern world. Gabriele’s exorcisms fall among those “older practices”, but he’s having none of it. Gabriele is quick to remind them of who he works for – none other than the Pope himself (played by the one and only Franco Nero).

Meanwhile, a recently widowed mother named Julia (Alex Essoe), along with her rebellious teen daughter Amy (Laurel Marsden) and introverted younger son Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney), leave the States and travel to rural Spain after she learns her late husband has inherited a long vacant old abbey. In desperate need of income, Julia is having the place fixed up to sell. But when the construction team unearths a hidden chamber in the cellar, they inadvertently release a malevolent spirit who immediately possesses young Henry.

After getting word of the potentially powerful demon, the Pope sends Gabriele to Spain to help Julia and her family. Once there he’s joined by an inexperienced local padre named Father Tomas Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto). The pair quickly learn that they are dealing with a particularly evil spirit – one who knows their deepest secrets and who is ready to use their past sins against them. The mystery angle is set in motion once Gabriele sets out to discover the demon’s name in order to cast it out. From there Avery runs with the craziness. The story takes some bonkers turns as a host of secrets are revealed.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

The batty final act is a hoot despite being a little hard to follow (I’m still not sure why certain things were happening). It’s where we get to watch Crowe go full-tilt, hamming it up yet maintaining a surprising amount of warmth. The best thing about Crowe is that he’s not just playing for the camera and cashing a check. He remains engaged and takes on the material with tenacity and integrity. The Oscar-winner brings seriousness and levity to the movie, embracing its wilder elements yet also showing earnestness and affection.

While Avery creates some good atmosphere, the movie isn’t particularly scary. We get several conventional attempts at frights (noises within the walls, whispers in the night, and so on). And Henry has all the signs of possession that many of us know by heart (a menacing demonic voice, deep cuts across his skin, violent convulsions, etc.) Yet there is a persistent eeriness in large part thanks to production designer Alan Gilmore and DP Khalid Mohtaseb. And we get some pretty splashy visual effects that really lets the blood flow (quite literally).

“The Pope’s Exorcist” may not fully differentiate itself from the myriad of other exorcism movies that have come before it, but it did hit me with a few things I wasn’t expecting. I mean who knew this was really a buddy priest movie with Conjuring-like franchise ambitions? I sure didn’t. And again there’s Russell Crowe. He’s at a stage in his career where (sadly) the roles aren’t always what they used to be. It’s great to see he’s embracing it and still doing the kind of work that can elevate whatever he’s in. “The Pope’s Exorcist” is in theaters now.


REVIEW: “Paint” (2023)

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

There’s just something that feels right about Owen Wilson in an offbeat indie comedy playing a soft-spoken Bob Ross-esque television painter. That’s exactly what we get in the aptly titled “Paint” from writer-director Brit McAdams. Wilson has always been able to slide right into the skins of his many eccentric and slightly maladjusted characters. TV artist Carl Nargle is certainly in the actor’s wheelhouse.

This silly, slightly uneven, but often funny feature is mostly set in and around a Burlington, Vermont public television station and lives off of the inherent wackiness of its lead character. Wilson’s Bob Ross inspired performance is spot-on, overtly calling back to the late real-life artist and PBS staple. That ends up being enough to keep things entertaining while also making the story’s handful of misfires easier to get past.

“Paint with Carl Nargle” has been Vermont’s top-rated painting show for nearly three decades. It’s made Carl somewhat of a regional celebrity, with his loyal viewers entranced by each stroke of his brush and every whisper-soft word he utters. He even has groupies at the station who wait on him hand and foot and who vie for their chance to “go to a special place” with Carl (often in the back of his van). Meanwhile, the station’s assistant manager and Carl’s old flame, Katherine (Michaela Watkins) endures it all while secretly considering a new job offering in Albany.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

In very Bob Ross fashion, Carl’s show consists of him painting one landscape per episode (mostly of the nearby Mount Mansfield, but no one seems to mind). Carl seems content with his local fame, yet deep down what he wants most is to have a painting in the Burlington Museum of Art. Unfortunately for him, the museum’s crusty curator Dr. Bradford Lenihan (Michael Pemberton) has no interest in Carl’s work.

Meanwhile budget cuts are making things tough on the station’s director, Tony (Stephen Root). To pep things up, he brings in a younger and more energetic new painter named Ambrosia (Ciara Renée). As she grows more popular she quickly begins stealing Carl’s thunder. Soon they have a full-blown rivalry between the old stalwart and the fresh new flavor. It all comes to a head during a hysterical PBS telethon where McAdams really shows his instincts for good comedy. But after that high point, the movie slowly loses some of its steam.

It’s the story that begins to sputter. And even at an economic 96 minutes, it has a hard time filling its running time. That’s not to say there aren’t still funny moments sprinkled throughout. Quite the opposite. The humor stays pretty consistent with McAdams utilizing Wilson’s comic quirkiness in a variety of fun ways. It’s the story itself that loses its zing. There’s a good central storyline about Carl’s deflated ego leading him to finally see what’s important in life. It’s the relationship stuff that just doesn’t click.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

The biggest victim of this happens to be one of the more interesting characters – Katherine. Watkins gives a really good performance and it’s a role that deep down has a lot of potential. But the script handcuffs her character with weird choices that aren’t at all convincing. Take the awkward and seemingly out of the blue fling she has with Ambrosia. Nothing about it feels authentic or necessary. Then there’s her relationship with Carl – not so much where it ends up, but the questionable path it takes to get there. None of it does her character any favors.

All of that said, McAdams still hits many of his marks and fans of offbeat low-key humor (and Owen Wilson) will find things to enjoy. Just know “Paint” is in no way close to biographical. But it certainly plays around with Bob Ross’ likeness, from his distinctly tranquil demeanor to that unmistakable perm. Those of us who fell under the incredibly gifted artist’s spell while watching “The Joy of Painting” will get a kick out of how McAdams uses his well established image.

As for those who are unfamiliar with Ross and his popularity, I’m curious to see how the movie plays for them. I doubt they’ll get much out of the many references and nods which are scattered throughout its brisk runtime. And I know the film’s mellow and restrained sense of humor won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. For me, those were some of the film’s most admirable strengths. It’s some of the second half storytelling that ultimately holds it back. “Paint” is now showing in select theaters.


RETRO REVIEW: “Play Misty for Me” (1971)

It’s not a stretch to say that Clint Eastwood has had an extraordinary movie career. Perhaps best known for his work as an actor, he has also excelled behind the camera. It fact, it may surprise some to know that he has directed nearly 40 feature films. Even more, Eastwood have received four Academy Award nominations for directing alone, winning two of them (“The Unforgiven”, “Million Dollar Baby”). As I said, he’s had an extraordinary movie career.

Eastwood’s directorial debut came all the way back in 1971 with the psychological thriller “Play Misty for Me”. The film was a hit with critics and a modest success at the box office. Despite being his first time behind the camera, it’s easy to recognize certain characteristics of Eastwood’s direction that would become his trademarks. And while it’s hardly his best directed film, you get good tastes of the filmmaker he would become all throughout “Misty”.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Written by the duo of Jo Heims and Dean Riesner, “Play Misty for Me” sees Eastwood playing Dave Garver, a popular disc jockey for KRML radio in Carmel, California. After another successful evening show, Dave stops at a bar owned by his good friend Murphy (Don Siegel). While there, a woman catches his eye and the two have some drinks. Sounds innocent enough.

The woman introduces herself as Evelyn (Jessica Walter) and first claims to have been stood up at the bar. But she soon admits she’s really there to meet Dave. It turns out she’s a fan and the same woman who has been repeatedly calling his radio show to request Erroll Garner’s “Misty”. The two leave together for a no-strings-attached one-night stand. At least that’s what Dave thinks. Unfortunately for him, Evelyn feels differently. She begins calling him and paying unannounced visits to his house. But what starts as inconveniences quickly evolves into a disturbing and dangerous obsession.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

To complicate matters, Dave’s ex-girlfriend Tobie (Donna Mills) returns to town after four months away. Dave’s crazy about her and wants to get back together. But she’s weary about getting involved again, especially after his history of womanizing. Still, he’s determined to make their relationship work – something that gets significantly more difficult with the increasingly unhinged Evelyn around.

As the story unfolds, it’s pretty easy to predict where things are heading. And occasionally Eastwood will make a peculiar choice that can feel out of sync with the rest of the movie (such as an extended scene showing Dave and Tobie at a music festival). Yet his direction keeps us on our toes, and watching him maneuver us around some intriguing late twists really emphasizes his facility for filmmaking. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that he gives a really strong performance. But to have such good senses behind the camera in his first turn as a director is both surprising and impressive.


REVIEW: “Project Wolf Hunting” (2022)

I’m guessing you’ve probably heard movies described as “genre mashups”, “genre stews”, or “genre blends”. Few fit the bill quite like “Project Wolf Hunting”. From writer-director Kim Hong-seon, this wild and kinetic South Korean romp has action, horror, thriller, science-fiction, and survival elements all rolled into one ultra-violent and blood-soaked experience.

Sometimes we may use words like “blood-soaked” simply to describe a really violent movie. But with “Project Wolf Hunting”, you can apply it in a near literal sense. Hong-seon drenches his film in the red stuff – sprays of blood, pools of blood, splatters of blood, you name it. Slashed jugulars, crushed skulls, and severed limbs come by the dozens. So needless to say, this isn’t a movie for the squeamish. But if bloody, gnarly, proudly over-the-top action is your thing, Hong-seon has you covered.

Image Courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment

To give you a better idea of what you’re in for, “Project Wolf Hunting” is what you’d get if you took “The Raid”, mixed it with “Con-Air”, and sprinkled in a little “Predator”. Most of the film takes place aboard a massive cargo freighter called the Frontier Titan, where a group of hardened violent criminals are being transported from the Philippines to Busan, South Korea. But deep in the belly of the ship lies a gruesome secret. One that takes the story in a direction you’ll never expect.

Seok-woo (Park Ho-san) is the officer in charge of the prisoners, and he accompanies the slew of police detectives, including Da-yeon (Jung So-min) who volunteered for security detail during the transport. Among the inmates is Jong-du (Seo In-guk) a full-blown psychopath with a following and the quietly mysterious Do-il (Jang Dong-yoon) who keeps to himself but clearly has history. As the Frontier Titan leaves harbor, back home in Busan a government agency takes command of the control center tasked with monitoring the transport.

As you might expect, the freighter is doomed from the very start. Once the ship hits international waters, criminals posing as crew members let loose Jong-du who leads the inmates in a brutal revolt against the police officers. The cops versus cons scenes are intense, and for a while we feel like we know exactly the kind of movie we’re in for. And then Hong-seon wallops us with a unexpected right turn.

Image Courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment

Below, on the ship’s bottom deck, lies something far more grisly and violent – a grotesque super-soldier-like experiment labeled Alpha (Choi Gwi-hwa). But trust me, it’s no Steve Rogers. And when the action on the top decks inadvertently awakens it, “Project Wolf Hunting” catapults into full-blown slasher territory. The blood increases by the gallons, the savagery intensifies, and the body count soars. It’s a wild and crazy twist that gives a jolt to a movie that was already pushing things to the edge.

It’s hard to believe, especially in a movie like this, but a few things are simply too gratuitous and it’s clear they’re thrown in solely to push the envelope and grab attention (one that has absolutely nothing to do with violence). They’re the only times the movie feels gimmicky and lazy. Otherwise “Project Wolf Hunting” sticks close to its rabid, uber-gory, and undeniably fun vision. It’s a veritable ballet of blood-drenched brutality, choreographed with an unbridled ferocity. I won’t be for everyone (just ask my wife), but fans of no-holds-barred action are going to have a blast.


REVIEW: “Pathaan” (2023)

Bursting at the seams with high-caliber action and loads of panache, “Pathaan” is an off-the-charts, full-throttle Bollywood blockbuster in every sense. Furiously directed by Siddharth Anand, this fourth installment in the YRF Spy Universe flaunts the star power of Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone, and John Abraham. It’s somewhat of a comeback role for the screen veteran Khan, who after a four-year hiatus shows he still has the grit and charisma to fuel this fun and fast-paced Hindi-language action thriller.

Written by Shridhar Raghavan and Abbas Tyrewala from a story conceived by Anand, “Pathaan” follows a RAW field agent on a mission to stop a rogue agent with a serious ax to grind with his home country. That probably sounds strikingly similar to the previous film in the universe, 2019’s stellar “War”. But “Pathaan” has its own twists, turns, and angles while still capturing the spirit of its predecessor. And the potential it teases for the future is pretty exciting.

Much like “War”, Anand once again spans the globe, making stops at eye-catching vistas in India, France, Russia, Afghanistan, and Spain among other places. Along with DP Satchith Paulose, Anand uses his locations to soak us in the size and scope of the story. Not only are they beautiful to look at, but they also set the stage for some incredible set pieces which are ultimately the movie’s bread and butter.

The story itself has all the marks of a classic spy picture, from the fist-pumping thrills to the undeniable silliness. In 2019, the Indian government’s decision to revoke Article 370 of its constitution enrages a cancer-stricken Pakistani general named Qadir (Manish Wadhwa). Not trusting his own government to handle things to his liking, the embittered Qadir reaches out to the leader of a privately funded terrorist outfit called “Outfit X” who goes by the name of Jim (Abraham).

As it turns out, Jim is an ex-RAW agent believed to be dead by the Indian government. He too wants India to pay but for reasons entirely his own. He takes Qadir’s offer and begins hatching a plan to bring his former country to its knees. When RAW gets wind that Jim is very much alive and up to something big, senior officer Nandini (a terrific Dimple Kapadia) summons field agent Pathaan (Khan) to head the new “Joint Operation and Covert Research” unit (aka JOCR). Their first order of business – head to Dubai to stop the assassination of India’s president by Outfit X.

Along the way Pathaan learns that a former ISI agent named Rubina Mohsin (Padukone) is involved, although figuring out whose side she’s on proves difficult. Like a classic Bond girl, Padukone adds some spice and brings an air of mystery to the story, all while sharing some good chemistry with Khan. Unfortunately she sometimes gets lost in the plot’s breakneck maneuvering which is too bad considering the energy she brings to several of her scenes.

But it all comes down to Khan and Abraham, and the cat and mouse game between the film’s hero and villain. Anand knows what he has in them, and he really leans into what they bring to the screen. Khan shows he has the chops to be a full-blown action star while Abraham brings plenty of swagger, making him a diverting antagonist. And regardless of the story’s tendency to veer off into the preposterous, the two stars, along with the eye-popping visual spectacle, the kinetic pacing, a cracking score, and one very exciting cameo, keep things fun. It’s popcorn pleasure at its finest.