Movie reviews

The worst thing you can do in a movie review is explain the plot of the movie and then throw in a comment or two about whether you liked the movie. So these reviews just skip past that part about the plot. Also, we do what we can to keep our reviews reasonably spoiler-free, so you can browse freely!

Latest Movie reviews

Christmas Carol Movies, Stave VII: A Christmas Carol (2009)

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There were at least three major animated versions of Christmas Carol made during the sixties and seventies, from the Mister Magoo adaptation to the half-hour production that won an Emmy for animation. Those versions were all made for television, though, and generally have that cheap, TV veneer about them; you can even tell where the breaks are for commercials. But in 2009, movie blockbuster impresario Robert Zemeckis brought a new, state-of-the-art 3D animated version of Scrooge and company to the big screen. With a $200 million budget, Zemeckis would have a truly special opportunity to make a Christmas Carol adaptation completely unfettered by production budget constraints.

After the jump, an opportunity lost

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Christmas Carol Movies, Stave VI: A Christmas Carol (1999)

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In the mid-1990s, Sir Patrick Stewart (taking a break from his Captain Picard duties on film) embarked on a successful run on Broadway performing a one-man stage version of “A Christmas Carol”. The rave reviews for these shows apparently attracted the interest of Turner Broadcasting executives, who came to the actor with what must’ve been an alluring pitch. Would Stewart be interested in playing Ebenezer Scrooge in a new film adaptation for the company’s TNT network? A large production budget was promised, along with the participation of writer/adapter Peter Barnes and director David Jones, names that Stewart knew from the London theater community. 

And a promise was made: this version would be the one that was “The most faithful film to Dickens’ original book ever created.” 

After the jump, but is that a good thing?

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Christmas Carol Movies, Stave V: A Christmas Carol (1984)

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By the fall of 1984, the CBS television network’s golden years were starting to fade. Norman Lear was out, and Falcon Crest, Knot’s Landing, Airwolf and Dukes of Hazzard were in.  Oscar-winning actor George C. Scott’s career was on the wane, too; the glory days of Patton and Dr. Strangelove a distant memory. As for English director Clive Donner, about the best that can be said was that he was simply doing hack work. When he wasn’t helping to crank out TV movies, he was churning out feature film nonsense like “The Nude Bomb” or “Old Dracula”.


That’s an inauspicious creative foundation on which to build the best filmed version of A Christmas Carol. Yet somehow, that’s exactly what happened.

After the jump, made for TV magic

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Christmas Carol Movies, Stave IV: Scrooge (1970)

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There are two ways to look at Scrooge, the 1970 Christmas Carol adaptation that recast the Dickens classic as a musical.  One view is to wonder why in the world this classic story needs choreographed musical numbers and what is sometimes only barely on-key singing by the lead character. The opposing view is a more direct appeal: when Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning, what fits the mood of that sequence any better than Ebenezer singing and dancing through the streets of London?

After the jump, they’re going to sing again, aren’t they?

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Christmas Carol Movies, Stave III: A Christmas Carol (1951)

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Charles Dickens is something of a national treasure in the UK, an artist with words whose prose manages who manages the neat trick of being respected academically while remaining popular with the public; “A Christmas Carol” is one of his most admired and beloved works. So in post-war Britain, it was a bit galling that the 1938 movie adaptation of the novella was a hit and accepted as somewhat definitive. That Reginald Owen version was a distinctly Hollywood thing, a blazingly professional production of the treasured story, but one that captured little of the heart and grit and soul that Dickens had poured into his original writing. 16 years after the first UK attempt at A Christmas Carol and slightly more than a decade after the MGM version, British studio Renown Pictures was ready to reclaim Scrooge back to his merrie olde roots.

After the jump, the definitive version?

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Christmas Carol Movies, Stave II: A Christmas Carol (1938)

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My own natural inclination in film appreciation is an almost knee-jerk mistrust of mainstream Hollywood. I associate the movie business – particularly when the studio system reigned supreme – with making films as product. Box office profits were priority one in in the rising industry of the 1930s and 1940s; artistic merit often seemed an accidental occasional by-product. With all that being said, however, sometimes the sheer, brutal competency of a major Hollywood studio has its advantages, too. 

After the jump, Dickens emerges from the darkness

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Christmas Carol Movies, Stave I: Scrooge (1935)

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If “A Christmas Carol” movies have become part of a worldwide seasonal ritual these days, the first “talkie” version of the Dickens book is an inauspicious beginning. Watching it today, it’s hard to imagine that movie versions of the story would ever become much of a big deal. The 1935 adaptation – setting a bit of a precedent by being called simply “Scrooge” – is hands-down the funniest of all the various versions of the movie we’ll review here. Unfortunately, all of that comedy is unintentional.

After the Jump, the Plan 9 From Outer Space of Christmas Carols

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Best Thing You’ll See All Week: I Am Mother

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It’s nice to see there are still angles to explore in the “rogue AI” genre. As well as the “people in a bunker” genre. I Am Mother straddles both by suggesting a maternal robot — that may or may not be a rogue AI — programmed to repopulate post-apocalyptic humanity by cultivating thousands of embryos stored in a sealed bunker. It will start with one little girl. With Rose Byrne’s voice, a nifty production design for a robot that smiles, and a promising newcomer as the daughter, I Am Mother has all it needs down here.

The movie begins with an infant. As older children were swapped in during the expected growing-up montage, I was worried we were headed for Alicia Vickander. But just as the children started looking like Vikander, I Am Mother stopped short with a capable young actress named Clara Rugaard. She carries most of the movie on her own, which is no mean feat. Her job is a lot like Sophie Thatcher’s in Prospect, but harder because she doesn’t have Pedro Pascal tagging along. It’s just her and Rose Byrne’s carefully modulated voice piped in over a lumbering robot that looks barely a generation past what Boston Dynamics has been doing.

As the movie proceeds, it’s confident you’re smart enough to see the twists. It knows you know math, it knows you understand casting decisions are never random, and it knows you know how AIs work. In fact, it’s so confident you see the twists that it doesn’t even play them as reveals. So if you’re awfully proud of yourself for guessing what’s going on, you’re watching the wrong movie. A lesser movie would be about these reveals. I Am Mother is instead about the motivations and decisions behind them.

In fact, the final shot is a bit much. It’s almost as if the movie is asking you if we’re done here. “You’ve figured it out, right?” it asks. “Right?” Sometimes being maternal involves a little finger wagging. Yes, I Am Mother, I understand today’s lesson. Sheesh, Saturn 3 was never this strict.

I Am Mother is currently available on Netflix.

Worst thing you’ll see all week: Brightburn

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Brightburn isn’t Brightburn enough.  Early on, it suggests some truly freaky angles to the familiar Superman story.  We all know the Superman story. An alien child comes to Earth, is adopted by wholesome parents, discovers his superpowers, saves world.  But Brightburn suggests we can’t assume that last bit because children can be evil little shits. Which, really, isn’t very provocative. “I gave you Lord of the Flies for your birthday,” a father tells his bullied child in the movie Cold Pursuit, “All the answers you’ll ever need are in that book.”  

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Worst thing you’ll see all week: I Trapped the Devil

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You know the scene when a movie reveals the obsessed detective’s yarn wall?  He’s put up clippings of all the serial killer’s murders and drawn circles on maps and then poked thumbtacks into the relevant bits and strung yarn between the thumb tacks that connects all the clues.  “Whoa, this guy is seriously obsessed,” you’re supposed to think. “He went to all that trouble with that yarn!”

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Best thing you’ll see while waiting for Netflix to screw up The Witcher: The Head Hunter

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The Head Hunter is pretty modest. But within the confines of what it’s trying to do, it’s entirely competent and even a bit haunting. It’s certainly better than director Jordan Downey’s Thankskilling movies, which were pranks on anyone dumb enough to watch them. Including myself, naturally.

But The Head Hunter is a sedate mood piece good enough to take itself seriously. Just be aware that you’re watching a short film given room to breathe. Room to sprawl toward feature-length. It’s a bit small for its 72-minute running time. But it uses the time wisely, dwelling lovingly on the production design for its homestead in a medieval countryside. When the call is sounded from a nearby castle, a monster somewhere needs killing. The things are everywhere. Flying overhead. Nosing about the window at night. The dude who lives here does the dirty work of keeping them contained.

The secret ingredient in The Head Hunter is the stately and hirsute Christopher Rygh. He cuts a fine figure under all that armor, and especially out from under it. As a dual class monster hunter slash apothecary who put a few points into necromancy, he’s not fooling around and he’s got the biceps to prove it. He is as somber and muted as the cinematography and no matter how silly that helmet looks, he plays it straight-faced and wild-eyed. Frankly, he deserves a bigger movie. Until then, he’s one hell of a way to fill out 72 minutes.

Best thing you’ll see since you were a 10-year-old playing D&D: Hawk the Slayer

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Sure, we went nuts over Conan: The Barbarian, but it got less cool once all the dumbass jocks discovered Schwarzenegger action movies and lumped Conan in with that stuff.  The Terminator didn’t help. First Conan, and now a robot from the future? Schwarzenegger was the GURPS of action heros. Some of us were left with Beastmaster, starring a guy who looked more at home playing a doctor in a daytime soap opera.  No pet class barbarian looks like Marc Singer. Please. To be honest, we were mainly into it for Tanya Roberts. And the ferrets. The ferrets were cool. There was also Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings cartoons. But there was something weird about those.  Something off. They came from some other state of consciousness we didn’t understand. A hangover from the 70s.

But our greatest cinematic joy as fantasy nerds of a certain age endures to this day.  It remains unknown to many. Unless you are among the initiated (i.e. you understood the GURPS reference), there’s nothing for you after the jump.  Move along. Nothing to see here. An enthusiastic review The Division 2 will be along shortly.

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Most Bone Tomahawk thing you’ll see all week: Dragged Across Concrete

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Craig Zahler has no one to blame but himself for what will probably be a career of making movies that aren’t as good as Bone Tomahawk.  He got off to a solid start with a formulaic, uneven, and ultimately forgettable prison yarn called Brawl in Cell Block 99. The whole thing felt like a build up to a special effect that wasn’t even that good.  That’s why I watched this movie? So you could do that? Dragged Across Concrete feels like a do-over. This is what I expect from the guy who made Bone Tomahawk.

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