Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Jason Bateman stars in and directs the first two episodes of HBO’s The Outsider, the latest miniseries based on a Stephen King novel. Man, does King ever walk away from the keyboard?

Terry Maitland (Bateman) is arrested by Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) while coaching a Little League game—and the charges against him are shocking: Terry has allegedly killed a small boy, with witnesses placing him at the scene of the crime. There’s also surveillance video and forensic evidence that seemingly confirm his guilt. Yet Terry proclaims his innocence and has a solid alibi, including witness accounts and video confirmation that he was many miles away when the crime occurred.

The first two episodes of the 10-part series offer a good setup, with Bateman doing a nice job both behind and in front of the camera. There’s no question I will be tuning in for more as the story continues on a one-episode-per-week basis. (Yes, HBO is doing it old school!) It’s a crime story, but there are hints at something much more, including a supernatural angle—and the first two episodes act as nice hook.

Some future episodes are directed by Andrew Bernstein, who works with Bateman on Ozark. So, there’s no final verdict yet on whether this will be good as a whole or not. I can only speak about the first 20 percent, which I liked.

The Outsider is now airing on HBO and its streaming services.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

It looks like somebody forgot to tell Brie Larson to have fun and let loose in Captain Marvel. Her turn as the title character, aka Carol Danvers, is laced with lethargy and bizarre line deliveries.

Samuel L. Jackson and an orange tabby fortunately seem to be enjoying themselves, but Larson is stiffer than Church the cat on the Creed’s front lawn after his unfortunate encounter with a speeding truck. (Say, is my excitement for the upcoming Pet Sematary reboot evident?)

A similar problem plagued Larson in Kong: Skull Island. The Academy Award-winning actress seems to be in her wheelhouse when the budget is low, but seems miscast when she shows up in a blockbuster. She gives off a detached vibe; it’s odd. The movie should be called Captain Meh: I Dunno … I Got Better Things to Do.

If the movie around her were really good, her seemingly bored disposition might’ve been forgiven—but Captain Marvel is also riddled with awful special effects and haphazard storytelling.

I went in hoping for a badass movie about Captain Marvel, but found myself more intrigued by the subplot involving an up-and-coming, low ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Nick Fury, played by Jackson. The de-aged Jackson, along with a returning Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), who died in the first Avengers movie, are so good that you’ll wish they got their own film.

I’m not putting the blame solely on Larson; the character itself is a bust when it comes to superheroes. All she does is fly around and send out energy bursts from her hands. She has moments when she goes into full Marvel mode, bringing on some sort of light show where she glows and gets white eyes, as well as a goofy-looking mohawk. As for superpowers … they just don’t register as anything that exciting. The Marvel light show isn’t aided by the special effects, which look rushed and cartoonish. Captain Marvel in her full glory doesn’t integrate with the worlds around her; she looks animated and out of place.

As for the orange tabby named Goose, he’s your basic super-cute cat—with a few surprises under his fur. Again, the special effects are a letdown when Goose goes full Goose, another example of the visual team coming up short.

Part of the film is set on Earth in the 1990s, and Jackson’s Fury has a full head of hair and both eyes. It also lends to music by Nirvana and No Doubt, both of which are used in situations that feel awkward and forced. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck got a little carried away in their efforts to be cute with the tunes.

There’s a big supporting cast, including a strong Annette Bening as a scientist and murky memory in Carol’s dreams. Lashana Lynch does good work as Maria Rambeau (pronounced “Rambo!”), an earthly friend of Carol’s. Jude Law gets a change of pace with an action role as an alien named Yon-Rogg, while Ben Mendelsohn plays Fury’s S.H.I.E.L.D. boss, another character with a few surprises to offer.

The film isn’t completely devoid of fun; it’s just not on par with other Marvel offerings, although I concede that’s a high bar to hit. As for Captain Marvel, the end of Avengers: Infinity War hinted at some major participation for her, so this is just the start for the character. Let’s hope things get better.

As always, stay all the way through the credits. There are plenty of things happening that you won’t want to miss, even if you’ve had your fill with the events that happened before all those words splashed across the screen.

Captain Marvel is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

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Steven Spielberg goes for broke but leaves viewers bleary-eyed in a bad way with Ready Player One, based on the popular Ernest Cline novel. The film is so full of pop-culture references that it doesn’t so much deliver them as visually vomit them into one’s face.

Rather than relishing the opportunity for ’80s nostalgia, Spielberg opts for whiplash pacing; he doesn’t allow any of the fun elements to really sink in. They pass by so fast that the film comes off as more of a speed-trivia exercise than an attempt at a true narrative.

The futuristic storyline involves something called the OASIS, a virtual-reality world that is not only a pastime, but a total escape from real-world poverty and pollution. Wade (Tye Sheridan) lives in a place called the Stacks—basically manufactured homes piled on top of each other, and he whiles away many hours in the OASIS as his alter ego/avatar, Parzival.

When Halliday (Mark Rylance), the inventor of the OASIS, dies—in a plot twist quite similar to that in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory—he devises a way for somebody to win control of the OASIS. He plants keys throughout the virtual world, and the one who finds all of the keys first gets the whole damn thing.

As soon as Wade/Parzival puts on his VR goggles and jumps into the OASIS, the trivia Easter eggs start flying. The opening race scene, set in a shapeshifting New York, is a true winner, with Parzival trying to evade King Kong in his Back to the Future DeLorean. What follows are a lot of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos by the likes of Freddy Krueger, Jason, Chucky, T-Rex and Batman. Scoring the film’s most prominent cameo would be the Iron Giant, which is super-cool.

In an ingenious sequence, Parzival and his virtual friends wind up in the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, contending with the bloody elevator, the creepy twins and the decomposing old lady. Alas, we don’t see Jack Nicholson—just his ax.

Alas, the sequences that work are far outweighed by passages that become a blur as they race by. Making matters worse, the “real” world is populated by characters more cartoonish than the videogame avatars. The usually reliable Ben Mendelsohn seems lost as Sorrento, a former Halliday employee bent on OASIS domination. Olivia Cooke fails to distinguish herself as rebel Samantha (Art3mis in the OASIS), and Sheridan is bland.

Rylance, playing Halliday at multiple ages, comes off as a bit goofy; his casting makes little to no sense. In the early stages of production, it was rumored that Spielberg was courting the original Wonka, Gene Wilder, before he passed away. Since the movie deeply references the ’80s, casting somebody like Michael J. Fox, Henry Thomas, Tom Cruise or Kevin Bacon—true 1980s icons—could’ve been a lot of fun. Rylance seems out of place.

The film holds together OK enough for its first three-quarters, but ultimately falls apart in its final act—to an extent that is actually boring and makes little sense.

The soundtrack sounds like somebody trying to ape John Williams. For only the third time in his moviemaking career, Spielberg turns to another composer, Alan Silvestri, to score one of his films. The result lacks originality and is missing that catchy and triumphant yet somehow non-distracting vibe that Williams always seems to pull off. It plays like Williams lite.

I’ve made no secret of my love for Spielberg. Jaws is, and will probably always be, my all-time-favorite movie, and many other Spielberg films reside near the top of my list. However, Ready Player One definitely belongs in the bottom half of his massive cinematic output. Perhaps it coming to us a mere few months after his most-recent movie (the far-superior The Post) is a sign that his plate was too full to make Ready Player One a winner. It’s a visual rush job.

Ready Player One is playing at theaters across the valley, in both regular and 3-D formats.

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In what amounts to a much-wordier companion piece to Dunkirk, Gary Oldman disappears into the role of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.

The movie starts shortly before Churchill takes over as prime minister—a controversial choice to lead who is facing a lot of opposition, including a skeptical King George VI (brilliantly played by Ben Mendelsohn). The film chronicles Churchill’s speeches (transcribed by personal secretary Elizabeth Layton, played winningly by Lily James) and his strategizing, leading up to him gaining Parliament’s support in not seeking peace with Hitler—and pledging all-out war.

Director Joe Wright (Atonement, Hanna) always makes great-looking movies, and this is no exception. Oldman is virtually guaranteed an Oscar nomination as Churchill. It’s not a role you would think he was born to play, but excellent makeup and prosthetics make his transformation completely convincing. This isn’t just a guy working through a bunch of stuff on his face; Oldman inhabits the role in a way that makes you forget the makeup. Kristin Scott Thomas does career-best work in the small but pivotal role of Clemmie, Churchill’s extremely tolerant wife.

Darkest Hour is one of the better-acted films of 2017. Much of the running time deals with behind-the-scenes maneuvering regarding the events at Dunkirk, and it’s because of this that Darkest Hour plays great in a double feature with Christopher Nolan’s action-pic take on the same event.

Darkest Hour is playing at theaters across the valley.

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There is a quick moment in the very first Star Wars (now known as Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope) when a character mentions rebels possibly obtaining secrets regarding the Death Star’s vulnerability.

Those rebels get their own movie in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a spinoff that is technically another prequel. In fact, it tells a story that leads right up to the point where A New Hope begins. It’s a strong, rousing action-adventure movie that should please both Star Wars geeks and newcomers to the franchise.

It’s also a little different than your typical Star Wars movie in that it doesn’t mainly deal with the Skywalker saga (although a couple of them make notable appearances) and doesn’t prominently feature the John Williams score (although that makes some appearances as well). Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) goes for something a little different here, making a tonal shift that reminds of the big change The Empire Strikes Back brought to the saga.

The film starts—sans the long crawl and theme music we’re used to—and goes straight into its story. Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a renowned scientist, gets an unwelcome visit at his remote farm from the evil Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Krennic wants Erso to continue his work on this crazy new thing called the Death Star, but Erso isn’t interested. The whole emerging Empire thing has got him turned off, and he wants no part of it. Bad events ensue, and Erso’s young daughter, Jyn, goes into hiding.

The action picks up 15 years later, and Jyn has grown up to be played by Felicity Jones. Jones brings the same level of competent acting skills that Daisy Ridley brought last year in The Force Awakens (and they both have awesome English accents). Jyn eventually finds herself joining the Rebellion, and becomes a key player in retrieving the Death Star secrets and setting up the events that will become the original Star Wars trilogy.

She gets paired up with a generally grouchy rebel in Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his wiseass droid, K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). They go on that mission mentioned in Episode IV, leading up to an action-packed finale that reminds of the climactic A New Hope battle scene in many ways—some of them truly unexpected and wonderful. (There are some rather surprising cameos.)

Among the returnees from the original trilogy and prequels is Bail Organa, still played by Jimmy Smits, a surprising nod to the prequels that displeased so many. CGI trickery (some of it a little shaky) leads to the return of a major Empire figure that won’t be revealed in this review. Of course, the commercials have already shown that Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader (still gloriously voiced by James Earl Jones) is back in all of his evil glory. That’s a major Star Wars treat.

The score by Michael Giacchino isn’t all that bad. It does riff on the original John Williams themes, leading one to wonder why they didn’t use the original music throughout. There are moments when Giacchino’s music uses the first phrasings of the original score themes, and then goes off in another direction. It feels like a bit of a tease. Understandably, the goal here is to make a standalone Star Wars movie, but this is very much a Star Wars movie, so teasing the original score winds up being somewhat of a distraction.

This year has been a major letdown for big blockbusters (Ghostbusters, Jason Bourne, Independence Day: Resurgence, etc.), so it’s nice to finish the year on such a high note. Rogue One is a blast, and further proof that Mickey Mouse taking over Star Wars responsibilities from creator George Lucas is a very good thing. Star Wars VIII comes to us next year, and a standalone Han Solo origin story comes the year after that.

There was a time when we had to wait years for Star Wars fixes. In this, the New Age of Total Impatience, we get Star Wars every year. The New Age of Total Impatience most certainly has its perks.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is playing in a variety of formats across the valley.

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This business of sending some movies directly to iTunes/ and on-demand services while they show on limited screens across the country is turning out to be really cool. Some great films, including Michael Fassbender’s Slow West, have been released this year using this method.

Now another great film has been released in this way: Mississippi Grind.

Powerhouse performances are delivered by Ben Mendelsohn as Gerry, a depressed gambler, and Ryan Reynolds as Curtis, his artificially upbeat counterpart. The two meet at a low-stakes poker game, share some bourbon and wind up on a road trip to New Orleans with the intent of getting in on a huge money game.

Things don’t quite work out that way, with Gerry recklessly gambling the money Curtis stakes him, while Curtis womanizes and steals bicycles. Still, the two men continue to be drawn to each other—and it all leads up to some big events.

Reynolds is having a banner year in smaller projects, proving he has more than blockbuster good looks. The man is supremely talented, and this is his best performance to date: Curtis is a fully realized character backed by the kind of script and direction his talent deserves. Reynolds was also great in this year’s funny and sick The Voices (which also did the limited release/on demand thing).

Matching Reynolds note for note is the always-amazing Mendelsohn. His Gerry is everything you would expect from a person suffering from gambling addiction. He’s desperate; he’s unruly; and he’s a genuinely good human being who is trying to make things right. It’s easy to feel sorry for Gerry. Mendelsohn gives him a beating heart.

Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, responsible for the very good Sugar and Half Nelson, wrote and directed this. They are, without a doubt, one of the more underrated writer/director teams working today. This film and its performances need to be remembered in a few months: Mendelsohn and Reynolds deserve year-end award consideration.

Mississippi Grind is available on demand and via online sources such as iTunes and

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Michael Fassbender remains on a fantastic roll with Slow West, a gritty, appropriately downbeat Western from writer-director John Maclean.

Fassbender plays Silas, a cynical, grouchy rider on the American frontier in the 19th century who comes across Jay (Kodi-Smit McPhee), a Scottish boy who is travelling alone in search of Rose (Caren Pistorius), a girl he loves. She had to flee to America with her father after an accident, and now they have a bounty on their heads. Silas knows about the bounty—but he doesn’t tell Jay.

After coming across a group of bandits led by Payne (the ever-reliable Ben Mendelsohn), Silas must decide who he’s going to back—the boy or the bandits.

Slow West is a great ride, with a vivid depiction of the old West unlike any I’ve seen before. By the time the action reaches Rose’s farm—a single house out in the middle of nowhere—you get a true sense of just how few people were inhabiting that part of the world at this particular time.

McPhee is heartbreaking as a young man who just doesn’t get it, and Fassbender continues to prove he’s a cinematic treasure. They make a great screen duo.

I’m very interested in seeing what this Maclean fellow does next.

Slow West is available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Ryan Gosling makes a wacky, strange directorial debut with Lost River, using his own bizarre script. He’s clearly influenced by David Lynch and, most notably, frequent collaborator Nicolas Winding Refn. Unfortunately, his movie has more in common with the awful Only God Forgives than the awesome Drive.

The story involves a woman named Billy (Christina Hendricks, a co-star of Gosling’s in Drive) who is trying to protect and raise her family in a fictional city that’s falling apart. Her oldest son, Bones (Iain De Caestecker), scavenges old houses for copper, and finds himself in direct conflict with an area thug.

Billy takes a job in a club straight out of a David Lynch film, where the likes of Cat (Eva Mendes, Gosling’s girlfriend) stage bloody murders onstage. The club owner is Dave (Ben Mendelsohn, the best thing in the movie), who has some evil intentions with his new hire.

Various styles conflict and crash in the film, with little of it making sense. However, the individual performances are good; in fact, Hendricks and Mendelsohn are both quite good.

The movie also looks great, which is usually what happens when you hire Benoit Debie (Enter the Void) to shoot your movie. Gosling proved he can make a nice-looking movie.

Next time out, he should leave the scripting duties to somebody else and concentrate on directing. He has potential behind the camera, but his script leaves a lot to be desired.

Special Features: What? No extras? That’s OK, because I wasn’t interested in going any deeper into this film. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

While Black Sea is a submarine movie that’s not quite on par with Crimson Tide, Yellow Submarine and Das Boot, it is a decent thriller—and it’s a helluva lot better than Operation Petticoat and Down Periscope.

Jude Law, using a distracting Scottish accent, plays Robinson, a disgraced submarine captain who has just lost his job. A chain of events leads him into commanding a band of men in a broken-down submarine heading for a downed sub that contains millions in gold meant for Hitler during World War II.

The men, of course, deal with a lot of trouble along the way, especially when the gold winds up on their boat. Lucky for us, the cast includes Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, two great character actors. They are each given roles that play to their best acting attributes (McNairy plays a paranoiac; Mendelsohn is a psycho), and they are always fun to watch.

The movie is a little overcooked in the end, but director Kevin Macdonald delivers a serviceable underwater thriller. Much of the movie was actually filmed aboard a decaying Russian sub, so it has an authentic feel.

Special Features: There’s a very short behind-the-scenes doc, and a director’s commentary. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

From director Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel) comes Adore, this beautifully shot tale of two female friends (Naomi Watts and Robin Wright) who watch each other’s sons (Xavier Samuel and James Frecheville) grow up to be rather strapping lads. So it only stands to reason that the women start sleeping with each other’s sons—and that causes all kinds of troubles and mixed feelings.

That’s about it for plotting; the film will not blow you away on a story level. However, it is well-acted, with Watts and Wright especially good as loyal friends who can’t help themselves.

Fontaine knows how to make a good-looking movie, and there are many shots of awesome-looking people in swimwear. The great Ben Mendelsohn is on hand as Wright’s husband, who gets a big surprise when he returns from an extended trip.

This is Wright’s best role in quite some time; meanwhile, Watts just needs to show up on a movie set to make things interesting.

Adore opens today, Friday, Sept. 6, at the Cinemas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

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