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Films I Neglected To Review: Sorry Charlie. . .
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Bluebird," "Charlie's Angels," "Feast of the Seven Fishes," "The Report" and "The Shed."

If one were to set off on a road trip of the key locations in the history of contemporary American music, most people would probably not deem a run-of-the-mill strip mall in the suburbs of Nashville to be a key part of the itinerary. However, the Bluebird Cafe has become a mecca not just for country music fans but for aspiring songwriters searching for a place to debut their latest works and, just maybe, get discovered as a result. The new documentary "Bluebird" charts the history of the place from its humble beginnings as an ordinary dining spot opened by Amy Kurland in 1982 to a place whose legend has grown over the years to rival that of the Grand Ol Opry in terms of the future stars who were discovered there, including Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, Maren Morris, Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill and Taylor Swift. All of those stars turn up, either to play the still-tiny room or to talk about how they got their start there, and the film also interviews additional observers ranging from long-time staffers (some of whom would also go on to songwriting fame) and some of the up-and-coming talents who turn up every week for the regular writers showcases to demonstrate what they have to offer. Although there is nothing to be had in director Brian Loschiavo's film that would cause it not to one day be sold at the cafe's gift counter, it still does an effective job of telling the story of the place from the days when they used to blast Talking Heads to shoo diners out to make room for the musical performances to now, where the success of the TV show "Nashville" (which used an exact replica of the place as one of its key locations) helped to expose its legend to new generations of fans. As an added bonus, it contains what may well be the most inadvertently uncomfortable scene to turn up in a film this year when Swift pauses in her performance to tell the crowd the story of how she got a record deal after being seen playing there, singling out for praise the very same record company head with whom she is in the middle of a very public conflict regarding the rights to her music. For fans of country music, "Bluebird" is pretty much a must-see and for everyone else, it makes for a pleasant, if not exactly essential, watch.

The good news about "Charlie's Angels," the latest big-screen iteration of the infamous 70s TV jigglefest, is that it is better than the last attempt, "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle"--of course, since I deem that to be the single worst film that I have ever seen in my many years of moviegoing, I suppose that is not really saying much. The bad news, however, is that it isn't that much better than that particular atrocity. This time around, the Townsend Agency private investigation firm has expanded into a sort of international spy organization with all-female crews kicking ass and such. This time around, two Angels--wild child Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and by-the-book Jane (Ella Balinska) find themselves protecting Elena (Naomi Scott), a scientist who finds herself on the run when she tries to report to her boss that a super powerful energy generator she has invented has a flaw that could allow it to become weaponized if it fell into the wrong hands. Working with their superior, Bosley (Elizabeth Banks, who also wrote and directed the film), they bounce around the world (among other things) as they try to figure out who is behind the apparent conspiracy before the device can fall into the wrong hands.

Not to be catty but if you cannot figure out who the surprise villain is within the first ten minutes, you might actually be the ideal target audience for "Charlie's Angels" after all. For everyone else, the film is sure to prove to be kind of a slog from start to finish. One of the key problems is that Banks never seems to have figured out whether she is trying to make a semi-serious story along the lines of the TV show or a piece of goofball eye candy like the earlier movies--she seems to be switching back and forth between the two tones throughout but all they wind up doing is clashing at inopportune times. Another problem that quickly becomes apparent as things proceed is that Banks, whose only previous feature as a director was "Pitch Perfect 2," does not show any real finesse for the kind of slick, large-scale action sequences that she is trying to pull off here--they are done in such an anonymous and nondescript manner that one almost--almost--yearns for a return to the comparatively distinctive touch of McG. The only person who seems to be actually having something resembling fun here, either on the screen or in the audience, is Stewart, who has been appearing in a lot of very heavy dramas in the last few years and who clearly relishes being able to lighten up and goof around for a change. Unfortunately, as much as I like her as an actress, even her efforts are not enough to make the film as a whole even remotely watchable. Not only does "Charlie's Angels" fail to live up to the legacy, such as it is, of the original TV show, it doesn't even measure up to the extremely short-lived 2011 TV reboot that you probably forgot even existed until right now.

Although I cannot say it for certain, I am fairly sure that "Feast of the Seven Fishes" is the first film that I have ever seen that is based on a book that is partly a graphic novel and partly a collection of Italian holiday-themed recipes. Set in 1983 around Christmastime in a working-class Pittsburgh neighborhood, it is centered around the Oliverios, a large and boisterous Italian family preparing for their most beloved holiday tradition, the Feast of the Seven Fishes. For college-aged son Tony (Skyler Gisonde), his mind is less on preparing various seafood-based dishes and more on his dreams of going to art school and finding love. While the former seems forever out of reach, the possibility of the latter unexpectedly rises up when he meets Beth (Madison Iseman), a beautiful and intelligent Ivy League student home for the holidays with her stuck-up family. Through various nutty circumstances, Beth winds up coming over for dinner with Tony's family and while the two obviously seems great for each other, there are a number of obstacles that threaten their happiness. Beth's white-bread mom will do anything to keep her daughter away from those ethnic types. Tony's drama queen ex (Addison Timlin) seems determined to get him back by any means necessary, even going so far as to take a job at the local strip joint to get his attention. Perhaps most significantly, Tony’s aging grandmother from the old country (Lynn Cohen) takes one look at the uber-WASP Beth and immediately determines that she is no good for her grandchild and is not exactly subtle about voicing her opinions on the subject to anyone in earshot

The film was written and directed by Robert Tinnell, who also penned the graphic novel/cookbook that it is based on, and it is one of those low-budget films that is made with such sincerity and genial good nature that one feels a little bad for pointing out that, despite all of its obvious good intentions, it just isn't that interesting. The cast (which also includes Joe Pantoliano as Tony’s gruff-but-lovable dad) is good and the degree to which the film does work is based mostly on how they all play off of each other. The problem is that the storyline simply is not especially innovative or interesting and while some may spark to the sense of cozy familiarity that it embraces throughout, those with a taste for something a little less predictable may find themselves getting a little antsy towards the end. As it turns out, the best scenes in the movie are the numerous sequences in which we see the titular dishes beings assembled and consumed in all of their lip-smacking glory. Thanks to them, once this film ends, you will come out of the theater hungry for both dinner and a somewhat better movie.

One of my all-time favorite films is "All the President's Men," Alan J. Pakula's masterful examination of the Washington Post expose of the Watergate scandal that eventually led to the resignation of Richard Nixon from the presidency. The genius of the film is that instead of taking a more melodramatic approach, Pakula and screenwriter William Goldman elected to concentrate entirely of the process of investigation that Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward conducted in order to build and corroborate the story that was initially dismissed as little more than a third-rate burglary. That purely journalistic storytelling approach would go on to inform other films like "Zodiac" and "Spotlight" and it is clearly the key influence behind "The Report," a new drama from Scott Z. Burns that deals with the CIA and the program of "enhanced interrogation techniques" that they implemented with highly debatable "success" in the wake of 9/11. The film is told through the eyes of Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver) , a staffer with the U.S. Select Committee on Intelligence who, in 2009, was charged by his boss, Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), with creating a report detailing that program upon the discovery that the agency has already destroyed hundreds of hours of videos of those interrogations. Over the next five years, Daniel and his ever-dwindling team face both the daunting task of plowing through more than 6.3 million pages of documents and numerous high-ranking officials who would prefer to bury the report and its findings entirely.

Considering the story and the approach chosen by writer Scott Z. Burns, I went into "The Report" really expecting to like it and was a little surprised by how curiously unmoved I was by the whole thing. Like its antecedents, it avoids pushing things into melodrama and refuses to try to make the characters more audience-friendly with comedic or romantic subplots that have nothing to do with the main storyline. The trouble is that Burns tries so hard to pull off that trick that he winds up smothers the real drama and anger that should have emerged from the material. While a film like "All the President's Men" somehow managed to generate enormous amounts of suspense from nothing more than scenes in which its heroes are trying to get confirmation on a story (a few all the more amazing considering that everyone seeing it presumably knew how the story would turn out), Burns's take is so flat that there are long stretches where it just feels like the characters are reciting the report to us and his decision to keep things as even-handed as possible throughout becomes increasingly frustrating as the depravations in the report are revealed in hideous detail. The performances are good (especially Driver) and some of the revelations on display (especially the discovery that the two men who devised and implemented the torture program had, despite their insistence otherwise, absolutely no scientific data to back up their claims that their methods actually worked) are genuinely outrageous. For the most part, however, "The Report," despite its obvious good intentions, never quite clicks into becoming the rabble-rousing outrage that it probably needed to be.

Most horror films can be read as allegories for some thing or other but "The Shed" is the kind that is so overt in its symbolism that it practically leaps off the screen, grabs you by the shirt and screams out its true meanings and intentions right into your face. Teenager Stan (Jay Jay Warren) is having a particularly bad go of it as the story opens--his parents are dead, he is stuck living with his abusive grandfather (Timothy Bottoms), he has had enough past trouble to have the local cops constantly reminding him of what can happen if he slips up one more time and the old friend he not-so-secretly loves (Sofia Happonen) has moved on to hang out with the cool kids instead. One day, he goes out to his grandfather's shed to get the lawnmower and discovers a vampire-like monster (Frank Whalley) hiding inside from the daylight that can apparently kill him. After the creature makes short work of Grandpa, Stan is in even bigger trouble--the cops are unlikely to believe that the old man was eaten by a monster and even if they do, he will still get sent back into juvie regardless. He is about to destroy the creature when he makes the mistake of revealing its existence to his only friend, Dommer (Cody Kostro), who is himself the daily target of the school bullies. Dommer, as it turns out, has certain interesting ideas about how they can use the existence of the creature to get back at those who have mistreated them for so long. As you can probably surmise, it does not go well for anyone.

As you might be able to glean just a tad from the above description, "The Shed" is meant to work both as a straight-up horror film and an allegory for what can happen when bullied teens are pushed just a little too far and then come across some instrument of power--be it a gun or, in this case, a limb-lopping monster--that they elect to use in a misguided and ultimately tragic attempt to even the scales for once. The results are not particularly subtle--the bullies are so wildly overscaled in their cruelty that they border on parody--but they do work up to a certain point, thanks to the work of writer/director Frank Sabatella, who gives the narrative the feel of one of the short stories of Stephen King, and the performances from Warren, Kostro and Happonen. About two-thirds of the way through, however, it starts to fall apart thanks to a number of implausible plot developments and groaner moments before dispensing with the serious-minded stuff entirely in order to focus on the vampire stalking its prey in a farmhouse. In the end, "The Shed" is not quite good enough to be worth seeing but it is just good enough to make one curious about what Sabatella might have to offer the next time around.

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originally posted: 11/16/19 02:05:16
last updated: 11/16/19 02:47:10
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