Clash Action Park

Streaming on HBO Max, this documentary tells the story of a world without rules a world that is wild and fun and resulted in the deaths of five people. The movie is full of unbelievable stories. Memorable anecdotes and an interesting perspective on growing up.

Action Park was an amusement park located in New Jersey. It was opened by Eugene Mulvihill in 1978 back when water parks were new and it was basically the Wild West. “Uncle Gene” as he was called by friends and employees didn’t believe in rules or regulations. He wanted to recreate his country upbringing and give to the kids of the area. This meant a lazy river designed to mimic the most intense rapids of the Colorado River, a twenty foot cliff that kids could jump off of into a stream fed pool, and something called the kayak experience in which underwater fans churned up the water to give the feel of intense waves.

The film incorporates former employees and former guests of the park to share their experiences. Their anecdotes would be unbelievable if they weren’t all corroborated by each other.

One if the most incredible attractions was called the Cannonball Loop. It was a water slide that began in a steep decline then shot up into a 360 degree vertical loop that then deposited the rider into a pool. This slide was designed by Uncle Gene on the back of a napkin. He hired local welders to put it together. They dummies down to test it. They came out the other side mangled. They made adjustments and Uncle Gene offered $100 to anybody brave enough to go down the slide. The first brave sounds came out with bloodied mouths from hitting their faces in the loop. They made some changes and Uncle Gene paid some more kids to try it out. These kids came out the other side with scratches. They couldn’t figure out why until they opened the slide and found the teeth from the first kids embedded in the padding of the slide.

The actual cannonball loop.

That’s just the first of many insane stories that this film has to offer. It gets crazier from there if you can believe that. The big question is with insane safety risks like this how did this park stay open? It turns out Uncle Gene had connections and a ruthless streak that the film explores. Spoiler alert but money talks. Health and safety are secondary to a healthy profit.

The film takes its time exploring these ridiculous rides and the wild anecdotes of irresponsible people behaving badly. It also explains how all this was allowed to happen, but it then shows the cost of this place. Five people died at this park. Lack safety regulations and no enforcement of rules by employees lead to the deaths of five people, and the film gives a deep exploration of one family’s experience with losing a child at the park. It’s a heartbreaking and harrowing story.

The movie ultimately explores how growing up has changed over the years. Today kids have rigid schedules full of sports teams and musii oh c lessons. Kids back then were told to go out and play. They had more freedom back then, but was that a good thing? After all they spent their free time at places like Action Park where nothing was safe and you were almost guaranteed to get seriously hurt or killed. It would be easy to glorify that past like most of our nostalgic media does, but this film takes a harder look at how this generation grew up.

I really loved this movie. I laughed. I cried. I thought about things in a new way. It’s a crazy story that elicited a similar reaction to Tiger King where every new detail made me say “are you kidding?”out loud. I highly recommend this wild ride.

Definitely my cup of tea. A

Sound of Metal

A deceptively simple story leads to one of the most powerful films of the year. With stunning performances, immersive sound design, and excellent direction this movie is a true piece of art.

The film tells the story of Ruben played by Riz Ahmed. He and his girlfriend Lou make up the metal band Blackgammon. They live in an RV and tour the country playing gigs. One day while setting up for a performance Ruben’s hearing drops out. He loses his hearing almost completely.

Naturally, he takes this news badly. Lous is fearful for him. He was a heroin addict and is displaying the same addict behavior he used to. She helps him get set up at a home for deaf recovering addicts. It’s here that Ruben has to make peace with his new normal and as one character puts it “learn to be deaf.”

From the opening moments this film uses sound in an arresting way. It begins with one of Blackgammon’s performances. I’m not a big metal, but this performance gripped me. The sound design focuses on the drums and the percussive power of that instrument as Ruben plays with burning intensity.

There’s a great montage of Ruben’s morning routine with very subtle emphasis on the sounds his interactions make. The sound of the coffee pot. The sound of the blender. The sound of his breathing while he exercises. It builds up in a way I hardly until Ruben’s hearing stops and the sound cuts out. It feels like being dunked in ice water. The tension is physical during this sequence. I became accustomed to the sound design and then to have it ripped away resulted in an extremely powerful empathy for what Ruben must be going through. It’s brilliant filmmaking.

The sound design is matched by superb direction from Darius Marder who also wrote the script along with Abraham Marder. He fills this story with excellent visual story telling, but mostly he focuses on faces. He allows the actors faces to tell the story. The photography is stunning as light and shadow interplay with sound to create a deeply immersive and engaging film.

Of course at the center of all of this is Riz Ahmed. He delivers a pitch perfect performance. He totally inhabits Ruben from start to finish. From the burning intensity in his eyes in the first scene to the serenity in his face in the last scene he carries every nuance of his character in his eyes. I loved this performance. I was deeply moved by this character and his journey.

I loved this movie. It’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime. If you’re looking for a good movie about a man coming to terms with his life and triumphing please give this movie a watch.

It’s my cup of tea. A

Promising Young Woman

This brilliantly made social commentary features an exquisite cast, excellent filmmaking, and a plot that consistently pulls the rug out from under your expectations.

I don’t want to give away anything. This movie is at its most fun when you let it surprise you. I will merely relay the information given in the films own trailer. Cassie is a young woman who threw away her medical aspirations years ago. She spends her weekends pretending to be drunk in bars in order to call out men for their vile behavior toward vulnerable women. That’s the premise in a nutshell, but the movie is so much more interesting than that!

The movie is deeply interested in the long term effects of trauma and what can happen to a person as they struggle with their pain. Carey Mulligan gives an A+ performance as Cassie. Cassie is a woman who has refused to move on from trauma and allowed her pain to close her off from life and the world around her. She lives with her parents brilliantly played by Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge. She works in a dead end minimum wage job. She has put her life on hold in the moment of her pain. So many revenge stories focus on how badass and awesome it is to get revenge. This film focuses on the toll it takes on the revenge seeker.

On top of the films heavy themes of revenge and sexual violence it is an absolute blast to watch! This is a fun movie. The filmmaking is energetic and brilliantly creative. The opening sequence is shot like a Hitchcock suspense then shifts into full blown horror movie mode. There are multiple scenes of dramatic conversations in which the power dynamic sifts subtly between the characters and the camera moves to emphasize those shifts in wonderful ways.

The opening shots of this film delights me. I’m sure we’ve all seen the music videos that focus on bikini clad girls butts shaking to music. This opens in a night club. The music is thumping. The lights are flashing. But instead of sexy supermodel butts. It’s middle aged dudes. No bikinis just khakis. No lady butts just flat dude butts. It’s hilarious and announces the movies style and intentions perfectly. It made me laugh and still makes me smile.

I loved how this film balanced its tonal shifts. There are moments that are laugh out loud funny, but there are moments full of pain and loss. The film manages to keep it all feel of a piece. It stays rooted in Cassie as a character. She is capable of humor and joy and as the story progresses she might even be able to heal, but that pain is still there.

There are too many great performances here to get into them all, but here’s a quick rundown… Alfred Molina is wonderful as a mirror of what Cassie could become. He is twitchy and excellent. Bo Burnham is a delight as a potential love interest for Cassie. Alison Brie is pitch perfect as the successful conceited woman we all have in our lives and despise. Molly Shannon shows up and has a brilliant little scene.

The movie challenged me to examine my own behavior and how I would behave in certain circumstances. I’m sure it will just offend and outrage some people unwilling to examine themselves more closely. The movie doesn’t demonize anyone. It just refuses to accept the excuses for bad behavior that we’ve gotten used to over the years.

The ending almost derailed the movie for me. It’s not the ending I was expecting and not what I was hoping for. However, looking back it was foreshadowed perfectly, and it fits the narrative. It is kind of exactly how the movie needed to end even if it wasn’t exactly as I was expecting.

This movie is challenging. It’s funny. It’s tragic. It’s true. And it’s brilliantly made. I loved it. I was enthralled, I lost track of time and just e gaged fully with the story. I hope you give it a shot. It’s streaming for rent on various platforms.

It’s my cup of tea. A

News of the World

The Tom Hanks western is a typical road movie that often rises above its predictable genre and occasionally soars. It is rich with period detail and left me with a real emotional impact.

The story follows a Civil War Veteran named Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, played by Tom Hanks. He makes a living traveling from remote town to remote town and reading out newspapers to the townsfolk who either can’t read or don’t have the time and inclination after toiling all day. The film is full of fascinating historical details like this. People really made their living reading the news for a dime.

On the road, Kidd comes across an overturned wagon and a young girl. This girl it turns out was taken by the Kiowa tribe of Indians after her family was murdered. She has lived her life as one of them, but was taken in order to be returned to her remaining family. As one character says she has been orphaned twice in her life. Her name is Johanna and she is played by newcomer Helena Zengel, and my goodness is she fantastic. She is actually German and in the course of the film speaks three different languages, Kiowa, German, and English. She is enigmatic, empathetic, and defiant all in a single look.

Kidd reluctantly decides to take her to her family and the two set out together. If you’ve seen one road movie you know what happens. They encounter bad weather, good people who try to help and bad people who try to harm them all the while they bond and grow closer. What makes this movie stand out for me is the authenticity of it. It is brimming with true to life details. One of the villains who menaces them was in the war and felt cheated. He lost everything, and doesn’t appear to have any use of his right arm. That kind of specific detail just enriches this character who could’ve been a generic baddie. The rooms are all lit by sunlight through the windows or by candles and lanterns. There don’t appear to be any artificial lights to create a mood. It just lends an authentic feel. There’s a practicality also to the supplies the characters have. Kidd is not rich, he borrows a wagon for the trip. He only has one gun with limited ammunition. He has to stop and read the news for money to pay their way. This isn’t a road movie where practical life isn’t taken into consideration. It added so much to experience of their journey for me. I loved feeling immersed into this world.

The actors are universally solid, but Hanks and Zengel are stunning. They are both great performers and they equal each other in their scenes here. I loved the way that their bond wasn’t forced. These two circle each other and slowly trust one another while only sharing a few words in common. The scene where they teach each other words in their own language was a joy. Skilled performers doing great work is always a pleasure.

The film is directed by Paul Greengrass. I’ve never liked Paul Greengrass. He ushered in the age of shaky-cam, rapid-editing disorienting action movies with The Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum. His work has always been fine. It’s never really worked for me. He doesn’t seem to have much of a vision as evidenced by the first shot of this movie being a shadowy back room where Tom Hanks is doing something. It’s not clear. The movie doesn’t exactly announce its presence with its first shot so much as stumble into its first scene. He doesn’t craft images so much as shoot action. Which is fine. It’s serviceable. His filmmaking doesn’t do much for me. Here, he doesn’t do shaky cam action. His filmmaking isn’t inspired but it gets the job done and tells the story efficiently.

My other big issue was the cgi. It’s used sparingly here, mostly just to recreate herds of buffalo and cattle being driven across the plains. That said it is so bad. It is distractingly bad. It looks like a beautiful landscape photo with a bunch of video game animals awkwardly inserted into it. It might not bother anyone else, but I found super distracting.

It’s somewhat predictable, the direction is lacking flair, and the cgi is poor. On the other hand you have A+ performances and a world rich in detail. For me, the good overtakes the bad. Hanks and Zengel give such compassionate and beautiful performances that my heartstrings were tugged and I felt it all. It’s a really good movie if not an entirely great one.

It is my cup of tea. A-

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

A ferocious new film from Netflix boasts stellar performances and a great film adaptation of a play. This is a full throated roar of a movie that bursts with energy and fervor. It is absolutely worth your time and attention.

Based on the play by August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom follows the eponymous blues singer Ma Rainey, played by Viola Davis, as she records a record in Chicago on a sweltering summer day. There is conflict between Rainey and everyone, her manager, the record label owner, and her backing band especially Levee, played by Chadwick Boseman. Levee is young with fresh ideas about the future of music and the way to play songs. He is an incendiary force in the rehearsal room as he challenges and antagonizes the backing band.

Though based on a play, the film never feels like a stage play. So many films based on plays feel locked into a single location the way a stage play would be. The director George C Wolfe is an acclaimed director of film and stage. He handles the material beautifully never letting scenes drag nor cutting them too short. He has an excellent eye for staging and how to move the camera within a confined space to give the performers room to breathe while also creating a claustrophobic sense of space. It’s one of the best stage adaptations I’ve seen in a long time.

The film is full of fascinating themes that resonate deeply today. Race plays a huge role in the film. The band is all black and each member has their own history with racism and race relations. Levee has one of the most powerful monologues I’ve seen and Boseman knocks it out of the park. Specifically, there is a fascinating power struggle between Ma Rainey and the white record producers. They try to back her into corners and force her hand. They offer her less money than they agreed on. They “forget” the case of coke she demanded. They try to rush the recording and use arrangements she doesn’t like. She gives it right back to them. She knows she can sell records and she knows that’s the only reason they are working with her. She throws her weight around and the power struggle on display is fascinating to watch. The final moments of this movie is one of the quietest yet hardest hitting moments in modern movies. It is so subtle yet lands like a roll of thunder.

Chadwick Boseman is getting all the acclaim, and deservedly so. He had been struggling with cancer during the filming of this movie and his thin somewhat gaunt appearance is a haunting reminder that this is the last time we’ll be seeing him in a new roll. It’s doubly tragic watching him portray a character so excited by the future. I hope genuinely hope he wins every award for this movie. His performance is so well rounded and so full that it would be a shame if anyone else stole it from him. He is brilliant here.

Also brilliant is Viola Davis as Ma Rainey. She is a woman with a big personality. By the time she walks in a room she’s already been there for ten minutes. She has a big bold look with gold teeth and heaps of makeup, but Davis is never swallowed up by the accoutrement. She has a beating heart underneath it all. And through the film she conveys that all this is protection against the bastards of the world trying to cheat her out of what she has. It’s a brilliant performance in a movie full of brilliant performances .

I was deeply affected by this movie. It captured me from a filmmaking standpoint. It hit me right in the heart with its tragic elements. It made me think about the world in a different way. I loved this movie. It rings in my head like a great song does. It’s absolutely my cup of tea. It’s currently streaming on Netflix. Please check it out. It’s an A for me.

A fun side note, the title of the film is of course the title of the song Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom which the band records int he movie. The Black Bottom was a dance craze that swept the nation in the 1920’s and refers to the Black Bottom neighborhood of Detroit where the dance originated.

Wonder Woman 1984

This movie is like a meal consisting of delicious elements that don’t work well together, like steak and cotton candy. The movie is a bit of a tonal mess. It has an overly complicated plot. It has some uninspired action, but it also has Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, and some truly great moments. All in all its uneven but often enjoyable.

The film was released on Christmas Day both on the HBO Max streaming service and in theaters for those willing to brave theaters during these days. This is review is coming late, but I feel it’s better to let the dust settle a little bit with these big movies before diving into the fray.

Wonder Woman begins with a superfluous opening flashback to Diana as a girl in her mystical homeland. We first saw this homeland in the original Wonder Woman movie. Diana competes in an overly elaborate triathlon as a child. She takes a shortcut which disqualifies her from the competition. She is told she must learn that victory can only be obtained through honesty.

We flash forward to 1984, where adult Diana is played once again by the radiant Gal Gadot. She is fantastic as Wonder Woman. She is elegant, gorgeous, and strong while conveying deep love and care for those around her. She is working at the Smithsonian during the day, and fighting crime whenever it rears its ugly head as it does in the local shopping mall when a group of heavily armed thieves try to rob a jewelry store. Diana flashes into Wonder Woman mode and takes out the thieves in a somewhat comical opening sequence. It really feels more cheesy than thrilling, and more silly than serious. The action is weightless and frothy like cotton candy which is odd considering one of the thieves threatens to murder a child. It feels like that should have some weight to it, but it doesn’t. And just like the movie, we’re moving on.

Diana meets Barbara played by Kristen Wiig playing a Kristen Wiig type. She is clumsy and awkward and can’t walk in heels! Most people ignore her, and Diana does too until she learns that Barbara has been tased with identifying the objects those thieves were after from the mall. Diana and Barbara get to know each other and their interplay is actual quite interesting. They seem to enjoy each other as actors and they have some fun.

One object that Barbara is having trouble identifying is a stone. It turns out to have magic powers. It grants the wish of anyone who holds it. Diana holds it and wishes for her great love Steve Trevor to come back. He died in the first movie, but that night. Diana recognizes him at a party. It’s not Steve’s body. It’s Steve trapped inside another man’s body. No need to worry though, through a delightful camera trick, the man dissolves into the hunky and handsome body of Chris Pine. Their chemistry and interplay is incredibly fun. They work wonderfully together and their rapport is the highlight of the film. I wish the entire film was these two just going on adventures and making sexy eyes at each other. They’re great.

But it’s time to introduce the villain. If it feels like it took a long time to introduce the villain, that’s how it feels in the movie too. He feels like he was imported from a different film. There is a pretty solid trio of Diana, Barbara, and Steve, then there’s Max Lord. He is a failing oil tycoon who is about to lose everything when he happens to come across the wishing stone. He wishes for the power of the stone and the world goes to hell. He has an interesting story involving his son. He wants to be someone his son can be proud of, but in seeking power and wealth he casts his son aside. It’s a classic story that works because of how good Pedro Pascal is. He’s a good actor who does his best. He has no relationship with Diana and their conflict is underdeveloped. Barbara and Diana have a good relationship that becomes more interesting once it becomes antagonistic. Diana and Steve have a great relationship that offers nuance and shading to Diana’s moral imperative. But Diana and Max maybe meet once in the movie before the climactic showdown. There’s just nothing there.

Thematically, the movie is all over the place. The thesis statement at the beginning is about honesty. The max Lord plot line is about getting something for nothing. Diana and Steve is about self sacrifice. Diana and Barbara is about the self destructive quality of envy. None of these themes really coalesce. In the end that do some semantic gymnastics to make it seem as if granting wishes is a dishonest way to get what you want without sacrifice and achieve the object of your envy. It feels the way a suitcase feels when there’s too much packed in it and the broken zipper is barely holding it together.

The movie creates a lot of problems for itself that could have easily been avoided. For instance, Steve Trevor shouldn’t have inhabited someone else’s body. It felt like they were going somewhere with it at first. Addressing the moral issue of stealing someone else’s life in order to have what you want, but they quickly abandon this idea and forget about the consequences of stealing someone’s body for your pleasure. They never adequately explain the rules of the wishing stone. It took a while after the film was finish to break it all down. A simple scene laying out the rules would have helped a lot. The final fight scene is also kind of silly. Diana is dressed in golden armor looking like a bird, and she fights a person who is transformed into a cat. In the words of my brother it looks like Sylvester fighting Tweetie Bird.

In spite of all of this, I still had fun. Gal Gadot has one of the most infectious smiles in film. Her last scene with Chris Pine really hit me. It worked really beautifully. There’s a superfluous car chase scene that is fun to watch. The brawl in the White House in which Steve and Diana help each other out and support each other is a lot of fun. Kristen Wiig’s transformation is handled nicely. Her wardrobe and mannerisms do a lovely job of conveying her arc. Max Lord has a very compelling story.

There are far worse super hero movies you could waste your time with. This one is nowhere near the top of the list, but I had enough fun with it to give it a modest recommendation.

It’s half a cup of tea for me. B

Reindeer Games

My friend Michael and I have been watching bad movies for years. We’ve decided to share a few of them with you and discuss the highs and lows and let you know if there is anything worth watching in these movies.

We recorded our discussion and present it here for you. We keep it brief. In the time it takes you to brew a cup of tea we’ll cover an entire movie. Click the audio player below to listen to our discussion.

In three minutes we’ll cover an entire movie.

Mank

An alcoholic writes a masterpiece while reminiscing about his past in this pastiche/love letter to old Hollywood. It looks great and has all the elements in place, it’s just not that great.

The film follows Herman Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman, as he is sequestered in a remote desert ranch in order to write a movie for the wunderkind Orson Welles. The script would become Citizen Kane widely regarded as the greatest film ever made. Mank, as he prefers to be called, is recovering from a recent car accident and is relegated to a bed aided by a nurse and a secretary played by Monika Gossman and Lily Collins respectively.

Mank himself is a classic case of the self destructive, disagreeable protagonist. He drinks to excess. He gambles fortunes on coin tosses and election results. He carouses and carries on and refers to his wife as Poor Sara for her long suffering devotion. He’s depicted here as the only one who will tell the truth in a city full of people who speak in euphemisms. It’s just too bad the truths he shares aren’t more interesting or engaging. It’s not exactly original to say Hollywood is vapid and obsessed with the bottom line.

Much like Citizen Kane, the movie bounces around in time. The movie Mank is writing is a thinly veiled biography of William Randolph Hearst. As Mank writes, the film flashes back to the time Mank spent with Hearst and his lover Marion Davies. Heart is played formidably by Charles Dance, and Davies is played wonderfully by Amanda Seyfried. Dance gets to play power and authority which he does so well. Seyfried gets to thread the needle of Davies. She is a well known actress from the 20’s and 30’s. She could easily fall into caricature and cliche, but Seyfried embraces the part and melts into the role beautifully. It’s a great performance.

The movie is chock full of subplots. Mank’s secretary might be killed in action during WWII. Mank’s friend makes newsreels he finds morally objectionable. His brother is trying to make it in Hollywood. His protege is trying to protect Davies. His wife is taking care of him and the children. Irving Thalberg is trying to help Louis B Mayer take down Upton Sinclair in his run for Governor. There’s so much going on this movie and none of it feels particularly focused. The movie ostensibly about everything that motivated Mank to take down Hearst with his script, but there is so much that that they throw in there that the narrative thread gets completely lost at times.

The movie looks fantastic. They work very hard to make it look like a movie shot in the 1940’s. It’s shot in black and white. It has grain and what’s called cigarette burns in the corners of the frame. The period detail is exquisite. I loved watching the movie and sort of luxuriating in its aesthetic.

Gary Oldman’s wonderful. Of course he is. He delivers a great performance and creates a complete portrait of a man slowly realizing he’s washed up. His boozy stumbling and slurring never feels over the top. He really delivers a great performance. It’s just not in service of a story that supports his efforts. The problem here is at the script level. For a movie about writing, ironically the writing needs the most work.

I should love this movie. I love old movies. I love old Hollywood. I love black and white. This movie has everything I love It has an interesting peak behind the curtains story. It has a wonderful aesthetic, and it has great actors delivering great performances. However it never comes together for me. It never feels satisfying. It’s just a fine homage. You can do worse, but I feel safe saying you can skip it. If you do decide to watch it, it just premiered on Netflix.

In theory it’s my cup of tea. In practice, it’s only okay. B