Monthly Archives: September 2022

A Boozy Mission

Zac Effron brings pop-a-top cheer to Vietnam troops

The Greatest Beer Run Ever
Starring Zac Efron
Directed by Peter Farrelly
Rated R

In select theaters and on Apple TV+ on Sept. 30

There’ve been a lot of movies about the war in Vietnam, and some of them have rightfully become classics: Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July, Casualties of War, The Deer Hunter, Platoon. They all plumbed the intense human drama, the moral and ethical complications and the horrific realities of a prolonged conflict that cost nearly 60,000 American lives, plus with more than 3 million civilians and soldiers in North and South Vietnam.

There’s that league of masterpieces, then there’s The Greatest Beer Run ever. In beer terms, this movie’s a bit frothy and lite.

Zac Efron stars as “Chickie” Donohoe, a hawkish, mouthy New Yorker who decides to deliver some back-home barroom cheer to the neighborhood lads serving and fighting in Southeast Asia. He says he’s going there to hand-deliver them cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon from the local pub.

It’s 1967, and Chickie is a staunch supporter of the U.S. involvement in the war; he thinks protesters are “Commie bastards” and scumbags, undermining the heroic efforts of G.I.s to spread the American way. He thinks TV shouldn’t report “bad news,” only the great things our guys are doing. He’s a good-time-Charlle boozehound who freeloads off his parents, doesn’t follow through on anything and has made it so far on his cocky charms.

Even though his friends and his family tell him his idea is foolish, stupid, colossally dangerous and likely impossible, Chickie sees his beer run as his way of supporting the troops. “Everyone’s doin’ something,” he muses. “I’m doin’ nothing.”

So off he goes, with a bag full of brewskies.

Director and writer Peter Farrelly is best known for the raunchy comedies he made with his filmmaking brother, Bobby, including Dumb and Dumber, Shallow Hal, There’s Something About Mary, The Heartbreak Kid and a 2012 contemporary twist on The Three Stooges. He branched out in 2018 into more “serious” fare with The Green Book, which brought him a trio of Oscars.

Like Green Book, which was based on a true story—a Black classical pianist and his streetwise Italian driver find common ground on a trip across the Deep South in the early 1960s—Beer Run is also based on real retro events as detailed by the real-life Chickie in a 2020 book.

Zac Effron stars as Chickie Donoho in this sudsy saga based on a true story.

Efron, the former High School Musical Disney star, went on to big-screen roles in The Greatest Showman, the movie remakes of TV’s Baywatch, Steven King’s Firestarter and the musical Hairspray, and he played notorious serial killer Ted Bundy in Netflix’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. He gives Chickie a kind a contagious, dunderheaded likeability; some of that might be mojo of the moustache he appears to have borrowed from Tom Selleck or Burt Reynolds. 

It’s a somewhat whimsical, fanciful tale, about a young, preppy-looking American guy who hops off a U.S. Merchant Marine freighter into the hot zone with a sack of suds. And Farrelly leans on his light-touch comedy chops for running gags, bro banter, punchlines and scenes that point out the tall-tale absurdity of it all. But the movie’s tone is all over the place; the comedy often clashes with the raw, visceral realities of war, and the watered-down production values feel like hammy Hollywood hokum. There’s little “movie magic” to plunge viewers in the mud, blood and teeming turmoil of a country ripped apart by war.

But there’s plenty of magic in that duffel that Chickie dutifully totes around everywhere he goes. At one point, a soldier asks him how many beers are in there. “A bunch,” he replies. Indeed—it seems to be a bottomless pit of boozy sorcery, an endless well of pop-top refreshment. Chickie hands out Pabsts all over Vietnam, on the streets, in barracks, on the battlefield, even tossing them from a helicopter. It’s like Felix the Cat’s Bag of Tricks, a cartoonish stunt. Maybe Jesus had a Chickie bag full of loaves and fishes at the Sermon on the Mount.

The movie brings up issues of relevance, then and now—about lying government officials, the role and responsibilities of the media, a nation divided and Vietnam’s caustic toll. Chickie’s eyes are gradually opened to what’s really going on, watching in shock as a prisoner of war is tossed from a military chopper, or seeing first-hand the dirty work keeping the war machine humming. He comes to realize that, hey, maybe sending American troops to get involved in a civil conflict halfway across the globe, under the ruse of “fighting Communism,” isn’t such a swell idea. His bag of beer doesn’t change anything in Vietnam, or about Vietnam. It does, however, wash away Chickie’s delusions.

Russell Crowe plays a war photographer.

A chorus of cardboard-thin supporting characters pops in and out; this is Chickie’s movie, based on Chickie’s book, based on something Chickie did 50-some years ago, and everyone else is just along to shore up his chummy chronicle. Some two decades removed from the Roman-arena battlefield of Gladiator, Russell Crowe plays a gruff, weary war photographer. His size is, ahem, formidable, but his duties are small, just like the iconic Bill Murray’s portrayal of the flag-waving WWII-veteran bartender back at Chickie’s favorite Manhattan watering hole.

Don’t look for The Greatest Beer Run Ever to get any champagne toasts at next year’s Oscars. It’s a tidy little diversion, an over-simplified story about a shallow fellow who finally follows through on something and learns something else—something many Americans already knew—in the process. It didn’t end the war, but Chickie’s beer run changed his way of thinking.

It’s no Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket, but it has just enough uplifting Green Book DNA to make this sudsy, somewhat superficial tale go down easy, like a foxhole quaff from one of the lukewarm ales rattling around in Chickie’s duffel bag.  

So, drink up. This beer’s on Chickie!

‘X’ Marks the Spot

Mia Goth stars in director Ti West’s stylish slasher-flick prequel

Mia Goth is Pearl, a homicidal maniac in the making.

Starring Mia Goth, David Corenswet & Tandi Wright
Directed by Ti West
Rated R

In theaters Friday, Sept. 16

Wondering how an innocent farmer’s daughter becomes a raging homicidal maniac? Well, then, Pearl’s your girl.

Director Ti West’s carnage-packed, candy-colored creepshow is a prequel to X, his horror hit from earlier this year, which featured the character in an advanced age in the late 1970s, lusting for her youth and lost sexuality while preying on an amateur film crew secretly making a dirty movie out behind her barn. Former model-turned-actress Mia Goth played double roles in X, and she now returns as the younger Pearl.

For anyone who saw X (and that’s probably not a lot of you), Pearl fills in the early years and reveals the twisted roots of the young woman who’ll eventually become lethally handy with an axe and a pitchfork. (And a pet alligator.) If you didn’t see X, well, just sit back and watch the lurid nightmare unfold.

Set in 1918, it’s a slasher-flick homage to lavish, big-screen Technicolor spectacles of yesteryear, with overt winks to The Wizard of Oz, rah-rah musicals, war movies and classic Hitchcock. There’s even a nod to the modern world, as characters mask up a la COVID to prevent the spread of the Spanish flu, fearful of bringing the invisible invader into their homes.

Pearl is a war bride whose husband is away fighting “over there,” while she stays at home with her unyielding, German-immigrant mother (Tandi Wright) and invalid, wheelchair-bound father (Matthew Sunderland). Something’s not quite right with Pearl, and she knows it. “I’m worried there may be something really wrong with me,” she tells her sunny sister-in-law, Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro). “I’m not a good person.”

A cooked pig crawling with maggots becomes a metaphor for the rot that eventually eats away the “good,” and the normal, inside of Pearl.

So, what turns her into a psycho? Maybe it’s being cooped up and confined, like the cow and the goat in their pens, inside a quarantined house with an overbearing mother and an unresponsive father. Maybe it’s because she feels no one ever hears her prayers, and the religious zealotry she’s been force-fed tastes bitter and empty. Maybe it’s her conflicted, confused feelings of sexual repression, and her marriage to a husband she knows she may never see again. Perhaps it’s her boiling-over frustration at being stuck in the middle of an American nowhere (actually, the movie was filmed in New Zealand), with dashed hopes of ever getting out and experiencing the bigger world, in Hollywood or perhaps even Paris.

And then there’s the obsessive tug of Pearl’s dreams, her fantasy of becoming a “follies” girl like the ones in the newsreels she sees at the local picture show. At an audition for a touring dancing troupe, she steps onstage, onto the “X” that’s been taped on the floor to show her where to stand—a mark that sets her identity, secures her place in the world, and seals her destiny of destruction. (It also shows that the anxieties—and crushed hopes—of contestants on contemporary TV talent completions, like The X Factor, America’s Got Talent or American Idol, certainly aren’t anything new. But will any of those wannabe’s become psychos? Guess we’ll have to wait and see.)

A bohemian movie projectionist takes Pearl for a ride.

David Corenswet plays the dashing movie-theater projectionist who flatters Pearl, telling her she can be anything she wants to be, go anywhere she wants to go. He also introduces her to his bed, and to pornography, stirring the tangled, matted mess of psychological, pathological madness in her head. (And suggesting that overheated fantasies of being up on the silver screen or the stage, becoming famous, can really mess up impressionable young minds.) When Pearl stops her bicycle to dry-hump a straw man in a cornfield, it’s a crazily carnal twist on Dorothy’s meeting with the scarecrow en route to Oz. Only there’s no Yellow Brick Road on Pearl’s highway to hell.

Goth is a British actress who had a notable supporting role in Emma (2020)—and got her movie start in the notorious two-part Nymphomaniac (2013), an erotic opus about promiscuous sexuality. In a bravura, gutsy performance, she pulls off the trick of making us feel both sympathy and revulsion for Pearl, whose severe emotional damage creates monstrously scary impulses. Is she crazy? Oh, yeah. Is she unhinged enough to lash out at anyone, or anything, that gets in the way of her dreams? For sure. Even farm animals—and prenatal alligators—aren’t safe.

Pearl shows her ailing father her swamp pet…at dangerously close range.

Yes, it’s violent. It’s bloody. It’s meant to be disturbing. But this super-stylized shocker has a wild, freakishly compelling story—about how mental illness and instability can turn almost anyone into a monster, in 1918 or today. And it’s all packaged with a stylish cinematic flourish and flair, and a splatter-y caution that echoes ancient folktales, about children longing to “leave the farm” for the big city.     

“Seems there’s something missing in me that the rest of the world has,” Pearl says at one point. “All I really wanted is to be loved.”

Something may be missing for Pearl, but Goth has certainly found it, in a horror franchise that now plans its third chapter, MaXXXine, about her character from X as the sole survivor of Pearl’s rampage in that film. (Stay through the credits to see the teaser.)

In her case, “X” indeed marks the spot.


Sam Rockwell & Saorise Ronan play mismatched cops in a multi-level murder mystery

Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan star in ‘See How They Run.’

See How They Run
Starring Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan & Adrien Brody
Directed by Tom George

In theaters Friday, Sept. 16

Who’s up for a whodunnit?

A lot of people, apparently, given the wide popularity of TV police procedurals, hit shows like Only Murders in the Building, movies (Knives Out, Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile) and the evergreen murder-mystery conundrums of author Agatha Christie.

In this cleverly comedic clue caper set in the early 1950s, a London theatrical production—of a real Agatha Christie murder mystery—goes off the rails when an actual murder (Eeeeek!) occurs backstage. Soon, a jaded Scotland Yard police inspector (Sam Rockwell) and an overzealous young constable trainee (Saoirse Ronan) arrive on the scene to investigate.

And then, as they say, the plot thickens, into a zesty swirl of possible suspects, likely motives and dizzying distractions, as the two coppers dig into the dish-y high-drama dilemma. “Don’t jump to conclusions,” Rockwell’s experienced sleuth cautions his greenhorn partner, who’s eager to peg almost everything as a case-closing revelation—and nearly everyone as a culprit.

British director Tom George, who honed his craft with short films and BBC comedy, makes his solid feature film debut with the support of a fine ensemble cast and an affection for the gloriously retro grit and glitz of London’s yesteryear theatrical world. He also shows a witty grasp of turning the time-honored traditions of murder mysteries inside out, then back onto themselves, into something fresh and lively and frequently surprising. 

Ruth WIlson, Reece Shearsmith, Harris Dickinson, Sian Clifford, Pearl Chanda, Jacob Fortune Lloyd, David Oyelowo and Ania Marson—there’s no shortage of suspects!

Rockwell, a versatile American actor with more than 110 movie and TV roles, adds a new character to his eclectic resume, which includes playing a stir-crazy astronaut (Moon), a superstar choreographer (Fosse/Verdon), President George W. Bush (Vice), a Nazi officer (JoJo Rabbit) and a groovy summertime guru (The Way Way Back). Here, he humanizes his role as the wry Scotland Yard veteran—limping along with a battlefield injury from World War II—with a rumpled, crumpled veneer of world-weary experience anchored to sobering physical and psychological wounds.

Ronan probably won’t net another Oscar nomination, to go along with her previous four, for Atonement, Brooklyn, Lady Bird and Little Women. But she serves up a quaint, likeable, restrained turn that recalls her quirky work with director Wes Anderson in The Grand Budapest Hotel and The French Dispatch. Like Rockwell, she subtly adds dimensionality to a role that could have been significantly thinner and more comedically drawn; Stocker, a war widow whose star-struck obsession with show biz is often good for a pun, is also an avatar of 1950s proto-feminism, a working-class mom determined to do her job and advance in it. 

Adrien Brody (who won an Oscar for The Pianist and appeared alongside Ronan in The French Dispatch) plays an American director in London to change whatever he must to refashion the West End stage sensation as a Hollywood movie hit—much to the chagrin of the outraged screenwriter (David Oyelowo), who’d rather adhere to traditional theatrical elements. There’s the film-to-be’s producer (Reece Shearsmith), sneaking around to hide his affair with his assistant (Pippa Bennett-Warner) from his wife (Sian Clifford, who played Claire on the TV series Fleabag).

Why was the theater manager (Ruth Wilson) so anxious to sell the movie rights to the play? What makes the star of the show (Harris Dickinson) and his actress spouse (Shirley Henderson) so smug? And what’s up with the usher (Charlie Cooper)? Does it have something to do with the sandbag counterweight that bonked him on his head?

The movie revels in classic murder-mystery conventions, giving them a deliciously self-aware twist. And it’s all a charming cinematic toast to the works of Agatha Christie, whose stories and novels have been turned into nearly 40 films and numerous plays—including six staged in London during the 1950s. One of them was, in fact, The Mousetrap, which is the very play at the center of See How They Run

On the stakeout.

Many of the character’s names are wink-wink references to other murder mysteries and actors. Director Alfred Hitchcock gets a shout-out, and so does ‘50s superstar Grace Kelly, who starred in four of Hitchcock’s films (including Rear Window, North by Northwest and Dial M for Murder) before she became Princess of Monaco. Rockwell’s Inspector Stoppard echoes the name of lauded playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard, whose many works included a play about—much like See How They Run—a stage production rocked by a real murder. The inspector’s protégé, Constable Stocker, shares her name with the fictional detective Lise Stocker, who appeared in the French TV series Killer by the Lake. The play’s lead actor, “Dickie” Attenborough (playing a detective investigating the crime) might just be intended as a younger version—or a reminder—of the late, great British actor and director Sir Richard Attenborough, whose long career was capped off by his recurring role as John Hammond in the Jurassic Park franchise. The producer, John Wolff, is based on a real-life Oscar-winning Hollywood filmmaker of that same name, who brought several major projects (including The African Queen and Oliver!) to the screen.

Split-screen moments convey the idea that there’s more than one way to see things—quite apt for unraveling a murder mystery, where suspects and clues can be everywhere, anything might be significant, and no detail can be overlooked. A couple of scenes make use of mirrors, “looking glasses” that reflect reversed versions of the same image. At one point, the detective actor goes “Method” and incorporates a physical characteristic of the “real” detective, Inspector Stoppard; Stoppard later mimics—mirrors—the role of the stage actor. This inventive British potboiler, a mirror of classic murder mysteries, playfully blurs the lines between art and artifice, then sends them straight into a merry-mayhem loop-de-loop.

And in the final act of this film about a play being made into a movie, Agatha Christie herself (Shirley Henderson) makes a significant appearance—and the grand dame becomes part of her own drama.

“It’s a whodunnit,” Brody’s director says early on. “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all.” Ah, not quite—and don’t be so quick to pre-judge the clue-sniffing charms of this meta ode to murder mysteries, the stage and the screen, which shows there’s still plenty of movie mileage in smoking guns, tainted tea, cocktails, mismatched cops and guys in felt fedoras.

In other words, as Inspector Stoppard advises, don’t jump to conclusions.   

Ain’t Got No Strings

Disney’s ‘Pinocchio’ dusts off the age-old tale of the puppet who wants to be real

Tom Hanks plays Geppetto in ‘Pinocchio’

Starring Tom Hanks, Luke Evans and the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Benjamin Evan Ainsworth
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Rated PG
Streaming Sept. 8 on Disney+

A classic fairy tale comes to magical life once again in this tall tale of a wooden puppet who longs to become a real boy.

Pinocchio, the little Italian marionette, has been around for quite a while—almost 250 years, in fact. His roots are in a novel published in the late 1880s by Tuscan author Carlo Gilodi, and his story “came alive” for American audiences with the beloved 1940 animated Disney film that’s still considered an unqualified House of Mouse-terpiece and a high-water mark for golden-age, hand-illustrated cinematic storytelling.

Following the vintage blueprint of the 1940 version, the new Disney version makes a few notable tweaks; some new things are added, some old things axed for this eye-catching combo platter of live performance and state-of-the-art computer animation. Pinocchio purists may flinch, but hey, the 1883 novel ends with a real downer—the little puppet is hanged and executed. So just keep that in mind; even Disney-fied, this is an existential “hero’s journey” cloaked in danger and a descent into darkness. Ol’ Walt felt the original Italian folktale was too harsh and off-putting, especially for his sunshine factory, so he scrubbed it up considerably in 1940.

Cynthia Erivo is the Blue Fairy.

This new-nocchio features the venerable Tom Hanks as Geppetto, the aging woodcarver and clockmaker who fashions a “boy” puppet to fill the void of what is presumed to be the death of his young real-life son. After wishing upon a star—that his creation of pine could somehow come to life—his cottage is visited by the ethereal Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo), who grants the wish. Pinocchio (voiced by British newcomer Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) becomes sentient and animated, able to move without strings, but naïve to the ways of the world, its temptations and its treachery. So, Jiminy Cricket (voiced by Joseph-Gordon Levitt), a dapper little insect onlooker, is appointed the role of Pinocchio’s conscious, an important barometer to help him steer right instead of wrong.

The Blue Fairy tells Pinocchio that if he wants to be truly real, he must show himself to be “brave, truthful and unselfish.” And, as almost everyone knows, if he ever tells a lie, his nose will know—and grow and grow and grow.

Which, as it turns out, comes in handy.

And so begins Pinocchio’s wild adventures—kidnapped by a pair of street scallywags, a sly fox misleadingly named “Honest John” (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key) and his scraggly alley-cat cohort; sold as a novelty into puppet slavery to the greedy, bloated showman Stromboli (Italian actor Giuseppe Batson); escaping, only to find himself on Pleasure Island, where its cornucopia-carnival of anything-goes “pleasures” turn out to be only temporary.

And then Pinocchio ends up in the belly a fearsome sea creature known, appropriately enough, as Monstro.

How and this all wraps won’t be any surprise to anyone familiar with the tale, but one of Disney’s new tweaks is the ending—perhaps not as satisfying as a lot of people would wish, and that’s all I’ll divulge about that. But the story’s overtones about honesty, heroism and the importance of good behavior are very much intact. And kids: Stay in school!

Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket

And this being Disney, in the modern enlightened age of flagrant self-promotion, you’ll even get a wink-wink, yuk-yuk reference to actor Chris Pine (who’s starred in five Disney movie projects, including Into the Woods and A Wrinkle in Time), and a cuckoo display of characters from other classic Disney films, from Snow White to Roger Rabbit and Toy Story

Erivo, the Oscar-nominated British actress who’s played slave activist Harriet Tubman and musical legend Aretha Franklin, shines (literally) in her one scene as the Blue Fairy, a beacon of light belting out the memorable tune from Disney’s 1960 version that became a an Oscar winner—“When You Wish Upon a Star.” Another familiar song from the classic animated version is “High-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor’s Life for Me),” and Pinocchio sings “I’ve Got No Strings” while he’s prancing on stage with a squad of can-can marionettes. But Jiminy Cricket is robbed of his signature song, “Give a Little Whistle,” which is a bit of a bummer.

Luke Evans—most recently starring in Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers—has an enhanced, singing/dancing role as the coachman, who drives kids to their fates on Pleasure Island, and Lorraine Bracco is the voice of Sofia, a helpful seagull.

Director Robert Zemeckis knows movie magic—he took us Back to the Future in two movie sequels, marooned Tom Hanks in Cast Away and gave the world Forrest Gump. His stylish new spin on Pinocchio is a dazzling display of filmmaking, a seamless integration of hyper-realistic FX and human actors. Appropriate, I’d say, for a story about a wooden boy who longs to become real.

An artful new spin on an old, old tale, it likely won’t become a new-age Disney classic—not so long as the 1940 original is around, anyway. But this solidly fanciful fable vibrantly, creatively dusts off the years from pop culture’s most famous puppet.

And I’m not just pulling your strings.