Jeff’s Movie Reviews – Bill & Ted Face the Music

Jeff's Movie Reviews

Party On, Dudes

by Jeff Bowles

Nostalgia is a fickle thing. Sometimes it can make new spins on old content sparkle. Then again, it can also blind us to bad movies, books, TV shows, really anything marketable to our hungry and impatient inner kids. Nostalgia is often manipulated by the entertainment powers that be. Apart from sex and death, it’s Hollywood’s number one favorite tool. So how did this happen? How did we come to see the release of a new Bill & Ted movie in the year 2020, almost three decades after the last entry in the series, the aptly titled Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey? In that movie, the hapless, witless duo from San Dimas, California went to Hell and back. Literally. Gosh, where else can we take them? More importantly, should we even bother? Especially since stars Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter aren’t exactly high school students anymore?

The answer is that while Bill & Ted Face the Music occasionally misses the mark, it never leaves us feeling empty or bored, especially if that nostalgia factor is in play. I first saw the original when I was a kid. I’m a product of the 80s and 90s, so you can bet this movie was more entertaining for me than it would be for audiences either much older or much younger than I. But if you’re in the mood for a fun, funny, ridiculous time travel movie that’s no more or less useless or necessary than the first entries in this series, look no further. Bill & Ted Face the Music is a great excuse to stay home and stream, avoid the movie theaters, avoid that pesky virus. Heck, I’m not even sure Face the Music would’ve survived in the normal corporate theater chain climate. It’s kind of a specialty product, one nobody was looking or even asking for.

Bill S. Preston Esq. and Ted Theodore Logan have had a hard few decades since they braved the time-ways and journeyed through Hell and Heaven. Their band, Wild Stallions, has failed to ignite the period of world peace and excellence guaranteed by their old mentor, Rufus, and though they actually can play their instruments now, nobody cares about their music, which must be a shock for supposed rock and role messiahs. And on top of everything else, their marriages to the royal princesses (remember them?) are falling apart. It is a most heinous and non-excellent time, dudes.

The rest of the plot is a hodgepodge of different ideas that reflect places and faces we’ve seen before. Bill and Ted must write that one amazing song they’ve been trying to write since they were young, and screw the basic scientific efficacy of the concept of time travel, they’ve only got a few hours to write it. So what do they do? Cheat and try to steal it from their future selves, of course. Meanwhile, their teenage daughters—also cheerfully known as Bill and Ted—go on a quest of their own to recruit for Wild Stallions the likes of Jimmy Hendrix, Louis Armstrong, and Mozart. You see, the girls still believe in their dads, perhaps blindly so. After all, we’ve been promised Bill and Ted would save the world twice before. What makes anyone think they’re likely to do it now?

As you can see, there’s a lot going on here. And it’s only an hour-and-a-half long. More jokes land than miss, and there’s a larger supporting cast that’s hilarious to watch, including a robot assassin that feels terrible, just terrible for killing the wrong targets and the return of fan favorite the Grim Reaper, the ultimate rock bass player, Death himself.

Ultimately, the ride proves worthwhile, especially since Reeves and Winter give it their all. Neither seems terribly put out they’re having to reprise roles they haven’t played since the first Bush administration. They still hit their “dudes” and “whoas” with perfect timing, and it’s genuinely nice to see them again. I’m sure these guys never thought they’d star in another Bill & Ted, and to listen to them chat about it in interviews, they couldn’t have had a more enjoyable time making it if they’d tried.

Some lingering frustrations may ensue if you’ve allowed your brain to clock in at any moment during the running length. Also know this: the special effects were finished during the initial stages of the COVID outbreak, so some of them don’t look as bodacious as they otherwise might.

But so what? Bill & Ted Face the Music has a mind to rock you, entertain and overwhelm you with its nostalgic charm, and just like the original, you might actually learn something about yourself and the world. Like the fact that the great Satchmo was one of Jimi Hendrix’s key influences. Or that you’ve got more of that old goofy teenager lurking in your heart than you thought.

Jeff’s Movie Reviews gives Bill & Ted Face the Music a 7 out of 10.

Now do me a favor and be excellent to each other out there. After all, any one of us can change the world. We just need to sing the right song. Catch you later, blog-reading dudes!


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!

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Jeff’s Movie Reviews – The Secret: Dare to Dream

Jeff's Movie Reviews

The Law of Attraction in Action

by Jeff Bowles

The phrase “summer movie season” has a totally different meaning this year, doesn’t it? Point of fact, there really isn’t one. For the most part, cinemas have shut down all over the world, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t still watching movies at home. Maybe it’s old favorites with your Netflix subscription. Just chilling on the couch with your family, windows open to cool the house after a hot summer day … doing whatever it is people are doing to stay the heck away from Coronavirus.

Don’t worry. I’m not judging. I’ve literally forced myself to watch the entire Skywalker Saga on Disney+ four times. That’s a lot of lightsaber fights. A lot of them.

So here’s the deal. Writing to be Read is primarily a book blog. We talk about writing, literacy, try to keep you up to date on stuff you might want to read, and there’s room for some offhand conversations here and there as well. Normally, this time of year brings us a deluge of film releases, many of which are based on bestselling books (assuming you don’t get pelted by Marvel and DC before you make it to the popcorn stand). Now that the only real new releases are coming via the timely advent of at-home video streaming, pickings are slim, but I’ve come to you today to discuss a new movie based on a bestseller that is … well, let’s just say it’s more pop culture spiritual life coach than YA dystopia or gritty crime thriller.

The Secret, a book that teaches readers about the Law of Attraction, released in 2006 and summarily took the world by storm. It was later turned into an equally popular documentary, and eventually, a full-range self-help empire of near Tony-Robins-like proportions.

For those unfamiliar, the core teaching of The Secret is that we can have anything we want, as long as we keep a positive mental attitude, focus on desired outcomes rather than undesired ones, and basically have faith that the universe will provide exactly what we want, if perhaps not in the way we expect it. Plenty of people say it’s silly, ludicrous, wishful thinking, but there are many, especially in the New Age spiritual community, who hold The Secret as gospel.

Back in 2006, a bright and shining period in time compared to how 2020 has felt so far, the notion seemed plausible and exciting. After all, isn’t it determination and perhaps something outside ourselves, call it luck or grace or even the divine, that brings things into our lives right when we need them most? But then don’t bad things happen to us, too? And isn’t it cruel to blame people for their misfortunes by insinuating a negative mindset brought it to them?

Well, maybe. But that doesn’t stop the machine from churning. Now, with our movie theaters shuttered and barren like ghost towns, the international self-help brand The Secret has produced a feature film: The Secret: Dare to Dream. It’s a real Hollywood flick. It’s got movie stars, a genuine movie script, pretty yet bland domesticized locations. What it lacks, however, is the basic knowledge that pop spirituality, proselytization, and popcorn entertainment kinda don’t mix.

In recent years, there’s been a resurgence, a kind of renaissance, in Christian filmmaking. God’s Not Dead, The Case For Christ, I Can Only Imagine, these are movies of moderate budget, moderate expectations, that hit their audience and generally seem to work for them. The Secret: Dare to Dream is interested in riding in on a similar horse, although with a little veiled new agey-ness to go along with it.

Regardless of what you believe, surely you must admit that when entertainment becomes preachy it’s just not as, well, entertaining. And Dare to Dream does become preachy. Pretty darn quickly. That’s the whole point, right?

Miranda Wells (Katie Holmes) is a single mom and local restaurant manager who could seriously use a new house and a more positive outlook on life. When she literally runs into a guy called Bray (Josh Lucas) and damages the front fender of her van, Bray turns into mister fix-it, and as far as the filmmakers are concerned, enters the action specifically to transform Miranda’s life using the Law of Attraction. There’s more plot happening here than that, of course. There’s a superstorm, a hell of a lot of home damage (which Bray also volunteers to fix), and something of a love triangle.

The Secret: Dare to Dream - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell — Phoenix Film  Festival

Katie Holmes and Josh Lucas in The Secret: Dare to Dream

I’m assuming people who are interested in this movie already believe in the Law of Attraction. Here’s a little “secret” for you. I sort of do, too, though the miraculous and unbelievable circumstances that tie Dare to Dream’s plot together have certainly never happened in my conscious daily experience. Still, I do believe in miracles, and I certainly believe our focus determines our reality. But some readers of The Secret have complained over the years that the book is way too dreamy. And you know what? This stuff is supposed to be ancient esoteric wisdom anyway, so what the hell is it doing in my Josh Lucas romance?!

That’s right, I forgot to mention Dare to Dream has love on the brain, and it takes a halfway decent stab at it, too. Not a total fail as a romance. Only problem is that educational tone, that preachiness, it pervades the entire proceedings. It’s clear that the negative people in the movie are on the wrong end of things, and it’s also clear this Bray fella is the proverbial music man of their lives, barging in and singing his song, improving everything with the utmost maximum charm at his disposal. Which is a lot of charm, as you can imagine.

Simple, right? Which is exactly what The Secret says about changing your life. In some ways, this is barely a movie, and it really ought to be pondered if books of a pseudo-spiritual nature, self-help-oriented and considered pure pablum by many, has any serious business being turned into a film Amazon wants me to Roku for $20.

I say it does not. But that doesn’t mean faith, positivity, and focus and determination are bad for us or don’t belong at the center of our popular storytelling. It’s just that transparent allegory—and trust me, this is the most transparent allegory you’ll ever find—turns people off. At least The Secret: Dare to Dream makes no bones about what it is.

I’m just waiting for the Deepak Chopra/Eckhart Tolle mashup superhero movie coming next year. It’ll be explosive. Or completely at peace. Depends on your point of view.

Jeff’s Movie Reviews gives The Secret: Dare to Dream a 6/10


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!

Love Madness Demon Cover Final

Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!


Want to be sure not to miss any of Jeff’s Pep Talk segments? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted or follow WtbR on WordPress


Jeff’s Movie Reviews – For Your Homebound Quarantine Enjoyment: Birds of Prey

Jeff's Movie Reviews

I See Your Giant Mallet and Raise You One Pet Hyena

by Jeff Bowles

As it turns out, a super-scary international virus lockdown isn’t all bad. Sure, you’ve got to muscle retirees out of the way at the grocery store to get a cheap four pack of toilet paper and some frozen peas, but on the up side, Hollywood has released some of its biggest Spring movies to enjoy from the safety and comfort of your own home.

New films like The Invisible Man, Onward, Sonic the Hedgehog, Bad Boys for Life, and Bloodshot are all available On Demand for early rental or purchase, but allow me to recommend a movie that released in theaters in February and immediately flopped. Like big time.

It’s no secret I love comics and comic book movies, but truly, Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is a cut above DC and Warner Bros. typically average-to-poor superhero romps. The title is totally silly and useless, and if they thought it’d fit on any movie marquee in the world they were crazier than The Joker himself, but Birds of Prey turns out to be a smart, funny, aggressive comic flick with a unique quality: it was almost exclusively produced by women.

Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but this arena is and always has been a boys’ club. We may never know why Birds of Prey did such dismal business at the box office. Rest assured, it’s got nothing to do with the quality of the film. Is this a matter of nerdy male resentment? Or do the story and characters simply stray too far from the mythos surrounding these dangerous leading ladies of Gotham City? Maybe the title’s too long. Ehem, DC and Warner Bros., I said MAYBE THE TITLE’S TOO LONG.

Regardless, Birds of Prey is certainly worthy of your attention if you’re into superhero stuff. Heck, it’s worthy of your attention even if you’re not and you simply have too much free time on your hands. You’re not super busy right now, are you? Yeah, thought not.

Harley Quinn as a character goes back to the early 90s. If you’re not familiar with her, she was created for Batman: The Animated Series as a kind of foil or sidekick for The Joker. She was pretty one-dimensional back then, and in the decades since, she’s more often than not been portrayed as a psychotic sex object Batman has to knock out every once in a while. A good precedent for gender equality in comic books? Not especially, but Margot Robbie, who is a legit Oscar-caliber actor, no joke about that, imbues Ms. Quinn with joy and a surprising amount of complexity.

Harley has had a nasty breakup with her beloved Mr. J. While The Joker never appears in this movie in any substantial fashion, his presence is felt in that same way you stick a picture of your ex on the wall and throw knives at it until the sun comes up. What? You’ve never had that experience? Well Harley has, and the aggressive humor and violence with which she picks apart the legacy of her former paramour is sheer genius. In truth, this is more of a Harley Quinn vehicle than an honest story about the Birds of Prey, a DC Comics staple since the mid-1990s. See, in the comics, Harley isn’t even really part of this team, which means characters like Black Canary and Huntress tend to get sidelined. Fans may have had a legitimate reason in this regard for not showing up when they had the chance.

But they really should have, because Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (do I really have to keep typing the whole thing?) is a lot of fun. Ewen McGregor plays the obligatory supervillain, Roman Sionis, the Black Mask. He’s slick, dangerous, neurotic, and that silver spoon in his mouth seems to have calcified his brain. He fills his apartment with brutal oddities from around the world and says “Eww” before he orders one of his goons to slit your throat.

And Harley, God bless her, is an almost perfectly realized, straight-from-the-comics avatar of mayhem. She prefers giant mallets and baseball bats in a fight, dresses stuffed beavers in pink tutus and names them because she’s bored, and owns an actual pet Hyena called Bruce (you know, like that hunky billionaire Wayne guy from TV). Robbie lends Harley a certain emotional fragility in scenes concerning her big breakup, and though this is an R-rated hijinks movie chock full of color and jokes, you get the sense there’s a beating heart under all that clown makeup.

As for the rest of the team, Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Huntress, a self-trained crossbow assassin with a slight case of social disfunction, Rosie Perez is rebellious and jaded Gotham City PD detective Renee Montoya, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell plays Dinah Lance, the Black Canary, who’s singing voice is just a skoch more powerful than your average lounge lizard’s. Writer Christina Hodson and director Cathy Yann do their best to flesh out the actual Birds of Prey, but listen, this is Harley’s movie, so no unnecessary character development allowed. Insanity comes in lots of different forms, and for about an hour and forty-five minutes you’ll find yourself in a version of Gotham City that A). exists almost completely in daylight, and B). is more Loony Tunes than Dark Knight.

This is a distinctly feminine superhero movie, and it doesn’t mind making all the bad guys men. I’m sure Warner Bros. and DC questioned whether it’d be lucrative. Turns out, it wasn’t. Still, it’s a much needed shot in the arm to the preexisting DC film universe, which for the most part has grown stale. Birds of Prey doesn’t really break the mold as such. It’s still about solving problems with fists and hamming it up real 1960s Batman TV show style, but Harley Quinn stands on her own two feet and kicks ass. Fans who appreciated the morose and overly serious Joker standalone movie last year might find Birds of Prey silly and quaint, but if you’re like me and Joker rubbed you the wrong way, you could do worse than wasting a couple hours on your sofa, streaming one of the most underrated comic book movies of the last several years.

Coronavirus quarantine kinda sucks, but it doesn’t mean we can’t still have a laugh or three. Dr. Harleen Quinzel is most definitely all about the laughs. It’s just too bad the other leading ladies of Birds of Prey have to take up her sidelined, sidekick, side-character mantel.

Jeff’s Movie Reviews gives Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (one last time. Phew.) a cocaine-snorting, beanbag-gun-toting 8 out of 10.

Being the Clown Prince of Gotham is all well and good, but Joker had better watch his back. Unless of course male comic nerds are threatened by strong leading women. That’s not a thing, is it? Surely not. Preparing sarcasm protocols in three, two, one … engage!


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, Nashville Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, is available on Amazon now!

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Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!


You can keep up on what Jeff’s been watching and catch all of his great movie reviews the third Friday of each month on Writing to be Read. Subscribe to email or follow on WordPress today.


Jeff’s Movie Reviews – 1917

Jeff's Movie Reviews

Soldier of a Million Faces

by Jeff Bowles

When the first world war broke out in 1914, few could’ve imagined the devastation it would bring. In the span of only four years, an estimated nine million military personnel and seven million civilians were killed, not to mention the resulting genocides and influenza outbreaks that claimed another fifty to one hundred million lives. It was called the war to end all wars, but sitting here in the year 2020, we know better. War never ends, it seems. It only gets deadlier.

Director Sam Mendes has crafted a masterwork in his new film 1917. No single motion picture in the history of cinema has so completely captured the awe-inspiring brutality, horror, and futility of World War I. To be perfectly frank, filmmakers of the 21st century tend to leave it alone, opting instead to tell stories set in that other great conflict of the 20th century, or perhaps Vietnam or the more recent wars in the Middle East. Which is a shame, really, because it’s entirely possible here and now we can learn more from this point in history than from anything else that’s occurred in the last hundred years.

One hundred years. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not so very long a time. People haven’t changed, and clearly, neither has our lack of vision. From the soldier’s perspective, the whims and machinations of those in charge couldn’t be further from the front lines, from no man’s land, from that thin, inky terminator between life and death.

Day to day, hour to hour, moment to moment, the soldier has mental space for only three things: duty, survival, and the lives of fellow comrades. And this is the absolute genius of 1917. In one hour and fifty-nine minutes, Mendes leads us on an odyssey, through a crucible, in which two young English lance corporals, Blake and Schofield, are entrusted with a message that could potentially save the lives of 1,700 men, including Blake’s brother. The German army have withdrawn from the front in what is clearly a strategic feint, a trap waiting to be sprung. Which—no surprise here—isn’t itself enough to stop the English advance. By no means does the enemy cede ground for nothing. This is the first world war, after all. Millions of men fought and died for inches of turf, just a little advance here, a retreat there, bloody as all hell, unforgivable in essence, yet historically, far too readily forgotten.

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George MacKay as Lance Cpl. Shofield in 1917

A true cinematic wonder, 1917 is shot with a single steady cam, broken up only a handful of times by strategic cuts that make it seem as though the film occurs in perfect realtime. The camera follows Blake and Schofield from one awe-inspiring set piece to another. From the back of the line, to the men at the front, just a few minutes’ walk through muddy, overcrowded trenches, but a world of difference, an emotional gamut of attitude, drudgery, and despair. And we’re there with them the whole time. No man’s land, eerily silent and still after the German withdrawal. A ruined French city, a beautiful few minutes of stillness and peace with a young woman and an orphan baby. The choreography of the moment-to-moment action is so perfectly laid out one can’t help but wonder how it was achieved. Nothing is left on the table. Basic character beats are no less profound than exploding shells and ricocheting bullets.

The story couldn’t be simpler either, which is of benefit. Our two heroes have crystal clear intentions. Mendes and co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns refuse to bat an eye, which means dialogue is for the most part brief, the writing duo instead opting for visualness over verbosity. I mean, all things considered, the enemy soldiers sometimes can’t seem to hit the broad side of a barn, and Schofield in particular escapes certain death at reasonable rifle range a few too many times, but isn’t that kind of an inadvertent signifier of war? The randomness? How can we explain the loss of one soldier over another when they’re standing in the same spot?

Such questions are inherent to 1917, with a multiplicity of personalities that range from burnt-out grunts to naïve young men who’ve yet to see the brutality the war has in store for them. A star-studded secondary cast—all officers, mind you—anchor the film as the big-budget epic it is, but newcomers Dean-Charles Chapman (Blake) and George MacKay (Shofield) are exceptional and provide a beating heart many war movies neglect to include. Sam Mendes, it seems, has personal stakes. He dedicates the film to his grandfather, who served in the war. Mendes is known as a masterful if not legendary filmmaker, most notably helming American Beauty and the better entries of the Daniel Craig James Bond movies. And yet, something tells me this epic will cement his reputation as a filmmaker of finer stuff, much like his contemporary, writer/director Christopher Nolan.

Nolan made Dunkirk, which has much in common with 1917. The films take place in other times, other wars, but they are both wonderfully cinematic and personal. 1917 may in fact be superior to Dunkirk, simply because its linear, single-camera, single-shot narrative grants no opportunity for detachment or the lessening of tension. Quieter moments are still rife with fear. The danger is perhaps rarely as immanent as the filmmakers propose, owing in large part to that broad-side-of-a-barn effect, but viewers should still be on the edge of their seats for the entire running length. Truly, there’s no escape for these two men. It’s either reach their destination or die. In war, as in all things, the experience of an individual is no less significant than the experience of an entire nation. Joseph Stalin once famously declared one death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic. Sam Mendes and 1917 beg to differ.

Writing to be Read gives the new World War I action epic 1917 a 9 out of 10.

Modern people of the world, pay heed. This was their world then. Our world now is no less fragile.


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, Nashville Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, is available on Amazon now!

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Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!


You can keep up on what Jeff’s been watching and catch all of his great movie reviews the third Friday of each month on Writing to be Read. Subscribe to email or follow on WordPress today.


Jeff’s Movie Reviews – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Jeff's Movie Reviews

Revenge as Entertainment

by Jeff Bowles

Quentin Tarantino isn’t necessarily known for subtlety. While his films are often genius—featuring nonlinear storytelling, irascible and energetic dialogue, and a certain unabashed love for B-movies and trashy 1970s grindhouse filmmaking—they are also incredibly violent and tend to feature characters who are more nasty than nice. That’s not really a minus in today’s entertainment landscape, nor was it especially considered as such in the 1990s, when Tarantino burst onto the scene with unexpected violent delights like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Yet something new has entered the 53-year-old filmmaker’s bag of tricks: history revision, the kind that allows him to brutalize some of the most notorious bad guys of all time.

In Inglorious Basterds (2009), Tarantino shot, burned, and blew up Adolph Hitler in a French movie house long before WWII ended in real life. In Django Unchained (2012), he took the fight to American slavery, unleashing a bloody revenge romp on a vile and inhumane southern plantation. There’s a certain catharsis to be experienced by, in some passing fashion at least, hurting old ghosts that hurt us still. Especially here in the United States, where as a collective, we’re still very much bound by the sins of the past. Tarantino, for all his faults as a filmmaker, has always been extraordinarily fearless in allowing audiences to exorcise our collective demons. Love him or hate him, he’s got a style and aesthetic all his own, and he doesn’t apologize for all his excesses and bloody genius madness.

Which is why Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, his 9th film and fourth in a row to feature a historical setting, hits so close to home. This time around Tarantino takes us on a trip to late-1960s Los Angeles, home of an American film industry churning out movies and TV shows in a hilariously fast and loose fashion. The streets are full of hippies, the soundscape is constant rock and pop hits and saccharine advertisements, and the personalities involved crave fame and public exposure like some people crave cigarettes dipped in LSD. Without spoiling too terribly much, the historical bad guys this time around are the Manson Family, and though Charles Manson himself only appears onscreen for a few minutes, his demonic presence is certainly felt.

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Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an aging cowboy actor who hasn’t had a decent starring role in years. He spends most of his time drinking, lapsing into coughing fits, and playing mustache-twirling heavy of the week on any network TV show that will hire him. His best friend and stuntman Cliff Booth (a delightfully chill yet dangerous Brad Pitt) takes care of him as best he can, but he hasn’t performed any stunt work for the former rising star since Rick lost the lead gig to Steve McQueen in a little movie called The Great Escape. Rick has a house in the Hollywood Hills right next door to director Roman Polanski and his new wife Sharon Tate. Here’s where the alternate history kicks in, folks. Younger audiences who know nothing about the Manson Family murders will undoubtedly experience Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in a much different fashion than the rest of us. Needless to say, the film cruises along Sunset Strip with a heavy mind and an eerie sense of impending doom, even when the action is relatively light and comical.

After Cliff engages in an ill-advised backlot sparring match with non other than martial arts legend Bruce Lee, he’s got all the free time in the world. Cliff picks up a vivacious hippy chick he’s been eyeing around town and drives her home to an old Western movie shooting set a large group of young, creepy, dangerous beatniks have converted into their own personal crash pad/drug den. Dakota Fanning plays a particularly dead-eyed Squeaky Fromme, and her interactions with Pitt are devilish. It’s the little historical flourishes that really make this film sing.

To go much further into the plot would spoil the ending, but look, when Tarantino gets his hands on real-life monsters, he goes all the way. Which isn’t to say Once Upon a Time lacks heart. Tarantino is a seasoned, mature filmmaker, and his characters spend much of the movie dealing with the limitations of their own flawed humanity. You really have to feel for DiCaprio’s Dalton, who has long ago confused success for self worth. And Margot Robbie shines as Sharon Tate, an absolute vision of 1960s femininity and grace.

The only real question we’re left with after the credits roll is if it’s earnestly healthy for our collective culture to, say, blow up Hitler or bathe an old plantation house in blood. In brutalizing the villains of history, has Tarantino allowed us mass catharsis, or has he just developed his own brand of big-budget revenge? It’s a forgone conclusion, but realistically, we are in fact dealing with the Manson Family. The actions of three of their members one late August night still ring out as some of the most atrocious and disgusting of the 20th century. Like it or not, Tarantino seems to tell us, we live in a world full of hate and murder, and in the year 2019, when mass shootings happen almost every week, what’s a simple movie got to do with human decency and justice?

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a masterful expose of the human psyche circa 1969. It’s funny, stylish, chock full of delicious old rock and pop tunes, and yes, it’s got a beating heart that ultimately outweighs the brief but vivid extreme violence that defines its climax. Tarantino has another winner on his hands, though the conversation about his impact on a culture reeling from gun violence will most likely continue.

Writing to Be Read gives the film a solid nine out of ten, but this movie reviewer has to wonder, will there ever come a time healing and revenge are not synonymous?


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, is available on Amazon now!

GB Cover

Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!


You can keep up on what Jeff’s been watching and catch all of his great movie reviews the third Friday of each month. Subscribe to email or follow on WordPress today


Jeff’s Movie Reviews – Shazam!

Jeff's Movie Reviews

Just say the word.

by Jeff Bowles

(Be sure to check out my video review of Shazam! on YouTube’s Jeff Bowles Central.)

Shazam! is the kind of movie just about anyone can get behind. Film audiences segment into a multitude of groups, but when it comes to comic flicks, you’re either on board for the ridiculousness or you aren’t. Younger audiences tend to take a movie like this more seriously, whereas more mature viewers are often left scratching their heads. When science fiction and fantasy work best, they indulge in a certain real-world approach to emotionality, family, romance, regret, passion, and they do so at high enough levels that any and all nerdy accoutrements go down a little bit smoother, in that for many people out there, they’re extraordinarily hard to swallow.

Shazam! is a big, fun, friendly superhero movie with more heart and humor than just about any other DC Comics offering made in the last twenty years. During a time in which Superman is angst-ridden and Batman is a violent rage-freak, Shazam! understands home is where the heart is. Ask any comic movie fan the difference between the two behemoth companies, Marvel and DC, and you’re likely to hear Marvel is fun and DC is morose. Such is the genius of David F. Sandberg’s new movie. It feels Marvel-fun but engages the kind of deep archetypes and mythic dynamics DC Comics has been famous for since the 1930s.

Billy Batson is an orphan looking for a place to finally call home. He thinks finding his birth mother is the answer, but the truth is, if she’d wanted to be found, he wouldn’t have to break into cop cars and hack suspect ID computers for her deets. Enter the Vazquez family, genuinely supportive parental figures Victor and Rosa, and a full house of five other kids, all of them orphans. The dynamics at play in the Vazquez household expound in wonderful ways when Billy expects disaffection and dysfunction and finds hardcore familial love. And the other kids are all great to watch onscreen, always eager with another funny quip or charming character quirk.

To wit, Billy’s roommate, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), perhaps the best personification of a sympathetic sidekick you’re likely to see all year. He’s disabled, hilarious, and he’s got a keen geek obsession. Superheroes, after all, exist in this world in spades. In fact, one of Batman’s famous baterangs is a star narrative prop, and Freddy’s knowledge of said-comic-isms comes in pretty handy when Billy gets his powers and then has to figure out what the hell to do with them.

Off world or in another realm, or wherever/whenever else you prefer, the ancient god of right-makes-might, Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), searches for a suitable replacement after millennia of tireless service. Unfortunately, the forces of evil are on the hunt for a successor, too. The clock’s seriously ticking, so in a spray of CG pyrotechnics and unexpected altruism on Billy’s part, Shazam summons our would-be hero to his mysterious throne room and endows the kid with strength, speed, flight, and of course, killer lightning powers. All Billy has to do is say his name, and he’ll transform into a musclebound adult version of himself in a red suit and sparkly white cape. Zachary Levi plays the god-like, full-grown superhero with all the adolescent joy, immaturity, and zany recklessness we’d expect from a teenager stuck in a man’s body. This is the where the movie kicks into full Tom Hanks’ Big mode, and Levi is the perfect choice. You get the sense this kind of thing is a walk in the park for him. It’s almost criminal how much fun he appears to be having.

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Just as Billy begins to feel confident in his new dual identity, the evil Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong)—similarly endowed with incredible power, but by monstrous avatars of the seven deadly sins—arrives to threaten his heroic dominance, his life, and all the wonderful new people he’s come to love. The real joy of Shazam! is that it takes for granted how crucial it is to have people who care about and support you. So when Mom and Dad and all the other kids are in danger, we really feel the urgency. The filmmakers value them and what they mean to Billy, and we can’t help but do the same.

Billy Batson may not be a groundbreaking addition to the world of comic movies, but he does offer us a glimpse at a different kind of pop superhero psychology. There’s not much tragedy, horrific scarring, or trauma in his makeup, no more or less than in you or me. It’s almost a relief that the film only sparingly engages in world-ending theatrics. An interesting paradigm emerged in March and April, 2019 when Marvel Studios released Captain Marvel, and Warner Bros./DC released Shazam! As any fan will tell you, Shazam was also originally called Captain Marvel, and years ago, the two companies settled the branding dispute out of court. Apparently, Marvel was dead set on maintaining a character that carried their moniker and DC, well, maybe they realized Shazam is a better name for a boy-in-man combo that literally cannot do anything cool unless he, as the advertising declares, says the word.

But whereas Captain Marvel was a movie about finally realizing the power that always dwelt inside, Shazam! is about a sudden overwhelming change of fortune. Sometimes the thing you need most is right there in front of you. It is also admittedly the ultimate adolescent boyhood fantasy to wake up one day and find out you’ve got super powers. Shazam! won’t win any awards for exploring gender, sexuality, or race, but its heart is in the right place, and lest we forget, we could still be watching scowling Superman beating the crap out of growling Batman for no discernible reason other than MUSLCES! ANGER! KA-POW!

Billy Batson is enormously relatable, the perennial loner and outsider who has so much more to offer people than he knows. Who hasn’t felt unloved? Who’s never been lonely? Yet isn’t there always just a bit of hope in all the neglectful crap we have to put up with? Someday an amazing person will recognize me, and I’ll finally come home. It’s the emotional psychology of a movie like this that makes it so effective. Yes, the world is a terrible place sometimes, but when we take off our costumes and put away our utility belts, all we really want to do is laugh and dream.

On the surface, Shazam! is just another silly superhero movie in a sea of nearly identical offerings. But it’s also a fine example of comic book storytelling done right, supremely enjoyable, heartwarming, surprising, in fact more than enough to redeem the brooding misanthropy of other recent DC films. It rivals the very best of Marvel, and what’s more, it recognizes when a cape is just a cape. You don’t need to wipe out half of humanity or destroy the globe to bring out the hero in people. When the chips are down, all you have to do is say the word.

Shazam!

Am I … am I still here? Still just a slightly overweight yet lovable, handsome, and humble author/movie reviewer? I’ll work on that. We’ll get there, folks.

The new Shazam! movie gets 9 sparkling red tights out of 10


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The first Wednesday of every month, you can find him dispensing writerly wisdom in Jeff’s Pep Talk, right here on Writing to be Read. The best of Jeff’s outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars.

Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – Short Stories – So Much More!


You can keep up on what Jeff’s been watching and catch all of his great movie reviews the third Friday of each month. Subscribe to email or follow on WordPress today!


Jeff’s Movie Reviews – Captain Marvel

Jeff's Movie Reviews

The Marvelous Mrs. Marvel

by Jeff Bowles

(For more on Captain Marvel, be sure to check out my full video review)

As far as Marvel movies go, Captain Marvel feels refreshing, if a bit familiar. It carries with it little of the eccentric energy found in other recent Marvel flicks like Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but it also requires less of audiences who have yet to drink the Marvel Kool-Aid. Much like 2018’s box office behemoth Black Panther, the hero in question is not a white male, and as the star of a major Hollywood production released in the #MeToo era, that makes all the difference.

Which isn’t to suggest Marvel Studios’ latest doesn’t give plenty of nods to what has come before, and perhaps in a more lucrative vein, to what’s still headed our way. We finally learn how Nick Fury lost his eye, for instance, but filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are also thrilled to butter us up for that big late-April showdown called Avengers: Endgame (check your calendars, kids. Don’t forget to pre-order all the toys, and oh yeah, maybe a movie ticket or five).

If superhero tropes and comic-isms are as indecipherable to you as Kree battle language, odds are good the scope and scale of the Marvel Cinematic Universe rings hollow. Some of us have been on board since we were kids, leafing through our favorite monthly Marvel comics like little back-issue hording zealots. But if your speed is less Captain America and more … well, any other movie ever made, really—it’s safe to take heart. Captain Marvel is a pretty good jumping on point.

Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) is an Air Force fighter pilot with super-powered amnesia. A strange event in her past wiped her memories clean and granted her incredible abilities, the sum total of which she’s dutifully employed freedom-fighting for a race of intergalactic warriors known as the Kree (best personified by her squad leader, Yon-Rogg—played by master geek-movie thespian, Jude Law). When the Kree’s deadliest enemies, a race of green shapeshifters known as the Skrulls, capture Carol and bring her back to Earth, the nascent Captain Marvel must team up with S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (an impressively de-aged Samuel L. Jackson) to discover the secret behind the pivotal accident. Plus, you know, she’ll get to rock out to an unquestionably righteous and eclectic 90s soundtrack.

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The fact that this movie takes place in 1995 only adds to its charm. There are era-specific nods and in-jokes aplenty, including a fun Stan Lee cameo that’ll tug at your sense of nostalgia. The film’s setting also means that most of the super-heroic hi-jinks found in the other 20 MCU movies have yet to occur. It’s a prequel more than anything else. Rounding out the cast are an unexpectedly funny Ben Mendelsohn as Skrull commander Keller, Lashana Lynch as Carol’s best friend, Maria Rambeau, and a de-aged Clark Gregg, happy to take a break from playing Agent Coulson on ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to play … a younger-looking version of the exact same character.

Additional highlights include a cute but vicious orange cat named Goose, though I won’t spoil the big reveal here, and the marvelously named Air Force marvel, Mar-Vell (a somewhat spaced out and liminal Annette Bening). For the most part, Captain Marvel gets by on its charm. It’s best described as an above average superhero origin story, but unfortunately, there remains a certain amount of roughness in its narrative. Big chunks of exposition get belted out from behind scads of green creature makeup, and the grand finale carries enough logic gaps you may find yourself wondering, “She was just fighting that guy. So now who are these people?”

A lot of early buzz surrounding this movie included controversial comments made by Larson herself, but really, if a storytelling medium largely created by boys for boys can’t come to grips with a few girls getting in on the action whenever they damn well please, there’s less hope for this world than any of us could have ever imagined. Captain Marvel as a character has been blasting across the universe since the late sixties, but it was only in recent years that a woman donned the suit. And Larson does a fantastic job portraying Danvers on film. She is cocky, self-assured, funny, compassionate, caring, and once her full powers get unleashed, wonderfully formidable. A certain kinship evolves between her and Samuel Jackson’s Agent Fury, and moments spent in the Louisiana home of her best friend Maria prove that an intergalactic badass can be all about family, too.

Audiences are likely to get more out of the experience if they possess a running mental lexicon of all things Marvel, but unlike last year’s Avengers: Infinity War and the forthcoming Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel is likely to be a fun time no matter what prior knowledge you have going in. If you’re burned out on films featuring god-like people beating the holy Skrull out of each other, you may be better entertained elsewhere. But as Thor Odinson once famously declared to the world-eating demon Surtur, “That’s what heroes do.”

It’s a very geeky multiverse we live in, people.

Jeff’s Movie Reviews gives Captain Marvel an 8 out of 10.


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The first Wednesday of every month, you can find him dispensing writerly wisdom in Jeff’s Pep Talk, right here on Writing to be Read. The best of Jeff’s outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars.

Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – Short Stories – So Much More!


You can keep up on what Jeff’s been watching and catch all of his great movie reviews the third Friday of each month. Subscribe to email or follow on WordPress today!


“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”: A Different Sort of Movie

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Although the Harry Potter movies were geared toward a young audience, adults enjoyed them as well. But as Harry Potter grew older throughout the series, so did the main viewers. The 2016 Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them expands J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World for an older audience, leaving Harry and his friends waiting in the England of the future. Even if you haven’t seen any of the Harry Potter movies, you can easily follow the events of this movie, as it easily stands on its own merit.

The creatures in this movie are fantastic example of creativity, and the imaging is awesome. The story is crafted in a way that draws you into the story subtly. You’re so involved with the fish out of water story of Newt Scamander and his suitcase full of marvelous creatures in 1926 New York, that the A story line almost escapes notice in the background until Newt solves the mystery of what kind of beast is terrorizing the city.

I found Fantasic Beasts and Where to Find Them to be thoroughly entertaining; a fresh take on a fascinating and beloved world. I give it four quills.

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Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Classic Meets Monsters

PPZ Combined

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (PPZ) takes a classic piece of literature and gives it a modern horror twist by adding zombies to the story. While the 2016 movie is based on the 2009 book written by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, the result is an entirely different thing.

The book plot is essentially the same as the original Pride and Prejudice. The Bennett sisters are single women in want of husbands, and their mother is determined to find them each one. When the eldest sister, Jane, meets the well-to-do Mr. Bingley, she’s immediately smitten and so is he. The sparks between Jane’s sister, Elizabeth, and Bingley’s friend, Mr. Darcy, however, are not of the same sort. Elizabeth and Darcy go through a series of verbal sparring matches, letting their pride and prejudice get in the way of their chance at love.

Seth Grahame-Smith’s book edition adds zombies in the mix, and turns the Bennett sisters into skilled fighters. There are other minor changes, like at one point a verbal sparring match between Darcy and Elizabeth is turned into a physical fighting match, but overall the story of the PPZ book is much the same as the original novel there are just zombies in the world.

The PPZ movie, however, did what I wish the book had. The zombies become a crucial part of the story rather than just a world detail and minor complication. The premise for the PPZ movie is that zombies have taken over much of England except for a barricaded safe zone. Darcy is a Colonel in the war against the zombies, and a skilled fighter. The Bennett sisters have all been trained in Chinese martial arts and sword fighting, and are skilled fighters themselves. The fight against the zombies, and their growing numbers, is much more central to the plot of the movie and I think it works better than the zombie element in the book. The romantic plot of the movie follows much the same plot as the original book, with the exception of Wickham and Lydia.

I think the book PPZ is enjoyable because it’s essentially Pride and Prejudice just with the added elements of zombies. That being said, I found it annoying that the zombie element was not integrated into the plot more and that it seemed frivolous. I dislike things that aren’t essential to the story being thrown in. The PPZ movie, however, fixed that for me and did it in a way I enjoyed. The zombies aren’t just your typical walking dead, they’re an actively malevolent threat that leaves potential for a sequel. However, the movie did have issues of its own. If you can make it past the first thirty minutes (more details of issues below the spoiler tag), things do settle out and end up in a fun story, but there are some things to overlook to get there.

Overall, it’s worth the watch if you enjoy both zombie movies and Pride and Prejudice. Just be prepared for a mix of genres, and don’t hang your expectations too strongly on this being your typical Pride and Prejudice remake. By the end, I was ready to watch the second one (if it ever gets made), even though the beginning falters.

 

**** MOVIE SPOILERS BELOW ****

 

The biggest issue in the movie is the first thirty minutes. It’s clear the writers struggled with how to start this version of the story because it’s kind of all over the place tonally.

Tonally, there are some awkward moments that just don’t quite sit right. For example, early on there is a strange sexualized moment with Darcy and a doctor who is checking him over. Which I understand is supposed to foreshadow the doctor is not good at his job and has let an infected person into the house, but it isn’t blended well into the story. Plus, later on there are several moments where the Bennett sisters are getting ready for the party at Mr. Bingley’s when they are arming themselves that are also sexualized in the same odd way. While I didn’t mind that it was equal opportunity sexualization, it created a strange pause in the story and just didn’t blend smoothly. Then the sexual element would disappear and it’d feel like the storytelling shifted.

The tone problem continued early on when it came to humor as well. There were some great humorous moments – Matt Smith as Mr. Collins was wonderful – but they also weren’t blended in with the story well. They stuck out here and there like they were saying “this is supposed to be funny.” And while a lot of the moments were funny, they were also awkward at times and interrupted the story flow.

One moment specifically where I think it was meant to be humor but it just struck out for me, was when Darcy sees Elizabeth and the Bennett sisters fight the zombies at Mr. Bingley’s party. It goes from this big fight sequence to focusing on Darcy, and everything stops while he spouts this speech about Elizabeth and how he sees her differently now. Then it goes back to the action. I interpreted it as intending to be funny, but it felt instead like they paused the action movie to have an “Austen moment” and then hit play again. Which, could have been funny, but it almost didn’t feel deliberate which turned it into an awkward moment.

Once the story got going, however, things definitely balanced out and I felt like I could orient myself better in the story. The first thirty minutes just had me confused as I tried to figure out what type of story I was watching. That being said, I feel safe in saying that this is not an easy to classify movie. It’s not quite horror, not quite romance, not quite comedy… It definitely has some fun action moments, but it also doesn’t follow the typical action lines. It’s truly a crossover movie, and once you accept that while watching it becomes easier to stay with it. You just have to make it through the beginning and let yourself accept it as something new.

Honestly, I think this is the sort of movie that would really benefit from a dual viewing. The first to get oriented in the method of storytelling and cross-genre elements, and the second so you can just sit back an enjoy.

If the beginning was fixed, this would easily be a 4-4.5 Star movie for me, but as it stands, I can only give it:

3.5 Stars