Movie Review: You just never know how much “The Night Clerk” sees


“The Night Clerk” is a murder mystery with a killer premise. A man with Asperger’s witnesses a killing.

The movies and TV, which have treated this as a “Malady of the Month” for a few years now, teach us what to expect. Such a man, with his social awkwardness, manic chatter and refusal to make eye contact, would be an exasperating suspect and a maddening witness.

And if this thriller lacks much in the way of tension and suspense, if it loses track of the “crime” while it tries to flesh out the title character, a fine cast lifts the material and makes it worth your trouble.

Tye Sheridan (“Ready Player One”) is Bart, short for “Bartholomew,” a 23 year-old who has held onto an overnight desk clerk at a nice hotel for a few years. He is smart, even if his social skills are classic “on the spectrum” clumsy.

But Bart has applied his tech savvy to his “problem.” He wears a tiny camera in his tie in order to review and “correct” his inept interactions with the customers.

“How’s it going?” requires rehearsal. “Have a nice evening” is worth running through a few times, too.

Bart lives in his Mom’s basement, where she (Helen Hunt) gives him his space, leaves his meals on the steps and doesn’t watch him in front of his bank of video monitors. That’s a good thing, because Bart isn’t just about self-improvement.

Bart’s made the leap to the next step. He’s slipped cameras into hotel rooms, spying on guests, memorizing how they act with their dogs — “Boy oh boy oh boy, what did you DO?” — and as often as not, getting a peep show in the process.

That’s how he witnesses a murder. He can see it unfolding, an angry confrontation between a woman (Jacque Gray) and someone we assume is her cheating husband. Bart gapes at the violence, freaks out a bit and dashes back to work only get get there after the shot is fired.

She’s dead. He sits on her bed, hears “Don’t touch anything” from the other clerk,” and the moment the guy’s gone to call the cops, dabs his finger in the pool of blood surrounding her body.

John Leguizamo plays the detective who sizes Bart up, tries to get a rise out of him even as the clerk is blurting out his elaborate cover for why he was there.

“And that’s the story? I know you’ve got issues…”

“I DO.”

Oscar winner Hunt summons up her best Mamma Bear, fending off the cops. What does she know? What will they find out?

Bart, seemingly freaked out by the events as they happened, now has refocused his mind on his cover-up. And then another guest — played by Ana de Armas of “Knives Out,” — beautiful and inclined to be empathetic to his condition (“My brother had it.”) becomes his focus.

Actor turned writer-director Michael Cristofer collected a Tony and a Pulitzer for his play “The Shadow Box” over 40 years ago. His screen career has been spotty, with “Original Sin,” a thriller with similar bones starring Banderas and Jolie the stand-out credit.

He gives Sheridan the standard-issue “Asperger’s/On the Spectrum” tics and give-away moments — blurting out “You need to lose weight” to a car salesman, “I don’t want to wear anything you’d wear…because you’re old” to a haberdasher.

The scenes between Bart and Andrea have a pained confessional quality, and “brother had it” or no, seem a bit contrived.

The picture’s nocturnal gloom serves it well, matching the creep tone of young-guy-who-likes-to-“watch” story. Cristofer doesn’t do much with the “mystery,” and suspense is reserved for those moments when we wonder if Bart will just watch, or take action.

The dialogue is serviceable but generic in scene after scene. But Hunt, Leguizamo, Sheridan and de Armas put it over with feeling and let their eyes and investment in the characters do the heavy lifting.

If “The Night Clerk” rises above “near miss” status, that’s thanks to the cast.



MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexual references, brief nudity and violent images

Cast: Tye Sheridan, Ana de Armas, Helen Hunt, John Leguizamo, Johnathan Schaech and Jacque Gray.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Michael Cristofer. A Saban Films release.

Running time: 1:30

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Movie Preview: Horror animates Shatner, Dani Lennon and Ray Wise”To Your Last Death”

This bad boy comes our way Mar. 17 — streaming, VOD.


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Netflixable? Cuaron takes us inside his “details” for “Road to Roma”


Did you swoon over Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” his lyrical but meandering two hour and 15 minute recreation of his middle class Mexico City upbringing, as seen mostly through the eyes of his indigenous nanny?

The black and white memoir won three Oscars, as best foreign language film, for best director and best cinematography.

I found it rambling, somewhat shapeless, an indulgent movie that set the standard for Netflix’s “Great Filmmakers Get a Blank Check” series (see “The Irishman”).

The “making of” that movie documentary, “Road to ‘Roma'” (“Camino a Roma”) does nothing to soften my stance on the picture (lovely, but over-rated). Because if anything it allows Cuarón to double down on his choices.

His is the only voice, as eyewitness, to the movie. He is the sole interview subject. He describes the “challenge” working without a script and with a lot of non-actors around them was for the film’s professional actors. He talks about what the production designers did to recreate “the neighborhood I grew up in” (in Spanish, with English subtitles).

Nobody else gets to speak for themselves, even if they’re unlikely to have contradicted him.

The on-set footage is far less revealing than your average “making of” doc, although including a little casting clip and the odd rehearsal for the largely improvised “chaotic” scenes of family meals, sketched-out conversations and the like show us the technique he was using and what he was going for.

Cuarón says he was telling a story, pre-“Y tu Mama Tambien” — from the nanny of that film’s point of view.

He’s famous for paying homage to other filmmakers in his work, but he insists he did not for “Roma.” So all those Fellini-esque touches we all saw were…imagined?

A telling quote — he recalls the story of how Luchino Visconti, for his 1973 bio-pic “Ludwig” about Bavaria’s indulgent, Cinderella’s castle-crazy 19th century king, had the epic cakes made for feast scenes from the original ingredients baked in the original style, not something the viewing audience would realize and pick up on.

“A stubborn whim,” Cuarón says he USED to think when recalling that. But for “Roma,” a movie of “moments” and “details” and “memories” — whose director obsessed over tile and vintage clocks and products and posters and the tenor of street vendor’s calls in the chaotic market scenes — such forest-for-the-trees fanaticism was “liberating.”

At least that explains why I kept thinking of another infamous cinematic indulgence king, Eric von Stroheim. He’d do a period piece and insist that the performers wear period-correct underwear, which the camera would never see.

Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” is another ready reference for this “I can get this exactly right, matching my vision/memory” obsessive sort of detailed filmmaking.

Not that “Roma” is the debacle either of those two produced. All great artists are obsessives. But in the many boring stretches of “Roma,” it’s heartening to hear Cuarón confirm he at least realized how this might come off –“Come on, now. This is a bit much and kind of pointless.”

Fretting over that image of soapy water washing over the courtyard tiles, admitting that “details” were “the film for me,” not script (he didn’t have one), not the “narrative plumbing” that he and his co-writer brother are famous for, but “intangible sensations,” it’s as if he’s inventing a new “Netflix” style borne of old “runaway production” Hollywood horror stories.

He did it this way because they said he could. Unfolding overlong vignettes, changing settings that mean everything to the director/creator but little to the casual viewer, revelling in a sort of guilt-ridden “So THIS was my nanny’s life” way, but only occasionally — it’s a movie that isn’t aging well, in my memory, at least.


“Road to ‘Roma'” is a short refresher course on why that’s an Oscar winner that I have little urge to ever see again.


MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Alfonso Cuarón.

Credits: Directed by Andres Clariond and Gabriel Nuncio. A Netflix original.

Running time: 1:12

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Documentary Preview: Cemetery abuse going back over a century, in Louisville, “Facing East”

It isn’t just funeral homes that get caught ripping off the grieving. Cemeteries do it, too.

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Netflixable? “Miss Virginia” organizes DC parents for change


“Miss Virginia” is a thinly-scripted, flatly-directed feel-good movie about mothers organizing to do better for their children than Washington, D.C.’s school system.

“Inspired by a true story,” it recounts the way a working class Washington mother figures out that the schools there aren’t starving for cash and that their symbolic Congressional representation only has the power to stand in the way of change.

It’s a soft and squishy picture built on a soft and squishy performance of the title character by Uzo Aduba of “Orange is the New Black.” She has to carry this film, but her decision to play her overwhelmed single mom struggling to do rescue her teen son passively — not raising her voice, saving her lose-her-cool moments for the third act — never gives this movie a chance.

Miss Virginia’s son James (Niles Fitch) is a distracted, artsy 15 year-old who cuts class with the local thugs, and when he’s in class he just inattentively doodles. Mom doesn’t have a clue until the principal warns her.

She sees the classroom environment, teachers past the point of caring, punks beating up the “smart” kids on principle, as the reason James is failing. So the call-center operator takes on a second job cleaning her Congresswoman’s (Aunjanue Ellis) offices.

Virginia loves her Congresswoman. Until she sees how she operates, who she answers to and how she manipulates her constituents. Showing the representative a study that details the staggering amounts D.C. pays per student for failing schools and failing students is no way to get on her good side.

And taking the matter up with the flaky, entrenched Midwestern Congressman (Matthew Modine, wild-haired, whiskey-sipping and whimsical) who authored that “reactionary” study seems like a non-starter, too.

“I have a date with a nine iron!”


But eventually, they team up and a “movement” to create private school scholarships for the District’s kids begins. Petitions, public meetings, protests (and arrests) follow, as James and his running mates dabble in drug dealing for “cool kicks (sneakers).” That’s what finally  gets Virginia’s dander up.

“Selling your SOUL for clown shoes!” does it.

Unfortunately, that’s too little, too late for the character and the movie. The problem is as obvious as Aduba’s every scene with Modine, Ellis, with Vanessa Williams (as a chat show hostess) or with Amirah Vann, playing a neighborhood ally and organizer.

“This a movement, honey. It don’t stop just because you caught the vapors!”

They all take over their scenes with her, overwhelming the star with acting sparkle and simple charisma. Abuda is a talented actress, but her limited range and dull acting choices turn “Miss Virginia,” the movie and the character, into a shrinking violet.


MPAA Rating: TV-14, violence, drug content

Cast: Uzo Aduba, Amirah Vann, Aunjanue Ellis, Niles Fitch, Vanessa Williams and Matthew Modine.

Credits: Directed by  R.J. Daniel Hanna, script by Erin O’Connor.  A Vertical release.

Running time: 1:42

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Box Office: ‘Parasite’ crawls over the $50 million mark with a big Presidents Day weekend.

Winning Oscars, doubling the number of screens to 2000 and voila, you make $6.8 million, climb to 7th place in the weekly charts and clear the $50 million mark. Finally.

“Parasite” has now earned over $200 million worldwide.

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Movie Preview: Guy Pearce won’t have you bikers “Disturbing the Peace,” will he?

Bikers take over town to rob the bank. Marshal Guy Pearce isn’t having it.

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Movie Preview: Yes “THE SECRET: DARE TO DREAM” is now a movie

Didn’t Oprah have a hand pumping this pseudo scientific wish fulfillment fantasy nonsense?

The book came out during a particularly goofy period in American gullability, back when that con man “psychic” had a syndicated TV show.

Katie Holmes and Josh Lucas wish themselves into a relationship.

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Movie Review: A CGI dog hears “The Call of the Wild”


Disney no doubt appreciated the “Lion King Remake” ethos behind newly-purchased 20th Century Studios’ (formerly Fox) take on “The Call of the Wild.” It’s a story starring a dog, and for the first time in a century of films of this classic Jack London tale, the dog/hero has been digitally rendered, not living and breathing, trained and furry.

But as with that soulless CGI blockbuster “The Lion King,” the larger lesson should be “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

It’s absolutely valid to attempt a serious, hard-nosed treatment of the oft-sentimentalized and anthropomorphized novel about the house dog turned working dog turned leader of the pack in the Yukon. Harrison Ford signed on for a role that Clark Gable, Rutger Hauer and Ethan Hawke have taken before him.

But this is seriously misguided, and anybody ever inclined to click on a shared youtube video of a cuddly canine will get that within seconds of this computer-generated collie/St. Bernard mix popping up on screen.

No, no dog “was harmed in the making of this picture.” A real dog isn’t dognapped or beaten with a club.

“He was beaten, but he was not broken,” Fords’ grizzled Yukon narrator intones.

No real dog was imperiled by an Alaskan avalanche, attacked by pack dogs and wolves, either. And we can feel that in every single frame.

The story — huge dog Buck has the run of the house and the Santa Clara County town where he’s owned by a local judge (Bradley Whitford). But it’s the Alaskan Gold Rush era (1898). Big dogs bring big bucks in the Yukon.

Buck is nabbed, beaten to keep him in line and taken north, where eventually he becomes a sled dog for the Royal Canadian Mail, where he’s told (Omar Sy is the mailman who talks to his dogs),” We don’t just carry the mail. We carry lives!”

That’s where old prospector Thornton (Ford) first sees him. Buck is half again as big as any dog on the (digital) team, so he’s hard to miss. Thornton?

“I’m not looking for gold,” he grouses. He’s there for the solitude, the reflection and a lot of mourning. If only this rich jerk (Dan Stevens of “Legion”) didn’t get his hands on the dog, hoping to strike it rich in the gold fields. He’s not good enough for the dog, Thornton figures. He’s going to get himself and the dog killed.

The story of “Call of the Wild” is always bent and contorted to add melodrama and Hollywood thrills, so there’s no quibbling about any of that, or the human performances in this.

Maybe you and yours kids won’t mind the dog “acting,” and the occasional unnatural gesture, romp or movement of the animal.

In that case, have at it. I found this a perfectly handsome and literarily defensible mounting of a well-known tale that was far and away the most bloodless version of it. Ever.


MPAA Rating: PG for some violence, peril, thematic elements and mild language

Harrison Ford, Omar Sy, Cara Gee, Dan Stevens, Bradley Whitford and Karen Gillan.

Credits: A 20th Century release.

Running time: 1:40

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Movie Review: The Italian mafia goes on trial, thanks to “The Traitor (Il traditore)”


The Italian mob thriller “The Traitor (Il traditore)” is more time than most of us would ever care to spend in an Italian courtroom.

It’s not all adversarial court testimony, bickering mafiosi waving their hands and insulting each other, sometimes face to face. And not all those scenes are limp and dramatically flat. The third act of this very long film has some genuinely shocking violence and a paranoid grace note or two.

But the movie is like waiting for an elderly relative to get to the point of a very long anecdote they’ve elected to recount. It starts well enough, but drones on and on and on before it we get a payoff.

“Basta” the Italians would yell at such a time-suck. “Enough.” Get to the damned point.

Pierfrancesco Favino of “World War Z,” “Angels and Demons” and other Hollywood films stars as Tommaso Buscetta, a smooth mob leader whom we meet at a big mob party in 1980.

“Masino” realizes that the game is up. He’s been in and out of prison, made the move from cigarette smuggling to drugs and got rich, got a third wife and is ready for a new life in Brazil. He figures he can bow out and the family he leaves behind in Sicily and the rest of Italy will be fine. He has two adult sons, among others, still “connected.”

“You can’t take money to the grave with you,” he growls (in Italian, with English subtitles).

He’s barely gotten off the plane with the mayhem starts. Co-writer/director Marco Bellocchio, for reasons never explained, ticks off numbers counting up as the hits begin.

Is he keeping a count of kills? Or the seconds it takes for these to be carried out?

A first assassination leads to a funeral, a woman biting the ear and drawing blood from the wife of a man she holds responsible. There’s a priest, chased down by mobsters dressed as monks, a hit in a mirror warehouse (clever…ish), a 20 year old who has vowed revenge, but is caught and has his trigger-hand lopped off.

And even as Masino, the “boss of two worlds,” mulls over what actions to take, with “all the heroin going through Palermo,” it’s obvious that this is beyond his grasp. That’s when the Brazilian police seize him, ransack his house and torture him for information about where all that money is hidden.

The bulk of “The Traitor” is about his slow-turn from “man of honor” who is “not an informer,” to a man who might be willing to talk to crusading/prosecuting judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi).

He reminisces to the judge — “In those days, La Cosa Nostra had rules.”

The judge isn’t buying his rose-colored glasses, his spin or his BS about “code” and what not. Masino and a fellow capo (Luigi Lo Cascio)  start to sing. Yeah, they’re both gambling with their lives with this testimony, but Falcone is depicted as fatalistic — “Death is always with us.”

“I want to die on my bed,” Masino sighs. “That would be a victory.”

“The Traitor” has many unfamiliar faces and less familiar (outside of Italy) names peppering its cast that make it a bit hard to follow for non-Italians. Bellocchio aims to present atmosphere, the vibe of the times, where every mob death of a “rat” is celebrated in Palermo, where every judge is hated and must travel with bodyguards.

The courtroom scenes are chaotic, fractious and go on entirely too long. The “men of honor” face off against each other, witness vs. witness, in front of a line of judges at the “Maxi Trial” of the many mobsters Bruscetta fingered with his testimony.

There’s a cage filled with mafiosi, faking seizures, stripping to fake madness, screaming at the judges and at the witnesses, who sit in a bullet proof cubicle.

It was a trial of great consequence, not merely for those accused, but for the star witnesses who were spirited away to the U.S. witness protection program afterwards.

There have been other movies touching on these trials, these mobsters and Falcone. Solid, if not-that-compelling performances and the moments of high drama or shocking violence that veteran director Bellucchio — his credits extend back to the ’60s — serve up don’t compensate for all the filler he fleshes this flaccid film out with.

“The Traitor” is important Italian Cosa Nostra history rendered in boring, leisurely strokes.


MPAA Rating: R for violence, sexual content, language and brief graphic nudity

Cast: Pierfrancesco Favino, Luigi Lo Cascio, Fausto, Russo Alesi, Maria Fernanda Cândido, Fabrizio Ferracane  and Nicola Cali.

Credits: Directed by Marco Bellocchio , script by Marco Bellocchio, Valia Santella, Ludovico Rampoldi, Francesco Picollo and Francesco La Licata.  A Sony Classics release.

Running time: 2:28

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