Netflixable? “Benji” comes home…to Netflix


“Momma won’t let you stay,” the little boy Carter (Gabriel Bateman) pleads. It’s raining as he ditched the dog in a dingy alley, but you can’t tell from all the tears. “Please go.”

“I love you, Benji.”

That’s all you need to know about this new installment in the world’s most sentimental doggy film series. He’s orphaned as a puppy — Mean Old Dog Catchers — is adopted and ditched in New Orleans. Then the kids who can’t keep him walk in on a robbery at Mr. Sam’s ( Gralen Bryant Bankspawn shop where paramedic mom (Kiele Sanchez) pawned their late father’s watch. A kidnapping ensues.

And wouldn’t you know? The danged dog sprints to the rescue!

Brandon Camp takes over the Benji Family Business from his father, Joe Camp, who directed all the earlier installments, beginning with 1974’s sleeper hit of the same title. Darby Camp plays Carter’s little sister Frankie, and Lucy Camp plays a cop.

Brandon adds nothing new to the Benji formula — a few “Awwws,” the occasional canine stunt (nothing too strenuous save for a Rottweiler chase), tears and “thrills” aimed at your average six year old.

Will Rothhaar and Angus Sampson ably play the drawling, tattooed heavies, guys who haven’t thought through their robbery or the kidnapping that results from it. And they sure and shootin’ haven’t reckoned on the wily mutt’s ability to outfox them and their danged one-eyed Rottweiler.

Rothhaar’s bleach blond Syd coos “Little doggy, come out to PLAY-yay.” Bad guys love to quote “The Warriors.”

The dog? He steals hot dogs to feed the homeless (dogs) with. He can raise a pooch posse. He can unlock doors with a key. (How do I train mine to do that?) He can follow a trail of strawberries.

New Orleans makes a colorful setting for this pedestrian reboot, with just a hint of the city — the Big Muddy, streetcars, street jazz, parading gris gris flingers — to give it texture. Bullying is a subtext, as it is in most every kid’s movie these days.

What little humor there is comes from canine slapstick (limited) and the police detective’s (Jerod Haynes) interactions with the dog.

He needs an all points bulletin — “Suspect is brown, about 35 pounds.”

He’s following the dog’s clues. “Do I LOOK like I need puddin’?”

“You’re talkin’ like that DAWG is smart’n the police.”

The soundtrack’s worth noting here too, venturing from New Orleans jazz to Cat Stevens’ “I Love My Dog” and John Hiatt’s soulful “Have a Little Faith in Me.”

We put a lot of effort into sparing our kids a little fear and a few tears in their movies. This one, following that pre-namby-pamby 1974 film’s formula, remembers that there’s no excitement without a little menace, and that tears are OK, so long as you earn them.


There’s little that’s surprising for anybody over the age of 10, and any threat to resolve things too quickly is interrupted — of course — by fresh obstacles. Mom is a bit torn up by her missing kids, but is still going to work. The kids? We don’t fear for them — much.

The action takes a quick turn for the preposterous and the bleak in the finale. But fear not. Just break out the Kleenex, parents. And not just for yourselves.



MPAA Rating: unrated, but worth a G, of course.

Cast:Gabriel BatemanDarby CampKiele Sanchez

Credits: Written and directed by Brandon Camp, based on the 1974 Joe Camp film. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:27

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Netflixable? “The Discovery” is a bummer on the Afterlife, for a bummer Era


The gloom is relentless, from the End Times fog that hangs over the locations to the funereal subject matter — “proof” that the afterlife is real, with millions upon millions ready to check it out, because things here among the living seem hopeless.

As the late-not-great Vic Ferrari might have reviewed “The Discovery,” “Whoa, hard to get happy after THAT one.”

This Charlie McCarthy (“The One I Love”) drama is sci-fi at its cheapest, a Netflix film that relies on location, weather and quiet to set its tone and a very good cast to make it watchable.

Robert Redford plays a scientist who, when we see him interviewed (by Mary Steenburgen) for TV, is years past his great breakthrough. He’s proven that when we die, we don’t just rot. There’s a “new plane of existence” that we go to. He’s not sure on the specifics, but millions have taken him at his word and punched their own “start over” button. People are ending their lives in hope of some alternate existence.

He’s no sooner denied accepting responsibility for the massive spike in the suicide rate when one of the TV crew kills himself, right in front of him.

Is Thomas Harbor a prophet or a false prophet? He is heedless science who may have jumped the gun on his big announcement.

That’s the opinion of Will (Jason Segel), a neurologist who meets an assertive, brash blonde Isla (Rooney Mara) on a nearly empty ferryboat shortly after that TV interview.

Will grasps that “consciousness is another state of matter,” starting up a conversation with the only other passenger on the boat. But committing suicide to see what becomes of it? Madness.

“Maybe they went someplace better,” she offers.

“Maybe they went someplace worse.”

The movie, which never breaks tone to add excitement, joy, whimsy or sarcasm to the proceedings, misses its first opportunity here.

The world is emptying out, and two people on a big ferry headed to Aquidneck, Rhode Island have the whole thing to themselves. Sure, the impact of a mass die-off would be an economic collapse, a societal shut down and a less crowded planet. It’d mainly be lonely.

Isla is headed to this isle to kill herself, and Will intervenes. And when they show up at the ancient hotel turned summer camp turned hidden research station, we discover that Will is Dr. Harbor’s Doubting Thomas son.

There’s another son, Will’s brother (Jesse Plemons) helping run the place, with Cooper (Ron Canada) and a whole lot of people who have survived their suicide attempts. They’re not exactly zombies, but they’re compliant.

“We opened the door for these people,” Dad explains.

“You’ve started a cult!” the smarter son fires back.

The research goes on, as does the movie, which lurches from an energy-deprived spin on “The Rapture” to “Flatliners” without the sex appeal, bravado or excitement.


Through it all, “The Discovery” fails to gin up anything that breaks its tone or tempo. There’s a little mystery to it, but nothing that drives our curiosity, no resolution that lives down to the utter glumness of it all.

The performers make no effort to overcome this. Segel tamps down his comic edge, and Mara offers nothing other than the icy, groomed perfection of her look to make her appealing or even interesting.

Redford gives this guy a touch of the villain about him, a man who hastens the World’s End but, like the Mark Zuckerbergs of this world, shrugs off any share of the blame.

The world may be a mess and our culture in a kind of death-spiral at the moment. “The Discovery” suggests there is no escape, and with an afterlife as pointless as the one sort of depicted here, who might cling to hope?

After 100 minutes of this, I mean?


MPAA Rating: TV-MA, suicide, violence, adult themes, profanity

Cast: Robert Redford, Rooney Mara, Jason Segal, Jesse Plemons, Ron Canada, Mary Steenburgen

Credits:Directed by Charlie McDowell, script by Justin LaderCharlie McDowell. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:42

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Next Screening, A24’s “Lean on Pete”

A borderline homeless teen, a fading racehorse on the seedy, dusty Southwestern side of the sport, Steve Buscemi and Chloe Sevigny.

Those are the ingredients of “Lean on Pete,” a star vehicle for young Charlie Plummer and another intimate, personal portrait from screenwriter/director Andrew Haigh (“45 Years,””Weekend”).

The studio that acquired “Moonlight” and “The Florida Project” and “Lady Bird” and “Ex Machina” and many of the coolest, most interesting indie features of the past few years, A24, is releasing “Lean on Pete” April 6.


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Preview, “Unsane” asks, Ready for a Steven Soderbergh “Am I Crazy?” horror film?

Claire Foy is the woman whose paranoia about her stalker gets her committed. “Voluntary,” they say. “Not at all,” says she.

Unbranded horror films without a mad slasher or supernatural element die a quick death in the marketplace. But this doesn’t look half-bad. It opens Friday.

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Renee Zellweger as “Judy”


Judy Garland on her last legs, a last run in London, holding it together (barely) and finding love one last time.

That’s “Judy,” going into production with a team of Brits and starring their very own Bridget Jones — Renee Zellweger.

She’s doing her own singing, no lip-synced looping for the “Chicago” star. Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell and Finn Wittrock are among the co-stars.

A comeback for the Divine Ms. Z?

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The glories of stumbling across an Orson Welles short I’d never seen — “Return to Glennascaul”

Any film buff knows the pleasures of Turner Classic Movies — TCM — the cable network that replaced AMC — American Movie Classics — when AMC veered from its initial mission.

Old movies, pristine prints, a real cinema historian/cinema completist’s paradise. I tend to mute the introductions as I find the vapid Mankiewicz and assorted telegenic teleprompter readers annoying, but all in all, a valuable resource.

We were waiting up for SNL the other night when I noted this one was coming up, a little-seen Orson Welles-narrated ghost story made in Ireland (The GF and I LOVE Ireland) by the Gate Theatre folks– Hilton Edwards — who “discovered” him in the early 1930s and sent him on the road to glory.

It’s a damned Old School Wellesian delight. Orson as “rhapsode,” as my grad school adviser labeled him — a yarn spinner, storyteller. Welles, in Ireland rehearsing “Othello,” relates a spooky (predictable) tale told to him by a hitchhiker.

And even though Hilton Edwards is the credited director, Hell’s Bells, this is a short Welles film — moody and shadowy, immaculate Wellesian shot compositions and full of Orson blarney, whimsy, winking at his fame, the Irish, etc.

This isn’t as good a print, but here’s the film.

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Netflixable? Oh Canada, NEVER title your teen comedy “Go Fish”


  “Go Fish” is a limp little Canadian comedy about a once-rich girl going through a rough summer at the lake.

Only not really. As anybody remotely interested in cinema, anyone with any familiarity with “Queer Cinema” knows, that’s the title of a no-budget, ground-breaking classic of the genre, a genial, funny and touching lesbian romance from back in 1994, when such stories weren’t told in public and such films (this one was black and white) were rare.

No doubt the makers of “Go Fish,” which feels as if it was intended for Canadian TV, discovered that and shrugged it off. “You can’t copyright titles,” as everybody knows. What’s the harm? Heck, they could’ve titled it “To Have and Have Not” if they’d been so bold.

Gillian Wetherald plays Erica, the heroine and omni-present narrator of the Canadian “Fish.” She lives in a camping trailer by the lake because her Mom died, her Dad (Blair Anderson) went to pieces and lost his job, their house was re-possessed and they even lost the fancy lake “cottage” they used to own.

Still, they’ve got the trailer. And Erica has — or had — a paddleboat to get around the lake, to catch up with her boyfriend Max (Rocky Keller) at the marina. “Had” a paddleboat because Dad had to sell the unicorn-bowed boat to the same opportunists who bought their lake house at auction. Which means her nemesis, prissy one-time pal Marcy (Shaina Silver-Baird) has it.

And as Bush I — or was it The Dude? — said, “This aggression will not stand!”

Erica drags Max into her plots to retrieve the boat, sink it or otherwise destroy it.

“Tonight it’ll be more than marshmallows getting roasted!”

Canadian revenge is best served hot.

Truthfully, this is a terrible movie that is barely even worth reviewing but for the effrontery of its title. Nobody comes off well, the laughs don’t land and the guy they cast as college-age teen Marcy’s beau (Kris Hagen) looks like he might have moved to Canada to dodge the Vietnam War draft. Yeah, that’s an age joke.


MPAA Rating: unrated, pretty darned clean

Cast: Gillian Wetherald, Rocky Keller, Shaina Silver-Baird, Blair Anderson, Kris Hagen

Credits: Written and directed by, Kate DrummondBrett Heard. An Incubator Studio  release.

Running time: 1:14


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Preview, You have never ever seen Melissa McCarthy like this, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

OK. Sure. It looks like “Oscar bait.” It’s due out in the fall, on the cusp of “Awards Season.”

And Melissa McCarthy? Maybe her Queen of Comedy run is winding down. So why not take on something dramatic, a “true” story about a failed writer turned literary forger?

Casting her as down-on-her-luck loner Lee Israel, pairing her up with Richard E. Grant, this looks…great. Absolutely wonderful — sad and tragic and giddy with fraud.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” wasn’t directed by indie icon Nicole Holofcener. But she scripted it. Look for this Oct. 19.

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Movie Review: “Paul, Apostle of Christ”


“Paul, Apostle of Christ” is an intimate, conversational film of the last days of the Apostle Paul, the Pharisee (Jewish zealot/judge) and persecutor of Christians who had the original “Come to Jesus” moment on the Road to Damascus. He became the prophet who developed and enforced early Christian dogma and passed it on through his epistles — long, discursive letters to the Corinthian, Galatian and Roman Christian communities —  and his travels.

Half of the New Testament can be attributed to his writings, “definitive” accounts of testimony about the actions, life and teachings of Jesus — not witnessed first-hand, but collected from those who said they had and from Paul’s own visions, three encounters with Jesus (post mortem)  recounted in the Acts of the New Testament.

A story worth telling? Most certainly. But worth a better storyteller than was entrusted here.

In the movie, Paul (James Faulkner, a character actor still known for playing King Herod on TV’s “I, Claudius”) is in prison in Rome, and in 67 A.D., the Romans are literally feeding Christians to the lions.

Christianity has spread over much of the Mediterranean. But with so little written down, the threat of a watering down of the faith via false teachings, phony Jesus accounts and the like, and Paul no longer traveling and “correcting” the record, is real.

That’s why Luke (Jim Caviezel of “The Passion of the Christ”), a physician later canonized as St. Luke the Evangelist, has shown up. He needs to put Paul’s final thoughts down on paper, a last gasp at synthesizing the still-new religion for now and forevermore.

At least until the Council of Nicaea, 250 years later, when the Christian Bible was edited into something resembling its current form.

The story’s urgency is conveyed by the furtive nature of Luke’s meeting with the (literal) Christian underground. John Lynch (“The Secret Garden”) is Aquilas, who lays it all out for the future saint (Luke was Greek) when they finally meet.

“Rome is stained with the blood of our brothers and sisters.”

“I’ve never seen Rome darker,” adds Aquila’s wife Priscilla (Joanne Whalley, recently seen as a nun in TV’s “Daredevil”).

Christians are a threat to the Empire, Nero has decreed.

But Luke’s imprisonment, even after he’s been moved to a dungeon, is lax enough that Luke can see him to take dictation and confide in the Voice of the Church. What he tells Paul, about unrest within the community, a determination by many to take the fight to the Romans, earns lecturing messages to be taken back to that community.

“Evil can only be overcome with good.” Luke underscores this when he passes Paul’s words on to the Faithful with an emphatic “Love is the only way.”

If that’s too subtle, Priscilla chisels this line in stone.

“Christ asked us to care for the world, not rule it!”

Paul, in his conversations with Luke, flashes back to his younger days, persecuting Christians and “blinded by the light” of his encounter with Jesus, his sight only restored by the Christian healer Anainis (Manuel Cauchi).

Meanwhile, his Roman jailer (Olivier Martinez of “Unfaithful” and “The Physician”) holds them all in contempt, but has his own crisis of faith looming. His daughter is sick, and no Roman physician or Roman gods can save her. What about “the Greek,” this Christian fellow who keeps meeting that trouble-maker Paul?


If you’re going to make a movie set during the Roman Empire, Malta is the most authentic-looking location you could choose. And writer-director Andrew Hyatt, who earlier tried his hand at horror (“The Frozen,” “The Last Light”) and failed, assembled an impressive cast for this handsomely-mounted Biblical story.

But Hyatt isn’t very good at getting across the urgency of the story, and for all the suggestions of torture (“Another 20 lashes!”) and scenes of prisoners being burned, the picture lacks drama or the tension that an account — based on the New Testament’s “Acts” and Christian tradition — might have had.

Faulkner’s Paul looks right, bald, bearded, weary but righteous — “I boast only of my weaknesses!” But his mostly-whispered performance has few moments with a fiery human spark to them.

“You speak as if you have never heard the words of Christ!”

Having his jailer as Paul’s only foil puts pressure on the French actor Martinez, and there’s no intellectual heft, no menace and little heat in their encounters.

Nowhere in the Bible does it say how Paul died, but Catholic tradition dating from a few decades after his death says he was martyred by order of Emperor Nero. Nero and the Great Fire of Rome that occurred during his reign (Catholic tradition says Nero blamed Christians for starting it) are mentioned several times in “Apostle.” And speaking in strictly dramatic terms, the movie sorely misses Nero’s actual malevolent presence.

Lacking that conflict, and with slack pacing that fails to maximize the rising panic of a community hunted and under threat of death in the Circus, without the budget to show us the horrors of that Circus, “Paul, the Apostle” just lumbers along between half-whispered Conversations with the Prophet.

Whatever a movie’s message, whatever value it to its intended audience, it’s an old movie maxim that sums up the shortcomings of this “Apostle.”

Think of Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle” or Kevin Reynolds’ “Risen.” Good directors make good movies. “Paul” didn’t have one. And it shows.


MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violent content and disturbing images

Cast: James Faulkner, Jim Caviezel, Joanne Whalley, John Lynch, Olivier Martinez

Credits: Written and directed by Andrew Hyatt. A Sony Affirm release.

Running time: 1:49

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Netflixable? Ireland’s not all pubs, romance and diddley aye music, not in “The Pier”


Saint Patrick’s Day didn’t send me to the pub for a pint (for once), but had me searching the streaming services and cable networks for Irish film fare I’ve missed over the years.

No “Quiet Man” or “Leap Year” or “Brooklyn” or Minnie Driver binge for us, oh no. Just something we could watch and say, “Oh look, dear. It’s Dublin/County Cork/Howth/Galway. Remember?”

The appeal of scenery in Irish cinema cannot be understated.

After sampling John Ford’s “The Moon is Rising” from 1957 (Dublin, the way it was before modernity hit), we settled on “The Pier,” a little-seen Gerard Hurley character study/homecoming comedy.

Put “comedy” in quotes here, because this sad-faced little romance is a genre pic that pours effort and thought into defying genre. There are laughs, but a dark undercurrent, too. It avoids melodramatic choices, even as it shoves in a romance in the most melodramatic way imaginable.

I can’t say it’s all that, ah, but the coastline (County Cork), the quaint fishing village, the pub! The PUB!

Hurley (“The Pride” is his only other film credit) is an Irish carpenter living in Chicago, summoned home by the urgent call, “Your Da’ is dying!” from a neighbor lady.

Jack borrows money for plane fare and rushes home, but can’t even get to the door without cursing. There’s the old man (Karl Johnson of “The Illusionist”), out playing golf in the wind-whipped mists.

Jack is in a lather, especially when he picks up on why his estranged father — they haven’t seen each other in 20 years — called. Dad has money owed him all over the village. Jack is called back to help him collect it.

The son’s less-than-bemused dismay — he takes a break to rage and curse at The Almighty in the surf — is tempered, somewhat, by the presence of an age appropriate single-woman “outsider,” an American, conveniently in town and warmly played by Lili Taylor. It’s only the promise of “platonic” walks that gets him anywhere with her.

Instead, he and his cranky, loner father, spend their days riding about in a van, getting told off by many, blown off by others, who owe the father money.


The predictable ways this might have played out are we learn a dark secret about those “debts,” that we hear the “true story” of how Jack’s mother died (on “The Pier”) when he was just a boy.

Hurley avoids these, and most other plot points that would drive interest in this tale. Estrangement from his father, his father’s estrangement from The Church, his father’s actual health, etc., dominate scenes that fill in between arguments in the pub and ambling confession walks with The American Woman along the scenic Cork Coast.

The performances are winning enough, with Johnson’s masterful irascibility masking an ugly streak that reveals itself, scene by scene.

It’s not utterly aimless, but you do get the sense that this one, for its scattered sharp exchanges of dialogue and odd turns (not reaching the level of “twists”) is coasting along on its Irishness, with barely enough blarney to get by.

As a general rule, “Oh look dear, it’s County Cork! Remember?” isn’t enough.


MPAA Rating: unrated, with violence, profanity

Cast: Gerard Hurley, Karl Johnson, Lili Taylor

Credits:Written and directed by Gerard Hurley. A Black Equus release.

Running time: 1:29

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