Under the Banner of Heaven


Not rated.
Stars Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Wyatt Russell, Denise Gough, Billy Howle.

Based on the best-selling nonfiction book by Jon Krakauer, this story about actual murders is told through the eyes of a fictional devout detective (Andrew Garfield) whose faith is tested as he investigates the crime’s connection to a well-known Utah family’s spiral into Mormon fundamentalism and distrust in the government.

Beginning with dull, desaturated tones, the series starts like a horror film, as dark clouds and a fallen bird’s wing enter the screen. The camera moves to a happy family scene as Detective Jeb Pyre (Garfield) plays with his daughters under the ominous sky. A call sends him to the aftermath of a bloody attack, which the viewer only glimpses. From the expression on Pyre’s face, viewers imagine the massacre he sees. Outside, Pyre finds a blood-soaked man. That man assists him in uncovering the mystery of the murder, as well as certain uncomfortable truths about his faith illustrated in period flashbacks involving its founding fathers.

Punctuated by historical reenactments, the seven-episode series unwraps the events leading up to and resulting from the 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter. We meet the Lafferty brood as Brenda becomes involved with and eventually marries one of six sons in the devoutly Mormon clan — a sort of LDS Kennedys, she explains to her family. But the loving facade of the Laffertys soon falls away under the economic pressure of a recession and the strict dictates of an overbearing father. Religion becomes a justification for flouting the law, abuse, misogyny — and ultimately murder.

Brenda’s husband (played by Billy Howle) is a (possibly unreliable) narrator of the story, pointing out to Pyre, “Our faith breeds dangerous men.” He relates many of the historical tales that show the violent and vacillating doctrines of revered Mormons such as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, linking their teachings to the actions of his family. But while Mormonism is implicated, the series effectively portrays how men can use any religious teachings — Mormon or other — to rationalize their own selfish desires. Sam Worthington, as Ron Lafferty, and Wyatt Russell, as Dan Lafferty, skillfully portray the transformation of two brothers who lose their moral compass as they twist religious history to make sense of misfortune and fit their aims. Playing two other brothers, Seth Numrich and Rory Culkin — in a particularly creepy turn — also bring this family descent into antisocial behavior to life.

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Daisy Edgar-Jones plays Brenda, the moral anchor, a devout Mormon showing the Laffertys’ apostasy in sharp relief. Likable, loving and helpful, she acts with righteous vigor, supported by the church, in the face of the “evil” infecting the clan — showing a bravery that ultimately ends in her death and that of her 15-month-old daughter.

Gil Birmingham’s wry turn as Pyre’s gum-chewing Native American detective sidekick Bill is a welcome relief. As a secular observer, he’s got many of the most clever lines, and Birmingham delivers them with an understated aplomb.

But Denise Gough, as Ron’s wife Dianna, who is also hunted by her husband and his family, delivers the most cutting lines, a condemnation of what would now be called “toxic masculinity.” “Do you step on women’s necks because it make you feel taller? Because your mother told you you were a chosen one? That our country is to blame for your failings?” she says to one of the clan. “Well, it’s a lie. You are not special. You are not chosen. You and your brothers simply failed. You are a small, weak child of a man.”

Indeed, the weakening of faith is the ultimate message of the series, which ends with the capture of the murderers by a shaken Pyre. True crime buffs may find the final episode a bit unsatisfying, as there is no court scene or slamming of the jail doors on the two culprits. What happens to the men who perpetrate the murders is left to further investigation by viewers. Their guilt is unquestioned, but at the conclusion Pyre, it seems, continues to secretly question his faith.

Rotten Tomatoes Launches ‘RT Labs’ Educational Resource for Critics

Rotten Tomatoes has launched “RT Labs,” an online educational resource program designed to support aspiring and up-and-coming entertainment critics in their career development.

The program will feature recorded panel discussions and classes with industry experts that will be rolled out on a quarterly basis and focus on “engaging conversations and actionable guidance,” according to the service. The “RT Labs” video content will be published on Rotten Tomatoes and accessible under the “Critics” tab.

Launching Aug. 24 is the introductory installment of “RT Labs: Critics Edition,” the first in a two-part video series focusing on the ins and outs of self-publishing. Moderator Sharronda Williams, producer and host of the YouTube channel “Pay or Wait,” and panelists Erik Anderson (AwardsWatch), Robert Daniels (freelance critic), Li Lai (Mediaversity) and Kristen Lopez (IndieWire) review industry-best practices and cover elements including branding, platform management and budget, editorial oversight and more. The follow-up panel will address topics such as networking, hiring contributors and transitioning from self-publishing to freelancing, among others.

“At Rotten Tomatoes, we remain committed to amplifying diverse voices and supporting the next generation of journalists as they look to evolve and innovate the field of entertainment criticism,” Jenny Jediny, Rotten Tomatoes’ head of critic relations, said in a statement. “We are excited to launch ‘RT Labs’ and help aspiring critics gain valuable guidance and tools from some of the best minds in our industry.”

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“RT Labs” continues to build on Rotten Tomatoes’ mission to broaden and diversify the critics pool whose movie and TV reviews are reflected in the site’s Tomatometer scores, according to the service.

“Rotten Tomatoes began this quest in earnest in August 2018, when it revamped the Tomatometer critics criteria with an increased focus on critics’ individual qualifications, allowing for more freelance critics and those publishing on newer media platforms to be Tomatometer-approved,” according to a press release. “Since 2018, Rotten Tomatoes has added more than 900 critics to the Tomatometer. Over the past year, nearly 100 new critics have been added, an estimated 70% of whom are from underrepresented groups; 25% are people of color; 51% are women; 72% are freelancers; and 26% publish on newer media platforms.

In December 2020, Rotten Tomatoes revamped its Top Critics program, a designation for Tomatometer-approved critics. Of the 170 new Top Critics individually designated since that revamp, 60% are women, an estimated 25% are people of color and 24% publish via video and podcast media.

To help ensure that the next generation of entertainment critics is more inclusive, Rotten Tomatoes has renewed its donation to the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival Media Inclusion Initiative, which awards critics from underrepresented groups with stipends to enhance their Festival experience. Since 2018, Rotten Tomatoes has donated more than $250,000 to film festival press inclusion programs and university and junior college-level scholarships, helping support aspiring critics from underrepresented groups achieve their academic and professional goals. Rotten Tomatoes also hosts various workshops, panels and networking events for critics to gain access to editors, studio publicity and marketing executives and festival organizers at key industry events.

The Social Dilemma


Not rated.

If you’ve got a kid constantly glued to their phone (which is just about every kid), this documentary may be very frightening.

The Social Dilemma, much like another Netflix doc The Great Hack (nominated for an Emmy), explores the insidious nature of social media — and how it may be controlling us. While The Great Hack looked at election manipulation, The Social Dilemma examines how algorithms are attempting to control our minute-by-minute attention — all in order to serve advertisers looking to attract eyeballs — with dangerous consequences.

Through interviews with former employees of the big tech companies and dramatic scenarios, the documentary lays out the case that social media, in its conquest to capture our attention (much like a drug), is manipulating our actions and our very perception of the world around us. To monopolize viewers’ attention, algorithms serve up a warped world that is only designed to do just that — keep us engaged. The content that it delivers is inconsequential to the impersonal algorithm (dramatically portrayed by actor Vincent Kartheiser, who many may remember from “Mad Men”), which doesn’t care how violent, slanted or downright untrue that content is. In fact, the more incendiary or untruthful, the more engaging that content is. All the algorithm (Kartheiser) cares about is how long it can keep a subject’s attention.

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The fictional sections of this hybrid doc — in which actors portray the effects of social media — work to dramatize digital control, but not always to a great effect. Some of the scenarios seem a bit overdrawn. Still, the actors help illustrate the real-world implications of social media, and in the case of Kartheiser (playing the algorithm trying to get the actors’ attention), personify the intentions of an abstract concept that many may find hard to understand.

Indeed, it is control that the algorithm wants — control of our time. And, in taking that control, the algorithm pushes our thinking and actions in directions that they might not have gone otherwise.

One of the most shocking moments in the documentary is when a tech exec — who admits to being addicted to social media — says he won’t let his children have screen time.

If social media is so dangerous that its creators won’t let their own children use it, why should we?

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Mystery of the Wax Museum’ and ‘A Thousand Clowns’

The Mystery of the Wax Museum

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Horror, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell, Frank McHugh.
This above-and-beyond is even more impressive for licking the salvage job that had to be done as opposed to the movie’s visual content, which is by nature on the dark side for the film that was later remade in 1953 as House of Wax with Vincent Price.
Extras: Museum wouldn’t be a vintage Michael Curtiz picture on a recent Blu-ray if it didn’t serve up Curtiz biographer Alan Rode to offer a backgrounder, and he really has to fight the clock to fit his standard pro job into the tight 78-minute running time. This would all be enough for most discs, but there’s also a sweet tribute to Fay Wray, which includes not only Wray in archival interviews but Victoria Raskin, her daughter with screenwriter Robert Riskin and author of a recent book on her parents
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A Thousand Clowns

Kino Lorber, Comedy, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Jason Robards, Barbara Harris, Barry Gordon, Martin Balsam, William Daniels.
If there can be such a thing as a pro-hippie dropout movie geared for white guys, it has to be A Thousand Clowns, which in its own ragged way, almost by accident, also nearly comes off as “European” in its approach to 1960s cinema.
Extras: Former child actor Barry Gordon is on the main bonus extra here covering the basics of his career and offering opinions on how the movie evolved into an offbeat mess.
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Lego DC: Shazam! — Magic and Monsters


$19.98 DVD, $24.98 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Voices of Sean Astin, Troy Baker, Nolan North, Grey Griffin, Christina Milizia, James Arnold Taylor, Imari Williams, Fred Tatasciore, Ralph Garman, Zach Callison, Dee Bradley Baker, Jennifer Hale, Tom Kenny, Johnny Rees, Erica Lindbeck, Josh Keaton.

The “Lego DC” movies are like a throwback to the days of superheroes being light and fun, like the old “Super Friends” cartoon.

The latest installment focuses on Shazam, the red-suited mystically powered hero who has gotten a bit higher profile of late thanks to his own live-action motion picture last year.

In this new adventure done in the Lego style, Shazam is a rookie superhero on the verge of joining the Justice League. But he doesn’t believe the team will accept him if they discover that his secret identity of Billy Batson is just a kid who only takes on adult form when he gains powers by shouting “Shazam!”

His fears become secondary, however, when his archenemesis Mr. Mind and Dr. Savana discover a way to turn the Justice League members into children so that they may more easily brainwash them into doing evil.

That leaves is up to Shazam, and the kid version of Batman who escapes, to save the day.

The movie has a lot of fun playing with the Shazam mythology, particularly all the gods from whom Shazam derives his powers. There’s also a fantastic final fight that might fulfill a lot of fanboy crossover fantasies.

The Blu-ray includes a Lego Shazam minifigure and three bonus cartoons: an episode of “Teen Titans Go!” and two episodes of “Unikitty!”

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Destry Rides Again


$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, Brian Donlevy, Jack Carson, Irene Hervey, Charles Winninger.

Partly by default and partly because it’s true, 1939’s Destry Rides Again is, as the great Imogen Sara Smith says in her interview on Criterion’s new release of what’s likely the most respected film from director George Marshall, also the best comic Western of all time. To really cut it, any contender has to work as a comedy and a Western, and Destry is pretty close to being able to stand alone in this specialist genre’s latter component. In fact, to my taste, there’s a little too much comedy and certainly music here, but it’s the musical numbers that have given the film its place in history, so what are you going to do?

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Marlene Dietrich is the one of the actresses that exhibitors had listed as “box office poison,” and she was just coming off Ernst Lubitsch’s flop-at-the-time Angel, which is now a major revisionist cause that Kino just brought out in a new Blu-ray that I haven’t seen despite commentary by major leaguer Joseph McBride, a Lubitsch biographer. (I was also struck that Andrew Sarris rated it very highly decades ago in his landmark The American Cinema.) Of all people, Dietrich “creator” and overall guru Josef von Sternberg encouraged her to take on Destry, with was a major face lift to her screen image.

She plays the in-house entertainment and fleecing assistant at the Last Chance Saloon, which is also the best chance around in which to lose your home and often your life in crooked poker games run by the joint’s proprietor (Brian Donlevy, naturally). As “Frenchy,” Dietrich provides gambling distractions but also performs several songs, including one of her signatures: “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have,” one of several light moments to camouflage the fact that the town law has mysteriously vanished off the face of the Earth. To take his place, the town’s crooked judge who’s under Donlevy’s thumb (Samuel S. Hinds) appoints the saloon’s resident sot (Charles Winninger) as the replacement law. In rare moments of sobriety, the last knows he’s in over his head, so he imports Tom Destry Jr. (James Stewart) as his deputy — son of a famed lawman and himself an individual of reputation in other places. Fun fact: Hinds later played Stewart’s father in It’s a Wonderful Life — talk about another image facelift).

Well … the first the town sees him, he’s helping a “good girl” (Irene Hervey) off the stage and in the process aiding her by holding some of her garb in his hands. Then it turns out that he doesn’t carry a gun. This is all good for guffaws on the street, and Donlevy is delighted once he gets over his sheer double-take bewilderment (no actor did this better than he did), though Winninger is, of course, mortified. Another fun fact: Hervey was married to singer Allan Jones in real life, whose big hit was “The Donkey Serenade” from the same year. Together, they parented singer Jack Jones, and I think I recall from an old “This Is Your Life” episode that he recorded it the same night Jack was born.

Stewart, though, turns out to have his own effective style at defusing trouble, and he develops something of a perverse relationship with Dietrich that includes lots of physical mayhem in the saloon and in her living quarters. Even with this, though, the big fight is between Dietrich and Uni Merkel as a local wife who will tolerate no nonsense. And speaking of violence, calming Hervey has a hothead brother played by Jack Carson in a role much meaner than he usually did. Donlevy, who really does own everything, wants to change Carson for moving his cattle over Donlevy land, and Carson just knocks down a fence and plus on through.

Eventually, Stewart employs a few surprises in his style and finally proves he has the stuff, as he additionally pursues whatever happened to the missing Winninger predecessor. Another ‘A’-teamer (Farran Nehme) wrote the Criterion essay, and she notes how, for all its glory, Destry was actually fairly far down on the year’s list of the renowned 1939’s biggest hits, such was the competition.

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Bowing again to Gary Tooze on his DVD Beaver site, I totally agree to unexpectedly striking degree that the All-Region Koch Blu-ray from Germany several years ago has far crisper visuals despite Criterion getting a 4K treatment here. But Criterion’s extras are very cool, including Marshall talking about working during Hollywood’s formative years (he’s right out of the unmatched Kevin Brownlow Hollywood documentary from the early 1930s). And the insights from Donald Dewey, author of James Stewart — A Biography, so impressed me that I tried to get the book for my Kindle, but it isn’t available. All in all this is a strong package, but boy, that Koch version looks good.

Mike’s Picks: ‘King Creole’ and ‘Destry Rides Again’

Mike’s Picks: ‘King Creole’ and ‘Destry Rides Again’

King Creole

Paramount, Musical, $29.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Elvis Presley, Carolyn Jones,Walter Matthau, Dolores Hart, Dean Jagger.
King Creole was, like most of Elvis’ pre-army screen outings, shot in black-and-white. But there was nothing stingy about the production, and the New Orleans locales that producer Hal Wallis sprung for add immeasurably to the ambience right from the opening, synching beautifully with the studio-shot material that makes up the bulk of the drama.
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Destry Rides Again

Criterion; Western; $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray; NR.
Stars Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, Brian Donlevy, Jack Carson, Irene Hervey, Charles Winninger.
Destry Rides Again is likely the most respected film from director George Marshall, and also the best comic Western of all time.
Extras: Criterion’s extras are very cool, including Marshall talking about working during Hollywood’s formative years. And the insights from Donald Dewey, author of James Stewart — A Biography, are impressive.
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Mike’s Picks: ‘Tin Cup’ and ‘The General Died at Dawn’

Tin Cup

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Comedy, $21.99 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for language and brief nudity.
Stars Kevin Costner, Rene Russo, Cheech Marin, Don Johnson.
1996. A golf-backdropped romantic comedy directed and co-written by Ron Shelton, Tin Cup was about as popular at the box office as the filmmaker’s breakthrough Bull Durham, yet it isn’t talked about as much these days — perhaps due to Durham’s extraordinarily sustained shelf life as a movie that really caught on in the home market.
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The General Died at Dawn

Kino Lorber, Thriller, $24.95 Blu-ray, Not rated.
Stars Gary Cooper, Madeleine Carroll, Akim Tamiroff, Porter Hall, William Frawley.
As a standout film or close in the borderline screen career of Lewis Milestone that additionally features the first screenplay of playwright Clifford Odets’ career, The General Died at Dawn has more going for it than the cosmetic magnitude of its two impossible-looking lead actors captured here in a new 4K mastering that shows how great ’30s Paramounts used to look.
Extras: Historians Lee Gambin and Rutanya Alda share the Blu-ray commentary.
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Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn


Street Date 5/12/20;
Box Office $84.16 million;
$28.98 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray, $44.95 UHD BD;
Rated ‘R’ for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material.
Stars Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Ella Jay Basco, Chris Messina, Ewan McGregor.

The most significant aspect of the 2016 Suicide Squad movie was undoubtedly the popularity boost it gave to the character of Harley Quinn, as played by Margot Robbie. While she had always been a fan favorite, the film made her a pop culture sensation, as Harley Quinn cosplay dominated the comic book convention circuit more than ever before, and there was little doubt the character would be popping up in her own movie soon enough.

Those plans hit a bit of a snag, however, as the creative direction of the DC Comics shared movie universe began to unravel a bit following the disappointment of 2017’s Justice League. Subsequent projects would put more focus on the individual films while de-emphasizing the potential for interconnected stories.

And with that, Harley Quinn would end up fronting a loose adaptation of the “Birds of Prey” comic book that shined a spotlight on some of the female heroes of Gotham City. Being the girlfriend of the Joker, Harley was usually cast as an antagonist, but her popularity spurt resulted in her being positioned as more of an anti-hero.

As such, the film finds Harley (Robbie) having just broken up with the Joker, a change in relationship status that makes her an open target for every criminal in Gotham City with a bone to pick with her. In her efforts to establish herself as an underworld authority in her own right, and find a quiet moment to enjoy an egg sandwich, Harley finds herself protecting a teenage pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco) who stole a jewel encoded with the account numbers of a vast mafia fortune, attracting the attention of a mob boss nicknamed Black Mask (Ewan McGregor).

Along the way, and with nary a mention of Batman, Harley tussles with a hotshot cop (Rosie Perez) who treats her job like an ’80s action movie; the Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a lounge singer with sonic powers; and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a crossbow-wielding vigilante who seeks vengeance on the crime lords who killed her family.

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Described by one of the visual effects supervisors in the bonus materials as Pulp Fiction meets Clockwork Orange, the film seems trying to set itself up as something of a girl power version of Deadpool, intersplicing some decent action scenes with broad comedy in service of several story threads connected by narration from Harley that jumps back and forth through time. Also like Deadpool, the film tries to play in the ‘R’-rated playground, but the attempt seems more like an excuse for excess rather than anything intrinsically necessary for the characters, story or humor.

Unfortunately, in an effort to be quirky, the film was saddled with the mouthful of a title Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, which when shortened to the obvious Birds of Prey doesn’t speak much to Harley’s involvement in it. So, after the film’s initial disappointment at the box office (also not helped by limiting the audience with its ‘R’ rating), the studio tried to re-christen it Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey for marketing purposes (a move further made understandable by the fact that they couldn’t get the full name right in their own press release for the home video). They probably just should have called it Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey to begin with.

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With the coronavirus pandemic cutting the film’s box office run short, it made an early debut through digital retailers, which offered a variety of bonus features that also made their way to the Blu-ray edition.

The primary extra is the Birds Eye View Mode, a viewing option that plays the film with a mix of filmmaker commentary, pop-up trivia and picture-in-picture behind-the-scenes footage.

More behind-the-scenes details are offered in six featurettes that run a total of 42 minutes, with some repetition of material between them and with the viewing mode. Most of the emphasis is on the physical look of the film, such as the production design and the costumes. There’s also a significant amount of time devoted to the style of the characters and finding the right actors to play them. One of the more unintentionally funny clips involves Winstead heaping praise upon the talents of McGregor — who reportedly left his wife for her while they were co-starring on the “Fargo” TV show just before signing on for this movie.

Finally, there’s a two-minute gag reel that, while amusing, is hard pressed to make an impact given all the silliness that ended up in the movie.

Mike’s Picks: “Murder, He Says” and “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project”

Murder, He Says

Street Date 4/7/20
Kino Lorber, Comedy, $24.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Fred MacMurray, Helen Walker, Marjorie Main, Jean Heather, Porter Hall.
Fred MacMurray gives what may be the top comic performance of his long and still underrated career in Murder, He Says, a twisted Hollywood comedy that gets a 4K spiff-up for Blu-ray.
Extras: Includes a voiceover commentary by producer/writer Michael Schlesinger and film archivist Stan Taffel.
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Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

Kino/Zeitgeist, Documentary, B.O. $0.06 million, $29.95 DVD, $34.95 Blu-ray, NR.
2019. There’s almost certainly a link between a certain kind of genius and a certain kind of madness, which is one of the themes of Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project — director Matt Wolf’s graphically sophisticated documentary about a most unusual woman who was on a mission.
Extras: The Blu-ray includes a commentary by Wolf, interviews, and episodes of a public access talk show hosted by Marion Stokes.
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