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 The German army have withdrawn from the front in what is clearly a strategic feint, a trap waiting to be sprung.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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Jeff’s Movie Reviews – Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Jeff's Movie Reviews

So Who’s Skywalker, and Why Are They Rising?

by Jeff Bowles

If you’re a Star Wars fan, watching The Rise of Skywalker for the first time is a bit like having your cake and … throwing it against the wall. It provokes an almost drunken feeling, madly lilting from truly satisfying and charming to holy cow, why was that necessary? Unfortunately, director J.J. Abrams has assigned himself too big a task, choosing to tie up not just his trilogy, but also to revive one more time themes and characters that go all the way back to 1999’s The Phantom Menace (remember, kids, dyslexic Star Wars numbering applies: that’s four five six, one two three, seven eight nine).

Admittedly, it would seem, this is Abrams game to lose. He set a high bar for the franchise going forward with The Force Awakens, and Rian Johnson made something of a bold statement in The Last Jedi, which proved incredibly divisive for fans. The Rise of Skywalker will not settle the debate over whether these new Disney-era movies are more jaded cash grab than fitting continuation. You may love or not love this concluding chapter of The Skywalker Saga. Like me, you might do both at the same time.

It’s no big spoiler to say the plot revolves around the return of Emperor Palpatine. The film tells us what he’s up to right there in the classic opening crawl, and lo and behold, he appears within the first few minutes. Palpatine has plans to convert the somewhat nebulously conceived First Order into a super supreme new Empire. All the chess pieces are in play, and trust him, he’s been planning this one a long time.

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The fun new cast we met in The Force Awakens return with typical enthusiasm and once again prove good actors and genuinely funny moments make these movies more enjoyable to watch than the prequels. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has continued to train as a Jedi, now under the tutelage of General Leia Organa. Carrie Fisher, of course, passed away shortly before the release of The Last Jedi, but the filmmakers have worked a minor computer-generated miracle and cut in a mix of outtakes and CG reconstructions to make it appear as if she finished the trilogy. The effect is never quite perfect, but her presence is nice, and the movie would suffer without her.

On the other hand, The Rise of Skywalker is chalk full of fan service moments that don’t work. Some aren’t sought for or needed, and others simply aren’t earned. Why, for instance, does Ray have to travel all the way back to Luke’s lost island just so he can pop up blue-ghost style? What, no frequent flyer miles, Master Skywalker? We can Force project ourselves clear across the galaxy, but it’s a no on the house calls? Oscar Issac’s Poe and John Boyega’s Finn get more to do in this movie, which is beneficial, but more than a few characters get much less screen time in leu of new personnel, most of whom are women, which is bound to piss off mega-macho male fans still irate Rian Johnson dared suggest women can be more heroic than Jedi dudes and scoundrel bros.

Also returning are legendary former cast members Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian and the afore mentioned Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor. It’s nice to see Lando back in the fray, and even the Emperor is creepy enough to give his own past performances a run for their money. But really, I didn’t sign up for Palpatine still kicking around. That opening crawl is an odd one, because before the movie even gets rolling, you have to shift gears and tell yourself, Oh, I guess we’re doing that thing with the evil old Emperor again. Good to know.

The plot moves quickly, sometimes too quickly, proof positive the screenplay has opted to cover too much ground. There are plot twists aplenty, some of which, again, are not earned. Another annoying thing for fans—or should I say, fans of The Last Jedi—is the fact J.J. Abrams goes a long way to wipe out some of the more intelligent counter-programming of the previous film. Psst, remember how we found out Rey’s parents were nobodies? Well…

Check out my video review above, rebel scum!

Ultimately, I appreciate this movie and the things it gets right. But I haven’t felt this cynical about Star Wars since Episode I. There will be many people who don’t see The Rise of Skywalker that way, but I think even they will have to admit it doesn’t live up to the hype and the massive task laid before it. This movie didn’t have to do anything more than tie up the threads of the previous two films. In no way, as far as I can see, did it need to attempt a summation of nine films separated by more than forty years. George Lucas, partially through insatiable revisionism, did a pretty effective job convincing us there would only ever be six Star Wars movies. As a lifelong fan, it pains me to admit these new flicks might not have been necessary. I know, more shocking words were never spoken.

For all its shortcomings, the film still proves enormously charming when it wants to be, and the action scenes are still top notch. Also a highlight, the relationship between Ben Solo and Rey. The penultimate chapter of their story really pulls out all the stops, and ends in a way that’s simultaneously poignant, powerful, and in a way, lovely. By no means do the concluding few moments feel more final than anything that’s come before, but hell, we don’t actually want Star Wars to end, do we? I mean, what would be the point of that? If you’re a fan, anyway.

That’s what it boils down to. Take someone who’s never seen a Star Wars movie to The Rise of Skywalker, and I doubt they’ll be impressed. But for folks who have stuck with the series their whole lives, gosh, there’s just enough to love to keep the film from being a wash. Now the real struggle begins, trying to find out what George Lucas intended for these films and then arguing on the internet over Disney’s opt-in to Force choke the life out of his original concept.

Jeff’s Movie Reviews gives Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker a seven out of ten. I would’ve given it a six, but you know, lightsabers and junk. Now man your ships, and may the Force be with you.


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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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 Pep Talk: I’ll Be (Writing) for Christmas

Jeff's Pep Talk2

I’ll Be (Writing) for Christmas

Every month, science fiction and horror writer Jeff Bowles offers advice to new and aspiring authors. Nobody ever said this writing thing would be easy. This is your pep talk.

The holiday season brings a lot with it. Presents, pie, turkey, presents. I like presents, always have. Not just receiving them, though when I was a kid, that was the absolute pinnacle. I also like to give, which is why in this month’s Pep Talk, I’m giving the gift of solace, a little thing called the holiday writer’s blues, or as you might know it in the common tongue, loneliness.

It creeps up on us when we least expect it. Christmas, New Years, Thanksgiving. Like a perfect trifecta of sadness and stress, unbidden yet punctual, the same time every year, and it can be a bummer for people who don’t have anyone special in their lives. Most fortunately, and thank God this is the case, I’ve never had to be alone for the holidays. I’ve got a very loving family, a loving wife, but even so, there have been occasions when I’ve had to do the one thing I don’t want to do when everyone else is decking the halls, drinking eggnog, and crushing into department stores to return those awful socks.

Writing is both a noun and a verb, and so, it turns out, is the word writer. If you consider yourself a writer in the subjective sense, you are perhaps the thing not doing the thing, potential energy instead of energy realized. In the active sense, though, you’re a writer who is, you know, as energized as a red-nosed reindeer. Regularly, it is to be hoped. If you follow the Pep Talk, you’re familiar with my attitude toward cutting yourself a break and taking time away from the craft whenever you need it. I hate seeing writers burn out, and I’ve seen it a lot.

If for the holidays you find you have to put the laptop down and decompress after a long year of hard work, I say go for it, no shame necessary. In fact, if a writer feels the need to take months or even years off, I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t. We practice a unique and distinguished artform, one which engages the intellect as well as the emotional center. Sometimes you need to feed your creative engine rather than letting it burn, and burn, and burn. If you can do that comfortably, while at the same time allowing yourself the freedom to recognize your desire to write is safe and sound right where you left it, then to my mind you really have the best of both worlds, because you’re the writer who writes, but only when your mind and emotions are strong, fresh, and ready enough to make it possible.

But sometimes we’ve got to work on Christmas, right? Or on any other holiday. If there’s one thing young writers learn pretty quickly, it’s that solitude is essential to the craft. But it can in fact get lonesome. Especially during a time of year traditionally reserved for friends and loved ones. So how do we work when all we really want to do is socialize and rest? How do we keep those words flowing, locked up in our writing spaces with the door closed, about as merry as a stocking full of coal?

It comes down to this: ambition is costly, and sometimes, we must choose our dreams over our immediate desires. Again, if you’re seriously in need of a break, I say take one. In any other case, though, it’s for the best if you can produce every day, or damn near every day. This season is meant to be about love and a deeper kind of appreciation. So appreciate yourself properly. Follow your dreams whenever you can, as steadfast and as boldly as you can, because to do the opposite cultivates regret. I hate regret. It’s like opening a big box with a big bow only to find novelty gas relief pills inside. I did that to my brother one Christmas, by the way. He laughed. Sort of.

santa

The most basic thing to provide yourself, not just in the month of December, but throughout the whole year, is a daily word count limit. Now, it may seem prudent to make that limit high. A lot of writers like to do a bare minimum 2,000 words per day. That’s a great habit to get into if you can manage it, but in the long run, depending on your proclivity for exhaustion, it might turn into a liability. For the holiday season, at least, I’d recommend dropping your daily word count goal to something more manageable.

For instance, in my general daily habit, I’ve started writing a scant 430 words per day. That’s nothing, a half-hour commitment at most. But at that pace, I can lay down just over 3,000 words per week, which works out to almost 157,000 words per year. Now I don’t know about you, but to me that’s a pretty good sum total. In other words, you could literally write two whole standard-length novels in a year if you write for just a half an hour every single day.

Now in terms of the holidays, an easy half-hour commitment allows you to enjoy the festivities and skip the Quasimodo act. Sanctuary! Sanctuary! You could even fit in some revisions or edits between that first football game and the precise hour and minute your uncle starts snoring on the couch. The other good news with such a low word count goal is that it’s common to overshoot the target, which means in a year’s time, you’ll have written far beyond that 157,000 word benchmark. If it suits your needs, just pull back a little. You can still be productive, be the writer doing the writing, the thing doing the thing, without behaving like a hermit.

I can offer another piece of advice here, ironically the exact opposite of what I’ve told you thus far. I know, that tricksy Bowles and his tricksy ways. Yet this might help you deal with unavoidable loneliness directly. I’m not the first guy to suggest it, and I sort of wish it weren’t the case, but it’s possible the only way to combat the holiday blues is to work even harder than you normally do.

Now I wouldn’t recommend this for someone with a lot of family obligations, but look, workaholism is a thing because it actually can be effective on some basic emotional level. To paraphrase the Christian aphorism, idle hands (occasionally) do the work of loneliness. Sometimes it does no good to stay stuck in your head. Maybe try expressing yourself and your feelings on the page. Pour that pent-up stuff into whatever you’re working on, and don’t be afraid to get real about it. As Ernest Hemingway said, writing isn’t hard. What you do is sit at the typewriter and bleed. Now, I’m not suggesting you bleed all over your nice, brand-new, Santa’s workshop custom Dell notebook, but look, people choose to soothe themselves in a lot of ways, some of which are pretty unhealthy. Writing a whole bunch? It’s not the worst thing you can do to yourself.

Loneliness sucks. So if you’re doing it to yourself by working too hard, or conversely, if you don’t have a choice about it because at this point in your life, you really do feel alone, adjusting your regular work routine may be the ticket to feeling a bit more jolly this season. Don’t overdo it. That’s all I ask. Look after yourself first and foremost. I really do mean that. And don’t forget that nice shiny sense of pride and fulfillment. This is a high calling, after all. Maybe not as high as buying Jeff Bowles some presents, but you know, pretty high.

By the way, that’s:

Jeff Bowles

1234 Nowhere Street

Care of the Grinch living on top of the mountain

All right, everyone. Thanks for reading, and Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night. Now for some John Lennon! War is over, if you want it. The war within yourself, that is. Cheers!


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!

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Jeff’s Movie Reviews – Disney’s New Streaming Platform, Disney+

Jeff's Movie Reviews

Get Some Mouse In Your House

by Jeff Bowles

In the future, all forms of video entertainment will be called “Disneys”. I’m sure of it. Saw it in an old sci-fi movie once, and with the release of the brand-new video streaming platform Disney+, the House of Mouse is one step closer to future dystopian entertainment dominance.

Disney+ puts together an admirable and alluring package. But only if you’re a Disney fan. More or less, that’s the dividing line of the whole experience. Featuring many of the best films, shorts, and television series the company has ever produced or co-produced, the platform attempts to appeal to a wide swath of the general video-viewing population, which is to say, anyone who grew up with Disney. Which is more or less everyone living on the planet today.

Ubiquity serves the company well, of course, but it seems Disney isn’t taking anything for granted. For a startup streaming service, Disney+ offers an impressive cross-section of an almost century-long legacy of family-friendly entertainment. Boot it up for the first time, and you’ll find stuff going all the way back to 1928. Steamboat Willie, Snow White and Seven Dwarves, Old Yeller, Pete’s Dragon, Tron, The Little Mermaid, it’s all there. And if you happen to be an adult of the nerdy persuasion, the platform also leverages Disney’s recent acquisitions of Marvel, Lucasfilm, and to a lesser extent, 20th Century Fox. Right on the home screen, a set of helpful studio icons cuts out the middle man and gets you right to the saber swinging and web-slinging. They even have their own animations. Look! The Marvel icon plays that verbose movie intro we love so much! Hurrah!

Perhaps most amazingly of all, the price point is a good deal lower than other competing streaming services. For seven bucks, you get all this and more. It should give Netflix, Apple, and Amazon a run for their money, though Disney owns Hulu now, which I guess means they get to keep all their commercial-interrupted, cut-for-television Avengers movies. Hurrah?

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Evidently, Disney+ is a big hit already. Not two weeks after launch and Disney has declared 10 million initial subscribers. Disney stocks have gone through the roof, and every major media outlet seems to have reported on it. It’s good news for a company that’s had plenty of ups and downs in recent decades. And it’s good for the consumer, too. Sure, the dream of non-segmented television services may be dead, but the golden age of digital entertainment surges on. Disney, in all its varied manifestations, has a lot to do with the direction Hollywood has taken in this regard.

Only thing is, some people don’t like Disney very much, and their reasons for not doing so are valid. Even in light of its impressive legacy, the entertainment giant has taken a beating now and then for cultural insensitivity, outdated gender politics, racial stereotyping, and if you’re a storyteller of any kind (like most people here on Writing to Be Read), pretty dull and repetitive cookie-cutter narratives.

There are some elements of the initial lineup—particularly a few of the older films—that stand out as uniquely offensive by modern standards. Even something seemingly innocuous like 1953’s Peter Pan contains elements that are, put simply, shockingly racist. Disney has added a short disclaimer to certain movies that suggests they understand their own culpability in this, but the disclaimer’s bare language may not go far enough for some. Unfortunately for Disney, it’s hard to embrace the beloved past without acknowledging there may be skeletons in the closet.

But it can’t be all bad, right? The good outweighs the bad? Right? Right? Ah, for Goofy’s sake, what about all the Marvel and Star Wars! And all the Lion King and the Aladdin and the Pirates of the Caribbean and the Fantasia and the… and the…

See how quickly that escalates?

Interestingly enough, Disney has really thrown themselves a little consumer party here. Some of the heaviest hitters in Disney+’s lineup are in full 4K HDR resolution, which is kind of mind-blowing considering Netflix charges more than twice as much for the same feature. To go back to Star Wars and Marvel for a moment, every single film in both catalogues is in ultra high definition. If you were to buy 4K blu-rays of the same movies, they’d run you thirty bucks a pop. Here’s another little secret. The original Star Wars trilogy has been covertly remastered and released on Disney+ before fans are even able to purchase it on disc. That’s a huge deal if you love the series… and if you can afford a 4K TV.

This serves to illustrate the odd dichotomy that defines Disney+. At the same time cheap and built for people with at least a little money, simultaneously as warmhearted and as calculated as anything else they’ve ever made. The basic user interface is fine, colorful and user-friendly, with additional improvements forthcoming. Designed by the same people who built the Netflix interface, it bears many commonalities to the much older platform, including the constant inability to find what you need at the exact moment you need it.

Would it kill you to stop recommending me The Mandalorian? I’m already watching it for cripes sake! He’s a more enthusiastic version of Boba Fett with a Force-using green infant as a sidekick. #BabyYoda – you’ll know what I mean when you see him.

BOTTOM LINE

If you’re a fan of Disney and all the many properties they own or co-produce, I do believe you won’t be disappointed in the service. It houses, after all, a pretty large assortment of movies and shows that are easy to digest and generally satisfying. And to tell you the truth, it’s way too cheap for what it offers. Look for them to jack up the price at some point, I’m sure, but for now it’s kind of a no-brainer. If you’re into this sort of thing.

Jeff’s Movie reviews gives Disney+ an 8 out of 10. Now where are my Mickey ears? Who’s got two thumbs and hasn’t seen Fantasia 2000 in exactly nineteen years? This guy!


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 – Joker

Jeff's Movie Reviews

Who’s Laughing now? Anyone? Anyone?

by Jeff Bowles

At one point in time, the Joker was the super villain you loved to hate. Introduced in the very first issue of Batman, published in 1940, the Clown Prince of Crime has spent decades as an icon of the kind of humor that kills. He’s crazy, occasionally buffoonish, almost always invested in some overly complex hair-brained scheme, and what else can be said? The guy loves to laugh.

Except the Joker has evolved in the last ten years or so, predicated by Heath Ledger’s legendary turn in 2008’s The Dark Knight. His Joker was different, more menacing, quicker to kill with a gun or a knife, as opposed to laughing gas or a rubber chicken set to explode. This was not the Joker that generations of fans had grown up with, but Ledger’s performance was outstanding, and the fact that he died before the movie came out only increased his popularity. Warner Brothers and DC Comics seemed to have decided something at that point. The Joker people really wanted to see was less Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson and more Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. Enter Jared Leto’s performance in 2016’s Suicide Squad, which, while certainly enthusiastic, was more or less utterly ridiculous and clearly manufactured to up the ante on Ledger’s Joker on every front.

And now we finally have a Joker standalone film, starring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. It’s R-rated, morose as a funeral, and seems to have misplaced the classic jolly clown that keeps hyenas as pets and shacks up with a blonde in a jester costume. Notably, even DC Comics has altered the Joker in their own source books, because, I suppose, they don’t understand what too much of a good thing is. This character has in recent years been a literal monster, a frightening urban legend, a crazed sadist, who in one famous 2009 story line, removed his own face and pinned it to a wall (though he still had time for a joke or two).

2019’s Joker film has done something with Batman’s arch nemesis that has never been attempted before. It’s taken the fun out of him. Phoenix’s portrayal is both woeful and terrifying, sympathetic and pityingly childlike. Batman isn’t in this movie, but if he were, you’d kind of hate the guy for beating the crap out of poor Arthur Fleck. In basic truth, we never love to hate this Joker. First we feel bad for him, then we want to run the hell away. He’s an unfortunate guy in a series of tremendously unfortunate events who learns the value of self-confidence once and only once he’s blown away three miscreants on the subway. The movie is more or a less a monotone depiction of a modern mass killer. It’s only got one speed: decay.

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More than this, it feeds into the stereotype that people with severe mental illness are dangerous and scary. I hate to break the movie reviewer fourth wall here, but as someone who suffers from schizoaffective disorder, it’s a little demoralizing. As I write this, the guns vs. mental illness debate rages here in America. Phoenix’s portrayal of an alienated, unstable, abused, and traumatized individual who one day decides to take his pain out on the world hits a bit too close to home. We live that reality. Do we also want to watch it on the big screen?

The rest of the cast includes Brett Cullen as Bruce Wayne’s father, Thomas, Robert DeNiro as a late night talk show host (completing DeNiro’s King of Comedy destiny), Francis Conroy as Arthur Fleck’s frail mother, and Zazie Beetz, a kind of romantic interest who turns into a Fight-Club-like twist that goes nowhere. A talented cast, not improperly used, but still, to quote the clown himself, why so serious?

And the truly insane thing about it is we’re talking about the Joker! Beloved cultural icon since 1940. Yes, it’s a more realistic version of the character, and yes, the guy has been shown in so many different ways, there’s almost certainly a financially viable infinite multiverse of Jokers who could range from saccharine sweet to, well, Joaquin Phoenix depressing. But for crying out loud, I laughed once and snickered once during the entire running length, and in both those instances, not a single exploding chicken!

I kid of course. Someone ought to.

Ultimately, the real sin of this movie is a cinematic one. It’s a bit of a slog. It’s the equivalent of painting a jolly portrait using only grey. There are no highs, no true delirium, nothing of the brilliance it yearns to express. Joker isn’t exactly a bad movie. It’s probably ill-timed, and it’s debatably irresponsible, but for true Batman fans, it’s gratifying to see a favorite character shown so much respect. Or is that disrespect? Mileage may vary.

If only they’d remembered to invite Batman to the party. Does it say something about 2019 that we’d rather watch a movie about the villain than the hero? Joker is a downward plunge that never comes back up. It never relents, never provides us a single ray of light or shred of hope. That would normally be, you know, Batman’s job to provide. Speaking of which, if the guy dressing up like a giant bat is saner than you are, it’s entirely possible you’re not as funny as you think you are. Which explains… everything, really.

Jeff’s Movie Reviews gives Joker a 6 out of 10.


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!

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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 – It Chapter Two

Jeff's Movie Reviews

“Want your boat, Georgie?”

by Jeff Bowles

When the first big screen adaptation of Steven King’s It hit theaters two years ago, it took the world by storm. Audiences found it incredibly unnerving, disturbing, and twisted. In other words, it was everything fans of the most important horror writer of the 20th century (and maybe even the 21st century) could want. Part one of the It saga is a coming of age story, a love letter to the kinds of urban legends that have haunted the young and the young-at-heart for generations. I mean for cripes sake, a killer clown? Nightmare fuel, right? And one considered top-notch by critics and movie-goers alike. Too bad that 2017 modern classic was only half the story.

It Chapter Two wastes no time catching up with the heroes of the first movie, the Losers Club, the same rowdy bunch of kids who stopped that pesky, evil-as-all-hell clown (or whatever he is) before his spree of terror and death could claim one more fragile life in the fictional town of Derry, Maine. The Losers are all adults now, and though they’ve forgotten a surprising amount of their battle with the eponymous monster, most of them, after a fashion, choose to remember and honor the oath they took together to return to Derry if and when the nightmare began again.

That’s the problem with evil immortal-monster-alien-clown-shapeshifter thingies. They just don’t take no for an answer. The cast of Chapter Two is suitably star-studded. Jessica Chastain plays the adult Beverly, who possibly had the most to deal with in the first film, mostly due to an abusive father. She’s still suffering at the hands of an abysmally abusive man, her husband, which is sad, though annoyingly ham-fisted in the ludicrous fashion with which the guy goes from zero-to-full-on-rage without any believable provocation. Stephen King has never been known for subtlety, and It Chapter Two suffers from it. Not that the movie’s problems begin and end with the author.

Bill (James McAvoy), Richie (Bill Hader), Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), Ben (Jay Ryan), and Eddie (James Ransone) join Beverly back in Derry twenty-seven years after the events of movie one, each of them having lived surprisingly full lives. Well, all except for Mike, who’s spent the last three decades charting, following, and studying the supernatural killer. One of the Losers, Stan (Andy Bean), chooses to end his own life rather than set foot in that town again, which makes for a chilling prologue to the events that follow.

The first real set-piece of the movie takes place at the fan-favorite Chinese restaurant, a scene even the 1990 made-for-TV It nailed. It’s more adult and much creepier this time, and the dialog flows about as well as the original banter Steven King committed to the page. Then of course there’s the main event, the monster himself, played once again by Bill Skarsgard. Holly cannoli, this guy is freaky. Unfortunately, director Andy Muschietti makes the mistake of giving us less of him. In fact, less is the watchword for the entire exercise.

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It Chapter Two is bloated and water-logged, just like that one guy It killed in … never mind. The only significant moments of cogency and relatability occur in flashbacks to the Losers as kids. These brief indulgences serve to remind us just how comparatively focused part one was, and we can’t help but feel a slight twinge of nostalgia for a movie that’s only two years old.

The cast does a great job exploring their characters’ unique personalities and allowing us to feel true terror when the big moments arise. But the film seems far too interested in pondering and extolling the concept rather than pushing it forward. Stephen King may be one of the most beloved pop-fiction writers of all time, but a second-parter built on what amounts to little more than a scavenger hunt? Yee-ikes. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Stand, Carrie, The Shining, and many others, as much as the next guy. Some of those books used long-windedness to their advantage. I hear they’re adapting The Stand next. Fingers crossed, all you kooky King nuts.

The climax of the film is impressive if confounding. By the time we get there, it’s become apparent the It saga has suffered from the same disjointed sequel-manufacturing other literary adaptations indulged in (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Twilight, I’m looking at you). Funnily enough, Marvel Studios’ big Avengers two-parter—released in 2018 and 2019, respectively—managed the trick in a much neater fashion, but then, those movies are actually two separate stories blended into one, whereas the It saga feels like, well, a nicely-structured opener and an obligatory half-waisted capstone.

Which isn’t to say It Chapter Two doesn’t have its moments. With high production values, an excellent cast, and a willingness to scare no matter what it takes, the movie can’t help but hit the mark more often than it misses. It’s just that the scenario doesn’t get as much breathing room this time. Scratch that. The problem is the scenario gets far too much breathing room.

Writing to Be Read gives It Chapter Two a six out of ten.

Not a truly poor nor truly serviceable adaptation, but who knows? Maybe when you binge both movies together, Chapter Two feels more satisfying. Is it possible a freakish clown lured us all down into his favorite storm sewer and made a nice, toothy snack of our expectations? I guess it could be worse. We could’ve buried a beloved dog in a pet cemetery, rented out a room at a haunted Colorado hotel, or engaged in interstate mayhem with a possessed car. Ooph. What a way to make a living.


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!

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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 – 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!

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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. Subscribe to email or follow on WordPress today