Jeff’s Movie Reviews – Just Mercy

Jeff's Movie Reviews

Justice For All

by Jeff Bowles

Movie theaters across the country are closed due to Coronavirus concerns, so there aren’t many new major films coming out. June is typically the heart of the summer movie season, when all the major studios showcase their big releases for the year. Still, film buffs aren’t completely in the cold right now. Plenty of flicks that otherwise would’ve been released in theaters have come to on-demand services, and some true gems from the past year are getting a little well-earned, extended time in the spotlight.

One such film is perhaps one of the most relevant and urgently messaged home releases for this moment in history. I’m not referring to some pandemic movie that’s meant to invoke COVID fears, but rather a film that deals directly with issues surrounding the current international protests over the death of George Floyd. It’s an incredibly apt time to take a look at racism in the criminal justice system and in our society at large, and Just Mercy, directed and co-written by Destin Daniel Cretton, offers us an unflinching and impassioned portrayal of some truly chilling events.

Just Mercy is free to watch on streaming platforms everywhere for a limited time, and I highly suggest you do so. It’s an affecting film, one that forces viewers to confront the cold hard truth: as a nation, we have failed millions of our own citizens, placed them in handcuffs, incarcerated and criminalized them, often without the benefit of valid and Constitutionally guaranteed due process. As the film tells us in it’s closing moments, one in nine federal convictions has been overturned by the introduction of new evidence, sometimes years after an original crime was committed. That is a startling figure. Put bluntly, Just Mercy is about the wrongful imprisonment, dehumanization, and subjugation of black men and women, and I truly don’t mind admitting (in fact it’s a privilege to admit it) I was in tears by the end.

Jamie Foxx plays Walter McMillian, who, in 1987, was sentenced to die for the notorious murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite a preponderance of evidence proving his innocence and the fact that the only testimony against him came from a criminal with a motive to lie. The movie is really about the early career of world-renowned civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), who graduated Harvard Law and immediately moved to the deep south because, as he put it, “I’ve learned that each of us is more than the worst thing that we’ve ever done; that the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth, the opposite of poverty is justice.”

Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy

Jordan is terrific as Stevenson, passionately engaged in the portrayal of a young man who simply doesn’t have the word “quit” in his vocabulary. Jordan has begun to make quite a career for himself in this and other films that handle racism directly, though this might be his most grounded and honest role yet. It’s really Foxx who makes the biggest impact, though. Truly, this film offers one of the finest performances of his career. McMillian both chooses to believe and not believe in his right to fair and just treatment. It’s sort of the moral and spiritual undercurrent of the film. This system breaks people down in startling and terrible ways. Even when you’re innocent you feel guilty.

The plot is more or less similar to dozens of other criminal justice movies. A hotshot attorney takes on an impossible case, gathers evidence, faces obstacles and even risks his own life, all for the rights and freedom of his client. But it’s the raw emotionality that distinguishes Just Mercy. Look, we shouldn’t handle this stuff with kid gloves anymore. Either you believe the system targets minorities, or you don’t. A story like this has the capacity to change minds. At a time like this, that could be worth its weight in gold.

I’m a white American. I am not now nor have I ever been an individual who has experienced on a personal level the true horrors of racism. I’m not actually qualified to write a review for a movie like this, not as far as I’m concerned. But’s it’s important to me to listen at a time like this. To learn and to ask myself what I’d be prepared to do if it was my freedom, my life, on the line. Just Mercy is so powerful precisely because it pulls no punches. When a man dies on death row, you feel it. When a racist district attorney undermines and condescends to his African American colleague, it makes you angry.

Anger will only get us so far if we really want to change the world, but information, education, even in the form of a piece of entertainment, it’s incredibly important. And this a great film regardless. In my humble opinion—and by the way, opinions are everywhere right now, so I’m not intensely interested in sharing the full extent of mine—this issue has been politicized to an extreme and absurd level. Leave it to the politicians and pundits to make all the hay they want. With Just Mercy, audiences are asked to take an honest look at incredibly urgent matters and to do more than just think about them. This is a movie that wishes to provoke an emotional, intellectual, and societal response. And it may just do exactly that.

Jeff’s Movie Review’s gives Just Mercy a 9/10.


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, 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 second Friday of each month on Writing to be Read. Subscribe to email or follow on WordPress today.


Jeff’s Movie Reviews – DC Comics Gets Animated

Jeff's Movie Reviews

Cartoon Justice

by Jeff Bowles

This month on Writing to be Read, we’re exploring superheroes and supervillains, so for May’s movie review, I thought I’d discuss a lesser known corner of the major comic book film adaptation landscape.

DC Comics and their parent company/distribution overlord, Warner Bros., have gotten a bad rap for producing superhero films that simply don’t meet the bar established by their rival, Marvel Studios. Well allow me to clue you in on one area DC has Marvel beat: animated films. Direct-to-video, barely seen by non-fans, but actually pretty good and by and large, better than their big-screen live action cousins.

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Justice League Dark: Apokolips War

Warner’s animation division has a long history of excellent superhero storytelling. Warner Bros. has owned DC since the 1980s. It took Marvel two additional decades to receive studio backing from Disney, probably because Marvel was in bankruptcy until it started making bankable movies like Spider-Man and Iron Man. But back in the early 90s, Warner Bros. and DC created the Emmy-winning Batman the Animated Series, which still holds up as one of the greatest Saturday morning cartoons of all time. All these years later, that same group is still together. They have released over fifty (count them, fifty) feature-length animated films that cover all areas of the DC universe.

Whereas Marvel requires audiences to have prior knowledge of their storylines before going into any given sequel, the DC animated film series rarely contains that much connective tissue, except in their main Justice League storyline, which just wrapped up this week with the release of Justice League Dark: Apokolips War. Now that’s spelled Apokolips rather than apocalypse; we’re talking a fire planet ruled over by Thanos-clone and best-dressed uber-villain of the year, Lord Darkseid. And that’s spelled Darkseid rather than dark side, because, well, he was created in the 1970s, and everyone in the comic industry at that time was on copious amounts of “powdered productivity”.

Justice League Dark: Apokolips War is an excellent animated film, one you may just skip if you’re not a fan. It’s got everything in it faithful DC-heads have come to expect. World-ending cataclysms, fists and superpowers and feats of incredible strength, magic and might, and more major character deaths than you can shake a batarang at.

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John Constantine saves the day in Apokolips War

John Constantine (that’s THE John Constantine, once played by Keanu Reeves in his own major film adaptation) is recruited by the Justice League to take down Darkseid for good. When things go terribly wrong, the population of Earth is more or less decimated, and it’s up to Constantine, a depowered Superman, and a small cast of other heroes to set things right.

Whether they do or not isn’t really the point. This small animated movie takes more risks with its characters than any big-screen Marvel romp. Perhaps because they can afford to. When I say there are a ton of unexpected deaths in this thing, I mean it. You never know who’s going to snuff it, which makes it all the more enjoyable.

The DC animated library is of much higher quality than you may expect. Most entries are made for adult fans, which is how you can justify an R-rating for Apokolips War. For crying out loud, these dying superheroes pop like balloons. Like bloody, spandex-clad, hope-to-see-you-in-the-reboot balloons.

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The Full Breadth of the DC Animated Universe

You wouldn’t want to sit your kid in front of Apokolips War, but the point is that over the course of more than fifty releases, the full breadth and scope of the DC universe has been on full display. We’ve gotten to see all corners and permutations, from Gotham City to Metropolis to outer space and DC‘s dark magical underbelly, loaded with lots and lots of characters the general public haven’t even heard of. If you want your DC education without sifting through stacks and stacks of old comics, these movies may be for you.

Marvel has a great reputation for entertaining if underwhelming storytelling, and right or wrong, they’re also perceived as being the light and enjoyable flip side of DC Comics and their brooding nature. To a certain extent, that reputation is in error. Read some comics from both companies in any given week and you’re likely to find tonal and narrative identicality.

So it’s kind of wonderful to have such a huge library of animated films that communicate what DC Comics is all about far better than their live action equivalents have done. Truth be told, I’d rather watch some of these cartoons than the likes of Batman v Superman or even the much-hyped huge disappointment that was Justice League.

You remember the Justice League movie? Yeah, not many people do, it seems.

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Do I Have Something on My Face?

But a good Justice League cartoon, now that I can get behind. The ending of Apokolips War is perhaps not as definitive as was advertised. Really, it’s just stage one of a massive retooling, but I’m fine with that. The legacy begun by that legendary Batman cartoon series from the early 90s is still in good hands, and you can pick out any one of these animated films and have a pretty good time with it. Plus, they’re all available for digital download and streaming.

Maybe animation isn’t your thing, and neither are comics or superheroes. But the truth is there is a massive installed fanbase that is ravenous for any new story from Warner Bros. Animation. These releases don’t do well financially in the larger sense, but every one of them takes great pleasure and care extoling the virtues of this kind of storytelling.

Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and hundreds of other DC characters have gotten time in the limelight, a feat that will most certainly never be repeated in big-budget live action form. So maybe it’s a little silly to get invested in a bunch of cartoons, but if you have any love or curiosity for the full scope of what DC Comics has to offer, this is a great place to dig in and enjoy.

You weren’t planning on leaving the house anyway, were you? Oh, you were? Then stand six feet away and in that direction, please. I’m not Superman, you know.


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 – For Your Homebound Quarantine Enjoyment: Birds of Prey

Jeff's Movie Reviews

I See Your Giant Mallet and Raise You One Pet Hyena

by Jeff Bowles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


Jeff’s Movie Reviews – The Invisible Man (2020)

Jeff's Movie Reviews

The Monster You Know

by Jeff Bowles

It goes without saying that the new Universal Studios reboot of the horror classic, The Invisible Man, offers a uniquely compelling movie experience for our hyper-political, hyper-aware post-#metoo era. The year 2020 is a very different time from 1933, the year Universal released its classic Claude Rains iteration. We understand the world in a startlingly different fashion, and complex psychology, trauma, abusive romantic relationships, and violence against women are all very much at play in the stories our culture has begun to tell.

Rest assured, though, The Invisible Man is not an overtly political movie. More like a chilling and subtly “woke” product of its times. Gone are all the old monster movie affectations—silly white mummy bandages covering a mysterious face, wired monocles and burning cigarettes floating in mid-air—replaced by psychological horror, emotional and physical torment, circa 2020 big-budget computer generated special effects, and a pretty nifty concept for a military-grade invisibility suit. Not to spoil too much, which really is a challenge with this movie, but the monster in this Universal monster picture is still very much a science fictional prospect. He’s also slightly reminiscent of a bad guy you might find in any average modern video game, which is how you know you’re in for one hell of a boss fight.

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Elisabeth Moss, who is just as excellent here as she is on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, plays Cecelia Kass, the traumatized victim of a seemingly abusive relationship who is desperate to escape her wealthy tech developer husband. Cecelia gets free of his post-modern rich dude Dracula castle in the opening sequence of the film, only to learn a couple scenes later he’s ended his own life and left her his fortune. Which, you know, is really just a springboard for some invisible-man-ish fun and mayhem.

What kind of tech does her husband, Adrian, develop? Optics, of course, the kind that can turn someone… well, you know. I say Cecelia is the victim of a seemingly abusive relationship because while its clear Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) has done some truly terrible things to her, we’re never really sure what they were. It’s sort of a narrative issue, a lack of basic context, because as the action and suspense ratchet up, certain story beats become less formidable. Again, spoilers are easy to drop, but how did this guy get this way? He’s not just a monster. His exists solely to watch you realize your most intimate fears. The film insists on hints and allegations, relies too heavily on stereotypes, but only as it applies to Adrian and his brother, Tom (Michael Dorman), who may or may not suffer from some intense form of younger sibling Stockholm Syndrome.

Realistically, if this movie were called The Wolf Man or Frankenstein, I doubt I’d question how insidious the villain is, but we’re dealing with issues of domination, psycho-sexual violence, and truly, more emotional clarity is called for. Not to put too fine a point on it, but simply tossing around terms like narcissism and sociopathy doesn’t really help fill in a backstory. Lot’s of people are sociopathic and narcissistic, and not too many invent invisibility suits and murder-stalk their exes.

The good news for audiences, however, is that none of the above matters much, because The Invisible Man is a focused and frightfully suspenseful film, full of unexpected twists and a finale that is less cliché good guy, bad guy showdown than morally ambiguous coup d’état. At times, the movie is downright ingenious in its concoction of more and more elaborate and devilish scenarios. The supporting cast is excellent, and thankfully, exist as more than simple horror movie cannon fodder. The real unease and dread of The Invisible Man comes down to a basic relatable fear: if I tell them what’s really happening to me, they’ll call me crazy and put me away.

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Which isn’t to say the movie readily offers up easy explanations for all it entails. As the credits roll, it becomes clear writer/director Leigh Whannell wants us thinking hard about what we’ve just seen. Sharp-eyed viewers will spot the answer to the penultimate question posed by the film within its first few tense opening moments, but some audiences may leave dissatisfied by the ambiguity of it all.

Ultimately, The Invisible Man is about desperation and bare-knuckled survival in the face of victim-hood and victimization, an unavoidable totem of an age in which the sins of very powerful, very sleezy men have been outed in spectacular public fashion. Truly, the film is an intimate and personal take on the classic Universal Pictures series of old. It both loves and understands the need to update its source material, and though the final product is uniquely contemporary, its essential nature remains the same. Imagine an enemy you can’t see, who’s watching you in all your most intimate and private moments, who’s obsessively calculating new ways to make your life a living hell. It’s still a great concept for a horror story, which H.G. Wells must’ve recognized when he published the original novel in 1897.

The most frightening monster is the one who knows you best. Abuse at the hands of a loved one is a horror unlike any other, and in real life, more and more, the world is waking up to the fact that this phantom, this particular invisible man, has plagued us since the very beginning. Ultimately, the conscious approach filmmaker Leigh Whannell and his excellent cast take toward the subject is timely and clear-eyed. This invisible man is a beast of a human being. He’s been in your home, your bed, and he will do whatever it takes to possess, consume, and destroy you. Now that’s scary. And not a single floating cigarette or mummy bandage in sight.

Jeff’s Movie Reviews gives The Invisible Man an 8 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, 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.


Words to Live By: The Kid in the Machine

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The first Wednesday of every month, writer Jeff Bowles muses on life, creativity, and our collective destinies as makers of cool stuff. You’re a writer, but have you ever thought about how or why? Here are some words to live by.

The Kid in the Machine

When I was a kid, science fiction was everything to me. Partially because my family instilled a deep love of the classics (you know, Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, basically anything with the word Star in it), I watched movies and read comic books, collected toys and built model spaceships. At some point I decided I’d like to tell my own sci-fi stories, and at a relatively young age, I began writing my first novel. I didn’t finish it, of course, didn’t even get past page twenty, but you know, intergalactic star port descriptions are real tricky.

Even now, I still love a good space opera. I never stopped being a fan, never stopped dreaming of distant galaxies and intergalactic wars. In fact, my appreciation for all things speculative and nerdy only deepened, especially once it became clear sports and girls were out, but Lord of the Rings marathons were in. I love that epic fantasy stuff, that twisted horror, that magical realism and those far flung futures, and don’t tell anyone I went to high school with, but I’d rather read a good comic than indulge in any kind of respectable adult activity. Bill paying, for instance. Never did get the hang of that one.

That’s me, I suppose, but I know for a fact on some level it’s you, too. In many ways, the things we’re fans of help define us. I know you’re still a dorky kid on the inside. I bet the inner you still wears braces and drinks juice from a box. What really does it for you? What gets you excited as a fan? Classical literature? Hard-boiled detective stories? The biggest mistake I see many established authors make as they transition from nobody to “somebody” status is that they stop being fans. It’s almost like the red curtain to the whole show gets ripped away from them, and they’re left staring into the cold, mechanical under-croft of the modern storytelling machine. Jaded, I think is the word. You must make me a promise, guys. If you ever get to that place, have yourself a good movie marathon or read a book series that has always been your favorite. A storyteller who no longer likes stories? Criminal.

Ancient sages and modern neuroscientists agree, our personalities are not exactly what we think they are. More of a patchwork, really, a cobble of external influences, internal pressures, beliefs, both valid and invalid, mixed with a healthy dose of daily psychological wear and tear and deeply recessed emotional ideation we’ve tried hard to suppress or which has simply faded into our subconscious minds during the natural course of things. In some lesser known systems of mysticism (since we’re clearly on the subject), our conscious minds are more or less counterfeit anyway, are in fact the byproducts of heretofore unseen spiritual forces that influence our thoughts, our actions, even what kinds of truths we cling to, as essential and impressively ordered as they seem. In concrete terms, you are a body, you are a mind, but you are so much more. You’re the hidden watcher, the presence behind the eyes, the witness and willing participant of the little dramas and tragicomedies happening all around you. If you’re a storyteller, you exist in even stranger terms, because you’re both the creator and the created, and the work you produce is not really yours, but rather is divinely inspired and orchestrated to flow through you.

I mean, all well and good, right? Philosophy and practicality are poor bedfellows. Because while you’re sitting in your cramped home office in the dead of night, staring with hollow eyes at your ten-year-old computer monitor—you know, the one with the cracked screen you can’t afford to repair because you chose to be a “divinely inspired” writer—the work is never as easy as you’d like it to be. I gotta tell you, for people who literally conjure something from nothing on a regular basis, writers can be a grumpy and sour bunch. Sometimes all the passion and love and internal lexiconic fandom in the universe isn’t enough to kill that 2:00 AM headache you acquired from yet another impossible deadline. Life is life, reality is staggeringly persistent, and even the most grounded and stable amongst us can have epic bare-knuckle freak-outs. That’s an industry term, by the way.

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To wit, I recently stumbled across a long and uncharacteristically honest social media thread that got my wheels turning. I’m Facebook friends with a lot of people in the writing business, and though I don’t personally know the vast majority of them, I’ve always felt a certain kinship with like minded individuals who’ve chosen paths very similar to my own. The original post asked the question, Have you ever quit writing long-term? Did you regret it? Now people in our culture are often inclined to save face and amass a front when it comes to their careers. Somehow, we’ve gotten it into our heads that the way we make money says more about us than our emotional or mental states, our long-term habits and behavioral matrices, or even our unerring innate natures, who we were before we became. After all, nobody asked you when you were five years old, Who is the essential you? They asked, What do you want to be? Like, can’t I just be the kid with a juice box who likes Saturday morning cartoons? No, teacher says, you’re an astronaut, Cindy. Next!

The responses to that Facebook post surprised me. I expected a lot of business about I’m a writer this, it’s what I do that, and there were some comments to that effect, but by and large, most respondents had to admit that if they hadn’t actually quit, they’d sure thought about it once or twice. One older gentleman actually said he gave up his very lucrative writing career years before and hadn’t looked back since. Good riddance, that was the gist. Now why would that be? Is this the norm? Isn’t writing supposed to be a joyful act?

It is, purely so, but only when a person is free to pursue it without constant worry and stress. That thing about writers tending to become alcoholics? It’s a tad overblown, but it has a ring of truth. And that gentleman, he wasn’t the only one to chime in with similar enthusiasm. Now I am not what you’d call a seasoned professional, not really. I’ve published, I’ve faltered and thought I’d quit (several times, actually), and I’ve gotten back on the horse, back to the business at hand. Not because I had deadlines. There was no external pressure for me. Because I had something to say, new experiences I wanted to share, truths I wanted to communicate. And you know what gave me the courage to do it?

Star Wars. Star Trek. Battlestar Galactica. I hadn’t written in several years, long enough I found I was ready to be a fan again instead of a base, lowly, underdog creator. And being a fan, just like when I was eight years old, I found once more the desire to tell my own stories. I don’t begrudge a professional who is sick to death of the business and wants out for good. Truth be told, I’ve never been in that position. But I am intimately familiar with the love of these things, the passion, the unabashed joy. I’ve stoked those fires within myself my whole life, and I can’t imagine a day at least some part of me won’t thrill whenever I see Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star. Sure, it’s nerdy as hell, but it’s home, it’s the place I do my dreaming.

My advice to those who want out before they’ve said everything they want to say: go home. Go and be the dreamer awhile. Maybe even a long while. Dreams can manifest as surely as dawn follows dusk, Spock follows Kirk, Jimmy Olsen is Superman’s best pal. If you as a very impressive, very professional adult can’t touch base with the kid in the machine, apart from having my pity, you have my condolences. Rest in Peace, the guy or gal you really are. Consider the possibility the world is the lie, and that you were always the truth. Drive and the creative impulse are not inexhaustible. This is very true. It’s also true they can be recharged and brought back to tip-top fighting shape as certainly as Green Lantern charges his power ring.

Plus, you don’t have to lug around an alien lantern and swear an oath every time you do it. Unless you’re into cosplay, and in that case, why waste time reading some dumb article? You’re clearly needed elsewhere, space cop. Hi, my name is Jeff Bowles. I’m old enough for beer, but today of all days, I’d like a juice box, please.


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 – 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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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 – 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 – 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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