Thunder Force


Some people hate dentists more than others.

(2021) Superhero Comedy (Netflix) Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spencer, Jason Bateman, Bobby Cannavale, Pom Klementieff, Melissa Leo Taylor Mosby, Marcella Lowery, Melissa Ponzio, Ben Falcone, Nate Hitpas, Jevon White, David Storrs, Kevin Dunn, Henry Bazemore Jr., Mikia Adrielle Jeter, Steve Mallory, Bria D. Singleton, Tai Leshaun, Vivian Falcone, Mia Kaplan. Directed by Ben Falcone

 

Making a good superhero movie is hard. Making a good comedy is harder. Trying to combine the two genres and making it work – REALLY hard.

In the world of Thunder Force, the world has been bathed by cosmic rays, imbuing a certain percentage of the population with cool superpowers. Unfortunately, it is the segment of the population that is sociopaths and assholes. These superpowered sociopaths are known as “miscreants.”

Ordinary people are caught in the crossfire. Among them are the parents of Emily Stanton (Spencer), who are geneticists working on a way to give those who aren’t sociopathic superpowers. Emily vows to carry on her parents’ work. Orphaned, she was raised by her grandmother and at her new school is befriended by Lydia Berman (McCarthy) who protects her from bullies, but has a lot more of a hedonistic attitude while Emily has a singular focus. It leads to a rift between the best friends.

Now middle aged, Emily is on the cusp of making her parents’ dream a reality, while Lydia works as a forklift operator, swilling beer and eating pancakes at her favorite diner which whose owner (Dunn) ruefully admits that he doesn’t know how much longer he can remain open since people aren’t going out to eat as much since there’s a good chance that they’ll be killed by a Miscreant if they do.

However, the diner owner manages to guilt Lydia into texting Emily to invite her to the upcoming class reunion, although Emily is too busy to really commit. So Lydia heads over to the digs of her high tech headquarters, only to accidentally be injected with the super strength serum Emily had intended on taking herself. Emily is forced to have to settle for invisibility, which is perhaps a wry commentary on the state of African-American women in the year of our lord, 2021.

The two plus-sized ladies become Thunder Force and set out to rid Chicago of its Miscreant population, including mayoral candidate King (Cannavale) whose bizarre henchman, the Crab (Bateman) becomes the focus of Lydia’s erotic desires. But can the two women, so different, work out their differences and become a dynamic duo?

If you’re looking for mindless entertainment, this here is not a bad choice. Like other McCarthy films, particularly those directed by her husband Ben Falcone, there’s a certain similarity in tone, with McCarthy playing an essentially good-hearted slob who stumbles her way into a difficult situation. Whether taking on spy films or science fction, crime capers or fish out of water films, McCarthy is a brfash presence with a flair for physical comedy, although some of the more difficult physical turns are less successful these days.

Spencer is a gifted actress who always seems to elevate everything she does, and she’s been a real life friend of McCarthy for decades now. The banter between the two of them is one of the film’s main highlights; I certainly wouldn’t object to seeing the two of them again as a comic duo, although given McCarthy’s recent success in dramatic roles, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to see them in a drama either.

Falcone tends to opt for the low-brow humor here, and has an unfortunate tendency to ram punchlines into the ground with endless repetition, something he has demonstrated throughout his collaborations with his wife. There are actually some intriguing ideas here, but Falcone never really explores them; I’d love to see a movie dealing with the effects of superpowers on ordinary folk (as in absolute power corrupts absolutely) as the brilliant DC miniseries Kingdom Come did. I also give the movie kudos for allowing the sorts of superheroines that we don’t ever see – women who aren’t statuesque sorts wearing skimpy leotards.

Ultimately, this is merely ordinary, with some decent special effects but nothing that will make MCU fans chomp at the bit to see this. I can’t say that my expectations were too high for this one, given the track record, and yours shouldn’t be either, but this is decent entertainment and lord knows in a year that has given us much to stress over, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

REASONS TO SEE: Decent entertainment.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really add anything new.
FAMILY VALUES: There is comic book violence, some profanity and some sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emily is played as a young girl by Vivian Falcone, who is Melissa McCarthy’s real-life daughter.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews; Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Better Days

Amber’s Descent


Amber is having a really bad day.

(2020) Horror (Breaking Glass) Kayla Stanton, Michael Mitton, Don Knodel, Nathaniel Vossen, Dione Russell, Colm Hill, Destiny Millins, Kirsten Khorsand, Sheron Russell, Jayden Shannon, Craig Paynton, Graham Daley, Sarah Seibert. Directed by Michael Bafaro

 

Trauma can do strange things not just to the body but also to the mind. It can affect us in ways we can’t predict and maybe not even understand.

Amber Waltz (Stanton), who is aptly named due to her profession as a concert pianist and classical music composer, has lived through a severe trauma, having survived being stabbed by her ex Mark (Vossen) who then slit his own throat while she watched, horrified. Understandably, she had a bit of a breakdown after that and decided to leave Seattle where she was living and moves to an isolated farmhouse somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

The house is lovely and secluded although it needs a lot of work, which is why she hires handyman Jim (Mitton) to fix things up. Soft-spoken and eager to please, he is a bit of a comforting presence for her, particularly since she starts to hear odd, unexplained noises while doors open and shut by themselves. At first she can chalk these things up to the uirks of an old house, but as she begins to see little girls where little girls shouldn’t be, and then has a highly erotic encounter with a bigger girl, and her symphony seems to be magically writing itself, Amber begins to wonder if the house is haunted. Then she wonders if she’s losing her mind. Finally, she wonders if something far more sinister – and deadly – is befalling her.

Early on, the movie has a lot of haunted house tropes that might lead one to believe that they are watching just another ghost movie, but the movie actually surprised me with the direction that it eventually went, whichis an accomplishment in and of itself. Those who stick around for the end (and I won’t kid you, it’s a bit of a slog getting there) may well congratulate themselves on having the fortitude to hang in there and those that do will be rewarded with a nifty ending, although I will say that Balfaro chooses to show you how the film arrived there in case you couldn’t figure it out – underestimating the intelligence of your audience is generally a bad thing. However, good endings are a lot more uncommon than you might think, so it’s always a big plus when you get one.

Balfaro does do a good job of establishing a tense atmosphere and generally resists using jump scares, although there are a couple because you almost have to have at least a few these days. However, the movie is torpedoed by two things: the dialogue, which sounds unnatural, and the acting which is by and large somewhat flat. The movie lacks energy and inertia, which is generally provided by the actors but whether they were struggling with dialogue which I can understand because it often sounds like stringing words together in ways normal people don’t, or they just didn’t feel motivated. Some of that can be laid at the feet of the director, but good actors will give memorable performances without the encouragement of a director. There is accountability to go around here.

And it really is a shame because there are a lot of good elements here, including some lovely cinematography and the unfailing politeness of the characters, although when you discover that this is a Canadian production, a light bulb might suddenly switch on, as it did for me. Sometimes, the right crew and actors coalesce to make magic happen, but sometimes just the opposite happens and this is, sadly, one of those occasions.

REASONS TO SEE: The ending is pretty inventive.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stiff and flat, rarely arouses any sort of feeling in the viewer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexuality and nudity, horrific images and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stanton is no stranger to genre work, having appeared in the TV shows Supernatural and Lucifer.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, <a Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kindred
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
ThunderForce

Say Your Prayers


Just a couple of radical Christian assassins out for a drive.

(2020) Comedy (Gravitas) Harry Melling, Tom Brooke, Roger Allam, Derek Jacobi, Vinette Robinson, Anna Maxwell Martin, Flora Spencer-Longhurst, Matthew Steer, George Potts, Max Upton, Mike Baxandall, Cathy Baxandall, Tiffany Clare, Vivienne Race, Elliot Halidu, Dave Peel, Will Barton, Zach Webster, Jimmy Wilde, Louis Brogan, Helen Simmons, Emily Layton. Directed by Harry Mitchell

 

Sometimes when you read politicians and analysts speak, you’d think that the tribalism that affects modern society is something new but in fact humans have ALWAYS been tribal. If it wasn’t actual tribes, it was country versus country, city versus town, rural versus urban, one religion against another. We have always found reasons to hate The Other.

Tim (Melling) and Vic (Brooke) are two orphaned brothers, brought up by the somewhat obsessive Father Enoch (Jacobi). He has sent them on a mission – to murder noted atheist author Professor William Huxley (Allam), likely no relation to Aldous. He is speaking at a literary festival at a small village in Yorkshire, so he will be far from the safety of crowded city streets.

Tim is a gentle soul and somewhat simple and he bollocks it up by choosing someone (Barton) who looks similar to Professor Huxley – from behind, that is. Vic has anger issues and is much more gung-ho about the whole thing. When Father Enoch gets the word that an innocent man has been killed, he is more than a little miffed.

In the meantime, Tim has met and fallen for Imelda (Robinson), who unbeknownst to Tim has been carrying on a long-distance relationship with the Professor. Meanwhile, on the tail of the bumbling assassins is strident foul-mouthed Inspector Brough (Martin) and her friendlier, long-suffering partner Hodge (Spencer-Longhurst). With Father Enoch now insisting that the boys kill the Professor in a public way and Tim, who once was reluctant to take life until he met the royal arsehole that is Huxley, and Vic not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier, will righteousness triumph over self-righteousness?

This is a dark British comedy that skewers organized religion, zealotry (of every persuasion), TV cops and literary festivals all at once and has quite a lark doing it. One of the notable things is that Mitchell (who also co-wrote the movie) does is have a kind of Greek chorus following the boys around – except they are a British choral society of elderly men singing traditional British songs and hymns. They are actually quite lovely to hear and the incongruity of seeing immaculately dressed (in matching blazers) a choir of old men standing in the wilds of the Yorkshire moors is a running joke throughout the movie.

Melling has come a long way from Dudley Dursley, whom he played in the Harry Potter movies. There is nothing of the bully in Tim, who is gentle and simple, with a yearning to love. He is the tragic figure here as he is caught by events that he can’t escape from. He is more or less the straight man here, although he is the spindle around which the entire movie turns. Most of the other main characters (with the exceptions of Imelda and Hodge) are fairly unpleasant or even despicable but in the cases of Enoch and Huxley, are resolute and even passionate about their beliefs.

Allom and Jacobi are both old pros who know how to deliver and do so here, but Melling may well be a rising star with a little more range than some of his other Potter co-stars that have continued their careers in acting since Harry’s saga came to an end. He also has some decent comic chops, although the humor is largely situational here; there aren’t a lot of one-liners.

But the humor is superior to most of the other comedies I’ve seen thus far this year. If you like your comedies bone-dry with a bite, if you like your comedies to tackle big issues, this is the movie you seek, grasshopper.

REASONS TO SEE: Wickedly funny. Not so much a Greek chorus as a British one.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a bit on the blasphemous side.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of profanity, violence and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scenes set in a television studio were actually filmed at the University of Bradford’s studio which is used for teaching aspiring broadcast students how to set up a set.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Estate
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Amber’s Descent

Boss Level


Reliving the future.

(2021) Action (Hulu) Frank Grillo, Mel Gibson, Naomi Watts, Will Sasso, Annabelle Wallis, Sheaun McKinney, Selina Lo, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong, Meadow Williams, Mathilde Ollivier, Rio Grillo, Armida Lopez, Buster Reeves, Eric Etebari, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Rashad Evans, Joe Knezevich, Adam Simon, Rob Gronkowski, Melanie Kiran. Directed by Joe Carnahan

 

It goes without saying that an action movie should have thrilling action sequences. But it is equally important that an action movie be fun. So many of them take themselves so seriously that we end up wondering when Scorsese started making mindless action flicks. Well, he hasn’t yet but he might just approve of this one. Or, he might not. You be the judge.

Roy Pulver (F. Grillo) wakes up with a machete whistling towards his head. Being an ex-Delta Force commando who has a particular set of skills, he is able to dodge his would-be killer, and also avoid the chain gun being fired at his apartment from a hovering helicopter. As the final wreckage of his place becomes explosive (no damage deposit return for Roy), he leaps out into a passing dump truck, rolls gracefully into the street with his upswept coif neatly in place, and commandeers a sports car from a screaming, whining civilian and roars off, to be chased by a legion of assassins. Roy has no idea who wants him dead, or why. All he knows is that in the end, they kill him and always by 12:47pm. Then he wakes up and starts the whole process all over again.

Now, this concept has been used in a variety of genres with results that vary in quality. I have news for you, though – this one is better than most. It has an incredible cast, including Gibson as the well-meaning but out of his mind military-corporate bad guy (Gibson is getting a second career as a heavy after he self-sabotaged his A-list career as the kind of action hero that might well have had the lead heroic role in the movie had it been made in 1987), Watts as Roy’s scientist ex-wife who works for Gibson, Sasso as Gibson’s major-domo, Jeong as a wise-cracking bartender, Yeoh as a legendary sword master and so on. Roy is beset by a group of assassins each with their own gimmick, from the guy who looks suspiciously like him (whom he calls “Roy #2”) to a pair of Teutonic twins of African descent and grumpy disposition as well as a smug self-aggrandizing Asian swordswoman who announces her name every time she dispatches poor old Roy and confirming that she, in fact, is the one responsible for the carnage. She probably needs to talk to a legal expert.

If you think of this as an action-packed videogame, you will likely come as close as you’re going to in understanding what this movie is about. My advice is not to think too hard about it; best to just go with the flow and mow down baddies while your perfectly coifed hair remains uncannily in place. The movie plays a lot like a videogame (the title gives it away) and gamers will likely find this of slight interest but would probably prefer to play a game over seeing a movie. Gamers are natural-born control freaks, don’t you know?

As for the fun quotient, it’s through the roof. This isn’t meant to be taken too seriously; it moves at a pace equivalent to the chain gun fire that punctuates every morning in Roy’s apartment. You’re not really given a whole lot of time to think, although if you do you’re apt to get a headache so I would advise against it. It’s big, loud and dumb with a sick soundtrack that will keep your grin fixed as immovably in place as Grillo’s hair, and it requires no investment whatsoever other than the hour and a quarter of the movie’s compact running time. It’s a wise investment, though; action movies are rapidly morphing into big budget eye candy that requires the entire population of China to buy a ticket in order to almost break even at the box office. While there are some pretty nifty special effects (and Grillo’s hair is clearly either green screened, or a product of alien technology), it doesn’t appear they broke the bank with their budget and Grillo, it turns out, is a companionable action star who you will have no problem rooting for. If there are a few too many side quests (such as Roy trying to get to know his son, who isn’t aware that Roy is his dad – now that’s kind of messed up) it can be forgiven because Carnahan, already one of the best at action in the business, packs so much into it’s short running time you don’t begrudge a little padding. This one is worth getting a subscription to Hulu for all by itself and when you throw in the upcoming animated M.O.D.O.K. series with Patton Oswald waiting in the wings, you probably should seriously consider it.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures the charm of a side-scrolling shooter game. Frenetic and funny.
REASONS TO AVOID: As with most pictures with this gimmick, it does eventually start to get old.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s all sorts of violence and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Roy’s son Joe is played by Frank Grillo’w real-life son Rio.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews; Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Edge of Tomorrow
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Say Your Prayers

The Believer (2021)


When love becomes toxic.

(2021) Horror (Freestyle) Aidan Bristow, Sophie Kargman, Billy Zane, Susan Wilder, Lindsey Ginter, Robbie Goldstein. Directed by Shan Serafin

 

Sometimes, the person you married isn’t the same as the person sitting next to you at the dinner table. You thought you knew them better than you know yourself, but suddenly you’re not so sure. People change, after all…and not always for the better.

Lucas (Bristow) and Violet (Kargman) are in that kind of a marriage. The two of them are at loggerheads over something Violet did that Lucas is having a hard time dealing with. Then again, he’s an unemployed physicist who following a broken foot has seen his health decline inexplicably. So, too, is his mental health, to the point he is seeing a psychiatrist, the unorthodox Dr. Benedict (Zane) to try and piece together what happened.

What happened, we find out, was an abortion that Violet performed without Lucas’ knowledge or approval. Since then, she has begun to obsess over demons and possession, and the pragmatic scientist she married is having a hard time matching the calm and rational woman he married with the robotic but deranged woman that won’t allow him to touch her anymore.

Then again, Lucas doesn’t appear to be much of a prize either, but we’ll get to that. Right now, Violet’s parents Charlotte (Wilder) and Gus (Ginter) have dropped over for a surprise visit at just the absolute worst time. There’s a problem with that, though – Violet insists that her parents are both dead and these people are not who they say they are. What is going on? Is Violet right? Or has she lost her mind? Or is something far more insidious, far more sinister going on?

Shan Serafin has crafted a psychological horror film that does a good job of keeping the viewer off-balance and heightening a sense of unreality. Lucas is definitely an unreliable narrator, particularly the more you witness his sessions with Dr. Benedict which may or may not be real. Serafin does some moderate borrowing from other films, including Rosemary’s Baby and Misery, both of which, ironically, started out as books.

But borrowing from other sources isn’t the movie’s greatest sin. Kargman is a bit too much the icy, emotionless blonde (although she’s a brunette) to be memorable here, while Bristow flails away but his character has too many unlikable moments to build a viewer connection. Zane is virtually unrecognizable as the therapist, so it falls to Violet’s parents/not-parents to be the characters here you’ll most remember, with their false bonhomie, fake smiles and sinister undertones.

The movie relies too much on jump scares, particularly in the second half, and when things really start to get unwound in terms of Lucas’ sanity, the movie starts to fall apart some. The movie’s final scenes aren’t harrowing enough to really keep your interest. There are some good things here, but overall the movie is unsatisfying and could have used a bit of tweaking.

REASONS TO SEE: Sets up a nice sense of unreality.
REASONS TO AVOID: When things get trippy the film loses cohesion.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, some sexuality and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Serafin in addition to directing and writing screenplays has also written horror novels.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gaslight
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Boss Level

Godzilla vs. Kong


Battle of the behemoths.

(2021) Sci-Fi Action (Warner Brothers) Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Shun Oguri, Elza Gonzales, Julian Dennison, Lance Reddick, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir, Kaylee Hottle, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Ronny Chieng, John Pirruccello, Chris Chalk, Conlan Casal, Brad McMurray, Benjamin Rigby, Nick Turello, Daniel Nelson, Priscilla Doueihy. Directed by Adam Wingard

 

In 2021, after everything we’ve been through, after everything we’ve suffered, I think that what we need the most now more than platitudes and pep talks is just a good old-fashioned slugfest between two giant iconic monsters. Who’s with me? A whole lot of you, as it turns out.

Podcaster Bernie Hayes (Henry) is investigating Apex Cybernetics and their shifty CEO Walter Simmons (Bichir), thinking that there’s some vast world-threatening conspiracy going on; when you’re right, you’re right. Plucky Madison Russell (Brown), whose mom was a scientist turned eco-terrorist who died as a result of a battle of Titans (as did her baby brother) and whose Dad (Chandler) is a scientist working for the Monarch Project, a shadowy organization involved with both Godzilla and Kong, thinks Bernie is on the right track and decides to seek him out, aided by her nerdy friend Josh (Denison).

Skull Island was destroyed in a storm, but Kong was rescued by Monarch and put into a dome that is much like the Island, minus the deadly giant creatures. Kong is being studied by biologist Dr. Ilene Andrews (Hall) whose adopted daughter Jia (Hottle) – the last survivor of the tribe that lived on Skull Island and deaf – can communicate with the giant ape via sign language.

Simmons has hired geologist Nathan Lind (Skarsgård) to lead an expedition to the Hollow Earth, the inner part of our planet that his brother had died trying to reach. However, Nathan will be equipped with a modern flying vehicle that can handle the pressure of the gravitational forces. Simmons believes Kong can guide him through to the center, so Dr. Andrews and Jia will be going with them, as will be his daughter Maya (Gonzalez) who has ulterior motives. However, they are interrupted by an inexplicable attack on Apex’s Pensacola facility, but why would Godzilla, who up to now has been a protector of mankind, suddenly turn against them? And how will he react to the presence of Kong, a King in his own right? I think the title of the film gives that one away.

And indeed, if you are looking eagerly for that titular battle, you will not be disappointed. Wingard and company pull off the larger than life spectacle amidst the neon skyscrapers of Hong Kong, in the primitive landscape of Hollow Earth and in the cool futuristic corridors of Apex, whose name should be a hint as to what they are up to – and it’s no spoiler to inform you that they are indeed, up to something.

Reading the plot summation will probably make your head explode if you think about it too much, but then again, if you take this too seriously you’ve probably spent too much of the pandemic reading about politics. It’s daffy and lightweight and essentially an excuse for Kong or Godzilla (or both) to battle lizards, monkeys, insects, robots, dragons, aliens, dinosaurs, or whatever else the evil geniuses at Legendary can come up with. It’s all in good fun.

Henry actually proves to be the most memorable performer here, which is surprising since he’s more or less comic relief – think the Woody Harrelson role in 2012. The heroic characters- Hall, Skarsgård, Brown – do adequate jobs, but the movie really isn’t about them. And it really isn’t about the comic relief, either, when you get right down to it. No, it’s about giant things beating up on other giant things while people scream and run and buildings collapse. Just good clean fun, in other words.

The pandemic has been kind of a petri dish for important, thought-provoking movies because those sorts, let’s face it, don’t suffer much from being seen at home, whereas the big dumb mindless eye candy movies like this one benefit more from having theaters. Now that we’re starting to see theaters reopening all around the globe, the time is right for the movies that the studios have been holding onto until the right time. Well, the time is now and we shall soon be seeing a parade of big, dumb, mindless eye candy films that we’ve been missing other than in reruns on our streaming services. And I’m glad they’re back. I didn’t know how much I missed them until now. And yes, critics have been embracing this movie with uncharacteristic glee which should be taken with a grain of salt; most critics would have excoriated this film had it come out in 2019, and certainly come 2022 they will be back to eviscerating films like this while praising the grim, thought-provoking movies that in the midst of a pandemic seem to be almost anti-climactic. So enjoy the Bizarro-world reversal while it lasts, kiddies. And try to see this movie in a theater if you can; these kinds of movies really are better-served in that environment. But, if you haven’t gotten vaccinated and you have HBO Max and you have a reasonably good home entertainment system, you should be all set in that regard as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Eye candy as far as the eye can see.
REASONS TO AVOID: Character development? Pshaw!
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of creature violence and destruction, some brief profanity and a few terrifying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film earned $122 million over its opening weekend, the largest opening of a film since the pandemic began.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until April 30)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews; Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Godzilla: King of Monsters
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Believer

Groomed


Gwen van de Pas listens to the point of view of a sexual predator.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Gwen van de Pas, Harriet Hofstode, Laurens, Oprah Winfrey, Andy Hudlak, Jim Tanner, Martijn Larsen, Raimondo, Nicole, Katy, Barbi, Asia, Keith, Dennis. Directed by Gwen van de Pas

 

When a sexual predator chooses a child to abuse, it isn’t a random choice. It is a matter of careful selection, picking someone who is vulnerable. He (for most sexual predators of children are male, although there are some women who follow the same pattern) will befriend them, buy them presents and make them feel special. He will win the trust of their family, who feel comfortable with the presence of an adult in their child’s life as a mentor or an authority figure or even a family member. When the selected child has been properly groomed, the attention grows physical.

For Gwen van de Pas, now a filmmaker living in San Francisco, her groomer was the assistant coach on the swim team that she participated. For the most part, her childhood in the Netherlands was idyllic; a loving family, a safe neighborhood, but she was bullied at school. She was unusually shy, making it hard for her to make friends. This set her up perfectly for her abuser.

She was eleven when she met her abuser and the abuse turned sexual not long after that, and lasted until she was fifteen. For the most part, because she felt the sex was consensual, she didn’t think twice about it. It was only when she and her boyfriend Laurens were discussing the possibility of having a family that she began to have nightmares about the abuse. She began to see a psychologist, Harriet Hofstode.

Deciding she needed to confront her past, she also wanted to tell her story through the medium she had studied and practiced; film. She assembled a team and talked to experts on psychology and sexual predators who taught her a word she wasn’t familiar with: grooming. She began to realize that this was exactly what happened to her.

She goes home to the Netherlands and discusses the event with her parents, with whom she had only talked about it once before. At the time, they had dissuaded her from going to the authorities; her mother explained by way of explanation that she was in a fragile emotional state and was talking about suicide. They were concerned that the process of investigation and trial might push her over the edge. In retrospect, her parents wondered if they had done the wrong thing, putting off dealing with the trauma and allowing their daughter’s suffering to last longer.

Gwen also speaks with other victims, both male and female, identified only with first names; one, abused by her own father. One, by a minister. One, by a priest. She also talked with a convicted but repentant sexual predator who gave her a predator’s eye-view. These interviews seem to be cathartic for all involved.

It is Gwen’s story that is the most personal and emotional. At times, we see Gwen, her father and her boyfriend break down as they relive the horrors of her past and the repercussions of those events. She also re-reads the letters sent by her abuser with an adult eye, getting physically sick as she realizes how she was taken in.

At first, she is sympathetic to the man who abused her as a “wounded soul,” and is loathe to ruin his life but as she discovers more about her abuse – and her abuser – her attitude changes and she realizes that these sorts of predators rarely stop at one victim.

This is a harrowing but important documentary that is raw emotionally and at times very difficult to watch – even if you haven’t been the victim of sexual abuse. Een in that case, you may want to have a hankie at the ready unless you are emotionally insulated to the point of being robotic. If you have a history of being abused, be aware that this might trigger something in you, and for those who have blotted out memories of childhood abuse this might bring them savagely back. You may want to have someone with you as a means of support if you choose to watch this.

I can’t help thinking/admiring the sheer bravery of Van de Pas. This certainly wasn’t easy for her and there are times when her raw emotion is overwhelming; at other times she is forced to comfort her father, who feels guilt at not having protected his baby girl. Those are moments that will stay with you forever, as well they should.

But you should watch this, particularly if you’re a parent or plan to be. Van de Pas is very methodical going through the warning signs and steps of grooming, and what you learn here might save your child, or someone near to you. Perhaps you might recognize the behavior of grooming in yourself, in which case you should seek help from a mental health professional immediately. Whatever your situation might be, this is an extraordinarily important documentary that just might save someone’s life and/or sanity down the road. That life might well be your own – or someone you love.

REASONS TO SEE: Emotionally powerful and wrenching. Important information for parents and teens alike. Van de Pas is unbelievably brave. Her confusion and anger are understandable and normal. Helps understand victim self-blaming.
REASONS TO AVOID: May trigger those who have been through childhood sexual abuse.
FAMILY VALUES: There are strong adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One in ten people have been sexually abused. 80% of them knew their attacker beforehand; nearly 100% of them went through the grooming process with their abuser.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunting Ground
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Godzilla vs. Kong

The Fever (A Febre)


Justino stands guard.

(2019) Drama (Kimstim) Regis Myrupu, Rosa Peixoto, Johnathan Sodré, Edmildo Vaz Pimentel, Anunciata Teles Soares, Kaisaro Jussara Brito, Rodson Vasconcelos, Lourinelson Vladimir, Suzy Lopes, Erismar Fernandes Rodrigues, Dalvina Pinto Neves, Sandro Medeiros, Ricardo Risuenho, Silvia Pimenta, Josimar Marinho, Gabryelle Araujo Dos Santos. Directed by Maya Da-Rin

 

Under President Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian rainforest has endured a record deforestation that has displaced untold numbers of indigenous peoples living in the rainforest of the Amazon basin. As they move into more urban environments, their culture is in danger of being lost forever.

Justino (Myrupu) is one of those displaced people. A member of the Desana people whose native language is Tukano, he has lived for decades in Manaus, a massive port city on the Amazon where container ships stream in and out, leaving a sort of maze-like structure of cargo containers on concrete docks of the port. He is a security guard there, wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a loaded gun, but mostly he stands watch, silent, his face expressionless.

He is called into the office of a doncescending HR manager who expresses condolences at his recent widowhood, but then upbraids him for being distracted on the job. He has reason to be, as well – his daughter Vanessa (Peixoto), a nurse in one of the understaffed Manaus hospitals, has been accepted to medical school and will soon be leaving for Brasilia, leaving her father alone in his tiny house on the edge of the rainforest.

The commute from the docks to his home is brutal, requiring two bus rides on which he often naps while standing up, followed by a long walk from the road to his house, where hammocks swing inside although he also has a more traditional bed. As news reports detail animal attacks in the city, he begins to come down with a mysterious fever, which leads to waking dreams that are terrifying and yet illustrate his lack of place in this world.

Da-Rin has both a marvelous visual and audio sense. The visuals have a lovely juxtaposition of light and shadow. In the cinematography of Barbara Alvarez, forest becomes city and city becomes forest. And hen there are the sounds; the clanking of the massive machines that lift the cargo containers from the ships onto the dock, and the natural sounds of insects, leaves rustling and the violence of the frequent rainstorms which become more expressive than the dialogue, which is kept to a minimum. Most of the actors here are given little to say.

And they don’t need to. Myrupu has a marvelously stoic face but he allows a half-smile to betray his bemusement, or his wry disgust. His voice is quiet, but he is eloquent in other ways. While supportive of his daughter going to college, there is a part of him that doesn’t look forward to the loneliness of her absence. He tells a story early on of a hunter who goes hunting despite the fact his family has all the food they need, and is taken by the monkeys of the forest to a land of dreams. And that’s where Justino has been taken, a place between the modern world and the natural one. He retains a foot in each.

He endures casual racism from a white co-worker (Vladimir) and chiding from his brother (Sodré), and brushes off the concerns of his daughter (“I’ll be fine,” he murmurs) even as his mysterious fever grows worse. The movie seems to be a metaphor for what we are losing when we wipe out the indigenous of a region. The United States did much the same thing and the loss of the culture of the aboriginal inhabitants of the country is incalculable. They still exist and retain parts of their culture, but the way of life they had is long gone and so are many of their stories and mythology. These are stories that we will never get back, and Brazil seems to be heading for the same fate. The destruction of the rainforest is an ecological issue, to be sure, but it is also a cultural one that sometimes gets overlooked in our rallying cries to save the rainforest.

REASONS TO SEE: Very straightforward and powerful. A rare look at the indigenous of the Amazon basin and how they cope with modern civilization. Myrupu gives a compelling performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little slow-paced for American sensibilities.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some minor profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Da-Rin’s first narrative feature film; she has previously made documentaries including Lands and Margin, both of which have partially inspired this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews; Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Embrace of the Serpent
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Groomed

Donny’s Bar Mitzvah


The big man gets the big chair.

(2021) Comedy (Circle Collective) Steele Stebbins, Danny Trejo, Jeremy Tardy, Adrian Ciscato, Zemyhe Curtis, Joshua Gonzales, Wendy Braun, Regan Burns, Jennifer Sorenson, Michael Patrick McGill, Adam Herschman, Tricia O’Kelley, John DeLuca, Jessica Renee Russell, Radek Wallace Lord, Isabelle Anaya, Connor Del Rio, Eugene Kim, Judilin Bosita, Noureen DeWulf, Aundrea Smith. Directed by Jonathan Kaufman

 

It’s 1998 and social media hasn’t yet become the force it is today. Donny (Stebbins) is a nice Jewish boy about to become a nice Jewish man, at least in terms of his faith. Looking at the adults around him, it’s hard to figure out who the grown-ups are.

Shot from the point of view of a videographer using a camcorder (the film is even shot in the 1.33:1 ratio standard for camcorders of the era), Donny’s Bar Mitzvah follows several plot lines such as Donny’s brother Bobby (DeLuca) getting his mother’s friend Susie (O’Kelley) pregnant after a quickie in the venue bathroom – a pregnancy which goes through its entire process in the course of the night. Then there’s Donny’s sister who is the beard for gay Gary (Herschman). Or there’s emcee Gerald (Tardy) who has a thing for his co-worker Gigi (Smith) but it turns out that she’s just Danny Trejo (Trejo) in disguise and Trejo is actually a federal agent chasing a nefarious criminal known as the party pooper who it turns out is, umm, aptly named. Also, you get to meet Mr. Wang (Kim) and his wife (Bosita) attending their first bar mitzvah, whose shocked and uncomfortable expressions likely mirrored my own.

There’s Donny and some of his friends trying to learn a dance routine but protesting that Jews can’t dance, or the overbearing mom, the interfering grandmother trying to matchmake or a thousand other stereotypical cliches which were passé even in 1998. And the film is jampacked from start to finish with raunchy, vulgar sex jokes. One gets the sense that Kaufman is trying to go for a cross between the Farrelly Brothers and Judd Apatow with a dash of John Hughes thrown in for flavor.

I have no problem with raunchy comedies, although the more prudish among you might find the humor here overbearing, but I’m not so much a raunch for raunch’s sake kind of guy. I need my comedy to be funny and not merely amusing. Kaufman adopts the “throw as many jokes and bits against the celluloid wall and see what sticks” school of filmmaking founded by ZAZ back in the day. The pacing is a bit haphazard, moving in fits and starts despite the constant barrage of jokes. On the plus side, though, there appears to be some actual ideas in the background, from the concept that parties of this nature are more status symbols for the parents than celebrations of their children. The movie could have used a few more of these.

This isn’t a movie for everybody, simply because Kaufman tries so hard to push the envelope which is unnecessary for a good movie. As this is his first feature, he’ll doubtlessly learn that pretty quickly and concentrate on just making a terrific movie, and something tells me he actually will. But this ain’t it.

REASONS TO SEE: Pokes fun at the “we’re doing it for our kids” culture. There are some profound ideas among all the grossness.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pacing can be compared to a car with carburetor problems. Tries too hard to be outrageous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of profanity and vulgarity including sexual references, nudity, violence and drug use, most involving teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Jonathan Kaufman cameos as a super awkward bartender under the pseudonym Jonny Comebacks.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Superbad
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Fever