An Amityville Poltergeist


Parris Bates is feeling blue.

(2020) Horror (Breaking Glass) Parris Bates, Rebecca Kimble, Conor Austin, Airisa Durand, Jon Ashley Hall, Natalie Lucia (voice), Calvin Morie McCarthy, Alex Onda, Jason Reynolds, Sydney Winbush. Directed by Calvin Morie McCarthy

 

Making a movie is no easy task. It is a collaborative effort, requiring many hands of talented technicians, imaginative creative people and of course wonderful actors. Movie sets can be a battleground where egos run rampant, or a carnival where the absurd reigns supreme. Sometimes, a movie set can be incredible fun when everything is clicking. They can also be unbridled chaos when everything is not.

Jim (Bates) is a college student who, like most college students, is in dire need of an infusion of cold, hard cash. His best friend, stoner Collin (Austin) recommends he sell his own blood plasma which neelde-phobic Jim is loathe to do, Instead, he gets a job housesitting for $500 a day, which seems a little excessive for sitting around the house. It sure beats working.

However, the elderly homeowner, Eunice (Kimble) warns Jim that she’s not concerned with people breaking in to the old house. She’s much more worried about what’s already inside. As her son (Hall) takes her away for a brief hospitalization, one wonders if the old lady might better be served with a different kind of hospital. However, as Jim starts to hear inexplicable noises, he realizes the old lady might not be as crazy as she sounds – and as the incidents grow more frightening and more violnt, he also realizes that $500 per night was way not worth it.

I have to be honest; I’m generally a sucker for a good haunted house movie. This isn’t one. For one thing, I have to admit that I was not thrilled that the movie has nothing whatsoever to do with the Amityville franchise – it’s not even set there – and there isn’t a poltergeist in the film (not really). Then again, if truth in advertising laws were applied to movie marketing, there’d be a lot of Hollywood executives with criminal records.

For some reason, the filmmakers filmed the movie as if it were filmed in perpetual twilight. Even the scenes set at night have a bluish tinge to them, like the only lighting came from a TV screen. The film photo above isn’t from a brief moment in the film – the entire movie is lit like that. I don’t know if it was a conscious decision to do that or sheer incompetence, but either way, I suspect most will get tired of the effect and tune out quickly. If the lighting doesn’t get you, though, the writing will. The plot is difficult to follow with way too many flashbacks, and while I’m guessing the screenwriters (Hall, who played the son, and McCarthy, who directed, co-wrote the script) were trying to blur the line between dreams and reality, they blurred it a little too much and after awhile I wouldn’t be surprised if some give up on the film long before the final credits run.

That isn’t to say that the movie is entirely without merit. The makeup effects by Zach Smith are pretty good, and Parris Bates has some potential, although his character is a bit on the whiny side. But the movie feels awfully amateurish, and while horror fans tend to be a bit more forgiving about such things, they do require some big scares and there just aren’t any.

I take no joy out of savaging a film like this. Generally, I wouldn’t run a review for a movie I disliked as much as this one because I generally feel that making a movie requires passion and commitment and I don’t doubt that the filmmakers have both of those things, and as I said, there are some redeeming features here so it isn’t entirely a waste of your time, but if you’re looking for a real good haunted house movie, there are just too many excellent ones out there (including The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist as well as literally dozens of fine indie budget films) to make it easy to recommend this at all.

REASONS TO SEE: Bates has a certain amount of appeal.
REASONS TO AVOID: Underlit throughout with a curiously blue tint. Poorly acted and terribly written.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some nudity, a fair amount of drug use and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director McCarthy makes a cameo appearance as a pizza delivery guy early in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Turning
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT:
The Mitchells vs. the Machines

Deliver Us From Evil (Daman akeseo guhasoseo)


It is twilight for a professional killer.

(2020) Crime (Well Go USA) Jun-min Hwang, Jung-jae Lee, Jung-min Park, Moon Choi, Hakuryu, Park Myeong-hoon, Dae-hwan Oh, Tomonori Mizuno, Young-chang Song, Kosuke Toyohara, Hiroaki Hirakawa, Ito Keitoku, Ken Kurahara, Atsundo Maruyama, So-yi Park. Directed by Won-Chan Hong

 

For an action film to be successful, it doesn’t have to be particularly original, although that certainly helps. When an action movie is well-thought-out, well-choreographed and well-paced, a lack of imagination can be forgiven.

In-nam (Hwang) is a contract killer who used to be a cop. He has just finished his last job before retiring to Panama to live on a quiet beach, but that is not to be. For one thing, the last man he killed, a yakuza named Goreda (Toyohara) has a vengeful brother named Ray, who is better known as Ray the Butcher (Lee). You really don’t want someone named “The Butcher” mad at you, particularly when that person is muscle for the yakuza.

Worse still, it turns out that an ex-girlfriend (Choi) has died and her young daughter Yoo-min (S-y Park) has been kidnapped by human traffickers and taken to Bangkok. In-nam is not helping out because he’s a particularly good guy; he is about as stone cold as they get, but he does have some skin in that particular game. With raving lunatic Ray chasing the ice-cold In-nam, you can imagine that sparks will fly when the two meet.

And sparks do fly. Action fans will be pleased to know that this is as gripping an action movie as you’re likely to see this year, with well-staged martial arts fights and some spectacular action sequences that would do a Hollywood big-budget summer tentpole film proud. This is the kind of movie that doesn’t lack for entertainment.

It also doesn’t lack for action stars. Hwang and Lee are two of South Korea’s biggest stars; they haven’t been in a movie together in eight years, but their chemistry is undeniable. They work really well together, and Hwang does the taciturn, brooding killing machine about as well as anybody, although in the Bangkok heat the man sweats like a politician in front of a grand jury.

Where the movie is lacking is in plot. There is nothing here in terms of story that you haven’t seen before, and sometimes in better movies. How many retiring hit man movies have we seen even this year, where the retiree is drawn back into the business unwillingly? One place where the movie is a little different is that there is a transgender character, Yoo-Yi (J-m Park) who plays In-nam’s translater and girl Friday in Bangkok, where she hopes to make enough money for her gender reassignment surgery. While she’s mostly there for comic relief, surprisingly she is played as more sympathetic than you’d expect, and who ends up being the most likable character in the movie with the possible exception of the utterly adorable Yoo-min.

The movie was one of the top grossing films in Korea last year, having just finished production before the pandemic hit and was one of the few major releases in that country in 2020. With big budget Hollywood movies beginning to peek out from out of their quarantine, this might end up being lost in the shuffle which would be a shame; it is actually quite entertaining and a must for action fans who like their movies at break-neck speed.

REASONS TO SEE: Some spectacular action sequences. Hwang has the surly action hero thing down pat.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat unoriginal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a truck full of violence and gore (much of it brutal) and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second time that Hwang and Lee have appeared in the same action film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Taken
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
An Amityville Poltergeist

Broken Harts


The Hart children are all smiles here (including Devonte, far right) but the smiles hide a dark secret.

(2021) True Crime Documentary (Discovery Plus) Sheriff Tom Allman, Jennifer Hart, Sarah Hart, Devonte Hart, Cynthia Bartley, Lt. Shannon Barney, Irene Vanryckeshem, Niema Lightseed, Drew Bunch, Adam Beck, Cheryl Hart, Jackie LaBrecque, Dana DeKalb, Raquel Warley, Zaron Burnett, Mia Williams, Shonda Jones, Diane Drystad, Dr. Jen Johnston. Directed by Gregory Palmer

 

On March 26, 2018, Jennifer and Sarah Hart of Woodland, Washington, along with their six adopted children, drove off the side of a 100-foot cliff in Mendocino County, California. Initially, onl the bodies of the two women and three of their children were found; over the succeeding weeks, the remains of two other children washed up on Mendocino beaches. The remains of 15-year-old Devonte were never recovered.

At first, it was thought to be a tragic accident, but as facts began to emerge, a darker picture was painted. On the surface, it appeared that Jennifer and Sarah were loving mothers whose children were smiling and happy. Jennifer’s Facebook page was filled with pictures of family outings where the kids were dancing, smiling and singing, particularly Devonte who grew into national prominence because of his appearance at rallies for Black Lives Matter following the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO wearing a “Free Hugs” sign around his neck. A photo of Devonte weeping as he hugged a police officer would go viral.

But the kids showed up in school with bruises, prompting the Harts to withdraw their kids from the school system and homeschooling them. Their neighbors, Bruce and Dana DeKalb, reported that the children would show up at their door begging for food, pleading with them not to tell their moms. On the 23rd of March, Child Protective Services paid two visits to the Hart home, but nobody answered the door. They came again on the 26th, but by that time th family was already dead.

The movie is presented in typical true crime documentary fashion, with plenty of home movies, still pictures and talking head interviews with law enforcement officials – primarily Sheriff Tom Allman of Mendocino County who investigated the incident – friends and analysts. Psychiatrist Dr. Jen Johnston gives rational, calm and factual information about the psychology of family annihilation, while journalist Zaron Burnett talks about the racial implications of the crime, regularly reminding us that both women were white and the six adopted children were all African-American. His claim that the women got a pass because they were white ignores the fact that most lesbians will tell you that passes are infrequently given to the LGBTQ community and that at the time of the adoptions, there were several states – including Texas, where the kids were originally from – that didn’t allow same-sex adoption, although because they went through an agency in Minnesota where the couple was living at the time, they were able to bypass those restrictions.

Palmer clearly makes Jennifer Hart the villain of the piece, making Sarah more or less an accomplice. There is an awful lot of editorializing and assumptions going on, some of it on the side of common sense, some of it a reach. Allman makes a case for a national registry of child abusers; had such a thing existed, it might have given Child Protective Services in Washington the ability to pull the kids out of the Hart home before their adoptive mothers took them on that final, tragic road trip.

While parts of the movie are dry, I thought that the real crime was trying to ascribe motives based on conjecture to be a disservice. Any good law enforcement official, particularly those involved in the prosecutorial aspect of it, will tell you that a competent investigation sticks to what can be proven. Unfortunately, the filmmakers here go too often for sensationalism and sound bites, perhaps in an effort to show that society failed these six kids. In fact, society did fail these children, but not necessarily in the way some of the commentators here opine.

REASONS TO SEE: Methodically presented.
REASONS TO AVOID: Needed more of Dr. Johnson and less of Burnett.
FAMILY VALUES: The content is disturbing overall, with descriptions of child abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the Hart children were adopted through the Permanent Family Research Center in Minnesota.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Murder: The Family Next Door
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Deliver Us From Evil (2021)

Take Out Girl


It’s not easy scratching a living in the mean streets.

(2020) Drama (1091) Hedy Wong, Ski Carr, Lynna Yee, J. Teddy Garces, Lorin Alond Ly, Dijon Talton, Mier Chasin, Lizette Hunter, Joe Rudy Guerrero Jr., Tony Bentajado, Cole Bernstein, Melissa Del Rosario, Adia Bell, Collin Hayes, Zavieh Harrell, Veronica Mitsuk, Marilyn Simon, Caslin Rose, Tania Nolan, Crystal Powell, Jody Marie. Directed by Hisonni Mustafa

 

Life is hard, particularly in neighborhoods that are not affluent. It seems like the game is rigged for those who already have all the money they could ever need and those who are just trying to get out of poverty and make a decent life for themselves have little to no chance at succeeding at that worthy goal.

Some just give up, but that’s not how Tera Wong (Wong) is wired. She is a born fighter, bred to take crap from nobody, and raised in an environment where you have to stand up for yourself or face being knocked down over and over again. That’s life in the bottom of South Central. She’s gone to college to learn business to better take care of her mother’s failing Chinese restaurant, but has withdrawn from school as she realizes that she is needed at the restaurant more.

Her mom (Yee) is bone-weary, suffering from a back injury she can’t afford to get fixed up – or even get decent pain meds for. She can’t even afford to take time away from work to rest her back. It’s a grim catch-22 that makes Tera, and her gang-banging brother Saren (Ly) angry and frustrated. Cousin Crystal (Chasin) also works at the restaurant, although her outlook is a little more optimistic. In the meantime, Tera knows all the side hustles in the world won’t elevate this restaurant out of the gutter, where she and her family seem destined to reside.

Then while out delivering, she crosses paths with Lalo (Carr), a local drug dealer. He seems to take a shine to Tera, who calls him on his crap, much to the disgust of Lalo’s enforcer Hector (Garces) and Girl Friday Chuey (Hunter). That’s when Tera hits upon an idea; she can run drugs for Lalo without ever being given a second glance. Most of Lalo’s runners affect a look right out of a gangsta rap video, almost asking for the cops to keep a wary eye out for them. Who would give a cute Chinese girl a second glance?

At first things work out better than Tera could have dreamed as finally she’s making enough money to help her mom in a concrete way. However, there is always a price to pay for walking on that side of the street and as tough as Tera may be, that bill will come due and sooner rather than later.

Urban crime dramas concerning unlikely people getting involved in the drug trade are nothing new; there are even several about Asian women getting caught up in drug distribution, some fairly recent. Few have had as electrifying a performance as the one delivered here by Hedy Wong to fall back on. Wong, who co-wrote the movie based on her own experiences in the San Francisco Bay Area, plays a young woman who has learned to keep the walls up and the defenses on high alert. Her stiff posture, with the baseball cap slung low over her eyes, her lips tight in a kind of cupid-bow pout with a hard edge on it tell you all you need to know about the character. She is seemingly fearless – until you look closer. Her eyes sometimes betray the fact that she’s in over her head and knows it.

Her hard edges might make it difficult to identify with the character early on; when someone mutters “bitch” under their breath after an interaction with her, you can’t help but agree. But that’s not her whole story, and as the movie unspools you begin to see deeper into a character who has had to become hard out of necessity.

The dialogue is meant to be gritty and snappy, but it comes off as a bit cliché. Also, while the movie starts off compelling, it seems to lose its way about halfway through and finishes with a sputter rather than a roar, utilizing an ending that feels rushed and unearned. You may well lose interest by that time; I just about did, although the final twist would have been a good one if the filmmakers had taken the time to develop the ending a little more. In other words, if they had given as much care to the ending as to the beginning this might have been a much more solid film, but you end up feeling like you watched half a movie by the time the end credits roll.

REASONS TO SEE: Starts out as a compelling urban drama.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses steam and peters out at the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity along with drug references and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although meant to portray downtown Los Angeles, the movie was actually filmed in nearby Riverside.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Nice
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Citizen Penn

Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse


Attack a Navy SEALs family? Oh no, you didn’t…

(2021) Action (Paramount/Amazon) Michael B. Jordan, Jodie Turner-Smith, Jamie Bell, Guy Pearce, Lauren London, Jacob Scipio, Todd Lasance, Jack Kesy, Lucy Russell, Cam Gigandet, Luke Mitchell, Artjom Gilz, Brett Gelman, Merab Ninidze, Alexander Mercury, Colman Domingo, Rae Lim, Sumi Somaskanda, Zee Gunther, Jill Holwerda, Conor Boru, Bella Shaw. Directed by Stefano Sollima

 

It is a tried-and-true action cliché that you can mess with a Navy SEAL, but if you mess with a Navy SEAL’s family, you’re in deep doo-doo because not even God will help you. God knows better.

Navy SEAL John Kelly (Jordan) is part of a team led by Lt. Cmmdr. Karen Greer (Turner-Smith) that goes to Aleppo in civil war-torn Syria to rescue a CIA operative. It appears to have gone without a hitch but something about it feels wrong to Kelly and his suspicions soon prove to be true when it turns out that what they thought were Syrian soldiers were in fact Russians and boy, are they angry about the American operation. Once the SEALs go home, Russian operatives stalk the individual members of the team and kill them.

When they go after Kelly, he survives. Unfortunately, his pregnant wife Pam (London) doesn’t and if you thought the Russians were angry, Kelly is about to get medieval on some Russian tushies. He stalks a Russian diplomat and sets his car on fire, then leaps into the inferno with the diplomat and demands to know who carried out the assassinations. When he gets the name he needs, he exits the car but not before sending the Russian to join the Choir Invisible.

With the support of Secretary of Defense Thomas Clay (Pearce) and the more reluctant support of CIA agent Robert Ritter (Bell), Kelly joins a team that is headed into Mother Russia to track down the operative, Viktor Rykov (Gelman, a curious bit of casting) and exact his revenge but the plane is ambushed and shot down. It becomes clear that the Russians knew they were coming; but who told them and why?

Based on a novel by Tom Clancy in a spin-off from his hugely popular Jack Ryan series (the character of John Kelly, who will be known as John Clark for reasons explained later in the movie, appears in several of those books) has long been in gestation as a film project, but finally saw the light of day after nearly two decades of development – only to run smack dab into the pandemic. Ticketed for theatrical release in 2020, after several delays and postponements the property was finally sold to Amazon who have been having success with their own John Krasinski-led Jack Ryan series seemed to be a perfect fit.

This movie gets an enormous amount of star power from Jordan who has become one of the most charismatic stars in Hollywood. Even when he plays villainous roles, he turns in a performance that actually can be sympathetic. He has an enormous amount of screen presence and he actually elevates what is otherwise a mediocre film into something a little more.

Part of the problem here is that Clancy wrote with a Cold War-era worldview that is a bit off in the 2020s. It’s not that we don’t have an adversarial relationship with Russia these days – of course we do – but it’s a different kind of playing field altogether. Some of the geopolitical content feels a bit dated somehow.

A film like this is going to live and die on its action sequences and while most of them aren’t too bad, there are one or two that stretch believability and make you scratch your head a little bit and say “wouldn’t it be easier if he just…” and that’s never a good thing in an action movie. While action sequences should be breathtaking, there has to be an air of reality to it that viewers believe the derring-do is at least possible. It takes you right out of the movie when it feels implausible.

This isn’t a bad movie and Amazon Prime users get to watch it for no additional charge which makes it even more enticing. Could this have been a better experience in a movie theater? In all likelihood, yes, but it’s not a bad option if you want to watch something loud and that requires little thought on your part.

REASONS TO SEE: Jordan is one of the most watchable stars in Hollywood today.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lacks character development.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jordan is the third actor to play John Clark (John Kelly in this film); Willem Dafoe played him in A Clear and Present Danger and Liev Schreiber played him in The Sum of All Fears, both Jack Ryan films.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews; Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Clear and Present Danger
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Take Out Girl

Programming Note


With theaters reopening to a large extent and Hollywood gearing up with major releases finally making their way into theaters, our weekly preview “New Releases” will be returning in the month of June. We will be starting off with just Orlando-area theaters including Orange, Seminole, Osceola, Lake and Volusia counties. In time we may return to adding coverage of the Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville metropolitan areas but we will for the time being continue with baby steps.

Pick of the Litter, our monthly preview, will continue to stay retired, in all likelihood permanently. We will continue to keep our Coming Soon pages as updated as possible, although that fell by the wayside during the pandemic as changes in release schedules made it basically untenable to keep it up too far in advance. Right now we’re trying to get back into the swing of things and have been keeping it up roughly three months in advance, although that will slowly increase as time goes by.

But this is good news, and another step in the general direction of normalcy, although there is no doubt that with the increase in streaming services and people still prefering to stay home rather than see movies in theaters for the most part, the theatrical release model will certainly be affected permanently by the pandemic as studios have negotiated shorter theatrical windows while at the same time creating a need for content with their own streaming services. Will this be good for the consumer? Time will tell, but it will be difficult for theaters at least in the short term, so for those who have been vaccinated and feel comfortable going out, Cinema365 urges you to support your local movie theaters, both your independent art house as well as the big national chains. They both need your support right now.

There is No Evil (Sheytan vojud nadarad)


The face of a woman who knows that there is, in fact, evil.

(2020) Drama (Kino Lorber) Ehsan Mirhosseini, Shaghayegh Shoorian, Kaveh Ahangar, Alireza Zaraparest, Shahi Jila, Mohammad Seddighimehr, Mahtab Servati, Mohamad Valizadegan, Darya Moghbeli, Kaveh Ebrahim, Salar Khamseh, Gholamhosein Taseiri, Alireza Zareparast, Parvin Maleki, Reza Bahrami, Pouya Mehri, Baran Rasoulof. Directed by Mohammad Rasoulof

 

Iran may as well exist on another planet by Western viewpoint. A religious oligarchy rules the country with an iron fist; people can be arrested for crimes of morality, and even executed for them. As with the United States, there are those in Iran who oppose capital punishment. Director Mohammad Rasoulof is one of them.

Already stripped of the right to make films in his native country, Rasoulof made this film surreptitiously and without government approval. It was smuggled out of Iran and played the Berlin Film Festival, where it achieved (justified) acclaim. Now appearing in art houses and on virtual cinema, the two and a half long film is an anthology of four stories, unrelated except all are about capital punishment in some form.

In the first chapter, Heshmat (Mirhosseini) is a middle aged man working for the government. He watches television blankly during the day, then goes to pick up his wife (Shoorian) from work and his daughter, whom he dotes on, from school. He goes grocery shopping for his infirm mother and helps clean her house. He dyes his wife’s hair and seemingly has a loving, bantering relationship with her. But he seems distracted – on his way to work at 3am the next morning, he pauses at a stoplight, even when it has turned green, staring into space. One wonders what he’s thinking about, before he jerks awake and proceeds on his way to work. There, we discover what he was thinking about in the most shocking way possible.

The second chapter finds Pouya (Ahangar), a military conscript doing his compulsory service, given an order that goes against his own personal morals. He talks with his fellow buddies, who warn him that failure to carry out his orders could get him court martialed, extending his military service and possibly preventing him from getting the passport his girlfriend is pestering him to get so they can emigrate to Austria. His decision on how to deal with his moral dilemma seems sudden and perhaps not thought fully through, but it is one that feels realistic.

The third chapter concerns another soldier doing compulsory service, Javad (Valizadegan) who is on a three day pass to visit his fiancée (Servati) and her family. He stops to bathe in a clear stream, and there is good reason for it as it turns out. He arrives when her family is mourning the death of a favorite teacher, who was executed. She is beginning to wonder whether there is a future for her in Iran; he has a secret that could conceivably tear the couple apart.

Finally, in the final story Bahram (Seddighimehr) and his wife Zaman (Shahi) welcome their niece Darya (B. Rasoulof) visiting Iran for the first time from his brother’s home in Germany. The couple have isolated themselves in the sticks, working as beekeepers after he had trained to be a doctor and she had been a pharmacist. There is a strained, awkward feeling between the three; Bahram has something to tell Darya but doesn’t know how to do it. When he does finally admit what he has to say to her, it is an absolutely devastating emotional moment for the film.

Whether or not you agree with capital punishment, this is a movie that resonates on every level, looking at the subect from a variety of points of view. It depicts the effects of decisions to participate in capital punishment – or at least to look the other way – on lives and relationships. I don’t know that it will make anyone who is pro-capital punishment change their minds, but it simply presents the consequences of taking human life in a straightforward manner.

The film is necessarily minimalistic since Rousolof is forbidden from making films; it had to be shot on the sly and what technical post-production additions (such as a score) were kept to a bare minimum. Rousolof is an engaging storyteller who gets across his points in ways that often are breathtaking, particularly in the first and last chapters. He does have a tendency to rely on blindsiding his audience which might seem a cheap tactic, but it works very well in this case.

He also draws characters that are realistic and casts non-professionals (mainly) who inhabit these parts well. I don’t think that I’ve felt as strong an emotional reaction to any film I’ve seen so far this year; it is destined to be a movie that will end up on a lot of year’s best lists, not to mentioin may end up as a powerful, influential movie that will carry echoes beyond its Iranian origins. This is for any lover of cinema, a must-see.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures ordinary life in powerful ways. Explores the morality of capital punishment from a variety of points of view. Compelling characters and performances. Keeps the score to a minimum. Some really shocking moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a bit long for the attention-challenged.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While it won the Silver Bear at last year’s Berlinale (the highest honor at the Berlin Film Festival), it is banned in Iran for what is perceived to be anti-government sentiment.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dog Sweat
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Without Remorse

Mortal Kombat (2021)


Ready Player One….FIGHT!!!!

(2021) Martial Arts (Warner Brothers) Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Joe Taslim, Mehcad Brooks, Matilda Kimber, Laura Brent, Tadanobu Asano, Hiroyuki Sanada, Chin Han, Ludi Lin, Max Huang, Sisi Stringer, Mel Jarnson, Nathan Jones, Daniel Nelson, Ian Streetz, Yukiko Shinohara, Ren Miyagawa, Mia Hall, David Field, Kris McQuade. Directed by Simon McQuoid

Some movies just don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting a good review. For many, it’s because the movie just isn’t very good but for some, they have two strikes (and sometimes three) going against them coming in. Movies based on videogames, for example.

Part of the problem with videogame-based movies is that most players of videogames would rather play them than watch them, and understandably so. Videogaming is an active participation activity; movie watching is not. You can say what you want about gamers (and there is a lot to be said about them, to be sure) but they are not into passive activities. They need to be involved, although the way movie watchers become involved is a bit more emotional and mental than videogaming.

There is a plot here but it is awfully convoluted. Essentially, the Earthrealm (where we live) has been involved in a series of fighting tournaments with the Outworld which is inhabited by all manner of monsters. We have, predictably, lost nine tournaments in a row. The tenth is coming soon, and should we lose it, we become slaves to the Outworlders who will take over. That would be a bad thing.

However, the Earth is protected by the thunder god Thor…I mean, Raiden (Asano) He has marked a group of champions with dragon-shaped birthmarks. One of these is down-on-his-luck MMA fighter Cole Young (Tan) – a completely original character for the movie, for those fans of the game looking to find him in one of the many iterations of the game franchise. He is skeptical when told by Special Forces member Jax (Brooks) about what’s going on but an attack by Subzero (Taslim) who has control over ice, which is an ability I generally wish I had during summers here in Florida, help to open his mind. Along with the beautiful Sonia Blade (McNamee) and wisecracking Aussie Kano (Lawson), Cole heads to Raiden’s temple to train for the upcoming bout. He, like the other champions of Earth, will have to learn to find their Arcana – their special powers. However, Outworld emperor Shang Tsung (Han) is eager to win the tournament without having to actually fight it, and has sent some of his own champions to wipe out the Earth champions before the tournament even starts. Boo, hiss.

The strength of the movie lies in the gloriously bloody fight sequences which bring the gore that the original game was notorious for to the big screen – the big knock on the two feature films that were made based on the franchise back in the 90s was that they sanitized the violence which was, like it or not, one of the biggest reasons the game was so loved back in the day.

The movie also suffers from an excess of characters. The MK videogame franchise has developed over the years a pretty lengthy list of champions and villains whom fans of the franchise are familiar with and perhaps not wishing to alienate the core group of fans, many of them make at least a token appearance in this film. This is where they could have learned something from the Marvel and DC franchises, both of which have an enormous amount of characters to draw on. However, you see only a handful of them in the movies to date. Marvel did it best; start with one character and then introduce new ones as the series goes on. The movie is nearly two hours long and it didn’t need to be; save some of these characters for future movies. I guarantee that it will keep fan interest going longer as they wait for the long-awaited appearances of Goro, Mileena and Reiko.

Also, the training sequence takes up much of the middle of the film and is way too long. As RogerEbert.com reviewer Brian Tallerico astutely pointed out, nobody wants to watch an hour-long tutorial in the middle of the game. This is where they introduce a lot of the beloved characters from the game that could have waited for introductions later in the series.

And it is going to be a franchise. No doubt about it. The movie has done well enough in the pandemic-weakened box office to warrant it, and the movie seems to have been set up to jumpstart the franchise once again after Mortal Kombat: Annihilation killed it dead. And make no mistake, there is some potential for a long-running franchise here, but those in charge of it need to be patient and develop it slowly without forcing appearances of characters just to keep fanboys allegedly happy; for one thing, that disrespects the fans who would rather have a good movie made about their characters than a bad one. There is a lot to praise about Mortal Kombat – paramount among those the innovative fighting sequences, the marvelously violent and gory ends to some of the fighters (many built on the ends that these characters suffer in the game itself) and the CGI which is more than adequate. This is a decent kick-off for a franchise but if they want to sustain it they will have to do a better job in the movies that are sure to follow.

REASONS TO SEE: Snazzy special effects and fighting sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is almost an afterthought.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a crapload of violence (much of it gory and violent), plenty of profanity and some crude references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third live-action film based on the best-selling videogame franchise; it is also the first of the three in which Raiden is played by an Asian actor.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until May 23rd)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews; Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Street Fighter
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
There Is No Evil

Citizen Penn


Some citizens are more badass about getting things done than others.

(2020) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Sean Penn, Anderson Cooper, Cécile Accilien, Capt. Barry Frishman, Dr. Justine Crowley, Tommy Prato, Alastair Lamb, Edgar Nonce, Dr. Dominique Valentin, Laurent Lamothe, Ann Lee, Jeff Dorsey, Amani Phillips, Avery Harrell, Pamela White, Alexandra Kuykendahl. Directed by Don Hardy

 

When you think of Sean Penn, what comes to mind? Spicoli? His years as Mr. Madonna? Punching out a paparazzi? Two-time Oscar winner? Fox News whipping boy? Or dedicated activist and philanthropist who made Haitian relief a priority?

Chances are it isn’t the latter, but that is what this documentary is about, and judging on what is in the film, is what Penn himself is about. The one-time bad boy has not mellowed, but he has matured; there is a big difference. He has been associated with the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, which is remarked about but not gone into great deal here. Mostly, it is mentioned mainly because Penn prevailed upon Chavez to provide 350,000 doses of morphine for Haiti following the January 2010 earthquake when nobody else would.

This documentary, currently airing on the Discovery Plus streaming service (click on the link below if you want to check it out although you will need to be a subscriber if you want to see it), consists largely of an interview with the actor in which he smokes incessantly, and talks plainly about his time in Haiti and of the obstacles he faced there. He also talks about the courage and compassion of the Haitian people, who refuse to see themselves as victims.

There is also a whole lot of footage of the disaster (and the ensuing hurricane that formed a one-two punch with the earthquake that nearly leveled the island). Penn talks about taking a helicopter trip in a U.S. military helicopter at one point and suddenly realizing the scope of the disaster; it is hard to see it when you are looking at individuals and small spaces. The devastation was so widespread it is amazing that Haiti has recovered at all.

It is admirable that the focus of the film shifts about halfway through, from Penn and his efforts to that of his organization, originally known as J/P HRO (Jenkins/Penn Haiti Relief Organization) but is now known as CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), and how the volunteers there have taken over and helped Haitians take charge of their own relief.

The film makes the distinction between celebrities who support relief organizations and those who actively help on the ground where it is needed. Penn is most definitely one of the latter; he stayed in Haiti working 20-hour days long after the TV cameras had packed up and gone home. He describes a harrowing account of trying to get a young boy a life-saving medicine after he was diagnosed with diptheria. It is one of the most emotionally wrenching sequences in the film, boiling down all the suffering to one little boy. That is how we are more able to connect with disasters; not in the sheer volume of those affected, because it is overwhelming, but in the eyes of a desperate father and a sick little boy.

Most people have probably made up their minds about Penn even before seeing this, and that may prevent you from seeing the documentary, which would be a shame because while Penn is certainly the draw, it is not just about him, and that’s just how he wants it. He uses the documentary the same way he uses his celebrity to call attention to issues he’s passionate about and raise fund to help combat them. Penn strikes me as a man who doesn’t tolerate bullshit at all; it seems to me that the world could use more people like him.

If, like me, you are motivated to donate to Penn’s organization to help with the ongoing humanitarian efforts for the island (which is now battling COVID just like the rest of us), do yourself a favor and go to the CORE website. Every dollar donated will help save lives. You can go to the website here.

REASONS TO SEE: Portrays the scope of the issues in Haiti effectively. Moves the focus away from Penn in the second half of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretty much an acquired taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 2010 earthquake left 230,000 dead and more than 1.5 million homeless.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cajun Navy
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Mortal Kombat

Riders of Justice (Retfærdighedens ryttere)


This is a man you don’t want to mess with.

(2020) Action Comedy (Magnet) Mads Mikkelsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Andrea Heick Gadeberg, Lars Brygmann, Nicolas Bro, Gustav Lindh, Roland Møller, Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt, Anne Birgitte Lind, Omar Shargawi, Jacob Lohmann, Henrik Noël, Gustav Giese, Klaus Hjuler, Peder Holm Johansen, Christina Ibsen, Rikke Louise Andersson. Directed by Anders Thomas Jensen

 

A teenage girl’s bicycle is stolen. A mother’s car won’t start. A recently fired statistical analyst gives up his seat on a commuter train to a pregnant woman. Coincidences? Or part of a discernable pattern?

Markus (Mikkelsen) is inclined to believe the former. You see, his wife was the mother whose car wouldn’t start. She is also the pregnant woman who the statistical analyst gave up his seat for. When a freight train crashed into the commuter train, the analyst survived the crash. So did the teenage girl, Mathilde (Gadeberg), who is Markus’ daughter. Markus’ wife did not. Markus, a Danish soldier serving in Afghanistan, returns home to take care of his daughter, but the relationship between Markus and Mathilde was strained to begin with. Markus isn’t the most talkative guy, after all.

Then Otto (Kaas), the statistical analyst who owes his survival to his act of chivalry, shows up at his door along with his colleague Lennart (Brygmann). Otto is convinced that the crash was no accident; you see, he saw someone get off the train moments before the crash, throwing out a nearly full beverage and uneaten sandwich in the process. That seemed suspicious. However, one of the other victims of the crash was a man about to testify against a powerful biker gang, the Riders of Justice. Otto’s algorithm shows that the odds of the crash happening randomly is almost astronomical. The accident was almost certainly created, and the most likely suspect is the biker leader, and after the two analysts bring aboard computer hacker Emmenthaler (Bro) and his facial recognition software which connects the person who got off the train to the Riders of Justice, Markus has a new mission: vengeance.

A typical action revenge thriller would move in a specific direction from this point, with plenty of set action pieces, some brutality, maybe a bit of comic relief and a cathartic final confrontation. This is far from typical, however; for one thing, the comedy is a bit darker and more in the foreground. For another, there is some depth here as the three nerds try to get Markus to psychoanalyze himself, and in doing so, analyzing the machismo ethos that dominates action movies and to a certain extent, modern life.

Mikkelsen has become one of my favorite actors. He has absolutely perfect body language throughout; often a coiled spring waiting to release all sorts of rage-fueled energy, but dead-eyed right up until the point he explodes. Markus is a man of few words so much of what Mikkelsen has to get across is done through facial expression and body language.

Jensen, who also co-wrote the script with Nikolaj Arcel (the two also co-wrote the disappointing adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower), utilizes his musical score note-perfect, if you’ll forgive the pun. The writing is also really tight, well-plotted and logically laid out – when the analysts talk about probability and statistical analysis, it almost makes sense. Makes one wonder if such an algorithm might not someday be figured out by some similarly bright boy that might predict seemingly random events. Even better (and exceedingly rare for an action flick) the background characters are fairly well-developed, meaning the audience will care what happens to all of them. The final twist is a humdinger, too.

=This is not your average action movie but don’t let that put you off. The action sequences and fight sequences are well-staged. Markus may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but he’s a badass nonetheless. The comedy elements don’t distract from the action, but rather enhance it. Yeah, it’s a little bit different but not so much that it’s annoying and that difference actually makes the movie more enjoyable.

I imagine that there are action fans who will be turned off by the subtitles, but then most are willing to put up with them for great Hong Kong action movies and this one is certainly up there with some of the best of those. This played the recent Florida Film Festival and was my favorite film this year; it’s playing at the Enzian right now for those ready to make the trek into theatres. For those that aren’t, it should be on VOD fairly soon.

REASONS TO SEE: Really, really well-written. Mikkelsen seethes and simmers. Just off-beat enough to be interesting, but not enough to be annoying.
REASONS TO AVOID: Drags a little during the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fifth time that Mikkelsen and Kaas have appeared together in a film directed by Jensen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Very Bad Things
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Citizen Penn