Wonder Woman 1984


Did video kill the movie star?

(2020) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Lilly Aspell, Amr Waked, Kristoffer Palaha, Natasha Rothwell, Ravi Patel, Oliver Cotton, Lucian Perez, Gabriella Wilde, Kelvin Yu, Stuart Milligan, Shane Attwooll, David Al-Fahmi,Kevin Wallace, Wai Wong, Doutzen Kroes . Directed by Patty Jenkins

 

It is somewhat ironic that the first Wonder Woman took place during the waning days of World War I which saw the world (although not depicted in the film) struggling with a global pandemic of the Spanish flu. The sequel has finally made it to theaters (and to streaming platform HBO Max until January 26th) after being delayed more than a year, argely due to the current global pandemic.

It is 1984 – morning in America, right? – and Diana Prince (Gadot) – the alter ego of Wonder Woman – still mourns the death of her love Steve Trevor (Pine) in an explosion at the conclusion of the Great War. She has managed to lie low for the intervening years, occasionally showing up in costume to foil a mall robbery. She works in the antiquities department of the Smithsonian, along with a new colleague, the confidence-challenged and somewhat clumsy Barbara Minerva (Wiig). The two become friends, and work on identifying a strange artifact – it turns out to be the Dreamstone, a magic relic that grants wishes to the bearer.

Before they realize it though, the two women each make a wish – Minerva to be more like her new friend Diana, and Diana to regain her dead boyfriend. Each woman receives exactly what they wish for – and in Minerva’s case, she also inherits Wonder Woman’s powers. Steve returns, his consciousness inhabiting the body of a handsome man (Palaha). At first, the two are happy.

Television huckster Maxwell Lord (Pascal), a cross between Gordon Gekko, Tony Robbins and Donald Trump, gets wind of the stone and decides to use it to become the dreamstone himself – with the power to grant wishes to whomever touches him. With a steady income of well-wishers, his failing business is turned around and Lord becomes a wealthy man in fact instead of just an illusion.

However, the Dreamstone was actually the creation of the God of Lies and it has a terrible downside – it takes from the user as much as it gives. When the President of the United States (ostemsibly Reagan) wishes for more nukes, the world is brought to the brink of destruction, unless Diana can find a way to stop it.

In many ways, this is a worthy successor to the first Wonder Woman and in others, it is disappointing. Gadot has proven herself perfectly cast as the Amazonian superheroine; beautiful and exotic, graceful in her action sequences, and possessed of a strength and confidence that makes her a tremendous role model for sure, but also not incidentally, a budding A-list movie star. She is quite frankly the reason to see this film; she’s spectacular in the part.

 

Pine is second banana here, and he seems comfortable in the role. He serves mainly as fish-out-of-water comic relief, evincing awe at period technology (the space shuttle, computers and cheese in a can. He kind of gets lost in the shuffle here; Wiig shows some real dramatic skill as Minerva, going from a put-upon, mousy nobody to a self-confident supervillain. The transition is not as jarring as you might think. Pascal as the huckster Maxwell Lord, is surprisingly bland; the part certainly shows some Trumpian overtones, but in the end Lord seems to have more of a heart than Trump, or at least so it seems. Still, I would have expected more spice out of Pascal.

There are some really great moments here – like a flight through fireworks – and some truly head-scratching moments as well. The opening prologue, set when Diana was a girl (Aspell) in a competition with fully grown women, nearly lost me at the get-go, while the shoot-out at the mall really made me wonder if I wasn’t about to watch Jenkins bomb after doing so well with her last film. Not to worry though; it does get much better as it goes along.

There has been a lot of chatter on the Internet about a sex scene with the resurrected Steve Trevor and Diana. As Steve was inhabiting another man’s body, some people complained that this was essentially rape as the man whose body Steve was inhabiting couldn’t give consent. Far be it for me to besmirch sexual assault in any form, but could it be we’re getting oversensitive? I don’t think bodies driven by foreign consciouses are a big problem, or ever likely to be. Can we save our outrage for real world rape culture?

That said, this isn’t the home run that Wonder Woman was, but it’s not a strikeout either. It’s definitely a solid base hit, if we’re going to continue the baseball metaphor. Is it worth going to theaters for? I’m sharply divided on this. I think that it should be seen on the big screen in a big theater, but at the same time I can’t really justify the risk for those who might be concerned about picking up COVID and passing it along to loved ones. I think it was the right call for Warner Brothers to make it available at home and that’s probably where you should see it. However, once you feel comfortable going back to the multiplex, hopefully some theaters will show it as a re-release so we all get a chance to see it as it was meant to be seen.

REASONS TO SEE: Gadot continues her ascent as a major star and Wiig delivers a bang-up performance. Gets better as it goes along.
REASONS TO AVOID: Extremely uneven. Pascal is surprisingly bland.
FAMILY VALUES: There is superhero action/violence as well as a scene of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Wiig was Jenkins’ first choice to play Barbara Minerva, the role was initially offered to Emma Stone, who declined. Wiig was then offered the role.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now, HBO Max
CRITICAL MASS: As of 168/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Green Lantern
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Soul

Max Cloud


A Max Cloud family Christmas portrait.

(2020) Science Fiction (Well Go USAIsabelle Allen, Scott Adkins, John Hannah, Lashana Lynch, Eliot James Langridge, Franz Drameh, Sally Collett, Jason Maza, Tommy Flanagan, Sam Hazeldine, Andi Osho, Shirin Daryale, Martyn Ford, Finley Pearson, Geraldine Sharrock, Craig Lambert, Nigel Black, Ruth Horrocks, Lois-Amber Toole.  Directed by Martin Owen

 

There is something innocent about old-time 16-bit videogames. Maybe because we were so much younger when we played them; or perhaps it was because the games themselves were simple, good versus evil types of things, uncomplicated and perfect escape from whatever was troubling us, be it school, parents, girlfriends, jobs, or lack thereof.

Sarah (Allen) is an obsessive gamer. Her favorite game du jour is The Intergalactic Adventures of Max Cloud, featuring the titular character (Adkins), a cocky lantern-jawed space hero saving the galaxy from nefarious master criminals with his trusty sidekick Jake (Langridge), the ship’s cook. However, Sarah’s dad (Hazeldine) thinks Sarah shouldn’t be playing videogames quite so much and it is a source of conflict between them.

As Sarah plays the game, she finds a hidden character, the Space Witch (Maza) – who is more accurately a space wizard, but to each his own – who somehow zaps Sarah from the real world into the game – into the body of Jake. Sarah’s best friend Cowboy (Drameh) – who is most assuredly not a competent gamer – stumbles onto the girl-within-a-game scenario and the two of them figure that the way to get Sarah back into reality is to win the game. That’s not as easy as it sounds, since Cowboy pretty much sucks at gaming and has to take frequent pee breaks. Coming after Max and Jake/Sarah is the Revenger (Hannah), a ruthless villain trying to escape from the prison world that Max crash landed on, and his right-hand flunky Shee (Lynch) who has plans of her own. Together, the two of them could end Sarah’s game permanently if she’s not careful – and if Cowboy doesn’t come through.

\There is just enough chutzpah here to carry the movie through, for the most part. Adkins has been a talented, underrated action star for the latter half of the last decade, and he proves to have some pretty solid comedy chops. Overall, with it’s primary color palette and sly shout-outs to the games of our misspent youths (or those of our parents), the movie retains a kind of goofy charm that is truly insidious. You might find yourself liking the movie in spite of its flaws.

The production values aren’t too bad when you consider that they are deliberately going for a certain retro-videogame look. The cast is strong and I’m not just talking about Adkins; Drameh and Hannah both have solid genre pedigrees and many of the rest of the cast cut their teeth on some impressive projects. There is a good deal of scenery chewing going on here, but the situation kind of calls for it, you know?

And there are flaws galore. The movie is overburdened with subplots, and underutilizes Adkins who has a physical presence that the movie could have used. There are also a few too many cliches and the cheese factor here is off-the-scale. Still in all, the movie is mindless, harmless good fun, just like the video games of yore – you Millennial whippersnappers have no idea what you missed.

REASONS TO SEE: Possessed of its own offbeat charm.
REASONS TO AVOID: You may end up overdosing on the cheese.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ike White’s father played keyboards for Ella Fitzgerald.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sci-fi video game violence.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Girl Lost: A Hollywood Story

Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan


Having a few with the Lion in winter.

(2020) Music Documentary (Magnolia) Shane MacGowan, Johnny Depp, Bono, Nick Cave, Gerry Adams, Maurice MacGowan, Paddy Hill, Therese MacGowan, Bobby Gillespie, Ann Scanlon, Siobhan MacGowan, Paolo Ikonomi, Terry Edwards, Victoria Mary Clarke. Directed by Julien Temple

 

One has to love the Irish. There is no culture on Earth that is so entwined with music; there is no culture on Earth that loves a good time more. Their history and mythology is beautiful, as is the Emerald Isle itself. They have endured famine, occupation and derision and still remain a culture that matters.

Shane MacGowan, best known for being the leader of the Pogues, embodies all of the often-contradictory aspects of Irishness. He is brilliant, a superb songwriter and a wit. He is also temperamental, self-destructive and occasionally curmudgeonly. This documentary, from noted British music documentarian Julien Temple, is not so much a love letter to his life as it is another opportunity for him to launch both middle fingers at those who have oppressed his race.

Through archival footage, brilliantly bizarre animations and interviews (primarily with his father and sister), we get a sense of his boyhood in Tipperary – his love of family and partying (he was smoking and drinking whiskey before he was double digits in age) where he was radicalized into supporting the Irish Republican Army (Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams reminisces with MacGowan about the good ol’ days) which he still believes in to this day (“I only wish I had the f*****g guts to join up”.

We go through his boyhood in great deal, including his brief commitment to a mental institution by his sister while still a teen. When he was released, he fell into the punk scene and inspired by the Sex Pistols, went on to form his own band – the Nipple Erectors. From there, he went on to form the Pogues, whose full name – Pogue Mahone – is Gaelic for “Kiss my ass” – doesn’t occur until an hour into the film. Temple is clearly trying to relate the rise of MacGowan to the time and place, but Jaysus Murray and Joseph!

MacGowan is in very poor condition; his speech is slurred and at times one gets the sense that the years of drinking, smoking and drugs may have affected him mentally as well. He clearly is uninterested in being interviewed for the movie and despite having Adams and celebrity MacGowan pal Johnny Depp (who was also a producer on the film) to coax him into talking doesn’t really work. It is also telling that none of the Pogues agreed to be interviewed for the film and although the end credits profess a certain amount of love and a desire for forgiveness on MacGowan’s part, his bandmates seem to be less inclined to mend fences.

Still, there is no doubt of MacGowan’s brilliance as a songwriter; one need look no further than the Christmas perennial “A Fairytale of New York” (perhaps his best-known song, sung with the late, great Kirsty MacColl) and “Summer in Siam,” which he sings as a duet with Nick Cave here. There is something not so much admirable about seeing MacGowan as a shell of what he was, but seeing the defiance still very much present. Like a lion still in full voice even though pressed on every side by time and trouble, there is nobility in that roar, even if the teeth are gone.

REASONS TO SEE: There’s a mythic quality that’s pure Irish. The animations are grand – the music even grander.
REASONS TO AVOID: Nearly an hour into the film and they are still covering his school days.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of profanity, underage drinking and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Temple has previously done documented on British bands of the late 70s like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the UK Subs and Madness.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/13/2020: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews; Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 2,000 Days on Earth
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Changin’ Times of Ike White

Farewell Amor


Dance like nobody’s watching.

(2020) Drama (IFC) Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah, Jayme Lawson, Joie Lee, Nana Mensah, Marcus Scribner, Brandon Lamar, Joy Batra, Francisco Burgos, Mariam C. Chemmoss, Virginia Hastings, Majah Hype, Joel Michaely, Chrisanthos Petsilas, Howie Sheard, Terrence Shingler, Rayshawn Richardson, Imani Lewis, Kristen Maxwell. Directed by Ekwa Msangi

 

Often we don’t consider the human cost of what goes on in those news snippets on CNN. You know the sort; some correspondent in a utility vest in some country that is at war with itself talking about this militia group or that government army. Caught in the middle are millions of civilians, who often have to flee their war-torn countries to survive. Often, that means families being separated, sometimes for unconscionably long periods.

Walter (Mwine) left the civil war in Angola for the United States, leaving his wife Esther (Jah) and daughter Sylvia (Lawson) – the daughter he barely knew – to try and forge a good life for his family. But seventeen long years passed as the paperwork for their emigration slowly churned through the system. When at last they were reunited at New York’s JFK Airport, they were literally strangers to one another, despite Esther’s exclaimed “Amor!” (the French word for love which can often be taken as “My love”) when first they meet.

They have all changed. Sylvia misses her friends in Dar es Salaam where she and her mother fled to. She isn’t sure how she fits in here in Brooklyn. There is a guy, DJ (Scribner) in her class who thinks she’s amazing. He watches her dancing in the street – she loves to dance – and knows she’s a natural for the high school step dancing team, but she’s not so sure.

Esther has found religion and not just Christianity but a rigid, evangelical Christianity that begins to show through. She disapproves of the decadence in America and her daughter’s desire to be a dancer? “I refused to lose my daughter to America!” she shouts, forbidding her daughter from joining the dance team or to do any sort of activity other than to attend church. It is driving a wedge between Esther and Walter.

As for Walter, he hasn’t been a saint over the past 17 years. While Esther makes friends with a spirited neighbor (Lee), Walter misses the woman (Mensah) who lived with him and was his lover while Esther was in Africa. Esther discovers what Walter had been up to, and is trying to reconcile the old Walter with the new. Will this family survive being reunited?

First-time feature filmmaker Msangi based this on a short film she did several years ago, and she shows herself to be a talent to be reckoned with. This is a film about real people, dealing with real issues. She clearly has an affection for Brooklyn, because she portrays it as a truly wonderful place. She also coaxes some truly affecting performances out of all of her cast members. I can’t recall a movie this year in which the cast was as flawless as this one.

The movie is vibrant, alive with the love of music and dance that Walter and Sylvia (and to a lesser extent, Esther) share. There is also a melancholy of people struggling to figure out how they fit in, where the fit in and feeling alone in a crowd. I think we’ve all gone through that at some point or another, making the movie eminently relatable on a personal level.

Msangi wants us to see the movie from the viewpoint of all three characters, so she divides the movie into three different chapters in which each character is basically the lead of their own chapter. Yes, that does give us an insight into all three of the family members we might not have otherwise had, but it is a little bit of a misstep; we spend the movie going over the same events through the points of view of three different characters and although everyone’s viewpoint is different, it still feels like we’re watching a rerun to a certain extent. I’m not sure how she could have handled it differently to achieve the same aim; I just know that this didn’t work as well as I think she intended.

Still, that doesn’t detract from what is a powerful and essential movie, for sure one that you won’t want to miss. Not only does it give us an insight into the refugee problem, it gives us insight into family dynamics that is different than what we’re used to. I can’t praise this movie enough.

REASONS TO SEE: There is an authenticity here that’s hard to achieve. The music is amazing. Strong performances top to bottom.
REASONS TO AVOID: The Rashomon effect gives us a sense like we’re watching the same movie over and over and over again – because we are.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The United States hosts more international migrants than any other country on Earth, about 19% of the total world’s population.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First They Killed My Father
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan

Dear Santa (2020)


We need a little Christmas right this very minute.

(2020) Documentary (IFCDamion DiGrazia, Orlando Mendez, Andrew Wallace, Gail Branham. Directed by Dana Nachman

More than ever this year, we need Christmas. Many folks I know put their decorations up early, and for once I can’t blame them. It has been a year with a global pandemic, a contentious American election that showed just how deeply divided this country is, of mistrust sowed for institutions once thought to be solid and sound, and overall of anger, vitriol and cruelty expressed online. We could all use a break.

One of the institutions that has taken a beating this year has been the United States Post Office as what was once a trusted, apolitical institution became deeply politicized. It is therefore mete that we also look at something the USPS got right: Operation Santa. This effort, started back in 1912, began as postal workers started opening letters to Santa and gradually grew. Efforts were made to help children get the presents they wanted. It has expanded massively until this year, when for the first time ever – due to the pandemic – it has become available everywhere in the United States.

Volunteer elves help Santa by opening letters of children, and seeing which children can be given the Christmas gift of their dreams. Oftentimes, folks like you and I are able to adopt entire families, making their Christmas day bright and joyful. The stories are often poignant, such as an older sister who wants nothing for herself but wants to get a puppy for her siblings, or the volunteer elf who had thought not to participate last year because he was burned out suddenly yanked back in by a letter from a child who only wanted to be able to accept that he was gay. Some of the letters are pure commercial greed, but many will tug at your heartstrings and make your cheeks a little moist and not from the eggnog you spilled, either.

You might think that a film like this might cause a reduction in belief of Santa Claus, but that isn’t the case; the way the film is constructed all those who believe will not be dissuaded. It’s important that the belief not be tampered with; it is, after all, a particularly precious part of childhood and in a year in which childhood innocence has taken some body blows, it is particularly important that we respect that now.

The final reel of Dear Santa may be the best moments you spend watching a movie this year; in fact, it might be the best moments you spend this year period. There’s no doubt that all of us – without exception, regardless of political affiliation – need something good, something inspirational after a year that has been anything but. It is wonderful to see people like these elves care enough to do something completely selfless. Yes, the film is chock full of adorable kids saying adorable things, but this is one of those rare instances in which the adults actually steal the show from the kids. Each one of those volunteer elves deserves admiration.

I hope everyone gets to see this movie. Heaven knows we all need it. If it moves you to join in and adopt a letter yourself, the web address is posted at the end of the film, or if you don’t want to wait you can click here and find out more information about Operation Santa.

Most documentaries are geared towards bringing our attention to issues and problems from climate change to the opioid crisis to rape culture to cultural genocide to corruption in the highest corridors of power, and well they should – we need to be informed. It is therefore rare that a documentary can leave you feeling good, and energized and proud to be a human being. This one does all that.

REASONS TO SEE: Does the soul a world of good to see people who still care for others. Occasionally inspirational, occasionally heartbreaking.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little heavy on the talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Children first started writing letters to Santa more than 150 years ago.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/5/2020: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews; Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tree Man
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Truth is the Only Client

Hearts and Bones (2019)


Getting the shot.

(2019) Drama (Gravitas) Hugo Weaving, Andrew Luri, Hayley McElhinney, Bolude Watson, Alan Dukes, Melanie De Ferranti, Toni Scanlan, Brandon Burke, Victoria Haralabidou, Fran Kelly, Karim Zreika, Michael Kotsohilis, Jamie Oxenbould, Danielle King, Antonia Puglisi, Aker Shagouk, Jack Scott, Lucy Doherty Nico Lathouris, Simon Melki, Teresa Zaidan, Ava Carofylis. Directed by Ben Lawrence

 

We live in times in which great horrors are visited upon the innocent. In places like South Sudan, Syria, Rwanda, Bosnia, Palestine, Venezuela, and elsewhere, civilians are caught in the crossfire of warring factions. It has gotten to the point where we no longer call photojournalists covering these atrocities “combat photographers” but “conflict photographers” because it is no longer a war, but something worse.

Dan Fisher (Weaving) is a much-admired “conflict photographer” who has been to every trouble spot around the globe in his distinguished career. After returning home to Sydney following a harrowing experience when he came upon the aftermath of an ambush, he is hanging on by a fingernail. He suffers from terrible nightmares; he has been away from home so much that he has resorted to putting a post-it note on his bedside lamp so that he knows where he is when he wakes up. On top of this, he found out that his partner Josie Avril (McElhinney) is pregnant. This does not go over well, as is explained later in the film. Dan is preparing to publish a book of his photographs, and an exhibition of his work is being presented by a local museum.

Through this he meets Sebastian (Luri), a cab driver from the South Sudan who has moved to Sydney with his wife Anishka (Watson) and infant daughter, with another baby on the way. Sebastian has come to view some photographs of a South Sudanese village where he once lived and where his family was butchered when the whole village was massacred.

Sebastian is asking for a lot; he wants to view the pictures, and then have them neither published nor exhibited. One can imagine the reasons for it; those photographs would bring up memories that would be painful. Sebastian also wants Dan to photograph the choir that he is a member of, the type of work that Dan doesn’t do.  But Sebastian has come at a bad time; Dan is in the midst of a panic attack and faints dead away. Sebastian picks him up and takes him to the hospital in his cab.

An unlikely friendship develops between the two men, who both harbor destructive secrets. Those secrets are threatening to tear both men apart, and destroy their lives and relationships. Maybe, though, they can help each other through the minefields of their past and find a future worth living in.

 

This Australian film has been the recipient of all sorts of honors back home, and is only just now making its way here. The movie tackles a lot of themes; how PTSD can occur in not just those who fight in a conflict, but the observers and recorders of it as well, and the difficulties faced by refugees trying to put together shattered lives, often in an environment is hostile to their even being there.

Weaving, the veteran actor best known in the U.S. for his work in high-profile franchises like the Matrix trilogy, the Lord of the Rings saga and the MCU, turns in one of the finest performances of his career, and that’s saying something. Dan is basically a good man haunted by all kinds of demons, some of which we get to see and others that remain hidden in the depths of his soul. Weaving gives Dan a kind of tortured dignity, never overplaying even when Dan is losing control of his emotional calm. It’s a brilliant and ultimately humane performance.

=Luri is a real find. A non-professional, he handles an emotionally wrenching role with the aplomb and confidence of a veteran, and gives a performance that rivals that of Weaving. Both men have excellent chemistry together, and for their characters, it is their wounds that bind them, which plays out in a fascinating way.

The movie is brutal at times on an emotional level; we are dealing with the kinds of pain in all four of the leads that are almost too much to bear, and yet people everywhere somehow manage to survive it, although not always. This is the kind of movie that has nothing subtle about it which is a double-sided shillelagh, The in-your-face nature of the emotional conflict means the viewer must confront that emotion head-on, which isn’t always easy for everyone. Those who have trauma of their own that they are dealing with may find this especially difficult.

Nonetheless, this is one of the finer movies of this peculiar cinematic year. Great acting, a mesmerizing story and earnest motives by the filmmaker make this a movie you won’t soon forget.

REASONS TO SEE: Weaving and Luri turn in career-defining performances. Brutal on an emotional level. Effective throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: More of a blunt instrument than a surgical scalpel.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, brief violence, adult themes and sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Luri hadn’t acted before this film; when he was cast, he was working as a garbage collector.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harrison’s Flowers
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The August Virgin

The Estate


Dirty deeds done very expensively.

(2020) Comedy (Stone LaneChristopher Charles Baker, Eliza Coupe, Greg Finley, Heather Matarazzo, Eric Roberts, Lala Kent, Allan Graf, Ezra Buzzington, Alexandra Paul, Cohen Prescott, Kyle Rezzarday, Aubyn Philabaum. Directed by James Kapner

 

It is said that the very rich aren’t like thee and me. Their outlook is much different and their moral compass always points towards where the money is. We like to think that they didn’t get rich by being nice; sometimes, those stereotypes aren’t far from the mark.

George (Baker) is the very gay son of Marcello (Roberts), a very rich man. He and his dad’s latest trophy wife Lux (Coupe) have been exiled to one of Marcello’s L.A. mansions on what they both consider a pittance of an allowance, enough money just to survive but not really enjoy their wealth. The two do a lot of commiserating about Marcello’s cruel penurious tactics.

At a dive bar where George is trying to pick up some random guy for sex (as is, to be fair, Lux), the two of them meet Joe (Finley). Joe claims to be a hitman living off the grid. The three of them hit it off and Joe offers to rid Lux and George of their mutual problem – Marcello. Of course, the problem is sex – both Lux and George find Joe very attractive and Joe swings both ways. The plan to take out daddy/hubby turns into a series of double and triple crosses as Joe turns out to be a whole lot smarter than either one of them thought.

This is meant to be a black comedy, and at times there is the sharp, biting humor that you would expect from one of those. Unfortunately, a lot of the humor is of the sit-com variety, kind of safe and not quite as outrageous as the filmmakers seem to think it is. Still, there are plenty of twists and turns and the kind of plotline that will make even the most jaded pessimist roll their eyes with delight.

The performances here are strong across the board, particularly from the esteemed veteran Eric Roberts who once again seems to be having more fun than just about anyone else in the film. Sadly, he’s not in the movie nearly as much as I might have liked but that’s a necessity of the plot. Not all that long ago, he would have been perfect for the role of Joe.

My biggest issue with the movie is that it tends to reinforce negative gay man stereotypes; the cattiness, the promiscuousness, the shallowness; while I’ve no doubt that there are gay men who fit that stereotype (it had to come from somewhere, after all), it doesn’t do the movement any favors to portray them this way. I don’t know if it is my liberal conscience being triggered, but I had less of an issue with the rich being portrayed as grasping, greedy and amoral. All in all, I think the film would have benefitted with fewer stereotypes.

I saw this movie while it was playing the Newport Beach Virtual Film Festival and the film is still making its way around the festival circuit. It’s likely to get picked up by an indie distributor and end up on VOD in the not too distant future, so keep an eye out for it then.

REASONS TO SEE: Eric Roberts gives it the old college try.
REASONS TO AVOID: Reinforces negative gay stereotypes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexual situations and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film as a director for Kapner.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eat the Rich
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Hearts and Bones

Girl (2020)


Axe her no questions…

(2020) Thriller (Screen MediaBella Thorne, Mickey Rourke, Chad Faust, Lanette Ware, Glen Gould, Elizabeth Saunders, Michael Lipka, Tia Lavallee, Paolo Mancini, John Clifford Talbot, Rasneet Kaur, Emma-Leigh Cullum. Directed by Chad Faust

 

There’s a famous saying that when you go out for revenge, first dig two graves. That is particularly true when your vengeance is aimed at a blood elative.

This Bella Thorne-starring vehicle by Chad Faust seems to be intentionally vague. The characters are not given names – Thorne, in the lead, is only known as Girl – which seems to be fitting given the lack of depth in developing the story, which is a bit strange because it seems like a good deal of the dialogue is spent on exposition, which makes it feel like the characters are explaining things to us.

And we need the explanation. Girl heads back to the Pacific Northwestern town she was born in, but left along with her Mama (Saunders) after her abusive father (Talbot) kicked them both to the curb – in Mama’s case, quite literally, as a vicious beating left her with severe back injuries that have rendered her barely able to walk. Dear old dad has failed to provide any child support over the years and Mama, who desperately needs the money, has written him requesting that he pay his share.

Dad has written back, apparently telling Mama where to stick her child support but also proclaiming a desire to kill both mother and daughter. So Bella is on her way to Golden, a town that has seen prosperity pass it by, to do unto Daddy before he does unto her.

Except that someone has beaten her to it. Her father has been viciously beaten to death. You would think that Girl, given that her dirty work has been done for her, would turn around and head back home, but she is curious and angry; who would rob her of her vengeance? What was her dad mixed up in that led to such a brutal end?

As with many small towns in the Pacific Northwest (at least as Hollywood paints it), oddball characters of varying degrees of sinisterness walk the streets. There’s the aptly named Charmer (Faust), a flirtatious sort who meets Girl in a laundromat; there’s the hooker with a heart of gold (Ware), the bartender who may or may not be helpful (Gould) and of course, the town sheriff (Rourke) who just upon sight looks like the sort of guy you’d not want to go to when you need help. And your first impressions would be correct.

Faust seems to be going for a kind of Southern gothic vibe set in the Pacific Northwest – think of it as Twin Peaks had it been written by Shirley Jackson (and if that combination appeals to you, you’re my kind of people). Faust casts the movie well and in particular the title role. Thorne, who cut her teeth on Disney Channel family fare, has long since moved into adult roles, but this is by far her most compelling performance, not unlike that of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone. She captures the barely suppressed rage of the character, while expressing a kind of dangerous side like a coiled rattlesnake (Girl is handy with an ax, as it turns out). Thorne is particularly outstanding in her scenes with Rourke and Saunders at the end of the film.

Other than the climax which is well-done, the movie devolves into standard thriller clichés in the last half. Worse still, the film score is intrusive and more than a little obnoxious; if ever a score sabotaged its film, it is this one.

There’s a lot going for the film, mainly in the performances and particularly Bella Thorne’s. Faust, who also wrote the film, needs to work on his dialogue a bit and focus on developing his ideas, which are strong but he doesn’t seem to trust them and ends up taking the easy way out. Still, this is fairly strong B-Movie fare and if you like yourself a good revenge film, this might be what you’re looking for.

REASONS TO SEE: Thorne gives a career-changing performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The score is obnoxious and intrusive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some violence and an attempted rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth film Thorne has appeared in so far this year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ravage
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
To Your Last Death

Team Marco


If you can’t see the forest for the VR, you’re missing out on life.

(2020) Family (GoldwynOwen Vaccaro, Anthony Patellis, Thomas Kopache, Anastasia Ganias, Louis Cancelmi, Greg Rikaart, Jacob Laval, Antoinette LaVecchia, Kevin Interdonato, Caitlin Hammond, Jake Katzman, Skyler Lipkin, Joseph Callari, Ethan Coskay, Raymond Sammak, Precious Pia, Andrew Annicharico, Bobby Guarino, Candice Guardino, Noa Lev-Ari.  Directed by Julio Vincent Gambuto

 

Hollywood has a habit of looking at the very old and the very young with nearly equal disdain; senior citizens are technology-averse, doddering and full of aphorisms that pass for wisdom in a world geared towards neat little soundbites; the very young are technology-obsessed, attached to their smartphones, tablets and gaming consoles like they have superglue on them. How do these disparate generations possibly communicate?

Marco (Vaccaro) is a soon-to-be 12-year-old boy whose mother (Ganias) is a nurse in Staten Island, and whose father (Cancelmi) is a videogame designer living on the West Coast. Yes, they’re divorced. Marco has been promised by his dad that if he gets to level 100 on his dad’s latest videogame, that he will fly Marco out to a prestigious videogame convention where Marco will be surrounded by the latest and the greatest – a 12-year-old gamer’s idea of heaven.

Throwing a monkey wrench into all this is Marco’s grandfather, Nonno (Patellis), an irascible old man mourning the loss of his wife and forced to live with his daughter and grandson in a house too small as it is. Nonno sees Marco as almost a shut-in with no friends, no exercise, and no life to speak of other than the fantasy life he leads online. Marco’s anxieties have translated into germ phobia and imagined food allergies which Mom tolerates, but doesn’t actively discourage. Marco regards his grandfather with all the warmth and acceptance that he would a case of chicken pox.

Wise old grandpa sees that an intervention must be made, and he confiscates all of Marco’s electronics with the promise that he can get them all back if he can put together a team of young boys to play bocce ball against his grandfather’s team – and Nonno happens to be a bocce ball champion. It’s a tall order, but if Marco wants to get to that convention, he’ll have to take the plunge.

Generation gap movies can be amusing – very often it’s hard to believe that differing generations are even the same species as ourselves – but they are, generally speaking, not terribly clever, particularly those meant for family viewing. For whatever reason, Hollywood has always felt that the way to find common ground between generations is to dumb things down as much as possible, and that is certainly somewhat true here. The screenplay is predictable, and while there are some moments that genuinely made me misty-eyed, it felt like there was a great deal of lost opportunity here.

We have a man in mourning for his wife of many years; we have a child so eager to impress his father who lives on the other side of the country that he’s willing to do almost anything, not realizing that his father shouldn’t be making spending time with him conditional on whether he plays the game he designed or not. That feels wrong from a parental point of view and in fact there are a lot of parental don’ts in the mix here. I can imagine that a lot of Italian-Americans might end up objecting to the portrayal of the grandfather as being a bit too stereotypical. The accent has all the flavor of Chef Boy-ar-dee.

Vaccaro is a pretty good young actor, but he plays the kind of kid (at least, in the first half of the film) that would make Mother Teresa reach for the leather belt. While he (and we) learn more about bocce than any of us probably ever wanted to know, Marco at least matures a little bit but for many, it will be too little, too late. Perhaps it’s because my son is a gamer that I have little patience for the whole “Gaming is everything” mentality that Marco has; it hits a bit too close to home, so take that aspect with a grain of salt. Still, early on in the movie I wanted nothing more than to put every electronic device I own into a landfill, and I’m quite sure that wasn’t the effect the filmmakers were going for.

As family entertainment goes, it does the job adequately, but only just. There are a ton of much better family films out there to be shared with multiple generations and as the holidays approach with the prospect of sharing close quarters with grandparents and grandkids, there is no doubt that you can do much better than this.

REASONS TO SEE: Some genuinely heartwarming moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses itself in generation gap cliches.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vaccaro was 13 when filming took place.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Samuel Project
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Girl

In Silico


It’s the mind that matters.

(2020) Documentary (SandboxHenry Markram, Noah Hutton, Christof Koch, Eilif Muller, Lori Bargmann, Jeff Lichtman, Terrence Sejnowski, Anna Churchland, Kamila Markram, Kathryn Hess, Felix Schulman, Moritz Holmstaedter, David Engleman, Stephen Larson, Richard Walker, Martin Telefont, Sebastian Seung, Marc-Oliver Gewaltig, Thierry van der Pyl, Lida Kanari,. Directed by Noah Hutton

Scientific discovery is inexact. It doesn’t operate on schedules. It doesn’t adhere to timetables. It takes detours and follows tangents. It never, EVER, goes the way we think it’s going to go, even if we’re the finest scientific mind of our generation.

Henry Markram isn’t the finest scientific mind of his generation, but he’s certainly one of them. Nobody disputes his genius. At a TED talk, he talked about how using a supercomputer, he has begun not only mapping a brain – the most mysterious and complex of human organs – but replicating one, and while starting with a mouse brain, he felt that computers and scientific data about brain function will have given him the ability to do so with a human brain within ten years.

In the audience was a young man named Noah Hutton, freshly graduated from film school. He instantly recognized that this could be a discovery of historic proportion and he meant to be the one documenting the research. Markram agreed to it and with IBM and the Swiss government providing funding to the tune of millions of Euros, Markram was off to the races with some like-minded scientists along to help make this grand plan a reality.

Markram is certainly a charismatic sort and Hutton certainly fell under his spell, but over the years some cracks began to appear in the façade. As work continued on what was dubbed the Blue Brain Project, a second study was commissioned which Markram would oversee – the Human Brain project and it was given a funding kitty of a billion Euros. Soon, it became clear that Markram’s leadership in this second project had become chaotic. Eventually, in protest, some 800 neuroscientists signed a letter stating objections to the goals, methods and style of Markram’s stewardship. Eventually, even Hutton became disillusioned, realizing that Markram had been overly ambitious with his claims. Many neuroscientists had, from the beginning, expressed doubt that there was enough data in existence to allow even the most advanced supercomputer or brilliant scientist to create an accurate model.

It wasn’t long before things went to open warfare between those backing Markram and those opposing him. Early successes hadn’t proved sustainable; it became clear that Markram couldn’t make his self-imposed 2019 deadline.

Hutton’s documentary is a fascinating document not so much on the science which probably requires an advanced degree in neuroscience and computer engineering to understand but on the interpersonal relationships that form, and are fractured in the course of a project. Much of the pressures that Markram is under are self-imposed; one wonders how differently things might have turned out had he not set a date for when his discovery would be completed.

Brilliance is often accompanied by ego, and that’s the case here. There are plenty of scientists who are interviewed here who express their doubts and/or their admiration of Markram, but at the end of the day, we see a lack of hubris which certainly those who mistrust scientists can point to as a reason why. The work continues on what is a promising idea, but now they’re talking in term of multiple decades rather than a single ten year span. Time will tell if they’re right.

The film made its world premiere at the DOC NYC festival this week and is still available through tomorrow online for those residing in the United States who wish to purchase a single viewing ticket at the link below; otherwise, a limited and VOD release is planned although no dates have been announced just yet.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating look at the politics of science.
REASONS TO AVOID: Content can be very highbrow and dry.
FAMILY VALUES: Although the tone may be a little bit above the heads of most youngsters, the content is suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The human brain has always been studied in one of two ways; In Vivo (in a living subject) ,or in vitro (brain tissue studied in a nutrient solution from a non-living donor). The Blue Brain Project proposed to discover a third method; in silico, or on a computer model.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DOC NYC Virtual Festival
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Human
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Kaali Khuhi