Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters


Who ya gonna call?

(2021) Documentary (Screen Media) Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ivan Reitman, Ernie Hudson, Ray Parker Jr., William Atherton, Sigourney Weaver, Richard Edlund, Michael C. Gross, Sheldon Kahn, Steven Ziff, Colin J. Campbell, Steve Johnson, Peter Bernstein, Steven Tash, Alice Drummond, John Rothman, Annie Potts, Richard Beggs, Allen Coulter, Jennifer Runyon. Directed by Anthony Bueno

 

There is no doubt that Ghostbusters is an iconic movie. There are many who count it as an unexpected hit back in 1984, but I don’t recall anyone expecting anything other than box office coffers being filled to the brim, given its cast and subject matter. That it would go on to be one of the biggest grossing films of the year, beating some pretty sure things in the final numbers, was a bit surprising though.

Now, with a new entry in the franchise featuring members of the original cast and directed by Jason Reitman, son of the original director Ivan Reitman, it seems like a good time to look back at the original and there’s no better way – other than by watching the movie itself, of course – than this exhaustive documentary, which is probably as complete a record of the film as you’re likely to find anywhere.

It’s chock full of interviews – some contemporaneous with the film, others newly recorded – and includes many of the original cast members (Aykroyd, Weaver, Atherton, Potts, Drummond and recorded before his untimely death in 2014, Ramis). There are also plenty of anecdotes, much behind-the-scenes footage and even some deleted scenes from the movie. Most people will learn something new about Ghostbusters, even some of the most well-versed fans. Did you know, for example, that Aykroyd originally wrote the role of Peter Venkmann  for his good friend John Belushi who sadly passed away shortly after the script was completed? Or that Eddie Murphy was going to be Winston Zeddmore? Or that John Candy wanted the role of Louis Tully but his agent basically talked his way out of the part?

Filming took only a year from the time the film was greenlit, which considering that the movie had some very complex special effects and massive sets to deal with was virtually an impossible from the get-go. In an era in which digital effects were barely in their infancy, the crew was looking at doing practical and optical effects to make the movie work, and they would have to use some pretty creative solutions to make those effects truly special indeed.

The movie is about two hours long, which may be a bit more than the average fan would bargain for but for the superfans of the film it will feel like it could go longer. There are a lot of talking head interviews which are unexciting, and the how-to on the effects may be a bit more than you might want to know, but for those who really loved the movie (and love it still), this will be absolute catnip. Even casual fans of the film are likely to find something here of interest.

REASONS TO SEE: Extremely detailed with plenty of anecdotes.
REASONS TO AVOID: There’s a lot here to unpack, maybe too much, and there is a surfeit of talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aykroyd was inspired by his great-grandfather, who was an amateur spiritualist and paranormal researcher.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Crackle, DirecTV,  Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Movies That Made Us
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
La Casa de Mama Icha

Cry Macho


The lion in winter.

(2021) Drama (Warner Brothers) Clint Eastwood, Dwight Yoakam, Eduardo Minnett, Natalia Traven, Horacio Garcia Rojas, Fernanda Urrejola, Brytnee Ratledge, Paul Alayo, Daniel V. Graulau, Alexandra Ruddy, Ivan Hernandez, Lincoln A. Castellanos, Marco Rodriguez, Jorge-Luis Pallo, Rocko Reyes, Abiah Martinez, Ramona Thornton, Elida Munoz, Cesia Isabel Rosales, Ana Rey. Directed by Clint Eastwood

 

There’s no doubt that Clint Eastwood is a national treasure. Seventy years (!) into his career in Hollywood and ninety-one years of life aside, he has consistently made movies as an actor and a director that contribute to the cultural identity of the United States – even when he was making spaghetti westerns.

His latest feature – the 39th he’s directed and a number too high to count that he’s acted in – sees him as Mike Milo, a former rodeo star who had to retire due to a back injury. He’s been a horse trainer ever since. As the movie begins, he’s being fired by his longtime boss, Howard (Yoakam). Too much booze, too much age have both caught up with Mike. However, he isn’t unemployed long when Mike comes back, asking Mike to do something else for him – to go to Mexico and fetch his boy, whom he has not had much contact with, from his abusive mother and bring him back to Texas to live with his dad.

Seems simple enough, so Mike gets into his battered truck, pulls on his cowboy hat, turns on some twangin’ tunes and heads for the border. It’s 1980, so it’s still morning in America and the hordes of rapists and murderers haven’t started knocking on our doors quite yet. When Mike arrives in Mexico City, he discovers that the boy – Rafo (Minnett) has run away from home and his mom it turns out is a crime boss, something ol’ Howard neglected to mention (he also neglected to mention that he has ulterior motives in wanting his son back, but that will wait for a later reveal). The kid is on the mean streets making his way by his wits and by entering his pet rooster Macho in cockfights and apparently winning – there are two places in a cockfight, y’know: winner, and arroz con pollo.

The kids is intrigued by the notion of starting a new life with a father he’s never met – which makes him a damn sight better than I might be in those circumstances – so off they go, back to the U.S. of A. However, Mamacita (Urrejola) has sent some goons to get her son back. Mike and Rafo end up hiding out at the ranch of Marta (Traven) who lives in  the Mexican equivalent of BFE. There, she and Mike bond, Mike and Rafo bond and the kid comes closer to learning that toxic masculinity isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, and that 91 isn’t too late to be a chick magnet.

This isn’t Eastwood’s best work by a country mile, nor did anyone really expect it to be. The bar is generally set high for his work and he usually delivers and that’s why even his lesser works are often more worthwhile than the best work of lesser directors. Every movie he makes feels like some kind of farewell; some are saying this might be his last movie, but I’ve been hearing that back since Gran Torino (and yes, I was one of those saying it) so I’ve learned never to bet that the prolific Eastwood has hung up his director’s spurs.

Eastwood, national treasure that he is, dominates the screen even if he’s long in the tooth for this kind of role. You have to feel for young Minnett who spends the most time onscreen with him; he’s a young actor not equal to the task, which is to say that even much more experienced actors would not be equal to the task. Eastwood is a legitimate movie star from an era when that meant something, and he is going to overwhelm just about anyone he’s paired with.

This isn’t the best-written film Eastwood has ever directed, unfortunately. Many of the plot points are cliches, and feel like their in there for their own sake rather than in serving the story. That’s not to say that there aren’t some really memorable moments here; there’s a scene in which Eastwood talks about his wife and son and as he does, a tear slowly rolls down his cheek. I can’t imagine anyone not being moved by that moment and I wish the movie had more of them.

Alas, no. This is more a movie in which Eastwood acts like a sensei to a young student who is at a point in his life where he can either lead a good life or make some can’t-come-back-from-those types of mistakes. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself – older men mentoring young boys have made some great movies over the years, from Karate Kid on down. It’s just this one feels particularly flat. That’s a shame, because there’s a lot to be said on the subject of toxic masculinity.

In the end, it’s still an Eastwood movie and there’s something valuable to be gleaned from that. However, this won’t be remembered as one of his finest works. In fact, it will likely be well down his list when ranked from best to worst. That, as I said, doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile viewing.

REASONS TO SEE: Even on work that isn’t his best Eastwood remains a solid reason to see a movie.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the plot points feel a bit forced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as adult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the first Eastwood-directed film since 2010 (Hereafter) that isn’t based on or inspired by a true story.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (through October 17)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/7/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews; Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Night in Old Mexico
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Wife of a Spy

Azor


Banking on Argentina.

(2021) Drama (MUBI) Fabrizio Rongione, Stéphanie Cléau, Elli Medeiros, Alexandre Trocki, Pablo Torre Nilson, Juan Pablo Geretto, Gilles Privat, Carmen Iriondo, Yvain Julliard, Juan Trench. Directed by Andreas Fontana

 

The veneer of gentility is often thin indeed, particularly in an atmosphere dominated by uncertainty and fear. In Argentina as the 20th century turned into its eighth decade, a brutal military junta had begun a period of repression in which thousands disappeared. Not all of these were from the poor classes; anyone who expressed disagreement with the regime might find themselves gone, even those from the aristocracy.

Swiss banker Yvan de Wiel (Rongione) has arrived in Buenos Aires along with his sophisticated wife Ines (Cléau). He’s a third-generation partner in a Swiss private bank – one only open to the super rich. They are there to reassure their clients that all is well after his partner Rene Keys disappears. Yvan travels from board rooms to opulent gardens, from oak-paneled studies to modern offices, meeting with Argentina’s elite.

Conversations rotate around small talk, rarely lingering long on Argentina’s political situation. People are disappearing and there is palpable fear underneath the genteel world of cocktails, formal dresses, palatial homes and luxury cars. As Yvan quietly investigates the disappearance of his more passionate partner (Yvan is low-key to the point of stupor), he comes more and more into the orbit of those near the junta who are behind the repression and brutality. Especially threatening is the Monsignor Tatosky (Nilson), who purrs “Parasites must be eradicated, even from the best families.” It chills one to the bone.

This is not the kind of movie that has a machine-gun pace; it’s a slow burn, so much so that the viewer might get a chill from time to time. Fontana keeps the tension high without resorting to anything overt; everything is done with subtle glances here, an oblique camera angle there, a pregnant silence over there. In fact, I don’t thin there are many films that have utilized silence as well as this one does; it is the things unsaid in this film that matter almost more than the things that are said.

He gets stellar performances from his two leads who are perfectly cast; Cléau eggs her husband on much like Lady Macbeth, only more cultured and urbane, picking out his suit so as to impress but not outshine. She advises him on matters of decorum and is anything but a conscience; more like a cattle prod, in that regard, urging him to do whatever is necessary to maintain the couple’s status and privilege. “Your father was right; your weakness makes you mediocre,” she observes at one point. It is her way of motivating him, because Yvan is just filled up with self-doubt enough not to trust in his own competence.

In some publications, there are comparisons for the final act with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and there is certainly some justification for that. It involves a river journey that…well, I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say is the heart of this film’s darkness. This is a movie chilling in ways that horror films are not, nor can they be. This is the banality of evil, on display in the latest Armani suits.

REASONS TO SEE: Elevates the tension nicely under the thin veneer of gentility. Fine performances throughout the ensemble cast. Captures a period in Argentine history not well-chronicled in the States.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too slow of a burn for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fontana’s grandfather was a Swiss private banker; the film is loosely inspired by his experiences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Missing
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
I Love Us

Dead Air (2021)


Breaker! Breaker!

(2021) Thriller (FreestyleKevin Hicks, Vickie Hicks, Chris Xavier, Luca Iacovetti, Madison Skodzinsky, Mackenzie Skodzinsky, Ryan C. Mitchell, Mark Skodzinsky.  Directed by Kevin Hicks

 

What happens to the voices that go out over the airwaves? Do they just fade and dissipate into the ether, or do they carry forever, bouncing around the cosmos, giving a kind of immortality to those who have used HAM radios or broadcast radios? Makes you think.

William (K. Hicks) has known his share of tragedy. His father (Mitchell) died when he was young; his wife passed away from leukemia not long ago, leaving him with two teen daughters (the Skodzinsky sisters) to raise by himself. His mother has also recently passed, and left him a pile of boxes of old junk to sift through. In one box, he finds his dad’s old HAM radio apparatus. On a whim, he decides to give it a whirl.

To his surprise, he makes contact with Eva (V. Hicks), a lonely woman with a touch of paranoia and more than a touch of agoraphobia. She lives in what appears to be a bunker-like basement, and spends most of her day chatting on the radio. The two strike up a friendship despite some wariness on Eva’s part brought on by William’s cheerful curiosity.

But William has some issues of his own, mostly dealing with some traumatic repressed memories. He’s seeing a psychiatrist (Xavier) who is pushing for hypnotherapy which William is resistant to. But as he finds opening up to Eva is emboldening him, he agrees to be hypnotized and what he discovers about his past, and it’s connection to Eva, will change his life forever.

This microbudget indie thriller is billed as a horror movie, but it really isn’t. There are some supernatural elements, yes, but nothing really scary as such. Vickie Hicks wrote this and Kevin directed it; both elected to star in it, giving it a kind of home movie “let’s put on a show!” vibe, but their enthusiasm doesn’t translate to the screen. The acting is largely stiff and low-energy and the dialogue doesn’t help matters.

Thrillers almost demand twists and there are a few here, but by and large they’re fairly predictable, particularly if you’ve seen the trailer which I don’t recommend that you do if you’re going to watch this; the experience will be much better if you go in without any idea of what’s going on. While Kevin Hicks does a pretty decent job of building up suspense, he loses marks because much of the movie’s payoff is telegraphed in advance. This is the kind of movie that you watch once, and forget quickly.

REASONS TO SEE: Does a decent job of establishing a suspenseful aura.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting and dialogue are both subpar.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Melder.“ from the HAM radio handle that Eva uses, is German for “reports.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frequency
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Happy Times

Tiger Within


The eye (and teeth) of the tiger.

(2020) Drama (Film ArtEdward Asner, Margot Josefsohn, Diego Josef, Taylor Nichols, Luke Eisner, Julie Dolan, Jade Weber, Joey Dedio, James C. Victor, Mikul Robins, Zachary Mooren, Frank Miranda, Csynbidium, Angelee Vera, Mark Dippolito, Sabastian Neudeck, Sam Thakur, Liam Fountain, Ryan Simantel, Jonathan Brooks, Linda Rich, Charee Devon, Erica Piccinnini. Directed by Rafal Zielinski

 

Once in awhile, you encounter a film that has its heart in the right place, but lacks the execution to pull off its intentions. That’s this Tiger to a “T”.

Casey (Josefsohn) is an angry 14-year-old girl from Ohio whose parents are divorced. She lives with her feckless mom (Piccinnini) in Ohio along with mom’s unsavory boyfriend (Brooks); she decides it’s time to head to L.A. to be with her Dad (Victor) except that he has a new family of his own and his shrewish wife wants no reminders of his old life anywhere near her daughters. Overhearing her stepmother’s tirade, she walks off and decides to make her own way in the City of Angels.

Easier said that done and she ends up sleeping in a cemetery, where she is discovered by Samuel (Asner), a Holocaust survivor leaving a stone on the memorial to his wife. Even though she has a swastika spray painted on her black leather jacket, he takes pity on her and buys her a meal, which leads to an offer for a place to stay. Casey has been brought up to believe that the Holocaust was a hoax and the swastika is largely for shock value, which in the early 80s (when this was apparently set – more on that later) might have worked but even at that point there were plenty of people utilizing Nazi symbology for shock value.

The two end up forging a bond that is surprisingly strong; she sees in him the parental guidance that she never had; he sees in her the child he never got to raise (his own offspring were killed in the camps during the war). Together, they turn out to be really good for each other.

The makings for a good movie are definitely here. Unfortunately, there are some script choices that tell me that writer Gina Wendkos doesn’t trust her own story; for example, she tacks on an unnecessary and pointless romance for Casey – after we’ve seen her employed as a sex worker (!) in Hollywood. There is also precious little character development and the story often relies on predictable tropes that give the viewers death by cliché.

Asner can be a force of nature as an actor, but he has mellowed somewhat since his Emmy-winning days as Lou Grant. It might well be age, but he is far more subtle here. While I thought his German-Yiddish accent a little over-the-top, he does his best to dispense wisdom to a young woman who isn’t always receptive to it. On the other hand, there’s Josefsohn who has the thankless task of playing a belligerent punk chick with a chip on her shoulder and making her relatable. That Josefsohn pulls it off is impressive; that she holds her own with Asner is not only a testament to her talent but also a tribute to Asner’s generosity as an actor.

The film seems to be set in the early 80s, but there are a lot of anachronisms (all the cars are modern and the Los Angeles location looks contemporary. Making a period piece is a lot more than hitting the thrift store; you need to see to all sorts of details, otherwise the viewer is pulled out of the illusion. The problem is that if the film were set even a few years ago, for Samuel to be married with children in the concentration camps would put him well over the century mark in years. Still, considering Asner’s actual age, they could have set the film just after the millennium turned and it likely would have been acceptable.

The movie’s themes of forgiveness, family and education are certainly laudable, but the movie is really about the relationship between Samuel and Casey; the extra stuff is just padding and just cluttered up the story. If only the filmmakers trusted the story and the characters to be compelling, they might have made a compelling film. Instead, we get a well-intentioned miss.

REASONS TO SEE: Josefsohn has some real potential.
REASONS TO AVOID: A few lapses in logic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some sexuality – involving teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Asner was 90 when the movie was filmed: Josefsohn was 14.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Reader
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Wonder Woman 1984

Class Action Park


Throwing sanity for a loop.

(2020) Documentary (Perennial Media) Chris Gethard, John Hodgman (narrator), Jim DeSaye, Jessi Paladini, Ed Youmans, Bill Benneyan, Esther Larsson, Bob Krahulik, Mary Pilon, Mark Johnson, Faith Anderson, Andrew Mulvihill, Tom Shaw, Matthew Callan, Jimmy Kimmel, Brian Larsson, Daron Fitch, Seth Porges, Joe Hession, Mark Malkoff, Eugene Mulvihill, Alison Becker. Directed by Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III

Anyone ever tell you that truth is stranger than fiction? Well, here’s a documentary that’s living proof of that aphorism.

In the rolling hills of Vernon, New Jersey Wall Street penny stock trader Eugene Mulvihill, having been playing a bit fast and loose with SEC regulations in his day job, decided he wanted to build a water park near New York City. Water parks were pretty much new back then in the 80s, and Eugene found a property in the rolling hills of Vernon, New Jersey that was a ski resort. Ski resorts, however, only make money in the winter so he building a year-round theme park would be the ticket. He called his property Action Park.

“Uncle Gene,” as his staff generally called him, didn’t care much for regulations and had the deep pockets of a Wall Street crony to give him nearly limitless resources. He decided to build attractions that were one-of-a-kind and they certainly were that, like Cannonball Loop, a water slide with a loop in it. Gene preferred using non-professionals to design his rides – they were much cheaper than guys with engineering degrees – and the proof of how dangerous the ride was came when an inspection revealed human teeth embedded in the lining of the loop where people’s faces had slammed at high speeds into the top of the loop.

There were cliff diving recreations that had people jumping into a pool that people were swimming in. There was a wave pool with a “death zone” in which people would get swept under (and it became a literal death zone when a couple of people drowned in it). That’s right – people died going to this theme park, seven of ‘em in five years.

But back in the halcyon days of the 80s, parents really didn’t care where their kids were so long as they weren’t bothering them. So in the tri-state area, teens would go to Action Park to test their mettle against dangerous rides, like go-carts that could reach speeds of 50 MPH and came dangerously close to the beer tent – oh, and the legal drinking age was just a suggestion so far as Action Park was concerned.

Mulvihill had a largely teenage staff who weren’t terribly interested in enforcing safety regulations; most of them were too busy getting drunk, high or laid to properly supervise rides. Vinnies from the Shore and from the City would show up at Action Park looking to get blasted and come away with scars of honor. Even the medical shed was a house of horrors; scrapes were treated with a skeevy orange liquid that was so painful that anyone so treated with it who could stay within a painted circle on the ground without writhing in pain outside of it won a prize (which was an Action park pen more often than not).

The filmmakers tell the story through home video recovered from videotapes, old advertisements, talking head interviews (comedian Chris Gethard, a regular at the park in its heyday, is particularly amusing) and animated recreations.

At first, the documentary is hilarious as you can’t believe the bizarre ideas that Mulvihill allowed to be created at his park. But then the Larsson family tells their story and the tone shifts. George Larsson Jr. was a teen with a bright future ahead of him, but while screaming down the mountain at sick speeds on the Alpine Slide, the flimsily built sled he was riding saw its brakes fail and he went head-first into a rock. It turned out that the insurance policy that Mulvihill was carrying was a complete fraud, one he used to launder money out to the Caymans. And when fined, or sued, Mulvihill just refused to pay. It’s amazing he didn’t end up in jail, but he learned from Donald Trump – who was at one time considering investing in the Park – and his powerful connections kept him out of jail. His son, who inherited the park, was one of the talking heads interviewed for the film and while he remembers his father fondly, he also remembers him without sugar-coating.

Ultimately the park shut down as the 80s gave way to the 90s and parental supervision became a little stricter. I think most of those interviewed agree that something like Action Park could never happen again, but I wonder about that. Despite the lawsuit-happy culture we live in, deregulation seems to be something that the conservatives thoroughly endorse; it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that safety regulations for theme and water parks might be struck down just as environmental regulations have been.

This is a fascinating documentary that had me riveted from beginning to end. I lived on the opposite side of the country from Action Park, so thankfully I cut my teeth on theme and water parks that had a bit more consideration for safety. I suspect some remember the park fondly, but I’m reasonably sure that nobody would like to go back to it if they could.

REASONS TO SEE: Laugh-out-loud funny. Jaw-dropping in a “I can’t believe they got away with that” way. Captures the feeling of the Eighties very nicely. Lots of great clips.
REASONS TO AVOID: You might feel a little bit ashamed of yourself for laughing from time to time.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Johnny Knoxville based his movie Action Point on a short film Porges made on Action Park that preceded this full-length feature.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 69/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Action Point
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Behind the Lines: Escape to Dunkirk

Sputnik


A space oddity.

(2020) Sci-Fi Horror (IFC Midnight) Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondrachuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Anton Vasilev, Aleksey Demidov, Aleksandr Manushev, Albrecht Zander, Vitaliya Kornienko, Vasiliy Zotov, Anna Nazarova. Directed by Egor Abramenko

It is said that in space, nobody can hear you scream; in a Soviet-era research facility slash prison, everybody can hear you scream – they just pretend not to.

It’s 1983 and do you know where your cosmonauts are? It is the last gasp of the Cold War and a Soviet space mission has crash landed, leaving one cosmonaut dead and the other, Konstantin Veshnyakov (Fyodorov) with amnesia. He is brought to a forbidding research facility by Colonel Semiradov (Bondrachuk), a fatherly sort who seems genuinely interested in finding out what happened. To that end, he enlists disgraced psychologist Tatyana Klimova (Akinshina) who cured a young teen of his fears by holding his head underwater. That’s apparently too extreme even for the USSR, so she’s about to experience an abrupt career change when she’s approached by Semiradov to see if she can rescue the memories from the cosmonaut, a national hero.

But it turns out that the hero isn’t alone inside his body. He has an alien hitchhiker, translucent and almost jelly-like, able to fold itself into a much smaller space – say, a man’s esophagus – and come out at night to feed. And what does an alien parasite – or is that symbiote? – eat? Cortisol, the pheromone of fear. And then, he tears off the head of the victim and feeds more conventionally.

Tatyana is determined to suss out Konstantin’s secrets and is remarkably successful, in more ways than she can imagine – she begins to develop sympathy, and then maybe emotional attachment – to Veshnyakov. When it turns out that the government is interested in the little stowaway and has some pretty nasty plans for it, she knows she and Konstantin need to make a run for it, but where can they go that would be safe from the creature inside?

In a lot of ways this harkens back to the creature features of the late 70s and 80s, particularly Ridley Scott’s Alien and the other films (and there are many) that it inspired. The parasite/symbiote is no xenomorph, but it is virtually indestructible and very, very aggressive. Tatyana wants to get the creature out of Veshnyakov without killing him; she is the conscience. Veshnyakov is the id, where the monsters dwell. Semiradov, who comes off something like a Bond villain here, is the cold logic unencumbered by compassion. In a sense, he is as much a monster as the alien.

Abramenko has assembled a slick-looking film that takes good advantage of Soviet-era brutalist architecture and of the horror tropes of the era that the film is set in. It is a bit of a slow burn, but it does heat up until it gets to its preposterous yet nevertheless satisfying ending.

The creature design is off the chain; it’s scary as hell, completely alien but makes logical sense. Akinshina and Fyodorov do good work as the heroic leads, but it is Bondrachuk who really shines as the kindly-on-the-surface-but cruel-to-the-core Colonel, whose absolute loyalty to the state will ring a troubling chord for some who have seen this kind of obsession all too often these days.

This is another great horror film for 2020, a year that seems to be destined to be remembered as a horror film in and of itself. I had a few quibbles – the creature is introduced far too early, robbing it of some of its effectiveness, and the pacing is a little uneven and there are a few too many clichés at work, but overall, this is a stellar horror film that is bound to have you wishing for a brightly lit place to repair to immediately afterward.

REASONS TO SEE: Does a good job building the tension. The creature effects are solid. Spartan production puts emphasis on the story.
REASONS TO AVOID: Reveals the creature far too early.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence, gore and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the performance footage was originally filmed in black and white, but was restored to full color for use in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews, Metacritic: 61/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Apollo 18
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Hole in the Ground

Bumblebee


A girl and her bug.

(2018) Science Fiction (ParamountHailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Landeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux, Pamela Adlon, Jason Drucker, Megyn Price, Rachel Crowther, Grey Griffin, Gracie Dzienny, Peter Cullen (voice), Len Cariou, Marcella Bragio, Steve Blum, Vanessa Ross, Glynn Turman, Kirk Bailey, Jon Bailey, Kevin Kent, Michael Masini, Fred Dryer, Mika Kubo. Directed by Travis Knight

 

After a decade of Michael Bay’s sturm und drang Transformers movies comes a different take in the franchise’s first spin-off…or is it prequel? I guess either appellation works.

With the Decepticons having overrun the Autobots in their ongoing war (if you don’t know what that sentence signifies, you should probably go no further and look for something else to rent), Bumblebee is sent by Optimus Prime (Cullen) to Earth to protect the human race. Unfortunately, he’s tailed by a couple of Decepticon warriors who basically kick the gears out of him, disabling his vocal functions and leaving him nearly dead. He makes like a VW Bug to hide from the evil robots, who are looking hard for him so they can find out where the Autobots are hiding and destroy them once and for all.

But teen Charlie (Steinfeld), mourning her late father, takes a liking to the Bug when she spies him in a scrapyard and decides to rebuild him. You can imagine her surprise when he rebuilds himself. The trouble is that those evil Decepticons have managed to convince the American government that Bumblebee is a threat and the gov’mint sends out iron-jawed Agent Burns (Cena) to locate the wayward Autobot and take him down. All that stands between the human race and total annihilation is a badly damaged robot and a plucky teenage girl. How much more 1987 could you get?

Quite a bit, judging from the wonderful soundtrack here. Still, this is a refreshing tonal change for the series which had fallen into self-parody with the last movie, Transformers: The Last Knight. While the movie starts out with a Bay-esque scene of mayhem and massive robot carnage, the movie abruptly shifts gears and becomes something of a buddy movie. Steinfeld is a very talented actress and not many could pull off doing a buddy movie with a car, but she does it pretty well, playing the 80s tomboy despite not having been born until the following decade.

But it’s the mayhem that most people buy tickets to these movies for, and there’s plenty of that. Knight, who has mostly worked with stop-motion animation with Laika, has a good sense of how to stage an action set piece but also has a good sense of balance with character development and plot. He even manages to inject a little pathos and humor into the mix, something Bay wasn’t known for.

REASONS TO SEE: Excellent action sequences. Steinfeld gives an affecting performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: A fair number of clichés are present.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sci-fi action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steinfeld was born nine years after the movie was set, so she had to be taught how to use some of the props such as the Walkman.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Sling TV, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Hero 6
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Union Bridge

Ray & Liz


Liz is not someone that you want to cross.

(2018) Drama (Kimstim/1091) Ella Smith, Justin Salinger, Patrick Romer, Tony Way, Joshua Millard-Lloyd, Sam Gittins, Richard Ashton, James Eeles, James Hinton, Andrew Jefferson-Tierney, Deirdre Kelly, Michelle Bonnard, Jamie-Lee Beacher. Directed by Richard Billingham

 

It is very hard to look at our parents with any sort of objectivity. Often, we see them through rose-colored glasses as superhuman beings who can do no wrong, but more often we see them as absolute screw-ups who can do nothing right. We rarely see them as human beings.

Richard Billingham, an art photographer turned film director, has made his career by turning his lens on his family life. This movie is largely autobiographical, looking at his parents Liz (Smith) and Ray (Salinger), who live in Birmingham’s Black Country in Thatcher’s England. Ray is on the dole, having lost his job. The family gains additional income from taking in a lodger, Will (Gittins) in their dump of a home. Liz, deciding that young Rich needs shoes, troops off with him and Ray in tow to the shops, leaving the younger brother Jason in the care of Lol (Way), Ray’s brother who is developmentally challenged.

Liz – who apparently has had issues with Lol in the past – leaves with a stern warning not to get into the booze but when Will arrives home, he sees a golden opportunity and finds the liquor, bringing up a crate full from the cellar. He manages to get Lol drop dead drunk, then paints Jason’s face with boot polish and sticks a carving knife in his hand, then quickly leaves, returning to see the follow up which is a terrifying beating from Liz.

The neglect – leaving one’s child with a mentally challenged individual – proves to be a pattern as we follow the family as the boys age into their teenage years. The family now lives in “council housing” i.e. government subsidized apartments for us Yanks. Studious Richard has a chance to get out but young Jason (Millard-Lloyd) is getting involved with delinquent behavior. Ray has become a raging alcoholic, and Liz self-medicates, smoking like a chimney and doing jigsaw puzzles. After a terrifying night when Jason ends up spending a frigid night in a neighbor’s shed, the authorities are forced to step in.

The whole movie is framed with scenes of Ray in his later years (Romer), living in the bedroom of his council flat, the room infested with flies as Ray’s mate Sid (Ashton) delivering bottles of some sort of carbonated home brew. Ray continues to be deep in the clutches of alcoholism, but now he is utterly alone. He is separated from Liz, who comes around once in awhile to cadge money from him, but there is no love between them that’s apparent. The family has completely disintegrated.

There’s no way around it; this is a bleak film filled with unlovable characters trying to make do in an intolerable economic situation. Liz and Ray seem genial on the surface, but both are completely self-absorbed, caring only about having enough cigarettes, booze and whatever distractions they are into at the moment. Their kids barely get a second thought.

Billingham gives us endless close-ups of the flies in Ray’s room, of Ray’s aged and booze-ravaged face. He seems to take delight in showing Ray’s awful situation; one wonders if he is getting back at his parents for the neglect he clearly feels. I don’t doubt that Liz and Ray were far from ideal parents, but they don’t get a voice in this thing; it seems clear that they are both suffering from depression but that’s not the kind of thing that was diagnosed commonly 30 years ago, and it doesn’t feel like Billingham would have forgiven them for it in any case

Smith gives an unforgettable performance as Liz; she stands out in the cast. Salinger is kind of lost as the less assertive Ray, although the actor has had some impressive performances in his resume. Billingham, with a photographer’s eye, composes his shots artistically and the movie, as bleak as it is and as squalid as the settings often are, is a pleasure to watch from a purely technical point of view. Still, there is so much lingering on the flies and on the anger that one wonders if Billingham wouldn’t have benefited more from a therapist than from a feature film.

REASONS TO SEE: Ella Smith is an absolute force of nature.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many extraneous shots of flies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of profanity, some violence, plenty of smoking and drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Billingham is a photographer making his feature film directorial debut. His photographic essay Ray’s a Laugh is the basis for this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Kanopy
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 81/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sorry We Missed You
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Possession of Hannah Grace

White Boy Rick


Like father, like son.

(2018) True Crime Drama (ColumbiaMatthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane, Bryan Tyree Henry, Bruce Dern, Bel Powley, RJ Cyler, Jonathan Majors, Eddie Marsan, Taylour Paige, Piper Laurie, Raekwon Haynes, Ishmael “Ishdarr” Ali, James Howard, YG, Danny Brown, Kyanna Simone Simpson, Heidi Sulzman, Lauren Ashley Berry. Directed by Yann Demange

 

The crack epidemic of the 80s that led to the “Just Say No” program was tragic in nearly every sense. There were no real winners – and the biggest losers were those in the poorest communities. Entire cities fell victim to the crime wave that followed the crack. Cities like Detroit, for example.

Young Rick Wershe Jr. (Merritt) has been caught up in a bad crowd. It’s not really a wonder; his dad (McConaughey) sells guns illegally, and you can bet those weapons are not being stored in a glass case. They’re finding use in the criminal underworld. Rick’s best friend Boo (Cyler) has connections with the Curry crime family. Rick, nicknamed White Boy because he is the sole Caucasian amongst the people he hangs with, ends up being recruited by a couple of unscrupulous FBI agents (Leigh, Cochrane) to be an informant – the youngest in FBI history at age 14. As it turns out, this doesn’t turn out so well for Rick or the rest of his family.

Demange, a French director best known for ’71, has the perfect directorial temperament for the urban grit this story demands. He manages to get some strong performances out of McConaughey who plays a lowlife hustler whose life is a series of miscalculations, and Merritt, a fairly unknown actor whose broad Baltimore accent doesn’t distract (too much) from the film.

The movie has a fairly bleak outlook; Wershe spent more than 30 years behind bars for a non-violent drug offense while others with more violent offenses arrested near the same time were released earlier. Now, the film doesn’t mention that when he was arrested Wershe had eight kilos of cocaine in his possession, but even so the punishment seems a little excessive. He has since returned to jail for a separate offense.

This is definitely meant to be a cautionary tale and certainly Wershe was no angel and made some bad choices, although to be fair people who live in the kind of poverty and hopelessness that is part and parcel to living in neighborhoods like that generally have few alternatives. This movie is generally pretty well-made, but doesn’t illustrate that fact perhaps as clearly as it might have.

REASONS TO SEE: Demange sets a great sense of tension throughout. McConaughey gives another outstanding performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the bleak side.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a plethora of profanity, a ton of drug use and references, violence, sexual content and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film is set in Detroit, it was actually filmed in Cleveland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/20: Rotten Tomatoes:59% positive reviews: Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prince of the City
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Between Two Ferns: The Movie