Joe Bell


Some roads are harder than others.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton, Maxwell Jenkins, Gary Sinese, Morgan Lily, Blaine Maye, Igby Rigney, Coral Chambers, Scout Smith, David H. Stevens, Blake Barlow, Charles Halford, Jayne Luke, Juan Antonio, Kenadee Clark, Ash Santos, Cassie Beck, Christina Thurmond, Raquel Horton, Jason Cozmo, Christina Torriente. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

 

Humans tend to fear the different, and that is particularly true of white straight males, or at least, so it seems sometimes. In a conservative town like La Grange, Oregon, a town that prides itself on “American values,” bullying young gay teens seems to have been accepted as adhering to those values.

Joe Bell (Wahlberg) is embarking on a quest; he is walking from La Grange to New York City to put a spotlight on bullying. His son Jadin (Miller) was viciously bullied after coming out, with people leaving messages on his social media profile urging him to off himself. Nevertheless, Jadin became the only male on the cheerleading squad and seemed to be almost defiantly queer, but all was not well. His dad supported him only superficially, so long as his son didn’t embarrass him. Possessed of a hair-trigger temper, Joe often grew enraged over petty things, and at every opportunity he had to show support for his son, he turned away.

But when Jadin takes his own life, Joe is driven by grief (and perhaps guilt) to make his quest, talking up his message to whoever will listen, or at least that’s what he sets out to do. The brutal truth is that Joe isn’t much of a public speaker and when ordering food in a diner, he overhears some other men making ugly homophobic remarks. Instead of confronting them, he hands them a card and leaves, which Jadin rightfully chides him for. You see, even though Jadin is gone, his spirit is walking alongside Joe every step of the way, alternately cheering him on and questioning his methods and motives.

There are no heroes in this movie except for maybe Jadin, and often Jadin is made out to be a stereotype, a martyr of teen bullying. Joe is self-centered, truly a product of a conservative rural town in which men are in charge, women are there for support and those who don’t fit in are to be humiliated, shunned and driven away. Joe acts the way he does because he doesn’t know any better, and in that sense he is a tragic figure; tragic because he doesn’t see that his lack of support, his refusal to stand beside his son instead of sweeping him under the carpet as much as possible has left Jadin feeling alone and with nowhere to turn, which we see in a powerful scene that announces that Miller is a talent to be reckoned with.

As far as Wahlberg goes, this is not a movie that relies on his natural charisma and easy-going charm. Joe is rough around the edges and often says or does the wrong thing. He alienates his long-suffering wife Lola (Britton) and his other son Joseph (Jenkins) at a time when both are hurting, but Joe only sees his own grief. There’s a scene early on where he is addressing a noisy high school assembly about bullying and it’s almost painful to watch as Joe literally fumbles his way through, saying nothing of any depth and concludes with a lame “Any questions?” when he has given them nothing to analyze. It’s brilliant in the sense that you wouldn’t expect a blue collar dad from rural Oregon to suddenly turn into a brilliant orator. Grief isn’t always enough.

The writing, from the Oscar winning duo of Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry who previously collaborated on the far superior Brokeback Mountain, is solid throughout, although to be honest it’s kind of hard to make something interesting of a movie that’s essentially about a guy walking down the side of the road. At times, the movie seems a bit maudlin, and it does feel like a movie that was meant for woke audiences rather than those who really need to see it  I must say, however, that it was nice to see Gary Sinese on the big screen, although his role shows up late in the film as a sympathetic sheriff.

This is another movie whose heart is in the right place but could have used a bit of sprucing up to make it truly marvelous, but we’ll have to make do with memorable performances by Wahlberg and Miller which isn’t really a bad thing.

REASONS TO SEE: Heartfelt messaging. Wahlberg is solid in unfamiliar territory, and Miller is a breakout star.
REASONS TO AVOID: Preaches to the choir somewhat and maudlin in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity including offensive slurs and disturbing thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Jadin is depicted to have died immediately in his suicide attempt, in reality he was still alive when he was discovered and hung on for 15 more days before being taken off life support and passing away.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews; Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Laramie Project
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Till Death

The Mitchells vs. the Machines


Cellphone armageddon.

(2021) Animated Feature (Netflix/Columbia) Starring the voices of Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Michael Rianda, Eric André, Olivia Colman, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, Chrissy Teigan, John Legend, Charlyne Yi, Blake Griffin, Conan O’Brien, Doug the Pug, Jay Pharaoh, Melissa Sturm, Doug Nicholas, Jeff Rowe, Madeleine McGraw, Ellen Wightman, Sasheer Zarmata. Directed by Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe

 
We have let the tech genii out of the bottle, like it or not. The generations that have grown up with in the digital age are more comfortable looking at a smartphone screen than they are into the eyes of another human being. I suppose that might be perceived as a knock, but at the risk of being offensive, it’s just an expression of the way things are. Whether you think that’s a good thing, a bad thing or not a thing at all, it is the way it is.

Katie (Jacobson) is a proud online card-carrying member of the smartphone generation. An aspiring filmmaker, her joy comes from making short comedy films starring the family pug (Romé lives!) which eventually gets her accepted into the filmmaking school at CalArts (not for nothing, but that is the alma mater of many of the heavyweights in modern computer animation, as well as my own sister who is a graphic designer).

Predictably, her pragmatic father (McBride) doesn’t understand her – “You can make a living at that?” he asks incredulously when informed of his daughter’s intended major – which his wife (Rudolph) gently (or maybe not so gently) nudges him in the direction of spending time with his daughter before losing her forever. His solution is to drive his little girl to college as a family road trip, which he doesn’t realize is stressing her out because she will lose time getting oriented with her new tribe with whom she has already connected with online.

Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley where the chips always land where they may, PAL CEO Mark (André) is unveiling a new AI replacing the old one (Colman) who doesn’t take kindly to being cast aside. She decides to take matters into her own non-existant hands and reprograms a fleet of service robots to capture humans and imprison them in “fun pods,” conquering the Earth in the name of Big Tech. I imagine a few QAnon believers might think this could actually happen.

The family is blissfully unaware of all that is happening until they see fleets of robots kidnapping humans and realize that the apocalypse isn’t going to be brought about by zombies, but by robots. That’s right, pop culture fans – Robert Kirkman lied to you. Get over it. As it turns out that they become one of the last few families that hasn’t been captured and of course, one of mankind’s last remaining hopes when Katie figures out a kill code that could shut down the technology overthrow. But can they input it into the system in time?

It is perhaps ironic that a movie exhibiting a healthy distrust of technology is told in computer animataion on an online streaming platform. To be fair, the movie was meant to come out in theaters, but the coronavirus ad other plans. After a couple of delays and title changes, the movie was finally sold to Netflix and released online this past April (assuming you’re reading this before March 31, 2022). However, that might be fitting in that the clear target audience for the movie is the ones who feel more comfortable streaming movies at home rather than actually going to a movie theater.

The movie is full of pop culture references ranging from Furbies to Star Wars to Greta Gerwig to SNL. Although PAL is meant to be an amalgam of Apple and Amazon (a terrifying thought if ever there was one). It also has fanboy cred in that is produced by the white hot duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller who neither wrote nor directed this, although their influence on the film is as plain as the nose on my face.

The main drawback here is that other than Colman, who seems to be having the time of her life as the homicidal AI, most of the voice cast is oddly subdued and bland which considering the kind of cast they have is mystifying. There are some real laugh-out-loud funny moments but other okes may leave you flat. They are exploring a real disconnect between generations, and things that millennials and younger viewers will get may fly over the heads of older viewers and vice versa. And perhaps that is part of the movie’s overall point.

I have to admit I was left a little bit cold by all of this, although I grant you that perhaps I was not in the right space to watch this movie. It HAS been a big critical success, although the numbers released by Netflix don’t have it necessarily up there with some of the other would-be theatrical releases that were forced into streaming platforms when it became clear that it would not be getting a favorable release date anytime soon, and a movie like this has a definite shelf life – many of the references and depictions here will be archaic by the time 2022 comes along and I won’t even consider how dated it will seem in five years. But that’s just the nature of the world we live in now.

REASONS TO SEE: The animation is occasionally breathtaking.
REASONS TO AVOID: The voice cast is surprisingly lackluster.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of kidflick action and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alex Hirsch, creator of Gravity Falls, was a story consultant for the film. Rowe and Rianda both directed for the series.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Goodbye Honey

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

My Wonderful Wanda (Wanda, mein Wunder)


Not your typical family gathering.

(2020) Dramedy (Zeitgeist) Agnieszka Grochowska, Marthe Keller, André Jung, Jacob Matschenz, Birgit Minichmayr, Bruno Rajski, Iwo Rajski, Anatole Taubman, Cezary Pazura, Agata Rzeszewki, Gottfried Breitfuss. Directed by Bettina Oberli

 

In recent years, women from Eastern Europe have flocked to wealthier countries in Western Europe to act as in-home caregivers for wealthy families. Often, these women are the sole breadwinners for their families and are away from their children often for months at a time.

Wanda (Grochowska) is one such, a Polish woman who travels by bus to Switzerland where she works for the industrialist Wegmeister-Gloor family who have a gorgeous home on the shores of Lake Zurich. Patriarch Josef (Jung) has been laid up by a stroke and needs Wanda to stretch his atrophied limbs, help him go to the bathroom, bring meals and whatever else needs doing. She does so with quiet competence and compassion. Josef is fond of her, but perhaps not so fond as his 28-year-old son Gregi (Matschenz) is, although Gregi lacks the intestinal fortitude to act on his desires. Daughter Sophie (Minichmayr), a redheaded hurricane who is petulant and paranoid, and says all the wrong things, arrives with her lawyer husband Manfred (Taubman), while regal Elsa (Keller) presides over all with elegance and warmth.

Wanda also has a less savory side deal going on with Josef that yields unforeseen consequences and throws the delicate family dynamic into chaos. Sophie, already convinced that Wanda is out to screw the family over, is livid and while a compromise is worked out that will theoretically make everyone happy, nobody consults those most affected by the situation.

While there are elements of a class war farce going on here, the movie is really about family dynamics and although there is a good deal of eccentricity in this particular family, there is something realistic about them as well. Oberli, who co-wrote the film along with Cooky Ziesche, takes great pains to give the family members distinctive personalities and backgrounds. Oddly enough, that is not the case for the title character whose motivations and feelings are rarely expressed in the movie, and while some of her backstory is given through Zoom conversations with her kids back in Warsaw, Wanda remains the most enigmatic character in the movie.

The acting is strong here, but none stronger than Keller, who like Charlotte Rampling, was a big star in Europe who was imported to Hollywood in the 1970s and then after a brief run as a leading lady, returned back to European movies. She remains an engaging screen presence and is the emotional center of this particular film, and for those like me who got to know her in films like Bobby Deerfield and Marathon Man, it is wonderful seeing her again, particularly in a role that utilizes her talents nicely.

The movie tends to be at its weakest when it goes for farce, particularly in the third act. It does run a little bit long for American audiences and some of the action tends to be a little bit soap opera-esque in places, but overall this is a strong film with some terrific performances that while not particularly illuminating, is at least a bit different than what we’re used to.

REASONS TO SEE: Keller is a regal presence, and it’s wonderful to see her onscreen again.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little on the soapy side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sex, profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Keller trained as a ballet dancer before a skiing accident at age 16 forced her to change her emphasis to acting.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/29/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews; Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Being There
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
My Fiona

The Catch


Some towns are darker than others…

(2020) Drama (Self-Released) Katia Winter, Bill Sage, James McMenamin, Kyle Gallner, Emy Coligado, Jere Burns, Gianna Capri, Ellen Hsu-Balzer, Melissa McMeekin, Thomas Kee, Caroline Portu, Dawn Tucker, Tuggelin Yourgrau, Bart A. Piscitello Jr., Bill Thorpe, M. Lynda Robinson, Michael T. Francis, Benjamin Grills, Patty O’Neil. Directed by Matthew Ya-Hsiung Balzer

 

All of us make mistakes in life. Some are minor little faux pas-types of things; others are life-changing errors that alter the course of our lives and generally, not for the better.

Beth McManus (Winter) has returned to the small New England fishing village that she left abruptly five years earlier and her family isn’t exactly overjoyed to see her back. Family patriarch Tom (Sage), a salty old lobsterman, is particularly gruff with his daughter. He still hasn’t forgiven her for missing her mother’s funeral. He has since remarried Lily (Coligardo), who worked as a nurse in the hospital where his first wife passed away.

The town is undergoing hard times and jobs are scarce Beth seems, now that she’s returned to where she grew up, as eager to leave the town in her rear-view as she had been five years earlier. Jobs are scarce and there’s that quiet certainty that the town is dying.

For Tom, he is coping with his lobster pots being cleaned out by an unknown miscreant. Beth, on the other hand, has discovered that her ex-boyfriend (McMenamin) is involved with drug smuggling within the lobster fleet. She immediately senses an opportunity to solve her problems and get out of New England to make a fresh start. That’s usually a good road to a bad end.

This is a dark film in more ways than one. The subject matter of family disintegration and of the slow and painful decline of the working class is one thing. There is also the physical film; much of it is deliberately underlit, giving the movie a blue and grey patina that while aesthetically pleasing can make the action harder to follow unless conditions are perfect.

Fortunatedly the movie is possessed of a strong cast whose names are not necessarily household names (and whose faces aren’t necessarily ones you’ll easily identify) but this is a troupe of actors who are absolute pros. The dynamic between Winter and Sage as Beth and Tom is absolutely believable and at various times, apt to make you angry or heartbroken.

One of the problems with the movies is that there are a lot of subplots going on, with one of Tom’s brothers involved in….well, I won’t spoil it. There is also the relationship between Beth’s ex and her that is complicated to say the least. The New England atmosphere also appears genuine and reminds us that it is a region that has its own special warmth – and it’s own special coldness. Make of that what you will.

In the meantime, the movie is playing the Florida Film Festival through tonight and the film is available to be streamed at the festival’s website through midnight EDT tonight. After that, keep an eye out for it on the festival circuit; the movie hasn’t gotten distribution yet, but something tells me that some purveyor of fine indie fare will snatch this up before too long.

REASONS TO SEE: Winter and Sage deliver engaging performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many subplots.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity (including sexual references).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winter will be appearing in the upcoming third season of the hit Amazon Prime series The Boys.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ozark
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Monday

Mapplethorpe: The Director’s Cut


Matt Smith gets high.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Goldwyn) Matt Smith, Marianne Rendón, John Benjamin Hickey, Brandon Sklenar, Tina Benko, Mark Moses, Carolyn McCormick, Thomas Philip O’Neill, Mickey O’Hagan, Anthony Michael Lopez, McKinley Belcher III, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Karlee Perez, David J. Cork, Kerry Butler, Hari Nef, Robert George Siveris, John Bolton, Christina Rouner. Directed by Ondi Timmoner

 

There are figures in popular culture that loom large, directly or otherwise, in the national psyche, but for one reason or another we don’t really know much about them well, other than what our own personal prejudices tell us about them. One such is Robert Mapplethorpe.

His name still evokes powerful feelings among many today. Some see him as an artistic genius, one who pushed boundaries on male sexuality and the male body. Others see him as little more than a pornographer, a gay man whose work epitomized the bathhouse scene of New York in the 70s and 80s. His work was so controversial that it was the first (and to date only) exhibition to ever cause the gallery owner displaying it to be arrested on obscenity charges.

This biopic, helmed by able documentary filmmaker Timmoner, stars Matt Smith (roaming much further from Doctor Who than even Gallifrey) in the title role. We see him as a member of the ROTC at Pratt Institute, just before dropping out and moving to Greenwich Village in the 1970s, where he would take up with legendary punk goddess Patti Smith (Rendón) who was then a struggling musician. The two carried on a brief romantic relationship but it soon became obvious that young Robert swung for the other side. Eventually his relationship with gallery owner Sam Wagstaff (Hickey) would lead to him being championed by Wagstaff and his work to be discovered.

This isn’t a very flattering portrait of Mapplethorpe, who here is portrayed as someone who habitually used people and discarded them when they were no longer of use to him – including his own brother. He spent most of his life trying to catch the brass ring and when he finally did, found that it didn’t bring him any more happiness than chasing it did.

Smith is wonderful here, inhabiting his role admirably. The thing with biopics that most viewers, nearly all critics and quite a few filmmakers seem to never understand is that except in very rare cases, the actor’s job is not to portray the subject as they are/were, but as the audience thinks they should be/have been – after all, the audience likely never met Mr. Mapplethorpe or know anyone who did. We have only what we read about him (assuming we’ve read anything about him) or heard abut him or, more to the point, what we think about him. We think of Mapplethorpe as a gay man who was obsessed with male genitalia and homoerotic images; we are given a Mapplethorpe who is just that. So in that sense, Smith is entirely successful.

The movie covers some of the bases here; the effects of his strict Catholic upbringing, his contentious relationship with his father, the estrangement from his brother and so on. Timmoner doesn’t really get us too far into Mapplethorpe’s head; we rarely know what he’s thinking, although to be fair, Mapplethorpe played his opinions pretty close to his chest when he was aiive.

What is more disappointing is that the movie feels choppy and fragmented. There’s no flow to the film, no fluidity. Instead, we move from one set piece to the next, almost as if each scene was directed by someone completely different. It leaves you feeling like the film was directed by committee.

The film was originally released in 2019 without making much of an impression so I’m not exactly sure if anyone was calling for a director’s cut of the film. 12 minutes of additional scenes are added to the movie, which doesn’t really improve the film any. It just means you have to sit through twelve more minutes of it. The expanded edition is available on Hulu and Amazon Prime; most of the others have the original theatrical version.

REASONS TO SEE: Matt Smith loses himself in the role.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fragmented and overly long and ponderous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, sexuality and nudity, adult themes and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mapplethorpe’s mother passed away three days after her son did.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Hulu, Kanopy, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews; Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Basquiat
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Cryptozoo

Boss Level


Reliving the future.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dead of Night


Colby Crain takes a beer break.

(2021) Horror (Shout!) Jake Etheridge, Colby Crain, Leah Bezozo, Kyle Overstreet, Matthew Lawrence, Lance Henriksen, Charlotte McKee, Darius Homayoun, Merritt C. Glover, Boots Southerland, Jack Lutz, Jesse Kinser, Ellen Gerstein, Mark Speno, Chris Ranney, Tim Stafford, Maria Robison, Brian Patrick Buckley, Harrison Wirstrom, Rudy Benta, Sid Goodloe, Connie Hanley. Directed by Robert Dean

 

Some people prefer the hustle and bustle of a big city. Others prefer a more rural existence. There is something about living in the country – isolated, quiet, peaceful. You quickly learn to fend for yourself in a situation like that because if trouble comes, there’s nobody to come save you.

In a small New Mexico town a couple of drifters, both wearing wolf skins and masks, murder a pick-up truck driver and steal his truck. They move on into town where an annual rodeo is taking place. One of the stars, Colt Skeen (Homayoun) – a local boy – hooks up with Maddie (MeKee), the daughter of unpopular local developer (Speno) who has just announced that he is running for mayor, to a dreadfully stony silence. They repair in Colt’s rundown RV to an empty field (there are a lot of them around town) for a tryst, only to be interrupted by the wolfskin killers.

The killing of the young people take place near the ranch of Tommy (Etheridge), who has some things on his mind. His sister June (Crain) is leaving town the next day to fly out to Germany to be with her fiancée who is stationed on a base there. Young sheriff’s deputy Luke (Lawrence), who has a thing for June, suspects that Tommy has something to do with the killings which makes things even harder for the brother and sister who are already on thin ice with each other – Tommy wants her to stay and help run the family ranch, while June is happy to be anywhere but there.

But June is determined, so her friends Amber (Bezozo) and Ryan (Overstreet) throw a farewell party at her house for her. In the meantime, Tommy witnesses the wolfskin killers murdering an old man. He is detected but escapes, bringing the killers to his ranch – where they’ll terrorize the siblings and their guests. Blood will spill before a twist nobody will see coming gives the movie a punch in the gut.

Up until that twist, this is fairly standard stuff; mysterious masked strangers killing seemingly without rhyme or reason, murdering people at random simply because their paths cross. That has been a popular theme in horror movies, particularly of late. In these anxiety-ridden times, I think we’re all suspicious of just about everyone else. And we’re not too sure about ourselves.

There’s some real nice empty spaces cinematography courtesy of Troy Scoughton Jr., and while there is a country and western feel to the proceedings that give it a kind of Texas Chainsaw Massacre overlay, which is nice and welcome in these times. The performances by the young cast are solid and Dean gives a lot more thought to character development than the average horror director, who tend to line up the body count more than anything else. You may notice genre veteran Lance Henriksen in the cast, but don’t be fooled – he’s only in the film for a very brief cup of coffee, and really has not much of an impact overall, which is a shame because he is the sort of actor who normally adds a great deal to any film he’s in. They could have used him in a larger role.

And there is a body count here, but curiously, not a whole lot of gore. The murders often take place off-screen and the gore is kept to a minimum. That might not sit well with hardcore horror fans, but there are compensations – namely, the character development I mentioned earlier. I wish that there had been a little more thought given to the plot, though, which is fairly derivative throughout until the climax. All in all, not a bad effort but a tame one when it comes to gore and horrific images.

REASONS TO SEE: Manages to build the suspense nicely.
REASONS TO AVOID: A few too many standard slasher tropes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, plenty of violence, and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in New Mexico and is based on a childhood fear of writer/director Dean, who grew up in an isolated rural environment.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Strangers
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Six Minutes to Midnight

Come True


Julia Sarah Stone is feeling blue.

(2020) Sci-Fi Horror (IFC Midnight) Julia Sarah Stone, Landon Liboiron, Carlee Ryski, Christopher Heatherington, Tedra Rogers, Brandon DeWyn, John Tasker, Austin Baker, Shane Ghostkeeper, Christopher Thomas, Caroline Buzanko, Orin McCusker, Tyler Dreger, Karen Johnson-Diamond, Tiffany Helm, Maria Renae, Millie Jayne, Alex Cherovsky, Michelle Rios, Pamela Parker. Directed by Anthony Scott Burns

Dreams serve a therapeutic purpose, allowing the demons of our subconscious to stretch their metaphysical legs, as it were. Nightmares, though, are mostly just unpleasant and while they serve their own purpose, I think it’s safe to say that most of us would rather do without them. Nightmares are a pain in the ass; for some, however, they take over, become obsessions and perhaps imperil our sanity – and perhaps our lives.

18-year-old Canadian high school graduate Sarah Dunne (Stone) is one such. Every night she finds a different place to sleep – a friend’s house, the playground at her local park and so on. She is subject to sleep paralysis and vivid, terrifying dreams that have begun to take over her life. She has had a falling out with her mom and generally avoids her, stopping by her home only to shower and grab a change of clothes.

When she is given a flyer advertising a sleep study, she’s intrigued. A safe place to sleep where she will be monitored, where she’ll be paid and best of all, perhaps a cure for her affliction can be found. It’s a win-win-win situation. But right away, she senses that there is something not quite aboveboard in the study. The man running it, Dr. Meyer (Heatherington) seems to be way creepier than she would like, and the questions his assistant Anita (Ryski) asks following her night’s sleep are invasive and troubling. Worse yet, there is creepy nerd Jeremy (Liboiron) who may or may not be stalking her nd who may or may not be willing to tell her the dirty little secret behind this particular sleep study.

But things take a lurching turn for the worse when it begins to feel like Sarah’s waking life and dream life are beginning to merge, with frightening consequences.

Burns, in his second feature film, has some really promising ideas here, which sadly don’t quite add up to a completely satisfying film. The moody dream sequences are seriously underlit, which while atmospheric also makes it hard to figure out what’s going on at times which gets frustrating when repeated several times throughout the film. He also has a good sense of style; the movie becomes more dream-like the longer it goes on until he climax which is, sadly, a bit unsatisfying.

Stone has a kind of fresh-faced appeal and while her character is made to assert her over-18 status a bit too much – probably to make her romance with an older man a little less cringe-inducing – she still comes off as a strong, charismatic lead. Some of the imagery here is truly frightening and isn’t something you will want to watch just before bedtime. There is also a bit more technobabble than I generally like – that’s more of a personal preference – and Sarah’s angst which seems to stem from a rift with her mom which is never explained can get tiresome to people who don’t really care what the latest social media app has to offer.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything worthwhile here. Burns has an original voice and some decent instincts, but I get the sense that he isn’t quite adept at making that voice audible just yet. I’m hoping that he’ll continue to develop his talents because there’s definitely a sense that he’s got something special inside him that one day is going to flower and blow us all away. While this isn’t the film that’s going to do that, it certainly has enough positives that you might want to check it out or at least keep an eye out for his future endeavors.

REASONS TO SEE: Fascinating concept. Dream-like presentation.
REASONS TO AVOID: Execution is lacking. Too much technobabble and teen angst.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, terrifying imagery and some scenes of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Burns’ second feature film after Our House (2018).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dreamscape
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Test Pattern

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