Trigger Point (2021)


Barry Pepper ain’t saving Private Ryan anymore.

(2021) Suspense (Screen Media) Barry Pepper, Colm Feore, Eve Harlow, Carlo Rota, Jayne Eastwood, Nazneen Contractor, Laura Vandervoort, Karen Robinson, Rainbow Sun Francks, Greg Bryk, John Kirkpatrick, Ryan Malcolm, Reid Janisse, Juan Carlos Valis, Tim Progosh, Brian Cook, Anthony Ferri, Plato Fountidakis, Susie Blanco. Directed by Brad Turner

 

When you’re talking about shadowy spy agencies (not so much the CIA of Jason Bourne or the MI:6 of James Bond) you are generally talking about murky moral compasses and blindingly serious characters who are extremely competent at killing, only without the ability to let loose a bon mot at the moment of vanquishing his opponent.

Nicholas Shaw (Pepper) is one such. He is meticulous, and never ever misses. He is out of the game now, retired to a bucolic small town where he regularly has breakfast in the local café and orders books from the local book store, getting on nicely with his neighbors. They would never suspect that in a previous life, he was a deadly assassin.

And they DEFINITELY wouldn’t guess that he was captured and tortured, giving up the identities of eight members of his team who were then murdered by Quentin, a mysterious crime boss. Nicholas doesn’t remember much of this, only that he needs to lay low for a short time – the rest of his life, say. Then, his past comes walking through his door in the person of Elias Kane (Feore), his former boss. It seems that Elias’ daughter Fiona (Harlow) went out looking for Quentin and has since been captured. She is likely dead, but there is only one person living who knows the true identity of Quentin – that is Nicholas, although he doesn’t remember that crucial piece of information. So as he is the only person who could possibly rescue Fiona, he will have to un-retire and go after the person responsible for taking away everything from him. Sounds fair.

Some critics have compared this to the Bourne franchise, and that’s not inaccurate although Robert Ludlum’s world is much more well thought out. Pepper, who has played sharpshooters before, is perfect for this kind of work, and he is the stand-out here. However, if you can’t figure out who the bad guy is here, you’re either not paying attention or you don’t go to movies much.

The action sequences are decent enough, although the movie could use more of them. The script is on the talky side, which isn’t a point in its favor. Pepper would do better in a role where he has less dialogue – not that he isn’t good at dialogue, but his character would be more effective if he spoke less, and Pepper is a good enough actor that he could pull off getting things across without having to spell things out.

Overall, this isn’t bad entertainment if you’re waiting for a new John Wick film to come down the pike (that’s still another year away, true believers) although I caution you that there is far less action than in that estimable franchise nor is the world here as fully developed as that one. One could say it’s a low-rent Jason Bourne without the exotic locations or the exquisite plotting. No, that’s not it either; this is more a B-movie low-budget spy thriller of the sort Bruce Willis was doing a decade or two ago. There’s something to be said for those films, so long as your expectations aren’t that high.

REASONS TO SEE: Reasonably entertaining super-competent assassin thriller.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly serious; could have used some lighter moments to break up the monotony.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity as well as some brief sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Turner has more than thirty years of experience, mainly in the television side doing episodes of 24 and Homeland, among others.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Cold Light of Day
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
It Is Not Over Yet

Cowboys


There’s a reason they call it Big Sky country.

(2020) Drama (Goldwyn) Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell, Sasha Knight, Ann Dowd, Gary Farmer, Chris Coy, John Reynolds, Bob Stephenson, AJ Slaght, John Beasley, Seth Breding, Angela Marshall, Steve Dodd, Armando Garcia, Heather LaPointe, Jared Broxterman, Emily Moran, Matt Mhoon, Mari LaPlante, Sawyer Pule, Travis W. Bruyer, Michaela Dixon, Kasey Kurit, Lori Wubben. Directed by Anna Kerrigan

 

Montana has always been a beautiful place where rugged individualism has been admired, and where values are conservative and based on Judeo-Christian beliefs. It is an environment that, from time to time, has been unforgiving of those outside the norm.

At first blush, it appears that Troy (Zahn) and Joe (Knight) are on a father-son camping trip in the beautiful wilds of Montana. When Troy’s truck breaks down, the two end up staying the night at the home of Robert Spottedbird (Farmer), a friend who lends the two his horse. But it becomes clear that there is something not quite right with the scenario. We soon find out that Joe’s mother and Troy’s estranged wife Sally (Bell) has frantically discovered that Joe is missing from his bedroom and calls the police, putting dogged detective Faith (Dowd) on the case.

We are told the backstory to all this in flashbacks, how Joe was born a girl but is convinced that she was born in the wrong body. While Troy is willing to accept this, the more devout Sally is not. Sally, ever-pragmatic, also realizes that this kind of revelation is likely to get Joe bullied at best, and maybe something worse.

As the search for the two goes on, we find that Troy is not nearly a perfect father; he’s bi-polar, and while he’s pretty affable so long as he stays on his meds, he’s prone to fits of rage, one of which in the defense of his son lands him in jail and leads to Sally separating from him. However, the more time Joe spends with Sally, the more he realizes that his mother will never let him be who he is meant to be, couching her denial in terms of “God’s plan.” It is a refrain many transgender folk have heard all too often.

Sally knows that Troy is unreliable, and the longer she is separated from Joe, the more she realizes her own role in his being gone. She also realizes that the longer this goes on, the less likely it is that Troy will come out of this unharmed. As Troy and Joe navigate the wilderness, Joe’s love for cowboys and the cowboy mythology begins to crumble as he realizes that his father, who once seemed to be his only option, might not be competent enough to get them both to Canada – and that Troy has absolutely no plan whatsoever once the two arrive there.

This is a timely movie, inasmuch as it was released a couple of weeks before the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, a sweeping reform that would insure the rights of transgenders and other LGBTQ citizens (it faces an uphill battle to pass in the Senate where it will need 60 votes). Kerrigan makes the most of the beautiful Big Sky scenery captured by cinematographer John Wakayama Carey, giving us breathtaking vistas and moments of exquisite natural beauty. There are also moments of ugliness, as townspeople come down on Joe and his desire to be male.

The four major roles of Troy, Joe, Sally and Faith are all perfectly cast and Kerrigan gets some outstanding performances from all of them. Bell and Zahn are generally noted for their comedic roles, but both handle the drama here with aplomb, with Zahn giving an absolutely outstanding performance that is sure to bring him some meatier parts in the future. Knight, as Joe, conveys a bittersweet melancholy and world-weary wisdom that belies his character’s years; one can imagine that it would be awful to have to deal with two damaged parents as well as his own issues of sexual identity. Knight’s performance should provide a role model for kids in that situation everywhere.

This is not a movie with easy answers; there are no white hats here (nor are there black hats either). Both Sally and Troy are flawed human beings doing the best that they can and the love they have for Joe is absolutely palpable. There is no doubt that this is, already, one of the year’s best films and should give families undergoing similar issues a starting place for necessary conversations.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautiful scenery. Zahn is as good as he’s ever been and Knight is a revelation. Some moments of heart-rending pathos.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit on the predictable side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kerrigan insisted that the role of Joe be filled by a trans/gender-fluid actor, which Sasha Knight is.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Kid Like Jake
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Nomadland

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

Chop Chop (2020)


Live can’t come to the door, she’s all tied up.

(2020) Thriller (GravitasAtala Arce, Jake Taylor, David Harper, Mikael Mattsson, Jeremy Jordan, James McCabe, Mike Thompson, Nicholas Correnti, Natasha Missick, Lizzie Chaplin (voice), Jazmine Jordan, Theresa Byron, Emily Katter, Paul Syre, Mandy Martino. Directed by Rony Patel

 

Most couples appreciate the quiet evening home alone. Someone cooks dinner, maybe a movie (and microwave popcorn) out on the couch, and then to the bedroom for *ahem* the main course. Sounds like a pretty good night to me.

And that’s what Chuck (Taylor) and Liv (Arce) have in mind. Then, there’s a knock on the door. There’s a guy there named Teddy (Harper), delivering the pizza they ordered. Except, they didn’t order any pizza – Chuck made dinner, so Liv tells Teddy thanks but no thanks, and shuts the door, and goes back into the living room.

And that’s where she finds Teddy waiting for her. “I have abilities,” he says, almost modestly. He also has a bag of bloody severed heads. Now, that’s as promising a beginning for a movie as it gets, thinks I. Sadly, Chop Chop doesn’t quite live up to that early promise.

When Teddy attacks Liv, Chuck comes to the rescue and ends up killing Teddy. However, instead of calling the cops – technically, they were defending themselves which isn’t illegal, even in California – they decide to dispose of the body themselves, calling in some favors from some shady underworld types. When a cop (Jeremy Jordan) stumbles on what’s going on, the couple have to shove him in the trunk as well. And all these underworld sorts are, inexplicably, trying to kill Liv and Chuck. I mean, WTF, right?

Along the way, they meet all manner of killers and fend them off as best they can before they end up being captured and set up for torture…but by that point, you’ll be wondering why you’ve stayed with the movie even this long. The story is told in such an incomprehensible manner that you can be forgiven if you think that the chapter heading for the first scene, Teddy, actually refers to Chuck – it isn’t until a little later that you find out that Teddy was the dead serial killer. The one with abilities…that are never explained, or referred to. And let’s face it, Liv took them pretty much in stride. Do lots of people that she knows have abilities?

Another flaw of the film is that nearly all the action takes place off-camera, or is so brief as to be blink-and-you-missed-it. I’ll give Patel the benefit of the doubt and assume that was for budgetary reasons, but it may well be inexperience, or an attempt to set his thriller apart from the glut of them on the market. I will give him that the concept is solid.

However, he changes tone regularly to an almost maddening degree. The movie starts out as kind of a noir thriller, moves into a romantic comedy at one point, and then shimmies into torture porn at the end before finishing up as…well, that I’ll keep to myself. The really maddening thing is that there is a ton of potential here, but the decisions made by the person sitting in the director’s chair as well as the person at the laptop banging away the script (the same person, by the way) just about guaranteed the movie wouldn’t succeed. I think the movie could have worked as a kind of extreme action version of a noir Nick and Nora Charles-type of thing. That’s a movie I’d love to see – John Wick meets The Thin Man. Hollywood, get on that one, wouldja?

REASONS TO SEE: The concept is an intriguing one.
REASONS TO AVOID: Clumsy storytelling vies with questionable directorial decisions for the most damaging aspect to the film’s success.
FAMILY VALUES: This is plenty of violence and profanity, bloody images, some sexual content, and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut for Patel, who was born in India but currently resides in Los Angeles.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Funny Games
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Day 3 of Six Days of Darkness!

3 Day Weekend


No matter what, he’s got her back.

(2019) Suspense (Sleeper CellMorgan Krantz, Maya Stojan, Nathan Phillips, Scott MacDonald. Directed by Wyatt McDill

Sometimes a movie will show a tremendous amount of promise but end up sabotaging itself with the execution. 3 Day Weekend is just such a movie.

Millennial Ben Boyd (Krantz) decides that after a painful relationship break-up to go camping and get away from his heartache. Never mind that he really has no experience camping; how hard can it be to pitch a tent and set up a sleeping bag? Exactly.

However, he stumbles upon a deaf girl (Stojan) locked in the trunk of a car and intuits that a kidnapping is in progress. There is a menacing looking redneck (Phillips) with a gun involved and Ben’s attempts to rescue the damsel in distress go awry. When another redneck bearing a gun (MacDonald) shows up, things get even more lively, but Ben couldn’t possibly imagine the truth of what is happening; it certainly isn’t what it might seem to be to him at the time.

And there you have it; a simple concept, which McDill enhances by keeping dialogue to a bare minimum (there’s almost no dialogue at all in the first 30 minutes other than text messages which become important later), and to McDill’s credit he pulls it off. Also adding to the list of admirable qualities for the film is that it is told from the viewpoint of each character at various times with each character adding to the information that the audience has, changing our interpretation of events subtly until it ends up being quite a major shift. Kudos to McDill (who also wrote the script) for that.

Where the film loses its goodwill is in the camera work. McDill and cinematographer Brian Lundy rely a great deal on handheld cameras, leading to shaky cameras running through the Minnesota woods. He also utilizes some very questionable camera angles that end up annoying the viewer rather than impressing us with their skill. I’ve never been a big fan of shaky cam to begin with; it’s a much-overused camera technique. Used in moderation, it adds immediacy. Used to excess, it adds nausea.

It’s a shame because Lundy and McDill have some beautiful woods to work with, and McDill has written a very good film. However, movies are a visual medium and if that aspect of the project isn’t up to par, it really creates an unpleasant experience. The good news is that McDill shows a lot of potential here and if he just settles down a bit with the cinematography I’m positive he’s capable of delivering some really good movies.

REASONS TO SEE: Builds up the tension nicely.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some really questionable camera angle choices and way too much handheld shaky-cam.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some violence and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at the 2019 Twin Cities Film Festival, near where filming took place..
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blood and Money
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Musical Comedy Whore

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part


Everything is still awesome…isn’t it?

(2019) Animated Feature (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Charlie Day, Maya Rudolph, Will Ferrell, Jadon Sand, Brooklynn Prince, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade, Jason Momoa, Cobie Smulders, Ralph Fiennes, Bruce Willis, Gary Payton, Sheryl Swoopes. Directed by Mike Mitchell

 

The 2014 hit The Lego Movie was a breath of fresh air in the animated feature universe, chock full of pop culture references but with enough whimsy and creativity to satisfy children and adults alike. After two spinoffs hit with a bang (The Lego Batman Movie) and a thud (The Lego Ninjago Movie), will the sequel recapture the magic of the original?

Well, no. In the new film, Emmet (Pratt) is building the dream home for himself and Lucy/Wyldstyle (Banks), complete with double decker porch swing. But all is not well in Bricksburg; Finn (Sand), the little boy whose imagination powered the first movie, is forced to play with his little sister (Prince) and her Duplos with catastrophic results. The town is a barren wasteland, populated by Duplo-built monsters. Everything is decidedly not awesome.

To make matters worse, Emmet’s friends have been kidnapped by General Mayhem (Beatriz) to attend the wedding of Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Haddish) and Batman (Arnett) is busy “on a standalone adventure” so it is up to Emmet to save the day, although Emmet who still retains his optimism despite the devastation, may not be up to the task.

The pop culture references are still plentiful, the oddball humor is still there, but it all feels really stale. There’s a feeling that this is geared towards even younger kids than the first, which isn’t necessarily good news for the parents roped into watching this alongside them. While Pratt, Arnett (who arrives late in the third act) and Haddish do their level best, they can’t overcome the sense that we’ve seen this before. I really enjoyed the closing credits, though; it is not a good sign when the best thing about a movie are the credits at the very end.

REASONS TO SEE: Pratt, Haddish and Arnett get the job done.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not an improvement from the first film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some peril and rude humor, as well as mild profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After the disappointing box office results for the film, Warner Brothers let the rights lapse; future Lego movies will be coming out on Universal, who snatched them up.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Max,  Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews, Metacritic: 65/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
No Small Matter

Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku)


Going for that five-fingered discount.

(2018) Drama (Magnolia) Lily Franky, Sakura Andō, Kirin Kiki, Mayu Matsuoka, Jyo Kairi, Miyu Sasaki, Sōsuke Ikematsu, Yûki Yamada, Moemi Katayama, Daisuke Kuroda, Kazuaki Shimizu, Izumi Matsuoka, Katsuya Maiguma, Hajime Inoue, Aju Makita, Akira Emoto, Haruna Hori, Momoko Miyauchi, Mami Hashimto, Nobu Morimoto, Mana Mikami. Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda

 

The family unit is the backbone of most human cultures. Woe be unto those who mess with the family; communist regimes in Russia and China tried it without success. But what is it about families that make them so necessary? Can we teach our children morality if we ourselves are less-than-moral? Can we have a loving family in non-traditional groupings?

The Shibata family is what you would call the working poor. Father Osamu (Franky) is a day laborer; mother Nobuyo (Andō) works in an industrial laundry. Auntie Aki (Matsuoka) is a hostess in a peep show, dressing like a school girl and performing sexual acts for lonely men watching behind two-way mirrors. Grandmother Hatsue (Kiki) chips in with her pension check and their son Shota (Kairi) helps out in the family business. What is the family business? Shoplifting.

Osamu and Shota go to local supermarkets and pick up what necessities the family needs via the five-fingered discount. The family can’t afford to put enough food on the table, so they supplement their income as best they can. On the way home from such a trip, Osamu and Shota come upon a little girl named Yuri (Sasaki) hiding under a balcony in a neighboring apartment building. It is an insanely cold night and the girl, already hungry and scared, will certainly not survive the night if left out there. Good-hearted Osamu brings the girl home. Hatsue discovers evidence of abuse on the little girl, but Nobuyo is adamant that the girl be returned to her parents. When they arrive, Osamu and Nobuyo hear a violent fight going on between the parents. Nobuyo at last relents and the girl is brought home, unofficially adopted by the Shibata clan.

It’s not kidnapping, explains Osamu, because they aren’t demanding a ransom. Besides, the little girl has found herself in a loving family that takes care of one another and despite their financial straits, they still manage to enjoy life to the fullest. Shota even deigns to teach the newest Shibata the family trade. However, the idyllic situation can’t last long; things begin to unravel and the secrets at the core of the Shibata family are revealed at last.

The last half hour of the film is a total tonal shift from the first hour and a half, and quite frankly, it was a bit too much for my taste, although I am aware that a lot of critics found that shift to be the best thing about the film. As they say, your mileage may vary.

But this is a very good film, a look at how the working poor survive day t day in Japan, how the bond within a family is maintained even when the grey areas are a bit more widespread than normal. Despite the fact that they steal and scam, the Shibata family to a man (and woman) are good-hearted people who genuinely care for one another. There is almost no judgement going on, which is rare in a family. They accept each other and love each other for who they are. A lot of morally straight families could benefit from instruction from the Shibata family.

Good performances throughout are at the forefront; there are some truly heartbreaking moments and some truly joyous ones as well. Cinematographer Ryûto Kondō makes good use of every shot; there is a lot happening in every frame which means that additional viewings of the film will yield more treasure.

This is very much one of the best films from 2018 and would have gotten a higher rating from me had I liked the ending more. I will say that it is imaginative and will come at you from out of nowhere, which is what I think some folks like about it. I suspect that I will like this movie more the next time I watch it. If so, that’s the mark of a truly great film experience.

REASONS TO SEE: Thought-provoking on the nature of families. Moral dilemma isn’t an easy one to dismiss..
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit of a letdown.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, the first Japanese film to do so since 1997.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, FlixFling, Google Play, Hoopla, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews, Metacritic: 93/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Little Sister
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Tombstone Rashomon

Bad Times at the El Royale


Evil can be sexy.

(2018) Thriller (20th Century FoxJeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman, Xavier Dolan, Shea Whigham, Mark O’Brien, Charles Halford, Jim O’Heir, Gerry Nairn, Alvina August, London A. Morrison, Bethany Brown, Rebecca Toolan, Hannah Jane Zirke, Billy Wickman, William B. Davis, Tally Rodin. Directed by Drew Goddard

 

This was one of my favorite movies of 2018. Goddard hits it out of the park as a group of disparate characters gather at a rundown motel straddling the California-Nevada state line. It is 1969, and the El Royale lost its gaming license a year prior and has fallen on hard times ever since – once it was a playground for the rich and shameless.

Being checked in by whitebread clerk Miles Miller (Pullman) is Father Dan Flynn (Bridges), on the road to see his family; vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Hamm) who has the patter and the smile to sell an Eskimo an ice cube; singer Darlene Sweet (Erivo) who is on her way to a gig in Reno and needs a cheap place to stay for the night; and young Emily Summerspring (Johnson) who just wants everyone to stay the hell away from her.

As it turns out, all four of the guests have secrets. As it turns out, the hotel has secrets too – one of which is revealed in the prologue. The story is told non-sequentially but we eventually learn why each of them is there. Emily, for example, has kidnapped her kid sister Rose (Spaeny) from a charismatic cult leader named Billy Lee (Hemsworth), who doesn’t take kindly to others stealing his property. It all ends up in a confrontation in the lobby of the El Royale.

I loved the complexity of the story, which Goddard tells non-sequentially, going from room to room to concentrate on each individual guest. There are some twists and turns – some of which are jaw-dropping – and plenty of sex and violence. Comparisons have been made to early Tarantino and the comparison isn’t out of line; in fact, at times, I think that this homage to the pop culture maestro is a little too strong but if one is going to imitate someone, Tarantino is a good one to emulate.

Goddard is aided by a tremendous cast, all of whom deliver strong performances. The real revelation is Tony award winner Erivo who absolutely kills it as Darlene Sweet (clearly based on Darlene Love), and she sings mighty nicely some soul classics from the early 60s. She also has a scene with Bridges that absolutely gave me the chills; I thought for sure she would have gotten a Best Supporting Actress nomination, but sadly she didn’t. She deserved it, though. Her strong work since then has shown that her performance here is no fluke; she is a talent who is going to be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood in short order.

Bridges adds heart to the proceedings and Hamm gives a sly performance. I also loved Hemsworth, who plays Billy Lee as a combination of Charles Manson and Jim Morrison. Dakota Johnson has never been sexier than she is here, which includes her 50 Shades films.

realize that this isn’t going to be a film that appeals to everyone. Some might find it overly violent – and it is. Some might find it overly self-indulgent – which it is. Others might think it’s too Tarantino-esque – guilty as charged. However, I personally look at those as strong points in this film. It’s one that I have watched several times since and it hasn’t lost its appeal. That’s my definition of a great film.

REASONS TO SEE: Extremely well-written and tied nicely together at the end. Strong performances throughout, particularly from Erivo. Places itself nicely in the era. Some of the twists are a bit unexpected.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels a little bit too much like a Tarantino film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly graphic violence, brief nudity and sexuality, some drug content and a copious amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The El Royale is based loosely on the CalNeva resort in Lake Tahoe. The hotel was once owned by Frank Sinatra.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabin in the Woods
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Hate U Give

Operation Finale


The banality of evil.

(2018) True Life Drama (MGMOscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Mélanie Laurent, Lior Raz, Nick Kroll, Michael Aronov, Ohad Knoller, Greg Hill, Torben Liebrecht, Michel Benjamin Hernandez, Joe Alwyn, Greta Scachi, Peter Strauss, Haley Lu Richardson, Pêpê Rapazote, Rainer Reiners, Simon Russell Beale, Rocio Muñoz, Rita Pauls, Ania Luzarth, Tatiana Rodriguez, Antonia Desplat. Directed by Chris Weitz

 

When describing Adolph Eichmann, one of the architects of Hitler’s Final Solution and who organized the transportation of millions of Jews to concentration camps, historian Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil.” Eichmann was one of two high-profile Nazis who managed to escape Germany before the Nuremberg trials (Josef Mengele was the other). This film is about the efforts of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad and their efforts to capture Eichmann who had fled to Argentina and bring him to trial in Jerusalem.

Kingsley plays Eichmann with as a man of iron wrapped in a cardigan sweater. He is hunted by a team dispatched by Mossad chief Isser Harel (Raz) and led by Rafi Eltan (Kroll) with operatives including interrogator Peter Mendel (Isaac) and physician Hanna Elian (Laurent). Mendel is particularly haunted by the deaths of his sister and her family at the hands of the Nazis.

Told in the style of a spy thriller but lacking the twists and turns of a good one, Weitz manages to keep the dramatic tension at a decent level (although not an extraordinary one) and benefits from powerful performances from Kingsley, from whom we have come to expect them, and Isaac who is rapidly becoming a big star in his own right.

The movie flew under the radar when it was released in the dog days of August back in 2018 which is a bit of a shame; it deserved a better fate. That can be rectified however as you have the opportunity to catch this via a variety of streaming platforms, listed below. It is worth your while to do so.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances by Isaac and Kingsley. There’s a good sense of dramatic tension.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times the film feels a little bloodless.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are decidedly adult and there are some graphic images related to that; there is also some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael Benjamin Hernandez is the younger brother of Oscar Isaac.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Epix,  Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:
Munich
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Wife

Radioflash


The production went underwater quickly.

(2019) Suspense (IFC Midnight) Brighton Sharbino, Dominic Monaghan, Will Patton, Fionnula Flanagan, Miles Anderson, Michael Filipowich, Kyle Collin, Sean Cook, Arden Myrin, Max Adler, Lance Valentine Butler, Juli Erickson, CJ Legare, Shawn Law, Jerry Basham, Amir Abdullah, Ryan Shrime, Eryn Rea. Directed by Ben McPherson

 

There’s no doubt that our society functions on technology. It is both a blessing and a curse; it has allowed us to lead lives more comfortable than any of our predecessors but at the same time, what would become of society if all our technology suddenly was no longer available to us?

Nothing good, posits this film. Reese (Sharbino) is a bright teenage girl with superior problem-solving skills. She lives with her dad (Monaghan): both are still grieving the death of Reese’s mom from cancer a year earlier. When the power flickers out, it’s no big whoop at first. After all, power outages are a function of life as our devices suck more and more juice from the grid.

But the power doesn’t come back on and soon it becomes apparent that it won’t anytime soon. Reese’s survivalist grandpa (Patton) has been preparing for this all his life and he urges Reese and her pa to gather up as much gas as they can get hold of and head out to his place in the mountains before things turn to anarchy back in the city. They are just shy of too late.

At that point, the movie goes off the rails as Reese is kidnapped by Maw (Flanagan) and her brutish son Bill (Filipowich) and grandson Quinn (Collin) and the film takes a wide left into The Hills Have Eyes territory. The movie seemed really promising at first, with Reese being set up as a modern heroine who is smart, savvy and strong but she is essentially reduced to a typical damsel in distressed, trussed up in a burlap sack or locked in a basement. Her problem-solving skills we see early on are nowhere to be found.

Faring slightly better is Monaghan who plays the dad well; we’ve seen him as a irresponsible hobbit and a drug-addled rock star but he excels here as a devoted but sad-eyed dad. The film is bolstered by some beautiful Northwestern vistas, often mist-shrouded but McPherson is unable to generate a whole lot of excitement or suspense, leaving audiences indifferent to the fate of the characters. Considering the introduction he gave Reese, it’s a damn shame; I would have liked to have seen her less in peril and more in charge. Patton, a veteran character actor, is given little to do, showing up in brief moments to show concern and worry, for the most part.

This is one of those frustrating films where you see that if the filmmakers had just taken a certain direction that the movie had tons of potential to be something more than it turned out to be. While there are some worthwhile elements here, overall it ends up being a mediocre thriller that doesn’t quite do the job it’s supposed to do.

REASONS TO SEE: Monaghan does a crackerjack job in a type of role he’s not known for.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really generate a lot of excitement.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and violence herein.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McPherson has partnered with the Conservative View and Glenn Beck on short film projects, and co-writer Matt Redhawk is the founder of a survivalist supply company.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews: Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walking Out
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Synonyms