The Game Changers (2018)


There is strength in numbers.

(2018) Documentary (Diamond Docs) James Wilks, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Patrik Baboumian, Scott Jurek, Dotsie Bausch, Kendrick Farris, Nimai Delgado, Lucious Smith, Gary Wilks, Fabian Kanz, Kim Williams, Morgan Mitchell, Rip Esselstyn, Mischa Janiec, Damien Mander, Tia Blanco, Bryant Jennings, Griff Whalen, Damien Mander, Helen Moon. Directed by Louis Psihoyos

 

Eating meat has long been understood to be less healthy than eating vegetables. However, a mythology regarding the manliness of being a vegetarian has also developed; eating meat makes you stronger, more masculine, more virile. These are ideas largely pushed by purveyors of meat, including burger joints and cattle collectives.

This documentary is out to puncture those myths and perhaps make a few converts among the sports bar crowd. The message is aimed almost overwhelmingly towards men, even going so far during an extended segment to show that eating a plant-based meal before bedtime results in – ahem – improved bedroom performance that night. Gentlemen, start your erections.

There are few men as bad-ass as Wilks, a former UFC fighter and former carnivore. While rehabbing an injury, he researched methods that might get him back in the octagon sooner but came across a study that startled him; gladiators, thought to be among the manliest men ever, were largely vegetarians according to scientific analysis of their bones. The fact that these guys were among the biggest and strongest of their time gave Wilks pause.

He soon found that there were plenty of modern equivalents. Baboumian, one of the strongest men on the planet and a world record-holder for the most weight ever lifted and carried by a human, has been a vegan for ages. So too has ultimate marathoner Jurek and Olympic cycler Bausch. Former NFL player Lucious Jones who is Wilks’ trainer, also has been a vegan largely persuaded by his wife, a chef who specializes in healthy diet. His old team, the Tennessee Titans, were mired in a streak of seasons failing to qualify for the postseason but once more than a dozen members of the team began eating vegan the team made a surprise return to the playoffs. Of course, all the credit is given to the diet.

There is also a nearly endless parade of doctors proclaiming the virtues of a plant-based diet, showing the medical benefits. Quite honestly watching all of these interviews, even supplemented by nifty graphics as some of them are, I found it all beginning to sound repetitive and my interest waned. Even with testimonials coming from the Terminator himself didn’t sway me as much. Maybe I’m just mule-headed but I do love me a burger from time to time.

There’s definitely a new convert’s zeal here and Wilks makes for a solid narrator, even converting his father to the cause after the elder Wilks suffers a major heart attack. In fact, the zeal was a bit off-putting. It’s sort of like having an evangelist preach to you the benefits of Christianity albeit without the scientific backing. There may be a few converts here and there, particularly those who are convinced that their dicks will get harder if they go vegan (the way to a man’s heart is most definitely not through his stomach) but the movie never addresses the main objection most carnivores have to turning to a plant-based diet – meat tastes damn good. In any case, while they make a good scientific case if you are willing to wade through all the stats and graphs, I’m not sure that their apparent goal of converting the intractable will be met.

REASONS TO SEE: Explains the myths of vegetarianism well. Wilks makes a fine narrator.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really make any new converts. The medical information can get bone-dry.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wilks is a former MMA fighter who currently trains law enforcement and military on combat techniques.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes:78% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The End of Meat
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Low Tide

Hunter (2018)


Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage.

(2018) Horror (Random Media) Jason Kellerman, Rachel Cerda, Leigh Foster, Ryan Heindl, Nick Searcy, Beau Forbes, Adria Dawn, Bill Bannon, Susan Monts-Bologna, Andrew Gebhart, Lynda Shadrake, Ann Joseph, Leah Uteg, Kiley Moore, Darren Stephens, Ryan Kitley, Renee Sebby, Riley Sebby, Shon McGregory, Claudine Tambuatco. Directed by David Tarleton

 

Chicago has been a violent place since the Jazz Age. These days it’s a poster child for urban gang violence and murder. Still, the Windy City has a special quality all its own, if you don’t look too closely into the shadows.

Hunter (Kellerman) was at one time a feared MMA fighter. He was absolutely devoted to his mother (Shadrake) and little sister (Uteg). All that is shattered when they are killed in a home invasion. Only Hunter survives and he carries with him images of horror from that night that haunt him non-stop.

He is reduced to living on the streets of Chicago in the dead of winter. Starving and cold, he hears about a shelter from his only friend, Crazy Sybil (Dawn) and in near desperation he goes to find a warm bed, hot food and maybe even a shower. However, the price for staying is that he must talk to a therapist, in this case named Danni (Cerda). The problem is, Hunter isn’t interested in talking. He’s just interested in surviving and so Cerda has to find a way to break down his walls.

Those walls are up for a reason. It turns out that the gang that killed his sister and mother are still out there and still murdering. Hunter knows their secret and may be the only person who can stop them, but Hunter isn’t sure whether they are real or figments of his imagination. Spoiler alert: they are very real. In the meantime Danni and Hunter have crossed a line into romance which now makes her a target.

This actually has a pretty nifty concept, one I can’t discuss completely without spoiling the film. Suffice to say that revealing Hunter’s last name would be a very big clue. It also should be noted that the way in which Chicago is utilized as a setting lends itself to the type of movie this actually is, although in a much different way than fans of the genre are unused to. What genre? I can only say it’s a subset of the horror genre and leave it there.

Kellerman doesn’t look like your average horror or action hero, nor does he look like the average MMA champion. When he hasn’t been “homeless-ed” up with a raggedy beard, scruffy clothes and weathered skin, he resembles more the happy-go-lucky Jewish boy next door in a romantic comedy albeit one with Hebrew calligraphy tattooed to his chest. Nonetheless he does a pretty strong job in the lead and has a big future ahead of him given the right breaks.

Unfortunately, Tarleton opted to use a myriad of jump cuts perhaps in an effort to give us an idea of Hunter’s confusion and torment. If that was the purpose (and I have no definite idea that it was only that it’s the only explanation that makes sense) he was unsuccessful. After watching these cuts for only 20 minutes I began to get a headache and had to shut the movie off for a bit. That’s never a good sign.

Tarleton is more successful at building up to the climax, and he does so masterfully. We get a sense that Hunter is unreliable as a narrator, doubting even his own senses. That works really well in the course of the film giving us an is-he-crazy-or-is-he-not subtext to work with. In many ways the movie has a lot of inventive qualities and if the editing had been less frenetic this actually could have been a superior film. I give the filmmakers props for giving us a movie that has a lot of potential and viewers who are able to handle a lot of rapid-fire images perhaps better than I could may actually end up enjoying this immensely. Those who are more sensitive (like myself apparently) may find this to be more of an ordeal than a pleasant experience though. If that’s the case and you really are intrigued, I suggest having plenty of aspirin on hand.

REASONS TO SEE: The atmosphere is suitably Gothic, something Chicago lends itself to well.
REASONS TO AVOID: The filmmakers have an over reliance on jump cuts which tends to be headache-inducing after a while.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of violence and gore, some profanity as well as a bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:
Schatz won an Emmy for her work on the documentary Through a Child’s Eyes: September 11, 2001.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Radial
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thirst
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Last Resort

Shiner (2018)


Happy McBride (right) wonders what the blue plate special is.

(2018) Sports Drama (Tri-Coast) Seya Hug, Shannon Staller, Kevin Bernhardt, Randall England, Amin Joseph, Kirk Fox, Archie Hahn, Michael Hudson, Ibok, Jackie Mah, Brian T. Finney, Rocky Giordani, Christopher Meijer, Brian Waslak, Emely von Oest, Kelly Carter, Jessica McCabe, Stephen Scheide, Matt Lathrom, Lydie Denier, Victoria Anne Greenwood.  Directed by Seo Mutarevic

 

Fighting – whether it be traditional boxing, MMA or other forms of modern gladiators – is often defined publicly by he superstars but there are many levels of professionals in between the bottom and the top. Getting from the former to the latter is no easy task and can often be as brutal as what happens in the ring.

Matt (Hug) is a fresh-faced and somewhat naïve young wanna-be who has some talent but is going nowhere. He wants to enlist the aid of former champion Happy McBride (Bernhardt) as a manager, but Hap is not terribly interested. He has career aspirations of his own although he is perfectly happy to take all of Matt’s money and deliver him into a fight he can’t possibly win against a man much bigger than himself. Happy also owes money to people you really don’t want to owe money to.

Matt manages to appeal to Happy’s better nature and Happy reluctantly gets him a fight that is within his weight class. Matt turns out to have a whole lot more than some talent and eventually gets the attention of Happy’s former manager Larry (Finney) who thinks he can take the kid places, leading to some jealousy on the part of McBride. Matt’s overbearing dad (England) also shows up, convinced that his son should be a doctor (Matt left med school to take up fighting) and to complicate things further, Matt has fallen in love with Nikki (Staller) who is Happy’s daughter. Happy can’t help but like Matt more or less but the two could well be on a collision course as their dreams of clawing their way to the top almost inevitably go through each other.

In many ways this is a typical MMA/boxing drama with the kind of elements that are fairly traditional in the genre; a down on his luck fighter taking a younger man under his wing, a checkered past for the older man, an ill-advised romance for the younger man and stardom getting in the way of what might have been a fine mentor relationship. You won’t find a lot of surprises plot-wise here, although there is a very good scene in which father and daughter talk about the mother’s mental illness rather frankly.

The fighting scenes are actually pretty well staged and the action is kinetic. Mutarevic shows some promise as an action movie direction; certainly he understands what constitutes a good action scene. However, the performances of the actors with a few exceptions are fairly wooden, which isn’t necessarily their fault. The dialogue doesn’t always sound the way real people talk and occasionally you get the sense the actors are trying their best to figure out how to make what they’re saying sound natural and not managing to do so.

Staller is pretty and she has some good chemistry with Hug but at times she has a strange accent that sounds almost Eastern European and it is jarring since her onscreen father doesn’t have one. I don’t know if the actress has a natural accent or was trying to put one on but either way, it was jarring and distracting.

Bernhardt however delivered a nice performance as Happy. The character does some really crappy things to those around him, but it’s hard not to root for him. Bernhardt plays him as a charming Irish rogue  and that’s the perfect choice for the character (it helps that Bernhardt wrote the screenplay). I’ve seen plenty of movies in which very competent actors can’t pull off that kind of role, so kudos to Bernhardt for making it look easy.

The movie’s strengths and flaws just about even out in the end. I can’t really give this an unreserved recommendation because of the non-action sequences but I can give it a mild recommendation due to the action sequences. Of course, there’s always the fast forward button for those who don’t want to sit through one to get to the other.

REASONS TO GO: The fight sequences are pretty well staged.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the performances are a little bit stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, a fair amount of MMA violence and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Seya Hug is the son of professional Kickboxer Andy Hug.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Fandango Now
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rocky
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Driver X

Tickled


From such things comes Internet tickle porn,

(2016) Documentary (Magnolia) David Farrier, Dylan Reeve, David Starr, Hal Karp, David D’Amato, Kevin Clark, TJ Gretzner, Richard Ivey, Alden, Jordan Schillaci, Marko Realmone, Debbie Scoblionkov. Directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve

Once in awhile, a movie comes along that is a surprise to even the filmmakers. They start out making one story when all of a sudden it turns completely off the rails and heads into directions unknown. A good filmmaker will follow it as best they can. A great filmmaker will keep up with it and begin to help shape it themselves.

Journalist David Farrier from New Zealand has a tendency to follow quirky stories. When he saw an internet video for “competitive endurance tickling,” he thought at first it had to be a joke. When it turned out to be a thing, he thought it would make a great feature for his television program. He asked the producers of the videos he found, Jane O’Brien Media, he contacted them to set something up. To his surprise, he got a refusal. When he inquired as to why, he received sharply homophobic messages (David is gay) and as he pressed, the messages from the representative at Jane O’Brien Media became increasingly insulting and threatening.

His interest completely piqued, he asked for a face-to-face meeting with some of the people who worked for Jane O’Brien and met up with Marko Realmone and Kevin Clark, both members of the O’Brien legal team. The meeting didn’t go well and lawsuits were threatened if Farrier continued to pursue any sort of investigation. His journalistic senses now sensing a much different story going on, Farrier and his partner Dylan Reeve started digging into the world of the tickling fetish, speaking to David Starr, who makes fetish videos from his Orlando home, and Hal Karp who was a former talent scout for Jane O’Brien Media but who’d had a falling out with them since.

The more that Farrier and Reeve dug, the more they found instances of online bullying, threats and blackmail from Jane O’Brien Media to former employees and participants in the tickling videos which were essentially thinly veiled fetish videos. And as they did more digging going back to the online videos of one Terri DiSisto they discovered an alarming pattern of abuse, identity theft, harassment and internet fraud. Eventually all of this led back to one man: David D’Amato, the heir to a fortune from his lawyer father who seems to be the spider in the center of the web, a man who has jealously guarded his privacy. But what is he hiding?

This film, which played at the 2016 Florida Film Festival and can now be seen on HBO, is one that the viewer never knows what’s going to happen next. It is the kind of film that proves the adage “truth is stranger than fiction.” Although Farrier is making his feature film debut, he has tons of television experience and the movie benefits from it. The movie never drags and never fails to deliver twists and turns, some of them absolutely jaw-dropping.

The movie comes off like a suspense thriller and you feel a genuine sense of threat even as you think to yourself “this is an online bully hiding behind Internet anonymity” but at the same time you can’t be one hundred percent sure. Even during the Orlando sequence when Farrier portrays the fetish as an essentially harmless one (and thankfully so), there is a sense of menace that pervades the movie and one wonders if the lawyers will succeed in shutting down the pursuit of truth. This is a movie that illustrates just how important investigative journalism can be in finding out the truth even in the face of threats to career and reputation.

It should be noted that the D’Amato vigorously denies the veracity of the reporting here and insists that he is not involved with Jane O’Brien Media or Terri DiSisto in any way, despite documented evidence to the contrary. Lawsuits have indeed been filed although attempts to keep the film from being shown were unsuccessful.

While some may find the world of tickling fetish videos a bit too bizarre for their liking, to me this isn’t about the fetish so much as it is about control. Abuse thrives in silence and those who feel powerless often remain silent. Sometimes it takes someone with a powerful torch to cast light in the darkness and give a voice to the powerless. This is a terrific documentary which underscores just how necessary documentaries are.

REASONS TO GO: This is a movie that will literally keep you guessing. The value of good investigative journalism is shown.
REASONS TO STAY: It may be a little too bizarre for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two directors, a producer, the executive producer and one of the actors were all sued in U.S. Federal District Court by D’Amato and others in an effort to stop the film from being shown.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, HBO Go, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catfish
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Winter Sun

Here Comes the Boom


Neither Salma Hayek nor Kevin James have read the reviews yet.

Neither Salma Hayek nor Kevin James have read the reviews yet.

(2012) Comedy (Columbia) Kevin James, Salma Hayek, Henry Winkler, Gregg Germann, Joe Rogan, Gary Valentine, Chance, Bas Rutten, Reggie Lee, Mark DellaGrotte, Mookie Barker, Jackie Flynn, Nikki Tyler-Flynn, Melissa Peterman, Thomas Gallagher, Blaine Stevens, Jonathan Michael Trautmann, Germaine De Leon, Steven Ritchie, Shelly Desai, Earnestine Philips. Directed by Frank Coraci

In an era where education cuts are commonplace, schools more and more have had to find creative ways to fund their various programs that are no longer getting support from their local school districts. It can be a challenge for public schools to keep things like art and music on the curriculum when funding often requires school boards to choose between math and science and the arts.

Scott Voss (James) is a biology teacher just going through the motions at Wilkinson High, a school where falling revenues have led to all sorts of budget cuts. The latest round is jeopardizing the music program and the job of Marty Streb (Winkler), Scott’s friend. Scott feels bad and wants to do something, but is unsure of how to raise the revenue that would pay Marty’s salary and save the program.

Scott also teaches a U.S. citizenship course in the evenings to help make ends meet and one of his students (Rutten), a former MMA fighter, gives Scott – a former NCAA champion wrestler – the idea to do some MMA fights and use the losing purse money to help pay for Marty’s salary. At first the idea is pooh-poohed but Scott feels very strongly about this and begins training with his student to get stronger. In the meantime, he is romancing Bella Flores (Hayek), the school nurse – and if my school nurse had looked like that, I’d have been sick a lot more often, who is for the most part disinterested but now that Scott has come alive both as a fighter but also in the classroom as well, is beginning to regard him in a new light.

The students begin cheering for Scott, inspired by his dedication and newfound passion. However, making the approximately $50K needed to save the music program is no easy task and time is ticking down before the opportunity to save Marty’s job ticks away.

This is one of those sports comedies that is pretty much predictable from beginning to end. Movies like this depend on likable leads and they don’t come any more likable than Kevin James. He’s got a very blue collar, down-to-earth personality that is perfect for the small screen and doesn’t always translate well to the big one, but does in this case.

What doesn’t work is the plot which requires quite the suspension of disbelief; school officials don’t act like this and neither do MMA fighters. More worrisome is the lack of humor in the comedy. While there were some fairly funny bits (almost all of them in the trailer), for the most part the movie just plugs along getting by on its charm and the obvious charisma of Hayek and James.

The MMA sequences are realistic enough, given that James is in no way shape or form an MMA athlete, but he acquits himself all right all things considered. Of course, if you’re watching this movie for realistic MMA sequences, chances are you’re in need of some form of therapy or another. Still, there are less pleasant ways to spend an hour and a half and less pleasant people to spend it with. If “pleasant” is an adjective for movies that doesn’t bother you, this might be just the thing for you.

WHY RENT THIS: Nothing here that is objectionable. James is pleasant and Hayek is gorgeous.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Really formulaic and a bit unrealistic. Needs a bit more funny stuff.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sports violence, a little rude humor and a bit of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The car that James and his friends ride in is the same one James drove in the early seasons of King of Queens.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a gag reel, a featurette on the real-life fighters that appear in the film and a fascinating featurette on James’ training to become an MMA fighter.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $73.1M on a $42M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Flixster, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hitch
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Ride Along 2

Haywire


Haywire

Gina Carano finds that Michael Fassbender makes a nice stool.

(2012) Action (Relativity) Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Channing Tatum, Bill Paxton, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, Michael Angarano, Mathieu Kassovitz, Eddie J. Fernandez, Aaron Cohen, Maximo Arciniega. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

 

Trust is a hard thing to come by and shouldn’t be given lightly. However at some point you have to at least hope that those in the same boat as you are going to watch your back. Sometimes though the people in that boat might have differing agendas.

Mallory Kane (Carano) is an operative working for a private security agency, the kind that takes care of things that government agencies can’t or won’t. After a hostage rescue in Barcelona doesn’t go quite according to plan, Kane and her fellow team member Aaron (Tatum) hook up before going their separate ways.

Mallory’s boss Kenneth (McGregor) next assigns her to a quick job as eye candy to MI-6 agent Paul (Fassbender) in Dublin as they pursue a French asset named Studer (Kassovitz). In a barn on the Frenchman’s estate, Mallory finds the hostage she rescued with a bullet in his brain. That raises her suspicions. When Paul turns against her and tries to kill her in their hotel room, that makes her downright paranoid.

She now has to escape her own operatives and law enforcement as she tries to get to the bottom of things as to why she was double crossed. She’ll have to discover who was behind it – Kenneth, the government official who employed him (Douglas), the diplomat (Banderas) who isn’t all he appears to be and the only person she can trust is her father (Paxton).

Stephen Soderbergh has done action movies before (The Limey) although he is best known for the Oceans 11 series. He makes a noble effort here but it falls a bit short of the mark. The problem here lies mostly in the writing. For one thing, there is no real suspense; most of the betrayals and double crosses you see coming. They’re not just telegraphed, they’re on digital video on demand.

Also, I found the pacing kind of uneven. The movie jerks along like it has sugar in the carburetor. There’s a scene of action, then a flashback, then exposition, then more action…there isn’t the kind of flow that makes a movie like this work. There’s also a distinct but odd lack of energy, like the cast and crew didn’t eat their Wheaties or something. It’s extremely laid back.

There are some good performances here. Carano, a MMF superstar, carries the load here and she shows a great deal of potential. She has one romantic encounter with Tatum and she looks like she felt awkward doing it but otherwise she handles herself well, not to mention she’s very attractive. Some female reviewers have expressed some satisfaction at watching her kick the asses of every other guy in this movie, but badass women are no stranger to Hollywood – maybe those reviewers should watch a couple of Pam Grier movies for future reference. Carano, a trained professional, is an excellent ass-kicker it must be said.

There’s lots of action for those who are into that, from car chases to occasional gun fights. I do like that Mallory works for an independent contractor and not a shadowy government agency, that is more in line with modern sensibilities. However, the pros and the cons of this film break just about even. I’m leaning towards a very slight not recommended, but I could be pushed either way.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of action. Carano is easy on the eyes.

REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is kind of choppy. The plot is kind of predictable. Lacks passion – felt more like a payday than a movie.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots and lots of violence. Then lots more.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gina Carano’s voice was digitally altered to make it deeper sounding after the studio decided her voice was too-feminine sounding for the role.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100. The reviews are good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mechanic

EUROPEAN LOCATION LOVERS: Won’t be loving this. Most of the location shots could have been filmed anywhere. You never get a sense of place in this movie.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Girl on the Train