The Beta Test


Jim Cummings promises that he’s not a douchenozzle like Jordan.

(2021) Mystery (IFC) Jim Cummings, Virginia Newcomb, PJ McCabe, Kevin Changaris, Olivia Applegate, Jacqueline Doke, Christian Hillborg, Jessie Barr, Malin Barr, Wilky Lau, Keith Powell, Lya Yanne, Jackie Michele Johnson, Brayden Reeves, Dustin Hahn, Ammar Alderi, Joy Sunday, Julio Trinidad, Bryan Casserly, Jeffrey Markle, Cheri Chen Julian. Directed by Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe

 

Hollywood is not a place for the faint of heart. It is full of rampaging egos and cutthroat businessfolk who chew up and spit out the gentler souls. It is a place that needs thick skins and a cold heart in order to survive.

Jordan (Cummings) is an agent for a three-letter talent agency (Hollywood insider junkies can likely figure out which one it’s supposed to be) who is pretty much a douchebag. He makes deals of questionable legality and unquestionable immorality, treats assistants like cannon fodder, and outwardly dotes on his fiancé Caroline (Newcomb) while viewing her as essentially a stepping stone on the way to real power.

He receives a strange invitation in a purple envelope, promising him a one-time no-strings-attached sexual encounter if he shows up to such-and-such a hotel room at such-and-such a time. He barely gives it a second thought and shows up, where he is blindfolded and has passionate sex with a similarly blindfolded partner.

But paranoia runs deep in the heart of an agent, and Jordan begins to suspect that he’s been set up. He confides in his partner PJ (McCabe) who launches a quiet investigation; in the meantime, Angelinos are dropping like flies, being murdered by their partners for their infidelity. Is that what’s in store for Jordan?

There’s a lot going on here; multiple layers of different genres, from a whodunit, to a Hollywood insider satire, to a dark comedy and to an erotic thriller. The movie tilts at windmills like Big Tech, misogynistic Hollywood culture, toxic masculinity and infidelity. Some might even see it as a parable about modern society and morals; I think that may be a bit of a stretch, but I can see where the idea might germinate. In the first two acts, the various elements are interwoven deftly, although co-directors (and co-writers) seem to lose the threads in the final act when the violence begins to accelerate.

One of the big problems here is that Jordan is a walking talking bag of feces, and the longer you spend with him, the more unclean you’ll feel. There comes a point where you begin hoping that Caroline will find out what’s going on and attatch a bomb to his testicles; at least that might give the audience a sense of satisfaction, but alas, that’s not to be. Does Jordan get what’s coming to him? I’m not telling, but suffice to say that you may or may not leave the film’s final credits feeling vindicated.

REASONS TO SEE: Lots of different layers going on here.
REASONS TO AVOID: The lead character is such a jerk you don’t want to spend another minute with him.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Some of the dialogue is repeated verbatim from testimony given the filmmakers by eleven agents, former agents and assistants at the four largest talent agencies in Hollywood.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews; Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eyes Wide Shut
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain

Advertisement

The Secret of Sinchanee


This is one serious dude.

(2021) Horror (Vertical) Tamara Austin, Steven Grayhm, Nate Boyer, Laila Lockhart Kraner, Rudy Reyes, Chris Neville, Margarita Reyes, Mark Oliver (voice), Kathleen Kenny, Skylar Schanen, Elena Capaldi, Ricky Barksdale, Jacob Schick, TJ Millard, Don McAlister, Emmett Spriggs, Bryanna Nadeau, Jesse Goddard, Trystyn Roberts, Donna Tierney-Jones. Directed by Steven Grayhm

 

It is a shameful fact that the Europeans who came to colonize the Americas often clashed with the Natives who were here first. The interlopers behaved deplorably, making promises they had no intention of keeping, spreading diseases among the native indigenous population and when all else failed, massacring them outright. Not all Europeans treated the first nations poorly, of course, but enough did to create a schism between original inhabitants and colonists that has continued for morethan four hundred years.

Will Stark (Grayhm) is a tow truck driver who suffers from insomnia. He has returned to his home in Massachusetts to dispose of his father’s property, after his father passed away. However, selling the house is no easy task; it is a house, as they say, with a past, and an unsavory one at that – Will witnessed the murder of his mother and sister in that house when he was a child. The townsfolk consider him an odd duck; his father had schizophrenia and Will is showing signs of the condition as well, experiencing strange visions. Of course, the lack of sleep might account for that, too.

But there are other disturbing things going on. A woman for unknown reasons abandons her car in the middle of a cold night and wanders out into the snow to freeze to death. When her body is discovered, it appears as if she has been branded with peculiar symbols. Detectives Carrie Donovan (Austin) and Drew Carter (Boyer) are investigating the case, and they, like Will’s house, have a history – they also have a child together, young Ava (Kraner).

As Will begins experiencing more strange occurrences in the house, Detective Donovan is finding that the case of the murdered woman is leading her increasingly towards the supernatural. She finally meets with a Native American shaman named Solomon Goodblood (Reyes) who tells her about the Sinchanee, a tribe that lived in the area that had shown remarkable resistance to the diseases that the white settlers brought to the area. This apparently annoyed the heck out of a pagan cult called the Atlantow who were bound and determined to destroy the Sinanchee and turned their death spirit against them. The Atlantow will not be satisfied until every last remaining Sinchanee is wiped out. Guess who has Sinchanee blood running in their veins? Yup…Will, Carrie…and Ava.

First-time filmmaker Grayhm opts to tell Will and Carrie’s stories concurrently. This is a tactical error, as it lengthens the film unnecessarily. There’s also an awful lot of unnecessary business in the movie, which takes a long time to get going and once it does, doesn’t really pack the kind of excitement that the slow buildup would required as a payoff. Grayhm, who also wrote the film, uses a lot of horror movie tropes which don’t add luster to the story.

The cinematography by Logan Fulton is very scenic in a wintery way and does make the movie look good. Grayhm also does a good job of creating a tone for the movie, which is right about two hours long and should have been at least a half hour less. One way he might have accomplished this is by combining the two storylines, having Carrie and Will working together. It might have streamlined the story which is badly in need of it.

In these politically correct times of woke expectations, I wonder about using Native American legends as a framework for a horror movie, even if the legends are spun from whole cloth. There might be some who take offense to it…but then again, basically we’re in an era where everything causes offense by one person or another; so, what are you gonna do? I get the sense that Grayhm was fairly respectful of Native American culture in general, although that’s not really for me to say – not being of that ethnic group. But I think it would have been more respectful to make a better movie about native mythology just as a general rule of thumb.

REASONS TO SEE: Does a good job of creating a tone.
REASONS TO AVOID: Should have streamlined the story considerably.
=FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The company Will works for in the movie actually exists in Massachusetts, although that is not their office used in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Redbox, Vudu
=CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wendigo
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Many Saints of Newark

The Woman in the Window


Amy Adams peers out into a frightening world.

(2021) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Amy Adams, Fred Hechinger, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Wyatt Russell, Brian Tyree Henry, Jeanine Serralles, Anthony Mackie, Mariah Bozeman, Daymien Valentino, Anna Cameron (voice), Myers Bartlett (voice), Haven Burton (voice), Ben Davis (voice), Blake Morris (voice), Liza Colón-Zayas, Tracy Letts, Gigi Jones. Directed by Joe Wright

 

Some movies are so completely original you go through every scene realizing you are watching something fresh and new. Others are so derivative that you carry with you a sense of déjà vu throughout the film, whether you want to or not.

In this adaptation of a bestselling thriller by A.J. Finn (the nom de plume of Dan Mallory, who has had a checkered past as detailed in this article in The New Yorker), Dr. Anna Fox (Adams) is suffering from severe agoraphobia. She spends most of her day in a tony New York brownstone washing down her meds with generous portions of wine. She peers out of her window at the brownstone across the street and through her observations becomes acquainted with the Russell family. Son Ethan (Hechinger) comes over to introduce himself and is awkwardly sweet; his mother Jane (Moore) comes over and commiserates over even more wine with Anna. The only member of the family she doesn’t like is the bullying father (Oldman) who would just as soon she had no interaction with his family.

When she witnesses Jane apparently getting murdered, she is horrified and calls the police, only to discover that Jane isn’t dead – but Jane isn’t Jane either. Instead, another woman (Leigh) shows up and is introduced as Jane. The kindly but disbelieving police detective (Henry) is understanding, given that Dr. Fox has psychological problems; is she really going mad, or is there something terrible afoot?

This movie has been cobbled together from elements of other far better movies, including Rear Window (a clip from which they brazenly show early on in the film), Gaslight and Gone Girl to certain extents. The plot twists, when they come, aren’t particularly jaw-dropping. Most of them are fairly easy to spot.

And that’s a shame because there is an awful lot of talent here both in front of and behind the camera. While Adams acquits herself reasonably well (as does Henry), actors the caliber of Moore, Leigh, Oldman and Anthony Mackie (in a role as Anna’s ex-husband) are largely wasted. Given the convoluted plot, the preposterous eye-rolling plot twists and a director in Joe Wright who should know better, having directed some pretty stellar, Oscar-worthy pictures in the past, there really isn’t much to recommend this film other than morbid curiosity, given the movie’s production issues which led to reshoots that delayed the film for two years before it was pawned off on Netflix finally.

REASONS TO SEE: Adams tackles a different kind of role for her and ends up doing a respectable job.
REASONS TO AVOID: An uninteresting derivation of Hitchcock.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film by screenwriter Tracy Letts that is an adaptation of another work (in this case, a novel by A.J. Finn); Letts also appears in the film as Dr. Landy. Incidentally, this is also the final movie to be made by the Fox 2000 imprint; Disney shuttered the production studio following their merger with 20th Century Fox.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews; Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rear Window
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Girl Next

Deliver Us From Evil (Daman akeseo guhasoseo)


It is twilight for a professional killer.

(2020) Crime (Well Go USA) Jun-min Hwang, Jung-jae Lee, Jung-min Park, Moon Choi, Hakuryu, Park Myeong-hoon, Dae-hwan Oh, Tomonori Mizuno, Young-chang Song, Kosuke Toyohara, Hiroaki Hirakawa, Ito Keitoku, Ken Kurahara, Atsundo Maruyama, So-yi Park. Directed by Won-Chan Hong

 

For an action film to be successful, it doesn’t have to be particularly original, although that certainly helps. When an action movie is well-thought-out, well-choreographed and well-paced, a lack of imagination can be forgiven.

In-nam (Hwang) is a contract killer who used to be a cop. He has just finished his last job before retiring to Panama to live on a quiet beach, but that is not to be. For one thing, the last man he killed, a yakuza named Goreda (Toyohara) has a vengeful brother named Ray, who is better known as Ray the Butcher (Lee). You really don’t want someone named “The Butcher” mad at you, particularly when that person is muscle for the yakuza.

Worse still, it turns out that an ex-girlfriend (Choi) has died and her young daughter Yoo-min (S-y Park) has been kidnapped by human traffickers and taken to Bangkok. In-nam is not helping out because he’s a particularly good guy; he is about as stone cold as they get, but he does have some skin in that particular game. With raving lunatic Ray chasing the ice-cold In-nam, you can imagine that sparks will fly when the two meet.

And sparks do fly. Action fans will be pleased to know that this is as gripping an action movie as you’re likely to see this year, with well-staged martial arts fights and some spectacular action sequences that would do a Hollywood big-budget summer tentpole film proud. This is the kind of movie that doesn’t lack for entertainment.

It also doesn’t lack for action stars. Hwang and Lee are two of South Korea’s biggest stars; they haven’t been in a movie together in eight years, but their chemistry is undeniable. They work really well together, and Hwang does the taciturn, brooding killing machine about as well as anybody, although in the Bangkok heat the man sweats like a politician in front of a grand jury.

Where the movie is lacking is in plot. There is nothing here in terms of story that you haven’t seen before, and sometimes in better movies. How many retiring hit man movies have we seen even this year, where the retiree is drawn back into the business unwillingly? One place where the movie is a little different is that there is a transgender character, Yoo-Yi (J-m Park) who plays In-nam’s translater and girl Friday in Bangkok, where she hopes to make enough money for her gender reassignment surgery. While she’s mostly there for comic relief, surprisingly she is played as more sympathetic than you’d expect, and who ends up being the most likable character in the movie with the possible exception of the utterly adorable Yoo-min.

The movie was one of the top grossing films in Korea last year, having just finished production before the pandemic hit and was one of the few major releases in that country in 2020. With big budget Hollywood movies beginning to peek out from out of their quarantine, this might end up being lost in the shuffle which would be a shame; it is actually quite entertaining and a must for action fans who like their movies at break-neck speed.

REASONS TO SEE: Some spectacular action sequences. Hwang has the surly action hero thing down pat.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat unoriginal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a truck full of violence and gore (much of it brutal) and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second time that Hwang and Lee have appeared in the same action film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Taken
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
An Amityville Poltergeist

Say Your Prayers


Just a couple of radical Christian assassins out for a drive.

(2020) Comedy (Gravitas) Harry Melling, Tom Brooke, Roger Allam, Derek Jacobi, Vinette Robinson, Anna Maxwell Martin, Flora Spencer-Longhurst, Matthew Steer, George Potts, Max Upton, Mike Baxandall, Cathy Baxandall, Tiffany Clare, Vivienne Race, Elliot Halidu, Dave Peel, Will Barton, Zach Webster, Jimmy Wilde, Louis Brogan, Helen Simmons, Emily Layton. Directed by Harry Mitchell

 

Sometimes when you read politicians and analysts speak, you’d think that the tribalism that affects modern society is something new but in fact humans have ALWAYS been tribal. If it wasn’t actual tribes, it was country versus country, city versus town, rural versus urban, one religion against another. We have always found reasons to hate The Other.

Tim (Melling) and Vic (Brooke) are two orphaned brothers, brought up by the somewhat obsessive Father Enoch (Jacobi). He has sent them on a mission – to murder noted atheist author Professor William Huxley (Allam), likely no relation to Aldous. He is speaking at a literary festival at a small village in Yorkshire, so he will be far from the safety of crowded city streets.

Tim is a gentle soul and somewhat simple and he bollocks it up by choosing someone (Barton) who looks similar to Professor Huxley – from behind, that is. Vic has anger issues and is much more gung-ho about the whole thing. When Father Enoch gets the word that an innocent man has been killed, he is more than a little miffed.

In the meantime, Tim has met and fallen for Imelda (Robinson), who unbeknownst to Tim has been carrying on a long-distance relationship with the Professor. Meanwhile, on the tail of the bumbling assassins is strident foul-mouthed Inspector Brough (Martin) and her friendlier, long-suffering partner Hodge (Spencer-Longhurst). With Father Enoch now insisting that the boys kill the Professor in a public way and Tim, who once was reluctant to take life until he met the royal arsehole that is Huxley, and Vic not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier, will righteousness triumph over self-righteousness?

This is a dark British comedy that skewers organized religion, zealotry (of every persuasion), TV cops and literary festivals all at once and has quite a lark doing it. One of the notable things is that Mitchell (who also co-wrote the movie) does is have a kind of Greek chorus following the boys around – except they are a British choral society of elderly men singing traditional British songs and hymns. They are actually quite lovely to hear and the incongruity of seeing immaculately dressed (in matching blazers) a choir of old men standing in the wilds of the Yorkshire moors is a running joke throughout the movie.

Melling has come a long way from Dudley Dursley, whom he played in the Harry Potter movies. There is nothing of the bully in Tim, who is gentle and simple, with a yearning to love. He is the tragic figure here as he is caught by events that he can’t escape from. He is more or less the straight man here, although he is the spindle around which the entire movie turns. Most of the other main characters (with the exceptions of Imelda and Hodge) are fairly unpleasant or even despicable but in the cases of Enoch and Huxley, are resolute and even passionate about their beliefs.

Allom and Jacobi are both old pros who know how to deliver and do so here, but Melling may well be a rising star with a little more range than some of his other Potter co-stars that have continued their careers in acting since Harry’s saga came to an end. He also has some decent comic chops, although the humor is largely situational here; there aren’t a lot of one-liners.

But the humor is superior to most of the other comedies I’ve seen thus far this year. If you like your comedies bone-dry with a bite, if you like your comedies to tackle big issues, this is the movie you seek, grasshopper.

REASONS TO SEE: Wickedly funny. Not so much a Greek chorus as a British one.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a bit on the blasphemous side.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of profanity, violence and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scenes set in a television studio were actually filmed at the University of Bradford’s studio which is used for teaching aspiring broadcast students how to set up a set.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Estate
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Amber’s Descent

Lords of Chaos


Welcome to my nightmare.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Gunpowder & SkyRory Culkin, Emory Cohen, Jack Kilmer, Sky Ferreira, Valter Skarsgård, Anthony De La Torre, Jonathan Barnwell, Sam Coleman, Wilson Gonzalez, Lucian Charles Collier, Andrew Lavelle, James Edwyn, Gustaf Hammarsten, Jon Ølgarden, Arion Csihar, Jason Arnopp, Tom van Hoesch, Dzsenifer Bagi. Directed by Jonas Åkerlund

 

In the mid-90s, black metal rose out of Norway as a reaction to what the practitioners viewed as the trendiness of death metal. The group Mayhem essentially defined the genre, then became enmeshed in it, finally being destroyed by it, even though the band continues to perform even to this day.

Disaffected Norwegian Euronymous (Culkin) forms the band as a means of expressing his dissatisfaction with Norway’s Christian society and to take death metal further than it seemed likely to go. When Swedish lead singer Dead (Cohen) commits suicide, Euronymous – who discovered the body – seems to grow callous towards the grisly end of his friend, even handing out necklaces that contained bone fragments from his bandmate’s skull to the remaining members of Mayhem as well as to musicians that he liked.

He takes under his wing teenage Varg Vikernes (Cohen) who has the zeal of a convert. Varg takes to burning churches, some of them centuries old and Norwegian cultural treasures. Euronymous heartily approves of this behavior, even though he is more of an observer than a participant. Things begin to get dicey between the two as Varg brags – anonymously – about the deeds, even boasting that he had killed someone – to the press. Euronymous is horrified, understanding that this could get them all arrested but Varg feels that they need to be feared, to make a statement that this is not just posing but who they really are. As the two men grow more paranoid, it leads to a fracture within the band – and a shocking crime.

Åkerlund has plenty of insight into the scene; as a young man he played drums for the Swedish band Bathory which was an inspiration to the real Mayhem but strangely enough, we don’t get much. The motivations for these people to do genuinely evil acts seems to be a kind of macho one-upsmanship and a fear of being labeled a poseur. Although the film takes place in Norway, the film is in English with the character of Euronymous providing narration. Cohen sounds a bit like Christian Slater which also is somewhat disconcerting.

Surprisingly little black metal is used on the soundtrack; in fact, the lead-up to the climax utilizes Dead Can Dance – decidedly not a metal band – effectively as the background score. The suicide is graphic as is the final scene and sensitive sorts should definitely steer clear; that final scene is particularly brutal and realistic. The movie is interesting as a character study, but at the end of the day we get the distinct impression that who these guys really were was a bunch of asshats.

REASONS TO SEE: Disturbing in an interesting way.
REASONS TO AVOID: Seems to glorify knuckle-dragging behavior.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie’s chock full of profanity; there’s also nudity, sex, graphic bloody violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Euronymous is portrayed here smoking regularly and drinking heavily but in reality he rarely drank anything stronger than Coca-Cola and did not smoke.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Hulu, Kanopy, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews, Metacritic: 48/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Until the Light Takes Us
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Beyond Skiing Everest

True History of the Kelly Gang


Ned Kelly, Australian icon.

2019) Historical Drama (IFCGeorge MacKay, Russell Crowe, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Charlie Hunnam, Earl Cave, Josephine Blazier, Thomasin McKenzie, Marlon Williams, Orlando Schwerdt, Ben Corbett, John Murray, Tilly Lawless, Ross Knight, Louis Hewson, Jillian Nguyen, Paul Rochfort, Andrew Wright, Will McNeill, Danzal Baker, Markella Kavenagh. Directed by Justin Kurzel

 

Ned Kelly is couldn’t be more Australian if he were a kangaroo singing “Waltzing Matilda.” He is the ultimate anti-hero; a horse thief, cattle rustler and murderer who became a symbol of the independent spirit of Australia by standing up against the colonial police who oppressed him. While there are some Aussies who see him as a hardened criminal who got what he deserved, others see him as a heroic martyr.

Young Ned (Schwerdt) lives in the wilds of Victoria in the mid-19th century with his feckless alcoholic Pa (Corbett) and his angry, bitter Ma Ellen Kelly (Davis) who is having sex with Inspector O’Neil (Hunnam) of the Victoria police who is at the same time, harassing Ned’s Dad. When Ned is given an opportunity to go to boarding school, the offer gets his mother’s Irish up and she turns down the offer flat, instead sending young Ned out with bushranger (outlaw) Harry Power (Crowe), who teaches Ned the ways of the bush.

Now grown up, Ned (MacKay) has become a bushranger in his own right. Yet another policeman, Constable Fitzpatrick (Hoult) has taken a liking to Ned’s comely sister Kate (Blazier). However, when Fitzpatrick takes liberties and sneers at Ellen, Ned shoots the Constable in the wrist and is forced to flee into the bush.

There, the legend of Ned Kelly is born and backed by his own gang that slowly grows into an army, he robs banks and shoots coppers whenever the chance arises. However, as corrupt as the police are, they still are better armed and even Ned’s homemade armor won’t save him from falling in a bloody shootout at Glenrowan and a final date with the gallows – cementing his place as a legend.

Giving lie to the title, the opening credits proclaim that “nothing you see here is true.” The connecting tissue of the movie is Ned, awaiting execution in the Old Melbourne Gaol, writing a letter to his daughter, telling her the truth of his life. As he pens the words “May I burn in Hell if I speak false,” screams of torment can be heard in the background. The film is full of clever little touches like that.

The movie is based on the 2000 Man Booker-award winning novel by Peter Carey, and is indeed a fictionalized account of the notorious outlaw, apropos of the title. While the events are essentially true to history, there are a lot of inventions here; I will admit that I’m not fully versed in Australian history, but I didn’t find any references to the Kelly gang wearing women’s dresses during the course of their crimes, as depicted here (Ned’s father is also depicted as a cross-dresser). There is also an encounter between Ned and Fitzpatrick that has homoerotic connotations and there’s no evidence that Kelly swung in that direction, so to speak. Kelly is also depicted as clean-shaven whereas photos of him clearly show a bushy beard, but Mackay was also filming 1917 around that time and may not have had the luxury of growing a beard for this film.

There is also some artistic license; rather than using period music, Kurzel blasts punk rock tracks to shock the audience out of complacency and uses strobe lights in a couple of different places including the climactic gun battle which is well-staged, incidentally. However, there are times that I get the sense that Kurzel is showing off as a director and it does take away focus from his film.

However, Kurzel and his cinematographer Ari Wegner do a magnificent job of capturing the immensity of the Australian bush; the bleakness of the impoverished Kelly home and the terrifying Glenrowan gun battle, in which bullets and beams of light pepper the shed. Kurzel has been watching a few Baz Luhrmann films of late, I suspect.

Kurzel has a good cast, with powerful performances by MacKay who is poised for stardom with this and 1917 under his belt, Davis who was captivating in The Nightingale and Crowe in a supporting role, showing the presence and chops that made him a star in the first place.

The script does a lot to humanize Kelly, making him a victim of poverty and of police prejudices against Irish convicts who were sent to the penal colony. He is no saint, but he really had no other options at his disposal other than to turn to a life of crime; essentially, he was just fulfilling expectations. If you’re looking for, as the title suggests, the true story of Ned Kelly and his gang, you have the wrong movie but there is insight to be had here. The true history is a tragedy, as it turns out.

REASONS TO SEE: Has a mythological feel to it, even as the filmmakers seek to humanize Kelly. Needs to be seen on the big screen.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little too artsy for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: There Is a lot of violence, much of it bloody and graphic; there is also plenty of profanity, some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Earl Cave, who played Ned’s brother Dan, is the son of Australian rock legend Nick Cave who grew up less than 10 km from where Kelly’s last shootout with the police took place in Glenrowan.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews, Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mary Queen of Scots

Papillon (2017)


A couple of cons on the beach.

(2017) Drama (Bleecker StreetCharlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Eve Hewson, Yorick van Wageningen, Roland Møller, Andre Flynn, Antonio de la Cruz, Michael Adams, Louisa Pili, Brian Vernel, Mark Phelan, Luke Peros, Joel Basman, Nenad Herakovic, Michael Socha, Lorena Andrea, Poppy Mehendra, Demetri Goritsas, Juan-Leonardo Solari, Veronica Quilligan, Mirjana Novak. Directed by Michael Noer

The purported autobiography of French safecracker Henri Charriére was notable for its gritty adventure tone that made the man, who was nicknamed Papillon after the tattoo of a butterfly on his chest, an almost heroic figure. It was also notable for a laissez-faire attitude towards the facts; much of what Charriére described either didn’t happen to him or didn’t happen at all.

That didn’t stop a classic 1973 movie starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman from garnering acclaim and affection. This remake takes a grittier tone than the original; in many ways, the brutality of the French penal system is sanitized for audiences of that era. Here, we see bloody beatings, prison sexual assaults and people being gutted for the money they swallowed to help them survive prison.

Wrongfully convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, Charriére (Hunnam) is sentenced to life in the French penal colony in Guiana. Once there, he meets wealthy forger Louis Dega (Malek) and takes on the role of his protector, mainly to utilize the cash he brought in to finance his escape attempts to get back to his girlfriend (Hewson) and live the life the two of them dreamed of. Standing in the way is a brutal warden (van Wageningen) and deadly terrain.

It’s not a fair comparison to pit Hunnam and Malek up against McQueen and Hoffman, although Malek does an outstanding job and Hunnam a credible one. The friendship that develops between the two in the original becomes less conspicuous in the remake and the chemistry between Malek and Hunnam is less scintillating than that of McQueen and Hoffman.

As adventure tales go, this isn’t a bad one although I found it to be a bit of a drag near the middle and by the end, I was checking my watch. Definitely, of the two, I would strongly recommend the 1973 version which is a triumph of the human spirit but if you’re unwilling to check that one out, this isn’t a bad version of the story. It’s just not as good as the movie it is based on.

REASONS TO SEE: Very gritty and realistic.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t hold a candle to the original.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence including some bloody images, brief nudity, profanity and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film is set in French Guiana (on the Northeast coast of South America), the entire movie was filmed in Europe.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 52% positive reviews: Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Great Escape
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
A Simple Favor

The Last Color


Being a woman in India is walking the tightrope between tradition and equality.

(2019) Drama (Saffron PenNeena Gupta, Aqsa Siddiqui, Budrani Chhetri, Rajeshwar Khanna, Aslam Sheikh. Directed by Vikas Khanna

 

India has an amazing culture with much to admire about it. One of the things that is an exception is in the way that women are treated, particularly widows and orphans. In many ways, Indian society is downright repressive to those who have few advocates.

Noor Saxena is one such advocate. A lawyer, she has wrangled a decision from India’s highest court that grants rights to widows that they have not had for centuries. In Indian tradition, widows only wear white. They live lives devoid of color – they are forbidden from taking part in the Holi festival that celebrates the oncoming of spring. You may know it as the one where people throw colored powders at one another in a frenzy of joyful fun. Widows don’t get to take part in that.

Chhoti (Siddiqui) is a street rat living in the slums of Benares, a Hindu holy city along the Ganges. She makes money by doing a tightrope act and selling flowers in the streets. She hopes one day to earn enough to go to school and rise above her station. She befriends 70-year-old Noor (Gupta), a widow living in an ashram for widows who live lives of colorless and passionless reflection. As with most widows, her life is expected to be over when her husband dies; her body is just walking around until she can join him.

Chhoti also hangs out with Chintu (R. Khanna), a fellow orphan who aids her in her high wire act. The two dodge police officers trying to make enough to survive. They are aided by transgender woman Anarkali (Chhetri) who supports herself as a sex worker, mainly catering to brutal men like Raja (Sheikh), an ill-tempered cop who sees himself as king of his little part of the world. He is doubly frustrated because his wife not only hasn’t given him a son (only daughters) but she refuses to bathe in a sacred pool which would guarantee the birth of a strapping young son. He passes through the world as kind of a rage junkie, always looking for a reason to cause pain.

Still, Chhoti never fails to stand up for herself and with Noor guiding her and pushing her to be better than her lot, she falls under the vengeful gaze of Raja, particularly after she witnesses the evil cop doing something particularly heinous, something that could get him thrown in jail. Will Noor defy tradition and stand with her friend?

The movie looks at cultural attitudes towards women in general and the more marginalized women – transgenders, widows and “untouchables” in particular – and the traditions that keep them down. First-time director Vikas Khanna has a wonderful eye for color; the movie is gorgeous to look at even in its occasional brutality and squalor.

Gupta also gives Noor a ton of dignity and gravitas, perhaps more than the movie deserves. It sometimes seems to move at a very deliberate pace which can be maddening; hammering us over the head with how widows and orphans are treated might get the point across but it also at times feels like we’re being talked down to. When you’re trying to deliver a message with your movie, that’s a pitfall you want to avoid.

Still, there is a lot here that is worth checking out. The movie had a brief Los Angeles run and may yet make some appearances elsewhere; there may even be a VOD slot in its future although nothing official has been announced as of yet. Either way, this is worth keeping an eye out for.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderful use of color throughout the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Rather slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, particularly of the domestic sort; also, sexual situations and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Khanna is best-known as a James Beard award-winning chef. The film is based on a novel that he wrote decrying the state of women’s rights in his home country.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lipstick Under My Burkha
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Klaus

The First Purge


Viewers can now binge the Purge.

(2018) Thriller (Universal/BlumhouseY’lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, Mugga, Patch Darragh, Marisa Tomei, Luna Lauren Velez, Kristen Solis, Rotimi Paul, Mo McRae, Jermel Howard, Siya, Christian Robinson, Steve Harris, Derek Basco, D.K. Bowser, Mitchell Edwards, Maria Rivera, Chyna Layne, Ian Blackman, Melonie Diaz. Directed by Gerard McMurray

 

The Purge series posits a somewhat fascist American government creating a 12=hour period annually during which all crime is legal, including murder. Those who can afford to leave, do – or they set up their homes as impenetrable fortresses. For the less wealthy, the alternative is to hunker down and ride it out, hoping the crazies won’t find them.

The latest film in the franchise (which has since also added a ten-episode “event” cable TV series, an ad for which appeared mid-credits at the film’s conclusion) goes back to the beginning, when the New Founding Fathers – the only political party standing – have emerged as the de facto rulers after an economic crisis has crippled the United States. Eager to purge the roles of welfare recipients and those getting federal assistance, they enlist a kooky psychiatrist (Tomei) to come up with a plan. The experiment is limited to Staten Island, where the government entices residents to stay by offering $5000 cash if they’ll wear contact lenses mounted with miniaturized cameras, giving everybody’s eyes a bizarre glow.

Nya (Davis) is having none of it. She sees the Purge for what it is – a racist attempt to take out the poor and the dark-skinned. Her ex-boyfriend Dmitri (Noel) is more pragmatic; he’s a drug dealer who is staying only because relocating his product would be too risky. So , with rival dealers seeing the Purge as an opportunity and other segments of the population throwing huge parties, oblivious to the danger that confronts them, and the government sending in hit squads when the violence isn’t enough to capture the imagination of the populous, Nya and Dmitri are going to have a very long night indeed.

There is no doubt that the series is allegorical, accurately predicting America’s turn towards extremism back in 2013 when the series debuted. The MAGA-like hat that decorated the poster was another clue; there’s even a reference to female genital grabbing if that isn’t enough. All in all, I’m not sure if Trump supporters are going to see this as elitist liberalism or a reactionary wet dream and respond accordingly.

The performances of the mostly unknown leads are solid enough and some of the murder scenes are cleverly staged but the movie is absolutely riddled with tropes and stock characters to the point that it becomes depressingly predictable. There are definitely signs that the franchise is losing its steam and doesn’t really have the courage of its convictions any longer. Still, those who appreciated the first three films in the series will likely appreciate this one, although they – like I – may not embrace it as a fitting addition to the franchise.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the murder sequences are extremely effective.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many clichés and way too predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a plethora of often disturbing violence, some sexual content, profanity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film in the franchise not to be directed by James DeMonaco. Although he did write the screenplay.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews: Metacritic: 54//100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assault on Precinct 13
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
A Reindeer’s Journey