Puff: Wonders of the Reef


Introducing Puff.

(2021) Nature Documentary (Netflix) Rose Byrne (narrator). Directed by Nick Robinson

 

A fabulous nature documentary kind of slipped out under the radar when it debuted in December on Netflix. Puff: Wonders of the Reef shows a world we rarely are privileged to glimpse – the micro-ecology of the Great Barrier Reef.

While we are normally shown the macro denizens of the reef, there is another world which is smaller than the human eye can generally see. We are introduced to sharp-nosed puffer fish Puff (they might have used a more imaginative name) who was recently born in the teeming incubator of life known as the Great Barrier Reef, just off the shore of Australia.

Thanks to cinematographer Pete West, we go into that world and meet strange and beautiful creatures like the porcelain crab. It is somewhat ironic that the Reef, one of the world’s largest organisms, has such a tiny world imbedded in it. It’s a beautiful world, too but make no mistake – that beauty hides some creatures that are deadly. Puff, with virtually no experience and nobody to guide him (I assume it’s a him) must navigate (literally) these dangerous waters and find himself a safe haven with which to survive and, eventually, spawn some babies of his own.

While this is suitable for the entire family, some of the creatures – which, you must remember, are smaller than the human eye can see – can be terrifying when blown up to extra extra plus size on the average large-screen television set, so be aware of that when plopping the kids down and using Netflix as a sitter for an hour.

Like most nature documentaries these days, the movie makes sure to underline the importance of conservation and the growing threat of global climate change (stark images of coral bleached and dead ram that message home). Those of a certain political leaning may find the message repetitious and unwelcome.

It’s a shame that more people don’t know about this documentary, because it’s absolutely amazing and breathtaking. I guarantee that unless you’re already a marine biologist specializing in the micro-ecology of the Great Barrier Reef, you will learn something new. You will also see creatures that have been rarely (and in some cases, never) photographed. And, at only an hour in length, it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is breathtaking and magical. Very informative regarding a world most of us know little (if anything) about.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little slow in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:A t two months old, Puff was roughly the size of a human fingernail.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wonders of the Sea
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Unmaking of a College

The Highwaymen


Gault (left) and Hamer discuss their next move.

(2019) Crime Biography (Netflix) Kevin Costner, Woody Harrelson, Kathy Bates, John Carroll Lynch, Thomas Mann, Dean Denton, Kim Dickens, William Sadler, W. Earl Brown, David Furr, Jason Davis, Joshua Caras, David Born, Brian F. Durkin, Kaley Wheless, Alex Elder, Emily Brobst, Edward Bossert, Jake Ethan Dashnaw, Jane McNeill, Karson Kern, Savanna Renee. Directed by John Lee Hancock

]The mythology around Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, notorious Depression-era bank robbers, was without question aided by the 1967 Arthur Penn masterpiece Bonnie and Clyde. Portraying the outlaws as Robin Hood-types who led the bumbling cops on a merry chase through the Midwest, ending in a hail of bullets that turned the folk heroes into martyrs.

This Netflix production aimed to right the scales somewhat. The lawmen who chased Bonnie and Clyde and eventually caught them, Frank Hamer (Costner) and Maney Gault (Harrelson), were called out of retirement by Texas governor “Ma” Ferguson (Bates) to combat the thieves who had become popular and eluded the police time and time again. It didn’t seem to matter that Barrow often killed people in cold blood, the good folks of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and the Midwest were uncooperative with the investigation and occasionally shielded the gang when they needed a place to hide.

The movie was described by Reel Films critic James Bernardinelli as “a companion piece” to the Penn film, and in many ways it is that, but it is also it’s opposite. Hagiographic to the lawmen where the Penn version was to the title characters, through much of the movie Costner as Hamer growls at those who express admiration for the lawless bank robbers, occasionally resulting in beatdowns by the ex-Texas Rangers. It bears noticing that there are parallels to the modern complaints about police brutality towards African-Americans to the way the cops behave in this film.

The overall mood of the film is dour, and the overall impression is watching cantankerous grandparents trying to show the young ‘uns the error of their ways. I wish Hancock, a very able filmmaker in his own right, would have cut down on the lecturing somewhat as the movie runs a bit long for what it is. But Costner and Harrison  both have excellent chemistry together, and watching a couple of old pros doing some of their best work is worth the time spent. Not to mention that the score, by Thomas Newman, is simply lovely.

REASONS TO SEE: Costner and Harrelson give strong, believable performances. The music score is absolutely gorgeous.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is occasionally graphic violence, brief profanity, and some grisly images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hamer and Gault are buried in the same section of the same cemetery.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews; Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bonnie and Clyde
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Ted K

Don’t Look Up


Making America late again.

(2021) Disaster Comedy (Netflix) Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Kid Cudi, Himesh Patel, Melanie Lynskey, Michael Chiklis, Tomer Sisley, Paul Guilfoyle, Robert Joy, Jack Alberts, Ting Lik, Lance A. Williams, Shimali De Silva. Directed by Adam McKay

 

Some of you might remember the competing apocalyptic comet/meteor collision movies Armageddon and Deep Impact, both of which came out in 1998. Both featured American governments that acted decisively upon finding out about the upcoming end of days in an effort to avoid the end of Life as We Know It. But what if such a calamity occurred during the presidency of someone less competent?

Astronomer Dr. Randall Mindy (di Caprio) and the PhD candidate he’s mentoring Kate Diblasky (Lawrence) are by no means the upper echelon in their field, but they do have the advantage of looking in the right place at the right time (or, more to the point, the wrong place at the wrong time). They find a comet heading on a collision course with Earth and it will be here in just six months – time enough to maybe do something about it.

Except that President Orlean (Streep) and her idiot son/Chief of Staff Jason (Hill) are more concerned about the upcoming midterms than they are about a giant rock heading our way. Frustrated by a lack of government action or even interest, the two scientists take their case to the media in the form of the morning news program The Daily Rip. True to form, the talking head anchors Brie (Blanchett) and Jack (Perry) are more concerned with the disintegrating love life of pop star Riley B (Grande) than about their audience being wiped out by an oncoming – and very preventable – disaster.

The characters here are broadly drawn; clearly the President here is meant to be Trump and Jason could be Ivanka. There’s also a billionaire (Rylance) who seems to be cribbed from the Elon Musk book of billionaires. When Randall wonders why people aren’t panicking, we wonder the same thing. Of course, the movie was written to be a satire on the response to climate change (it can also be construed as a satire on the response to the pandemic but it was written years before COVID-19 was even a thing) but don’t that fool you; this is a time capsule of life in These United States circa 2021.

This is also a satire of the State of the Union, as it were. I suspect that even Trump would have reacted with a little bit more alarm had he been faced with an approaching comet, but then again, who knows? I have a feeling that those who really need to see the movie likely won’t; first off, because they’ll see it as another smack in the face from them liberal Hollywood socialists, and secondly won’t recognize themselves in it anyway. As one critic pointed out, how are you supposed to write a vacuous talking head blonde broadcaster when there already is a Laura Ingraham?

There are a few too many moving parts here and some of the big names in the cast are given very little to do, which is only to be expected. The one big sin that the movie commits is trying to do too much; I get that there’s an awful lot to satirize when it comes to our reaction to the climate crisis, but there comes a point where the point gets lost in the noise of all the ancillary points that McKay is making.

And maybe the offense that we’re all guilty of is the same one that this movie makes; we’re too busy talking at people to notice that we’ve stopped talking with people. The latter situation involves listening, and there’s precious little of that going on at this point in time. Maybe that’s the point that McKay is trying to make, but it does get lost in all the points he’s making about social media, broadcast news, the GOP, big business, and our general state of malaise.

REASONS TO SEE: An absolutely stellar cast. A commentary on spin and misinformation, particularly in regards to climate change and the pandemic.
REASONS TO AVOID: Preaches to the choir.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexual content, violence and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The film was nominated for four Oscars at the 2022 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews; Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mars Attacks!
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Catch the Fair One

Munich: The Edge of War


Neville Chamberlain hopes for peace in our time.

(2021) Historical Drama (Netflix) George MacKay, Jeremy Irons, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jannis Niewöhner, Liv Lisa Fries, Raphael Sowole, Sandra Hüller, August Diehl, Ulrich Matthes, Richard Dillane, Alex Jennings, Mark Lewis Jones, Hannes Wegener, Aidan Hennessey, Nicholas Farrell, Rainer Sellien, Abigail Cruttenden, Helen Clyro, Nicholas Shaw, Robert Bathurst, Anjli Mohindra. Directed by Christian Schwochow

 

Students of history will remember the image of a jubilant British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waving a sheaf of papers in his hand upon his return from the Munich Conference with Adolph Hitler in 1938, exclaiming “I bring you peace in our time,” after getting the German Chancellor to agree not to invade the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia by essentially handing over the territory to him. The policy of appeasement in order to provide “peace at any price” turned out to be tragically wrong, and Chamberlain was excoriated for it by contemporaries, but also by history.

This film, based on a historical novel by Robert Harris, tries to shed a different light on the outcome of the Conference. It opens with Oxford students George Legat (MacKay), Paul von Hartmann (Niewöhner) and Paul’s girlfriend Lenya (Fries) celebrating their graduation. Von Hartmann is particularly ecstatic, knowing he is going home to what he terms a “new Germany,” following the triumph of the Nazi party, taking a country bled dry by World War I and the onerous terms of surrender that was placed upon it. Six years later, Paul is a diplomat in Germany who’s attitude to the Nazi party has taken a serious about-face. Meanwhile, George is now married to Pamela (Findlay) and working as a private secretary to Prime Minister Chamberlain (Irons).

Chamberlain is frustrated at Hitler’s (Matthes) saber-rattling and refusal to negotiate. Europe stands on the precipice of another ruinous war, and nobody has forgotten how long it took to recover from the last one – and in fact, it could be argued that they were still recovering. So Chamberlain puts together a conference in Munich to try and hammer out an agreement that would prevent war. Legat, who speaks fluent German, is brought along to translate. MI-6 also sees an opportunity for Legat to perhaps ferret out some intelligence about Hitler’s plans.

Boy, does he. Paul’s current lover Helen (Hüller) has come into possession of a typed-out document that outlines Hitler’s plans to plunge Europe into a massive war, with Germany eating up territory, shipping undesirables East to labor camps, and resettling their land with good Aryan stock. Paul manages to get George’s attention and George arranges a hasty meeting with Chamberlain, but one of Hitler’s bodyguards (Diehl) who also happens to be an old friend of Paul’s, is keeping a watchful eye on him.

The movie tends to emphasize the espionage aspect of the younger, completely fictional characters, ignoring the opportunity to give us some insight into Chamberlain and the other historical characters in the movie, whose actions in Munich would have such enormous repercussions. To be honest, the espionage content is far less interesting.

Irons portrays Chamberlain as a man absolutely certain that he is right and working for the right end. In an odd aside, the movie seems to indicate that Chamberlain’s actions, far from merely giving Hitler the green light to do what he wished, actually gave the Allies needed time to prepare for the war, which is a bit of an odd way of looking at it.

We never really get a sense of the tension of living in a police state and while the cinematography is fairly nice (particularly in the opening sequence), the score is a bit bombastic and intrusive. Also, the opening and closing credits are done in kind of a weird Sixties Rankin-Bass kind of style which doesn’t suit the film at all.

The trouble with historical dramas is that we generally know how the movie is going to turn out. Nobody needed a spoiler alert to know that the Titanic was going to sink. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to see here, particularly on the occasions when the film looks more closely at Chamberlain and what drove him to the decisions he made. I wish they would have concentrated more on that and jettisoned the ill-advised and not-very-well-executed thriller material.

REASONS TO SEE: There are certainly some modern parallels to the return of authoritarianism.
REASONS TO AVOID: Focuses far too much on the espionage thriller aspect rather than on the historical drama, which is much more fascinating.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, brief violence, period smoking and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the lead characters of von Hartmann and Legat are fictional, they are based on real people; the document that von Hartmann risked so much to smuggle to Chamberlain actually existed, although there is no evidence that Chamberlain ever actually saw it.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/8/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Valkyrie
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
American Gadfly

7 Prisoners (7 Prisioneiros)


Slave labor is alive and well in the 21st century.

(2021) Crime Drama (Netflix) Christian Malheiros, Rodrigo Santoro, Lucas Oranmian, Vitor Julian, Josias Duarte, Clayton Mariano, Bruno Rocha, Dirce Thomaz, Gabriela Yoon, Cecilia Homem de Mello. Directed by Alexandre Moratto

 

We have a tendency to think that slavery is an issue that has been eradicated long before the 21st century dawned. There is nothing farther from the truth. Human trafficking continues to this day, between the white slavery trade that forces women into prostitution, to slave labor that exists in certain countries around the world. Even the United States isn’t immune, although this story doesn’t take place there.

Mateus (Malheiros) is a young man in a rural Brazilian province who is one of four men from the village who are leaving on a long, 400km ride to São Paulo, trading the lush green jungles of their home for the grey concrete and steel towers of their new home. There Mateus and his fellow villagers Isaque (Oranmian), Ezeqial (Julian) and Samuel (Rocha) are met by Luca (Santoro), a lanky bearded man who shows them to their Spartan (to say the least) quarters, little more than a cell with bunk beds for four. Luca shows them how to strip copper out of wiring and to separate various types of metal in the scrapyard.

They have come to the big city for work, lured by promises of guaranteed jobs, money sent back home to keep their families afloat and at the conclusion of their work, a return home to follow their dreams (Mateus hopes one day to become a pilot). However, Luca seems to be less-than-forthcoming about contractual matters and soon they are told that an advance has been paid to their families, which they must work off – that and the cost of their bus ride, their room and board, and such other expenses that Luca can dream up. In short, they are literally slave labor.

At first the boys are dismayed and angered. They attempt to escape, but this is met with beatings, and loss of privileges, like square meals and showers. When the police arrive, the boys are told that should they escape, the cops would be visiting their families and inflicting all kinds of mayhem on them. In short, the system the boys have found themselves in has the deck stacked against them. When this becomes obvious, Mateus proposes that should the boys speed up production that the debt be paid off in six months, after which time they would be allowed to return home. Luca agrees to this, which should be a sign that he doesn’t plan to do anything of the sort.

Luca recognizes Mateus as having a bit more intellectual capability than his peers, and soon Mateus seems to be winning the confidence of Luca, who has Mateus accompany him on jobs outside the compound, and taking on more responsibility in the yard. This breeds resentment among the three other men Mateus arrived with, particularly Isaque. Mateus is changing as he adapts to survive, but will the price he pays be worth it?

In many ways, Brazilian-American director Moratto’s second feature (his first was the Spirit award-winning Socrates) is a cautionary tale, but it is mostly a political diatribe, showing the evils of capitalism magnified through the lens of marginalized people. It is not just an indictment of Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, but of the entire system whose corruption and greed lead to a natural exploitation of the working class. Certainly this is not going to appeal to movie viewers who tend to lean to the right politically speaking.

Malheiros, who also starred in Socrates, has abundant screen charisma that brings the leadership qualities of Mateus to the onscreen fore. We are given access to the cost of all of Mateus’ decisions, as at first he reacts with distaste, then acceptance. He becomes corrupted by survival, willing to throw his friends under the bus in order to stay alive. He tells himself he is doing it for them (and he tells them that too) but we all see through it – Mateus has his own self-interest at heart. Capitalism is, after all, the religion of self-interest.

His strong performance is supported by equally marvelous performances by the young cast, particularly by Oranmian who captures the rage and frustration of Isaque perfectly. He makes a nice foil for Malheiros as the two butt heads throughout the film.

Malheiros uses hand-held cameras for that you-are-there feel that is popular among indie filmmakers these days, but in some ways that becomes a bit of a distraction. However, that is not a serious problem and the movie, with its grimy setting, has a sense of realism that can be a punch to the gut upon occasion.

The world needs labor in order to exist; this is a given. I think that the way labor is treated is what defines a civilization. Is labor respected, given adequate compensation for the work performed, or is it exploited for the benefit of the wealthy? Few (if any) civilizations have ever been able to pass that test with flying colors. It remains a human problem that, to date, we have been unable to overcome.

REASONS TO SEE: A timely and semi-political look at a dark secret. Strong performances by the young cast. A searing indictment on the excesses of capitalism.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too reliant on hand-held cameras.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence and profanity, as well as smoking and some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Moratto was interviewing human trafficking survivors in researching for his script, he was so taken by one that he cast him in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 02/04/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catch the Fair One
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Brink

The Unforgivable


Ruth Slater doesn’t like what she sees in the mirror.

(2021) Drama (Netflix) Sandra Bullock, Viola Davis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jon Benthal, Richard Thomas, Linda Emond, Aisling Franciosi, Emma Nelson, Will Pullen, Thomas Guiry, Jessica McLeod, Rob Morgan, Andrew Francis, W. Earl Brown, Neli Kastrinos, Orlando Lucas, Jude Wilson, Paul Moniz de Sa, Craig March, Alistair Abell, Donavon Stinson, Patti Kim, Jessica Charbonneau. Directed by Nora Fingscheidt

 

For most of us, our indiscretions are generally of a minor nature, and we move on from them with a minimum of fuss. However, there are certain actions that we might take that cannot be so easily forgiven and certainly not forgotten.

Ruth Slater (Bullock) has just emerged from prison after twenty years, with time off for good behavior. Her crime? She killed a cop (Brown) who was there to evict her and her five-year-old sister Katie (Kastrinos) from their farmhouse in rural Washington state. Ruth hopes to get back to a relatively normal life, but her unsmiling parole officer (Morgan) disabuses her of that notion immediately. “You’re a cop killer wherever you go,” he informs her and soon he turns out to be right.

But that doesn’t deter Ruth from going on a quest to find her lost little sister, now grown to adulthood and going by the name Katherine Malcolm (Franciosi). She’s a talented pianist, and her well-to-do adoptive parents Michael (Thomas) and Rachel (Emond) couldn’t be prouder. They are aware that Ruth is out, but it’s unlikely that Ruth can find them, so they don’t tell Katherine about it. However, the Sheriff’s sons – Steve (Pullen) and Keith (Guiry) – are also aware of her release, and Keith is none-too-pleased about it either. He doesn’t think 20 years is nearly enough for the murder of his father and wants to take a further pound of flesh. Keith feels more of a live-and-let-live nature, but that mollifies his brother not at all.

When Ruth visits the old farmhouse, she finds it nicely renovated by the couple living there – John (D’Onofrio) and Liz (Davis) Ingram. When Ruth discovers John is a lawyer, she opens up a little to him and he is convinced to help her find her sister, pro bono. Liz does some research of her own and is appalled to discover the truth, and confronts John with it, reminding him (accurately) that if it had been one of his black sons who had murdered the cop, he would never have made it to prison – he’d likely have been shot dead on the spot, and even if he had been tried and convicted, time off for good behavior would have been unlikely at best.

In any case, things boil to a head as John finds Katherine and the adoptive parents express their reluctance and eventual refusal to reunite the sisters. “What good would it do?” muses Michael. And Keith has a change of heart and ends up going after Katherine…but messes up and kidnaps the other daughter of the Malcolms, Emily (Nelson). As events come to a climax, we discover the truth of what really happened to the sheriff and why.

I liked this movie probably a little more than it deserved. A large reason why has to do with Bullock’s performance; it’s unlike anything she’s ever done. It isn’t a movie star performance; it’s the performance of an actress at the top of her game, and it’s not all about her line reading or even her facial expressions. You can see Ruth is a damaged, wounded person by the haunted look in her eyes. It doesn’t hurt that Bullock has a plethora of great actors around her, particularly Viola Davis, an Oscar winner who always seems to turn in an outstanding job no matter how small the role. D’Onofrio, Morgan, Bernthal and Thomas are also effective.

The reason it may not necessarily deserve my love is that the movie has a lot of contrivances; some of the plot points feel like they are there mainly to move the story to the conclusion the writers want, rather than a natural, organic progression from point A to point Z. One of the most egregious examples is the abrupt character turn of Keith. Nothing against the actor playing him, but he turns 180 degrees in attitude; there should have been a hint beforehand of his inner rage. I suppose the filmmakers wanted to make that turn a shock, but they ended up making it unbelievable.

Although set in Washington state, the movie was mainly filmed in British Columbia. The landscapes are suitably bleak and washed out (except, ironically, at the farmhouse). The urban scenes have a gritty, streetwise feel to them and the tough guy demeanor that Bullock adopts for her character feels like something someone who had to survive in prison would have to do once they got out.

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch, nor is it free from flaws. Still, there is a performance here worth checking out and overall, the movie is grim but effective. Not Oscar bait so much, but the kind of movie Scorsese might approve of.

REASONS TO SEE: Bullock gives a haunting performance, with a fine supporting cast. Realistic and gritty. Looks at the repercussions of tragedy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Contrived in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on a 2009 British miniseries, the film was originally meant for Angelina Jolie in the lead (although she never officially signed on) and was in on-again, off-again development before being resurrected in 2019.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews; Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Destroyer
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Jockey

Kate


“That’s why I became an actress…for the glamour!”

(2021) Action (Netflix) Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Woody Harrelson, Miku Martineau, Tadanobu Asano, Jun Kunimura, Michel Huisman, Miyavi, Mari Yamamoto, Hirotaka Renge, Kazuya Tanabe, Cindy Sirinya Bishop, Amelia Crouch, Ava Caryofyllis, Gemma Brooke Allen, Hiroyuki Kobayashi, Koji Nishiyama, Kazuhiro Muroyama, Shinji Uchiyama, Miku Kobato. Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before; a badass super-competent assassin yearns to leave the business of turning people into worm food behind them, only to find out that their employers are unwilling to let them retire. Said badass super-competent assassin goes ballistic in an attempt to take revenge on those who have done them wrong. I noticed you haven’t stopped me.

Kate (Winstead) is a badass super-competent assassin, and has been raised to be such by her handler Varrick (Harrelson) since she was an orphaned child. But she wants out and a chance to live a relatively normal life and maybe even start a family. When her last assignment doesn’t work out as planned, she discovers that she’s been poisoned and has 24 agonizing hours to live.

As you might imagine, Kate doesn’t intend to go gently into that good night. Instead, she intends to rage, rage against the dying of the light and, more specifically, against those who poisoned her. Her investigation – which is done with guns and blades to cut down on time – leads her to a Yakuza clan chief named Kijima (Kunimura), but he is too well-guarded to go after directly. The way in is through his teenage niece Ani (Martineau) who at first is a kidnap victim but eventually begins to realize that she and Kate have a lot in common, and begins to access her own inner badass super-competent assassin.

This Japan-set Netflix extravaganza benefits from having the good folks at 87North, the production team responsible for the John Wick series, working with them and that particular franchise heavily influences the proceedings here. One of the things that is positive here is that the badass super-competent assassin here is female and that she develops a protégé relationship with a young woman, which is a nice gender-switch for this type of movie.

Winstead has done some decent action heroine work in the past, but she’s never been better than she is here. While the character of Kate doesn’t have a whole lot of emotional baggage – she’s been trained since childhood that way – Winstead still manages to imbue the character with humanity. Even as Kate’s body begins to betray her and the poison begins to reduce her reactions and bodily functionality into obstacles for her to overcome, Kate still carries herself with a lethal presence that is all Winstead. It’s a compelling action lead portrayal.

Martineau makes Ani much less annoying than the character might have been in less capable hands. A lot of time the teen protégé role tends to be a means for a younger audience to relate to the film and often most writers portray them as quipping, arrogant jerks who end up knowing more than the lead and saving the day. That kind of thing tends to make me want to gag.

Not that teens can’t be heroic; there are a whole lot of them out there who are, but there are plenty who are not. That’s true of all age groups, by the way. But I digress.

The Japanese-setting is neon-drenched, stylistically reminding of films like John Wick and Black Rain. I do think though that the movie missed an opportunity by making Japanese culture somewhat stereotypical; I would have preferred a deeper dive into the richness of it, a well waiting to be tapped, but alas, the filmmakers preferred to go the safer, easier route. Kate seems to be a modern samurai, or more accurately in this instance a ronin, but they don’t really explore that aspect at all, really. They should have.

Still, the movie is an entertaining if somewhat overly-familiar action movie that is executed reasonably well. With a little more care and love, this could have been something truly special rather than the decent diversion that it is.

REASONS TO SEE: Some really terrific action sequences, and Winstead makes a solid action heroine.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is going to feel a little bit familiar (a lot familiar, actually).
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence and gore, plenty of profanity, and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This marks the fourth occasion (and counting) that Winstead has portrayed a character named Kate.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 01/28/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews; Metacritic: 47/100.=
COMPARISON SHOPPING: D.O.A.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
La Soga: Salvation

Triple Frontier


In country.

(2019) Action (Netflix) Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, Pedro Pascal, Adria Arjona, Louis Jeovanny, Juan Camilo Castillo, Rey Gallegos, Madeline “Maddy” Wary, Johan Ochoa, Francisco Martinez, Pablo Cesar Sanchez, Kevin Vasquez, Jose Rodriguez, Enzo Morales, Hilliard Joshua Meeks, Amber Stone. Directed by JC Chandor

 

JC Chandor has made several films that look with an unblinking eye at the drawbacks of American capitalism, and in this movie, an action movie with a fine cast, he surprisingly does so again. A group of former U.S. elite Special Forces operatives who for the most part have been struggling adjusting to civilian life (none more so than Affleck’s “Redfly” Davis) are talked into taking on a new mission, staking out a South American drug lord’s mansion for the purpose of robbing him blind. However, what seems to be a great idea goes sideways and quickly turns into a fight for survival, particularly as greed begins to rear it’s ugly head.

Although the cinematography is lovely and the action sequences well-staged, the movie suffers from a been there-done that plot, a lack of character development and a surprisingly over-the-top performance by Affleck. Isaac distinguishes himself here, adding to his reputation of being one of the best and most consistent actors in Hollywood today. This is a movie with a lot going for it on paper that sadly doesn’t translate well to the finished product.

REASONS TO SEE: Terrific cast, with Isaac standing out in particular.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fairly standard for what it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tom Hardy and Channing Tatum were originally attached to the project in the lead roles, but dropped out due to creative differences with the rewritten script. Paramount dropped the project shortly afterwards, but after Affleck and Isaac were cast Netflix picked it up.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews; Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wages of Fear
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Matrix Resurrections

Fatherhood


You and me against the world.

(2021) Dramedy (Columbia/Netflix) Kevin Hart, Alfre Woodard, Lil Rel Howley, DeWanda Wine, Melody Hurd, Paul Reiser, Anthony Carrigan, Deborah Ayorinde, Frankie R. Faison, Thedra Porter, Holly Gauthier-Franel, Ellen David, Julie Trépanier, Julian Casey, Anne Day-Jones, Teneisha Collins, Maria Herrera, Anthony Kavanaugh, Puja Uppal. Directed by Paul Weitz

 

Some actors fill a niche, and pretty much stick to it their entire careers. Most actors, however, feel a need to branch out, to flex their dramatic (or comedic) wings and fly out into uncertain winds. Sometimes the result is a steep drop into a faceplant on the tarmac. However, when the landing is stuck, the actor then faces the double-edge sword of raised bars and higher expectations.

Kevin Hart has mostly played irascible immature men conning their way through life, but in this film, based on the experiences of author Matthew Logelin as chronicled in his book Two Kisses for Maddy, Hart plays Logelin, a tech engineer in Boston who is about to be a dad. His wife Liz (Ayorinde) gives birth to a beautiful baby girl, but a pulmonary embolism cuts short her life.

Now Matt faces the daunting task of being a single father and a grieving widower. He is devastated by the grief, but doesn’t have time to let it be front and center; he’s got a career to deal with and a baby to take care of, even though he doesn’t have a clue how to do it. Initially, he gets help from his mom (Porter) and his somewhat overbearing other-in-law Marion (Woodard) who are willing to stay much longer than they are welcome, but Matt is firm; he can do this, although Marion has her doubts. She exacts from him a promise that if it gets to be too much that he’ll move back to Minnesota – where he met his wife – and where Marion can keep a better eye on him.

Hart delivers a career-defining performance here. He dials back the volume and emphasizes Matt’s loneliness and humanity without sacrificing the confusion and loneliness he feels. He’s so unprepared for being a dad that he doesn’t even know what colic is – and let’s not get started about the joys of assembling a stroller. His Matt has skated through, notorious for procrastinating until he realizes he is in a situation where he simply can’t afford to put anything off, particularly when it comes to his daughter. And the love he feels for Maddy (Hurd) shows through in every frame.

Movies like this can easily become maudlin and manipulative but with the sure hand of Weitz (About a Boy) at the helm, it never descends into either pitfall. The movie does occasionally stumble; the character of Jordan (Howley), Matt’s immature best friend, is a little too over-the-top for the film. However, it does better in pointing out the difference in the ways men and women approach parenthood; women get it far more intuitively than men do (for the most part – there are always exceptions) but Weitz wisely doesn’t let this descend into a “men are buffoons who couldn’t tie their shoelaces without women” tone that movies sometimes descend into.

What we have here is a really good movie about the challenges of facing single fatherhood alone. It is well-acted with a great ensemble cast and the interplay between Hart and Woodard is priceless. This is easily one of the best movies that the streamer has delivered to its subscribers (although to be fair the movie was originally intended for theatrical release until COVID put a stop to it) and if you have a Netflix subscription, this one should be on your radar.

REASONS TO SEE: Hart gives his best performance by a mile. Great chemistry between Woodard and Hart. Really gets how men fumble around for what women understand intuitively.
REASONS TO AVOID: Howley’s Jordan character may be a bit TOO inappropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is adult thematic material and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Channing Tatum was originally going to play the role of Matt when the project was first announced in 2015, but couldn’t get it to work in his schedule; he remained on board as an executive producer.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews; Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Parenthood
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Bring Your Own Brigade

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