I Love Us


What’s not to love?

(2021) Crime (Vision) Katie Cassidy, Danny A. Abeckaser, Robert Davi, David James Elliott, Elya Baskin, Jackie Cruz, Greg Finley, Jasper Polish, Harlow Jane, James Madio, Courtney Mazza, Eliad Nachum, Christian George, Ray Bouderau, Diana Madison, George V. Andreakos, Frank Florio, Diana Davis. Directed by Danny A. Abeckaser

 

Love is mysterious. It can begin in the most unlikely of places. It can take us to the most unlikely of places. There is no telling who we’ll fall in love with. Sometimes we fall in love with people we never in a million years imagined that we could.

Career criminal Sammy (Abeckaser) robs jewelry stores. He’s good at it. He works for his father Harvey (Davi) who himself trod on the wrong side of the law before leaving the grunt work to his son. Sammy is paying off a gambling debt to his Uncle Ira (Baskin), a much more successful mobster. Harvey and Sammy dream of a big score that will allow them both to retire, but so far nothing has turned up that’s even remotely a possibility. After another successful but low-yield heist with his partner Richie (Madio), Sammy takes the bus home where he meets single mom Laura (Cassidy). While it would seem that Sammy and Laura at a glance would be totally mismatched, it’s essentially love at first sight.

The two end up getting married, much to the chagrin of Laura’s older daughter Rachel (Polish) who makes no secret of her disdain for Sammy, and the delight of her younger daughter Audrey (Jane). And for awhile, things seem to be going the way Sammy hoped, although he studiously keeps his real profession a secret from his new family. Then, the opportunity he and Harvey have been waiting for arrives, but it will take planning and efficiency to pull off. However, Sammy is hit by an unforeseen tragedy that changes his outlook on everything, and the crew that are planning the heist may not be as trustworthy as Sammy thought.

This is a combination of a family drama and a heist flick, and I would love to say that Abeckaser works the two together seamlessly, but I can’t. The two plotlines often work at cross-purposes and it doesn’t help that many of the plot points feel arbitrary and somewhat cliché, which is never a good feeling for a movie that is certainly trying to stand out as being unique. There are also an awful lot of moments that can only be classified as maudlin and manipulative, and they do leave you wanting to turn off the movie and move on to other things.

But you have to hand it to Abeckaser for pouring on the Brooklyn charm here; that particular borough of New York always has come off with a certain kind of magic and it’s very much in evidence here. Cassidy, best known as Laurel Lance/Black Canary in the CW comic book-based series Arrow (and perhaps less so for being the daughter of former pop star David Cassidy of the Partridge Family) is extremely memorable in her role here; her screen time may be too brief of necessity, but she does leave you wishing that there were more scenes with her in them. Abeckaser isn’t bad in the lead, but he isn’t as striking.

I do wish the film had taken a few more chances with the script; at times it felt like there was a bit too much plot. More simplicity would have suited the story better and the elimination of some sub-plots might well have made this a better film.

REASONS TO SEE: Oozing with Brooklyn charm.
REASONS TO AVOID: Contrived and maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Abeckaser and Elliiott previously appeared together in Lansky.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/15/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: They/Them/Us
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Eating Our Way to Extinction

Azor


Banking on Argentina.

(2021) Drama (MUBI) Fabrizio Rongione, Stéphanie Cléau, Elli Medeiros, Alexandre Trocki, Pablo Torre Nilson, Juan Pablo Geretto, Gilles Privat, Carmen Iriondo, Yvain Julliard, Juan Trench. Directed by Andreas Fontana

 

The veneer of gentility is often thin indeed, particularly in an atmosphere dominated by uncertainty and fear. In Argentina as the 20th century turned into its eighth decade, a brutal military junta had begun a period of repression in which thousands disappeared. Not all of these were from the poor classes; anyone who expressed disagreement with the regime might find themselves gone, even those from the aristocracy.

Swiss banker Yvan de Wiel (Rongione) has arrived in Buenos Aires along with his sophisticated wife Ines (Cléau). He’s a third-generation partner in a Swiss private bank – one only open to the super rich. They are there to reassure their clients that all is well after his partner Rene Keys disappears. Yvan travels from board rooms to opulent gardens, from oak-paneled studies to modern offices, meeting with Argentina’s elite.

Conversations rotate around small talk, rarely lingering long on Argentina’s political situation. People are disappearing and there is palpable fear underneath the genteel world of cocktails, formal dresses, palatial homes and luxury cars. As Yvan quietly investigates the disappearance of his more passionate partner (Yvan is low-key to the point of stupor), he comes more and more into the orbit of those near the junta who are behind the repression and brutality. Especially threatening is the Monsignor Tatosky (Nilson), who purrs “Parasites must be eradicated, even from the best families.” It chills one to the bone.

This is not the kind of movie that has a machine-gun pace; it’s a slow burn, so much so that the viewer might get a chill from time to time. Fontana keeps the tension high without resorting to anything overt; everything is done with subtle glances here, an oblique camera angle there, a pregnant silence over there. In fact, I don’t thin there are many films that have utilized silence as well as this one does; it is the things unsaid in this film that matter almost more than the things that are said.

He gets stellar performances from his two leads who are perfectly cast; Cléau eggs her husband on much like Lady Macbeth, only more cultured and urbane, picking out his suit so as to impress but not outshine. She advises him on matters of decorum and is anything but a conscience; more like a cattle prod, in that regard, urging him to do whatever is necessary to maintain the couple’s status and privilege. “Your father was right; your weakness makes you mediocre,” she observes at one point. It is her way of motivating him, because Yvan is just filled up with self-doubt enough not to trust in his own competence.

In some publications, there are comparisons for the final act with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and there is certainly some justification for that. It involves a river journey that…well, I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say is the heart of this film’s darkness. This is a movie chilling in ways that horror films are not, nor can they be. This is the banality of evil, on display in the latest Armani suits.

REASONS TO SEE: Elevates the tension nicely under the thin veneer of gentility. Fine performances throughout the ensemble cast. Captures a period in Argentine history not well-chronicled in the States.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too slow of a burn for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fontana’s grandfather was a Swiss private banker; the film is loosely inspired by his experiences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Missing
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
I Love Us

Language Lessons


Beauty and the beast.

(2021) Drama (Shout!) Mark Duplass, Natalie Morales, Desean Terry, Christine Quesada. Directed by Natalie Morales

 

Friendships can develop in unlikely places, and in unlikely ways. In this modern age of communication, we don’t even need to live in the same hemisphere to develop a deep and meaningful relationship with someone else. That can be a double-edged sword.

Cariño (Morales) is a Spanish teacher living in Costa Rica when she dials into a Zoom meeting with a new student. That turns out to be middle aged Adam (Duplass), who received 100 lessons in Spanish as a birthday gift from his husband Will (Terry). Adam and Will live in a rambling mansion in the Oakland hills and fairly drip with wealth and privilege. Cariño lives in an area of much natural beauty that she likes to show off to her students. As it turns out, Adam already speaks Spanish fairly fluently, but had mentioned offhandedly that he was rusty and needed an immersion course to get him back to fluency. Will pounced on that tidbit of information, as married partners will, and voila.

But the situation turns on a dime when Adam informs her of a personal tragedy. He is numb, bewildered and somewhat lost. Cariño, who barely knows him, is nevertheless kind, sympathetic and comforting and Adam begins to feel a real friendship with her.

As the lessons progress, we see that the two people from apparently disparate backgrounds begin to bond, and despite the reluctance of Cariño to let her walls down, the teacher and student become friends. But isn’t it true that some boundaries shouldn’t be crossed? Not in this case.

I think it’s safe to say that this movie is long on charm and short on production values; it’s essentially filmed as a series of Zoom calls and while the two stars are almost always onscreen together, they’re never physically in the same place until the very final scene. Even so, there’s a great deal of chemistry between the two. Both Morales and Duplass have a great deal of onscreen charm and charisma, and both utilize both of those traits to the hilt here. Duplass, in particular, delivers a performance that is often raw and emotional, although Morales gets a few juicy scenes of her own. However, the one thing that is the center of the film – the friendship between the two – is believable every second that it develops.

There is a bit of fantasy indulgence here – I wonder if the movie would have fared a little bit better had Adam been not so wealthy, although two years’ worth of weekly Spanish lessons might be an indulgence only a wealthy person would consider. It’s just that the ending felt a little contrived because of it, and might have been a bit more realistic had the writers not been given too easy of an out.

One thing I really liked about the movie is that you never know where it’s going next. Too often, movies follow familiar formulae and tread well-travelled trails. Not so this one; even though there are a few tropes here and there, they feel like they belong rather than they were inserted for convenience or as cinematic shorthand. You do have to work for this one a little bit, but in a pleasant way and that is certainly not often the case, even for a lot of independent films.

Most of the movie is in Spanish, although it is amusing to note that the subtitles also reflect Adam’s grammatical errors as well. And while the movie is about the beginnings of an unlikely friendship, there is also dealing with loss and disappointment, but in the grand tradition of movies dealing with grief, it ends up being a life-affirming experience.

Some might be suffering from Zoom fatigue and may not necessarily want to spend an hour and a half watching someone else’s Zoom conversation, but that would be a shame because this is a deeply emotional movie that delivers all the feels, something all of us can use lately. Also, as an additional bonus, it doesn’t mention COVID at all, although clearly the pandemic had a lot to do with the way this was filmed. While it’s playing exclusively in theaters at the moment, it will doubtlessly be available to stream soon. And although I find myself writing a closing sentence I never thought I’d ever use, you may want to wait for it to hit a streaming or VOD service – if ever a movie was meant to be seen on a laptop, it’s this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Duplass and Morales are both incredibly charming and deliver powerful performances. You never know where the movie is going. Like most films about loss, it’s very life-affirming.
REASONS TO AVOID: People might be a little burned out by communicating via Zoom.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Morales’ first feature film as a director; she also directed several episodes of Duplass’ anthology TV series Room 104.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews; Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Italian for Beginners
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Azor

499


The conquistadors of colonialism still haunt Mexico.

(2020) Documentary Drama (The Cinema Guild) Eduardo San Juan Breña, Alicia Valencia (voice), Jorge Sánchez, Martha González, Sixto Cabrera, Lorena Gutierrez. Directed by Rodrigo Reyes

 

The lines between documentary and feature are normally well-delineated. Sometimes, truth and fiction can blur and through the use of both, we can discover the greater truths that lie beneath the mere facts.

A nameless conquistador washes up on a Veracruz beach. The last he knew it was 1521 and he was sailing home with the ill-gotten riches of his expedition. Suddenly, he finds himself in 2020, 499 years later, in modern Mexico. Something inside him is urging him to retrace his steps, the march that Cortes took from what is now Veracruz to the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitlan, what is modern-day Mexico City. Along the way, he loses the ability to speak and is forced to listen to the sadness of others caught in their own tales of woe.

We hear from those who search for loved ones who have disappeared at the hands of the drug cartels, often with the complicity of the police and federal law enforcement that is supposed to be protecting them. We are shown the overwhelming grief and horror as they describe atrocities that seem foreign to us, but are everyday events where they come from. There is a brutality, a barbarity that is present in these acts that make them more than mere violence.

But the conquistador is not without his own madness. He brags about his own atrocities, committed against the indigenous tribes of Mexico. He talks about manipulating them to join the cause against the all-powerful Aztecs, enabling a small band of Spanish soldiers to conquer a nation. He brags about promising them heaven with no intention of keeping any of their promises. Inelegantly and subtly, Reyes draws a direct line between the brutality of colonialism and the violence of the modern cartels.

Cinematographer Alejandro Mejia captures lovely vistas that are both familiar and alien as the conquistador wanders through natural settings and man-made, through pueblos and garbage heaps. The further he travels, the more stories he hears, the more he is forced to reckon with the consequences of his actions five centuries previous. In that sense, this is true for Mexico as well, a country that has never adequately reconciled their native heritage with their colonial one. For that matter, neither have we.

Reyes also tackles the immigration issue and portrays the Central American immigrants not as hordes of ravening murderers nd rapists, as an ex-President of this country portrayed them, but as people fleeing violence and poverty, willing to undertake an extremely perilous journey to hopefully make it to a country where they have a shot at a decent life. When I think of what these people have seen, what they have endured, it just makes me heartsick for their suffering, and enraged at the callous disregard by the demagogues who demonize them. Karma is coming at those sorts like a freight train.

Through all of this we witness the sad-eyed figure of the conquistador. He is both anachronistic and completely belonging in this culture, for it is a product of his brutality. He is to be scorned and pitied, becase for all his posturing about carrying the cross before him, there is nothing Christ-like in his actions, and he gradually comes to realize it. The film ends in a somewhat unexpected way – I won’t share any details, but it did take me by surprise and quite frankly, upon reflection, makes perfect sense.

IOne thing worthy of mention; the sound here. Reyes leans heavily on natural sounds; the waves of the ocean, the wind through the grass, the soft patter of rain. The movie is entirely in Spanish (with subtitles) so those who don’t speak Spanish may well find themselves being seduced by the sounds of the film; even those who do speak Spanish will appreciate the way sound plays a role in the film.

I have visited Mexico numerous times, and have many Mexican friends, both Mexican nationals and immigrants to this country. Those that live here now are proud of their heritage, but proud to be Americans as well. They preserve as much of their culture as they can while trying to navigate this one. There are conflicts from time to time and it isn’t easy – but that’s true of any immigrant to any country. I know this firsthand from the experiences of my own parents, who emigrated from Cuba and Canada to make lives here.

But Mexico haunts us like a quiet ghost, lurking at our Southern border and I don’t use the description lightly; Reyes has given us a movie that is almost otherworldly in nature and of course it invites such similes. We are aware peripherally of the violence, of the corruption, and we think of the citizens as backwards savages who deserve it. In our arrogance, we repeat the attitudes of those who came to Mexico in 1521 and fail to learn the lessons that history teaches us, if we only open our eyes and see.

REASONS TO SEE: Some very intense, firsthand emotional testimony about the atrocities committed by cartels. Wonderful use of sound.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some may find the weaving of fiction and fact off-putting.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual content and vivid descriptions of violence and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: 2021 is the 500th anniversary of the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortes. The title of the movie reflects the year of conquest when the movie was released.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cartel Land
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
They/Them/Us

Good


Talking – and dining – at cross purposes.

(2020) Drama (Gravitas) Keith David, Justin Etheredge, Nefetari Spencer, Kali Racquel, Christen Roberts, Sarah Scott-Davis, Ken Colquitt, Aaron Nayer, Gwen Cesta-Persichetti, Harrison Rodriguez, Lettye Smith, Aiden Weems, Kyle L. Jacobs, Jeff G. Mungai, Elizabeth Capps. Directed by Justin Etheredge

 

Parenthood is not something to be entered into lightly. It is so easy to mess up a child’s future without meaning to. It is also true that we can mess up a child’s future simply by not being there. Nothing says “you don’t matter” as much as a parent who chooses not to be a part of their offspring’s life.

Peyton Poitier – “no relation,” he is quick to point out while watching In the Heat of the Night starring Sidney Poitier – has lived such a life. His father was never in the picture, and his mother died when he was young. He was mostly raised by his grandma, who passed away herself recently. He sometimes goes to her favorite diner where she used to take him as a child.

That’s where he meets Gregory Devereaux (James), an old man who likes to eat at that particular diner because they remember his name and call him by it. He is a curmudgeonly sort who takes guff from nobody, and he recognizes b.s. when he hears it. But he recognizes something of himself in Peyton, and has Peyton drive him home so they can share a drink or two and watch the aforementioned In the Heat of the Night.

Peyton is at what you might call a crossroads of his life. He has some potential but has never fulfilled it, but now things seem to be looking up. He’s engaged to marry Shannon Kitzmiller (Racquel) who is beautiful, a little bit self-absorbed and from wealthy parents. However, there’s a blip on that radar. It turns out that his girlfriend before Shannon, Jeneta (Roberts) is in a family way and Peyton is the baby daddy. This couldn’t come at a worse time for him. He’s convinced that Shannon will drop him like a cheap cell phone if she finds out about his predicament. And in the meantime, Gregory’s estranged daughter Barbara (Spencer) has hired Peyton to be Gregory’s caretaker because most of the nurses that have seen to his needs recently have been chased off by the grumpy growly antics of her dad. And she finds Peyton to be like sexual catnip as well. What’s a man to do?

Etheredge wrote and directed this as well as starred in it, and it is never a good thing when someone wearing  all three of those hats posits that the main character is absolutely irresistible to women. Not to comment on the desirability of Etheredge, but I think it’s safe to say that Mike Colter he is not. Every one of the women in this movie other than the extras has been or currently is willing to hop into bed with Peyton at a moment’s notice; there’s a little bit of ego there that is a bit of a turn-off, frankly. Justin, if you’re reading this, don’t just chalk it up to jealousy on my part (although day-um!) but take it to heart that the subplot of having Barbara come on to Peyton was completely unneeded.

That said, there is some charm here and Etheredge is actually a pretty likable lead. David has the stentorian authority of a James Earl Jones and lends gravitas to a role that sometimes gets played for laughs. Gregory is far too Old Testament for that.

The commentary here is on parental responsibility and taking responsibility in one’s own life. When Gregory thunders, “Just another young black man making babies he won’t raise,” he’s leveling an accusation that is often made against young African-American men. There are those who protest that as a racist trope that isn’t as true now as it was twenty or thirty years ago, so that could be a hot button item for some who are sensitive about such things.

In general, my main issue with the movie is the pacing, which is a mite on the slow side; also, some of the plot points seem a bit forced, maudlin and contrived. It felt a little bit unconvincing and all the charm in the world isn’t going to rescue a movie with those sorts of issues. All in all, not a horrible movie but a deeply flawed one.

REASONS TO SEE: Takes on how families can screw up their children.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-moving, maudlin and soapy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed and set in Atlanta.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Upside
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
499

Reminiscence


Life is no carnival in the near future.

(2021) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, Thandiwe Newton, Cliff Curtis, Marina de Tavira, Daniel Wu, Mojean Aria, Brett Cullen, Natalie Martinez, Angela Sarafyan, Javier Molina, Sam Medina, Nono Nishimura, Roxton Garcia, Giovannie Cruz, Woon Young Park, Han Soto, Rey Hernandez, Gabrielle Echols, Andrew Hyatt Masset III, Nico Parker. Directed by Lisa Joy

 

I guess that it makes sense that when you have nothing to look forward to, one’s attention will turn to what came before. In a world where climate change has wreaked havoc, the citizens of a half-drowned Miami find solace in reliving their own memories.

This is the world that Nick Bannister (Jackman) finds himself. A former military man in the border wars that erupted when the oceans rose, he makes a living with a machine that was used to extract information from the memories of military prisoners but he now uses it on civilians who want to relive their favorite memories – a wedding day, playing with a beloved dog, a romantic evening and so on. He also has a side business using his machine to interrogate prisoners of the Miami DA (Martinez).

He has a pretty good life, all things considered – his partner Watts (Newton), although a high-functioning alcoholic, keeps him fairly honest. Until Mae (Ferguson) walks in. She’s lost her keys and needs help locating them. The Reminiscence machine might just be the trick she needs. While in her mind, Bannister discovers that she is a chanteuse, singing a song (“Where and When”) he has fond childhood memories of. He initiates a relationship with her, and for awhile it is summer in Miami.

But then she disappears, and he just can’t believe she up and ran out on him. Using his detective skills, he discovers a dark conspiracy with which Mae may or may not have been involved. At the heart of it is a wealthy developer (Cullen), his mentally ill wife (de Tavira), a corrupt cop (Curtis) and a New Orleans-based drug lord (Wu). Despite Watts’ skepticism, Bannister is convinced that Mae is an innocent caught in events beyond her control, and he will stop at nothing to find her – and the truth.

This is the motion picture debut of Lisa Joy, best known for being co-creator of HBO’s Westworld series with her husband Jonathan Nolan (yes, that makes her Christopher Nolan’s sister-in-law and there is no little of his influence felt here). The world that Joy has created here is melancholic and believable. The overall feel is very much like an old noir movie with a healthy dose of romance injected in, as well as some innovative production design and strong visuals. She definitely has a very cinematic eye, from the images of a partially submerged Miami, to a grand piano sinking into the waters during the climactic fight scene.

The noir elements become overbearing, particularly in the overly florid narration which is overused. Joy seems so taken with it that she utilizes the opening monologue twice which I suppose is meant to lend emphasis but instead lends repetition. I get that the elements of the story lend themselves to a noir retelling, but in a lot of ways it feels kind of gimmicky here.

That doesn’t extend to the script which has some pretty interesting ideas throughout, and the production design brings many of them to life. The overwhelming feeling is resignation; people are growing restive at being pushed into soggier and soggier environs while the ultra-wealthy stay largely dry, but the feeling is that we’re on a downward spiral and we might as well just accept that and live in the past because it’s so much better than what we have in store. Not the most heart-warming of messages.

But Joy does coax some strong performances, particularly out of the ever-expressive Jackman who generally does better when his characters are drowning in their own dark sides; while his chemistry with Ferguson (a strong actress in her own right) is oddly flat, it might be due to the somewhat incomprehensible accent she takes on from time to time. It’s jarring and sounds absolutely phony.

Critics have absolutely savaged this movie, and there is some reason for it – the film is definitely flawed, but the visuals are compelling and as I said there are some interesting ideas developed here. Sadly, the insistence on turning this into a Raymond Chandler adaptation instead of letting the story stand on its own really hurts the movie overall, although I will say if you hang in there, the final 30-45 minutes do pick up.

REASONS TO SEE: Lots of interesting ideas and visuals here.
REASONS TO AVOID: The noir element is heavy-handed, particularly the florid narration.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s violence and profanity, some sexual content and drug content throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jackman and Ferguson previously starred together in The Greatest Showman.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (through 9/20)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews; Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inception
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Good


					

Triaphilia


You never know what you’ll find in an old steamer trunk.

(2021) Horror (LAS Productions) Kenny Ledee, Chelsea Rose Barreto, Vincent Caprio, Suzanne Johnson, Ashley Laessig, Jenn Nobile, Esra Ozgun, Rink Patel, Katie Raulerson, Saniye Reyhan, Kurt Slter, Julia Wyrzuc, Mary Zaroura, Kurt Slater, Tony Murphy, Daniela Favaloro. Directed by Joshua Nelson

 

The wisdom goes that the easiest kind of movie to make is a horror movie. That is about as far from the truth as it gets. Horror films are relatively inexpensive to make (which is why studios love them so much) but they are damned hard to get right. Making a good scare requires as much forethought and planning as any CGI, and when not done properly, can lead to a horror movie that isn’t scary. A lot of tyro filmmakers go into horror films with that attitude and make tepid films that please nobody. That is not always the case, however.

Triaphilia is a horror anthology film with three short stories linked together by an antiques and curios store called The Anointed Cherub, which might give you a clue as to who the proprietor (Ledee) really is. He caters to the customer, giving them what they need, although not necessarily what they want. All of his wares come with a real dark side to them.

The first story brings Sal (Patel), who is meeting his girlfriend Karen’s (Raulerson) parents for the first time and he hopes to impress them by bringing them a gift, although she is of the opinion that he would be much better served buying something for her instead. The proprietor convinces Sal to purchase an antique mirror. You can probably see where this is going, as mirrors rarely merely show a reflection in horror movies.

The second story has a trio of fun-loving girls – Bonnie (Laessig), Jeanine (Wyrzuc) and Ruby (Zazoura) – buy an urn that purportedly has the ashes of a serial killer in them. That’s all good for grins and giggles until the deceased killer’s wife (Ozgun) wants her hubby’s ashes back – and she’s not about to take no for an answer.

The final story revolves around Susan (Nobile), a grieving mom who was always a little off but her beloved son Franklin’s death has really sent her around the bend. Her friends Zoe (Barreto) and Ronnie (Reyhan) volunteer to help her store Franklin’s things and at the Anointed Cherub they find a big steamer trunk for the purpose. However, as it turns out, the trunk isn’t exactly empty.

None of the stories are groundbreaking, but they don’t have to be. The third story has the most depth to it and the first the most humor. What matters in a movie like this is that the stories are executed properly, and on that matter the jury is unfortunately out. From a technical standpoint, the movie excels in several ways; the cinematography is absolutely first-rate, so kudos to Michael Zayac in that regard. The gore effects are all practical and while fairly low-budget, are at least competently done.

Where the movie is less successful is in the performances; the acting feels flat and lifeless in a lot of places. One reason for that may be the dialogue which often doesn’t sound like real people talking so much as what looks good on a written script. One of the sins often committed by screenwriters (particularly those that are relatively new to it) is that they fail to actually speak the dialogue out loud before committing it to the script. That often helps make the dialogue sound more natural and less like a book on tape. Also, too many of the characters are shallow and none-too-bright. A little more variety could have been useful, particularly in the female characters. The two actors who fare best is Ledee, who seems to be having the most fun with his role, and Nobile who gives her part equal pathos and WTF-ness.

By no means is this a truly bad movie – I’ve seen plenty of those to know what one looks like – but making movies is a learning experience and that’s what’s happening here. There’s enough that is worthwhile to take a look, so long as you don’t set the bar too high for it. I didn’t feel compelled to switch the movie off, so it held my interest as it is likely to hold yours. There are plenty of movies that don’t even make it that far.

The movie is currently unavailable to screen, but is set to be available in the last quarter of the year on Amazon and other streaming services.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is extremely strong.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting is flat and the characters for the most part not terribly well-written.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence (some of it bloody) and profanity, including sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film defines triaphilia as the “fear of death coming in threes,” the Latin words actually translate to “love of things that come in threes” and refers more to the belief that things occur in threes rather than a fear of it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Needful Things
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Sleepless Unknown

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings


A new hero rises.

(2021) Superhero (Disney) Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Yuen Wah, Andy Le, Paul He, Jayden Zhang, Elodie Fong, Arnold Sun, Stephanie Hsu, Kunal Dudheker, Tsai Chin, Jodi Long, Dallas Liu, Ronny Chieng, Stella Ye, Ben Kingsley, Michael-Anthony Taylor, Zach Cherry, Raymond Ma, Benedict Wong, Harmonie He. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton

 

There are a number of firsts going on in the latest entry into the MCU. The first Asian-American superhero. The first Marvel feature to introduce a new hero into the mix since Captain Marvel. The first MCU film with a director of Asian descent. The first villainous role for Chinese action legend Tony Leung (and also his first English-language film). The first to debut on Labor Day weekend. The first Disney film to resume production after the initial pandemic shutdown.

But is that all there is to a movie? Ground-breaking alone doesn’t make for a great, entertaining film. Thankfully, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings fits the bill and then some.

A prologue tells us of Wenwu (Leung), a villain who found (or stole) ten magic arm rings that rendered him invincible as well as virtually immortal. Over a thousand years, he conquered everything there was to conquer, but he wanted more. The “more” was a village called Ta Lo, a hidden village that sits in a neighboring dimension where dwell legendary magical creatures and contains magical power of immense proportions. Wenwu – who would later be used as the blueprint to create the fictional terrorist known as the Mandarin – already led a criminal enterprise and commanded an army of ninjas, including killers Death Dealer (Le) and Razor Fist (Munteanu), but comes by a map that helps him arrive at the village, although the bamboo forest it is located in seemed to be a living guardian of the peaceful village. There is also a human guardian – the beautiful Li (Chen) who bests Wenwu in a fight. The criminal overlord promptly falls in love and, improbably, ends up marrying her.

Because of Wenwu’s criminal past, the couple is denied residence in Ta Lo so Macau is where they end up living. Li gives birth to a son and daughter before she dies, and Wenwu, who had softened into a family man, hardens right back up, training his young son, Shang-Chi, to be a killer while mostly ignoring his daughter, Xiang.

Shang-Chi (Liu) eventually runs away from his father, choosing not to become like him, and ends up in San Francisco, using the name Shaun. He has a bestie named Katy (Awkwafina) who, like him, parks cars at a swanky SF hotel. While Katy’s mom (Long) and grandma (Chin) wonder when the two are going to get married, but they’re just friends (without benefits – this is a PG-13 film after all). However, on a bus ride to work, Shaun is attacked by a group of thugs including Razor Fist and turns out that he has extraordinary martial arts abilities, much to the shock of Katy who is unaware of his past. He manages to beat the thugs, but they steal a pendant that his mother had given him, but let slip that they are going after his sister next. So Shang-Chi boards a plane for Macau, having received a cryptic postcard from his sister which apparently reveals her address and Katy insists on going with.

There they find a bitter Xiang (Zhang) who had resented her brother for leaving her behind with their father. She, too, had eventually run away from home and began an empire of her own with a high-tech fight club on top of a skyscraper. That’s when the goons arrive and so does dear old dad. You see, it seems he needs the pendants to reveal a map that will navigate a safe passage through the bamboo forest to Ta Lo. Wenwu has been hearing his wife’s voice, begging him to set her free from imprisonment in her former home. But he also intends to destroy that home, much to Shang-Chi’s horror. They must find a way to get there first if they are going to stop their dad, who is unwittingly going to release a horrible, Apocalypse-bringing monster onto the earth if he succeeds.

First of all, the good news: this is one of the best Marvel movies yet, right up there with Black Panther and Guardians of the Galaxy. It is beautifully shot, the fight sequences are phenomenal (particularly the first one on the bus) and the CGI without peer. Simu Liu, who was previously best known for the Canadian TV series Kim’s Convenience, is going to be a huge star, following the example of Chris Hemsworth who was a little-known actor before being cast as Thor. Add to that the lustrous Michelle Yeoh as Auntie Nan, Leung who gets to show American filmgoers what Asian audiences have known for decades, and Awkwafina who continues to become a major A-list star with her performance here.

weaves all the elements together pretty well. I will admit that during the middle the movie becomes necessarily exposition-heavy and drags somewhat, but other than that, he shows a sure hand on the big stage even though he comes from an indie background (Short Term 12) and this is really his first big budget major tentpole release. Undoubtedly he’ll get a lot more like this, in all likelihood including Shang-Chi 2 which is almost a certainty to make it onto Marvel’s schedule eventually.

There are two post-credit sequences, incidentally, and the first one is maybe the best one in the franchise with a couple of cameos by Marvel superheroes and hints at what Shang-Chi’s place in the larger MCU is going to be. Given what I’ve seen here, he’s not going to fade into the woodwork any time soon. This is the must-see movie of the season and by all means go out and see it in a theater if you can.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderfully weaves Chinese culture, myths and legends into the MCU. Simu Liu is going to be a star and Awkwafina further cements her own reputation. Incredible action sequences and effects. One of the best Marvel movies ever.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit long, dragging a bit in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of fantasy/superhero action and violence, as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stunt coordinator Bradley James Allen, who was the first (and only) non-Asian member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team, passed away on August 7 from an undisclosed illness. The film is dedicated to him.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hero
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Triaphilia

The Stairs


There are things in the woods.

(2021) Sci-Fi Horror (Cinedigm) Adam Korson, Tyra Colar, Thomas Wethington, Josh Crotty, Brent Bailey, Stacey Oristano, John Schneider, Kathleen Quinlan, Trin Miller, Russell Hodgkinson, Karleena Gore, David S. Hogan, Mark Klein, Sandy Klein, Elena Flory-Barnes, Gordon Frye, Robin Cheung, Derek R. McKean, Jeff Mendenhall, Katherine Grant-Suttie. Directed by Peter “Drago” Tiemann

 

There is a reason why so many horror movies are set in the woods. For one thing, they are remote; the protagonist(s) are forced to rely on themselves to escape whatever horror they are facing. For another thing, they are beautiful. It makes for good cinematography and the juxtaposition of beautiful scenery and blood-curdling terror is a good one. Also, you don’t need to pay a large cast and crew in the woods. It keeps costs down. But most importantly, forests are just dang creepy.

Jesse Martin (Wethington), a young 11-year-old boy, is headed out on a hunting trip with his grandpa (Schneider). Grandma (Quinlan) has packed them both a sack lunch, notably without bacon for the cholesterol-challenged grandpa and their daughter Kate (Miller) drops off Jesse with an admonition to pick up some tomatoes for canning on the way home. But that isn’t going to happen. While out in the woods, Jesse is distracted by a strange sound and wanders off to find an astonishing structure in the woods – a grand staircase. Grandpa, discovering his grandson is missing, goes after him only to witness his grandson being dragged off into a doorway on the back of the structure. Being a good grandpa who is packing a hunting rifle, he grimly goes off to rescue the boy.

Twenty years later, a group of young people are going on a hike in the same area; Nick (Korson), Josh (Bailey), Rebeccah (Oristano), pragmatic Jordon (Colar) and “Dirty” Doug (Crotty) who comes by his nickname honestly. As happens in most horror movies, a local clerk (M. Klein) warns the kids to be careful because it’s a blood moon tonight and people disappear during a blood moon. As also happens in most horror movies, the kids ignore the warning.

At first, the hike is pretty much a standard nature hike as practiced by a group of young city kids. But things start to get weird. Rebeccah in particular sees some strange things, although none stranger than the one vision they all witness – an agitated man with a horrific head wound (Hogan) waving a gun around while his deformed wife (Gore) cradles their baby – a giant maggot. But instead of hightailing it out of the woods, they go further in. That’s where the Stairs are waiting for them.

Okay, the plot description has a little bit of snarkiness in it (can’t help myself – I’m just in a mood) but this is a surprisingly well-acted, taut horror picture with some impressive practical effects. Sure, the plot is a little hoary and there are a few holes in it here and there, but you kind of expect that out of a horror movie these days. In many ways, this is the kind of movie that could easily have been made back in the Eighties – except if it had been made then, there would have been an excuse for one or both of the actresses to take off their tops. Back then, female nudity in horror movies was pretty much as necessary as fake blood. We live in more enlightened times now.

And while the story isn’t anything to write home about, there is much here to praise; the cinematography is ably done, the characters are developed more than you would find in an average modern horror movie and there are a couple of really nicely set up scares as well as a fairly high gross-out factor. All in all, if there was one word that ably describes the film, it’s nifty.

REASONS TO SEE: Surprisingly strong acting performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pedestrian plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and gore. There is also a depiction of deer hunting that might upset those who love animals.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was voted Best Feature Film at the 2021 UK Haunted House Fearfest.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/3/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wrong Turn
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Alliances Broken


It’s all smiles and fun and games until the money runs out.

(2021) Sports Documentary (1091) Steve Spurrier, Chris Martin, Charlie Ebersole, Alex Orendorff, Mike Woodell, Robert Vanech, Roscoe Mynck, Conor Orr, Benjamin Sturner, Daniel Kaplan, Darren Heitner, Olivia Liette, Freddie Wehbo, Bryan Woodfork, Tom Veit, Dillon Smith, Dylan Sesco, Zach Bromwell, Aaron Evans, Jeff Fisher, Hines Wood, Christina Martin, Ronnell Hall, Jennifer Smith. Directed by Steven Potter

 

The National Football League is in many ways the 800-lb gorilla of professional sports. Not since the American Football League in the 1960s has the NFL had a serious challenge to its dominance, and even then it just absorbed the whole league into itself. There have been several start-ups since, mostly positioned in the Spring as to not compete directly with the NFL. The football graveyard is littered with their corpses; the World Football League, the United States Football League, the XFL and the United Football League – all started out with high hopes, only to end up scattered to the four winds.

Even the indoor Arena League didn’t hold out for long; after a brief resurgence, it too died. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t repeated attempts to try where the others failed, and at first glance the Alliance of American Football (AAF) seemed to have the ingredients to succeed. The visionary at its head was Charlie Ebersole, son of the sports broadcasting legend Dick Ebersole (who back in 2001 co-founded the XFL with Vince McMahon). He also had some pretty heavy hitters in the upper echelons with him; Super Bowl-winning GM Bill Polian, legendary coach Steve Spurrier, former Minnesota Vikings owner Reggie Fowler, and football strategist Jeff Fisher.

From the beginning, Ebersole preached fan interactivity. A web app was designed to allow fans to bet on plays in real time. A point system was designed that at the end of the season would give players a share of a prize pool depending on how much community work they did. Ebersole had a deal with CBS to broadcast games and a tireless staff that promoted the league and tried to get their communities fired up about spring football.

But it was all smoke and mirrors. The financing, which Ebersole had touted, just wasn’t there. Also, in order to get the league an advantage over the returning XFL, he rushed the league into action a mere eleven months after announcing its formation, giving the organization nowhere near enough time to develop. Starting a football league is not just coming up with some cool team names and announcing try-outs – there are literally millions of moving parts, from securing practice and game facilities, arranging for health insurance (players do get injured, you know), purchasing equipment for the players, the training room and the front office, arranging for travel and accommodations, and so on and so on and so on. These things take time and patience.

Perhaps it was the charismatic Ebersole’s charisma that had people believing, but believe they did, even when there were troubling signs – the league had difficulty meeting payroll after the first couple of weeks (as it turned out Fowler turned out to be laundering money and was indicted for it, taking out a gigantic portion of the league’s operating budget), the merchandise was priced insanely high, tickets were given away more often than sold in an effort to make sure that the television audience didn’t see a mostly-empty stadium. Also the broadcasting deal was not as advantageous as Ebersole led people to believe; most of the AAF games were broadcast on the cable CBS Sports Network which reached far fewer households.

Even so, it came as a shock when after only eight weeks the league ceased operations. Players were left high and dry, thrown out of hotels whose bills hadn’t been paid; staffers who had moved cross country suddenly found themselves in a city where they knew no one with a mortgage and no job. Many vendors went unpaid, forcing some of them into bankruptcy as well.

This documentary began life as a series of player interviews for the Orlando Apollos social media, but as things began to unravel, first-time filmmaker Steven Potter found himself making a different kind of movie. His inexperience shows in places; some points are hammered home with a great deal of repetition, others are given no exploration at all. Potter had almost no budget at all, utilizing money given him as a graduation gift to defray expenses. For that reason, we don’t really hear too much from the financial guys (other than through videos of interviews and press conferences) but we do hear from players like Chris Martin, an offensive lineman who had gone to the University of Central Florida and after playing on NFL taxi squads, finally had an opportunity to play in his home town. He is articulate and warm, although Potter does relate the story of the drowning of his son before the league started up, which is kind of brutally inserted into the film near the end, and creates some tonal problems.

But the story is nonetheless an interesting one, and Potter does a good job in laying it out. Given that there are two more spring leagues on the horizon – the XFL under new ownership, and a reboot of the old USFL – it appears that despite the daunting obstacles of starting up a professional football league and that no outdoor spring league has ever lasted more than three seasons – there are those still believing that this time it will work.

REASONS TO SEE: A thorough post-mortem of a league that was doomed to fail – and the human fallout from that failure.
REASONS TO AVOID: Interesting, but not essential.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and rude gestures.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Potter was initially hired to provide promotional films for the Orlando Apollos AAF franchise; after the league went belly-up, he decided to use his footage and create a documentary about the league’s rise and fall.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Stairs