La Soga: Salvation


La Soga doing what he does best.

(2021) Action (Screen Media) Manny Perez, Sarah Jorge León, Hada Vanessa, Chris McGarry, Juan Fernández, Félix Germán, Vicente Suriel, Billy M. Mejia, Albania Matos, Jay Ramirez, Joseph Cepin, Siegfried Puello, Pablo Rodriguez Masjoan, Brazu Montanez, Jhomphy Ventura, Michael Ras Wolf, Leonel Severino, Joyce Vandreuil, Jose Gutierrez, Juan Babyface Matos, Yakim Parker, Rose Peralta. Directed by Manny Perez

 

Back in 2009, La Soga had the distinction of being the first movie from the Dominican Republic to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival. A dozen years later, the sequel repeated the feat and is now finding theatrical and streaming release here in the United States.

Luisito (Perez, who also wrote and directed the sequel) is living a quiet life in Pawtucket, Rhode Island with his girlfriend Lia (León), trying to forget his past as a hitman for the secret police in his home country of the Dominican Republic, going by the code name of La Soga. The two have spent the last decade moving from place to place, trying to stay away from vengeful drug lords who still want a pound of Luisito’s flesh. But now, it seems, they have found the tranquility and anonymity they both desire and are thinking about finally starting a family. In fact, Lia has just discovered the she is pregnant, and is looking forward to breaking the good news to her boyfriend.

But before she can, his past finally catches up with him, in the person of Federal agent James McCann (McGarry), who jovially likes to be called “Jimmy Mac.” He has a job for La Soga, which Luisito doesn’t want to take. He knows that he and Lia must once more go on the run. He just needs to pick up his last paycheck from the bodega he works in and they can go, but he is ambushed there by McCann’s men. He survives the ambush, and hurries home, to find the apartment in chaos and Lia gone. He gets a phone call from McCann; he has Lia, and will kill her if that job he wanted done doesn’t get done. Luisito has no choice but to take on the assignment, which is to kill a Dominican drug lord before he can go on trial.

But it turns out there’s another player in the game, one with a far more personal stake in the goings-on, and just as deadly as Luisito. Now, he has to find Lia, rescue her and avoid all manner of assassins if he is to save his family.

As action films go, this one is somewhat generic. Perez has a kind of smoldering, brooding presence that is generally suitable for the genre, but he also isn’t a superhuman killing machine either; he is perhaps the most ordinary action hero that I’ve ever seen in a genre film, and that’s truly welcome. When your hero is virtually unstoppable, it tends to take the tension out of the cinematic equation.

The movie is generally well-written, but doesn’t offer any variation on tried-and-true formulas, so in that sense the movie is entirely forgettable. Still, León has a great deal of screen presence, even though it isn’t utilized much, and Perez does a pretty good job as well. While the action sequences aren’t innovative, they are at least competently done and devoid of any CGI assistance. Generally speaking, this is a throwback to the B-movie action films of the Eighties and that in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

REASONS TO SEE: Luisito is a different kind of action hero.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very standard action flick in many respects.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, profanity, brief nudity and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The English translation of La Soga is “the Rope.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sicario
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Yardie

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Stoker Hills


All tied up on a Saturday night.

(2020) Found Footage (Screen Media) Tony Todd, Steffani Brass, David Gridley, Vince Hill-Bedford, William Lee Scott, Tyler Clark, Eric Etebari, Danny Nucci, John Beasley, Thomas R. Martin, Maya Nucci, Joy McElveen, Jason Sweat, Michael Faulkner, Vinny O’Brien, Atticus Nations, Sara Friedman. Directed by Benjamin Louis

 

It wasn’t that long ago when found footage films were the bee’s knees in the horror genre. You couldn’t swing a dead cat without smacking a found footage film. But eventually, they fell out of favor – and to be truthful, the subgenre has always been kind of limiting (more on that in a minute), and these days, they tend to be pretty rare.

Ryan (Gridley), Jake (Hill-Bedford) and Erica (Brass) are film students in Professor Smith’s (Todd) class. The students are getting ready to begin work on their film projects for the class, and Jake is already filming everything he can – including Professor Smith’s class. Ryan and Jake are excited about the movie they are about to shoot – it’s called Streetwalkers and it’s about zombie hookers and tars Erica as a prostitute who becomes a zombie. Jake’s ex-girlfriend, Dani (Clark), who won the previous year’s student film of the year award, is skeptical about the project, adding fuel to the fire.

But on the first night of shooting, something unexpected occurs. A car pulls up alongside Erica, the bemused filmmakers believing that the driver thinks she’s an actual hooker…then without warning, grabs the screaming girl and throws her in the car, roaring away before the boys can catch up. Of course Jake continues filming as the boys give chase.

Sometime later, the camera is found along with a dead body, and police detectives Adams (Etebari) and Stafford (Scott) who watch the footage and realize that at least two of the three kids are still missing. A race against time ensues to find them, with only the clues in the camera to guide them. Given that there have been a number of unexplained disappearances lately, this could be the sign that something much more terrible is going on than a couple of kids making a movie that got out of hand.

One of the things (and there are many) that essentially derailed the found footage explosion is that the movies tend to be pretty much the same, generally but Stoker Hills twists that on its ear, by ot only using found footage but more conventional storyteliing techniques as well, utilizing the detectives watching the footage and taking the clues from it to find the missing kids. That much is innovative.

But one of the things that made found footage less viable than other horror subgenres is that you have to create a reason for the footage to exist and while in some cases it works (the Paranormal Activity films largely rely on security camera footage), that doesn’t always work as in this case; most people, chasing after someone who is in mortal peril, aren’t likely to keep filming. Their concentration is going to be on rescuing the person who is in trouble.

Tony Todd is the headliner here, but sadly he’s only on for a couple of scenes (including the very first) and doesn’t really play much of a role here, but he still command the screen in any case. The three young leads do pretty good work (and Brass does a fine job looking uncomfortable in the hyper-sexual outfit she’s forced to wear). The characters of the detectives are poorly written though; they look like a couple of guys who have watched way too many noir movies (one of them even wears a fedora and a trenchcoat) and they don’t act like any sort of competent police detective.

This movie is a bit of a contradiction. There are quite a few basic flaws here, but there’s also some real creativity. The two kind of counterbalance each other, leaving a fairly enjoyable horror-thriller with a fair amount of gore and enough interest in the plot to keep one watching until the very end.

REASONS TO SEE: The story is just compelling enough to be worthwhile.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too much formula, too much exposition, too many missteps in plot points.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug use, violence, gore and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although this is the third feature directed by the Haiti-born Louis, it is the first film he has directed since 2004.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Creep
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Mr. Birthday

Off the Rails


A European vacation that has absolutely nothing to do with National Lampoon.

(2021) Dramedy (Screen Media) Jenny Seagrove, Sally Phillips, Kelly Preston, Andrea Corr, Judi Dench, Elizabeth Dormer-Phillips, Ben Miller, Ledwin Vega Paez, Alessio Pecorari, Catalina Florit Llinas, Pedro Victory Ramos, Franco Nero, Martin Shaw, Peter Bowles, Ismael Calvillo Millán, Eva González Corpas, Alex Tejedor Andersen, Jordan Waller, Uve Barker. Directed by Jules Williamson

 

]At a certain age, we begin to reflect more on what came before than where we are headed. We examine the roads not taken, the paths we did take and the reasons we are where we are. These examinations tend to be melancholy and bittersweet, because humans almost universally tend to focus on regrets ahead of the things we did right.

]Three 50-something women – control freak Kate (Seagrove), uber-mom Liz (Phillips) and wise-cracking actress Cassie (Preston) have been hit by bad news; their close friend Anna has passed away. At her funeral, Anna’s mom (Dench) plops three Interrail passes in their hands and commands them to take Anna’s teenage daughter Maddie (Dormer-Phillips) along for the ride, retracing their steps on a holiday taken thirty years earlier, culminating in an appearance at the Cathedral in Parma, Italy, where twice a year the light hits the stained glass just so, creating an effect known as “God’s Disco Ball,” a spectacle they missed the first time around and which is due to appear five days hence.

]This would be a good occasion to reflect on their friendship, the things that have separated (including the fact that one of them slept with the husband of another) them, and the things that draw them closer together. Of course, no holiday ever goes exactly the way its planned, but given the penchant these women have for getting into mischief, it’s a given that getting to Parma on the day indicated is no certain thing.

We’ve seen these sorts of movies before, where the death of a good friend causes those that survived to reconnect and become stronger and closer than ever, but this isn’t quite like that. It’s equal parts road movie and reflection, all held together by a soundtrack of Blondie music – essentially every song Blondie ever recorded appears at one point or another on the soundtrack, some more than once. It actually becomes distracting and gimmicky, and this coming from someone who might just love Blondie’s music as much as these characters supposedly do. File it under “too much of a good thing.”

]The thing about a movie like this is that in order to see any character growth, you have to get to know who the characters are and we never really do, beyond two-dimensional personality quirks. I don’t have an objection to watching middle-aged women act like hormonal teens (heaven knows we’ve seen enough movies with middle-aged men acting like hormonal teens) but this doesn’t serve to empower the women in the film, but rather just makes them less admirable. I would rather have seen these middle-aged women act like middle-aged women. It’s rare enough we see films with women of that particular age group as the focus; why can’t we just let them be themselves? *end rant*

]Dench, in a cameo appearance, just about steals the movie as she is capable of doing every time she steps in front of the camera. Preston, in her final screen appearance, acquits herself the most notably. I’m not sure she realized how sick she was at the time, but it seems ironic that her final role was about saying goodbye; one wonders if she knew that was exactly what she was doing herself.

I really hoped this movie would be better than it is, but too many cliches spoil the plot, and the lack of character development and the surfeit of Blondie music doom it. Something tells me when the filmmakers reach the point that they are looking back at their regrets, this movie will be among them.

REASONS TO SEE: Focuses on a demographic often ignored by the movies.
REASONS TO AVOID: A cliché plot with no memorable characters to rescue it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the last movie Preston made before her untimely death from breast cancer in 2020. The movie is dedicated to her memory.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews; Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crossroads
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Triple Frontier

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road


Brian Wilson , in many ways, carried the Beach Boys.

(2021) Music Documentary (Screen Media) Brian Wilson, Jason Fine, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Linda Perry, Gustavo Dudamel, Don Was, Steven Page, Nick Jonas, Jakob Dylan, Jim James, Mark Linett, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Bob Gaudio, Probyn Gregory, Andy Paley, Taylor Hawkins, Darian Sahanaia, Stephen Kalioich, Melinda Ledbetter. Directed by Brent Wilson

Without a doubt, the musical legacy of Brian Wilson is right up there, as Los Angeles Philharmonic Musical Director Gustavo Dudamel opines, with Schubert and Mahler. He has been described as “Pop’s Mozart” and while the man himself would probably squirm at such descriptions, they aren’t wrong.

Wilson, the man who wrote most of the big hits of the Beach Boys and produced their greatest records, also has struggled with mental illness, exacerbated by his drug abuse in the late Sixties and Seventies. Before that, he was churning out incredible songs extolling Southern California as a kind of paradise of warm sand, sunshine, beautiful girls in bikinis, and clean-cut guys in hot rods. It was a different era – for many, this sounded like heaven on Earth and the Beach Boys sold it like aggressive real estate agents. The Los Angeles chamber of commerce should have pictures of these guys up on their wall; they helped bring a lot of business and industry to California because they brought a lot of people to the Golden State.

He comes off here as a gentle soul, uncomfortable with talking about himself, nervous and anxious about any sort of interview. The fact that his friend and Rolling Stone writer Jason Fine is conducting the interviews probably helps some. Fine drives the former Beach Boy around Los Angeles to points of interest on the Brian Wilson tour; to the site of the house he grew up in Hawthorne – long since demolished to make room for a freeway, although a plaque stands at the site marking it as a California Historic Landmark. He also takes him to Paradise Cove, where the covers to some of the early Beach Boys albums were photographed – there’s a plaque there, too. Fine also takes him to various houses where he lived during the heyday of the band, and to his brother Carl’s home – he generally doesn’t get out of the car, except at the Deli where they have lunch (and run into Vanna White, a former neighbor of Wilsons and their brief chat occurs off-camera; ah, Hollywood).

We listen to a long of the songs that Brian and the Boys made famous (and a few less famous ones), and listen to the expert opinions of fellow greats Springsteen and Sir Elton John, both who admit being mesmerized by the music and inspired by it. John even admits to cribbing a few of Brian’s studio tricks for his own albums. Don Was, the veteran producer who also directed the 1995 documentary Brian Wilson: I Wasn’t Made For These Times, listens to “God Only Knows” from the magnificent Pet Sounds album and shakes his head in wonderment and delight. “I’ve been doing this (producing music) for forty years and I still can’t tell you how he did that,” listening to the intricate instrumentation, some of which he can’t identify – “A flute with reverb, maybe?”

But maybe the most emotional moments, even as director Brent Wilson (no relation) looks at the abusive of Brian’s father Murry, and his psychiatrist Eugene Landy, are reserved for Brian’s relationships with his brothers, both gone. He listens, for the first time he says, to Dennis Wilson’s overlooked gem of a solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue and is impressed. “I wanna hear it ALL,” he says when asked if he wants to hear more. He also is brought to tears talking about his brother Carl (who passed away in 1998 from cancer, and asks Fine to turn off the song on which Carl is singing. “I can’t listen to this anymore,” he says quietly. Dennis drowned in 1983.

This isn’t a documentary that is going to reveal much more about Brian than is already out there – you probably need to go to I Was Not Made For These Times if you want more of that. But this is a sweet and affecting documentary that reminds us that although Brian may not like being identified as a genius, he nevertheless has produced some of the greatest music of his time and we are all the better for it.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some strong and powerful moments here. Lots of really good insights throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Nothing really revelatory here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wilson has been diagnosed with schizoactive disorder, and continues to hear voices in his head to this day.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Feast

One Shot (2021)


Scott Adkins practices his Eastwood sneer.

(2021) Action (Screen Media) Scott Adkins, Ashley Greene, Ryan Phillippe, Emmanuel Imani, Dino Kelly, Jack Parr, Waleed Elgadi, Terence Maynard, Jess Liaudin, Lee Charles, Andrei Maniata, Jamie B. Chambers, Dan Styles, Justin Sysum, James Unsworth, Dimitris Kafataris, Duncan Casey (voice), Anthony Abiola, Ronin Traynor, Dita Tantang. Directed by James Nunn

When Alfred Hitchcock filmed Rope back in 1948, the movie was set up to appear as a single shot. Back then, it was not technically possible for a complete feature film to be shot all in one take; cameras back then didn’t hold enough film to manage it. So Hitchcock improvised, moving in on stationary objects where he would reload the film and begin shooting again. It proved an effective exercise, although, truth be told, not one of his better films.

That has since been repeated in movies like Birdman and 1917 which were able to film longer sequences without stopping to linger on someone’s back or a table or a sofa thanks to digital cameras. Now, the idea has made it to action B-movies.

CIA junior analyst Zoe Anderson (Greene) is being escorted by a group of Navy SEALS led by taciturn Jake Harris (Adkins) to a Gitmo-like black ops base on an island in Eastern Europe. She is there to retrieve a prisoner (Elgadi) who may have information about an imminent terrorist attack in Washington DC. When they get there, the guy in charge, Jack Yorke (Phillippe) in no uncertain and LOUD terms finds the whole thing highly irregular and wants to verify Ms. Anderson’s orders. But before that can happen, the base is attacked by a gaggle of terrorists who pour out of a truck that may or may not have clowns in it as well, and all of a sudden the SEALs are in a fight for their lives.

When you realize how much effort had to go into choreographing the movie’s action sequences precisely so that explosions and bullet thwips went off precisely, you have to admire Nunn and DP Jonathan Iles for their preparation. Because the camera is handheld and uses fluid motion to take us through the action as if we were there, the whole exercise resembles a first-person shooter more than anything (the influence of which Nunn freely admits).

But it feels gimmicky. You get the sense that the only reason that Nunn shot the movie this way was to show that he could. It doesn’t really enhance the storytelling all that much – in fact, the story is particularly cliché and unimpressive. Worse still, the martial arts skills of Adkins – which are considerable – are not utilized until nearly halfway through the movie and while he indeed shows why he is one of the best B movie action heroes with his slick martial arts moves, by the time they show up you are already checking your email and maybe seeing what you’re going to order on Uber Eats for dinner.

With little to no character development and a pedestrian story, only the one shot gimmick gives the movie any interest whatsoever – and it will feel gimmicky after a while, make no mistake. If as much care and attention had gone into the script as had gone into the choreography, this could have been something truly special, rather than one of many forgettable action movies littering up the VOD services.

REASONS TO SEE: One has to admire the preparation and craft that went into choreographing this thing.
REASONS TO AVOID: The single shot thing comes off as gimmicky.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and mayhem, profanity and some scenes of torture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot in 20 days.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Outpost
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Anonymous Animals

Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters


Who ya gonna call?

(2021) Documentary (Screen Media) Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ivan Reitman, Ernie Hudson, Ray Parker Jr., William Atherton, Sigourney Weaver, Richard Edlund, Michael C. Gross, Sheldon Kahn, Steven Ziff, Colin J. Campbell, Steve Johnson, Peter Bernstein, Steven Tash, Alice Drummond, John Rothman, Annie Potts, Richard Beggs, Allen Coulter, Jennifer Runyon. Directed by Anthony Bueno

 

There is no doubt that Ghostbusters is an iconic movie. There are many who count it as an unexpected hit back in 1984, but I don’t recall anyone expecting anything other than box office coffers being filled to the brim, given its cast and subject matter. That it would go on to be one of the biggest grossing films of the year, beating some pretty sure things in the final numbers, was a bit surprising though.

Now, with a new entry in the franchise featuring members of the original cast and directed by Jason Reitman, son of the original director Ivan Reitman, it seems like a good time to look back at the original and there’s no better way – other than by watching the movie itself, of course – than this exhaustive documentary, which is probably as complete a record of the film as you’re likely to find anywhere.

It’s chock full of interviews – some contemporaneous with the film, others newly recorded – and includes many of the original cast members (Aykroyd, Weaver, Atherton, Potts, Drummond and recorded before his untimely death in 2014, Ramis). There are also plenty of anecdotes, much behind-the-scenes footage and even some deleted scenes from the movie. Most people will learn something new about Ghostbusters, even some of the most well-versed fans. Did you know, for example, that Aykroyd originally wrote the role of Peter Venkmann  for his good friend John Belushi who sadly passed away shortly after the script was completed? Or that Eddie Murphy was going to be Winston Zeddmore? Or that John Candy wanted the role of Louis Tully but his agent basically talked his way out of the part?

Filming took only a year from the time the film was greenlit, which considering that the movie had some very complex special effects and massive sets to deal with was virtually an impossible from the get-go. In an era in which digital effects were barely in their infancy, the crew was looking at doing practical and optical effects to make the movie work, and they would have to use some pretty creative solutions to make those effects truly special indeed.

The movie is about two hours long, which may be a bit more than the average fan would bargain for but for the superfans of the film it will feel like it could go longer. There are a lot of talking head interviews which are unexciting, and the how-to on the effects may be a bit more than you might want to know, but for those who really loved the movie (and love it still), this will be absolute catnip. Even casual fans of the film are likely to find something here of interest.

REASONS TO SEE: Extremely detailed with plenty of anecdotes.
REASONS TO AVOID: There’s a lot here to unpack, maybe too much, and there is a surfeit of talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aykroyd was inspired by his great-grandfather, who was an amateur spiritualist and paranormal researcher.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Crackle, DirecTV,  Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Movies That Made Us
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
La Casa de Mama Icha

Best Sellers


Nobody does glee like Michael Caine.

(2021) Dramedy (Screen Media) Aubrey Plaza, Michael Caine, Cary Elwes, Scott Speedman, Ellen Wong, Veronica Ferres, Victoria Sanchez, Elena Dunkelman, Frank Schorpion, Alexandra Petrachuk, Elizabeth Etienne, Charli Birdgenaw, Rachel Osborne, Frank Fiola, Christopher Hayes, Susan Almgren, Michelle Rambharose, Florence Situ. Directed by Lina Roessler

 

Like many industries in this digital age, the book publishing industry has changed radically over the past fifteen years. Like Hollywood, they rely heavily on blockbusters to pay the bills and not so much on literary gems. Besides, people don’t really read books so much anymore; they are more likely to read (if they read at all) on Kindle or some such device.

Lucy Stanbridge (Plaza) has inherited her father’s boutique publishing company which has fallen on hard times. Despite Lucy’s best efforts to modernize the country with young adult fantasy books, sales have been unspectacular and there are buyers sniffing around, smelling the desperation. Lucy needs a bestseller badly, but doesn’t have anyone on her roster that might deliver one anytime soon. And you know what they say – desperate times call for desperate measures.

That desperate measure is Harris Shaw (Caine), once a young lion of literature whose book Atomic Autumn was a massive cultural touchstone in the Seventies, but hasn’t had a word published since. Conveniently, he contractually owes the publishing house a book. So Lucy sets out with her doughty assistant Rachel (Wong) to wheedle a book out of the reclusive author, who is reclusive for a reason – he can’t stand people, and the feeling is pretty much mutual. However, his own financial situation has become precarious – you can only survive on royalties so long – and he reluctantly agrees to supply Lucy with a new book, The Future is X-Rated, with the stipend that not a word in the manuscript is to be edited. That triggers a clause in the contract that requires him to participate in a book tour for his new work.

Being a feisty curmudgeon, he does his level best to be a bad boy. Instead of reading his work, he reads Letters to Penthouse at his readings. He urinates on his own book and instigates chants of “Bull Shite!” which becomes a popular meme. However, as the young publisher discovers to her chagrin, viral videos and online memes do not translate into hardcover book sales – who knew? Turns out, nearly everybody else.

But both Lucy and Harris are wounded souls and while at first they are wary and somewhat annoyed with one another, they discover that they have much more in common than they at first thought. And that they need each other a lot more than they could have imagined.

The crusty, irascible literary icon is a hoary Hollywood cliché that has been done over and over again, but rarely better than how Caine does it here. This is one of the 88-year-old actor’s most compelling recent performances and he reminds us that he’s a two-time Oscar winner for a reason. Plaza makes a terrific foil and also reminds us that she is one of the most consistently high-quality actresses operating in movies over the past ten years. Putting both of them in the same movie was a casting coup.

It’s a shame that the movie shifts gear in the final act and goes the tear-jerking route which feels predictable and unearned. I don’t have an issue exploring the vulnerabilities of the characters – that’s what makes a movie like this interesting – but just the way in which it’s done, specifically the circumstances (I don’t want to give away what they are) is just highly disappointing overall. I wish that writer Anthony Grieco had trusted himself a bit more to come up with something a little less by-the-numbers – or the producers trusting him to do the same.

So what we end up with is a better-than-average movie that manages to overcome a whole mess o’ cliches with overall charm and a surfeit of strong performances, particularly from Caine and Plaza. This isn’t going to be Oscar bait by any means, but it’s a seriously entertaining movie that is likely to kick off the fall movie season with a satisfying bang particularly for older moviegoers and cinephiles alike.

REASONS TO SEE: Plaza and Caine are treasures. There is enough charm here to overcome its faults.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets pretty maudlin near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and a scene of sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Roessler’s feature film directorial debut.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews; Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The End of the Tour
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Nowhere Inn

Till Death


Some men see women as little more than ornaments.

(2021) Thriller (Screen Media) Megan Fox, Eoin Macken, Callan Mulvey, Jack Roth, Ami Ameen, Stefanie Rozhko, Julian Belahurov, Lili Rich, Teodora Djuric. Directed by S.K. Dale

 

We all know the traditional wedding vows; to love and cherish, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, till death do us part. With a 50% divorce rate (or thereabouts), the final part isn’t so much of a factor anymore but for some it still holds true.

You would think Emma (Fox) has The Life. Married to a handsome, wealthy and connected lawyer named Mark (Macken), she was a photographer who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and became collateral damage in a botched robbery attempt. Mark was the lawyer who represented her, and eventually the two married. Bad idea.

It turns out Mark was far from the white knight Emma thought he was. He is a control freak of the highest order, and sees his wife as a reflection of his own manhood and power. He wants her to look a certain way, act a certain way. It’s no wonder that she has taken part in an extramarital affair with Tom (Ameen), a colleague of her husband’s. However, she decides to call things off with Tom, using the fact that its her wedding anniversary as a reason.

Mark appears to be completely ignorant of the affair, showering Emma with gifts and a surprise; blindfolding her and driving her out to their lake house, even though it is the middle of winter. After a night of romance and wine, she wakes up to a cold house and handcuffed to her husband. Then comes a shocking event – and everything in her world has suddenly become a life-or-death survival situation. And to make matters worse, Mark has invited a few other guests to the party.

The plot doesn’t always make a lot of sense, but then again, it is at least kept pretty simple. The real surprise is Fox. She has always been known more for her beauty than her acting ability, but slap my britches and call me Sally, she actually does a commendable job here. While her performance here is occasionally erratic (as in line delivery mainly), for the most part she does a great job as a woman who has been intimidated and emotionally abused into numbness, who is then placed into a situation where she must fight or die.

It was less believable that Emma, wearing a flimsy nightie and no shoes, seemed to not be that affected by the cold, even when out in the snow and on the frozen lake. You would think that she might shiver, a little. But that might just be chalked up to Hollywood shorthand; Emma is strong enough to stand up to Mark and the two hit men (Mulvey, Roth) he’s sent out to finish her off, a little chill isn’t going to bother her much.

In fact it’s when the two hit men (who have a connection to the story that’s a little far-fetched) arrive in the movie that things really begin to take off and the movie really hits its stride. Dale shows a deft hand with some of these sequels and might well have a future in bigger budget action/thriller films down the line. As far as now goes, however, he’s brewed up a nifty little film that you might keep an eye out for – even if you’re not particularly fond of Megan Fox, as I was not. This might just change your mind about her.

REASONS TO SEE: Fox shows some range.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stretches believability to the breaking point.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, gruesome violence and some grisly images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Dale’s feature film debut; previously he has only directed short films.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gerald’s Game
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Meander

The Birthday Cake


A different kind of birthday candle.

(2021) Drama (Screen Media) Shiloh Fernandez, Val Kilmer, Ewan McGregor, William Fichtner, Lorraine Bracco, Jeremy Allen White, Emory Cohen, Vincent Pastore, David Mazouz, Ashley Benson, John Magaro, Nick Vallelonga, Penn Badgley, Franky G, Ruben Rivera, Luis Guzmán, Aldis Hodge, Jake Weary, Clara McGregor. Paul Sorvino, Joseph D’Onofrio, Tyler Dean Flores, Emily Tremaine. Directed by Jimmy Giannopoulos

 

“The neighborhood is changing” is a lament that we hear just about everywhere. It shouldn’t come as a surprise though; neighborhoods are always changing. People move out, more people move in, as they say, change is inevitable but growth is optional.

For Gio (Mazouz), he is the son of a family that is, as it is euphemistically put, “connected.” On his mother’s side, though; his father is not and it is his father he takes after; gentle, desiring to walk the straight and narrow. When some Russian kids give him a black eye, is cousin Leo (Cohen) urges him to scare the bejesus out of them by pointing a gun at them. Some of the kids run off but one, seeing that there is no way in Hell Gio is ever going to pull the trigger, beats the heck out of him even more.

Ten years later, a now grown Gio (Fernandez) remains hopelessly naïve. His cousin Leo has just returned from prison, but it is not a happy homecoming; everyone is looking for him, and not to congratulate him on his release. Leo is in hiding, and Gio, as Leo always has protected him, now protects his cousin.

It is the occasion of his Uncle Angelo’s (Kilmer) birthday and also the tenth anniversary of his father’s death – he was found strangled in the trunk of is own car. As she traditionally does to mark both occasions, his mother (Bracco) has baked a cake and insists that Gio deliver it, but first reminds him to stop by the church and light a candle for his father. Gio is reluctant to do that; while Father Kelly (E. McGregor) means well, Gio has a lot going on, including getting together with his cousin.

As Gio walks through the Brooklyn neighborhood to get to his Uncle’s house, he meets up with a number of neighborhood friends and family, all inquiring about Leo. He also meets a couple of federal agents and some Puerto Rican and African-American gangsters who also want to see Leo – preferably bleeding profusely. One thing is clear; Uncle Angelo, the crime boss who has run the neighborhood for years, is losing his control.

Once at his house, there is concern that Leo is talking to the Feds and Uncle Ricardo (Fichtner), a crooked cop, is particularly insistent on Leo’s whereabouts, although Vito (Pastore), Angelo’s right hand man, is a bit more diplomatic about it. Clearly Leo has transgressed and there are a number of people out for his blood. Can Gio stay clear of all this and be the good young man his mother wants him to be?

The film has been characterized as a story in which Gio learns to become a man, although it is unclear if he has done so by the film’s end – I suppose it would depend on what your definition of a man is. Giannopoulos, making his feature film debut as a director, has assembled an impressive cast although that is a bit misleading; many of them have little or no screen time. Sorvino, for example, has exactly one line and is confined to a chair for his two scenes. Ewan McGregor, who is near the top of the cast list, is onscreen for probably about five minutes total, split between the movie’s beginning and end, although he does provide voiceover narration for most of the film. Bracco also has just two scenes, although she is memorable in her few moments. Guzmán is in just one scene as a dope-smoking cabbie.

On the other hand, Fernandez is in nearly every scene, other than the prologue in which Mazouz plays the younger version of Gio. He tends to be a laid-back actor and doesn’t give over to histrionics, although he is plenty adept at projecting emotion through facial expression and body language. Gio has tended to be a bit of a wimp throughout his life, but is showing signs that he is ready to stand up for himself – and in the film’s climax, he is forced to do so to a certain extent. I’m not sure if it represents a life change for Gio, but it does show the character in a different light.

It is also true that the movie is for the most part really well-written. Although I think the conceit that Gio is the only one in the neighborhood who isn’t aware of how his father really died is a bit unrealistic, there are some pretty slick curves in the film and there is a reason that Gio’s mom made a chocolate cake when she knows her son is allergic to chocolate. There’s a certain elegance to what happens in an almost Scorsese-like turn.

Setting the film at Christmas time is inspired; New York really sparkles at that time of year, and clearly Giannopoulos loves the city and Brooklyn in particular. Some might squirm at Italian stereotypes that are carried on here, but fuhgeddaboutit. There are also allusions to the importance of family and loyalty, but we also see the flip side of that.

All in all, this is a much better movie than I expected. I was a little surprised at the low RT score it got, but you never know with critics. We can be an ornery bunch. Don’t let that fool you; this is a movie well-worth checking out, particularly if you love mob movies set in Brooklyn.

REASONS TO SEE: Surprisingly well-written for a crime melodrama. A great cast with a few folks who don’t get enough big screen roles of late. Nice touch to set it at Christmastime.
REASONS TO AVOID: A great cast but many of the bigger names are only onscreen for a few minutes, some with almost no dialogue.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, drug use and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was co-written by Giannopoulos and Fernandez (as well as Paul Bermudez).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bronx Tale
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Man Called Bulger

Trigger Point (2021)


Barry Pepper ain’t saving Private Ryan anymore.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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