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

Senior Moment


Life begins at 80

(2021) Comedy (Screen Media) William Shatner, Jean Smart, Christopher Lloyd, Katrina Bowden, Esai Morales, Ruta Lee, Valerie Pettiford, Carlos Miranda, Beth Littleford, Don McManus, Maya Stojan, Joe Estevez, Ron Gilbert, Denise DuBarry, Kaye Ballard, Wesley Eure, Jack Wallace, David Shatraw, Jilon VanOver, Luke Massy, Melissa Greenspan. Directed by Giorgio Serafini

 

One of the main indignities of growing old is the loss of abilities; while we have been self-sufficient all our lives, suddenly we need help doing even the basics as various aches and pains and infirmities brought on by living an increasing number of years taxes are bodies well past our wear date. For many, the loss of the ability to drive is the loss of independence and brings us back to the dependency of our childhood. It’s humbling, to say the least.

Victor Martin (Shatner) is a former NASA test pilot (undoubtedly a nudge nudge wink wink at Shatner’s bests-known role) living out his retirement in balmy Palm Springs. A confirmed bachelor, he spends most of his days hanging out with his best buddy Sal (Lloyd) and driving his pride and joy, a vintage Porsche convertible. A man who has the need for speed, he’s not afraid to test his mettle against would-be drag races, but his enthusiasm often gets him making poor choices. After one too many drag races with a friendly rival (Miranda), his license is suspended and his Porsche impounded.

Relegated to public transportation, surly Uber drivers, expensive taxis and his own two feet, Victor is forced to slow things down and in doing so, runs into Caroline (Smart), a café owner who makes a mean strudel as well as an activist concerned with saving the desert tortoise. She and Victor couldn’t be less alike. Therefore, the two fall in love. Victor at last realizes that there is something more to life than fast cars and hot young girls, but does he have the ability, at this point in his life, to be a good romantic partner?

It should be said that Shatner was 86 when this was filmed and turned 90 just a few days before this film was released this past Friday (as this is written) and he doesn’t seem to have slowed down all that much. While nobody is hoping that his shirt rips any longer, he still has the screen presence that made him not only a star but a cultural icon. He has an easy chemistry with Designing Women’s Smart as well as Taxi’s Lloyd. He keeps things pretty much low-key and that serves him well here.

The problem with the movie isn’t so much the actors, who are for the most part accomplished pros who do their best with what they’re given, but in the writing. The movie follows established rom-com tropes and ends up being more predictable than it needed to be. I also thought the hoary old trope of the dirty-minded senior was insulting. Certainly seniors are sexual; that’s been explored in plenty of films and television shows. It just seems condescending to make a joke out of it.

But the worst thing is that most of the humor falls pretty flat. The movie feels like the director really wanted to make a drama and the writer really wanted to write a comedy; at times, the film seems at war with itself as to what it wants to be. I can only imagine that actors were wondering the same thing.

At worst, this is a predictable time-waster that will be viewed once, and then forgotten by the viewer who might have been attracted to see it due to the presence of the leads. At best, though, the charm and sweetness of the cast will be just enough to make it worth your while.

REASONS TO SEE: Generally sweet-natured entertainment.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor often falls flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity including sexual innuendo, sexual content and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shatner and Lloyd appeared together in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and then again in Just in Time For Christmas.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews; Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Boynton Beach Club
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Miracle Fishing: Kidnapped Abroad

Willy’s Wonderland


Enter a wonderland of mayhem.

(2021) Horror Comedy (Screen MediaNicolas Cage, Emily Tosta, Beth Grant, Ric Reitz, Chris Warner, Kai Kadlec, Caylee Cowan, Jonathan Mercedes, Terayle Hill, Christian Del Grosso, David Sheftell, Jiri Stanek, Jessica Graves Davis, Taylor Towery, Chris Bradley, Duke Jackson, Billy Bussey, BJ Guyver, Christopher Carlos Padilla, Olga Cramer, Grant Cramer, Madison Leigh.  Directed by Kevin Lewis

 

Back in the ‘80s, we used to go to the neighborhood video store to find horror movies that we’d missed in the theaters or on cable. Every so often, we’d discover a gem on the shelves that we might not have heard of, or if we did hadn’t seen because it only played L.A. and New York. We’d rent the puppy, order a pizza (if we still had cash) or grab whatever snacks we could lay our mitts on and settle in for an evening of bliss, usually with a few invited friends – we don’t share such things with just anyone, you understand.

A mysterious drifter (Cage) rolls into a small town in his muscle car only to see it break down. The repairs cost way more than he has, so a deal is struck; if he spends the night cleaning up a disused family entertainment center that owner Tex McAdoo (Reitz) is thinking about re-opening, he’ll get the repairs done on the house. The drifter agrees to be a Janitor for a night (the character is referred to in the credits as “The Janitor” so we’ll do the same here).

What the Janitor isn’t told is that the property used to be owned by a group of serial killers who used to lure families into a “special room” for satanic rituals. When the law caught on, the murderers performed a ritual that transferred their souls into the animatronic characters. Now they come to life from time to time and the town, tired of having them hunt down their own citizens, promise to provide human sacrifices for the bloodthirsty machines. People like the Janitor.

Liv (Tosta) has a special connection to Willy’s Wonderland, as the Chuck E. Cheese from Hell is known, has an agenda of her own. She’s gonna burn the MF to the ground. However, when she realizes there’s an innocent man in there, she goes inside to rescue him along with her fellow teens, albeit reluctantly. Can anyone say midnight snack?

But, as Liv so eloquently puts it, as it turns out, the Janitor isn’t locked in with the possessed animal machines (Willy the Weasel! Gus the Gorilla! Ozzie the Ostrich! Arty the Alligator!); they’re locked in there with him. Armed with a busted broom, a plunger and other tools of the trade, he takes on the murderous characters in between bouts of gulping down Punch Pop (“A fistful of caffeine to the kisser”) and playing pinball.

Bleary-eyed gamers who have spent hours playing the 5 Nights at Freddy’s series might be heard to say quizzically “Wait…what?” when they hear the plot. There is a real 80s vibe here, from the tinny synthesizer-laden score to the horror tropes of dumb teens pausing for sex in a deadly haunted house and, of course, plenty of gory goodness. Children of that era will likely appreciate the similarities.

And it’s also true that Cage is usually good for action fun, whether through his idiosyncratic line readings or legendary on-screen freak-outs. While some of the latter take place, the former is a wash as the Janitor has no dialogue whatsoever. Not a word. Still, Cage is still Nicolas Cage enough through gestures, body language, and his trademark pissed-off glare.

The movie’s big flaw is that they have this setting of a dilapidated family entertainment center, complete with ball pits, pinball machines and a full-service kitchen, but don’t really do anything with it. The robots attack, the Janitor counter attacks, blood, blood, gears, gears, snarl, scream, done. This happens time after time. A little more imagination would have been appreciated.

Still, for sheer nostalgia value and of course the presence of Nicolas Cage, this can’t be beat. So grab yourself a gallon of Jolt Cola, fire up the microwave pizza rolls, grab a couple of bags of Nacho Cheese Doritos, and settle in your bean bag. All that’s missing is the time stamp and wiggly lines of your old VHS player.

REASONS TO SEE: Completely whacked in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really take advantage of its environment.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence, profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cage has no spoken dialogue in the film, and communicates only through grunts and occasional battle yells.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews, Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 5 Nights at Freddy’s
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
X

Skyfire


Jason Isaacs is getting warmer.

(2019) Action (Screen MediaJason Isaacs, Liang Shi, Hannah Quinlivan, Ryan Wu, Leslie Ma, Shaun Dou, Lingchen Ji, Xuegi Wang, Bee Rogers, Alice Rietveld, An Bai, Tongjiang Hou, Yiqing Li, Lawrence de Stefano, Yugi Chen, Jianmin Cui, Gigi Velicitat, Makena Taylor. Directed by Simon West

 

It must suck to be a volcanologist in the movies. Nobody ever believes you that the volcano is about to erupt, it’s all just “ooh” and “aah” at the beautiful smoking cone, but then comes the blast, the screaming, and the dying.

The daughter of two volcanologist’s, Meng Li as a child (Rogers) was on Tianhuo island when the volcano erupted. When her father (Shi) was unable to save her mother (Rietveld) from the pyroclastic cloud that broiled her alive, the two became estranged. Now an adult, Meng (Quinlivan) works on the same island as a scientific advisor to Jack Harris (Isaacs), who has built a theme park resort around the volcano. With a high-tech monorail and a luxurious elevator that descends into the caldera, it’s certain to be the in spot for wealthy type A sorts the world over. To keep the guests safe, Meng has installed a fancy new high tech imaging system to monitor the volcano. She’s concerned over some of the initial readings Even more concerned is her dad, who takes one look at the data and hightails it out to the island to get his stubborn, angry daughter to flee the island before (heavy pause here) it’s too late!!!

Does anyone reading this not believe it’s already too late? If so, you need to watch more movies, my friend. The mountain blows it’s top in a spectacular shower of CGI lava and CGI pumice raining down from the crater. Because the director is long-time action veteran Simon West, we get some well-staged set pieces, like a daring transfer of passengers from one speeding monorail car to another.Because the film is Chinese, we also get some incomprehensible holes in logic and lapses in science. For example, a pair of young lovers (Dou and An) go for a swim in a beautiful tropical grotto as the mountain erupts. Suddenly, their idyllic swim – during which he proposes to her – is interrupted by lava flowing into the pool. They frantically swim for their lives, foregoing the need to breathe. Of course, they shouldn’t have needed to swim at all – the lava flowing into the pool should have parbroiled them. Don’t believe me? Drop a handful of red-hot coals into a small saucepan of room temperature water and see what happens. And that’s not even molten rock.

The movie suffers from severely underwritten characters, so it is hard to end up caring about which ones survive and which ones meet a horrific end. Still, most disaster movies aren’t exactly character studies, to be fair. However, one would like the special effects to be spectacular, and at times, they are. But they are dreadfully uneven; some of the green screen stuff looks like it was rushed and not given a whole lot of effort. The underwater sequence is cheesy enough to make Esther Williams blush.

Basically, what we have here is Jurassic World meets Dante’s Peak – which oddly enough, is a pretty accurate description of the first half of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – and if you ask me, that’s not necessarily a bad combination to have. The movie has enough entertainment value that most audiences are likely to forgive the bad science, bland characters and disaster film cliché-loaded plot. Some will look at this and snicker at the Chinese attempts to make a comparable big-budget disaster film. They certainly aren’t producing elite-level films in that regard, but if you look at their dramas and some of their genre films, they aren’t that far off. Give the Chinese film industry another decade or two and they are going to make movies that will put Hollywood to shame. And that’s not a bad thing either.

REASONS TO SEE: Reasonably entertaining.
REASONS TO AVOID: The special effects are uneven.
FAMILY VALUES: There are perilous situations, some involving children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers used more than 20 tons of artificial volcanic ash for the picture.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews; Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Volcano
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Grizzly II: Revenge

Girl (2020)


Axe her no questions…

(2020) Thriller (Screen MediaBella Thorne, Mickey Rourke, Chad Faust, Lanette Ware, Glen Gould, Elizabeth Saunders, Michael Lipka, Tia Lavallee, Paolo Mancini, John Clifford Talbot, Rasneet Kaur, Emma-Leigh Cullum. Directed by Chad Faust

 

There’s a famous saying that when you go out for revenge, first dig two graves. That is particularly true when your vengeance is aimed at a blood elative.

This Bella Thorne-starring vehicle by Chad Faust seems to be intentionally vague. The characters are not given names – Thorne, in the lead, is only known as Girl – which seems to be fitting given the lack of depth in developing the story, which is a bit strange because it seems like a good deal of the dialogue is spent on exposition, which makes it feel like the characters are explaining things to us.

And we need the explanation. Girl heads back to the Pacific Northwestern town she was born in, but left along with her Mama (Saunders) after her abusive father (Talbot) kicked them both to the curb – in Mama’s case, quite literally, as a vicious beating left her with severe back injuries that have rendered her barely able to walk. Dear old dad has failed to provide any child support over the years and Mama, who desperately needs the money, has written him requesting that he pay his share.

Dad has written back, apparently telling Mama where to stick her child support but also proclaiming a desire to kill both mother and daughter. So Bella is on her way to Golden, a town that has seen prosperity pass it by, to do unto Daddy before he does unto her.

Except that someone has beaten her to it. Her father has been viciously beaten to death. You would think that Girl, given that her dirty work has been done for her, would turn around and head back home, but she is curious and angry; who would rob her of her vengeance? What was her dad mixed up in that led to such a brutal end?

As with many small towns in the Pacific Northwest (at least as Hollywood paints it), oddball characters of varying degrees of sinisterness walk the streets. There’s the aptly named Charmer (Faust), a flirtatious sort who meets Girl in a laundromat; there’s the hooker with a heart of gold (Ware), the bartender who may or may not be helpful (Gould) and of course, the town sheriff (Rourke) who just upon sight looks like the sort of guy you’d not want to go to when you need help. And your first impressions would be correct.

Faust seems to be going for a kind of Southern gothic vibe set in the Pacific Northwest – think of it as Twin Peaks had it been written by Shirley Jackson (and if that combination appeals to you, you’re my kind of people). Faust casts the movie well and in particular the title role. Thorne, who cut her teeth on Disney Channel family fare, has long since moved into adult roles, but this is by far her most compelling performance, not unlike that of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone. She captures the barely suppressed rage of the character, while expressing a kind of dangerous side like a coiled rattlesnake (Girl is handy with an ax, as it turns out). Thorne is particularly outstanding in her scenes with Rourke and Saunders at the end of the film.

Other than the climax which is well-done, the movie devolves into standard thriller clichés in the last half. Worse still, the film score is intrusive and more than a little obnoxious; if ever a score sabotaged its film, it is this one.

There’s a lot going for the film, mainly in the performances and particularly Bella Thorne’s. Faust, who also wrote the film, needs to work on his dialogue a bit and focus on developing his ideas, which are strong but he doesn’t seem to trust them and ends up taking the easy way out. Still, this is fairly strong B-Movie fare and if you like yourself a good revenge film, this might be what you’re looking for.

REASONS TO SEE: Thorne gives a career-changing performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The score is obnoxious and intrusive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some violence and an attempted rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth film Thorne has appeared in so far this year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ravage
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
To Your Last Death

Blackbird (2019)


Taking comfort at twilight.

(2019) Drama (Screen MediaKate Winslet, Susan Sarandon, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill, Rainn Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Anson Boon. Directed by Roger Mitchell

 

Most of us fear dying. We are dragged towards it, kicking and screaming, not wanting to go gentle into that dark night. Some of us, conversely, embrace it, death being a comforting alternative to a life of pain and humiliation.
That’s what Lily (Sarandon) is faced with, entering the final stages of ALS, popularly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” She is already having difficulty doing ordinary things, having lost the use of one arm and nearly unable to walk. She is looking at a future of breathing on a ventilator, being fed intravenously and unable to speak. This is not a future she wishes to endure. She wants to exert the last little bit of control she has over life – she wants to end it while she is still able.

This is a decision that she has debated with her family – her husband Paul (Neill), a doctor who has managed to purchase the fatal cocktail that will send her into sleep one last time; her eldest daughter Jennifer (Winslet) who inherited her mother’s control-freak nature without inheriting her warmth; younger daughter Anna (Wasikowska), the family black sheep, whose on-again off-again paramour Chris (Taylor-Klaus) is apparently on-again with her and has accompanied her to Lily and Paul’s extravagant beach house in the Hamptons. So, too has Jennifer’s husband Michael (Wilson), a reciter of minutiae so irritating that Anna has dubbed him “Mr. Dull,” and their son Jonathan (Boon), who has clearly spent a lifetime not living up to his mother’s expectations. Then there’s also Liz (Duncan), Lily’s long-time best friend (dating back at least until college) whose presence Jennifer deeply resents.

Lily clearly expects a sweet send-off, in the bosom of a loving family ready to send her off with love and joy, but she apparently hasn’t met her own children. Anna is so self-absorbed that she threatens to put a stop to Lily’s plans in order to get to know her mother better before she goes; Jennifer can’t help but criticize every little detail in everyone else and she and Anna are at each other’s throats. Paul takes the high road, but he simply wants peace and knows he’s not going to get it, particularly when a late revelation calls into question everything.

The film has an understandably elegiac tone, borrowed from the Danish film it is remade from (Silent Heart) whose screenwriter Christian Torpe also penned the English-language version. Even the warm tones of Mike Eley’s cinematography doesn’t disguise that we are observing a life in winter, awaiting its end. Then again, this isn’t a movie about death so much as it is about the dynamics of family. This is a family that has had a comfortable life, but has profited little by it.

The attraction here is the cast, and they don’t disappoint. Sarandon has played the dying mom before (Stepmom) and experienced pro that she is, refuses to turn her illness into Camille-like histrionics. She is making her best effort to die with dignity, but she is flinty enough to call her family down to breakfast by grumping “Get down here – I’m going to die today!” Winslet plays a character that is recognizably Lily’s daughter – strong, strong-willed, and yes, a control freak, but she chooses to exercise it by tearing down.

Neill has been one of my favorite actors over the years and his quiet dignity makes his part all the more poignant. Wasikowska, Duncan and Taylor-Klaus manage to hold their own against the Oscar-winning leads and Wilson does a surprisingly good job in a rare straight dramatic role for him. Boon, a relative newcomer, also is impressive in his scenes as the straight-shooting grandson.

This is hard to watch at times in the sense of dealing with a loved one. I found myself wondering if I would be as sanguine if it was my mother who was purporting to end her own life with dignity. I’d like to think I’d support her decision if she felt it was the right thing, but I can’t help wondering if I would handle the situation gracefully. Chances are, not.

This is a movie that inspires reflection, and that is definitely not a bad thing. That said, it isn’t always an easy watch and requires much of its viewer. Also, not a bad thing, but it can be more than the average viewer might be willing to give. Still in all, it is worth the effort to watch if for no other reason for the stellar performances of its cast.

REASONS TO SEE: Some wonderful performances from Sarandon, Winslet and Neill. Lovely cinematography. The family dynamic is the focus of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Kind of a downer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some brief sexual material, drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers initially wanted Diane Keaton in the role for Lily, but eventually Sarandon was cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Here Awhile
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story

Black Water: Abyss


This big reptile is a croc.

(2020) Horror (Screen MediaJessica McNamee, Luke Mitchell, Amali Golden, Benjamin Hoetjes, Anthony J. Sharpe, Louis Toshio Okada, Rumi Kikuchi, Stu Kirk, Damien Blewett, J’ Ma, Jarod Woods, Rhys Ward, Isabella Sheehan, Glenn Adams, Julie Selis-Muscat, Vicky Wanless, Lincoln Callaghan, Troy Black, Mary Jane, Adam Lacey, Phillip Davy, Isabelle Rickards, Lynne Rose. Directed by Andrew Traucki

 

Sometimes, you’re not after a movie that’s going to involve you in the lives of its characters. Every now and then, you want a movie that just smacks you in the face with a stupid stick, fills the screen with improbable action and just lets you revel in your baser instincts. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

A pair of Type-A Aussie couples – well, at least that’s half-true – are headed to do some spelunking in the cave systems of Northern Australia. Alpha male Eric (Mitchell) and his wife Jennifer (McNamee) – who would much rather be getting room service in a five star hotel – has taken cancer survivor Vitor (Hoetjes) and his newly pregnant wife Yolanda (Golden) along with cave explorer and Eric’s buddy Cash (Sharpe) to a cave that only recently was discovered when a sinkhole opened up. Do they tell anyone where they are going? NO, THEY DO NOT! Have these assclowns not seen a horror movie ever?

Well, if you think that’s irresponsible, they also choose to ignore an approaching storm. The result? They are trapped in the cave with rapidly rising waters, but that’s really the least of their problems. You see, there’s a very hungry and singularly-minded crocodile swimming around and these five numbskulls have effectively just rung the dinner bell.

There are stabs at plot development, but they just don’t work. When you’re in a survival situation, generally speaking that’s not the time to work out marital issues, but of course, when you’re being stalked by a giant killer croc, what else is there to do? One of the dim-witted croc snacks even expresses shock that they can’t get a cell signal two hundred feet below the ground in the middle of a swamp. No, really? REALLY?!?

Predictably, as the crock picks them off one by one, they race for a way out before the water rises above their safe little ledge. With one of their number badly injured and another pregnant, what chance to these guys have to outwit the croc in its own element?

This is a sequel to the minor 2007 hit Black Water only in the loosest terms in that it’s set in Australia, there’s a crocodile and one of the young people being stalked is pregnant. If you didn’t see it, it won’t affect your enjoyment of this one (or lack thereof). And while I’ve been harsh up to now, there are some elements here that aren’t too bad – the cinematography is lush, whether in the caves or out in the swamps.

We don’t get to see much of the crock, as it mostly swims around in murky waters, but what we do see is pretty impressive. However, the actual deaths are not easy to see, given that the cave environment is so dark, the water is murky and roiling with a thrashing crocodile and an equally thrashing victim. The sounds of the kills might be what get to you, though, if you tend to be faint of heart. In some ways, that makes the death scenes more gruesome than they actually are.

Essentially, this is pretty typical survival horror with a big, mad predator. There are no surprises here, hardly any character development other than one of the girls remarking that her relationship with her fella has been rocky, until near the end when we find out….well, you’ll see. And if you’re not planning on seeing this, I’m still not going to tell you. In any case, if you’re looking for something new to rent, this fits the bill. It isn’t horrible but it isn’t great. It’s just kind of there, like an Appleby’s.

REASONS TO SEE: Some lovely jungle and cave cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stock characters being picked off one by one.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a sequel to the 2007 film Black Water which Traucki co-wrote and co-directed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews, Metacritic: 46/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crawl
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Perfect Candidate

The Outpost


With their backs against the wall came their finest hour.

(2020) True War Drama (Screen Media Scott Eastwood, Caleb Landry Jones, Orlando Bloom, Milo Gibson, Bobby Lockwood, Celina Sinden, Jacob Scipio, Jack Kesy, Taylor John Smith, James Jagger, Alexander Arnold, Cory Hardrict, Will Attenborough, Scott Alda Coffey, Kwame Patterson, Fahim Fazli, Jonathan Yunger, Jack DeVos, Alfie Stewart. Directed by Rod Lurie

 

The War in Afghanistan has gone on longer than any armed conflict in U.S. History. In some ways, it has been a war of attrition with few pitched battles. One such was the Battle of Kamdesh on October 3, 2009 when 53 American soldiers in the remote Combat Outpost Keating in a valley surrounded by three mountains – not an idal defensible position, as any student of combat will tell you – were attacked by more than 400 Taliban fighters.

That war has come to the forefront of our consciousness lately – no easy task, given the circus of news that continually grabs our attention whether we  want it to or not – when the New York Times reported that intelligence sources revealed that the Russian GRU – their military intelligence arm – was bribing Taliban fighters to kill American soldiers.

The film is based on a non-fiction book co-authore by CNN anchor Jake Tapper. Director Rod Lurie – himself a veteran of the Army and a West Point graduate – understands the mind of the soldier, and clearly shows an affinity for them, getting the banter down pretty much pitch-perfect. We are basically flies on the wall at the camp for the first hour of the film, observing the regular attacks by Taliban sharpshooters, and getting a sense that the men are making the best of things, but are aware of the danger they are in; one analyst dubbed the camp “Camp Custer” because he thought it likely to be the site of a massacre down the line.

We meet some of the soldiers stationed there, from competent base commander Benjamin Keating (Bloom) to Ty Carter (Jones), who is not well-liked and doesn’t really take things all that seriously, or Clint Romesha (Eastwood), who has reservations about what they’re doing there and occasionally voices them to superior officers with varying amounts of acceptance, and Broward (Patterson), the rigid officer whose strict adherence to the book might just get them all killed.

The trouble is that we don’t really get to know most of the characters here, so when the attack comes during the second half of the film, it is hard to keep track of who’s who, who has survived and why we should care. It robs the movie of some of its effectiveness because of it.

But that’s not to say that this isn’t an effective movie – it is very much that. I honestly believe that this is the best depiction of combat since Saving Private Ryan despite having a budget that likely wouldn’t have even paid for the pyrotechnics on the Spielberg film.

Lurie and cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore utilize hand-held cameras to good effect here; they capture the chaos of the battle really nicely The movie, which was supposed to bow at SXSW earlier this year, instead gets a limited release in a handful of select theaters and a VOD release (see below for platforms). That’s heartbreaking in a way; this is a movie meant to be an immersive experience, with a fabulous sound system, a ridiculously big screen and a minimum of distractions. Reviewing it on less ideal circumstances takes away from the film’s impact. Hopefully, once the pandemic begins to ease off a bit, we will get to experience this film the way it was meant to be – in a theater with a huge screen, a sound system that will blow your cloths off, a dark room and a bucket of popcorn in your lap.

Beyond that though, we are at a critical juncture in American history. We are weary of the politics, the pandemic, the economy, all the ills that make our futures both individually and collectively less certain. We need heroes, and this film provides some real-life ones – this was the first battle in more than 50 years that produced more than one Medal of Honor winner. Incidentally, the movie doesn’t end with the battle; it features a coda in which one of the survivors faces his grief and his guilt. It’s as powerful a moment as you’re likely to see in the movies this year and has earned this movie a spot as one of the best films of the year so far.

REASONS TO SEE: The best depiction of combat since Saving Private Ryan. The ending is incredibly powerful. Look no further to see an account of what heroism looks like.
REASONS TO AVOID: There’s not a lot of character development here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of war violence with some grisly images, a staggering amount of profanity and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Several of the men who took part in the battle appear in variously important roles in the film, including Medal of Honor winner Ty Carter (played in the film by Caleb Landry Jones) and Daniel Rodriguez, who plays himself.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restrepo
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Prince (El principe)

Exit Plan (Selvmordsturisten)


A cold and clinical beauty.

(2019) Suspense (Screen MediaNikolaj Coster-Waldau, Tuva Novotny, Robert Aramayo, Jan Bijvoet, Sonja Richter, Solbjørg Højfeldt, Slimane Dazi, Lorraine Hilton, Kaya Wilkins, Johanna Wokalek, Peder Thomas Pedersen, Mette Lysdahl, Vibeke Hastrup, Anders Mossling, Per Egil Aske, Kate Ashfield, Christine Albeck Børge. Directed by Jonas Alexander Arnby

 

Sometimes, just coincidentally, more than one movie gets released at about the same time with a similar theme or subject matter, like Armageddon and Deep Impact. This week, there are two movies dealing with assisted suicide, or Death with Dignity (the previously reviewed Here Awhile is the other one). This is the second.

But whereas Here Awhile dealt with the subject as a straightforward drama, examining how the intention of ending one’s life affected those around them, this is something else. Max (Coster-Waldau) is an insurance investigator, although judging from his personality he might have been better suited to be an insurance company accountant. He has a pair of glasses and a moustache, and you think that a hunk like Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones) would rock that look. Think Stephen Root in Office Space and you’ll understand nobody could rock this look.

A client of his company, Alice Dinesen (Richter) who most definitely did not have a farm in Africa, wants to collect the life insurance from her husband Arthur (Mossling), who has been missing for more than a year. The only evidence she has that he’s gone is a video that was mailed to her by the Hotel Aurora in which her husband announced that he was taking his own life and that by the time she receives the video he will be dead. Alas, there is no body so the company is not willing to pay – no corpse, no cash, as they like to say in the life insurance biz.

Max is only too happy to look into the hotel, because he has some thoughts in that direction as well. You see, Max has an inoperable brain tumor that is growing larger by the day and soon he will be looking at a loss of identity and dignity. After overhearing his significant other (Novotny) tell a friend that she doesn’t know how much longer she can put up with Max (she’s unaware of his medical condition), he decides he will take advantage of the hotel’s services.

At first, it seems like he’s made a good choice. The hotel is absolutely spectacular, nestled in the mountains of Scandinavia, a modern steel and glass beauty with comfortable Danish design. There are hot tubs for soaking, massage therapists, gourmet meals in a restaurant with a spectacular view, tea laced with opium – all the amenities of a five-star hotel. They offer a passing away experience that is painless (or painful, if that’s what he wants) in the environment of his choice. Sounds like a killer deal.

But Max is beginning to have second thoughts and things turn sinister. He is told “You can leave, but you cannot escape” which sounds to me like writer Rasmus Birch was listening to The Eagles’ “Hotel California” on an endless loop when he wrote this. He begins to see things that may or may not be there – or is that his tumor asserting itself? Or something else?

The writer and director made some odd choices for this film. For one, they take the charismatic Coster-Waldau, a handsome man with a charismatic screen presence, and reduce him to a milquetoast. Fans of Jamie Lannister are going to be throwing things at the screen, although to be fair I’m sure the fact that this role is as far from Jamie as it’s possible to get was part of the appeal for Coster-Waldau.

It’s also got terrific set and production design; the hotel is cold, clinical with odd warm accents but there is no feeling of humanity here. The hotel staff are largely smiling automatons who make the adjective “pleasant” a pejorative. The natural beauty around the hotel is nice as well, but the whole screen tone has a wintry feel, which I do believe is on purpose.

The movie has some high aspirations to examine the relationship between life and death, and the morality thereof. There are some hints of paranormal elements, but they never really come to fruition unless you decide that the fairly ambiguous ending means something along those lines (I’m being purposely vague here as not to spoil things) but if you take into account that a man with a brain tumor might not be the most reliable narrator, well, you do the math.

I have to say that although there were things I liked about the film, I do believe that in the end its reach exceeded its grasp. I don’t think the movie was a failure per se, but suffice to say that I don’t think that it was successful in what I believe it was aiming for. They swung for the fences but ended up legging out an infield single, in other words.

REASONS TO SEE: Possessed of a cold, sterile beauty.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too clinical.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Coster-Waldau and Aramayo were both members of the sprawling Game of Thrones cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews, Metacritic: 39/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dark City
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Velvet Buzzsaw

Blood and Money


The Great White North (almost).

(2020) Thriller (Screen MediaTom Berenger, Kristen Hager, Paul Ben-Victor, Bates Wilder, Erica McDermott, Mark Sivertsen, Brian Duffy, Melissa McMeekin, Jimmy LeBlanc, Catherine Portu, Gary Tanguay, Ryan Hornchick, Ace Gibson, David J. Curtis, Lisa Lynch. Directed by John Barr

 

We all have actors who we are fans of even as they fly under the radar of everybody else. For me, that’s Tom Berenger, who has been a terrific if underused actor for decades, resonating in films like The Big Chill, Platoon, Major League and Sniper. He’s also been in his share of B-movies, including this indie thriller.

Jim Reed (Berenger) is an ex-marine, living in a dilapidated custom-camper. Once upon a time he had a family, but that all comes to an end when his daughter dies in a drunk driving incident when he was at the wheel. His wife and son were never able to forgive him for that; Hell, he’s never been able to forgive himself for that.

He lives in the North of Maine and its deer hunting season and he’s particularly anxious to bag himself a buck. You see, Jim is vomiting blood and passing out; he knows he’s sick but he’s loathe to do anything about it. He mainly wants to be left alone, coming in to town to load up on supplies and hang out with Debra (Hager), a waitress who reminds him of his late daughter. She’s in a marriage to an alcoholic husband (LeBlanc) and wants to get out.

The talk of the town is a recent violent casino robbery in which five thieves got away with over a million dollars in cash. There’s a manhunt going on for them, but that’s of no mind to Jim, who basically is all about getting back to hunting.

Back out in the wilderness, he thinks he’s bagged his buck but it turns out to be a woman. Jim is absolutely distraught about the situation but when she dies, he flees the scene. He later finds out she as one of the gang that robbed the casino. So, Jim returns to the scene of the shooting and takes the big duffel bag full of money. Of course, it goes without saying that the surviving members of the gang want their ill-gotten gains back.

Berenger will be 71 at the end of the month and while he moves gingerly like a 71-year-old man, he still has the presence he did when he was younger. Berenger plays the silent type as well as anybody, and he gives Jim Reed a world-weary patina that just screams “Get off of my lawn.” He look utterly at home in the snowy wilderness of the north woods of Maine, and the cold temperatures match the cold demeanor of Reed.

Barr, in addition to directing, also co-wrote and shot the film as director of photography, and as a writer he makes a great cinematographer. The snowy vistas are harsh and beautiful, setting the tone for the thriller nicely. However, the plot is pure bargain bin; we’ve seen this movie before and done better, despite the best efforts of Berenger.

All in all, it adds up to a fairly pedestrian thriller that won’t give you any surprises or shocks, but is worth looking into for the beautiful pictures as well as for the performance of the lead.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautiful scenery.
REASONS TO AVOID: Kind of a typical plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is both violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Barr’s feature-length debut as a director. He’s been a cinematographer on 20 other projects.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews, Metacritic: 37/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cliffhanger
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music