Kate


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?


Beauty at rest.

(2021) Drama (MUBI) Giorgi Ambroladze, Oliko Barbakadze, Giorgi Bochorishvilli, Ani Karseladze, Vakhtang Panchulidze, Aleksandre Koberidze (narration), Irina Chelidze. Directed by Aleksandre Koberidze

From time to time, a pair of people very much in love are said to be “meant for each other.” When you consider the odds of two souls meeting in this life that are perfectly suited, it’s a wonder that anyone finds a soulmate. Sometimes, life itself conspires against them.

In this gentle Georgian film, Giorgi (Ambroladze), a professional soccer player and Lisa (Barbakadze), a pharmacist, literally run into each other in the ancient Georgian town of Kutaisi. Although we only see them from the knees down, we get the sense that something is happening. Later, they meet accidentally again (this time viewed in a far shot that makes them look like ants). The two agree to meet the next day for a date at a café.

But for reasons never made clear, the couple attract the evil eye who levels a curse on the two young people; during the night as they sleep, they are transformed in appearance. They also lose the skills they had in their professions, causing them both to lose their jobs. To be sure, new actors take over the roles of Giorgi (Bochorishvilli) and Lisa (Karseladze).

Now the two get menial jobs working in, ironically, the same riverside bar but they don’t recognize one another. With all of Europe overcome with World Cup fever (and Kutaisi is no exception) the two would-be lovers go on with their lives, never aware tht the person that had caught their fancy is so near at hand. Will they find each other despite the obstacles?

Now I know, dear reader, that this sounds like the plot of a 20-year-old rom-com, but this is most assuredly not that. Koberidze doesn’t make it that easy, nor is he interested in spoon-feeding his audience a machine-made happy ending. Instead, the movie captures the rhythms and tides in a small Georgian city, and in a way the film is a love letter to that city, but it isn’t just that. There is a bit of fable to it as well, although one not so much written by the Brothers Grimm but perhaps by Carlos Castaneda.

Koberidze is fond of using odd images that are meant as visual puzzle pieces for the viewer to figure out, such as seeing only the feet of the two protagonists as they meet for the first time. What a person looks like is immaterial, Koberidze seems to be saying, and to drive that point home, he changes their looks to see if the two will fall in love all over again – although we never know if they would have fallen in love anyway had they not been cursed with the appearance change.

But the danger in that kind of thing is that one can get carried away with the imagery and symbolism, and that’s exactly what happens here. We end up with a two-and-a-half-hour movie with enough story to fill about an hour and a half of that. The filmmaking goes marching past metaphorical and right into self-indulgence without missing a beat.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t much to recommend here. Koberidze has a lovely sense of whimsy which he does utilize throughout the film, and the gentle (albeit slow) pacing really helps immerse the viewer in the location. There is also a beautiful score (sparingly used) by Giorgi Koberidze. What is most notable about the movie is the gentle spell it weaves, one sturdy enough to last the full 150 minutes but fragile enough that the slightest distraction might blow it away like a puff of smoke on the wind. It’s a lovely film, but it also requires a fair amount of patience.

REASONS TO SEE: There is a lovely sense of the whimsical.
REASONS TO AVOID: Often devolves into cinematic masturbation.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The two middle-aged documentary filmmakers are played by Koberidze’s real-life parents.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: MUBI
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews; Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 50 First Dates
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Kate

The Laureate


Robert Graves has more than Claudius on his mind.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Gravitas) Laura Haddock, Dianna Agron, Tom Hughes, Fra Fee, Julian Glover, Patricia Hodge, Timothy Renouf, Christien Anholt, Indica Watson, Edwin Thomas, Meriel Hinsching, Edward Bennett, Paulette P. Williams, Orlando James, Jamie Newall, Dee Pearce, Daniel Drummond, Ruth Keeling. Directed by William Nunez

 

Robert Graves was one of the greatest writers in England during the Twentieth century. He was renowned for writing classic historical novels (most notably, I, Claudius) but also for being a noted translator of ancient texts and a lauded poet as well.

But in the latter part of the Jazz age, in 1928, Graves (Hughes) was a man suffering from severe PTSD that was a leftover from the First World War (he was wounded so gravely at the Battle of the Somme that he was listed as dead, although he obviously clearly astonished the expectations of the field surgeons and survived). Suffering from writer’s block, he is cheered on by his wife Nancy Nicholson (Haddock), a progressive woman for her time. He is also adored by his daughter Catherine (Watson) who is still young enough to worship her parents.

But when Graves reads the poetry of American Laura Riding (Agron), he feels a kinship between them. Nancy suggests that they invite the American to their rural cottage World’s End to live with them, and Laura accepts.

At first, things seem to be going well. Laura awakens the muse in Graves. Catherine adores her and Nancy embraces her as a sister. But soon, things take a turn for the sexual. Owing to Roberts’ condition, the sex life between the couple has been on hold an Laura at first seems happy to see to Nancy’s needs. But then she sees to Robert, and soon they are not just a couple, but a trinity. And when Irish poet Geoffrey Phibbs (Fee) is added to the mix, jealousy begins to rear its ugly head, leading to tragedy…and scandal.

The films is a fictional take on an actual historical incident, and while there are some liberties taken with the facts (although Graves is depicted as suffering from writer’s block, it was nonetheless one of his most fertile periods as a poet) the main parts of the story are pretty much as seen here.

Like many British films, the style is very mannered, so much so that I was reminded of the Merchant-Ivory films of the Nineties – fortunately, in a good way. It helps that the three main leads – Haddock, Hughes and Agron – are extremely capable and turn in thrilling performances here. That’s a good thing because they do get the lion’s share of the screen time, although Fee when he turns up about two thirds of the way into the film, is also mesmerizing.

Part of the problem is that other than Graves, most of the character here are given little depth. The depiction of his PTSD can be a little bit over-the-top but considering the horror he lived through it is quite understandable. Riding is depicted as being severely narcissistic and manipulative, which seems to be a bit one-sided, as contemporary accounts of her also paint her as delightfully humorous and self-deprecating. In fact, humor is sorely lacking in the film overall; anyone who has ever read Graves will tell you that the man has a singular wit and an affection for the absurd.

It is somewhat ironic that the movie, in portraying a pair of women who were for their day quite progressive, doesn’t deign to give them much character development. I would have liked to have gotten to know Nicholson better; she seems to have had the patience of a saint here, and she most certainly had artistic ambitions of her own, many of which came to fruition after she divorced Graves.

In that sense the film might be deemed disappointing and I suspect lovers of Graves will probably be the ones most caught in disappointment, but it definitely has strong points that far outweigh the weak. The complex relationships between the three (and later, four) participants are interesting, and the production values are actually quite solid for a film that had a relatively small budget. And Agron gives a tremendous performance here, one that cinema buffs won’t want to miss. All in all, a very strong film to start out the new year.

REASONS TO SEE: A portrait of a deeply wounded soul preyed upon by a deeply narcissistic woman. Strong performances from the three leads. Recalls the Merchant-Ivory films of the 90s in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: The characterizations are paid scant attention to, particularly in the case of the women.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality, adult themes and period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although only one child is shown here, Graves and Nicholson actually had four children during the period the movie covers.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews; Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Agatha
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
What Do We See When We Look Up At the Sky?

Diane


Mary Kay Place knows she won’t get an Oscar for her performance here, even though she deserves one.

(2018) Drama (IFC) Mary Kay Place, Jake Lacy, Estelle Parsons, Andrea Martin, Deidre O’Connell, Glynnis O’Connor, Joyce an Patten, Kerry Flanagan, Phyllis Somerville, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Ray Iannicelli, David Tuttle, Marcia Haufrecht, Mike Hartman, Cara Yeates, Gabriella Rhodeen, Charles Weldon, Paul McIsaac, Laura Knight, Teri Gibson, Ann Osmond, Dierdre Friel. Directed by Kent Jones

The movies that often affect us the most deeply are the ones that are quiet little slices of life. So, that would describe Diane to a “T.” Set in rural Massachusetts, Diane (Place) is a retired widow who spends most of her days caring for others – her cousin (O’Connell) dying of cervical hospital in a sterile hospital, her son Brian (Lacy), killing himself with a drug habit, her aging friends and the homeless, to whom she serves food at the local shelter.

We see Diane driving around the area down beautiful, snow-covered roads that look like a cinematic Currier and Ives Christmas card, but as we watch her go through her appointed rounds we begin to unravel the fact that despite the veneer of caring and compassion, Diane is a broken soul, carrying around burdens of guilt that any Catholic would understand.

Place gives the kind of performance that wins awards although, sadly, she was overlooed for most of the major ones. 70 years old at the time of filming, Place gives the kind of dogged characterization that we unwrap layer by layer until we are left with the core of the woman as the film comes to a breathtaking end. While the movie never got the acclaim it was due in many ways, you can happily rectify that situation by giving it a watch yourself. This is a gem of a movie that should be on every cinema buff’s radar.

REASONS TO SEE: Despite the sometimes-painful subject matter, the film is nevertheless full of warmth. Place gives a career-best performance. Strong interpersonal dynamics throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally a bit too stark.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and drug use here.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jones, a film critic of note, wrote the title role with Place specifically in mind for it.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC Plus, AppleTV, Curia, DirecTV, Google Play, Hulu, Roku Channel, Tubi, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/21/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews; Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Time Out of Mind
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Uppercase Print

Being the Ricardos


We all love Lucy.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Amazon) Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy, Linda Lavin, Ronny Cox, John Rubenstein, Clark Gregg, Nelson Franklin, Jeff Holman, Jonah Platt, Christopher Denham, Brian Howe, Ron Perkins, Baize Buzan, Matt Cook, Josh Bednarsky, Dana Lyn Baron, Dan Sachoff, Max Silvestri, Renee Pezzotta. Directed by Aaron Sorkin

 

They don’t get much more iconic than Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, the real-life husband and wife team that headed up I Love Lucy, perhaps the greatest and certainly the most popular sitcom of all time. At its height, the show could claim 60 million viewers each and every week – when the country’s total population was 160 million, meaning than one out of every two and a half Americans were watching it. Water usage went down when I Love Lucy was on, because people wouldn’t use the bathroom while the show was airing. The show was by every standard a phenomenon.

This new film by Aaron Sorkin charts one week during the show’s second season. The episode Fred and Ethel Fight is the one that was getting made that week and things start with the Monday table read, but the show is in an uproar and for good reason. Over the weekend, a pair of events have happened; syndicated gossip columnist Walter Winchell has accused Ball (Kidman) of being a card-carrying member of the Communist party, a serious career-killiing no-no in the era of Tailgunner Joe McCarthy. A magazine article also shows Arnaz (Bardem), the Cuban émigré, out cavorting with someone who was definitely not Lucy.

With Lucy’s reputation at stake, and her marriage in trouble, it is the show that seems to be what keeps her going. A notorious perfectionist, Lucy endlessly tinkers with the script, much to the annoyance of director Donald Glass (Denham) and the amusement of co-stars William Frawley (Simmons) who played Fred Mertz, and Vivian Vance (Arianda), who played his wife Ethel. Lucy agonizes endlessly over little physical bits of business, from her arranging flowers for the dinner table, to Desi walking up behind her and covering her eyes with a playful “Guess who?”

The film is meant to be a backstage glimpse of a power couple that have never really gotten their due as innovators, savvy business people and forward-thinking producers (Ball and Arnaz were early champions of Star Trek and Mission: Impossible, both which ironically continue to be cash cow franchises for Paramount Studios, which owns the assets of Desliu (the production company that Desi and Lucy founded) today).

The movie follows a time-jumping path that can be confusing at times; there are semi-documentary interviews with the older versions of show runner Jess Oppenheimer (the younger version played by Hale), played by Rubenstein, producer Bob Carroll (Lacy) played by Cox and writer Madelyn Pugh (Shawkat) played by Lavin as an older woman.

We also see flashbacks to earlier points in the careers of both Arnaz and Ball, including their first meeting and eventual romance. The flashbacks do give a little context, but they tend to slow the film down somewhat and are at the end of the day, somewhat unnecessary. Still, Sorkin imbues the film with snappy dialogue (his trademark) and if he isn’t interested in giving us a real appreciation of the human beings that were Lucy and Desi, he does give us a real appreciation of their gifts as performers and behind-the-screen producers.

During this same week, Ball discovered she was pregnant which threw all sorts of consternation into the show; at the time, it was forbidden to even mention the word “pregnant” on the air – viewers of the show may recall the couple’s onscreen bedroom contained separate beds – and Lucy’s stubborn insistence that the pregnancy be written into the show, which despite overwhelming resistance from their sponsor (tobacco company Philip Morris) and the network, was eventually done, leading to some of the most memorable episodes in television history.

Kidman doesn’t particularly resemble Ball facially, but she captures her mannerisms and speech cadence nicely; Bardem is nothing like Arnaz but like Kidman does a good job of capturing the essence of the character. Simmons is memorable as Frawley, and Shawkat and Lacy have a playful relationship, while Shawkat and Kidman have a terrific scene as they discuss the difficulties in being a woman in the entertainment industry; they have improved some since then but not by much.

Kidman has already won the Golden Globe for her performance here and is virtually a shoo-in to be nominated for the Oscar when nominations for the 94th annual Academy Awards are announced on February 8th, 2022. The film is currently playing on Amazon Prime (link below) and may still be in some theaters near you, although to be honest this is a movie in my opinion best seen at home on TV, just like the sitcom was. You can also enjoy the episode that is depicted in the film is available on Hulu and Amazon (for Paramount Plus subscribers) and can be watched on the links therein.

REASONS TO SEE: Kidman captures Ball’s speech and mannerisms nicely. Another terrific screenplay by Sorkin (surprise!).
REASONS TO AVOID: Drags some in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexual content, adult themes, period smoking and drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Linda Lavin plays the older Madelyn Pugh, who executive produced the TV sitcom Alice that starred Lavin – and in which Desi Arnaz appeared in.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews; Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stan and Ollie
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Diane

Mr. Birthday


Eric Roberts doesn’t have a clue why he took the role either.

(2021) Family Comedy (VMI) Jason London, Eric Roberts, Anna-Marie Dobbins, Charlotte Ciano, Fred Sullivan, Tanja Melendez Lynch, Mike Messier, Ainsley Drury, Rachel Dulude, Audrey Fratelli, Joshua Maurice Johnson, Isabella Sousa, Gabriella Spinney, Chelsea Vale, David Gere, Michel Badejo, Connor Holden, Michael Dubuc, Robert J. Morgan, Scout Lyons, Cynthia Souza. Directed by Dan Hunter

 

The trouble with family comedies is that in general, the things that kids find funny are very different than what adults find funny. Kids tend to prefer a broader, direct kind of humor – and if you can work farts and toilet humor in, so much the better – while adults need a little bit more subtlety. Although, truth be told, some adults tend to get their yuks from stuff more along the lines of what kids do.

Barry (London) is a single dad, raising his little girl Emily (Ciano) in a new city. He works as a maintenance man in a high-end apartment building with an overbearing boss (Lynch) and snide residents like Rick (Roberts). Emily is doing her best, but she is very lonely – no friends to speak of, other than Alex (Johnson) who is the only one to show up to her birthday party. Kind-hearted Barry does his best to soften the blow, but it isn’t easy; he’s feeling the pain himself, although the comely Jess (Dobbins) looks to ease some of his burden.

But the mysterious Mister Jay (Sullivan) offers Barry a new job – with the International Birthday Network, an organization dedicated to making sure no child has a crappy birthday anywhere on the globe. Barry proves to be uniquely well-suited for the position, but can he make this new life work for both him and Emily?

The emphasis here on the movie is in treating others with respect, working hard and chasing dreams, all good lessons for kids. Both Barry and Emily prove good role models for the youngsters. Still, the small set might find the movie’s pace to be a little bit slow for them – the movie doesn’t even introduce the IBN until nearly two thirds of the way through, although once it does the movie does pick up steam.

London comes off a bit like a poor man’s Tim Allen in both delivery and character (Allen did a number of these types of roles in a string of children’s’ movies in between Home Improvement and Last Man Standing). He does capture a certain good-hearted Dad vibe and his chemistry with Ciano is genuine and natural.

I don’t have anything about kidflicks; kids deserve good entertainment too, and some movies that cater to them are simply not going to appeal to adults and that’s okay; eating plain hamburgers without anything on them doesn’t appeal to me either and that’s how my kid used to eat them. Tastes develop; they don’t appear overnight. Still, from what I can remember from my increasingly distant years back as a child myself, I can’t see this movie appealing heavily to either kids or their parents, except in the most mild and non-passionate way.

REASONS TO SEE: Their heart is certainly in the right place.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-paced to a fault; doesn’t really get going until more than an hour in.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rude humor and bullying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jason has a twin brother Jeremy who is also an actor.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS:  As of 1/18/22: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Santa Clause
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Being the Ricardos

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

Who is Amos Otis?


The revolution is already underway.

(2021) Courtroom Drama (Gravitas) Josh Katawick, Rico Reid, Derek Snow, A.J. Ford, Christine Brunner, Mike Dennis, Peggy S. Allen, Donald John Volpenhein, Denise Del Vera, Christine Jones, Moulay Essakalli, Rajiim A. Gross, Paul Morris, Carol Brammer. Directed by Greg Newberry

 

In a world as polarized as ours is, it is perhaps understandable that people might wonder – to themselves, or even out loud – if the world might not be a better place if this public figure or that public figure got whacked. I imagine that’s fairly common fantasy fodder on both sides of the political aisle.

But a man has gone and made it a reality. Using a sniper rifle, he has assassinated a highly divisive President (who isn’t named but is meant to resemble Trump). Captured afterwards, he identifies himself as Amos Otis (Katawick) but it soon becomes apparent that he isn’t him; Amos Otis, the owner of the truck that this man was driving, was most assuredly an elderly African-American man whereas this man using his identity is a 30-something white male (and baseball fans, the movie nor either character has anything to do with Hall of Fame ballplayer Amos Otis of the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals).

Jake Johnson (Reid), a court-appointed attorney doesn’t particularly want the job. Amos is a man who doesn’t exist and he doesn’t seem particularly disposed to informing his attorney too much on what his motivations are, or even who he really is. Jake is like a blind man in a room full of pitfalls, trying to navigate his way through without any input whatsoever.

The odds against him are overwhelming. The prosecutor (Snow) has videotape of Otis taking the two shots – one that injured a secret service agent, the second blowing the head clear off of the President’s neck. Johnson knows that it is almost impossible to keep his client out of death row, so he wants to plead insanity, which his client is very much against, so he reluctantly argues a self-defense case that will not hold water, until the story takes an unexpected hard turn into the Twilight Zone.

For being based on a Pulitzer Prize-nominated play, there are an awful lot of factual errors about courtroom procedures and even about the laws governing them. The bulk of the film is the trial of Amos Otis, prefaced by jailhouse interviews by his lawyer. This gives the movie a bit of a stage-y feel, which the director – who wrote the original play – doesn’t do much to dispel. But the trial looks like it came out of a bad 80s courtroom drama – actual trials tend to be far less interesting and dramatic than they are portrayed here, and lawyers are more scholarly sorts who get their clients off (or convict them) based on examination of the evidence and knowledge of the law. There is little bombast in a court of law and if there were, no judge would let it continue.

But for all that, the movie is appealing as it gives us an opportunity to examine our own prejudices. The thought that using violence to achieve a political goal is one that is getting increasing scrutiny on both sides of the political divide, and talk of civil war in this country has taken the chilling overtones that it is actually becoming not only possible, but possibly likely that such a thing could come to pass.

I do think that it was a mistake to make the assassinated President so obviously based on Trump. Most obviously, that is going to alienate basically anyone who leans even a little bit to the right, but also a few lefties as well – I found it abhorrent that the movie seems to take the viewpoint that the end justifies the means in order to save the country. In all likelihood, if some nut case with a gun and an idea actually pulled off an assassination of the former President (and it would be so difficult as to be nearly impossible to do so given the type of protection Presidents and former Presidents enjoy these days) it would do more harm than good to the liberal cause for more reasons than I’m willing to go into here, but the one that I will bring up is that it would do something terrible to our nation’s soul.

It would have been more effective to make the fictional President’s politics more anonymous here, only giving the assassin the motivation that his policies will destroy our Democracy without saying how in much detail. Not only does that make the movie more palatable to larger audiences, but it remains timely so long as you show the nation being further polarized by the assassination.

The premise here is an interesting one and while it takes a lot of suspension of disbelief to go with the big twist, and to accept the movies factual as well as logical shortcomings, one is left with some food for thought that might require a little bit of time to digest.

REASONS TO SEE: Fascinating subject. Flawed for the most part, but succeeds where it isn’t.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting is a little stiff and the politics may offend some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Newberry originally wrote this as a stage play, for which it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 01/15/22: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Stoker Hills

Hotel Mumbai


The majestic façade hides terror and carnage.

(2021) True Life Drama (Bleecker Street) Armie Hammer, Dev Patel, Nazanin Boniadi, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Anupam Kher, Jason Isaacs, Alex Pinder, Amadeep Singh, Suhail Nayyar, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Yash Trivedi, Aditi Kalkunte, Vipin Sharma, Gaurav Paswala, Angus McLaren, Naina Sareen, Sachin Joab, Chantal Contouri, Vitthal Kale, Nagesh Bhonsie, Carmen Duncan. Directed by Anthony Maras

 

On November 26, 2008 ten members of the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist organization based in Pakistan carried out a variety of attacks over four days at several locations in the city of Mumbai, one of the largest cities and de facto financial capital of India. Among the locations that were under siege was the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, a high-end hotel in the city.

First-time feature filmmaker Anthony Maras adopted a you-are-there approach in depicting the events, emphasizing the multi-cultural aspect of the attackers and victims (ten different languages are spoken during the course of the film). Maras manages to capture the terror, panic and chaos of the attacks, which took place over four days before the attackers were finally stopped (nine of the ten attackers were killed; the tenth, Ajmal Kasab, was captured alive and provided testimony which explained how the attacks were planned and executed. He himself would be executed by hanging in 2016).

The stories here were mainly heroic as the hotel staff tried to protect the guests at the hotel, often at great personal risk. There are far too many characters to go into individually but the performances are generally quite solid with those of Patel, as a kind-hearted Sikh waiter, Hammer and Boniadi as a wealthy newlywed couple terrified for the safety of their newborn baby, and veteran Indian actor Kher as a celebrity chef whose quick-thinking and calm leadership saved dozens of lives.

The pacing is generally pretty fast, although it does drag a little bit in the middle of the movie. Still, this is a very good movie that has been overlooked in many ways. It is available to stream on a variety of services and is one you would do well to check out.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances from Patel and Kher. Taut and suspenseful.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little slow in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence (some of it gruesome) and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Maras and co-writer John Collee based their film on hundreds of hours of interviews with survivors and witnesses. Some of the dialogue is taken verbatim from them.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews; Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Who is Amos Otis?

Prince Philip: The Royal Family Remembers


A prince for all time.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Prince Charles, Prince William, Princess Anne, Prince Harry, Princess Beatrice, Princess Eugenie, Prince Andrew, Sophie Countess of Wessex, Camilla Parker-Bowles, Alexandra McCreery, Zara Tindall, Mark Philips, Timothy Laurence, Louise Mountbatten-Windsor. Directed by Faye Hamilton and Mark Hill

 

To mark the occasion of the 100th birthday of Philip the Duke of Edinburgh, documentary filmmakers Faye Hamilton and Mark Hill sat down with various members of the Royal family to get their impressions of the husband of Elizabeth II, reigning monarch of the United Kingdom. When Philip passed away unexpectedly on April 9th of last year, two months shy of his birthday, the conversations took on an entirely different tone.

Additional interviews took place following the passing of the prince, and along with the anecdotes about the Prince, his temperament and his love for sports, hunting and the outdoors, his family opened up about what Philip meant to the family and to them individually. It is an unusually candid and emotional documentary; very often the Royals tend to keep their emotions in check.

We also have a tendency to judge Philip based on different portrayals of him in the media, particularly here in America. Most who know him through portrayals in such films as The Queen or TV series like The Crown, in both of which he is second banana to his wife (as I suppose is proper), we are given a portrait of a tone-deaf man giving his wife terrible advice in the days following the tragic death of the former Princess of Wales Diana, or being a bit standoffish while arguing for conservative values from a bygone era.

Nearly everyone interviewed here from his children and grandchildren to his staff remark on his sense of humor, his tendency to tease those he was close to with affection, and above all his devotion to his family. Considering his early history – his family was forced to flee Greece after a coup and he lived in exile in Britain, his family nearly penniless. He made an impression in military school and served with distinction in the Second World War, before catching the eye of a princess whom he later wed. Their marriage was, by all accounts, a good one and certainly Elizabeth leaned on her husband for support and advice throughout her reign, and he provided her with both.

The movie is replete with lots of wonderful anecdotes about Prince Philip, as well as archival footage and even some home movies – I’m sure most people don’t know this but the late Prince was an aficionado of the barbecue and worked the grill whenever he had the opportunity to, and we see him doing just that.

A biography is sometimes defined as a portrait, warts and all whereas a hagiography is completely without blemish, and the latter is true here. Then again, this was meant to be a birthday gift before it became a tribute, and neither occasion is appropriate for a tell-all exposé, For those here in the States who are fascinated by the Royals, this is absolutely indispensable. For history buffs, it has merit but should be taken in the spirit it was intended. For those looking for a complete portrait of the man, well, I’m sure he’s not going to be nominated for sainthood anytime soon but this film provides a point of view we don’t often get to see, and in that sense, it’s invaluable.
REASONS TO SEE: Plenty of archival material and family photos.
REASONS TO AVOID: About as hagiographic as one would expect this would be.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Philip at more than 70 years was the longest-serving consort in the history of the British crown.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 01/10/22: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Aulcie