The Last Mercenary Review
The Last Mercenary Review
July 30, 2021 by: Chris Bumbray
PLOT: A case of mistaken identity forces a legendary French mercenary (Jean-Claude Van Damme) to return home and meet the son he was forced to abandon long ago.
REVIEW: JCVD’s THE LAST MERCENARY is most definitely not for everyone. It belongs to a very peculiar genre – the French action-comedy. If you’re thinking Taxi, you’re kind of on the right path, but this is probably even broader than that. It’s a throwback to a specific kind of genre vehicle made by guys like Jean-Paul Belmondo in the seventies or eighties, where the French humor is so overpowering that it’ll likely turn off a large chunk of North American viewers, although French audiences more accustomed to this kind of thing might be laughing their “têtes” off.
One thing’s for sure, it’s nice to see Jean-Claude Van Damme back in a big-budget movie, and at sixty, he can still fight as well as he ever did. The only difference between Van Damme in 1990 and 2021 is that he’s a much better actor now. The Last Mercenary wasn’t my cup of tea, mostly because I’m not a fan of this particular blend of humor, but JCVD is A+ in his first big role in a while. In a lot of ways, The Last Mercenary feels destined for the same fate as another French action-comedy, Wasabi (with Jean Reno). People will largely dismiss the movie, but there are a few pretty superb little action sequences that will probably wind up playing again and again on YouTube and in JCVD compilations.
The movie seems tailor-made for the star to some degree, with his character a nineties legend who went off the grid plying his trade around the world, a lot like JCVD himself in his large run of DTV flicks. He’s called back when his long-lost son, Archibald (Samir Decazza), is mistaken by the French government for an arms dealer who happens to be obsessed with Scarface and is introduced, leading the cops in a car chase while blasting, “Push it to the Limit.” The problem is, the arms dealer has got diplomatic immunity, and some french bureaucrats are involved in his weapon smuggling scheme, so innocent slacker Archibald ends up the fall guy. Luckily, his pops and some of his streetwise pals come along to save the day.
It’s not a bad premise. Still, the whole thing plays out more like one of the lesser Pink Panther movies than an actual Van Damme vehicle, and one wishes co-writer/director David Charhon had put more emphasis on the action rather than the comedy. Whatever the case, Van Damme seems pretty loose and affable, acting in his native French (he also dubbed the English version on Netflix himself). He’s having a ball, and there are two fights here that are peak Van Damage. One is a great bit where he takes on two hired killers with a bath towel, and another is a rollicking fight scene scored by Sylvester’s dance classic “Do You Wanna Funk.”
Moments like those make me wish I loved The Last Mercenary, but the fact is the humor didn’t work for me at all. Rather than laugh, I was rolling my eyes throughout. That said, I’ll admit this type of ultra-broad French humor has never really worked for me. Even when it comes to Belmondo movies, I prefer his more serious flicks rather than the comedies, but if this gives JCVD’s career a second wind in France, I’m all for it. With this, Van Damme proves he’s more than up to the challenge of a bigger production. Hopefully, his next one is just as ambitious, if perhaps a little less silly.
The Green Knight Review
The Green Knight Review
July 29, 2021 by: Matt Rooney
PLOT: After landing a blow on the mysterious Green Knight and promising he will get to do the same to him one year later, Sir Gawain must travel across the land to fulfill his duty, and in the process confront what it means to be a man of chivalry and honor.
REVIEW: As the first half of 2021 has been made up mostly of small indie gems and summer staples testing the waters of theater-going returns, David Lowery’s THE GREEN KNIGHT is truly the first movie of the year that will blow you away. A gonzo spin on an Arthurian tale that ditches the comedy and wild spectacle of previous cinematic outings but manages to retain an even greater fantastical splendor, Green Knight blends the classic themes of timeless chivalrous tales with a modern, brazenly ballsy sensibility perfect for anyone looking for a bedtime story that’s as guaranteed to dazzle as much as haunt your dreams.
Based on a tale written by an unknown author and that has miraculously survived the centuries, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, the tale of chivalry and honor centers on the titular Gawain (Dev Patel), the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris). An adult of the court but young enough to have no tales to tell of his own among the legendary knights of Arthur’s roundtable, he’s a man who longs to be a knight in that he loves the idea of what a knight is – while having no experience in what it truly means to be one. That all changes when he thrusts himself into the spotlight, taking on the challenge by the incoming Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), who dares any man to strike him freely, accepting he will be able to dish out an equal blow “one year hence.” Going straight for the kill and chopping off his head, Gawain now must accept his fate by seeking out the knight one year later to fulfill his oath.
From the jump, that sounds bleak as all hell. And indeed, Lowery’s take on this Medieval setting and the court of Camelot feels right at home alongside another A24 classic, Robert Eggers’ The Witch. The skies are constantly grey and cloudy, and this King Arthur is as much Clive Owen or Charlie Hunnam as I am. He’s tired and weak, with circles under his eyes and hardly able to hold his sword, Excalibur. But there’s a wisdom and warmth Harris offers to Patel’s Gawain, which is a great example of how well Lowery brings out the magic underneath the more realistic grit and grime. With the endlessly impressive work from cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo (who also shot Lowery’s A Ghost Story), production designer Jade Healy, and Malgosia Turzansak’s god-tier costume design at his side, Lowery is able to ensure that if anything appears dreary it’s simply a canvas for marvel after marvel of craftmanship to burst off the screen.
Lowery knows full well this is a tale filled with magic, and intricate lighting and design add layer after layer of arresting and sometimes terrifying and trippy visuals that absorb you into a new world entirely. His past movies such as Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, A Ghost Story, Pete’s Dragon, and The Old Man & the Gun have demonstrated his love of old-school storytelling, and he often filled them with ethereal elements, and here he’s completely unrestrained and never more assured in his vision. Trusting full well the power of his cast and the story at its core, he puts Patel and the entire supporting ensemble full center and trusts the audience will eat up everything they say and do, no matter how bizarre it all certainly gets.
But as far as character work goes, this is Patel’s show. Last year his excellent work in The Personal History of David Copperfield showed off his humor and ceaseless charm, his Gawain takes him in the opposite direction, and he’s equally up to the task. At the start, he brings humor to Gawain, who loves the spice of life, spending time in a brothel with the lovely Esel (Alicia Vikander, in one of two roles), and is eager to prove himself to Arthur. As his odyssey goes on, the realities of what it means to face the brutalities and vices of a world that will eventually swallow everything whole while bearing the code of a knight bends and breaks his perception of life itself. He’s forced to confront what it means to be honorable, live up to that greed, and even stare down the question of if a chivalrous life is even worth living in the face of death. Often alone, Patel seamlessly brings out Gawain’s fear as he trudges through physical turmoil, and towards the end, the consistent darkness of a haunted man. It’s a role that demands extreme control over physicality and emotional range, and while it might not be a huge, showy role filled with grand speeches and inspiring acts, it no less proves the power he can command as a leading man.
The odyssey of Gawain itself is rousing and hypnotic, and Lowery’s genius shows in how he took a methodical, sometimes incredibly quiet, always meditative experience and made it feel magical, haunting, and even a bit quirky. Light on action, each of Gawain’s encounters and trials are meant to challenge his resolve as a budding knight and run the gamut of suspenseful, terrifying, sensual, and even completely bonkers in their fantasy leanings. The tone and visual style of each is unique, and each one is filled with supporting performances from the likes of Kate Dickie, Barry Keoghan, Erin Kellyman, Joel Edgerton, Vikandner, and even an adorable CGI fox companion that get their time to shine and leave a massive impression. It’s like an epic road trip flick, but with fewer beer-drinking competitions, and with more giants and looming dread.
On a sensory level, there’s absolutely nothing like it. Entrancing in its visual leaps and bounds, Lowery lets the editing, effects, and the real landscapes contort and play with your conception of reality. One moment I was compelled by the vast forests, murky bogs, or rolling hills, and in an instant felt transported into another world entirely where time and space seem to have no rules. Lowery understands that in these legends magic and the real world were blended together, and for something to be magical and wondrous was to also be terrifying. There are numerous scenes that are equal parts gobsmackingly beautiful and unforgettably unsettling, and all together, especially when paired with another fantastic score by Daniel Hart, packs more wonder than some of the most expensive blockbusters.
But the very best scene in the movie is exactly the one it should be – the finale between Gawain and Green Knight. The most fairy tale-looking of every scene, Lowery simply lets the earthen creaks of the Knight’s abode quietly linger. It’s captivating in its stillness, and when Ineson’s imposing, immortal figure stands tall the weight of Gawain’s journey and inner turmoil comes crashing down, leading to an unbelievably effective finale that drives home the core themes and existential crisis of identity and duty. It’s a simple story at its core – as it should be – but by leaving so much to unpack it will succeed in making you want to rewatch again and again to absorb its hard-hitting themes.
The Green Knight is one of those rare movies I actually have a hard time describing because, in a way, I just want to keep my experience to myself. But I have a duty here, and I say this with no hyperbole and only with an urgency that hopes you will watch it for yourself: Green Knight is a perfect Medieval fantasy tale for our time, one that delivers a sense of wonder that can appeal to the youngest part of ourselves that never truly dies, while digging deep into its complex themes with a style that’s bold, mature, sexy, and rewarding. There’s nothing more I can say other than it’s mind-blowing and mind-bending, pulse-pounding, fantastically epic, deeply poignant, and the very best movie of the year so far.
The Suicide Squad Review!
The Suicide Squad Review!
July 28, 2021 by: JimmyO
PLOT: Something deadly is happening courtesy of a horrifyingly powerful project that could wipe out much of civilization if released. Thankfully, the ragtag and deadly Suicide Squad are ready to risk life and limb to make the world a better place. This time they do it with an R-rating, incredible script, and a kick-ass eating machine of a shark!
REVIEW: Let’s not waste any time here. James Gunn’s THE SUICIDE SQUAD improves on every single thing it possibly can from the previous entry. The new flick is not a sequel, and it’s all the better for it. Margot Robbie, Jai Courtney, Joel Kinnaman, and Viola Davis have all returned. And there are a plethora of new and familiar faces. The latest features the talents of Idris Elba, John Cena, Michael Rooker, Alice Braga, Nathan Fillion, David Dastmalchian, Pete Davidson, Sean Gunn, Freddie Stroma, Mayling Ng, Peter Capaldi, Flula Borg, Jennifer Holland, Daniela Melchior, and even Sylvester Stallone voicing a walking, talking, eating machine of a shark. Yes, this is The Suicide Squad. It’s a film that relishes the weird and wonderful, allowing the filmmaker to create his vision in the most hilariously funny feature of the year.
Something big is brewing. And it’s not good. Far off, on the island of Corto Maltese, a plot has been hatched, one that could destroy America and any other country that fights against this deadly enemy. With the challenge of this mission being as dangerous as it is, there is only one group of men and women crazy enough to take it on – it also helps that they don’t have a choice. And that group of crazies makes up the Suicide Squad. After “convincing” Bloodsport (Elba) to lead the charge, the mission is on. Those involved include everyone from Harley Quinn (Robbie), Peacemaker (Cena), Rick Flag (Kinnaman), Savant (Michael Rooker), Javelin (Borg), Ratcatcher II (Melchior), and a giant shark that loves a good nom-nom, and the strange Weasel (Gunn). It’s a big mission, but one with a ton of surprises and shocks, so this review is going to be majorly spoiler-free.
The first thing you hear as the film begins is the sound of an audience cheering on Johnny Cash before the classic live version of “Folsom Prison Blues,” and the scene accompanying it sets the stage for what’s to come. It features Michael Rooker in prison. He is tossing a ball, and it comes across as an uproariously twisted homage to The Great Escape. After that, the action hits very early on. A team is gathered and sent to their destination. Gunn doesn’t waste much time, yet even still, he ably gives the viewer a sense of the characters that we’re about to join for a couple of hours. Even if you know nothing about this film, revealing too much about specific adventures may give away too much. With a cast that is this huge, they aren’t all getting out alive. The uncertainty of who will make it is aggressively entertaining. However, there is a small crew of survivors that takes on the majority of the storyline. I’m not going to be the one to narrow that down any more than the trailers or perhaps other reviews are likely to do.
We all know what Gunn did with both Rocket Racoon and the goofily charming Groot. The filmmaker certainly steps it up even more with The Suicide Squad. Stallone and Steve Agee – along with an impressive effects crew – created one of my favorite characters in the film, King Shark. And yes, all hail King Shark! As well, you have an adorable little rat that wants to say hello, and a Weasel that Sean Gunn inhabits. And I haven’t even gotten to the final half-hour and the wonderfully colorful nightmarish enjoyment it brings. The creature design here is stunning. Every single one of the CG creatures – even the tiny and adorable rat that Ratcatcher II loves – offers a little extra to the eye-popping feature.
Creating a story that can utilize this entire cast must have been a challenging endeavor. Thankfully, that’s another plus to this crazy feature film. The body count is high – it wears its R-rating like a badge of honor – and yet all the actors involved bring something to the table. If you are checking this movie out for a specific actor that you are a fan of, they, unfortunately, might not have a whole lot of screen time. Yet even still, all the actors involved have something unique and fun to bring to the party. Again, you have to credit Mr. Gunn. The script beautifully handles all the layers that help craft one of the most original and refreshing big-screen superhero adventures of the past few years. And yes, this script takes on such weighty issues as an abusive mother, a drug addict father, and a world where we realize folks we hope will make better choices don’t.
The real story behind The Suicide Squad is simply that James Gunn was allowed to make exactly the film he wanted to make. It is his movie. He brought these characters to the forefront – seriously, he and David Dastmalchian help make Polka-Dot Man a funny and fascinatingly complex character. James brings his bloody good humor that is reminiscent of his early years at Troma. And much like he did with Guardians of the Galaxy, he adds a refreshing amount of humanity, and he still manages to bring his very darkly wicked sense of fun into the mix. One sequence that a character realizes she must make a “deal with the devil” is impressively twisted, so much so that it took me a moment to process what just happened. Every choice that Gunn makes here feels fresh in the world, and he’s not afraid to get ridiculous, but he does so with purpose. What a fun fucking film this is!
The Suicide Squad is a magnificent masterpiece of mayhem. I loved every single minute of James Gunn’s bold new entry into the DC Cinematic Universe. Every single actor fully embraces the brazen insanity without holding back. The laughs are consistent. And the creature design is impeccable. Do I even need to mention that he once again brought together a gloriously impressive set of songs to enhance his feature? Sure, if you aren’t a fan of Gunn’s outrageousness with a heart, you may not find the gleeful enjoyment of this feature. Yet that’s also what makes this film so damn batshit entertaining. It is Mr. Gunn’s voice here in every scene, in every blood-soaked encounter, every brilliantly placed song, and every moment of humor and heart it’s because of James Gunn – as well as the incredible talent he brought with him. The Suicide Squad arrives in theatres and HBO Max on August 6th, and my oh my, does it look fantastic in IMAX.
Jungle Cruise Review
Jungle Cruise Review
July 28, 2021 by: Chris Bumbray
PLOT: In 1917, a plucky British scientist (Emily Blunt) hires a riverboat captain (Dwayne Johnson) to take her and her brother (Jack Whitehall) through the jungle to try and discover a mythical tree of life she wants to use to advance medicine. Meanwhile, a German aristocrat (Jesse Plemons) has more nefarious intentions.
REVIEW: With JUNGLE CRUISE, Disney, director Jaume Collet-Serra and The Rock try to bring back the days of high adventure by adapting the famous Disneyland ride into a flick that would do Indiana Jones proud. Well, that was probably the goal anyway. Still, the finished product plays out a little more like an Indy clone from the eighties, particularly Cannon’s King Solomon’s Mines with its constant wisecracking and campy villains. I know that probably reads like a bad thing, but it’s not. I kind of love King Solomon’s Mines (even though I’m sure Sharon Stone leaves it off her filmography).
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays a skipper that’s meant to pay homage to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, but to me is more reminiscent of Baloo in TaleSpin. He’s a wisecracking swindler who runs scams on local tourists while owing money to Paul Giamatti’s lavishly accented Nilo Nemolato. Of course, when Emily Blunt’s botanist shows up with deep pockets, he pulls a Tom Selleck in High Road to China and takes them on their trip, but being as this is a Disney movie starring The Rock, you have to know there’s more to him than he lets on originally.
It adds up to a fun if unexceptional adventure, hampered by a second-half that’s a little too transparent in its efforts to become another Pirates of the Caribbean. It was more fun when it was somewhat earthbound, although even before we get to ghost mercenaries and creatures, we have The Rock wrestling with a CGI jaguar. One feels nostalgic for the eighties when all you needed were a couple of stars with good chemistry and some earthbound thrillers to make one heck of an adventure movie (see Romancing the Stone). Remember the monkey swinging scene in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? This whole movie is like that.
The Rock and Emily Blunt do indeed have good chemistry, but as usual, with Johnson’s movies, any hint of romance is toned way down to the point that it’s almost non-existent untill pretty much the very end. It’s as if he decided his audience doesn’t want to see him fall in love, so he tends to get pretty under-baked romances (such as in Hobbs & Shaw). He has to be the most chaste action hero of all time. Even still, The Rock looks cool as the musclebound riverboat captain, although Blunt seems to be having more fun as the action-loving botanist.
Jack Whitehall is along as the obligatory comic relief, with him playing Blunt’s goofy brother – but the real scene-stealer has got to be Jesse Plemons. Seemingly channeling Ronald Lacey in Raiders of the Lost Ark, he devours scenery as the main baddie, but, given how good he is – it’s a sin how limited his screen time is until the finale. Edgar Ramirez also shows up in a role I won’t spoil, but he gets the chance to spar with The Rock a few times in some CGI-heavy scraps.
Probably the element I liked most about Jungle Cruise is the old-fashioned adventure score by James Newton Howard. However, I’m not sure about the choice to use an orchestral version of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” during the big flashback scene.
While Jungle Cruise is no Romancing the Stone/Jewel of the Nile (or even High Road to China and definitely not The Mummy), it’s not a bad little adventure film, which should please its intended family audience. That said, I wish Dwayne Johnson would be a little more willing to stretch his screen image a bit lest his roles become indistinguishable. I think we’re at the point now where The Rock plays The Rock – but hopefully, with Black Adam, he’ll mix it up a bit as he’s more than capable.
July 27, 2021 by: Matt Rooney
PLOT: A man from Oklahoma travels to Marseille to visit his imprisoned daughter, and ends up trying to prove her innocence by finding the man she believes really committed the crime.
REVIEW: In the wrong hands, STILLWATER could’ve easily dipped too far into one end of the political spectrum and been a nauseating experience. Centered on a middle-aged man from Stillwater, Oklahoma (Matt Damon) who travels to a foreign country and must confront people who naturally don’t trust him given he is, to them, a very specific kind of American, it would’ve been all too easy to make the whole thing one long, pandering exercise. But in pulling from his earlier low-key, humanist works like The Station Agent and Win Win, director Tom McCarthy instead opts for a character study that posits if a man from a small corner of this country so set in his ways can change his entire outlook on life.
In other words, this is certainly not the movie it’s being primarily marketed as. The recent ads and trailers tend to lean into the more straight-forward, thrilling first half, in which a construction/oil worker from Oklahoma, Bill Baker (Damon), heads to France to visit his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin) – who is in jail after being convicted of killing her girlfriend while studying abroad – and then decides to prove her innocent on his own. This initial act plays out not unlike a typical investigative thriller, in which a fish-out-of-water who stands out like a sore thumb follows the clues that may lead to his daughter’s innocence. This chunk of the movie delivers exactly what the bulk of the trailers promise – but even still – McCarthy’s eye mines more depth from the script (he shares credit Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noé Debré), and hints from the earliest moments this is hardly about the case, and more about the man trying to solve it.
Voicing him with a less-flourished version of his Texas accent in True Grit, Damon’s Baker is a man who has no problem keeping things just the way they are in his life. He works whatever job he can get on construction sites or on oil rigs; he wears the same kinds of clothes and the same hat; he eats dinner from local fast food joints and; carries around the same iPod Mini that’s older than some of the people who will see this movie in theaters. His visits to his daughter are about as different and exciting as his life gets, and even them surrounded by a whole new world of cuisine and culture does nothing to explore it and brings home takeout from Subway to his hotel. His desire to prove his daughter’s innocence comes not just from a sense of fatherly duty, but as redemption to make up for years of being a general piece of shit when Allison was younger.
As he demonstrated with Spotlight, McCarthy is a master of weaving in character drama within the framework of an accessible thriller, and emphasizing how it’s the dilemmas of those characters that are just as, if not more, important than the playing out of the mystery itself. What makes his work feel so engaging is how, at many turns, Baker’s sense of no-nonsense steadfastness just makes everything worse. At one point, a local named Virginie (Camille Cottin) urges him to respect the cultural boundaries of Marseille, and his stubbornness and disregard for where he is and who he’s affecting don’t make him look heroic, but rather send him down a spiral.
As the plot thickens, you’re not watching a do-gooding father inching closer to saving the day, but rather a man digging himself deeper into a hole until he sees nothing he’s doing is helping, and that it’s time he accepts it’s either time to change or get out of the way for good. It may be easy to lump Baker and his personality into a specific political spectrum, but McCarthy and the writers take strides to avoid that (most noticeably so in one of the bigger jokes of the movie). Rather, he uses Baker’s Middle-American persona as a template to explore a man who has to accept that the way he’s used to doing and perceiving things is not exactly the right way, which is what makes this more an engrossing character study than a typical thriller.
To get all this across the movie certainly feels like its 140-minute runtime, shifting canvases in a welcome-ly surprising way. But it’s all anchored by Damon’s truly compelling performance. He does a fantastic job maintaining a specific tone in Baker’s speech, hardly ever elevating above a Mid-South-West directness, but with a few discreet changes that ensure his specific emotion in any scene never feels lost. He draws you into Baker and gives him a full arc by adding depth to what appears simplistic, adding subtleties to his physicality to show that while he hasn’t completely changed, he’s become more comfortable in his new setting by opening himself up to new people and ways of life. Surely he will get buckets of praise for her performance, and it’s rightly deserved thanks to how he makes such a commanding presence out of such an average man.
Those aforementioned new people are Virginie, a theater actor and single mom, and her young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) – both of whom Baker grows closer to while he’s in his initial detective mode. While at first just his translator and a helping face, through them he lets his guard down and forms yet another path towards genuine growth. Cottin is vibrant and warm as Virginie, who while having her reservations towards his actions, always keeps her heart open to his cause and doesn’t take shots to belittle him. Siauvaud is adorable and loving, immediately seeing the good in Baker bringing out the best in him and lending between them a helpful dose of humor. Together they form a charming family unit, and considering the majority of the second and third act is centered on them and their dynamic, it makes so much easier to buy into how McCarthy uses their bond to explore the ways in which people impact each other, with the smallest moments between them leaving the largest impact. Even as more events come to pass that begin to take the story down a more predictable path, McCarthy layers on the suspense and drives home one or two heartwrenching moments.
Through Allison, we’re also supposed to explore a theme of hereditary behavior, and how the negative actions of a parent can trickle down to their children. While Breslin is great as Allison — hinting at a side of her that is not unlike her father while bringing out her unbreakable spirit and outlook — this angle doesn’t work as much as what else makes up the bulk of the movie. While it means to solidify one of the more impactful aspects of the finale, the landing feels a bit rushed and fumbled. There’s a real, insightful power to the way the movie as a whole examines how far a seemingly immovable object has come and the exploration around whether people can truly change, but McCarthy doesn’t quite stick the landing, and not every emotion feels earned by the end.
Touching on something I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of people who may walk away hating a lot about Stillwater. It could be the kind of character Baker, the shifts in storytelling/tone, or the sheer scope of its runtime. And those are all warranted grievances. But I walked away fascinated by all of it. McCarthy’s humanist lens, Damon and the supporting cast’s performances at that sell it as a small, effective ensemble piece, and the taut suspense that makes way for absorbing pathos all combine for richly layered thrills and drama that more often connects that misfires. If you expected a straight thriller, I say go in with an open mind, and if the runtime doesn’t wear you down, you’ll come out having a more rewarding experience than you probably thought possible.
Joe Bell Review
Joe Bell Review
July 23, 2021 by: Chris Bumbray
JOE BELL was previously reviewed at TIFF 2020 under the title Good Joe Bell
PLOT: A father (Mark Wahlberg) walks across America to raise awareness for bullying after his gay soon is viciously tormented in his Oregon high school by his homophobic classmates.
REVIEW: Joe Bell is another TIFF title that’s tricky to review. Much of the movie hinges on a spoiler that’s revealed relatively early in the film and is easy to find if you simply google Joe or Jadin Bell, with this being based on a true story. However, in the interest of keeping this spoiler-free, I’m not going to reveal what the “twist” is, but suffice to say any real discussion of the film is incomplete without going into it.
Nevertheless, this is an effective plea for tolerance and empathy, and a commendable effort for Mark Wahlberg, who’s trying to communicate a thoroughly important message. It’s his most important film in years and, not coincidentally, features one of his finest performances.
He’s perfectly cast, bringing his fast-talking intensity to the complex part. Joe Bell’s essentially a good man, but he makes a lot of mistakes when his son Jadin (well-played by Reid Miller) comes out of the closet. Desperate for his acceptance, the boy is heartbroken when Joe seems more interested in his new HDTV. He’s relatively tolerant, but he’s also confused and uncomfortable anytime the boy starts to assert his homosexuality, as when he joins the cheerleading squad and practices his cheers out front for the neighbors to see.
We see that Miller’s Jadin is a lot braver than his dad, being forced to take on hulking bullies every day of his life while his parents look on. It would be nice if his tough-guy dad stood up for him, but it never happens, while his mom (played by Connie Britton) is caring but passive. Worse still are the school administrators, who caution him and his parents not to report the bullies, as it could alienate and upset the townsfolk.
Eventually, Joe winds up on the road with his son, going to high schools and pleading with kids to open their hearts, but as he’s told by his son numerous times, he’s preaching to the choir. Wahlberg plays Joe as thick-headed and prone to flying way off the handle, but gives him soul, with his walk, in many ways, his penance for never being there for his son and a way to atone, rather than changing hearts and minds – at first.
Directed by Monsters and Men’s Reinaldo Marcus Green, this is beautifully shot by Jacques Jouffret in an ultra-wide aspect ratio that seems closer to 2:55:1 than regular scope, with it, evocatively capturing his trek across country. Yet it’s the performances that make Joe Bell a winner, with Wahlberg and Miller having pitch-perfect chemistry and a real sense of affection for each other, especially when they have a sing-a-long to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”. Miller, in particular, is strong in a heartbreaking role.
Yet, the real show-stopping moment comes later in the film when Joe is stopped by an older cop, played by Gary Sinise, with the two unburdening themselves to each other in a riveting, cathartic scene that helps make the movie. Sinise has been out of films for too long, and there’s something undeniably moving about watching him make his comeback with an honest to God plea for people to just be kind. It sends the movie off on the perfect note, elevating it to must-see status. Again, this is a truly commendable effort by all involved, and a movie I think everyone should watch. It’s certainly something different from Wahlberg, but it features one of his richest, most commited performances in years.
July 23, 2021 by: Chris Bumbray
PLOT: After losing his voice during a long battle with cancer, actor VAL Kilmer looks back at his life story through the thousands of hours of footage he shot of himself throughout his career.
REVIEW: Val is a must-watch for anyone who likes a good Hollywood yarn. One of the biggest stars of the nineties after his turns in The Doors, Tombstone, and Batman Forever, Kilmer saw his reputation go up in flames after bowing out of Batman & Robin (a smart choice in hindsight) and reportedly running amuck on the set of The Island of Doctor Moreau. Many wrote him off as mercurial and egomaniacal. Still, through it all, everyone always knew he was talented, and had he not been felled by cancer, an illness that cost him his most valuable asset, his voice, his career likely would have gone on and on. This documentary by Leo Scott and Ting Poo confronts the fact that his acting career may be over for Kilmer, but even still, the man himself has found a kind of inner peace that’s hard to come by.
Notably, the film also benefits from the amazing fact that Kilmer, throughout his whole life, was a compulsive videographer, shooting home movies constantly, and seemingly nothing was off-limits in this warts and all portrait. We see, through his footage, the young Kilmer being educated at Julliard and finding his voice as an actor, with footage of him partying with other young actor hopefuls like Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn. The movie also takes us through the Top Gun years, with loads of juicy off-set footage showing how Kilmer, Rick Rossovich, Barry Tubb, and, surprisingly, Kelly McGillis became hard-partying pals. He acknowledges his good-natured rivalry with Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards, even if you can tell there’s some jealousy behind Kilmer’s competitiveness.
It’s an invaluable document, and Kilmer deserves a lot of credit for the fact that it stops way short of being hagiography, with him acknowledging he was a pain in the ass in the pursuit of his craft, especially when making The Doors. You see footage of him living for a year as Jim Morrison while his then-wife Joanne Whalley tries to support him. We also see some audition tapes he made for Goodfellas (he would have been bad), Full Metal Jacket (he would have been great), and more.
The film is intriguingly narrated, with Kilmer’s son Jack, whose voice is uncannily similar to his dad’s, reading his narration. At the same time, Val himself sits for extended, subtitled interviews as he struggles to speak with his seriously compromised voice. The footage on hand is a treasure trove, especially when we get to The Island of Doctor Moreau. A whole documentary (Lost Souls) made about how difficult a shoot it was, and Kilmer himself doesn’t excuse his behavior, allowing them to show some arguments with director John Frankenheimer that paint him as a petulant child. Yet, you also understand that he’s been shattered by the fact that his co-star, and the only reason he wanted to do the movie in the first place, Marlon Brando, has checked out and is barely on-set.
The stories here are amazing, with the Batman Forever section especially illuminating as Kilmer shows how back then, superhero costumes were notoriously cumbersome, and he basically couldn’t move in it the entire shoot and had to act only with his arms and mouth. If the movie had been shot a decade later, when superhero suits gave stars more flexibility, he likely would have enjoyed the experience a whole lot more.
Through it all, Kilmer seems to have a special place in his heart for his turn as Doc Holliday in Tombstone, with on-set footage showing a great relationship between him and Kurt Russell. The two seemed to click. In a touching moment, Kilmer appears at a Texas screening of Tombstone but becomes melancholy seeing himself on screen as he realizes his livelihood now totally depends on exploiting his past career while his dreams for the future, including his Mark Twain passion project, go unrealized.
It adds up to a touching portrait of a man that, like many of us, hasn’t always acted well but remains utterly decent as a person. Whatever he was like as a colleague or husband, one role he seemed to excel at was being a dad, with his two kids, Jack and Mercedes, obviously adoring him.
In the end, Val is a must-watch for anyone with even a passing interest in Kilmer’s career, while fans (and I’m one) will devour it. It’s a truthful, beautiful portrait of a guy who seems a whole lot nicer than his reputation suggests.
Val is now playing in theaters, and comes to Amazon Prime Video August 6th.
July 23, 2021 by: Matt Rooney
PLOT: Struggling with a condition that requires giving herself an electric shock to stop from indulging in violent impulses, a woman much embrace her rage to find out who is responsible for the murder of her boyfriend.
REVIEW: After 90 or so minutes of constant shock at how by surprise JOLT had taken me by, I finished this new actioner starring Kate Beckinsale completely enthralled by its supreme level of confidence. From the earliest minutes, director Tanya Wexler succeeds in infusing her latest with a sense of strangeness, manic energy and no small amount of charm, leaving every ounce of fat on the floor in a no-f**ks-given style that knows full well the kind of B-movie fun its having.
From the jump, you’ll either be pulled into Jolt’s aggressive high-concept or be out before it gets going. Via narration by the Woman With No Name (Susan Sarandon), we’re introduced to young Lindy, who has trouble getting close to people given a rare condition that forces her to go into a violent rage at the slightest annoyance. If any of us get cut in line, at most we give them a “Back of the line, Bozo!” If it happens to Lindy, she would go into an uncontrollable fit and beat the man senseless with a trashcan cover. Fast forward 20 years and adult Lindy (Kate Beckinsale) has lived a tough life, has a chip on her shoulder that naturally keeps people away, and, most notably, wears a harness that allows her to give herself a needed electric shot to stop her from going ballistic when the mood hits her. This little trinket is thanks to her doctor living in what appears to be a drug den (Stanley Tucci), who suggests she takes this opportunity to meet someone special, like the strapping Justin (Jai Courtney).
While she’s able to control herself physically, Lindy can’t help but inch close to complete meltdowns – like at a rude server at a fancy restaurant – and via mental playthroughs, we see what she *would* do if she were unleashed. But between these visualizations of extreme violence, most of it is lowkey for the early moments as more of a romantic comedy takes the focus. Justin doesn’t care about her condition or her harness. Wexler does a solid job establishing their relationship, focusing on Beckinsale’s work as Lindy to emphasize how she lets her guard down. This is a woman who desperately wants to get better, and despite her past, decides to let him in all too quickly. But this is an action thriller, and after something happens to Justin, Lindy can’t control herself and no amount of shock can stop her as she rapidly sets out to find the culprits.
As the going gets fast, Wexler still tends to favor the humor of Scott Wascha’s script. Beckinsale is more than able to throw herself into the action, but what stands out most is the humor between the stacked cast that includes her, Tucci, Bobby Cannavale as a cop who has a thing for Lindy, and Laverne Cox as his partner, who wants more than anything to bring Lindy down. Everyone in the cast has the quick comedic chops needed to match the sheer propulsiveness of the story and how manically it races along – which makes it all more fun to watch than the action itself.
In this chaos where the movie does tend to crumble a bit, structurally. A conventional story feels a bit more of a letdown as characterization feels but on the back burner in favor of action that throws Lindy into the action rather than makes it a story about her hesitance to it. Even though the action is constructed in a rough-around-the-edges way that doesn’t forget Lindy is acting out of impulsivity as in not some highly-skilled assassin out for revenge, the story as a whole plays like a garden variety (if admittedly fun) action thriller that seems to forget its unique premise in favor of sleekness.
At the center of it all is Beckinsale, who while stranger to action films, finds herself in the one that takes the most advantage of her range as an actress. She’s whip-smart, witty, has a spark of madness, and as the role demands, is more than willing to throw herself into the action with zero abandon and unhinged rage. But it’s when her guard is down and when she’s feeling lost and vulnerable, unable to control her actions, where she really shines. Even during the chaotic sequences, there’s always a level of pain and regret behind her eyes. Beckinsale never loses that grip on the side of Lindy that can’t help doing the things she does. It’s a delicate balance of action star and character study, and Beckinsale is nothing short of electrifying.
In the movie’s final act or so, the focus on her condition shifts to a more effective perspective, finding Lindy at an especially vulnerable place that breaks down her tough exterior. I wouldn’t go as far as to classify Jolt as an in-depth character piece brimming with emotional resonance, but on the strength of Beckinsale’s work it’s not hard to have empathy for Lindy, and at the very least, keeps you onboard for her mission.
But for all its shortcomings in terms of storytelling execution and making full use of its premise on a deeper level, there were few minutes from start to finish that I didn’t have a blast with. The cast is dialed up and fully investing in the bizarreness of it all, and Beckinsale is a walking bolt of lighting, commandingly charming and fierce. I can’t imagine you’ll get more out of Jolt other than a fun time, but with an ending that hints there’s – for some reason – more to come, perhaps more time expanding the character could make it the start of something greater.
M. Night Shyamalan’s Old Review
M. Night Shyamalan’s Old Review
July 22, 2021 by: Matt Rooney
PLOT: A family takes a trip to a scenic beach, only to discover the stunning location has the power to rapidly age visitors and stop them from leaving.
REVIEW: M. Night Shyamalan has made classic thrillers (The Sixth Sense, Signs) and classic stinkers (The Happening, After Earth). But for the first time in his over two decades of filmmaking, he has delivered his first movie that feels destined, if not directly designed, to be a cult hit – likely to be hated by typical audiences but cherished and lauded by a core fanbase. OLD (based on the graphic novel “Sandcastle” by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters) is a thriller that bounds along a tightrope between unintentionally funny nonsense and intense chaos that makes complete sense, coming off as an absurdist piece of art. It’s such an exercise in incoherent, delirious babble that Shyamalan defies you to look away from, as a director finally finding a movie where he can indulge in some of his worst sensibilities and make the argument that doing so is the entire point.
But before all that, his movie starts innocently enough, almost to the point where there’s little reason to expect anything will go wrong at all. We’re introduced to a series of characters, primarily a family of four on vacation at a luxury resort – parents Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps), and children Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and Trent (Nolan River). We don’t learn much about them other than the parents are going through a separation and that the adorable awkward Trent and his protective older sister and close siblings. Nothing is shady about the resort, and it looks like a perfectly scenic vacation. But while this family dynamic is meant to form the emotional backbone of what’s to come, when the family and several others take a scenic trip to a nearby beach, virtually none of it matters.
To say Shyamalan dials up the intensity when things get going is a grand understatement. When it’s time to get things into gear, the tone quickly revs up to “bat shit crazy” right quick and doesn’t let up for the majority of the runtime. After a few hints of things feeling weird for each of the characters, it soon becomes clear that while on the beach everyone begins to age rapidly. How rapidly? A deduction by Prisca pegs to about one year every 30 minutes they’re on the beach. Soon Trent, Maddox, and another little girl begin to turn into teenagers, the adults begin to show signs of flaring, underlying medical conditions, and chaos of all sorts reigns. It’s like “Lord of the Flies” if they instantly smashed the conch shell and 20 minutes later were hunting down Piggy for sport.
From the get-go, Shyamalan has no intention of making this a slow and steady build around a mystery. The vicious form of nature that is the beach, everything begins to happen so fast there’s no time to let things settle and steadily escalate. The movie at its core is pure, rapid escalation because it has to be. So much is thrown at the screen at a constant rate there is no time to grab hold and make sense of anything. It’s just one bizarre series of events after another, with no one able to do anything but scream, act like fools, and constantly fail to figure anything out.
When Shyamalan is at some of his worst as a writer, characters spew dialogue of such a precise level of stupidity, saying things that no human being in that situation would ever say. His style plagued movies like The Happening and The Last Airbender, and such is the case here, as adults trying to rationalize unimaginable instances sound impressively stupid. For example, see Prisca when she says her children aging almost a decade was because of “something they ate” or “they must have caught something.” But going back to an earlier point, this is Shyamalan getting his very talented cast of actors to very seriously deliver chuckle-worthy dialogue, while also getting to rationalize it all as legitimate responses. These people have literally no clue what’s going on and nothing ever changes to help them make sense of it, so trying to explain it away in admittedly stupid ways seems valid.
Driving home the often inane dialogue and sheer absurdity of the action is Shyamalan playing around with various camera angles in a way that makes it all feel disorienting. Wild close-ups, random zooms, off-center shots; all of it is Shyamalan going for bonkers and mostly succeeding. He’s fully aware of how hard he needed to drive it all home for the sake of giving the undoubtedly thin premise some legs. I found myself in a trance of utter nonsense, swept back and forth between all manner of age-related chaos, as one severe act is replaced by another. His style is bolder than he’s ever been, but also devoid of any sense of pacing beyond sheer speed and lack of restraint.
But, again, there are arguments to be made this is all the point. Anyone in this fantastical scenario would also be at the mercy of constant anguish and lack of control. Absorbing us in the turmoil is sort of the whole point for the sake of one wholly intense experience that has little going for a story, and is all about the sensories. Not helping matters, some actions are taken by characters that are so absurd and out of place, it blazes past suspenseful and further into the realm of camp. The only way to stay hooked is to expect nothing from the craft and the performers and accept it’s all nonsense. When a now 20-something Trent (Alex Wolff) walks up to his family for the first time — beaming with a grin that still screams six-year-old — it’s impossible not to burst out laughing. Nothing about moments like these are shocking or terrifying, but rather hilariously absurd that is begs the question if this is meant as a horror-comedy. This is something Shyamalan was able to stumble on with The Visit, but he can’t get away with that here, as he’s clearly going all for thrills, sometimes failing stupendously.
The same goes for moments of characterization. Take a moment where a woman, Chrystal (Abbey Lee), talks about a former lover to a now 20-something Maddox (Thomasin McKenzie) after one unsettling occurrence, which despite Lee’s commitment, just sounds silly. Because the tension is at a constant 11, any attempts at pathos come off way too over the top and no matter how talented of actors they are, none of these character beats land as they should. Even moments tied to the core emotion of the movie – the drama between the primary family – feels tacked on and sometimes aggressively out of place. Among it all is an ensemble giving it their all, and they all do commendable work through the often clunky dialogue.
But even amidst so much mind-numbing relentlessness, there are a few moments that manage to take a turn and deliver the right amount of shock. Of course, I won’t go into what these moments are, but they do come when it seems Shyamalan has found a better rhythm. When things do start to come down a bit towards the end, there’s actually a lot of sweetness in the story as it blossoms into the kind of family tale he’s been great about telling in past movies. Gone are some of the wonkier camera movements, and in their place are some one-shots that ingeniously play with the passage of time. Unlike his other movies that often start bad and stay bad, here Shyamalan does more ebbing and flowing. Focus is derailed by chaos, which makes way for clarity and even some warmth.
The fact is, some people may like everything I’ve described. They may thrive on the absurd chaos as incident after incident piles up. If everything I described above sounds like exactly what you need, and are looking for the next film to watch while on numerous substances with friends — then suit up and dive in. But I can in no way recommend it to anyone else looking for genuine tension or even a great Shyamalan twist (I actually found the ending here almost too predictable). Too much of it is too maddening to get anything substantial out of it, and it may end up being one of the more divisive movies of the year. But for Shyamalan, that’s quite the feat. A man who has spent his career making plenty of commercial efforts (of varying quality), he’s made one that feels like it was meant for a specific crowd willing to dive headfirst into that sea of inexplicable madness and swept up in all the turmoil that comes with it.
Midnight in the Switchgrass Review
Midnight in the Switchgrass Review
July 22, 2021 by: Chris Bumbray
PLOT: An FBI agent (Megan Fox) and a Pensacola cop (Emile Hirsch) team up to bring a serial killer preying on young girls to justice.
REVIEW: MIDNIGHT IN THE SWITCHGRASS marks the directing debut of Randall Emmett, who, among others, produced The Irishman, 2 Guns, and SIlence. He also runs Emmett/Furla Oasis Films, known for its never-ending series of low-budget DTV actioners, often starring folks like Bruce Willis in small supporting roles despite their prominent top-billing (here’s an interesting feature on them).
That tradition carries over to Midnight in the Switchgrass, with Willis’ name splashed all over the trailers and posters, even though he’s only got a handful of scenes (most of which feature him sitting) and minimal effect on the plot. You’ve no doubt seen a ton of these show up on streaming channels – movies like First Kill, The Prince, Hard Kill, Trauma Center, Out of Death, etc. However, the movie also clearly had a bigger budget and loftier artistic intentions than a typical EFO product. It is loosely based on the exploits of a real-life serial killer called “The Truck Stop Killer.”
While Willis is mostly checked out here, Midnight in the Switchgrass does benefit from one top-billed star who showed up with her A-game in tow: Megan Fox. While she’s not as ultra-famous as she once was, one can’t help but notice in recent years how much Fox’s has been honing her skill as an actress. She made a surprisingly effective action heroine in Rogue and put everything she has into her role as a dogged FBI agent addicted to the rush. While the film itself is relatively weak, she’s committed enough here that I imagine that she might change people’s opinions of her with the right material.
Too bad that the rest of the movie is so middling. Emile Hirsch does his best as the worn-out cop trying to piece together the case, but he seems too young and fresh-faced for the role. Scenes depicting his home-life are unintentionally funny as Emmett turns up the melodrama to eleven and should have been left on the cutting room floor. I did, however, like Machine Gun Kelly in his small role as a pimp who has a violent encounter with Fox, while Lucas Haas is refreshingly low-key and believable as the villain.
One problem with Midnight in the Switchgrass is that narratively it’s all over the place. For a procedural, there’s precious little actual investigating, focusing on the psychology of all involved, but Michael Mann, this is not. This is especially driven home by the ponderous opening narration by Hirsch, which short-circuits the movie almost before it even begins. The ending also falls flat, with a race-against-time aspect falling to take the suspense up a notch.
Indeed, this is a pretty mixed bag all around, but some of the performances here are good enough that you can tell Emmett had more in mind than churning out a standard DTV thriller. Perhaps his next one will fare better, but at least he pulled together a good cast (despite a paycheck-collecting Bruce Willis) and a good DP in Duane Manwiller with Puerto Rico standing in for the Florida panhandle.
Snake Eyes: A G.I. Joe Origins Review!
Snake Eyes: A G.I. Joe Origins Review!
July 22, 2021 by: JimmyO
PLOT: The first cinematic origin story for G.I. Joe explores the beginning of the iconic character, SNAKE EYES.
REVIEW: It all started fine with the occasionally entertaining G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra directed by Stephen Sommers, way back in 2009. Things got a little better with the 2013 release of G.I. Joe: Retaliation with a little help from Dwayne Johnson. The sequel, directed by Jon M. Chu, maintained some of the original’s clear but slight charms and added a more satisfying action element. And now, Paramount has yet another offering in the G.I. Joe universe. Instead of taking on a group of characters, this particular “Origins” story places focus on the titular character, Snake Eyes. Considering there was a slight improvement between the first Rise of Cobra and Retaliation, at least for this viewer, you’d hope that a few years of preparation and a popular actor like Henry Golding would create an action-packed sequel and at least be entertaining. Unfortunately, the Robert Schwentke directed sequel takes the franchise down a couple of notches.
The film begins with the introduction of a young boy (Max Archibald) and his father (Steven Allerick), who are staying at a cabin deep in the woods. When it becomes clear that the two are in danger, the father attempts to hide his son, only to face his own demise. The boy survives. Years later, that young man grows up to look a lot like Henry Golding, and we meet Snake Eyes. Soon, fate brings him to an ancient Japanese clan called the Arashikage after he saves the life of their heir apparent. Once he arrives in Japan, he’s trained and tested to be a part of this ancient clan. However, there is a darker desire for him, a need for vengeance for what happened to his father. Will he betray those that trusted him? Or will this iconic character find a place with the Joes?
The trailer for Snake Eyes offered a little promise. It helps to hire solid actors like Golding, Samara Weaving as Scarlett, Úrsula Corberó as The Baroness, Andrew Koji as Storm Shadow, Iko Uwais as Hard Master, Peter Mensah as Blind Master, and more. And there are many interesting tales that could’ve been told about Snake Eyes within this world. Yet this first origin story is lackluster in nearly every single way. While Golding is a good actor, the script by Evan Spiliotopoulos and Joe Srapnel didn’t do him any favors. If you want the goofy little one-liners that don’t quite work, you’ve got that in spades. What you don’t get, however, is a film that truly explores Snake Eyes in an exciting way. Neither does it do much for the other popular G.I. Joe characters making an appearance here. There is very little to get inspired by in this unexceptional world the filmmakers have created. It’s hard not to see this as a bit of a missed opportunity.
The first major action sequence involves Snake Eyes in a no-holds-barred cage match. The scene is muddy and messy, and the shaky camera work is a bit frustrating to watch. Perhaps it was simply that the director wanted you to feel what it was like to be in the ring. Nope. It’s all like that. The action sequences are all a series of close-ups, with the camera constantly moving and shaking as you try and get a glimpse of what is going on. What’s even more frustrating? There are some truly inspired images on-screen. Some that come so very close to bringing some life to this less than spectacular feature. Ironically it is the softer moments that are the most impactful. That’s when we get a little more insight into Snake Eyes, and the struggles he faces.
Oh, and are you ready for weird CGI beasts? Well, there’s that as well. You see, to earn his place with the clan, he must face off against three challenges. One of them involves massive snakes, and it may be one of the weirdest moments in a G.I. Joe feature that I’ve ever seen. Yet perhaps a bit more of the weird may have made this feel like a more intriguing exploration of the character. A little more personality wouldn’t hurt either. The new flick rarely goes anywhere past generic fight scenes, corny dialogue, and maybe a hope for a better film. Unfortunately, this is not a good start for bringing the Joe’s into origin territory. If you enjoyed the trailer for this film, well frankly it’s far more satisfying than the actual film. And if you didn’t like the trailer, I’d probably recommend that you see something else this weekend.
Snake Eyes is a massive disappointment. There are good ideas here. Some of the imagery on display was quite gorgeous, and the score had a fun electronic feel. Yet even with the star-of-the-moment Henry Golding, and a strong supporting cast, the first G.I. Joe Origin Story fails to ignite a spark. I’ve certainly appreciated Schwentke’s work before, but perhaps his talents aren’t as well suited for a non-stop action blockbuster such as this. What’s even more frustrating is that you can see there was something in this mess. But the constantly shaking camera work, the generic script, and a would-be villain that kind of looks like Lisa Loeb don’t give this flick much of a bite. Perhaps you’ll appreciate this more than I did, but ultimately, Snake Eyes is just a bland continuation that failed to explore the mystique of a character far more intriguing than the film with his name.
Die in a Gunfight Review
Die in a Gunfight Review
July 16, 2021 by: Chris Bumbray
PLOT: Two star-crossed lovers (Diego Boneta & Alexandra Daddario) attempt to be together despite their duelling media titan fathers.
REVIEW: For those not in the know, DIE IN A GUNFIGHT was a hot script back in 2010. It made the Black List that year (a survey of the best unproduced screenplays) and was intended to be a Zac Efron vehicle for a while. As is usual in Hollywood, it took over a decade for Die in a Gunfight to get made, and Efron wound up aging out of the lead somewhat, resulting in what I assume is a more modest version of the movie than was intended back in 2010.
Yet another post-modern take on Romeo & Juliet, the movie this most reminds me of is a long-forgotten Shia LaBeouf vehicle called Charlie Countryman, which was an attempt to make a high-octane youth love story. Die in a Gunfight doesn’t add much to the genre, despite some stylistic flair from director Collin Schiffli and a jaunty ninety-minute pace.
While moderately entertaining as far as VOD movies go, one can’t help but notice there’s very little substance here beyond what they ripped off from Romeo and Juliet. However, I imagine the Bard was less of an influence than Baz Luhrman. The star-crossed lovers are a mixed bag. Alexandra Daddario is beautiful, but she’s not given much substance to chew on. I like it when she cuts loose in movies like We Summon the Darkness, but here she’s got the basic love interest part. Diego Boneta, as the glutton for punishment hero who likes to take random beatings to “feel something,” feels utterly miscast. A good-looking dude; he was brilliant in a recent movie I saw called New Order, but he feels vacuous here.
Of everyone, the supporting cast fare the best, with Travis Fimmel stealing every scene as a neurotic hitman, working with his star-crossed love (Emmanuelle Chriqui) while out to get our hero. He has a fun arc. I also dug the movie’s Mercutio analog, Mukul (pronounced McCool because he’s cool as sh*t), played by Wade Allain-Marcus.
One of the most disappointing elements of the film – I have to say – is the near-total lack of action. When you have a title like Die in a Gunfight, you can reasonably expect some…ya know…gunfights! There’s very little of that here. There are a few hand-to-hand scraps, but otherwise, this emphasizes romance, which is two-dimensional. The film also suffers from a weak villain, with Justin Chatwin’s character playing Daddario’s former bodyguard who’s obsessed with her. He works out a deal with her dad to marry her (by force) and stake a claim in her empire. The movie also has near-constant narration by Billy Crudup, which is interesting given how similar this is to Charlie Countryman. That film also had narration when it premiered at Sundance years ago, but it was wisely excised for the final release. It’s fine here, but I’ve always felt narration is gimmicky unless you have a solid take, and certainly, its use in Die in a Gunfight isn’t going to change my mind.
In the end, Die in a Gunfight is passable entertainment, but it’s also nothing you haven’t seen done before – and better. Daddario is gorgeous, and Fimmel and Allain-Marcus have their moments, but overall this is a pretty forgettable flick despite its claim to fame of having once been on The Black List.
Fear Street Part Three: 1666 Review
Fear Street Part Three: 1666 Review
July 16, 2021 by: JimmyO
PLOT: The Fear Street Trilogy comes to an end with this final entry, one that finds Deena discovering the origin of Sarah Fier’s curse on Shadyside.
REVIEW: Last week in my review of Fear Street Part Two: 1978, I noted how difficult it is to keep the second film in a trilogy strong. It’s also pretty damn hard to do a final chapter. And here we are with Fear Street Part Three: 1666. Truth be told, after loving the previous chapter, I was mentally preparing myself for this final round. Was it possible that with all the build-up, we’d get a truly satisfying end? Or would it ultimately be a mess and fall all over itself as it wrapped up the story? Happily, the Fear Street Trilogy has been a joy of a genre experience. And now, as the final film takes us back into the past, I’m even more thrilled to say that this is an impressively satisfying end to the thrilling Netflix trilogy. Why was this such an enjoyable curse? Read on and find out.
Fear Street Part Three: 1666 begins with Deena (Kiana Madeira) finally getting closer to the answers that haunt this town. However, this revelation teleports her back to another time, one where she is known as Sarah Fier – the witch who had cursed Shadyside. As she carries out her romantic relations with Hannah Miller (Olivia Scott Welch), she finds understanding and compassion with Solomon Goode (Ashley Zukerman). Yet after a few tragic events occur, the local nutter named Mad Thomas (another terrific performance from McCabe Slye) tells the tale of a witch that has brought ruin to their little community. All this leads to the reveal of the truth behind what happened to bring such horrors to Shadyside. And then, ultimately, we return to 1994, where Deena and her surviving friends must go after the true evil that haunts their quiet little town.
This entire experience, with all three films directed by Leigh Janiak and co-written by Phil Graziadei and Janiak, has been a near-perfect blend of frights and fun. It has been an engaging and enjoyable balance of suspense, humor, and charm that continued to entertain on every level. While the first feature was reminiscent of movies like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer and the second paid a bit of tribute to Friday the 13th and even a little Halloween, the third and final film gets gothic and moody. By bringing this story to the year 1666, it offers the filmmakers the chance to explore a more classic setting, equally as creepy as what came before, if not more so. One sequence involving the local pastor (Michael Chandler) and a small group of children is disturbing and viscerally haunting. It’s impressive how well this explores all of these facets of the horror genre thanks to R.L. Stine’s inspiration and a talented filmmaker such as Leigh. Yet it rarely plays it all that safe.
Equally impressive are the performances. The past features all the same actors from the previous films, all using an old English dialect, and they handle the material remarkably well. Considering how important her character has remained throughout the entire trilogy, Ms. Madeira is a hell of a talent, and yes, her chemistry with the charming Olivia Scott Welch is not lost here. Other stand-outs in 1666 include Ashley Zukerman, Randy Havens as Sarah’s father George Fier, and the previously mentioned McCabe Slye. Even the transition back to 1994 – which they call here 1994 Part Two – leads to an exciting conclusion that is shockingly satisfying for those that have watched all three films. Two different timelines and one intensely suspenseful conclusion help make this perhaps the best of the bunch.
The final act is the cherry on top of this scary little treat of a trilogy. The last forty-five minutes or so takes all that we’ve learned and gives us a worthy end. I’d never have believed you had you told me before I took it all in that I was going to enjoy an almost six-hour adaptation of R.L. Stine’s books. Yet here we are. This wicked final flick rises to the occasion by giving us a better-than-expected villain, a creepy and atmospheric setting, and a few chilling images that are likely to stick with you. While the previous films utilized some seriously groovy tunes, the classical score adds to the moody atmosphere and the impressive set design.
Fear Street Part Three: 1666 is an addictively enjoyable end to one of the best horror trilogies I’ve seen as of late. It is smartly crafted, satisfyingly intense, and filled with charismatic leads and a director with a lot of love and understanding of horror. If you are a slasher fan, there is much to appreciate. Thankfully, even if you aren’t, this immensely entertaining trilogy manages to charm from the very first kill to the final resolution. The actors are all game, the music is perfectly crafted, and all of it is in the capable hands of Leigh Janiak. The Fear Street Trilogy is an easy recommendation. And since it’s on Netflix, it’s something that I’m sure many of you will watch more than once – I have, and it remains as killer cool as it was the very first time. Make sure you catch the final chapter, Fear Street Part Three: 1666, in one of the most inspired genre entries of the year.
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Escape Room: Tournament of Champions Review
Escape Room: Tournament of Champions Review
July 16, 2021 by: JimmyO
PLOT: Once again, a group of people discovers that they are part of a deadly game where strangers must figure out how to get out of a deadly escape room. This time, however, they all have something new that connects them all together.
REVIEW: Director Adam Robitel surprised audiences with his taut little thriller Escape Room in 2019. Due to the box office success of the first feature, it was clear that we weren’t going to escape from a sequel. And in 2021, the story continues in ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS. With a small handful of familiar faces and a slew of new actors including, Thomas Cocquerel, Holland Roden, Indya Moore, and Carlito Olivero, the sequel also brings new rules, new puzzles, and once again, a very deadly game into play. Thankfully, one of the most successful elements from the first film is back, and that is the casting of both Taylor Russell and Logan Miller. The two were terrific in the previous feature, and they’re equally engaging here.
After the trauma of the horrific Escape Room from before, Zoey Davis (Russell) is having trouble adjusting to the world around her. The young survivor is seeing a psychiatrist who is attempting to help her move on. Yet even the doctor seems to think her patients’ paranoia is out of control. As well, Zoey’s refusing to get back on a plane, which doesn’t help her case with the good doctor. No matter what her doctor says, Zoey’s convinced the creators of the deadly game haven’t gone away. It certainly doesn’t help that the police didn’t find a shred of evidence to back up her previous tale. Hoping to get answers and see what is going on, she convinces fellow survivor Ben Miller (Miller) to join her on a road trip to see if she truly is crazy. Once they arrive at the possible location for a new escape room, a drug addict steals her necklace and leads them on a chase to a secret subway station. It’s one subway stop they’re going to wish they never made.
Perhaps the trickiest thing about a sequel to Escape Room is trying to bring something new to the mix. And yes, at times, they do offer something original to the story. Much of this comes in the final act after a couple of twists and turns are revealed. However, the film is far more successful as it takes on the familiar aspects of the original. It’s all about the sets that include a subway train, a creepy beach setting, and an upscale bank where you need to watch every step you make. There is enough suspense and thrills as they find their way out of a few very messed-up situations. And like the original, one by one, somebody makes a mistake that costs them their life – although the bloodless kills are a bit more frustrating with this installment. Can’t they at least give us one money shot in this PG-13 series?
Robitel – an actor himself – is quite good at gathering a cast together that allows you to find a bit of sympathy. Both Taylor Russell and Logan Miller are terrific as two people getting pulled into another deadly game. As well, the new cast members are good at conveying the terror they face here. And considering the film’s title includes the term Tournament of Champions, you can perhaps guess that each of the new players is well aware of this frightening life and death scenario. The introduction to the new players is clever and is frankly far more intense than you may expect. Even with the bloodless kills, there is still a sense of urgency as the players desperately try to figure out the clues to escape. It’s a fun concept, especially for those that may find the Saw series a bit too much to handle.
As entertaining as the first couple of acts can be, the sequel falls apart near the end. It’s not a terrible conclusion by any stretch, yet the not-so-subtle hint that this is not the end is groan-inducing. It includes the reveal of another character from the previous film and the aftermath of the final room. All of which makes the third act all too predictable and unnecessary. It was clear they are trying to make this world even bigger and more menacing, but the build-up, in the end, is so overly dramatic that it lacks the tension found in the earlier sequences. It’s easy to appreciate much of what this occasionally capable sequel has to offer. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite live up to the first film as an inventive new horror franchise, more of a tired retread of a decent indie thriller.
The thought of recommending Escape Room: Tournament of Champions is this… If you enjoyed the first film and you don’t mind more of the same until its bloated final act, you’ll probably have fun with this. Yet if the lackluster off-screen kills and the monotony of watching people hunt for clues isn’t a thrill, you’ll be better off to wait and catch it on Netflix. Ultimately, I appreciate what Adam Robitel has to offer as a director. There is tension and suspense here, and for the most part, the characters were compelling enough. When this makes up for its small budget and a sequel is prepared, perhaps they can flesh out the story in a more exciting way. And yes, there’s enough here that I’d be curious to see where they’d go for a third film. Even still, while this sequel starts off hitting all the right notes, its overly ridiculous finale doesn’t do it any favors.
American Horror Stories TV Review
July 15, 2021 by: Alex Maidy
PLOT: American Horror Stories is a spin-off of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s award-winning hit anthology series American Horror Story. American Horror Stories is a weekly anthology series that will feature a different horror story each episode.
REVIEW: It is hard to believe that the first season of American Horror Story debuted ten years ago. The first entry in the anthology series, retroactively subtitled Murder House, was a blend of dark horror with Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy's trademark style. With the first of multiple iconic performances by Jessica Lange and the ensemble repertoire cast, it kicked off the franchise that would change genres and themes year after year. While the original series is still going strong, it has lost some of its luster as the tone has gotten pulpier and less scary with each subsequent volume. Part of that may be due to sustaining a narrative over a full season and losing steam. Now, Murphy and Falchuk are taking a different approach with spin-off American Horror Stories. Promising stories told over self-contained episodes rather than full seasons, American Horror Stories is a familiar return to the roots of the series that may reinvigorate the franchise as a whole.
The first two episodes of the series are actually one story. I know, that already defeats the standalone promise that American Horror Stories has been advertising, but the two chapters of "Rubber(wo)Man" work almost on their own. Set in the Murder House from the first season, the story focuses on Scarlett (Sierra McCormick) who moves into the haunted mansion with her fathers (Matt Bomer and Gavin Creel) who plan to turn it into a bed and breakfast. Scarlett is gay and experimenting with BDSM porn which makes her the perfect suitor for the Rubber Man spirit. She also has a crush on Maya (Paris Jackson), a mean girl at school. When a prank turns into worse, Scarlett takes control and all hell breaks loose. With a glimpse of the demonic Infantata from the first season, the premiere episode is bloody and dark with only a hint of Murphy and Falchuk's snarky dialogue.
The second episode continues Scarlett's story but also introduces Ruby McDaniel (Kaia Gerber). The two girls begin a murderous and romantic relationship that leaves a trail of bodies in their wake. While the second episode is "Part Two" to the premiere episode, the focus shifts from Scarlett's acceptance of her sexual proclivities into a larger tale of what death means in the Murder House and how the spirits who dwell there survive. While references are made to Dylan McDermott's character from the first season, there are no other callbacks aside from the rules of the house itself and that they are allowed to venture free of the grounds on Halloween night. It is noticeable that the we never see the hundreds of other ghosts that haunt the house, but the quick pace of these two episodes makes that something of a moot point.
While Matt Bomer is a veteran of two previous seasons of American Horror Story, the rest of the cast are brand new. Sierra McCormick makes a solid lead and flips the arc of season one's Taissa Farmiga in a different direction, but the standouts are Paris Jackson and Kaia Gerber. Both are the children of famous stars (Jackson is daughter of Michael Jackson and Gerber's mother is Cindy Crawford) and they bring some rookie starpower to the series. Jackson is the far more natural actress while some of Gerber's dialogue comes across as wooden. Still, both actresses round out this cast nicely along with Merrin Dungey as Scarlett's therapist and Aaron Tveit as a contractor. Everyone here keeps the cheesiness subdued which allows this first entry in the series to be far more horror than pulp.
After watching these two episodes, I appreciate that Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have seen the limitations of their storytelling. Murder House offered a perfect setting for telling horror stories and by revisiting it here, audiences get a chance to hear another tale using the same plot devices without being saddled with a whole season of filler material. That being said, this story could have been kept as a single episode rather than spreading it over two. There is still some filler here that could have been cut to tell a tighter story, especially since the ending feels incongruous to the two hours that came before it. One episode revels in cool moments like using Bernard Hermann's "Twisted Nerve" while another replicates moments from the premiere season of American Horror Story. It is simultaneously derivative and new.
It is hard to judge the entire series based on these two episodes since the trailers tease subsequent tales will venture further away from the established stories from the parent series. But, even if the entire anthology was new tales set in the first nine seasons of American Horror Story, it would be an intriguing show to watch. I trust that this premiere was selected to ease viewers into this new format and it works overall. It is a safe episode that doesn't change much from the tried and true format that has worked for a decade. A couple of hours is far less of a commitment than a whole season, so give these episodes a shot and stay tuned to see just how far this show can go.
American Horror Stories airs Thursdays on FX on Hulu.
July 15, 2021 by: Chris Bumbray
PLOT: When his truffle PIG is stolen, a former chef (Nicolas Cage) returns to his old stomping ground, Portland, in the hopes of recovering his beloved animal.
REVIEW: I’ve said it time and time again when reviewing Nicolas Cage movies, but he’s got two modes these days. One is DTV Cage, where he tries to have a little fun at least, even if the movies range from routine to poor. The other, however, is a different beast. In movies like Mandy, Joe, and now Pig, Cage is absolutely at the top of his game, reminding everyone within our first glimpse of him why, despite dozens and dozens of bad movies, he still can be counted on as one of the greatest actors of his generation.
Pig, by its premise, sounds a bit like John Wick with a different kind of animal in jeopardy, but that’s not at all what this low-key character study is. With almost a complete absence of violence (save for Cage taking a pummelling or two), this is a compelling story of a man who, at the top of his game, virtually walked out on his life to become a hermit. When we meet him, he’s sporting a scraggly beard and mane, with only his beloved truffle pig to keep him company. He sells his wares to a young wheeler-dealer, Alex Wolff’s Amir, but otherwise has next to no contact with anyone.
Bit by bit, we start to realize he’s left a life behind but feels no tie to anything but his animal. He doesn’t want revenge. He wants his friend back. Amir proves to be a surprising accomplice, being Portland food royalty, with his father a food supplier (played by Adam Arkin) who’s made a fortune through his access to the finest ingredients in the world.
Pig is a striking debut for director Michael Sarnoski, who gives the movie an evocative look (with DP Patrick Scola) and feel. Again, it’s not the film you’d expect given the premise, but instead, it’s a much more realistic look at a man’s life and what would drive him to leave everything behind. Chefs have become celebrities in some ways now, but I think we often ignore the fact that, for many of them, their food is art, and like all art, it takes a toll. There’s an amazing scene about halfway through where Cage’s character encounters a former underling, who’s become a celebrity chef in his own right, and decimates the way he’s sold out his dream of owning a gastro-pub to cater to high society.
Cage hasn’t had a role like this in a long time, and I was consistently surprised at how subtle his performance is. He never once loses his temper throughout or chews the scenery. He’s matched by Wolff, who, following Hereditary, seems like a star on the rise. I was also surprised at how effective Arkin was in his small but important role, with him having been absent from films for a long time as he’s mostly been directing TV in recent years. He’s powerful and intimidating.
While Pig won’t be for all tastes if you like more cerebral Nicolas Cage, similar to his work in David Gordon Green’s Joe, Pig is a must-watch. We’ve got plenty of “fun Cage” in recent years – but this is something different. Regardless of how many movies he churns out, Cage is still a hugely powerful actor, and nowhere is that more evident than in Pig.
Space Jam: A New Legacy Review
Space Jam: A New Legacy Review
July 14, 2021 by: Matt Rooney
PLOT: After being sucked into Warner Bros.’ “Serververse”, basketball star LeBron James must team up with the Looney Tunes to stop a vengeful algorithm and get his son back.
REVIEW: In the sequel to 1996’s Space Jam — SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY — the only legacies being lived up to are the original’s shameless self-promotion and the failure to recognize the Looney Tunes shouldn’t be on screen longer than 30 minutes. Whereas the original’s clear attempts were to achieve nothing but selling merchandise linked to star Michael Jordan and theme park tickets, for the new movie starring LeBron James, studio Warner Bros. has decided to push not only merch but their entire slate of owned properties, attempting in no way to cloak its obvious belief that a movie studio is only as strong as the IP it owns and how quickly it can shovel that content down throats of all ages. Oh, and there’s some basketball and a father-son reunion story crammed in there — you know, so all that isn’t as obvious.
But make no mistake; if there is an admittedly stronger core story here than in the first movie, it was likely a conceit given to the filmmakers so as to make them feel like they had control over a movie that was otherwise entirely crafted by a boardroom of Warner Bros. executives plotting out just what among their own properties should get top billing. In fact, the level of corporate self-aggrandizing is so extreme it’s almost admirable as an art form. The ball gets bouncing within the first several minutes, when a young LeBron James (Alex Huerta), is preparing to take the court in school – but instead of getting his head in the ball game – he loses himself in the GameBoy game Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle. His very over-dramatic coach then tells him it was this misguided focus on silly games that stopped him from realizing his potential, leading James to toss away the game and choose greatness over fun.
Fast-forward 20+ years later via a montage of James’ career highlights, he’s now a stubborn, fun-hating father of two who pushes his youngest son – Dom (Cedric Joe) – into practicing ball, even though Dom would rather continuing developing his game, Doom Ball. But in attempting to mend that bond, James takes his son to the magical world of the Warner Bros. lot, littered with posters and banners for all their hit movies and shows. Once there, James is pitched an idea from execs played by Sarah Silverman and Steven Yuen (whose one-line appearance is one of this movie’s many crimes) and a new fancy algorithm who goes by Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), wherein they want to capture James’ likeness so they may place him in any of WB’s shows or movies – a program dubbed Warners 3000. In the smartest move of the movie, James says this is a terrible idea, and as a sentient being inside the digital space, Rhythm feels slighted and is filled with rage. So, he lures James and his son into a server room, where I horrifying orb that’s just sort of there absorbs them into the digital realm, wherein Rhythm tells James he will get his son back if he can beat him in basketball.
Explaining something this stupid is a Herculean effort, having to dodge around the issues that glare even for a movie like this – including how WB is itself the subtextual key villain by having created an A.I. system capable of sucking people and having access to anyone’s data no matter where they are in the first place. Inside, the “Serververse” is illustrated as a series of planets that act as homes to major studio franchises – acting as a sort of amalgam of other IP-centric blockbusters from Warner Bros., The Lego Movie, and Ready Player One. While those movies either had more fun actually poking fun at numerous franchises or acted as commentary about the place pop culture has in the world – Space Jam doesn’t bother to attempt either. Instead, it simply forces viewers to bask in the world that is everything the studio owns, throwing it all at you with such force you might as well be watching the entire Harry Potter series while trapped in a roller coaster.
Soon James arrives in a Looney Tunes area, and recruits the lone inhabitant – Bugs Bunny – to join his team. Whereas the first movie gave solid reason to make the Tunes seek out Jordan to play basketball, this time they’re included simply because Bugs was the first character James ran into, and because the bunny happens to have beef with Rhythm after he whisked the Tunes away with a promise of staying famous by becoming part of other franchises. While this may have been intended to ultimately relate to the main theme of families sticking together, what it really serves in terms of story is giving Bugs and James reason to bounce around the Serververse, looking for the Tunes across various franchises. Of course, the movie nerd in me got a kick out of being whisked away to sequences from Mad Max or The Matrix — only momentarily until I realized what I was watching wasn’t homage but rather some corporate pandering. There was no creative take or skewering of the material – or even loving homage; only Granny doing Trinity’s mid-air kick from the Matrix and Yosemite Sam acting as the Sam of “Play it again, Sam” in Casablanca.
The movie can’t even reasonably claim to be a loving ode to the studio’s legendary history. It’s all about the franchises, and the Tunes are whisked away to “lands” like Mad Max (remember, this is a kids movie), The Matrix (still a kids movie), Harry Potter, the DC universe of superheroes, and Game of Thrones (yep, still a kids movie). All of these series have either sequels, prequels, or new entries on the books to come out in the next year or so, so again, you don’t need a Masters in Marketing to know what this movie’s existence for being is. That’s true even given how the first three on that list aren’t series the young viewers this movie can only understandably entertain may have zero familiarity with. So much of this movie seems directly geared towards the parents who have some kind of nostalgia for the original movie, who then aren’t given a story or consistent sense of humor that acknowledges that they’ve grown up. Between the gags designed for only the youngest of viewers and references for only their parents, there were many times I asked myself a single question: “Who the f**k is this movie for?”
Amidst all this chaos, God-tier product placement a story that desperately wants to retread the past – including the Tunes re-learning how to play ball despite acknowledging they’ve done this before – it’s hard to acknowledge the parts that do work. Even the stuff that seems ripped straight from the pages of the Family Film Cliche Book, those moments are a welcome respite from the colorful nonsense and give the movie some heart. As well, James is a better leading man than Jordan was, having a looser vibe and better comedic timing – in spite of how having to act mostly alongside a slew of CGI characters can leave him a little stiff; Cheadle and Sonequa Martin-Green as James’ wife Kamiyah get most of the laughs by doing their best to not make this seem like a paycheck and; despite not being explored in favor of making room for gag after gag, there is an inkling of a strong story about accepting one another and one that could’ve even given the Tunes some dimension beyond their silliness. Peppered between the obvious marketing, there are these nuggets of a more thoughtful movie that in several ways stands above the original.
Even when basketball does begin, it’s an exercise in broad marketing geared towards two audiences at once. On the one hand, there’s the game that nothing but chaos, noise and CGI delirium that – despite a few classic Tunes gags warranting a chuckle – seems strictly geared towards the young crowd with flickering attention spans. Meanwhile, most of the massive crowd is made up of WB characters, most of whom only adults will recognize. Between every bit of masturbatory references and branding from the beginning that coalesces to the final showdown, even the great James and the Tunes and their stories aren’t the stars of the court; Warner Bros. is the star, and every cut to the crowd is a stark reminder. Pro tip: If you’re pointing out the hooligans from A Clockwork Orange to your young kids, you’re doing a bad job.
And yet, even among some clear improvements over the original, and a few good laughs, everything sweet and playful about this movie is bogged down by everything shamelessly pandering. Answering my question of “Who the f**k is this for?” was, in the end, made simple: It’s for everyone – but not in that idyllic way for parents and kids to enjoy on equal footing. It’s for parents, in that it spoon-feeds nostalgia and beloved content that distracts from the realities of modern life and; it’s for kids, not just because it’s goofy and fast-paced, but because little fans become big fans. Young ones may not watch The Matrix now, but soon they will, and when they do they’ll attribute their earliest memories of it to that one movie where LeBron James dunked on a CGI Don Cheadle – a movie they will look forward to showing their kids, and so keeping the wheel churning.
Gunpowder Milkshake Review
Gunpowder Milkshake Review
July 13, 2021 by: Matt Rooney
PLOT: A botched job leaves an assassin running across town as she commits to saving a young girl, having to team up with other veteran assassins to fight off an army of thugs.
REVIEW: The execution of Assassin Movie World-Building 101 and abundance of colorful style over substance makes the first 45 minutes or so of GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE – all at once – derivative, exhausting, awkward, even downright annoying. But with the pull of a trigger, the gears are instantly switched and it becomes the rip-roaring, viciously clever time it was trying and failing to be in the first half, utilizing a multitude of ingenious action set pieces that lets its starring ensemble shine as they build into a glorious sisterhood amidst a flurry of bullets, beat downs, and brutal stabs.
As much as I ended up liking the movie from director Navot Papushado (Rabies; co-written here with Ehud Lavski) – and may even be down for a sequel – the movie’s finish is far, far stronger than its start. Yet another action movie cloaked in a neon glow, we’re introduced to Sam (Karen Gillan), an assassin left stoic and seemingly unfeeling after being left alone by her assassin mother, Scarlet (Lena Headey), and who has a taste for milkshakes and trying to look cool in a long black coat and matching big, face-covering hat. Working for the ingeniously named The Firm, she botches a job which means she has to take on another job to make up for it, and through a series of hiccups leads her to Emily, a young girl caught up in all this mess. Dealing with her own childhood issues, she commits to helping Emily (Chloe Coleman) to safety by whatever violent means necessary.
Across all this exposition and world-building, Milkshake plays like a John Wick-lite that’s trying to borrow the flourishes of Quentin Tarantino and the blending of humor and style of Edgar Wright – and failing at most of it. In-movie networks like the aforementioned The Firm and The Library – an assassin safe haven of sorts run by The Librarians (Michelle Yeoh, Carla Gugino, and Angela Bassett) where the books are code names for various weapons – exist without any in-depth lore to go with them, feeling tacked-on in an attempt to set itself apart without any extra detail but in to make any of it worth being interested in.
So much of the movie’s early moments rely on simply looking and sounding cool, it plays like it was written by someone who has always wanted to make a hard-R action movie but didn’t know how to make it sound like their own. Cliche-ridden back and forths filled with pithy one-liners results in exchanges that try to sound cool but come off stiff and uninspired, with very little working in the way of character beyond how blunt or how quirky they are. And even when there is energy to camera movements and shot construction, others, like the introduction of the Librarians, feels awkward as if people simply talking was of little interest even to the filmmaker. By trying to be so slick and cool and weird and funny but with little being properly engaging, Milkshake initially plays like a bombardment of tones and influences that’s damn-near draining and – especially when it comes the weirder sequences, like those featuring a specific trio of goons – deeply obnoxious.
Unfortunately, despite the impressive cast, Gillain is stuck doing the heavy-lifting for most of the runtime. An incredibly talented and versatile actress, she’s showed off her range across a variety of projects, such as the drama The Party’s Just Beginning (which she also wrote and directed) and even the Jumanji movies, which make great use of her comedic timing and action skills. Here, the material doesn’t make use of much of that beyond her athleticism. The script calls for Sam to be ice cold with the ability to send out a few one-liners, but there’s little else that allows Gillan to mine any depth from her. There’s a lot about her personality and style that hints she shouldn’t also be so stiff, and even though the story eventually pairs her with the rest of the cast (including the young and talented Coleman) allowing her to loosen up a bit, I was left feeling like Gillan was more than capable of handling more than what she was given to work with. But she is a natural action star when the fists need to fly, so hopefully, this is one of the first of many leading action roles for her.
But what I’ve been criticizing are the bones of the movie, which are undoubtedly rickety. But, in acting as a sort of reset between the scenes of people talking that don’t often work, are the glorious action scenes. Glorious, absurd, bone-cracking action scenes. From the first fight in a bowling alley to the bonkers finale, there’s not a single action sequence that doesn’t whip an insane amount of ass. Whatever style and inventiveness are lacking in dialogue and plot is made up for in rousing, clever, bloody combat that’s always managing to surprise. It’s in these moments where Papushado is making the movie he wants to, and on that front, he clearly shows off a knack for envisioning unique carnage. The sequences manage to be slick and even funny when little else in the world itself is, and by making Gillan’s Sam a skilled assassin who can still get kicked around, the ways the scenes are constructed to get Sam out on top are brutally fun from start to finish.
Papushado’s clear vision for the movie manages to really start coming through when Headey gets back in the mix. Even if the mother-daughter stuff fails to see past the “I had to do this for you’re own good” approach, there’s a lot in their dynamic that adds a layer of love and sweetness where so much was emotionally tepid before. From here on out, the movie moves at a break-neck pace, and the humor manages to land, the characters begin to interact in ways that begin to feel meaningful and the ensemble proves strongest when together. While they aren’t explored as well as Headey’s Scarlet is, Yeoh, Bassett, Gugino as Florence, Anna May, and Mathilde do great jobs making their characters feel distinct – and when they get a chance to let loose – their fighting style unique kinetic. As the team assembles against a series of imposing men, their bond becomes something I would very much like to see continue into the future.
Luckily, these stronger elements make up more than the final half of the film, making up for much of what the first chunk does wrong. Papushado wanted to make the movie that the final hour lived up to, and in that realm, he made one of the coolest, most cheer-worthy action flicks you’re likely to see all year. It’s wild, awesome, funny, and makes great use of the cast when it gets going, finishing off with a rousing triumph of sisterhood. It’s very rare I see movies that come back this strong from such an iffy start, but like each and every hit from any one of the leading action stars, Gunpowder Milkshake ends up leaving its mark in a manner that will be tough to shake off for some time.
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain Review
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain Review
July 13, 2021 by: Chris Bumbray
PLOT: The life and times of Anthony Bourdain, from his humble origins in the kitchen, to his breakout as an author to his eventual worldwide fame as the host of Parts Unknown.
REVIEW: Not many people seem to know this, but before Anthony Bourdain ever became the bad boy chef Kitchen Confidential made famous, he’d already written two books. They were both kitchen-set mysteries that didn’t sell particularly well, but the fact that he wrote them at all perhaps makes his explosion in the wake of Kitchen Confidential easier to explain. After all, here was a tried-and-true storyteller, and his talent, mixed with his devilish good looks and tremendous charisma, made him a unique household name. It was always comforting to feel like no matter what happened, Bourdain was out there in the world, doing his thing and living well.
The truth proves to be more complicated in director Morgan Neville’s biographical documentary, Roadrunner. A Film About Anthony Bourdain. A warts-and-all portrait, which I assume Bourdain himself would demand, the film does a good job showing what made him such an inspiring figure for people while never shying away from his limitations.
Given that Bourdain spent the last twenty years on TV, there’s a whole wealth of footage for Neville to comb through, some of it uncomfortably candid. Bourdain seemed keen to document everything, and his voice guides us through the highs and lows of the last two decades. If the movie has any faults, Bourdain’s early years are left a bit of a mystery, with his first wife (of twenty years) refusing to take part. However, his second wife, Ottavia Busia, had a daughter, and virtually all of his friends and colleagues took part. You can tell they all loved him, even if they’ll admit that at times, he could be an “asshole.”
One of the key aspects of the film is Bourdain’s addictions, which they make the case never left him. He got off drugs very early on and never seemed to relapse, but he seemed to replace them with people to some extent, with his real addiction being to love. Busia’s around to tell their whirlwind love story, during which Bourdain, at last, seemed mostly happy, only for it to fall apart.
Much will no doubt be made of the film’s treatment of Asia Argento. A key figure in his later years, she isn’t interviewed, but she’s in the film a lot thanks to the footage they use, and the case is made that Bourdain, in many ways, seemed addicted to her. They go into some pretty meaty territory, not always flattering to Bourdain, with it noted that he fired long-time, loyal crew because they didn’t get along with Argento, who, in a telling outtake, interrupts a harrowing on-camera story to reset a shot, much to the interviewee’s disdain. They also get into Bourdain’s whole-hearted support of #MeToo, even if many of his colleagues suggest his understanding of the phenomenon lacked any nuance whatsoever, with him too quick to throw certain old friends under the bus.
It all adds up to an utterly absorbing doc, and even if I have fewer allusions about Bourdain’s perceived perfection now, I feel as though I know and relate to him a little better than before. And if a documentary call tell you some uncomfortable truths while still making you love its subject, well, in my option, that’s a job well done.
Wellington Paranormal TV Review
July 13, 2021 by: Alex Maidy
PLOT: Sergeant Maaka and Officers Minogue and O'Leary are members of the Wellington, New Zealand, police. Their job is to investigate paranormal phenomena.
REVIEW: Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement's What We Do In The Shadows was a cult classic when it hit the big screen in 2014. When the FX spin-off premiered in 2019, I was hesitant that it could live up to the hilarious quality of the feature film. Two seasons in, the small screen version is every bit as hilarious thanks to the ensemble cast as well as the involvement from Waititi and Clement. Three years after originally premiering in New Zealand, the first Shadows spin-off, Wellington Paranormal, is finally hitting North American airwaves. While not as good as the film or FX series, Wellington Paranormal is a fun little distraction that works because of the deadpan delivery from the leads.
Wellington Paranormal follows Officer Kyle Minogue (Mike Minogue) and Officer O'Leary (Karen O'Leary), two minor characters from What We Do In The Shadows. Told in a mockumentary format that looks like the familiar COPS format, Minogue and O'Leary are drafted by Sergeant Maaka (Maaka Pohatu) to join the secret paranormal division of the Wellington Police Department. Consisting of the three of them, they investigate different supernatural occurrences each episode, with the first two centered on a demonic possession and crop circles.
With their lilting accents and serious delivery, the cast of Wellington Paranormal take the insane events in stride as if they are not completely bizarre. Much like O'Leary and Minogue's brief appearance in the feature film, their involvement with these supernatural events is handled with the same wit and humor that Waititi and Clement brought to the movie. Jemaine Clement directed the first two episodes of the season and co-wrote the premiere, which adds a consistent sense of humor to the production. What is noticeably absent as you watch this show is the production quality that a big-screen offering or even the FX series is able to achieve.
Made on what appears to be a limited budget, Wellington Paranormal is hampered in delivering special effects on par with even the average network production. Because it is filmed on video and looks like found footage, the crew put together a solid effort with what they have available. A hellfire fountain, a talking dog, and Exorcist-like vomit all look about equal to a decent YouTube video rather than what you would think a financed television series would command. But, this is not a show that is reliant on convincing CGI to be funny. Yes, the make-up effects are decent, but this series is never trying to be more than a funny show with some monsters and aliens thrown in for effect.
With the first two seasons completely aired and the third having just premiered, it remains to be seen how much of this series will air in North America in 2021. Each of the first seasons only consists of 6 episodes each with the third set to conclude airing in the coming month. There are also several shorts and COVID-themed public service announcements that are worth checking out. I was surprised to see this series airing on The CW as it is a very regionally-specific comedy and not the type of programming often found on the teen-skewing mini-network. Still, I am glad this show is getting some exposure that it may not have otherwise gotten.
While it may share a visual style with COPS and popular spoof Reno 911!, the comedy in Wellington Paranormal is very much in line with What We Do In The Shadows. This is a very funny little show and not one that you should expect to be more than a fun watch. Enough happens in each self-contained episode that you can enjoy the dry humor and bizarre stories. I routinely laughed throughout each episode and that is far more than most sitcoms get out of me. Wellington Paranormal is a very funny and well-written series that never relies on aping What We Do In The Shadows while still expanding the fictional universe of that shoiw.
Wellington Paranormal airs Sundays on The CW.
Fear Street Part Two: 1978 Review
Fear Street Part Two: 1978 Review
July 9, 2021 by: JimmyO
PLOT: In part two of the Fear Street Trilogy, we find out what happened in 1978 when the witch’s curse took hold of Camp Nightwing – where members of Shadyside and Sunnyside must work together to survive.
REVIEW: The second chapter in a trilogy can be the most problematic. While the first film sets everything up and the third finishes it all off, finding the balance of creating a middle section is a task in itself. Fear Street Part Two: 1978 manages to continue the story that began in 1994 – and will ultimately end in 1666 and beyond – and make a fun and compelling feature film that can stand on its own. Much like what they did with the music and the tone in the first film, the second feature has a little fun with the slasher films many of us grew up on, most notably Friday the 13th, and perhaps a little Halloween for good measure – notably the year this takes place. Much like Fear Street Part One, the latest is a fun, freaky, spooky, and atmospheric joy of a flick. If you dug the last one, 1978’s adoration for the ’70s and 80’s horror classics hits all the right notes for a satisfying genre treat.
After a quick reveal of what happened in part one, we meet the gang at Camp Nightwing, which includes citizens of both Shadyside and Sunnyside. For Ziggy Berman (Sadie Sink), going to camp hasn’t brought great childhood memories. Her rebellious antics have made the local bullies of Sunnyside quite angry. She also has a problematic relationship with her older, more responsible sister, Cindy (Emily Rudd). After the camp nurse (Jordana Spiro) has a moment of insanity and attempts to kill Cindy’s boyfriend Tommy (McCabe Slye), things start to get even more horrific. It appears the local legend about a witch may be coming true, which leads Cindy and her one-time friend Alice (Ryan Simpkins) – as well as Tommy, along with Alice’s boyfriend Arnie (Sam Brooks) – to investigate the legendary curse. Once they get too close, one member of Shadyside will be wielding an ax and brutally murdering campers. Can Cindy, her sister, and Alice stop the witches’ curse from turning Camp Nightwing into a bloodbath? This Friday, you can tune in to find out.
One of the charms of the Fear Street Trilogy is the unabashed love and understanding of the slasher film that director Leigh Janiak has. Considering both Part One and Part Two are damn near a two-hour run-time – which can be too long by some slasher purists – the pacing and the way the action keeps things moving is impressive. And much like your classic killer in the woods features, this latest chapter in the Fear Street world brings on the horror references and catchy tunes in an inventive and fearless way. And much like the first film, Fear Street Part Two is an R-rated feature through and through. There is violence and gore (some of which involve young campers), tons of language, and a surprising amount of nudity. This throwback to classic slashers does a far better job than the recent season of American Horror Story: 1984 that attempted to skewer a similar theme – while I personally enjoyed that last season of AHS, this is better.
Another one of Fear Street Part Two strengths is the cast. Both Sadie Sink and Emily Rudd stand out as sisters who struggle to understand each other. The two present two interesting characters, both are faced with grave horrors, and frankly, it’s easy to root for each of them. McCabe Slye has a unique task in the film, and he handles all of it perfectly. The actor gives a terrific performance that is equal parts sympathetic and menacing. And yes, the survivors from the first film are here as well to open things up, and perhaps more. There is an energy here with the casting and the kinds of characters that are collected on-screen. While there is a clear Friday the 13th inspiration, you could even say that this second film brings a bit of Sleepaway Camp to the table by casting a few younger-looking actors to make their ages more believable.
This script by Leigh Janiak and Zak Olkewicz manages to bring what we saw before and the new characters together in an inventive way. One that I feel will be most challenging with the arrival of the third and final film in the trilogy, 1666. Yet, here it works shockingly well. By bringing together what we learned about the curse and filling in some blanks, the continuation manages to expand this legend in a satisfyingly fun, engaging, and ferociously entertaining manner. Much like the classics that it is so inspired by, the new film takes time to set up the players before things go nuts – but that pace works in favor of the film. If you don’t give a crap about the many campers and counselors about to face bloody terror, it wouldn’t be nearly as exciting. Thankfully, Janiak truly understands this and has brought us one of Netflix’s best genre entries.
If you dug Fear Street Part One: 1994, you’ll no doubt embrace the latest. The cast is game for some bloody good fun. The script fully embraces the joy of the slasher film – one that many fans take very seriously – and the direction and music make for a celebratory take on this familiar tale. Perhaps this is not exactly what you’d expect from an R.L. Stine adaptation – considering the nudity, gore, adult themes, and violence – but that can be a good thing. Fear Street continues to bring a ton of energy and charm, and this middle chapter is maybe even an improvement over the last – which I enjoyed as well. It’s fantastic to see a movie like this fully embrace the slasher mentality, yet without feeling exploitive or overly meta. One that unabashedly celebrates why these movies have remained popular and probably always will be. Fear Street Part Two: 1978 is available now on Netflix, and it’s more than worth a visit or more.
Dr. Death TV Review
July 9, 2021 by: Alex Maidy
PLOT: Inspired by the terrifying true story of Dr. Christopher Duntsch, a rising star in the Dallas medical community. Young, charismatic and ostensibly brilliant, Dr. Duntsch was building a flourishing neurosurgery practice when everything suddenly changed. Patients entered his operating room for complex but routine spinal surgeries and left permanently maimed or dead. As victims piled up, two fellow physicians, neurosurgeon Robert Henderson and vascular surgeon Randall Kirby, as well as Dallas prosecutor Michelle Shughart, set out to stop him.
REVIEW: Podcasts have become incredibly popular in recent years and as such represent a new medium for Hollywood to adapt. With so many podcasts focused on true crime stories, studios have been chomping at the bit to tell some of the more outlandish and horrifying tales in dramatic fashion. The latest series is Dr. Death starring Joshua Jackson as Christopher Duntsch, a neurosurgeon convicted of some truly heinous surgical horrors. With a cast that also includes Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, and many more, Dr. Death is a portrait of a man of healing who was truly a psychopath.
Dr. Death jumps around in time through the 2010s as doctors Robert Henderson (Alec Baldwin) and Randall Kirby (Christian Slater) become aware of a series of botched surgeries performed by Christopher Duntsch. Collaborating on their investigation, the pair begin to suspect that Duntsch is either grossly incompetent or intentionally injuring his patients. The series follows their discoveries as well as the perspective of Duntsch as the events unfold and flashbacks showing a glimpse into his skewed psychological state. It is a somewhat melodramatic series that owes more than a little to Baldwin's own medical thriller Malice. Seeing Baldwin on the other side of the God complex is interesting as Joshua Jackson is quite striking as the titular doctor.
Joshua Jackson has been playing self-confident, smarmy characters for decades on series like Dawson's Creek, The Affair, and Fringe, but in Dr. Death, he gets to play with a lot more pathos than in any of those other tales. Balancing that thin line between portraying Dunsch as sympathetic versus a monster, every scene led me to question whether this man was aware of his actions or not. It is quite stunning to see Jackson shift from inebriated to cocksure to smugly superior, often in the same scene. To say that he holds his own opposite Baldwin and Slater as well as supporting performances by Kelsey Grammer, AnnaSophia Robb, and Grace Gummer is quite something.
Baldwin here delivers quite an understated performance alongside the more animated Christian Slater. The pair play reluctant partners who tackle their quest to take down Duntsch from very different vantages. Baldwin remains a commanding on-screen presence and Slater once again proves he is criminally underused and deserves many more roles like this. Over the 8 episodes that comprise this series, Baldwin, Slater, and Jackson share a limited amount of screen time that eventually leads to the scenes they do share being worth the wait. The biggest issue I found is that it takes so long to get there and there are only so many times we can see Duntsch making the same mistakes before it begins to feel redundant.
Created by Patrick McManus (Homecoming season 2, Happy) and directed by Jennifer Morrison (Once Upon A Time), Maggie Kiley (Dirty John), and So Yong Kim, Dr. Death is visually dark and muted, giving every scene a shadowy and sinister quality. The large on-screen title cards stating the year and setting are one of the more intriguing elements as they appear to be physically in the scene and are one of the few elements that pulled me out of the story itself. One episode, in particular, used music and on-screen subtitles for no apparent reason and serves as another example of a creative decision that feels out of place compared to the rest of the story.
The story at the core of Dr. Death is disturbing, to say the least. As much as Duntsch's actions were horrifying and disturbing, this series paints the shortcomings of both the medical and legal professions that would allow such actions to go on unchecked. This series doesn't do much to shed light on the story that was expertly told in podcast form but does allow the talented cast to shine. The series feels a couple of episodes too long and begins to feel a bit repetitive despite the non-linear format trying to keep things moving. With an ending that anyone could easily Google, Dr. Death still manages to keep you engaged to find out if Duntsch gets what is coming to him.
Dr. Death premieres July 15th on Peacock.
Fear Street Part 1: 1994 Review
Fear Street Part 1: 1994 Review
July 2, 2021 by: Chris Bumbray
PLOT: The teens of Shadyside, Ohio, try to defeat a deadly curse, which, for centuries, has led to a brutal series of murders that crop up with alarming regularity.
REVIEW: True story: R.L. Stine books were banned in my elementary school. Now, this was before Stine re-invented himself with the gentler Goosebumps franchise. At the time, he was known for Fear Street, which was defiantly young adult. When our monthly Scholastic flyers would come around, all of the kids would order the newest installment of the series to stick it to the teachers, so I grew up reading these books.
No doubt nostalgia will play a huge role in Fear Street’s success on Netflix, with them ambitiously releasing an entire trilogy of films the summer. They were initially produced by 20th Century Studios but sold to the streamer in a rich deal, and I have to say – well done, Netflix. This thing is going to be huge.
The first installment, FEAR STREET PART 1: 1994, is an effective homage to nineties slasher movies, particularly Scream. The opening teaser, with Maya Hawke, has a lot of callbacks to that famous Wes Craven film, and surprisingly Netflix opted to go ahead and make these hard-R despite the tween-friendly cast.
Even still, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Fear Street film series, like the books, is made with teen audiences in mind. The gore is plentiful but not too hardcore, while the F-bombs are no worse than they may see in edgy streaming shows. Kiana Madeira is our lead, Deena, a heartbroken Shadyside teen whose girlfriend, Samantha (Olivia Welch), has left her to go live with her mom in the wealthier next town, Sunnyside. She’s also pretending to be straight with a local jock, who’s a Grade-A asshole.
When Deena and her friends, including Julia Rehwald as Kate – the school pill pusher, Fred Hechinger’s Simon, the comic relief, and her awesome gamer brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) cause a car accident, the result is that Samantha is now the victim of an ancient witches curse. The bodies start piling up, and Deena dives into a mystery that I’m confident will take three films to solve (although each movie seems to have different leads).
It’s an ambitious trilogy, and I appreciate the callbacks to 1994, even if they’re piled on a little thick. The soundtrack is filled with wall-to-wall needle drops, making me think Netflix has unlimited money for soundtrack rights, but it can’t be denied that this is a fun little movie. Leigh Janiak, who directed the well-received Honeymoon, helmed all three movies, and she knows to keep the action going fast. The look of the film is slick, especially in 4K, and even if they were made for a theatrical audience in mind, Netflix feels like an ideal home for them. After all, two Strangers Things stars, Maya Hawke and Sadie Sink play massive roles in the trilogy, so the synergy is there. Kiana Madeira and Olivia Welch are likable as our young teen heroes, although the show is totally stolen by Your Honor’s Flores as Deena’s White Zombie/Iron Maiden obsessed gamer brother. I was this kid in 94!
While hardcore horror fans will likely just consider this a fun, light genre flick, keep in mind that this is made for a younger audience. Taken in that vein, Fear Street Part 1: 1994 is pretty solid and a lot harsher than it would likely be had it gone theatrical (it would have certainly been cut down to a PG-13). It’s a promising start to a trilogy a ton of teens are going to watch over and over this summer.
The Boss Baby: Family Business Review
The Boss Baby: Family Business Review
July 2, 2021 by: JimmyO
PLOT: Tim and Theodore Templeton are all grown up, and they soon realize they must work together when they suspect something might be strange about Tim’s daughter’s prestigious school.
REVIEW: As I walked into the theatre to witness the latest from Dreamworks Animation, the sequel to The Boss Baby, my expectations weren’t high. The original film featuring Alec Baldwin as a genius baby was unremarkable, dull, and wasted too much time on lame potty humor. Thus, the thought of a sequel did not excite me in the slightest. That said, if you’re reviewing a film, you should try your best to be unbiased and not bring in any previous baggage. Even with that attitude, I wasn’t thrilled about sitting down with THE BOSS BABY: FAMILY BUSINESS. Yet sometimes life surprises you, and you do get a box of chocolates instead of a smelly diaper. In other words, the sequel offers an improvement over the stale original. What makes it better? Well, read on and find out.
Theodore Templeton (Alec Baldwin) is all grown up and has become a very successful businessman. Meanwhile, his brother Tim (James Marsden) is a stay-at-home dad. He delights in creating magical moments with his daughters, Tabitha (Ariana Greenblatt) and Tina (Amy Sedaris), while his wife Carol (Eva Longoria) works. However, Tim notices something strange about Tabitha as she appears to be losing interest in father/daughter time. Could it be the typical teen rebellion? Or is something going on at her exclusive school where she excels at everything but her music class? Since this is an adventure, and Jeff Goldblum is in attendance as the head of Tabitha’s school, it’s a safe bet that there’s something unusual going on. Thankfully, Tina takes after her Uncle Theo, and she is part of Baby Corp as well – you know, that group of super-smart babies that Theo was involved with. Will they figure out what’s happening and still make time for a sweet musical number and a lesson learned? I’m sure you can figure that out.
Alec Baldwin as an animated baby is a funny idea. And for a moment or two in the first film, there was a laugh to be found. Yet much of the material fell flat and didn’t inspire much more than a yawn. Mr. Baldwin’s character has grown up for this one. Yet through the magic of fantastical science, he does return to baby form for a bit, as does his brother Tim. Why? Well, in hopes to find out what secret goings-on are happening at Tabitha’s school, the two must work together and go undercover. And thanks to the newest member of Baby Corp., they’re able to transform into their younger selves for a brief period. Once they do, they must find a way to work together, even though neither brother has any idea of the real danger they are about to face. And frankly, when you have a villainous character like the one Jeff Goldblum plays, you know it’s going to be extra demented.
As good as Mr. Baldwin is, the sequel is better thanks to the strong acting chops of both James Marsden and Amy Sedaris. Marsden adds a sweet and sincere nature to Tim. As happy as his family makes him, it’s clear that he deeply misses the relationship he shared with Theodore. The actor brings the character to life effortlessly, and that only helps to connect with the audience. It also makes his relationship with Tabitha all the more charming. And then there is Amy Sedaris, who is exceptionally funny as Tina. The actress is a marvel in roles like this. She brings humor and smarts to the brilliant baby she portrays. Both of these incredible talents help give this sequel life. I also have to offer praise to young Ms. Greenblatt. The actress was exceptional in the recent creature feature with a heart, Love and Monsters, and she is equally good here.
Once again, directed by Tom McGrath, the script for Family Business is an improvement from the first film. Written by Michael McCullers, this story offers up a few ideas that seem perfect for family fare. While much of this does work, it occasionally feels convoluted. All too often it offers too many well-meaning ideas running around that it tends to lessen the enjoyment. Is it a statement on the overuse of technology? Is it simply a case of don’t take your family and loved ones for granted? Or is it that we should just listen to our parents no matter what? As well-meaning as this generally charming film can be, it feels like it’s trying way too hard to feel relevant in today’s world. With that said, the idea that family is important never really gets old. By the time the final act arrives, it’s easy to feel a tinge of aw-shucks as the proper lessons are learned.
The Boss Baby: Family Business is better than the first film in nearly every way. With the smart casting of both James Marsden and Amy Sedaris, the humor and heart are far more satisfying this time around. Sure the message (or messages) are a tad heavy-handed, but there is enough here to make for a sweetly, satisfying family film. And come on, Jeff Goldblum is always marvelous, especially when he gets to play with a character as oddly charismatic as this. If you appreciated the original, you’re more than likely going to enjoy the follow-up. It’s a sweet animated family film that manages to occasionally bring a smile to your face, and I have a feeling the young ones are going to have a good time with this one. It may not be Dreamworks Animation’s finest, but after the mediocre original, this sequel is more than just a baby step in the right direction.
The Tomorrow War Review
The Tomorrow War Review
July 1, 2021 by: Matt Rooney
NOTE: Some SPOILERS for the first act are included mostly relating to character relationships.
PLOT: Soldiers from 30 years in the future arrive to bring back present-day humans to fight a war between humanity and an alien race.
REVIEW: The new sci-fi-action flick THE TOMORROW WAR feels like the kind of summer blockbuster Hollywood doesn’t go in for anymore, fearing the lack of superheroes and established IP would drive audiences away. An original concept that I can assume had an Avengers-level budget, the thrills and hallmarks of this throwback are refreshingly old-school, defined by soldiers firing infinite bullets at alien threats before spouting emotionally charged one-liners and ultimately diving from a massive explosion at the last second. With movies like that you aren’t always lucky enough to get even a solid story to match, but thanks to a story that does actually manage to provide at least a little depth between the chaos you may find yourself, like me, reaching the end of The Tomorrow War surprised by how good of a time you had.
Written by Zach Dean and directed by Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie), the movie centers on former solider-turned biology teacher Dan Forester (Chris Pratt), who despite having a solid job, a loving family, and wife played by Betty Gilpin, feels like he’s destined for more in life. That sort of pre-mid-life crisis is upended when soldiers from the future arrive via a wormhole – not in a way dissimilar to The Terminator if they got to keep all their clothes – and inform present-day folks that humanity is losing a war to a race of aliens in the year 2051. They then need as many able-bodied citizens as possible to come to the future and fight, enlisting anyone they can regardless of combat experience and sending them into the future, and while they only have to serve seven days before being transported back to the present, most who go — usually aged between 30-60 — end up becoming alien food.
While other sci-fi-action movies with time travel tend to get wrapped up in the mechanics and physics of it all, the filmmakers don’t really spend a lot of time caring about what questions you may have about people bouncing back and forth between timelines – and really, it doesn’t matter. The bulk of the concept starts and stops with people going to the future, fighting aliens, and maybe surviving long enough to come back. Because technological innovation likely stopped as soon as the fighting started – with the exception of, ya know, time travel – there’s not much exposition and logical explaining needed to sell everything, so when Dan and a crew of mostly inexperienced soldiers get rocketing into the future, it’s easy to just buy into everything and embrace the human v. alien carnage.
In that regard, your enjoyment will stem from just how much you enjoy 90s-era, guns-blasting action. A short amount of suspense around what the aliens look like and what they’re capable of leads to constant run-and-gun spectacle, and while the big budget could’ve easily made everything look over-produced and riddled with half-baked visuals, the action is grounded enough to be immersive and properly explosive. Loud and kinetic as impressively gnarly beasties chase down our heroes, a welcome amount of humor (mostly thanks to the always welcome Sam Richardson) also ensure nothing ever feels too taken seriously when it gets going, with characters diving from an explosion or two proving some things never go out of style.
When things aren’t going boom there needs to be a story, and while the sheer hopelessness humanity seems to have accepted means there’s not much of a goal the main characters are working towards beyond surviving their next encounter, writer Zach Dean found room to make the story work for Pratt’s Forester. Eventually teaming up with an older version of his daughter (Yvonne Strahovski), Forester learns about events that tore his family apart in this timeline – and coming from his own broken home and being estranged from his father (J.K. Simmons) – there’s enough material there to give Forester a chance to reconnect with his daughter, using a glimpse at this future to hopefully improve his present. It’s not the most emotionally complex material out there, nor does it give Pratt a ton of room as an actor to branch out from his everyman-action hero persona, but it gives the movie heart where there could simply be bullets and alien blood. This therapy session built within an action movie may not always be enough to satisfy some viewers between the action and across the 138-minute runtime, but by the end, the greater emotional arc reached a conclusion that was earned and a worthwhile throughline connecting the movie between hops around the globe and through time.
Together, it all works pretty well, and a lot of that is thanks to McKay behind the camera. While his last movie was the animated marvel The Lego Batman Movie, there are enough similarities between the two to show that McKay has a knack for engrossing action, injecting comedy into that action, and letting the sweetness of the story (in both movie’s cases, involving troubled father figures) shine through it all. He also knows how to get the most out of supporting performances, so while Pratt continues to prove himself a reliable leading man, actors like Gilpin, Simmons, and Richardson have their little moments to leave their mark or steal the show.
Paramount sold The Tomorrow War to Amazon for the astounding sum of $200 million, which means audiences will have to settle for watching at home as I did – which is a shame because it’s the kind of movie that’s made to be seen on the big screen. Not being to hear the audience’s reaction to Richardson getting the best kill of the movie is a genuine bummer, and the fact big emotions and big action sequences define the tone, it feels like something will be lost in the experience of only ever getting to watch it from your couch. And yet, I still ended up liking The Tomorrow War more than I expected to, and while the story and emotional beats aren’t always strong enough to match the action, there’s enough here to make the movie feel like a strong blend of action movies both past and present.
The Forever Purge Review
The Forever Purge Review
June 30, 2021 by: JimmyO
PLOT: After a large group of citizens decides that one night of The Purge is not enough, a small band of survivors must try to escape the mayhem and murder spreading across the country.
REVIEW: For all of the horrors that Blumhouse has unleashed, The Purge franchise has always been an intriguing one. The series has explored several hot-button topics, and its presented a few ideas of just how desperate and angry we can be towards our fellow men. Add to that brutal murders, pitch-black satire, disturbing images, and you’ve got yourself The Purge. And now, it’s not just a one-time event. Nope. Now we have THE FOREVER PURGE. And speaking of controversial subject matters, this latest chapter fully could have been taken as a nightmarish vision of the current state of affairs. Is the latest in the franchise one of the better films in the series? Or is this Everardo Gout directed take one of the lesser entries?
After fleeing Mexico, husband and wife Adela (Ana de la Reguera) and Juan (Tenoch Huerta) find employment on the ranch of a wealthy family who offers them work. Will Patton is the gentle and kind head of the household, and Josh Lucas plays his troubled son, someone who has serious resentment towards Juan and Adela. Yet, soon, they realize that they will need to work together after things get out of control. After surviving the scheduled Purge, Adela, Juan, and the rest discover that a few folks don’t think the night should end. All of this leads to an all-out explosion of violence and mayhem, one that explores in a not-so-subtle way how we view others in divisive times.
The Purge movies have always done something right as the casting is usually solid, with interesting choices for leading roles. I mean, they brought in Frank Grillo for a couple of flicks, and you can’t do much better than that. This time around, the impressive list of actors includes the previously mentioned, Reguera, Paxton, Huerta, and Lucas, with all four creating surprisingly sympathetic characters. The cast list also includes Cassidy Freeman, Leven Rambin, Alejandro Edda, Sammi Rotibi, and Joshua Dov – who gives an especially sinister performance. If you buy into the story, it’s a hell of a lot easier to sympathize with the family’s plight and the horrors surrounding them.
As far as the script by James DeMonaco is concerned, there is clear relevance to current news. While this isn’t shocking as we’ve seen this franchise tackle controversial subject matters before, this one feels a bit more weighty than those that came before. And yes, by setting it all in a violent horror flick, there is an almost jackhammer sense of subtlety about it. That’s not to say that it’s a bad film. Not at all. However, it is very likely to stir a few emotions from many viewers no matter what view they have on what’s happening in the world currently. And while the kills seem to be less graphic this time around, several moments of on-screen terror will give you the chills simply due to how grounded and occasionally realistic the brutality appears.
Everardo Gout – along with DP Luis David Sansans – creates an interesting-looking feature. And the director certainly shows a bit of skill when bringing a little tension into the mix. However, in a couple of sequences, the action is a bit messy as you try and figure out who is attacking whom. Yet, at the same time, the nature of these intense scenes called for a little bit of confusion, and it occasionally worked in the film’s favor. Another aspect of the film that works better than you might expect is the use of jump scares. Some of them are incredibly effective, but occasionally they feel forced and unnecessary. Either way, the filmmaker does manage to effectively place the viewer in the middle of this scary and unsettling world, even if it’s not always a place you’d want to be.
The Forever Purge perhaps achieves what Blumhouse wants, and that is to find a way to keep the franchise moving forward. The new feature falls right in line with previous installments, especially how it has gone recently with Anarchy, Election Year, and The First Purge. The new film is effectively disturbing at times, and much of that is simply because the main characters are all well cast and mostly sympathetic. While the stand-out performances are from Reguera and Huerta, Josh Lucas is terrific as a man conflicted by his personal beliefs. The Forever Purge is a mostly well-crafted sequel, one that fits well within what the franchise has become – for better or worse. If you appreciate the current direction, you’re more than likely to dig the mayhem on display.
Black Widow Review
Black Widow Review
June 29, 2021 by: Chris Bumbray
PLOT: On the run following the events of Captain America: Civil War, Natasha Romanova (Scarlett Johansson) is forced to reckon with her past when her estranged sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), comes back into her life demanding they take down The Red Room – the program that trained them to be assassins.
REVIEW: Can you believe that it’s been two full years since the last Marvel movie hit theaters? We’ve all come to expect at least one Marvel flick every six months or so, and perhaps it takes absence to remind you how reliable the series really is, as when I saw the familiar MCU logo play at the beginning of BLACK WIDOW, I couldn’t help but crack a big smile. Sure, we’ve had the Disney Plus shows, but a Marvel movie is something else entirely.
Of course, Black Widow was supposed to hit theatres over a year ago, but I digress. This movie is the long-awaited solo spinoff for Johansson’s iconic character, making its simultaneous debut in theatres and on Disney Premier Access. Given her fate in Avengers: Endgame, this is a prequel, but it perfectly compliments her final appearance as here we see the character come full circle. The other movies always hinted at the “red in her ledger,” but now we get to see exactly what that was, and it gives her a lot of depth, making her sacrifice in Endgame all the more affecting.
Johansson sinks her teeth into the part, but what’s refreshing is that she never plays the character for pathos. Instead, she and director Cate Shortland go for a lighter touch. There are heavy moments, notably a strong opening credits montage showing her indoctrination, but the movie is still a blast. Johansson seems to relish the part, and her chemistry with Florence Pugh is on point. Meant to be a major new character in the MCU, Pugh’s Yelena is much more than just another Black Widow. She’s given her own more cynical edge, and what’s surprising is how funny Pugh is in the part, cracking wise and teasing Natasha for her sexy superhero poses (which she can’t help but try herself in the climax). She’s got a bright future in the MCU, and there’s no way anyone walks out of this not wanting a lot more from her.
That said, the movie is almost stolen by David Harbour. He turns out to be one of Marvel’s best casting choices since the original Avengers team as Russia’s answer to Captain America, Red Guardian. Largely played for laughs, Harbour also gives the character some much-needed depth. Having been abandoned and left to rot in jail, he’s gone to seed somewhat in this, only to get sparked back to life when “his girls” come to pull him back into action.
Probably the best part of the movie relates to Yelena and Natasha’s complicated relationship with their surrogate parents, Red Guardian, and Rachel Weisz’s original Black Widow, Melina. Abandoned by them into the Red Room program, the foursome has complicated chemistry, and the family dynamic gives the movie a lot of heart. No one is demonized, and Red Guardian’s arc is intriguing; one hopes he’ll also become a Marvel mainstay.
The action, which is much more of the John Wick style than the huge tentpole-CGI heavy stuff we usually get from Marvel, is on point. Johansson, Pugh, and Harbour all seem to be doing a lot of their fighting, and the set pieces are dynamic – especially an early battle between Yelena and Natasha. There’s also a shout-out to Roger Moore early on that warms my 007-loving heart.
My only issue with the film is that I felt Weisz’s role as Melina was slightly undercooked. They hint at more of an arc for her earlier, but she takes a backseat to the other three just because they’re all chewing the scenery while she’s more subtle. I also didn’t find the villain, Ray Winstone’s Dreykov, the head of The Red Room, memorable. After Thanos, any villain that’s not larger than life can’t help but come off a little weak. We do get the introduction of fan-favorite Taskmaster, with some great fights involving the character. However, the reveal is quite different than how the character is in the comics. No matter, it worked well in the film.
Overall, I have to say – I had a total blast with Black Widow. I think director Cate Shortland and her crew nailed it, with the cinematography having that slick Marvel look. The score by Lorne Balfe is probably my favorite of the MCU to date (he should become a house composer for them – along with Loki’s Natalie Holt). One thing – if you can see this in a theater- you should. Due to restrictions where I live, I had to make do with a screener. While I was lucky to get it, I would have loved to have seen this on the big screen, preferably in IMAX. If theatres are open in your neck of the woods, this is well worth seeing on the biggest screen possible.
No Sudden Move Review
No Sudden Move Review
June 29, 2021 by: Alex Maidy
PLOT: In 1954 Detroit, a group of small-time criminals are hired to steal emerging car technology. When their plan goes horribly wrong, their search for who hired them – and for what ultimate purpose – weaves them through all echelons of the race-torn, rapidly changing city.
REVIEW: Steven Soderbergh loves to play with genre, style, and technology. Over the last decade, he has worked with multimedia projects (Mosaic), period dramas (The Knick), prescient thrillers (Contagion) while making movies almost entirely on iPhones. The last major studio film he made was Magic Mike and, before that, the popular Ocean’s trilogy. For me, Soderbergh’s late 90s output like Out of Sight and The Limey remains his most consistent period and NO SUDDEN MOVE harkens back to those films as well as the work of Quentin Tarantino. With an all-star cast and snappy dialogue, No Sudden Move is a solid crime thriller with echoes of Scorsese that plays within the expected structure of a crime thriller but with some unexpected twists.
Written by Ed Solomon (the Bill and Ted trilogy), No Sudden Move is a complex story with a large cast of interconnected characters all brought together around a pivotal job to steal a document from an auto manufacturer. As the story develops, the secondary and tertiary connections between Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro) and Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) begin to unravel a story with larger implications. What is interesting is that Steven Soderbergh knows how elaborate this story is and yet watching No Sudden Move unfold is as casual as more mainstream fare like Ocean’s Eleven. An original story, this movie feels heavily indebted to the writing of Elmore Leonard and movies like Goodfellas and The Irishman. While not nearly as epic as those Scorsese classics, it certainly plays in the same sandbox.
Without giving away the plot, the item being sought by everyone is a MacGuffin that pulls everything together. There are crime bosses like Frank Capelli (Ray Liotta) and Aldrick Watkins (Bill Duke), detectives like Joe Finney (Jon Hamm), fixers like Jones (Brendan Fraser), and dames like Vanessa Capelli (Julie Fox) and Paula (Frankie Shaw). We also have the inside man Matt Wertz (David Harbour) and his family who get caught in the crossfire. Everyone in the cast, including support roles by Kieran Culkin, Noah Jupe, Aimee Seimetz, and the late Craig muMs Grant adds to the layered ensemble who all have motives, ulterior and otherwise, that give them a stake in the story.
On top of serving as director, Steven Soderbergh takes triple duty as cinematographer and editor, using his usual pseudonyms. The frame is constantly crisp and uses natural lighting to evoke a gritty and realistic portrait of mid-20th century Detroit, but throughout the movie, it is obvious that Soderbergh filmed some, if not all, of this movie on an iPhone. Many of the wide shots have a fish eye quality to them which distorts the extremes of the image. While it does not impact the narrative, I did find myself often distracted by it as I watched the movie. Aside from that, the movie has great visual quality and never forces period references to the story being set in 1954. Aside from the cars and some clothing, the movie could have been set in the present day.
The film also has a great score by David Holmes, a frequent Soderbergh collaborator going back to 1998’s Out of Sight. The jazz-inspired score, like any great soundtrack, is good enough to listen to independently of the film, but within the movie, it adds a perfect enhancement to the mystery elements of the movie. It never overshadows what you see on screen nor does it drown out these great actors, all of whom get multiple opportunities to be showcased. While the majority of the film centers on Del Toro and Cheadle, both of whom are excellent here, we also get knockout scenes from Kieran Culkin in a role much different to his character on Succession, David Harbour in a much more subdued performance than he usually gives, and a fantastic cameo that I will not spoil for you here.
No Sudden Move works as well as it does because Steven Soderbergh keeps the pace fast and loose with a story that does not try to do more than entertain. Yes, after the requisite double and triple-crosses, there is something of a message baked into the ending of the story. But, despite the trappings of the genre, this movie exceeds expectations thanks to the caliber of acting on display. When the credits roll, you probably won’t be quoting lines, but you will definitely find yourself entertained. This is not a movie where the bad guys lose and the good guys win, but enough twists keep coming that I often wasn’t sure of how things would turn out. A quirky and fun flick, No Sudden Move is Soderbergh’s best film in years.
No Sudden Move premieres July 1st on HBO Max.
The Ice Road Review
The Ice Road Review
June 25, 2021 by: Chris Bumbray
PLOT: When a remote diamond mine in Manitoba collapses, a rebellious ice road trucker leads a rescue crew despite thawing waters.
REVIEW: I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again – Liam Neeson is our generation’s Charles Bronson. Neeson seems content churning out a series of modestly budgeted, efficient B-movies. We’ve come to expect a Neeson action flick every six months or so. While they’re not art, usually they’re fairly entertaining despite the occasional dud (I’d rank last year’s Honest Thief as his worst-ever star vehicle). Recently, The Marksman was a surprising improvement over some of his more uninspired vehicles. Netflix’s THE ICE ROAD is similarly a cut above the rest – even if it suffers from some issues of its own.
Once again, Liam Neeson is playing a grumpy, taciturn loner- I’d love to see him play a happy-go-lucky action hero one of these days. He’s a gruff, tough truck driver who keeps losing jobs because he beats up the truckers who make fun of his aphasia-afflicted brother (Marcus Thomas). Wanting to get enough money to buy his own rig, he and his brother take a dangerous job up north to drive to a collapsed diamond mine over melting ice. That’s a cool premise, as ice road trucking is real, and this job is cinematic. A solid ice-road trucking movie could have given The Wages of Fear and Sorcerer a run for their money, but it feels like writer-producer Jonathan Hensleigh (The Punisher) doesn’t always have faith in his premise.
The biggest problem here is that a villain gets worked into the plot about a third of the way in, giving Neeson the chance to do some shooting and fist-fights, with the main bad guy amongst the rogues’ gallery assembled painfully easy to figure out. A bad guy is unnecessary, as the danger of melting ice and truck calamities could have made this an excellent disaster movie. At times, the actual trucking becomes the B-plot rather than the A-plot.
Even still, it’s a decent Neeson flick as Hensleigh does a good job conveying the danger of the job, as well as the ticking clock aspect as the miners run out of air. On their end, they want to start killing the weak to conserve air, with Holt McCallany and Martin Sensmeier as two of the more heroic guys in the crew who won’t let that happen. Neeson is dependable as usual in the lead. Giving him a brother humanizes him gives him a chance to emote a little more than usual (I’ll give Neeson some credit – Bronson would have never cried onscreen- Liam has no problem being vulnerable). Laurence Fishburne has a disappointingly brief role as the truck company boss who assembles the crew. I expected him to be a lead – but he’s not. I did like Amber Midthunder (who’s starring in the next Predator movie), who shows some spunk as a first-nations driver who proves to be the only one next to Neeson with some real grit.
While a B-movie, as are most Neeson flicks these days, I still had a decent enough time with The Ice Road, even if I’m nostalgic for an era where Neeson was considered as legit an actor as someone like Daniel Day-Lewis. I’d love to see him escape the action genre a little more, but as always, he’s a likable, sturdy lead even if he’s not doing anything you haven’t seen him do dozens of times before.
False Positive Review
False Positive Review
June 25, 2021 by: Matt Rooney
PLOT: After trying and failing to get pregnant, a couple, Lucy and Adrian, decides to seek out a fertility doctor to help them start a family. But after becoming pregnant, Lucy begins to feel something is not right and sets out to uncover the mystery of what it happening with her body.
REVIEW: When crafting their psycho-horror-drama FALSE POSITIVE, writers Ilana Glazer (who also stars) and John Lee (who also directs) probably had a very clear idea of what story they wanted to tell – and it involves quite a bit. Tackling the kind of pregnancy anxiety that can’t avoid being seen as a modern take on Rosemary’s Baby while trying to satirize the medical industry made up of practitioners that assure women they know their bodies better than they do is undoubtedly a lot to cram into a 90-minute runtime. And while exploring those themes is not without merit, the hodge-podge of slow-burn dread that rings dull, winking satire that hits the target, and the eventual turn into bloody rage buries intelligent ideas in execution that fails to completely entice.
After trying and failing to get pregnant for two years, Lucy (Glazer) and her husband Adrian (Justin Theroux), seek out a renowned fertility doctor, Dr. John Hindle (Pierce Brosnan), whom the latter knows personally. Hindle’s office and the nurses – glad in old-school pink gowns – have an unsettling Stepford quality about them, wherein their kindness and warmth are clearly masking something deranged. Even Hindle himself has a fatherly vibe that could easily coax anyone into believing anything that he says or does is truly done out of love and care, and is in no way suspicious. But his methods get results, and after becoming pregnant Lucy is doted upon and given congratulations at work – herself at one point pining over getting to “have it all” as a modern woman. As to be expected, not everything that glitters is gold and soon Lucy begins to suspect not everything is on the up-and-up with her pregnancy, Hindle, Hindle’s loyal lead nurse (Gretchen Mol), or even her husband. She begins to have bloody, surreal hallucinations that foreshadow some dark deeds going on, which on a storytelling front, simply seem peppered in to mask the fact there’s not much storytelling going on.
While the people around her, including her new pregnant friend Corgan (Sophia Bush), try to gaslight her anxiety and troubles away as “mommy brain,” these instances of taking aim at both a patriarchal industry that feels designs to control women and an upper-class mentality of what it means to be pregnant feels threadbare without much meaning behind them. Lucy’s story as a whole feels designed to put her in situation after situation that allows Glazer and Lee to point out how life as a pregnant woman is marred by people who seem to assume they know better than her, but without much depth beyond that. In these instances, like with Lucy’s boss (Josh Hamilton), who is always ordering from the same bourgeois salad place for his staff’s lunch, the substance screams satire, but the overly serious execution over-subtlety makes it difficult to grab hold of the humor, making everything instead just come off as monotonous without driving home any real message.
As for tension, much of the heavy lifting comes from the cerebral, nightmarish visions Lucy has, which can certainly feel jarring while dually padded out to make audiences know they are in fact watching a horror thriller. On an emotional level, they manifest Lucy’s anxieties that come from knowing something is wrong with her own body, and how those anxieties distort her view of the world – which leads to everything from the screen being covered in blood to a full-on subversion of the “magical Negro” trope (embodied in Zainab Jah). Lee does manage to craft some reasonably unnerving visuals, making use of minimalist production design in some cases and some twisted misdirections. But while all of these themes that Glazer and Lee tackle in the script and that Lee attempts to land on as a visceral filmmaker are worthy of analysis, so much is slammed together the movie as a whole can’t help but feel like a sequence of checking off boxes.
Glazer, known for her comedic roles in Broad City (which she co-created and starred in with Abbi Jacobson) and Rough Night does some admirably bold work here, offering up a level of vulnerability that’s commendable despite the storytelling shortcomings. Her level of distress is often the only thing that makes some of the more suspenseful sequences feel tense. Brosnan too does some good work as Hindle, hiding behind his charming smile and handsome face a seediness that’s easy to miss. Mol gets some solid scenes in there as the unnerving dedicated nurse, and Theroux seems perfectly fine accepting the role as the shady husband who gets to be shady in the background.
Ultimately, however rich False Positive is in ideas, not much justice is given to those ideas across an execution that’s constantly missing the mark. Attempts at dark humor often fall flat; slow-burn dread rings hollow in a threadbare mystery with a weak payoff and; its final turn into madness feels too wrapped up in coming off as twisted without feeling totally earned. Glazer is ready to take on work that pushes her as an actress, and Lee does have an eye for crafting some off-putting visuals, but none of their work is put to the best use here in a movie that was made with the best intentions and so-so execution.