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Monday, November 16, 2020

Let Him Go

            For once, I have something nice to say about the sparse schedule of theatrical releases while studios push back their surefire hits until they can play to full houses. In a field of blockbusters, the quiet adult drama “Let Him Go” almost surely would have been lost at the box office. But with the release calendar cleared save for one meager release per week, this movie can comfortably open at #1. Granted, it’s a pretty pathetic #1 with many theaters closed or at reduced capacity, but there’s room for this movie to grow through word of mouth, which it decidedly deserves.

            Kevin Costner and Diane Lane star as George and Margaret Blackledge, respectively. He’s a former sheriff in small-town Montana, and she’s so wily that I got the impression she had unofficially helped him crack some cases. At the beginning of the film, the couple’s adult son James (Ryan Bruce) dies, leaving his wife Lorna (Kayli Carter) a widow and his son Jimmy (twins Bram and Otto Hornung) fatherless. Three years go by and the still-devastated George and Margaret have to watch Lorna get married to the sketchy Donnie Weboy (Will Britain). Margaret doesn’t trust Donnie, and her suspicions are confirmed when she witnesses him hitting both Lorna and Jimmy. She goes to the family’s apartment to offer support, only to find that Donnie has fled Montana with Lorna and Jimmy in tow.

            Margaret vaguely remembers Donnie mentioning that he has family in North Dakota, and sets out on a quest to get Jimmy back. She drags George along, and he makes some headway in the investigation using old police connections, but he also points out that she doesn’t really have a plan for getting custody of Jimmy. What if Lorna and/or Donnie don’t want to give him up? Does Margaret truly know what’s best for Jimmy, or is her judgement being clouded by the loss of her own son?

            Even if Margaret’s motives are a bit selfish, it is soon clear that the Weboy homestead in North Dakota is no place for Jimmy. Or Lorna. Or anybody in their right mind. Weboy family matriarch Blanche (Lesley Manville) is the kind of control freak that likes to have everybody under her thumb – including and especially her family. George and Margaret aren’t going to be taking Jimmy without having to contend with at least five members of the Weboy clan. And these people know their way around a hatchet.

            The film excels in many departments, including lighting, score, and cinematography (if you like gorgeous Midwest scenery, this is the movie for you), but it’s the performances that are most memorable. Costner displays the expected engaging stoicism. Manville is bouncing-off-the-walls cuckoo. Lane is in a class by herself, bringing the character’s particular brand of determination to light with every word. I wouldn’t be surprised if she gets an Oscar nomination for this performance, and there must have been at least ten scenes I could see being used as the highlight clip shown during the ceremony.

            Downsides to the film include a go-nowhere storyline with a hermit (Booboo Stewart), conspicuous underdevelopment of two members of the Weboy family, monotonous action during the climactic sequence, and a general sense that this story has been cut down from a longer one with more detail (it is indeed based on a book). I wanted to spend even more time with these characters, and was ready to suggest that this property become a franchise, but that isn’t going to happen unless it takes the prequel route (which I wouldn’t mind, but isn’t likely). Still, “Let Him Go” is one of the best surprises of the year. See it while you can, though I hope it has a nice long run in theaters and success at the box office.

 

Grade: B

2:52 pm est          Comments

Come Play

            “Come Play” finds itself in the plum position of being the hottest new theatrical horror release of Halloween 2020. It accomplishes this goal by being the only new theatrical horror release of Halloween 2020. And I have to ask: how did this film in particular get such special treatment? I certainly understand that studios want to hold off releasing movies that they think will make serious money, which is why new entries in the “Halloween” and “Candyman” franchises are postponed. I’m not talking about those, I’m talking about probable bombs, movies that could only be relative successes in a climate where they’re the only game in town. I thought every studio had at least one lousy horror movie stashed away for just such an emergency. Somehow “Come Play” is the only movie from that stash, across however many studios, to make its way to theaters. This in spite of the opinion that it’s an uninteresting movie and the fact that its message is ill-timed for 2020.

            Azhy Robertson stars as Oliver, a non-verbal autistic child who communicates with an electronic tablet. He’s always staring at screens, much to the chagrin of his mother (Gillian Jacobs), who wishes he would socialize more – especially with her. His father (John Gallagher Jr.) shies away from the hard parts of parenting and isn’t what Oliver needs. Other kids bully Oliver, probably because they don’t understand him, though the movie is inconsistent with what they don’t understand. In short, he needs a friend.

            Also in need of a friend is Larry. Larry is a monster from another plane of existence. He communicates with Oliver through an electronic picture book, one that no character ever gets around to reading all the way through. Early parts of the book play up how Larry is shy and lonely and misunderstood. That might explain why he seemingly only exists to cause jump scares, because he’s skittish and awkward, but he means well. I kept holding out hope throughout the film that maybe Larry would ultimately turn out to be friendly and a victim of prejudice, but no, he’s the stereotypical malevolent child abductor trying to stir up sympathy.

            Oliver’s parents try to protect their son, but they do a lousy job. They stay in their house long enough to pack bags when fleeing. They have him stay overnight at a poorly-lit parking lot that is scary enough without monsters. They don’t involve police or other authorities (I know the “monster from another realm” story is a tough sell, but they can just say that someone anonymous has been making threats). And worst of all, they keep letting Oliver go off on his own, over and over again, like the stupid horror movie characters they are. I can’t say I was rooting for Larry to abduct Oliver, but I was rooting for him to catch up and force a confrontation, because this is a movie where evasion isn’t anybody’s strong suit.

            As for the ill-timed moral, Larry travels and attacks through electronic devices, so there’s a message about the need to put the screens away and look people in the eye. I’m sure this movie was written before the pandemic when such a message was laudable, but why release it now, when face-to-face interactions are highly discouraged (though ironically screens are seen as an excellent, practical substitutes)? It’s not like there was an urgent need to get this clumsily-edited movie with bad performances (from the adults, Robertson is fine) and an unscary Larry puppet into theaters, except that there happened to be a gap in the schedule this weekend.

But the joke’s on the studio for releasing “Come Play” this weekend. Yes, Friday the 30th is technically “in time for Halloween,” but there’s no time for the film to benefit from word of mouth (not that it would get it from me). That’s the real bad timing.

 

Grade: C-

2:51 pm est          Comments

Honest Thief

            “Honest Thief” is a perfectly middle-of-the-road Liam Neeson action vehicle. Not as bad as “Unknown,” not as good as “Cold Pursuit.” It would get stomped by any real competition at the box office, but of course this is the Era of No Competition. Actually, it’s the Era of No Movies At All in certain parts of the country – including New York City, where I live – so I’m grateful to be able to visit my family in Pennsylvania and see anything in a theater, even something as disposable as this.

            Neeson stars as Tom Dolan, a career bank robber who’s getting bored with his once-exciting line of work. While renting a storage locker for an ill-gotten $9 million, he meets aspiring psychologist Annie (Kate Walsh), and the two fall in love. A year later, Tom wants Annie to move in with him. There’s just one problem – she doesn’t know that he used to rob banks. Tom wants to put that chapter of his life behind him so badly that he calls the FBI to turn himself in. He figures that if he returns all the money (apparently the robberies were all for sport and he never spent any of the money, which raises unanswered questions about how exactly he supports himself), he’ll get a reduced sentence and can get out in a few years with a clear conscience and a girlfriend waiting for him.

            The FBI suits set promptly to mucking the whole thing up. First they don’t believe Tom when he tells them he’s the notorious In-N-Out Bandit (he hates the nickname because it makes him sound unprofessional, I’d hate it because it makes people think of fast food). High-ranking agent Baker (Robert Patrick, cast in a small role just to get his name on the poster) doesn’t take Tom’s claim seriously and sends underlings Nivens (Jai Courtney) and Hall (Anthony Ramos) to investigate. Tom is annoyed by the runaround, but cooperates with Nivens and Hall in a rush to get the unpleasant business over with. The agents need evidence to verify Tom’s claim, so he tells them where they can find some of the money. Except that they don’t keep the money as evidence, they keep it for themselves. They’ve just made millions of dollars in an easier way than robbing a bank, except of course, for the loose end in Tom. They try to silence him, but this is a Liam Neeson action movie character, so you know he’s got a Very Particular Set of Skills.

            The rest of the movie is Tom playing cat-and-mouse with Nivens and Hall. Better make it dog-cat-mouse since the good FBI, led by Agent Myers (Jeffrey Donovan) is also involved. Myers’ defining character trait is that he has a dog that he got in a divorce, and I can just picture the writers trying to work a dog into the script because they’ve seen “John Wick” too many times. People get crossed (Tom sells out one character rather unnecessarily), murders take place, and Annie gets pulled into danger, but she’s the kind of character that if she doesn’t get killed in Act 1, she’ll probably be okay for the rest of the film.

            The story, motives, and even action are secondary in “Honest Thief.” The whole project is merely an excuse for Liam Neeson to do his Liam Neeson thing. Like his gravelly voice? You’ll be satisfied. Like to see him making threats over the phone? This movie has you covered. Like to see him interacting with a romantic interest? He and Walsh have good chemistry and they take the material more seriously than it deserves. But this is a bland movie content to play to movie-starved viewers that are willing to settle for bland.

 

Grade: C-

2:50 pm est          Comments

Fatima

            Like “The Secret: Dare to Dream” from a few weeks ago, “Fatima” has been sitting at the top of my cable system’s New Releases section for what seems like months now. Like “The Secret: Dare to Dream,” “Fatima” tells of a spiritual journey, though it’s a much more recognizable form of spirituality than the vague power of positive thinking at the center of “The Secret.” Eerily like “The Secret: Dare to Dream,” “Fatima” features an onscreen quote from Albert Einstein: “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Unlike “The Secret: Dare to Dream,” “Fatima” seems like an earnest filmmaking endeavor and not a hokey attempt to revive fledgling book sales.

            The film tells the story of Lucia (Stephanie Gil), a 10-year-old girl living in Fatima, Portugal in 1917. As with the rest of Europe, this is a dark era for Fatima. Sons, husbands, and fathers are off fighting in World War I, and the mayor (Goran Visnjic) is forced to read off long monthly lists of soldiers killed or missing in action. Famine and disease are overtaking the population and prayers are going unanswered. This is not a good choice if you’re looking for a “fun” movie.

            One day, Lucia and her cousins Francisco (Jorge Lamelas) and Jacinta (Alejandra Howard) are playing in a field when they see an apparition of the Virgin Mary (Joana Ribeiro). This is no dubious burn on a piece of toast, this is a full-on live-action deity, complete with white robes and a heavenly glow. She tells the children to come back to the same spot every month for the next six months, and she will appear to them, and only them, again and again.

            Word gets out about the children and their visions, and soon followers are showing up from far and wide to be the first to hear Mary’s words as soon as she relays them to the children. But not every character believes that the Virgin Mary is actually appearing. Lucia’s mother (Lucia Moniz), for example, dismisses the account as a wild story from an overactive imagination. The local priest (Joaquim de Almeida, inexplicably given top billing for a barely-significant role) thinks that the lie is an insult to God. The Mayor frets that the town becoming a spiritual haven will hurt its respectability. Almost every adult in power wants Lucia to retract her story, but she knows what she saw.

            And so do we, and I think that’s a big problem with this movie. We see the apparition speaking to the children, so the credibility of their story is skewed in their favor. We don’t have the same reasonable doubts, which have to be overcome by faith, as the other adults in this movie. The fact that the apparition can only be seen by the children is a major plot point, so why shouldn’t we be taken on the same journey as everyone else?

            That’s my big problem with “Fatima,” others include stiff acting by the children and everybody speaking English instead of Portuguese, often unnaturally. I also found it unnecessary to have a framing device where a skeptical American author (Harvey Keitel) interviews an adult Lucia (Sonia Braga), which seems to serve only as an excuse to advertise two well-known actors in the cast. At the same time, I can appreciate the efforts in recreating WWI-era Portugal, and it’s hard not to be inspired by the faith-overcomes-all aspects of the story. This is one of the better movies to go straight to On Demand in recent months, though I wish we were doing better overall.

 

Grade: C

2:48 pm est          Comments

Cats & Dogs 3: Paws Unite

            “Cats & Dogs 3: Paws Unite” is an experiment in how bad a movie can be while still staying completely harmless. There’s nothing “offensive” here, no bad messages or dangerous philosophies or seriously objectionable material. I suppose the “rude humor” that earns the movie a PG rating isn’t exactly tasteful, but I can’t imagine parents thinking that this movie actually crosses any sort of line. For all intents and purposes, this movie is completely fine for children, and yet they shouldn’t watch it because it is unoriginal garbage.

            The film takes place in a world where cats and dogs moonlight as secret agents while their owners are away. They do this to keep rogue cats and dogs in check so humans don’t stop loving them. This includes making sure cats and dogs don’t fight with one another (even though they really want to) because humans find that particularly off-putting. Roger the Dog (Max Greenfield) and Gwen the Cat (Melissa Rauch) work in surveillance, but are forced into field roles once a plague of cat-and-dog fighting starts sweeping the neighborhood. They learn that a character voiced by George Lopez is behind a wave of brainwashings, but what kind of cat or dog sacrifice humans’ affection for their own kind just to destroy their affection for the other? The answer is the kind that isn’t a cat or a dog. Pablo the Parrot (Lopez) is trying to take out both types of popular pets so humans will be steered toward buying “other” pets like him. He operates out of a pet store alongside a lizard, a tarantula, snakes, frogs, but not fish. Fish don’t count.

            The movie can’t possibly fill 84 minutes with an elaborate spy story, so it throws in subplots about Roger and Gwen’s teenage human owners. Roger’s owner Max (Callum Seagram Airlie) is a tennis prodigy with an overbearing mother (Kirsten Robek) whose game is beginning to suffer under the weight of his crushing training schedule. Gwen’s owner Zoe (Sarah Giles) is an aspiring musician whose floundering musician father is about to get them evicted from their apartment over his inability to pay the rent. I might feel more sympathetic toward the father if he wasn’t shown to have a staggeringly poor work ethic in other areas of his life. This is a guy who doesn’t even bother to heat up frozen food. And he waits until he’s been served with an eviction notice to even look for a non-music job. I felt sorry for Zoe, not because she’s might have to move to a building that doesn’t allow pets, but because she has this deadbeat for a father.

            Roger and Gwen notice that their humans are in a funk, so they decide that the best way to solve each of their problems is to get them together. This leads to a tired “trapped in an elevator” storyline where the two teens learn that they need to get off their phones and pay more attention to the world around them. That’s a noble message, and so is the emphasis on courage and teamwork. The problem is that these inspirational themes are buried in a movie that is itself embarrassingly uninspired.

            “Cats & Dogs 3: Paws Unite” is little more than an overlong string of bathroom jokes. It doesn’t even mine the rich subject of dog and cat behavior for jokes that often because that would get in the way of the bathroom jokes. To my understanding it has almost nothing in common with the previous two installments of this series, which I haven’t seen, but I know came out 19 and 10 years ago, respectively. Even if those movies were good, the target audience of little kids is aging out of this franchise between sequels. Then again, the target audience of little kids is hopefully too mature to enjoy this movie, which is too dumb for anybody.

 

Grade: D

2:47 pm est          Comments

The Secret: Dare to Dream

            “The Secret: Dare to Dream” has lingered in prime real estate at the top of my On Demand system’s Movies section for over two months now. Other movies have come and gone, but apparently this one remains popular. I know the book “The Secret” was popular about ten years ago, but I thought its heyday was long over. I guess the people behind this movie can be grateful that this happens to be an era where the competition is staggeringly underwhelming. Or maybe they focused really hard on achieving relative success.

            It should come as no surprise that I’m not a believer in the philosophy of “The Secret,” which (and I know I’m oversimplifying) is that positive thinking yields positive results. I suppose it can be effective in that can’t hurt to not sabotage oneself with negativity. But I also know it’s possible to get in over one’s head with a positive attitude, so somewhere in the middle (otherwise known as “realistic”) is probably healthiest. After all, life can’t be that easy, can it? According to this movie, maybe it can be.

            Katie Holmes stars as Miranda, a widowed mother of three in hurricane-prone Louisiana. Apart from the obvious, nothing is going her way. She’s buried under a mountain of debt, her job is about to be greatly affected by a storm, her house is falling apart, one of her daughters’ Sweet Sixteen party is getting upstaged, another daughter won’t stop nagging her for a pony, and she has a toothache. Oh, and she just got distracted while driving and plowed into the back of Bray Johnson (Josh Lucas), a visitor from out of town.

            Fortunately, Bray isn’t as vindictive as, say, Russell Crowe in “Unhinged.” He offers to repair Miranda’s car, and later her house. He subscribes to the philosophy of “The Secret,” and gets the family to subscribe to it as well, especially once things start going their way. Pizzas arrive at the house to spare them from a lousy beans-and-rice dinner, the repairs go better than expected, the daughter comes up with a great idea for her birthday party, and Miranda’s boyfriend (Jerry O’Connell) proposes to her. Seriously, everything starts going right, like one ridiculous reward after another, to drive home the point that this philosophy supposedly works.

            There are two additional twists to the movie, both involving the mysterious Bray. The first is that he has a connection to Miranda’s late husband. He’s actually in town to tell Miranda about it, but the right opportunity never presents itself (one time he allows himself to be interrupted by a microwave timer going off; try a little harder, buddy) and later there’s a fallout with her saying “Why didn’t you tell me?” and him saying “I tried…” The other involves Miranda’s romantic life. The movie thankfully avoids the temptation to make a certain character an outright jerk, but then falls into a pit of allowing something else to be way too convenient to avoid complexity.

            Watching “The Secret: Dare to Dream,” I bounced between whether to rate it a C- or a D. It’s too cheesy and wedded to its questionable philosophy for anything higher, but too light to really be enraging. I eventually landed on a D because the movie just wouldn’t let the pony storyline go. But then I halfway-sarcastically tried getting The Secret to work by thinking positively about a long-overdue tax refund from the IRS. Lo and behold, the next time I checked my refund status, I was told that after five months, it had finally been approved. Coincidence or not, I have to reward the movie for that. Next up, I want major theatrical releases to return full time so I can see better movies than this.

 

Grade: C-

2:46 pm est          Comments

Antebellum

            Wannabe theatrical releases that go straight to On Demand in this era fall into one of three categories. There are movies that try to make a lateral move – they would have made good money in theaters, and hopefully they’ll make good money at home, too. “Trolls World Tour” and “Scoob!” are like this. Then there are movies that try to become minor hits with strategic On Demand releasing. “The High Note” and “The Tax Collector” probably wouldn’t have been able to cut it in theaters, but they were able to take advantage of a reshuffling of the deck. Then there are movies that go straight to On Demand because the studios realize that they had straight-to-On-Demand-quality movies all along. Examples of these include “Capone” and today’s selection, “Antebellum.” Had this film’s release not relegated it to home viewing, it might have garnered a reputation as one of the worst theatrical releases of the year.

            The first 39 minutes of this movie are just slaves being mistreated at a plantation. An escapee is shot, and Eden (Janelle Monae) is violently branded for her role in the escape attempt. Everyone else is forced to work long hours picking cotton in a field, only for the cotton to be thrown on a fire. The one-dimensional villains revel in abusing the slaves, and so does the movie. But there has to be more to the movie than that, right? The advertising promised a horror movie, and while much of the imagery thus far can certainly be described as “horrific,” it doesn’t really fit into the horror genre.

            Following a traumatic experience, Eden goes to sleep, and when she wakes up, she’s living an idyllic life in a version of the world we recognize. Her name is Veronica, she has a loving husband and daughter, and she’s a bestselling author with a lucrative speaking tour. Although the “best life” business isn’t as painful to watch as the slavery scenes (an embarrassingly rude best friend played by Gabourey Sidibe notwithstanding), this too gets old quickly as we wait for something to connect the two worlds. Is it reincarnation? Parallel universes? Dreams? Actually, it’s something I guessed pretty early. Something about a tent seemed “off,” and a certain mild slur seemed out of place.

            The appeal of the entire movie lies in a twist, as if the writers thought of it and wrote the movie around it. Actually, I’m sure that’s what happened. In short, the problem with the twist is that it is supposed to be believable and it isn’t. These characters could never pull it off even if they were smarter, and as it is, they’re morons. There’s maybe a kernel of an interesting idea here, but the movie bungles it in many ways at once, including taking itself too seriously and focusing on predictable white-on-black violence rather than the black characters coming to terms with their lives as slaves.

            Perhaps I’m being too hard on “Antebellum” when I say it would have made one of the worst theatrical releases of the year. There are a few positives about it. The camera work is unexpectedly competent (especially in a long tracking shot at the beginning), the costumes are beautiful (though suspiciously clean given the setting), and Monae can cry real tears. But people are going to come away from the film talking about the twist, and it is one of the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s not like the two acts that preceded it were particularly compelling, but the film takes a turn for the ridiculous with a disappointing shortage of appropriate ridiculousness. Ignore this movie from the comfort of your home.

 

Grade: D

2:45 pm est          Comments

Bill & Ted Face the Music

            I watched the first two “Bill & Ted” movies to prepare for new installment “Face the Music,” and I have to say, they didn’t do much for me. I didn’t think they were painful or anything, but having grown up with similar dimwitted duos (Wayne and Garth, Beavis and Butthead, etc.), I didn’t think the title pair brought much to the table. Their manner of speaking, which is basically slacker talk with one out of every ten words inexplicably higher than their apparent vocabulary level, gets old fast and the time travel jokes never rise above “lazy.” I liked that George Carlin was in the movies, but that’s mostly because his appearances triggered happy memories of his standup. The point is that I’m maybe not the target audience for “Face the Music,” since I wasn’t coming in as a fan.

            Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves are back as Bill S. Preston, Esq. and “Ted” Theodore Logan, respectively. Although we’ve known since “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” back in 1989 that the duo’s music and philosophy (“Be excellent to each other”) will one day unite the world and usher in centuries of greatness, things aren’t going so excellently lately. Their band Wyld Stallyns is on the rocks following the tumultuous departure of Death (William Sadler) and they can’t seem to get the sound or song that will take them back to their previous height. Their marriages to princesses Joanna (Jayma Mays) and Elizabeth (Erinn Hayes) are souring, though they have the love and admiration of their daughters Thea (Samara Weaving) and Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine). Also, there’s the small matter of the universe collapsing on itself because they can’t get their act together.

            Fortunately, they have help from time traveler from the future Kelly (Kristen Schaal), the daughter of Carlin’s character from the original. She says that they have forty-seven minutes (in real time) to write the song that will unite the world or the whole universe dies. They can use a time machine however they see fit to accomplish this goal. They decide to go to various intervals in the future to get the song from their future selves, who have already written it. But taking this shortcut just makes their lives in the future miserable. Though have to I wonder how there’s a future at all unless they succeed. Ugh, I saw this movie only a few days after “Tenet,” and I was in no mood to sort out another complex system of time travel.

            The adventure includes a side-trip for the daughters to round up musical talent for the big performance that evening, which is basically just a rehash of the first movie with less fit actors. Weaving and Lundy-Paine are likeable enough, but they cannot make Bill & Ted-speak sound natural to save their lives. There’s also a subplot about Kelly’s mother (Holland Taylor) sending a robot assassin (Anthony Carrigan) into the past to kill Bill and Ted. Somebody behind the scenes must think Carrigan is hilarious, because he’s constantly allowed awkward riffs that kill the movie’s already-shaky momentum.

            Very little about “Bill & Ted Face the Music” worked for me. The new characters are either unfunny (the daughters), unnecessary (Kelly and her mother), or both (the robot). I suppose it’s a trip to see Winter and Reeves back in these roles, and to be fair they haven’t lost an ounce of sincerity or chemistry in thirty years, and I’m sure it means much more to people who were fans of them thirty years ago than it does to me, but I find that a little of Bill & Ted goes a long way. This movie is too harmless to strongly dislike, but if you aren’t already fans of these characters, you probably won’t be won over by “Face the Music.”

 

Grade: C

2:44 pm est          Comments

Unhinged

            It seems almost quaint to review this movie now. Three weeks ago, “Unhinged” opened as the first big post-pandemic theatrical release. The problem was that the theater closest to my parents’ house didn’t reopen until a week later. I saw “Unhinged” at the first opportunity, but I also saw (and reviewed) “The New Mutants,” which was the bigger movie that weekend. Last weekend saw the release of “Tenet,” which also warranted an immediate review, and in fact still sits atop the box office. This means that the time has come to double back and review “Unhinged,” though its appeal as the First Movie Back has since worn off.

            “Unhinged” stars Caren Pistorius and Russell Crowe (don’t let the advertising trick you into thinking Crowe is the lead) as two people locked in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse on the battleground of our volatile nation’s overcrowded roads. Like many people, Rachel (Pistorius) leads a stressed-out life. She’s going through a divorce from her uncooperative ex, her hairdressing business is hanging by a thread, her brother (Austin P. McKenzie) and his girlfriend are living with her but not contributing to the household, and traffic on the way to drop her son (Gabriel Bateman) off at school is a nightmare. The last thing she needs is a zoned-out driver dilly-dallying at a green light. But that’s exactly what she gets, and she honks angrily at him.

            That driver is Tom Cooper (Crowe), fresh off killing his ex-wife and her new lover. He’s none too happy about the honk, feeling that Rachel breached roadway etiquette by jumping straight to a big honk instead of starting off with a “courtesy tap” (little honk). He goes so far as to apologize for his role in the incident, but he expects Rachel to do the same. She refuses, and Tom figures that since he’ll probably get caught soon for the murders, and he doesn’t plan to be taken alive, he might as well spend his last day on Earth ruining the life of this woman who wronged him, however briefly.

            Tom follows Rachel around, intimidating her. She’s forced to drive evasively, making several dangerous maneuvers in the process. She stops at a gas station and convinces a stranger to walk her to her car and intimidate Tom back, but Tom proves a point by neutralizing him. Tom also steals Rachel’s phone, which opens up a world of opportunities for him. He finds out about a lunch date with her divorce lawyer, her bank account information, and the addresses of all her family and friends. Tom proceeds to go on a bloody path of revenge that only he considers “revenge,” the rest of us would just call it petty, petty murdering.

            Crowe as Tom is a crazy, intimidating presence, and the movie finds some creative ways for him to mess with Rachel, but the non-Crowe dialogue is uninvolving, the characters bounce between smart and stupid depending on what they need to be for the story to continue, and I think it was a mistake to have Tom be a psychotic murderer from minute one. I think he would have been a much more interesting character if he had just been a regular guy who snaps and carries out a “death is too good for you” revenge fantasy.

Aside from the Crowe performance, “Unhinged” is a direct-to-On-Demand-quality movie. Except it went to the big screen, where the nerve-racking plot and sensory overload of horns and crashes (compounded by five months of my senses being deprived of big screens and theater-sized sound systems) triggered my chronic anxiety. Don’t get me wrong, I can respect a movie that successfully pushes my buttons, but my immediate reaction was to flop around in my seat and loudly shudder every few minutes. Fortunately there were only two other people in the theater and they didn’t seem bothered by my admittedly-distracting behavior. If the wrong person had been in that theater, they might have demanded an apology…

 

Grade: C

2:43 pm est          Comments

Tenet

            “Tenet” is the biggest step yet in restoring the moviegoing experience. For all intents and purposes, the return to theaters started two weeks ago with “Unhinged.” That was the first movie. Then last week came “The New Mutants.” Set in the “X-Men” universe, it was the first franchise movie. Now comes “Tenet,” which is in the enviable position of being the first good movie.

            Director Christopher Nolan loves to mess around with time and chronology. “Memento” was a story told in reverse. “Inception” had four layers of dream worlds in which time progressed at different speeds while very little time was actually passing. “Durkirk” bounced between four different stories in four different timeframes. And “Tenet” introduces us to the concept of time inversion.

What is time inversion? “Don’t try to understand it,” says a character early in the film. That’s fine by me, since I’m not entirely sure the movie even understands it. Basically, the characters have access to technology that lets them go backwards in time. Not disappear and reappear at a point of their choosing like in most time travel movies, but travel backward at a normal speed as the rest of the world travels forward at regular speed. Say you wanted to fight an opponent. Time inversion could give you a two-on-one advantage since you could fight the person in real time, then later go back and join the fight again along with your past self while breaking out some unusual reverse fighting moves. That might not be the best example, but it’s a deliberately confusing concept.

John David Washington stars as an unnamed protagonist (though he annoyingly likes to refer to himself as “The Protagonist”) who initially works for the CIA, but after foiling a terrorist attack in Kiev, is drafted into the Tenet program, which dedicated to foiling evil time inverters. He and his partner Neil (Robert Pattinson) head off on a mission to stop evil weapons manufacturer Sator (Kenneth Branagh) from using inversion to steal plutonium and destroy the world with whatever he’s creating.

To get close to Sator, the Protagonist must get close to his wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who Sator controls mercilessly with blackmail material. Although he is initially only interested in using Kat as a means to an end, The Protagonist wonders if there’s a way to rescue her and her son from Sator’s clutches. Kat is certainly interested in safety as a condition of helping The Protagonist, which I felt was a selfish storyline distraction. The end of the world is on the line here, she needs to be thinking about more than just two people (who will be wiped out anyway if Sator succeeds) when deciding whether or not to cooperate.

The biggest takeaway from the film is the impressive, dizzying action scenes. There’s the shootout at the opera house in the beginning, a vertical stealth mission up the side of a skyscraper, an elaborate plane crash, a “standard vs inverted” fight sequence, a “standard vs. inverted” car chase, and some nifty hand-to-hand combat. I may not understand Sator’s blackmail plot against Kat or the finer points of time inversion, but I can understand The Protagonist raking a goon across the face with a cheese grater.

“Tenet” is a movie for people who like movies that mess with their heads. I prefer my movies a little more straightforward, but I can recognize a monumental effort when I see one. And I liked the performances: Washington gives undeserved life to a blandly-written Protagonist, Pattinson works surprisingly well as the wild-card sidekick, Debicki is going to become a major starlet after her turn here as a femme fatale, and Branagh is likely to go down as the most chilling villain of the year. The screenplay sacrifices rationality and character development for set pieces and time inversion logistics, but overall the movie is an exciting big-screen experience after a spring and summer completely devoid of them.

 

Grade: B-

2:42 pm est          Comments

The New Mutants

            It has been a bumpy ride getting “The New Mutants” to theaters, and I’m not just referring to pandemic-related closures. The film was shot in 2017, but delayed due to planned reshoots (that were cancelled), conflicts with other releases, the Disney/Fox merger, and a (speculated) feeling that the film is too embarrassingly bad to be released. The dread feeling was completely justified. The only way this lousy movie could ever do well in theaters is if it was the only game in town. Enter a weekend where theaters are reopening and the kids aren’t exactly banging down the door to see “Unhinged.”

            The film follows Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt, billed fifth from the top even though she’s the lead, which is ridiculous), a young mutant who is the sole survivor of an attack on her reservation. She passes out during the attack and wakes up in a mysterious facility run by the shady Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga). The inescapable facility is a place where mutants can learn to control their powers in a safe environment without hurting their loved ones. Dr. Reyes answers to an unknown superior widely believed to be Charles “Professor X” Xavier, making the facility possibly a last stop before the patients can become X-Men. The fact that this theory is shared so early should be a tipoff that the facility is not part of Xavier’s dominion. It’s actually a follow-up to a teaser from a previous “X-Men” film that often appears on lists of dangling threads from flop franchises. “X-Men” didn’t forget about this element, and now the series can’t forget about it without completely abandoning an unpopular-but-undeniable part of its universe.

            Dani’s fellow mutant patients include Sam (Charlie Heaton), who can fly at whirlwind speeds; Illyana (Anya Taylor-Joy), a transporter who is never seen without a dragon puppet; Berto (Henry Zaga), whose powers are kept secret throughout the film but turn out to be disappointing; and Rahne (Maisie Williams), a lycan who seems to be the only one interested in helping the scared, confused Dani. The boys just exist to fill out the ranks, this movie is almost all about protagonist Dani, initially-antagonistic Illyana, friendly Rahne, and untrustworthy Reyes. Once the flat-out villain is revealed, the character is the least-threatening antagonist in the entire “X-Men” series and their fate is laughable.

            A lot about this movie is laughable. Not any jokes, unfortunately, but scenes that are supposed to be exciting and even scary. For example, Illyana is haunted by beings in creepy smiley-face masks. I was actually sufficiently unnerved by the soulless expressions on the masks, but the movie unwisely decides to have the characters unmask, and I don’t think there was a single moment after that where they appeared onscreen and I wasn’t laughing out loud at the pathetic special effects. And I can say something similar about the film’s climactic action sequence.

            “The New Mutants” is a total bomb of a superhero movie, with the lone saving grace of being memorably bad in a few parts, as opposed to the relentless blandness of something like the 2017 “Fantastic Four” or most recent “X-Men” installment “Dark Phoenix.” I seriously doubt we’re going to see any of these characters again, save for if they appear in an upcoming “Deadpool” movie for the express purpose of being written out of the “X-Men” universe. See this movie only if you’re tired of the drought of theatrical releases.

 

Grade: C-

2:41 pm est          Comments

The Tax Collector

            Somebody thought they had a franchise on their hands with “The Tax Collector,” most likely writer/director/producer David Ayer. Ayer was once a top talent in Hollywood with works like “End of Watch” and “Fury.” Then he had a huge commercial hit with the critically-panned “Suicide Squad.” “Bright” for Netflix found similar success with big viewership numbers despite some of the worst reviews of the year. Now “The Tax Collector” is finding about as much success as any film can have in Summer 2020 even though reviews have been dismal. In this era I often find myself asking if the movie I’m watching On Demand would have been able to cut it in theaters. With this film I’m guessing no, but I don’t feel strongly about that. I do strongly feel that it was destined to spawn several direct-to-On Demand sequels. Ayer probably thought he could get the sequels into theaters because he had the next “John Wick” on his hands, but the studio would have stepped in and marginalized the property while not abandoning it entirely. Ayer could probably successfully argue that the main character’s journey isn’t done with this one movie, and “The Tax Collector” is admittedly a cool name for an action franchise.

            Bobby Soto stars as David, the titular “tax collector” who collects 30% of earnings from all Latino gangs in Los Angeles. He does so on behalf of his uncle Louis (George Lopez) who is running a criminal empire in place of imprisoned leader Wizard. The job can get messy, but fortunately he has the hardened Creeper (Shia LaBeouf) to back him up. Don’t laugh when I say Shia LaBeouf is the tough guy in this movie, he’s long past his days as a hapless protagonist. Heck, the movie should have been about his character, a white guy feared and respected in the Latin underworld. LaBeouf is certainly giving the better performance of the two billed leads, as opposed to the bland and unintimidating Soto.

David is the kind of movie criminal who lives an idyllic home life with his wife (Cinthya Carmona) and kids and promotes a strong moral code that supposedly balances out the horrific way he earns a living. Think Tony Soprano or one of the more level-headed members of the Corleone family without the internal conflict. Of course, the happy home can’t last, because this movie needs David to be in avenging mode, or at least protecting mode. This will likely come at the hands of Conejo (Jose “Conejo” Martin”), a new player who wants to take over the Los Angeles gang scene despite leading shootouts himself and only having like three guards at his house for protection.

“The Tax Collector” is filled with tasteful artistry and tasteless language and violence. Ayer brings a stylistic flair to the opening titles, closing credits, and action scenes that hasn’t yet worn out its welcome, but is within about one movie of doing so. I have to admit, a torture scene and a scene in a van did successfully get me to wince (though the dozens of interchangeable shootings and pointless knifeplay did not). This movie needs to thank its lucky stars for Shia LaBeouf, who could probably be doing any number of rewarding indie movies instead of playing second banana in this unoriginal tripe. Scenes of him casually exchanging dialogue with Soto in a car are actually done well, a rarity in a crime movie that isn’t “Pulp Fiction.” But outside of one or two elements, this is a lousy by-the-numbers thriller that takes forever for the thrills to kick in. If this does become a franchise, I look forward to skipping the sequels.

 

Grade: C-

2:39 pm est          Comments

The Secret Garden

            It’s been a while since I reviewed a kids’ movie. “Scoob!” was the last one, all the way back in May. There’s a pleasantness to these movies that I missed. Obviously, kids’ movies can get into dark subject matter the same way movies for grown-ups can be light, and indeed this movie is heavy on characters dealing with loss and estrangement. But this movie, like most kids’ movies, is quick to turn those storm clouds into a rainbow. And it’s in a way the whole family can enjoy, with plenty of bright colors and whimsy, but no lame physical humor or obnoxious pop music.

            The movie, based on a classic novel, follows 10-year-old Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) as she loses her parents in India and goes to live with her mysterious uncle Archibald Craven (Colin Firth) at his huge estate in England. Mary is miserable and spoiled, unable to dress herself and refusing to express emotion. Archibald is a miserable recluse who spends his days mourning the loss of his wife ten years earlier. Archibald has a son named Colin (Edan Hayhurst) who is also miserable and spoiled, confined to a bed with a spinal condition of dubious legitimacy. What could possibly make these characters snap out of their funk? A dog, of course. Okay, a dog that leads them to the secret garden.

            Colin’s mother started the secret garden, but no one has been in it for ten years because Colin has been bedridden and Archibald is too mopey to bother with it. Mary and Dickon (Amir Wilson), the brother of chipper servant girl Martha (Isis Davis), find the garden and decide they need to show it to Colin because it possibly has magical rejuvenating powers that could heal his spine. At the very least Colin should see it because he’s missing out on a beautiful garden that his mother undoubtedly felt was his birthright.

            It’s the garden itself that sells the movie. Bringing this setting to life requires excellent cinematography, and this movie nails it. Vibrant reds, blues, yellows, and pinks are featured, and even a dying brown during a sad scene is at least a memorably ugly color. But your takeaway will be the greens. Who knew green came in so many lush, perfect shades? It’s also worth mentioning that the garden is sprawling, as its magic properties apparently include the ability to be larger than the dimensions of its walls. This is at least the third movie I’ve seen this year to be disorienting like this, but this is the first time I’ve enjoyed it.

            A few minor quibbles: it’s sometimes hard to understand the dialogue with the actors’ accents, especially from Julie Walters as the estate’s head housekeeper. I found it hard to buy Egerickx and Hayhurst as initially-unpleasant children, which I guess is a testament to the young actors’ natural likeability. Perhaps my biggest gripe is that I wasn’t crazy about the writing of the Dickon character. The screenplay relies on him too much for strictly functional purposes, like when other characters need help from someone handy with tools or familiar with the estate. There’s one scene where Martha tells Mary that Dickon will lose much more than she will if they both get in trouble together, and Mary (and the movie) just blows off the class discrepancy, which is also a racial discrepancy, instead of considering that Dickon has his own set of challenges.

            A few rough edges aside, this is a delightful take on “The Secret Garden.” I wish I’d been able to catch the film’s outstanding visuals on the big screen, but then again a theatrical release might have seen it swallowed up by more marketable properties. Speaking of having to watch the film at home, there’s a timely message here about finding treasures wherever you live. Kids can certainly take that message to heart, and some adults can probably use it too.

 

Grade: B

2:38 pm est          Comments

The Rental

            “The Rental” is a thriller set at, what else, a rental house. Rental houses like the one in this movie are essentially hotels, and horror has a long proud history with hotels. There was “Psycho” back in 1960, “The Shining” in 1980, and a season of “American Horror Story” that won Lady Gaga a Golden Globe in 2015. Then again, a rental house was also the setting for “You Should Have Left,” which as of this writing is unlikely to be unseated as the Worst Movie of 2020, so the setup isn’t infallible. The point is that these movies love to exploit the creepiness that comes with sleeping, showering, and living in places that are not yours.

            The group of renters includes Charlie (Dan Stevens), a hotshot professional; Michelle (Alison Brie), Charlie’s somewhat-marginalized wife; Josh (Jeremy Allen White), Charlie’s screwup brother; and Mina (Sheila Vand), Charlie’s business partner and Josh’s girlfriend. Nobody is willing to say it, but both romantic relationships are on shaky ground because Charlie clearly has feelings for Mina. The characters’ relationships go through some twists and turns throughout the movie, and we wonder if any of it will matter once the “be afraid of unknown domiciles” element kicks in.

            The quartet rent the extravagant house, which sits on the edge of a cliff overlooking an ocean that is practically begging to swallow victims, from a creep named Taylor (Toby Huss). Taylor doesn’t like dogs (Josh secretly has one in tow), barely conceals his racism, and perhaps worst of all, has a key to the house. The characters are varied in how threatened they feel by Taylor, but they are unanimous in disliking him. There is a sixth player in the game known only as The Man, which is fitting because the character has no personality, so he deserves nothing more than a vague descriptor for a name.

            Drama between the four main characters takes up a lot of screen time, but it’s compelling drama. If other elements didn’t have to come into play eventually, this could have been a movie or stage drama unto itself. But there is a scene coming where a camera is discovered in a shower head, fatal decisions are made, and we’re forced to consider the bigger picture.

            At first, this isn’t a bad thing. Even as tension escalates and emotions flare, there is still a tautness and understandability that I appreciated. Then the film switches subgenres and becomes a mess. A villain emerges and this person’s motives and goals are nonsensical. Director Dave Franco would have you believe they are “ambiguous,” as if the true terror comes from the holes you fill in with your imagination, but I say it’s just sloppy writing. This point is tough to articulate without getting into spoilers, but I highly doubt that any villain that cares about Issue A is going to care much about Issue B and vice versa. Yet this villain cares about both issues and there’s a redundancy to the final act that I can’t overlook.

            “The Rental” comes frustratingly close to getting a recommendation from me. It’s definitely in the upper echelon of films I’ve seen this year, considering I’ve been on a steady diet of On Demand for the past four months. But this cast, these characters, and definitely the audience deserve a better ending than what the movie gives them. Supposedly it all plays into a moral about how travelers are too trusting of unfamiliar living spaces, but that point has been made before in better movies. Let’s say you have the choice between watching this movie in theaters or watching it at home for half the cost. I’d say it’s not quite worthy of first-run prices, but it might be worth a “Rental.”

 

Grade: C

2:37 pm est          Comments

Force of Nature

            I could tell “Force of Nature” was a bomb based on the casting alone. The biggest name attached to this movie is Mel Gibson, whose prolific history of public meltdowns makes him an albatross to any project carrying his name. But he still has his fans from “Lethal Weapon” and “Braveheart,” and he even directed “Hacksaw Ridge” to a Best Picture Oscar nomination four years ago. So maybe there’s still “some” room in Hollywood for him. Then there’s Emile Hirsch, who in 2015 was charged and convicted of assaulting a female studio executive. The guy should not have a career anymore. I guess somebody connected to this movie thought Hirsch had enough clout leftover from “Speed Racer” and “Into the Wild” that his name could be a boon to this film. And if you’re thinking, “enough with the actors’ personal lives, how are they in the vacuum of this movie?” they’re terrible. Gibson lazily relies on “grouchy” affectations and Hirsch is awkward and unconvincing as a cop. These roles could easily have been played by non-trainwreck actors, probably to better effect, though it’s not like better actors would be able to save this dismal material.

            The film is a “Die Hard” knockoff where our heroes are trapped in an apartment building during both a hurricane and an invasion of violent thieves led by a man called John the Baptist (David Zayas). Cops Cardillo (Hirsch) and Peña (Stephanie Cayo) are called to evacuate the building, only to find out that some of the residents don’t want to leave. Former cop Ray (Gibson) doesn’t want to leave because he knows his doctor daughter Troy (Kate Bosworth) wants to take him to the hospital for a humiliating medical procedure. Elderly German Bergkamp (Jorge Luis Ramos) wants to protect the paintings that John the Baptist wants to steal. Distrustful-of-cops Griffin (Will Catlett) is willing to evacuate, but only after he feeds a hundred pounds of supermarket meat to his mysterious pet. The film is clearly building to a scene where the pet attacks the bad guys – Chekov’s gun and all that.

            The action is exactly what you’d expect from a crummy On Demand movie – rainy shootouts, shaky fistfights, and bad guys who always give up the element of surprise. Since the action doesn’t start up for a while, we get that overdone trope where the film opens in the middle of a random action scene and then cuts to a few hours earlier. No doubt the film wants us in suspense over who survives the opening fight: main character Cardillo or a henchman who’s like the fourth guy from the top.

            The drama is even worse than the action. Cardillo is haunted by a fatal mistake from his past. Other characters tell him that it wasn’t his fault, but it totally was, though the victim and a third party were idiots too. There’s somehow time for a relationship between Cardillo and Troy, which is not only ridiculous and far-fetched, but I think the movie should have made Peña the love interest for Cardillo instead. The way she pushes him in an opening scene is something he needs in his life. Also, the film throws in some mentions of racial profiling and the Holocaust, as if checking these items off a “wokeness list” will automatically make the film deeper.

            The ending of “Force of Nature” is annoyingly abrupt, but I suppose it’s a blessing in disguise if it means I have to spend less time with this awful movie. Nothing about this movie is original (save for the pet) or even likeable (save for Cayo). This movie never should have been made, and the fact that it was made means that some deplorable people earned paychecks, so there’s that depressing thought on top of everything else.

 

Grade: D

2:36 pm est          Comments

Relic

            If you like haunted house horror movies, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that “Relic” is much better than “You Should Have Left,” that awful Kevin Bacon movie from last month that is very likely to wind up as my choice for Worst Movie of 2020. I mean it, if you like things going bump in the night and disorienting houses with weird dimensions, this is the superior film. The bad news is that “superior” is relative. Just because I think “Relic” is better than that assault on my brain cells doesn’t mean I’d go so far as to recommend it.

            The story sees the emotionally distant Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) summoned to the spacious home of Kay’s elderly mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) because the old woman has gone missing. The police are called and there’s community-wide worry, but Edna pops up in the house a few days later like nothing happened. It’s great that she’s okay (apart from a black bruise on her chest that looks suspiciously similar to mold gradually overtaking the house), but Kay and Sam are now faced with the task of making sure Edna doesn’t go wandering off again. She’s not mentally fit to live on her own, the nearest nursing home is too depressing, and Kay’s career doesn’t allow her to give her mother the full-time care she needs (despite Sam’s insistence that it’s her daughterly duty).

            Kay and Sam agree to stay at Edna’s house until they can figure something out. Everything worsens – Edna’s dementia, the tension between Kay and Sam, suspicious shadows and bumps in the night, and of course the mold. Most notable is the deterioration of Edna, both mentally and physically. The bruise on her chest grows until it could be mistaken for a shirt, and she’s suffering additional cuts and injuries that she may be inflicting on herself. Speaking of her behavior, she nearly tears off Sam’s finger snatching back a ring that she herself had given her, is so scared of her surroundings that she makes Kay check under the bed for monsters, and gets rid of old photos by burying albums in the yard and eating the pictures. She’s drifting away from her loved ones, but this being a horror movie, it’s also possible that she’s the only one who knows what’s really going on with the strangeness of the house.

            Although this film is Australian (good luck understanding some of the dialogue through the accents), it takes a sharp-turn into Japanese-style horror at the end. It all has to do with the process of grieving, whether over the actual loss of a loved one to death, or the non-literal loss through Alzheimer’s. But boy, does this movie have a freaky way of symbolizing this theme. The ending of this film is gross and disturbing, and at the same time, tender and touching. It’s an excellent sequence, I just wish the film had done a better job of leading up to it.

            “Relic” prides itself on being a “slow burn” horror movie, but I say it’s just bad at being scary for the first hour. It tries to wring jump scares out of mundane things like faucets being turned on and clothes being pushed out of the way. The film’s defenders will say something about how these scenes establish that the house itself is scary, but the real explanation is that the film senses it’s losing its audience, so it needs to throw in jump scares whether they make sense or not. As for the characters, Kay and Sam aren’t very interesting. At least Edna is sympathetic in some scenes, chilling in others, but always compelling. It’s a slog to get to the rewarding ending of this movie, and that rewarding ending is coming, but it’s so little fun getting there that I can’t recommend this movie overall.

 

Grade: C

2:35 pm est          Comments

The Outpost

            A few days ago, I reconnected with a friend that I hadn’t seen since before the theater shutdown last March. He asked me the standard pleasantry, “Seen any good movies lately?” and I had to tell him, “No, not a single one.” I hadn’t seen a movie that I felt was worth recommending since “Onward” back in February (my June recommendation for “Uncut Gems” doesn’t count because I saw that movie in December of last year). But a few days later, I finally saw a movie that broke the streak in “The Outpost.” This movie has a climactic sequence that belongs on the big screen with theater-grade sound equipment more than anything I’ve seen this year, including “Onward.”

            The bad news is that it’s kind of a slog to get there. The film takes place at a U.S. military outpost in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2009 (at least that was the real-life chronology, the movie may be fictionalizing a shorter timeline). Since almost every character with dialogue is a soldier with their head near-shaved, it’s distractingly hard to tell them apart. Lead actor Scott Eastwood has a mustache, that’s somewhat helpful. Orlando Bloom is advertised for this movie, he’s the one having a noticeably hard time hiding his British accent. There’s a guy with glasses, and a few I could tell apart by skin tone, but that’s it. I had to look up which character was played by third lead Caleb Landry Jones (it’s a guy named Carter), and even then I could only tell which one he was because he sounded like the one who had done a lot of crying recently. The names of about fifteen soldiers are flashed up really quickly at the beginning, and I was thinking, “I hope I’m not supposed to remember all of this.” There’s so much text onscreen in the first five minutes that I was afraid I wouldn’t be so much watching this movie as reading it.

            Then we get about an hour of watching the soldiers go about their daily lives, with the outpost passing from one leader to another. This is a necessary evil of military movies, the humanization of characters we know aren’t all going to make it to the end. A montage of phone calls to loved ones is particularly touching – but also ominous. Then again, a lot of the dialogue in these scenes consists of joking around, and these guys aren’t great with their comedic timing. I’m not saying they’re terrible, but I’ve heard funnier, more endearing jokes in other military movies.

            The climactic battle sequence starts 1 hour and 7 minutes in, and goes until 1 hour and 42 minutes. Those 35 minutes are incredible. “1917” recently won three Oscars for battle-based special effects, and this film matches its prowess – maybe even surpasses it. Bullets are whizzing by the characters at every turn, or at least they “whiz by” if they’re lucky. I was honestly hoping some of them would get hit just to put an end to the nightmare, but these are heroes and they persevere. Needless to say, the characters’ real-life counterparts cannot be thanked enough for their service.

            “The Outpost” may look like middling On Demand fare from its advertising, and the first hour is nothing special by war movie standards, but once the battle kicks in, all is forgiven. This would easily be the best movie of the year were there not so much junk at the beginning weighing it down. As it is, it is merely the film with the best sequence of the year. Still, that’s enough to get an overall recommendation from me, at a time when I needed reminding that there are still movies worth recommending.

 

Grade: B-

2:34 pm est          Comments

First Cow

            There is a debate within the criticism community over whether it is a valid criticism to call a work “boring.” I feel perfectly justified in saying a movie is boring if the goal of the movie is be “exciting” and I find it poorly-paced, witless, or incompetent. The “Machete” movies, for example, are boring to me because they can never pull off the thrills that they promise. But then there are movies like “First Cow” that don’t make a promise to be “exciting” in the traditional sense and there is certainly a temptation to call them “boring,” but at the same time I get the impression that the filmmaker made exactly the film they wanted to make. Is it fair to punish them for that?

More than any other film this year, I think “First Cow” is perfectly in keeping with the director’s vision. I imagine Josh Trank envisioned better makeup for “Capone.” I imagine Jon Stewart envisioned funnier jokes for “Irresistible.” I imagine David Koepp envisioned *Insert Any Component of a Decent Movie Here* for “You Should Have Left.” But nothing got away from director Kelly Reichardt here. If it’s onscreen, it’s because she wants you to see it. If you don’t want to see it, what are you doing watching her movie? It is important to remember while watching “First Cow” that this film, for better or worse, is very… deliberate.

The story follows cook Figowitz (John Magaro) and Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee) as they navigate the treacherous life of 1820’s Oregon. Figowitz wants to go into the hospitality industry, but given the setting, there isn’t much of an industry to speak of. King-Lu can turn any endeavor into a success, the duo just needs to find the right endeavor. Figowitz happens to want to make cakes that require milk. King-Lu helps him steal milk from the one cow in the territory, which belongs to rich landowner Chief Factor (Toby Jones). Soon the two are cooking up a scheme to sell cakes to the locals. This leads to them selling baked goods directly to Chief Factor. The snob is soon introducing them to more wealthy friends and this may lead to even more good fortune. They just have to keep the secret ingredient (or rather, the source of the secret ingredient) under wraps. Stealing milk might not be worth the death penalty, strictly speaking, but Chief Factor is essentially in a position to carry out any sentence he wants.

Almost all of the action (and there is very little action) takes place in the second half of the movie. The first half is all about establishing atmosphere. The Oregon landscape is beautiful, but unforgiving. Sensitive soul Figowitz doesn’t fit in with the surly local society, but he’s even less fit for roughing it in the woods with a pack of fur trappers. Fortunately, shack life with the ever-optimistic King-Lu is a nice in-between. Survival is still a job in and of itself, and a lot of early scenes are simply devoted to chores. Some will find the very act of watching these scenes to be a chore.

I can understand people thinking “First Cow” is brilliant because the direction is so tight and the characters’ journey so inspiring. I can understand people hating it because it moves at a snail’s pace. I’m personally somewhere in the middle: I can see a frustratingly easy way the main characters could get themselves out of trouble and I found the ending disappointingly abrupt even though it fits in with information that has already been presented. And yes, I think the film could have eased up on some of the scenes where nothing exciting happens. But at the same time, I recognize that these scenes are important to the setting of the film, if not its narrative. This film lends itself very well to studying in a classroom, but I can’t say I recommend it for entertainment value.

 

Grade: C

2:33 pm est          Comments

Irresistible

            “Irresistible” is political comedy from director Jon Stewart. It is the latest medium-profile release to go straight to On Demand, and unlike a number of the movies I’ve been reviewing lately, I think it could have done well for itself in theaters. It wouldn’t have been a blockbuster or anything, nor would it have been an awards contender, but it could have gotten a nice little niche audience of adults who were tired of having special effects blasted in their faces. It would have fit into the slot where “Long Shot” made $30 million last year. I know that isn’t saying much, but after two weeks of reviewing movies that should be stricken from the Earth, that’s relatively high praise.

            Stewart’s former “Daily Show” cohort Steve Carell stars as Gary Zimmer, a Democratic campaign manager from Washington D.C. stuck in a funk after the 2016 election. He sees a Youtube video of Wisconsin farmer Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) giving an impassioned speech at a town hall meeting, and decides to go to the struggling small town of Deerlaken to help Hastings run for mayor against popular Republican incumbent Braun (Brent Sexton). He says he’s doing this to help the Democratic party increase its presence in the Midwest, but it probably has more to do with him simply needing a project to work on.

            Much of the film is just light jabs about the culture clash between the city slicker and the small-town locals. Gary expects his hotel room to have wi-fi, it doesn’t. He expects volunteers to respond to bossiness and condescension, they don’t. He expects the food to be terrible, it isn’t (to his delight). I expected Hastings to dismissively continue doing farm chores while Gary is trying to talk to him. I was right about that, but at least this film doesn’t do it over and over again like in “The Last Full Measure.”

            Things pick up when the Braun campaign gets help from Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), Gary’s Republican rival. She’s able to raise ample funds for the campaign, which Gary and Jack have to match with excessive fundraising of their own. The election soon turns into a war of Gary and Faith’s egos, some embarrassing mistakes are made, and people are liable to get hurt. None of this sits well with Jack’s principled daughter Diana (Mackenzie Davis). The movie teases a romantic connection between the 57-year-old Carell and the 33-year-old Davis that creeped me out, but is handled rightfully.

            This being a Jon Stewart comedy, it’s no surprise that this turns into an “issue” movie, but I can’t say what that issue is without getting into spoilers. I will say that the movie never convinced me that it was an interesting issue. Even disqualifying the last six months of our nation’s history, did Stewart really think that this issue was a high priority, one worthy of the time and resources it took to make an entire movie? This is a rather toothless endeavor for an artist of his influence.

            “Irresistible” may not work as cutting political satire, but it sometimes works as a comedy. Carell with his social clumsiness is still one of the best comedic actors of his generation and Byrne is always good for laughs with her trash-talk. Then again, this movie is a noticeable step down from better work those actors have done for directors like Adam McKay and Paul Feig. I think the problem is Stewart, who seems less adept at managing comedic timing from behind the camera than in front of it. This movie should just revel in the small victory that is me not feeling strongly about it one way or the other.

 

Grade: C

2:32 pm est          Comments

You Should Have Left

            “You Should Have Left” is the latest film to “skip a planned theatrical release” and go straight to On Demand, supposedly to placate audiences stuck at home while theaters are closed. But make no mistake, this movie is not sacrificing a lucrative theatrical release for your benefit. It saw a weekend that was relatively free of new On Demand releases and it jumped in that spot so it could play to audiences in some form without any competition from better movies. If it had been released in theaters, it would have been eaten alive, though I suspect going straight to On Demand was always its destiny. Such is often the fate of uninspired garbage like this.

            The movie opens with a little girl named Ella (Avery Essex) hearing noises in her bedroom. She goes through the usual steps of checking on red herrings before something surprises her. That something is a creepy man named Stetler, who wants to tell her a secret about her father Theo (Kevin Bacon). Then Ella wakes up from her nightmare, and good, it was all a dream. Then Stetler appears again, and this time Theo wakes up from a dream. Theo goes into the bathroom and curses his nightmares.

            Three big problems with the opening scene: 1) Stetler is very obviously played by Kevin Bacon, to the point where I didn’t know until much later that I was supposed to think he and Theo were different characters. 2) the double jump scare is cheap and illogical, since this is supposed to be Theo’s nightmare. 3) Theo curses the nightmares to nobody in particular, except of course for the audience, so the movie can lazily establish that this character does in fact have nightmares.

            We then get a taste of the life Theo leads with Ella and his wife Susanna (Amanda Seyfried). He’s a banker accused of murdering his ex-wife, though he was acquitted. Susanna is an actress about to go on a two-month shoot in London who wants to get in a family vacation before she leaves. She and Theo settle on staying in a huge house in Wales. Strangely, each one thinks the other found the listing.

            The family goes to the house and Theo starts losing his mind. He kicks out Susanna and continues to have nightmares and hallucinations about doors and hallways that aren’t there. Ella has similar nightmares validating Theo’s uneasy feelings, and together they figure out that something is very wrong with the house. The two get stuck in a sort of alternate dimension where they keep getting lost in the house and trying to escape only to keep looping back. If Theo wants to rescue Ella and himself, he’ll have to face some personal demons, because this house in Wales is well in tune with what people did out in Los Angeles.

            This movie doesn’t offer up any original scares or compelling characters or drama, instead just running through a checklist of things that are expected of haunted house movies (cute kid, tortured parent, bumps in the night, prophetic locals, and of course characters not getting out of the house until it’s too late). Seemingly all the energy is put into the Theo/Stetler twist, which I refuse to respect as a twist. It would still be easily guessable, but at least a step up if the alter ego wore a mask or we only saw him in silhouette. But there is no confusion that the guy is Kevin Bacon in a hat and glasses. All mystery leaves this film from the moment we see the character, and with it, any chance the movie had of being taken seriously. Don’t watch this movie and realize that “You Should Have Left” a long time ago, just don’t start it in the first place.

 

Grade: D-

2:31 pm est          Comments

Capone

            Tom Hardy isn’t very convincing as Al Capone in “Capone.” Granted, I’m not an expert on the real Capone, but I seriously doubt that he naturally acted like a terrible Tom Hardy performance or looked like he was wearing unconvincing makeup. Earlier this year I wrote about how the unconvincing CGI dog greatly detracted from “The Call of the Wild.” In that case, the fake-looking main character made a good movie bad. In this case, the fake-looking main character makes a bad movie worse. It’s not like this movie was on track to be decent anyway, but the everything about the character at its center makes it downright painful.

            The film follows notorious mob boss Alphonse “Al” (though he’s called “Fons” throughout the film by his friends and family) Capone through the last year of his life. The gangster famously went to prison on tax evasion charges, but he’s been released to live in his Florida mansion with his wife Mae (Linda Cardellini, respectable except for a fantasy sequence). He should be happy to be living in luxury surrounded by family, but he’s miserable that he’s losing his grip on his kingdom, not to mention reality. He confides in his buddy Johnny (Matt Dillon, introduced in a sex scene that is not only gratuitous, but illogical) that he hid $10 million somewhere - money he could use to pay off his debts so his mansion doesn’t have to be sold off piece by piece – but he can’t remember where. Everybody wants to find this money first, from his family to his doctor (Kyle MacLachlan) to the FBI, but nobody’s finding anything unless Fons can navigate his syphilis-afflicted mind and come up with the location himself.

            Capone’s life is riddled with problems that aren’t going to go away. There’s his financial woes and his worsening mental state, there’s also an issue with an illegitimate son, scrutiny from the FBI, dissention (or at least perceived dissention) within his family and staff, an alligator that steals away his fish, and the fact that his body is betraying him in the form of a stroke and incontinence (oh so much incontinence). He also has hallucinations and nightmares, which are little more than an excuse to have something interesting happen in this film. These dreams usually consist of him trying to connect with his estranged son and stumbling onto something unpleasant, including one of the bloodiest scenes in recent memory.

            Most of the film, however, is Capone just being Capone, going about his life. And what an unwatchable life he leads. I’ve already touched on his unnatural appearance, but even worse than that is the way he sounds. His voice – much like his face – is noticeably not something that emits from a normal human, at least not one that isn’t voicing a cartoon character. His health has reduced his speech to little more than grunts and garbles, and even those are obstructed by an ever-present cigar. The doctor at one point tells him he has to give he has to give up the cigars to my momentary gratitude, only to suggest that they be replaced with carrots, which make him similarly incomprehensible and add a gross element of food-chomping. And I get the feeling that Tom Hardy is laughing through all this, pleased in his ability to annoy me so thoroughly.

            “Capone” is the worst movie I’ve seen all year. I’ve lost a lot of respect for Tom Hardy, thinking this performance was passable. The same goes for writer-director Josh Trank, though I will say that even this is better than that awful “Fantastic Four” movie that even he hates. Even with this era’s limited entertainment options, I’m sure you can find something better than this.

 

Grade: D

2:29 pm est          Comments

The King of Staten Island

            Back in 2015, director Judd Apatow briefly turned comedian Amy Schumer into a movie star with “Trainwreck,” a semiautobiographical film where the protagonist’s actions were fictionalized, but much of the dialogue, situations, and character traits were taken from Schumer’s own life. Now Apatow hopes to find similar success with Pete Davidson in “The King of Staten Island,” where Davidson plays a fictionalized version of himself and has conversations he’s probably had in some form in his personal life. Even though the film is based on the real life of an individual with a unique story to tell, the film still can’t feel anything but formulaic.

            Davidson plays Scott Carlin, a 24-year-old slacker with a myriad of mental health issues, many of which are related to the death of his firefighter father (killed in a nondescript hotel fire and not in the 9/11 attacks like Davidson’s real father) when he was a child. He spends his days hanging out with his friends, annoying his widowed mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) and sister Claire (Maude Apatow), and taking his girlfriend Kelsey (Bel Powley) for granted. He won’t get a job or take his relationship seriously because he figures people with his emotional baggage shouldn’t be in the workforce or making a partner miserable (that’s his excuse for his laziness, anyway). The closest thing he has to an aspiration is to become a tattoo artist, and even to this he doesn’t really commit, practicing goofy designs of his choice on anyone who’s willing to offer up their skin… including a nine-year-old boy.

            The boy’s father is Ray (Bill Burr), a firefighter who is none to happy about the damage done to his underage son. He shows up at Scott’s house to yell at him, but meets Margie at the door, and doesn’t feel like yelling at her. In fact, he’s soon asking her out for coffee, and the two pursue a relationship. This does not sit well with Scott, who doesn’t like Ray and is opposed to his mother dating another fireman. He doesn’t even approve of firemen dating anybody, since there may come a day where they don’t come home to their loved ones, a belief he is only too happy to share with Ray and his chief (Steve Buscemi).

            With Ray quickly becoming a stronger presence in the household, and Margie wanting to give him a push anyway, Scott soon finds himself fighting to retain his effort-free existence. It shouldn’t be a spoiler to say that he is going to have to learn a few things about responsibility, the way Seth Rogen’s character did in quintessential Apatow comedy “Knocked Up.” Really, it’s the same arc all protagonists go through if they’re established as lazy at the beginning of a movie. Supposedly this one is different because it has touches of Davidson’s real-life story and personality thrown in, but I’m sorry, going by this movie I would think that Davidson’s life was only averagely exciting at best and downright uninteresting at worst.

            “The King of Staten Island” boasts dedicated performances from Burr, Buscemi, Powley, Tomei, and even Davidson when he’s not doing tired stoner schtick. The script is often funny and sometimes poignant in later stages, but as with many Apatow movies, there’s too much of it (do we really need a whole sequence to establish that the immature Scott has a “talent” for fitting in at drug-fueled college parties?), especially for a story this tired. Maybe it’s that Apatow has gone to this well too many times or that something isn’t firing right with the unproven Davidson, but for the second week in a row I’m reviewing a movie that went straight to On Demand, and for the second week in a row I get the feeling that the movie wouldn’t have been able to survive long in theaters.

 

Grade: C

2:28 pm est          Comments

The High Note

            “The High Note” is the latest would-be theatrical release got go straight to On Demand. It’s arguable that it should have gone straight to On Demand, since it might not have been able to cut it in theaters. I know stars Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross have their fan bases, but this middling showbiz movie was going to get squashed by whatever summer blockbuster was being pushed that weekend. Likewise, it probably can’t expect the same On Demand success that “Trolls World Tour” and “Scoob!” enjoyed, since those franchises had sizeable built-in audiences, but it surely will enjoy a modicum of success playing the “only new game in town” angle.

            Johnson stars as Maggie Sherwoode, the overworked assistant to music superstar Grace Davis (Ross, playing a character she insists is not based on her mother Diana Ross, but comparisons are unavoidable). Maggie is happy to serve Grace and bask in her presence, but she wants to do more in the music industry, specifically become a producer. She’s outspoken on steps Grace should take in her career, which angers Grace’s manager Jack (Ice Cube), who wants the star to settle into a financially-secure but creatively unfulfilling Vegas residency. She further angers Jack by offering Grace a recording of one of her greatest hits that she produced personally, which Grace prefers to the one produced by Jack’s arrogant high-profile choice (Diplo). Jack chides Maggie for using Grace to further her own career as a producer, even though he’s being equally selfish in his management career.

            In her sparse free time, Maggie meets a talented singer named David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and decides that she wants to produce his music. She lies and says she’s a professional producer (the amateur work she did on that one Grace track does not count), and he agrees to confront his performance anxiety in order to take a shot at his dream. It should go without saying that Maggie and David’s interest in one another goes beyond music. It should also go without saying that this is the kind of movie where the main character’s lies and arrogance eventually catch up to her and she has to rebuild her relationships with both Grace and David. Does she have the hard work and determination to pull it off? Did we see her working hard for Grace early in the movie?

            Johnson is playing exactly the kind of character you’d expect for a movie like this, but the real draw here is Ross. For most of the movie, she plays exactly the kind of character I expected as well: a kooky diva (she’s not quite clear on the concept of getting food via drive-thru) who’s usually nice, but has little tolerance for dissent or failure. She’s humanized toward the end when she realizes that she needs to let go of some arrogance of her own, and I was impressed with Ross in these scenes. I was also impressed by her singing, which is merely alluded to in early stages of the film and caused me to question if Ross was cast for her ability to play a celebrity and not her ability to play a singer. All was well by the end.

            “The High Note” is a light, inoffensive, mostly-predictable movie, save for one sharp turn that seems like a cheat. I’ll be surprised if Ross doesn’t get nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress – Musical or Comedy (assuming that this non-theatrical movie qualifies for a Golden Globe and they even give out awards for this year). This movie isn’t going to rock anybody’s world, but if you’re in the mood for soft and stable, it’s a fine choice.

 

Grade: C

2:27 pm est          Comments

Uncut Gems

            The masks of Michael Myers and Ghostface scared me to death as a kid. I would spend hours at night lying awake hoping their visages wouldn’t appear before me. Today I regard “Halloween” and “Scream” as two of the greatest horror movies of all time because I respect their ability to push my buttons so effectively. “Uncut Gems,” while not a horror movie, is a film I respect for the same reasons. The film is a 135-minute anxiety attack that made me skittish for hours afterward, which is exactly the effect the movie wants to have, and oh how that goal has been accomplished.

            Adam Sandler stars as Howard Ratner, a jeweler who comes into possession of an enormous, valuable, and possibly cursed black opal. He’s already earmarked it for auction, but NBA star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) wants it, believing it to be good luck. Howard, who compulsively turns everything into a hustle, lets him borrow the opal to prove that it is indeed good luck. Of course, he then needs to get it back in time for the auction, and Garnett doesn’t exactly make a priority of returning his good luck charm.

            The opal may be worth as much as $1 million, and it’s just one source of stress in Howard’s life. He also has to juggle a gambling addiction, an impending divorce with his wife (Idina Menzel, shame she doesn’t get to do more here), a girlfriend (Julia Fox) who might be cheating on him with The Weeknd, a mountain of debt to his loan shark brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian), an automatic lock to his store that doesn’t unlock properly, drama with employees, drama with customers, numerous connections who know he’s untrustworthy, and a potential colon problem that serves as our introduction to the character. And that’s before getting into spoilers. Nothing is easy for Howard, but then again he doesn’t allow anything to be easy. He probably dismisses people as unambitious if they want to take a route that doesn’t give them a heart attack.

            At the center of it all is Sandler, giving the performance of a lifetime. If you automatically associate him with garbage comedies, then you’ll… be right about the better part of his career, but he’s capable of greatness too, and this movie proves it. He makes you sympathize with a detestable character, a little weasel who in another movie would be a sleazy side character that gets killed after one or two scenes, and you’d probably just shrug. I was panicking just watching Sandler’s performance, and he had to give it (and Josh and Benny Safdie had to direct it, big kudos to them). I’m sure the Academy snubbed Sandler because of his history of movies like “Jack & Jill,” but forget about those, this is Oscar-worthy work.

            The film’s ending is more of an epilogue to the nerve-racking sequence that came before it. It’s intense and important things happen, but what led up to it was so insane that even the final developments seem anticlimactic, perhaps because they are so inevitable, though even then there are a few surprises. Chalk it up to Howard’s insistence on going through life wheeling and dealing and trying to keep his life from crashing for just one more minute. It’s no way to live, but it’s a heck of a story to follow. “Uncut Gems” is a highly respectable form of torture.

 

Grade: A-

2:25 pm est          Comments

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

            “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” tells the story of reporter Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who is encouraged to reconcile with his estranged father Jerry (Chris Cooper) by interview subject and children’s TV legend Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). Despite Hanks-as-Rogers being the focal point of the film’s advertising and award campaigning, and the fact that the film’s very title is a “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” reference, this is not a full-on Fred Rogers movie. The 2018 documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a full-on Rogers movie, and seeing that superior film so close to this film’s release made me even more aware of the newer film’s shortcomings.

            Vogel is a cynical individual who holds a grudge against his father for disappearing from his life when his mother was dying. To distract him from his tumultuous personal life, his editor assigns him to do a fluff piece on “living saint” Rogers. Vogel thinks the assignment is beneath him, save for the possibility that he can expose Rogers as a phony unworthy of his pedestal. He meets Rogers, who takes an interest in him and his family and hardly wants to talk about himself. It’s as if he’s just as caring as his reputation, but that can’t possibly be the case, can it?

            Vogel and Rogers meet more and more, and Rogers inserts himself further and further into the situation with Vogel and his father. Soon he’s calling up members of Vogel’s family without his knowledge and possibly showing up in New York when he’s supposed to be in Pittsburgh. The film almost becomes a stalker movie at one point, which is certainly a bold way to depict Mister Rogers. If he were a character on his show, he wouldn’t be himself so much as notoriously intrusive mailman Mr. McFeely. Eventually, of course, Vogel learns to accept the helping hand Rogers is offering him and recognizes that he is about as incorruptible as they come.

            We’re all here for the Hanks performance, as it seems almost too perfect that the quintessential likeable actor is playing the quintessential likeable human being. And I’m sorry, but Hanks only ever captures about 98% of Rogers’ sincerity to me. If I had grown up with this version of Rogers, I would be questioning his authenticity just as much as Vogel does. For this performance, Hanks slows down his voice to a level that passes Rogers’ real cadence and comes off as a leftover Forrest Gump bit. There’s undeniably heart in the performance, but I was always aware that it was a performance.

            But the biggest problem with “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is all the focus on the non-Rogers Vogel storyline. It’s not that Vogel’s journey to forgiveness is a “bad” or uncompelling one, but this movie knows perfectly well that it sold me on Mister Rogers and it needs to focus on delivering Mister Rogers. I suppose it could be argued that this movie makes it clear that Fred was a humble guy who wouldn’t want to hog the spotlight, not even in his own biopic. To that I say that he put himself front and center on a show with his name in the title, so obviously he had a perfectly understandable craving for the kind of attention this movie should have given him.

 

Grade: C
2:24 pm est          Comments

Scoob!

            It has been over a month since “Trolls World Tour” took the On Demand world by storm, offering families the chance to catch a shiny new movie while stuck in quarantine. That film took in an estimated $100 million in revenue in its first two weeks, success that “Scoob!” is hoping to repeat with its own On Demand release. There’s really no reason why it shouldn’t. Like “Trolls World Tour,” the film is a colorful animated adventure based on a well-known property playing to an audience that doesn’t have a lot of first-run options. The only obstacle I can see to the film achieving wild success is that it isn’t very good.

            The film actually opens quite promisingly, with young pup Scooby-Doo (voice acting extraordinaire Frank Welker) meeting lonely child Shaggy (Iain Armitage), who adopts him and takes him home to his collection of Blue Falcon superhero action figures. Shaggy’s first friend is soon followed by his second, third, and fourth, in the form of jock Fred (Pierce Gagnon), sweet Daphne (Mckenna Grace), and smart Velma (Ariana Greenblatt). The quintet discover that they have a knack for exposing criminals posing as monsters, and they pursue this hobby together into adulthood, where they want to make financially-secure careers of their operation. The problem is that while Fred (Zac Efron), Daphne (Amanda Seyfried), and Velma (Gina Rodriguez) are all perfectly competent detectives, Shaggy (Will Forte) and Scooby are now boneheaded slackers who are useless at best and liabilities at worst. Gone is the charming, relatable Shaggy from the beginning, and in his place is the undriven stereotype that fans supposedly love.

            There’s then a mess of a plot where Shaggy and Scooby get attacked by robots working for Hanna-Barbera mainstay villain Dick Dastardly (Jason Isaacs), who needs Scooby-Doo to open the portal to a treasure left behind by Alexander the Great. They get abducted by new Blue Falcon Brian (Mark Wahlberg), who is taking over the role from his retired father and doing a lousy job of it, making his assistants, human Dee Dee (Kiersey Clemons) and robotic dog Dynomutt (Ken Jeong) do all the work while he hogs the credit. Meanwhile the rest of the team goes on a road trip to rescue Shaggy and Scoob, who they think have been kidnapped by evildoers, even though they’re fine on Blue Falcon’s ship. Also, the movie teases a falling out between Shaggy and Scooby-Doo because Blue Falcon wants Scoob to become a superhero and Shaggy wants him to remain a shiftless layabout like him.

            The big problem with the movie, aside from adult Shaggy being unlikeable and the jokes being generally unfunny (for example, Shaggy drags out a “the call is from adventure!” bit way too long), is that nobody asked for a Blue Falcon movie. The five core characters and a villain du jour are plenty, we don’t need the tired storyline about the blowhard having to learn humility. Though I will say that Dastardly is welcome as the villain, with an army of cute robots (one particularly adorable one is stuck with a dustbuster for a head) filling in nicely as henchmen while the adults in the audience patiently await the inevitable return of Muttley. Another Hanna-Barbera cameo voiced by Tracy Morgan I’ll say is a draw.

            It’s frustrating how much early potential “Scoob!” wastes. I was really enjoying Welker’s more conversational take on the character’s cadences, as opposed to the usual one-or-two-word contributions. But no, the movie has to have its characters fall into their usual tropes, and be so cluttered in action and easily-predictable “plot twists” that by the end it’s barely recognizable as “Scooby-Doo” anymore (Speaking of which, did we really need the funky abbreviated title when “Scooby-Doo” sells just fine?). There’s no reason to see this movie other than that it’s the only new game in town.

 

Grade: C-

2:23 pm est          Comments

Cats

            Since last week I reviewed the most recent winner of the Oscar for Best Picture in “Parasite,” I thought it would be fun to this week take a look at the most recent winner of the Razzie for Worst Picture in “Cats.” Like many people, I knew this movie had the award in the bag from the moment I saw the first trailer last July. The trailer played on an IMAX screen, in a theater sold out for “The Lion King,” and I swear I could feel a chill from all the joy being immediately sucked out of the room. There on the screen were some of the most hideously-constructed CGI characters ever to vex the human eye. The relatively stoic cats played by Judi Dench and Ian McKellen were bad enough, but the physically-active ones played by James Corden and Rebel Wilson were disturbing on many more levels thanks to their nauseatingly-rendered movements. The film was released in December, and its special effects were criticized so heavily that the existing prints had to be replaced with an “improved” version of the film two days later. The film bombed, of course, taking in only $27 million at the domestic box office, with much of the take attributed to people watching the film ironically, daring themselves to experience the trainwreck and live to tell the tale. So what do I think of this movie that is by all conceivable standards high in the running for Worst Picture of All Time? I say it’s bad, but it could be worse.

            The story follows the newly-abandoned Victoria (Razzie nominee Francesca Hayward) as she is taken in by the “Jellical” cats of London, particularly wannabe magician Mister Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), and interacts with their various eccentric personalities. The movie never makes it clear what a Jellical Cat is, exactly, but my guess is that it means cats that sing and dance and are basically humans with whiskers instead of anything resembling an actual cat. The Jellicals are all striving to be named Jellical Choice by leader Old Deuteronomy (Razzie nominee Dench), which means they’re allowed to die and be born again. Contenders include taskmaster of weaker species Jennyanydots (Razzie winner Wilson), peacocking Rum Tug Tugger (Jason Derulo), food scavenger Bustopher Jones (Razzie winner Corden), disgraced outcast Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), stage veteran Asparagus (McKellen), and the villainous Macavity (Idris Elba), who is trying to cheat to win with help from henchwoman Bombalurina (Taylor Swift).

Everything about the story is a big silly mess, but I can’t fault the movie too much for it since I know the whole thing is cribbed from the stage musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. I cannot extend the same forgiveness to the way this movie looks. Human faces are pasted unconvincingly onto slinky, fluffy bodies that I would never identify as cats save for the tails that are being shoved in my face by the gyrating cast at every opportunity. The limitations of stage costumes are one thing (though they do make emotional musical numbers like the standout “Memories” hard to take seriously), but this film’s special effects team had the opportunity to create smooth, intricate character designs, and what we get is one abomination after another.

And yet, if you can get past the hideous character designs (which is impossible), the unfunny “comedy” (which is equally impossible), all the obnoxious Jellical stuff in the dialogue (which is also impossible), and the creepy pseudosexual dancing (which I haven’t mentioned much, but is really impossible), “Cats” isn’t too bad of a movie. No matter what went wrong in post-production, the musical numbers clearly took talent and dedication, and the cast is admirably giving this project their all. Give me a high-flying disaster like this over a lazy effort like “A Madea Family Funeral” (which should have been named Worst Picture of 2019) any day. I recommend this movie as highly as I can recommend any undeniably bad movie.

 

Grade: C 
2:21 pm est          Comments

Parasite

            This past February, the South Korean film “Parasite” did something that no other foreign-language, foreign-produced “international” film had ever done: win the Oscar for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Whether this victory counts as an “upset” is a matter of debate (I personally thought “1917” would take it), but what isn’t debatable is that the Academy made an unusually outside-the-box choice, perhaps to offset criticisms that they played it too safe the year before when they gave Best Picture to the pleasing-but-not-challenging “Green Book.” Other than the theory that it was strictly a strategic move, what made the Academy buck the system and why for this film?

            The story follows the impoverished Kim family – father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam), and son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) as they worm their way into the lives of the wealthy Park family, the way a parasite does, I suppose. A friend needs the smart-but-unaccredited Ki-woo to fill in as an English tutor for the Parks’ daughter Da-hye (Jung Ji-so). Ki-woo notices that dim-witted mother Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) thinks her bratty son Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun) is an art genius and recommends Ki-jung to tutor him. Ki-jung creates a vacancy for Park family chauffer and recommends Ki-taek to fill the position. Ki-taek goes for the grand slam and gets Chung-sook hired as the Park family’s housekeeper, even though it means getting loyal housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) fired. The Kim family can now settle comfortably into roles adjacent to the high life. Heck, as long as the Park family doesn’t find out about it, they can live the high life themselves. There’s a bit of residual guilt over what they did to Moon-gwang, but there are plenty of lucrative jobs available to suddenly-unemployed older women, so she’ll be okay, right?

            It turns out that Moon-gwang is in fact not okay, though her reason has little to do with losing her income. There’s a scene where she and the Kims go down into the Park family basement to retrieve something she left behind and the characters all walk through a dark patch. Somehow we know that once they come out of that dark patch, these characters and this movie will never be the same again. The film has been mostly lighthearted up to this point, with the Kims playing loveable scam artists to the snobby marks Parks. But this movie didn’t win Best Picture on its merits as a scam-artist comedy, and it’s about to go to some much darker places. Korean films are known for being merciless to their most likeable characters, and as much as this film prides itself on being original and different, it isn’t necessarily about to break with that tradition.

            What stands out most about “Parasite” is its ability to switch tones very quickly. I’ve already touched on its beginnings as a lighthearted comedy, but later director Bong Joon Ho whips the viewer into scenes of devastating tragedy, disaster, even horror (and not the horror that’s inherent to tragedy and disaster, but traditional horror). Thus this is an incredibly unpredictable film, one that clearly took Academy voters on a wild ride. I can’t say I’m overly thrilled with it winning Best Picture, despite its gut-punch finale and the admittedly-inspirational story of it overcoming the language barrier. Some of the twists and complications seem to exist for the sake of adding twists and complications, and most of the film’s much-lauded social commentary basically boils down to, “people who have suffered have more colorful personalities than people who haven’t.” But by all means watch this unique, critically-acclaimed film and see if you find it more affecting than I did.

 

Grade: B

2:20 pm est          Comments

The Last Full Measure

            “The Last Full Measure” centers around the decades-long struggle to see U.S. Air Force Pararescueman William H. “Pits” Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine in flashbacks) awarded a much-deserved posthumous Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in Vietnam. The film’s production was almost as much of a struggle, having existed in early stages since the 90’s (though perhaps a delay from that was a blessing, as it allowed for a real-life happy ending in 2000 that could then provide the movie with a satisfying finale) and being bounced around from one studio to another with actors and backers coming and going, and generally getting lost in the system. On one hand, it’s almost impossible to say that a film with such noble subject matter didn’t deserve better. On the other, I can see why the film, for all its good intentions, wasn’t seen as creatively or commercially viable.

            The film follows the familiar formula of the “investigation” movie. You see it with detectives, you see it with reporters, in this case it’s a lawyer, Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan). Huffman is handed the thankless assignment by his sleazy buddy Stanton (Bradley Whitford) of assessing a request for a medal upgrade by Pits’ fellow airman Tulley (William Hurt). Huffman doesn’t understand why Tulley can’t just be satisfied with the Air Force Cross that Pits did receive, but Tulley is adamant that only the highest honor is fitting. Huffman, for his part, doesn’t care about the upgrade in the slightest at first. Objectivity is necessary to anyone in his position, but he’s so tactless and actively disinterested that he doesn’t register as anything more than a one-dimensional stock character – that of the cynic who will be won over by the passionate supporting characters by the end of the movie.

            Huffman interacts with those who knew Pits, from his still-living parents (Dianne Ladd and Christopher Plummer) to fellow soldiers whose lives he saved (Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and the late Peter Fonda) to a superior who is now a senator (Dale Dye) and isn’t too keen to have the Vietnam portion of his life brought before the public eye. Almost all the subjects are standoffish toward Huffman, so much so that they only ever talk to him while engaging in another activity – usually involving shooting a gun. The point of these attitudes is to communicate that these war veterans are jaded with a world that betrayed them, but is this really any way to treat the lone person who can get your friend a medal?

            Everybody gets a few juicy monologues about Pits making the ultimate sacrifice to save lives, Huffman starts believing in the cause, and the soldiers start believing in Huffman. The movie is extremely predictable, and not just because the film’s advertising (to be fair, corroborated by the real-life story) has made it no secret that Pits gets the Medal in the end. The script falls victim to genre standards, though it is occasionally punched up by the charismatic cast, who no doubt took the roles in this otherwise-unremarkable movie as a way of personally paying tribute to Pits and the many other unsung heroes of the Vietnam War.

Ultimately, “The Last Full Measure” is certainly an earnest endeavor by the cast and filmmakers, but it’s a “heavy” movie that doesn’t bring enough to the table creatively to be an awards contender, so its audience is limited to people looking for a specific brand of inspiration. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if the appeal isn’t immediately apparent, the film probably isn’t going to win you over.

 

Grade: C

2:19 pm est          Comments

The Gentlemen

            “The Gentlemen” marks director Guy Ritchie’s return to the genre that made him famous: snappy British crime thrillers. He’s best known for “Snatch,” “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” and movies of that ilk. He’s stepped away in the past few years to direct unrelated projects like the live-action version of “Aladdin” and the dismal “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.” This film sees Ritchie back in his apparent comfort zone, and it’s smashing to see his signature style going full blast. That is, it’s smashing to see the style for about thirty minutes until it becomes apparent that the script has “gotten away” from Ritchie and the movie is a baffling mess.

            Much of the movie takes place during a conversation between private investigator Fletcher (Hugh Grant) and Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), the right-hand man of drug lord Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), who is attacked by an assassin in the opening scene. Fletcher spends this time recapping events and information that Raymond would be privy to, meaning that all this storytelling is for the audience’s benefit, as opposed to the characters’. In other words, 90% of the Fletcher/Raymond conversation could be preceded by the phrase, “As you know…”

            Pearson had quite the cast of characters bouncing around in his life. He had angered media baron Big Dave (Eddie Marsan), considered selling his drug empire to Jewish billionaire Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong), made an enemy of Chinese gangster Dry Eye (Henry Golding), rescued spoiled aristocrat Laura Pressfield (Eliot Sumner) from a Russian drug den, gotten teen mentor Coach (Colin Farrell) on his bad side, and been a loving husband to Rosalind (Michelle Dockery). And Fletcher and Raymond were there for all of it in some form. Someone wants Pearson dead, or wanted him dead, we don’t know exactly where the attack from the opening scene falls in the timeline. However things play out, it is clear that Fletcher wants to be paid handsomely for his investigative services.

            It should go without saying that this crime thriller has lots of twists and turns, but there are so many, and the timeline is so out of whack, and Fletcher is such an unreliable narrator, that it soon becomes apparent that nothing we’re seeing is worth taking seriously, and thus my interest waned. Eventually even the “clever” dialogue (about a 50/50 split between funny and annoying) and fun performances by the entire cast (Grant and McConaughey are particularly crisp) weren’t holding my attention anymore. I even got bored of a certain swear word that’s more common in the U.K. than it is here. It’s a word that I hear so rarely in the real world, yet here is used so often and so casually that this movie manages to strip it of all its sharpness and shock value.

            “The Gentlemen” may not be the worst movie of the year – the characters, dialogue, and action are highly enjoyable until everything starts to mush together about halfway through – but it is quite possibly the most disappointing. I consider the team-up of Grant (90’s), McConaughey (00’s), and Golding (10’s) to be a meeting of three decades’ worth of Hollywood’s greatest romantic comedy leading men, and Hunnam, Strong, Marsan and Farrell are by no means hurting (and I’m sure Dockery could have held her own if the script would have let her character be more interesting). But this project is surprisingly directionless for a movie whose advertising put a lot of emphasis on the director.

 

Grade: C-

2:18 pm est          Comments

Trolls World Tour

            In an era where theaters are closed and studios are pushing back their hottest movies until next year, Universal has made the bold decision to release its animated would-be blockbuster “Trolls World Tour” straight to On Demand so it can capitalize on an audience with dwindling entertainment options. At $19.95 per order (though each order allows multiple people to watch i.e. families gathered around one big TV), the studio stands to make a pretty penny off of being the newest game in town. I applaud Universal for choosing to reach and entertain customers at a time when movies are officially considered nonessential, but unofficially have an essential role to play in helping us maintain our sanity. That said, I don’t necessarily applaud the film itself.

            Following the events of 2016’s “Trolls,” Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick) lovingly rules over the Pop Trolls with her best friend Branch (Justin Timberlake), who wants to be more than friends. But the easy, everything-is-perfect existence is threatened by Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) of the Rock Trolls (as in Rock ‘n Roll, not the types of Rock Trolls that blemished “Frozen”), who wants to steal the magic guitar strings that are the essence of music for all the Troll Kingdoms. Poppy doesn’t want a war, so she goes on a journey to broker a peace that would allow all the Troll Kingdoms to live harmoniously under Pop music, which no doubt everybody loves and will unite everybody in one big party.

            The journey takes Poppy, Branch, and their friends Biggie (James Corden) and Cooper (Ron Funches) through the other Troll Kingdoms like Classical, Country, Techno, and Funk. Certain subgenres are represented by bounty hunters hired by Barb, including Smooth Jazz, Yodeling, and…K-Pop? You’d think K-Pop would fit in with the Pop Kingdom since “Pop” is right there in the name, but we get a Red Velvet cameo out of the disparity, so I can’t be too mad. Other industry cameos include Kelly Clarkson on behalf of Country, George Clinton and Mary J. Blige on behalf of Funk, J Balvin on behalf of Reggaeton, and Ozzy Osbourne on behalf of Smooth Jazz. Wait, sorry, my notes are wrong, I mean on behalf of Rock.

Along the way Poppy has to learn the hard lesson that not everybody likes Pop music, and some even like music that she doesn’t like. But it’s okay, we should celebrate our differences, dance to our own beat, etc. It’s a good thing the movie goes in that direction, because I was feeling increasingly annoyed with being expected to root for Poppy against Queen Barb, who lovingly dotes over her aging father, has the funniest lines and voice performance, and depending on your taste, the best songs on the soundtrack. The movie spends way too much time on tiresome in-fighting between Poppy and Branch (egged on by a too-helpful-to-be-true cowboy voiced by Sam Rockwell) and not enough time on Barb and her “World Tour” of capturing the other kingdoms’ guitar strings, which should have been the meat of the movie.

“Trolls World Tour” has the look, sound, and cast of a big screen release, but the half-hearted script of a movie that goes straight to On Demand. I often found myself doing that “move along” hand gesture in anticipation of the story beats (“Get to the obstacle… get to the twist… get to hitting us over the head with your unoriginal lesson”), with the jokes, songs, and visuals doing nothing to prevent me from being bored. Maybe this is a movie that should have waited for the big screen, because its most prominent feature is its colorful visual style, which isn’t effective on a mere TV. The best thing I can say about this movie is that it’s better than nothing in an era where “nothing” happens to be very powerful.

 

Grade: C-

2:16 pm est          Comments

Dolittle

            I was so glad when I didn’t have to review “Dolittle” back in January. I went on vacation for two weekends and wrote two Oscars articles to run in place of the regular reviews. During that time, “Dolittle” performed well enough at the box office to justify a review even though the film was ravaged by critics. At the time I heaved a sigh of relief that I had dodged a bullet. But the halting of new releases has led me to retroactively take a look at the film, the first I’ve ever reviewed through an On Demand service (I saw “Bloodshot” and “The Hunt” in theaters before the mass closings). And I have to say, maybe because I watched the film comfortably from home, maybe because other critics lowered my expectations so much that the film had an easy bar to clear, or maybe because I’ve given “D” grades to the last two movies I reviewed and I don’t feel like getting incensed a third week in a row, but I didn’t think the movie was that bad.

            Robert Downey Jr. stars as Dr. John Dolittle, a veterinary doctor with a gift for communicating with animals. He lives in a sanctuary with his animal friends, including close confidant macaw Polynesia (Emma Thompson), endearingly cowardly gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek), not-so-endearingly cowardly ostrich Plimpton (Kumail Nanjiani), perpetually cold polar bear Yoshi (John Cena), and clueless duck Dab-Dab (Octavia Spencer).

Other humans have been banned from the sanctuary for years following the death of Dolittle’s wife, but one day the boundary is broken twice within minutes of one another. Stubbins (Harry Collett) has accidentally shot a squirrel named Kevin (Craig Robinson) and takes an immediate shine to the prickly Dolittle’s methods. He instantly yearns to become his apprentice. Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) summons Dolittle on behalf of Queen Victoria, who has been poisoned and can only be saved with a plant from an island that Dolittle’s wife had charted. If she dies, Dolittle and his friends could lose the sanctuary… in the middle of hunting season.

The rest of the film sees Dolittle, Stubbins, and their animal crew journeying to a mysterious island to retrieve the elusive plant. They have a stopover at a pirate island, where the king (Antonio Banderas) holds a grudge against Dolittle and wants to feed him to his pet tiger (Ralph Fiennes). They have to evade Mudfly (Michael Sheen), a rival of Dolittle’s who has been tasked by a villainous chairman (Jim Broadbent) to make sure the good doctor never returns. And they have to confront a dragon (Frances de la Tour) who is angry and aggressive, mostly because she’s sick. I had been so thoroughly prepared to be disgusted by a scene where the team performs an invasive procedure on the dragon that when the scene finally came, I was barely bothered. But know that the scene is there and it’s potentially bothersome.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not recommending this movie. Downey can never decide what accent the doctor should have (tell me he didn’t leave the MCU to take more roles like this). The storylines with the humans are never compelling. And perhaps worst of all, the humor is lowbrow and annoying (I like 1998’s “Rush Hour,” but I can’t stand “that” line). But I’ll admit that the sweet scenes, especially ones involving the bond between the animals, did keep the film bearable for me. “Dolittle” should be considered a low priority for home viewing, but we’re in an era where you can quickly go through all your highest priorities, so maybe this film can get a moment to shine.

 

Grade: C
2:14 pm est          Comments

The Hunt

            “The Hunt” found itself in a whirlwind of controversy last year when President Trump indirectly said that the film was “made in order to inflame and cause chaos” in the midst of mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso. While “Joker” opened in spite of similar controversy and was rewarded with over $300 million at the domestic box office and an Oscar for Joaquin Phoenix, “The Hunt” was taken off the shelf for six months. Many speculated that this was done so as not to appear insensitive to the victims of the recent shootings, while others insisted that it was Universal heads caving to political pressure. My theory, even at the time, was that Universal wanted to turn this into a “forbidden” film that The Man wanted to keep from audiences, so anyone who wants to see it can feel like an antiestablishment independent thinker. What they turned it into is an ignorable afterthought that failed to capitalize on unsolicited free publicity, which is fine because now the film can bomb on its own merits.

            After an unnecessary prologue that somewhat spoils the mystique of the film’s villains, we’re introduced to the film’s heroes. Eleven people wake up in a wooded area in the middle of nowhere. They’ve been gagged with devices that, to the movie’s credit, actually look capable of gagging people, as opposed to the flimsy bits of tape and cloth I see in other movies. They’re allowed to remove the gags and arm themselves with a cache of weapons nearby. Then they start getting picked off with bullets, explosives, and booby traps. There’s a flurry of violence for the next ten minutes, and it goes by so quickly that over half the field doesn’t get the chance to understand what exactly is happening to them or why. Supposedly there’s a lesson being taught, but this movie favors gory death scenes over the logic of keeping its characters alive long enough to comprehend the consequences of their actions.

            “Name” actors playing hunted prisoners include Ike Barinholtz, Betty Gilpin, Justin Hartley, Emma Roberts, Sturgill Simpson, and Ethan Suplee. Don’t get too attached to most of them. Actors playing hunters include Reed Birney, Glenn Howerton, Amy Madigan, and Hilary Swank. I will say that the film saves Oscar-winner Swank for the third act, treating her like a surprise, though as far as I can tell, her name has come up in all the film’s advertising.

What seemingly has everybody up in arms is that the prisoner characters are generally conservative stereotypes and the hunter characters are generally liberal stereotypes, so to the untrained eye, the film seems to celebrate liberals killing conservatives. But no, it just celebrates killing in general, and it stops to make cheap jokes about both liberals and conservatives along the way. Liberals are obsessed with organic food and political correctness, conservatives are poorly-educated gun nuts. That’s the level of socio-political commentary with this movie, don’t bother thinking about it more than the writers did.

“The Hunt” is such a lousy movie that there’s a “Kill Bill”-inspired kitchen fight at the end, and I was bored all the way through it because I was so uninvested in both characters. This movie is completely disposable and deserves to be avoided, not because it’s “dangerous,” but merely because it’s garbage. As for its out-of-left-field “moral” about being careful what you say online, I take it about as seriously as the rest of the movie, but maybe I’ll get lucky here: The makers of “The Hunt” are going to send me a check for $10 million, I’m sure of it!

 

Grade: D

2:06 pm est          Comments

Bloodshot

            “Bloodshot” is the very definition of a Vin Diesel “vehicle.” There is nothing to entice people to see this movie other than that it has Vin Diesel. Even the “Fast & Furious” movies (which I realize should better fit the term “vehicle”) are fun for people who like fast cars and crazy stunts, with Diesel being an important-but-not-essential factor. But take away Diesel from “Bloodshot,” and you’ve got a laughably useless movie. Actually, it’s pretty useless even with Diesel.

            Diesel stars as Ray Garrison, a soldier who opens the film by successfully carrying out a dangerous mission in Africa due to a tip he received. He then goes on vacation to Italy, where he spends the night with his girlfriend Gina (Talulah Riley). The next morning the two are kidnapped and held hostage at the behest of Martin Axe (Toby Kebbell), who wants to know who gave Ray the tip for the Africa mission. Axe, it should be noted, dances around maniacally to “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads as if he could hope to capture one percent of the coolness of Mr. Blonde dancing around to “Stuck in the Middle with You” in “Reservoir Dogs.” Then he kills Ray and Gina. If only the movie ended there, so I could have an excuse to give up on it after that embarrassing dance scene. Alas, it presses on.

            Ray wakes up in the lab of Dr. Emil Harting (Guy Pearce), who explains that Ray has been resurrected using next-generation tech that can repair damaged tissue. He’s now basically a superhero and definitely a super killer. Harting introduces Ray to some fellow test subjects: the robotic-limbed Jimmy Dalton (Sam Heughan), the robotic-sighted Marcus Tibbs (Alex Hernandez), and the robotic-chested KT (Eiza Gonzalez), who insists that her name is not “Katie.” Ray then remembers that he has a vendetta against Axe, and breaks out of the facility to get his revenge. If only the movie ended after he does so, so I could have an excuse to give up on this “RoboCop” ripoff. Alas, it presses on.

            It turns out that Harting and his team haven’t been entirely honest about the circumstances surrounding Ray’s mechanizations. I know, who would have guessed that the millionaire industrialist with cyborg henchmen wouldn’t be on the level? Ray turns his attention to battling Harting, with the help of a bumbling tech guy (Lamorne Morris) and one of Harting’s enhanced underlings. I won’t say which one, but let’s just say they’d make a pretty lousy love interest of they didn’t help him. If only this movie ended at any point before the end of its 109-minute runtime because I have a million other things I can be doing. Alas, it presses on.

            The action, story, and dialogue are exactly what you’d expect from a movie titled “Bloodshot” that can’t even bother to try to be successful with an R rating. I’ve heard complaints that Diesel is miscast (apparently he was a last-minute replacement for first choice Jared Leto), but action movies are his wheelhouse and I can’t imagine any actor adding dimension to the one-note protagonist of this disposable film. At least I can take some solace in knowing that instead of doing okay against minimal competition at the box office, this movie can rightfully bomb on VOD where it has excellent competition in the form of other entertainment options like better movies, TV, streaming, video games, books, and family togetherness.

 

Grade: D (for Diesel!)

2:05 pm est          Comments

I Still Believe

            “Believe” it or not, the PG-rated, Christianity-infused drama “I Still Believe” reminds me a lot of “Funny People,” an R-rated Judd Apatow comedy from 2009. Both films are overlong (or at least seem that way) and feature an emotional, heartfelt storyline about a character’s struggle with cancer as well as an off-putting storyline about a romantic relationship where both partners become unlikeable because of their shared dishonesty toward a third party. The difference is that in “Funny People,” the relationship portion comes after the sickness portion and undermines the connection the characters have made with their audience. In “I Still Believe,” the relationship portion comes first, so the connection with the audience is murky when the heavier subject matter comes in and we need to be heavily invested in these characters.

            The film tells the true story of Jeremy Camp (K.J. Apa), who goes off to college and makes fast friends with popular Christian musician Jean-Luc (Nathan Parsons). He also takes notice of audience member Melissa (Britt Robertson) and falls madly in love with her… before he knows anything about her. I know there’s a romanticism surrounding the concept of “love at first sight,” but especially presented the way it is here, I think it’s creepy to fall in love based solely on physical attractiveness. He approaches her a few times and she eventually warms to him… even though she doesn’t know anything about him, either. Well, except that he’s interested in her, but that’s hardly a healthy foundation for a relationship. Obviously these two are going to fall in love with each other’s personalities eventually, but all they have in common initially is an equal sort of shallowness.

            Jeremy and Melissa fall in love, but there’s a complication: Melissa isn’t comfortable being in a romantic relationship with Jeremy because she might already be in one with Jean-Luc. “Might” isn’t just slippery language in this case, even she doesn’t know if their relationship is romantic or plutonic. But whatever it is, it’s enough to make her not want to disclose her relationship with Jeremy to Jean-Luc. And she insists that Jeremy not disclose it either, which puts them both in the position of feeling pressure to be dishonest. They never choose to make the right decision either, but the whole conflict is unceremoniously brushed aside once Melissa is diagnosed with cancer.

            The rest of the movie is exactly what you’d expect from a romance where one of the partners is suffering from a life-threatening illness. Jeremy and Melissa care for each other, inspire each other, are strong for each other, in short love each other. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before (even before genre-definer “The Fault in Our Stars”), but it’s heart-wrenching all the same. And the actors really step up their game in these scenes – where was this passion in the early stages of the relationship?

            With a title like “I Still Believe,” it should come as no surprise that Christianity has a strong presence in this movie. Camp, after all, is a real-life Christian recording artist like Jean-Luc. Many scenes take place at concerts, and when they don’t, the movie likes to sneak in little excuses like campfire sing-alongs to feature Christian music. Outside of the music, Melissa talks at length about God’s role for her and His presence in her life. Jeremy talks about God surprisingly little, save for a scene where he talks with his minister father (Gary Sinise) about doubts he’s having. Spoiler Alert: he comes out of this movie Still Believing. There’s an occasionally cheesy but well-meaning, affirming movie here if you aren’t turned off by that horrible first third. For me, the movie got its act together a little too late for me to forgive it.

 

Grade: C

2:04 pm est          Comments

Onward

            With “Onward,” one streak was going to come to an end. In one corner was Pixar, who after 25 years of making consistently impressive animated films, might finally release a bad one. In the other corner was 2020, which after two months had yet to see the release of a single film I’d recommend (not even this weekend’s well-reviewed “The Invisible Man,” whose high praise I don’t understand). The two went to battle, and as I predicted, Pixar scored a first-round knockout. This film is smart, touching, and of course fun – everything I expect from Pixar and miss in other movies, especially this year.

            The film takes place in a world of elves and pixies and other magical creatures. A long time ago it contained magic, but the spells proved dangerous and difficult, so technology was invented for those with no magic in them. As a result, the world now looks like ours, save for the beings that inhabit it and a few adjustments to accommodate their shapes and sizes. The magic has almost disappeared, though a few folks want to preserve it for use in emergencies. I was worried that the movie wouldn’t be able to get me invested in this fantastical world (the way some people complain that they can’t get drawn into the weird world of “Cars”), but the opening moments effectively establish its identity.

            Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) are a pair of elf brothers who live with their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Ian living with is mother is expected, as he’s just a teenager, but Barley is an adult who just isn’t driven to move out. He has other priorities, like protecting local magical landmarks, playing fantasy board games, and driving around in his junker of a van. The brothers’ father died when Barley was very young and Ian wasn’t even born, so Ian has had to grow up without a father figure, and big brother Barley doesn’t count (or does he?).

            On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, the brothers get a long-dormant gift from their late father: a magic staff, complete with a rare gem that can be used to cast a spell to bring the father back for one day. Barley is inherently unfit for magic, but the meeker Ian has the ability to do it – he’s just not very good at it, getting the spell to half-work by bringing back the bottom half of the father’s body without the top half that can talk. The brothers have to go on a quest to get another gem, even though the business of both magic and adventuring are completely new to Ian. Their travels take them to a tavern run by a sellout manticore (Octavia Spencer), a gas station frequented by a rowdy gang of pixie bikers, on the run from their mother’s well-meaning centaur cop boyfriend (Mel Rodriguez), and a host of other challenges, all while they have to keep tabs on their unintentionally half-absent father. And of course, they learn truths and lessons about each other and themselves along the way.

            Before I get too carried away, I should pull back and say that “Onward” doesn’t quite reach the upper echelon of Pixar’s output. It can be sloppy at times, like with how magic is supposed to be really difficult in this world, yet Ian learns to master it over the course of 24 hours. Or how the mother and the manticore go on a side-quest that serves little purpose other than to remind us that these characters are in fact in the movie. But all those complaints melt away when I’m laughing harder in the first five minutes than I have at any whole movie in months, or when I’m audibly (and embarrassingly) gasping at a harrowing action sequence involving a bottomless pit. I charge you to go “Onward” to the theater and see this movie as soon as possible.

 

Grade: B

2:00 pm est          Comments

The Invisible Man

            There’s a big mistake at the heart of “The Invisible Man” and that’s letting us know from the very title that there is indeed an invisible man. And if there was any confusion as to the literality of that title, most of us were introduced to this film through a trailer that shows people being physically attacked by an invisible force. These people aren’t paying tribute to Edward Norton in “Fight Club,” an invisible attacker is the only explanation. We’re going to be spending this entire movie knowing there’s an invisible man, and as futile as this sounds, looking for an invisible man as well.

            Elisabeth Moss stars as Cecilia Kass, the ex-girlfriend of the dominating Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She flees from his house in the middle of the night into the car of her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer, an unfortunate name for someone in a violent suspense movie) and recovers at the home of her cop friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). Though technically free of Adrian, she becomes (or remains) an introvert because she can feel that he’s still out there somewhere, watching her. She then learns from Adrian’s brother Tom (Michael Dorman) that Adrian has died and left her $5 million. She supposes that this should make her feel better, but she still doesn’t feel totally free.

            Soon strange things start happening around James’s house. A pan on the stove bursts into flames. It gets put out with a fire extinguisher, which establishes that this family has a fire extinguisher, so it can predictably be used for some invisible man shenanigans later (the same is true of a conspicuous new ladder and a painting project). Something seems to tug on Cecilia’s bed sheet. Is she crazy? She then gets accosted in the shower. Nope, she’s not crazy. No way this is anything but Adrian, still trying to make her life miserable, in a suit that makes the wearer invisible. Good luck proving it, though.

            The rest of the film is Cecilia trying to outmaneuver her imperceptible adversary. She’s hindered by a lack of believability, since she has a history of mental illness, the person stalking her is supposedly dead, and invisibility suits aren’t real. Plus she has to deal with the suit itself; even though she knows it’s there, she doesn’t know if her tormentor is ten feet away or two feet away, which puts her at a disadvantage for combat. The one advantage she does have is that the villain isn’t great at subtlety, often manipulating matter in a way that by all accounts should give him away. Witnesses don’t have to make the connection that it’s the dead guy in an invisibility suit, but certain actions are clearly not being performed by any discernable presence.

            “The Invisible Man” is getting excellent reviews (its Rotten Tomatoes score is currently higher than nearly half the field of the most recent Best Picture Oscar race), but I can’t say I share in the praise. Yes, Moss gives the material a better performance than it deserves, and it is fun watching some special effects involving a stunt performer made invisible with green-suit technology (Moss is not just struggling with air when she’s being dragged around by the invisible man), but most of the action and suspense scenes are riddled with clichés and stupidity. Also, I couldn’t help but feel like the film wasn’t capitalizing on the potential for a storyline where both Cecilia and the audience wonder if she really is crazy, if maybe crippling doubt is the form Adrian’s revenge is taking. But no, we are simply promised an invisible man, and what we get is a simple “Invisible Man.”

 

Grade: C

1:58 pm est          Comments

Call of the Wild

            Last week in my “Sonic the Hedgehog” review, I lamented that the title character was a cleaned-up cartoon rather than the “realistic” CGI abomination we were promised that would have made the movie a classic of terrible cinema. This week, with “The Call of the Wild,” we do indeed get a “realistic” CGI abomination of a main character, but unlike “Sonic,” the movie surrounding the character is halfway decent. It’s no fun having a distracting, unnerving computerized animal in this one.

            The film, based on the classic novel by Jack London, follows a dog named Buck from his spoiled life in California to his dognapping and sale into service to his stint as a sled dog under a determined mailman (Omar Sy) to his role as a companion to grizzled loner John Thornton (Harrison Ford). The “spoiled” portion is full of predictable dog hijinks. He’s told not to eat food off the picnic table, but then he walks up to his owner (Bradley Whitford) with a drumstick in his mouth, and you know he’s eaten food off the picnic table. I know this sounds horrible to say, but I was glad when Buck got dognapped so this could no longer be a “dog eats food off the picnic table” movie.

            Buck is shipped to the Arctic, and cruelly taught obedience by a guy with a club that Buck frankly seems perfectly capable of taking. He learns the value of teamwork while helping to pull the mailman’s sled, so much so that he eventually replaces the power-hungry lead dog and helps the mailman be on time for the first time ever. Then he’s sold to arrogant fortune hunter Hal (Dan Stevens), who wants him for a trek to a legendary river of gold, even though the guy seems incapable of forging even the tamest of streams. Thornton rescues Buck from the villain and the two go off on adventure of their own, where Buck struggles to fight the temptation (“call” if you will) to run off with a pack of fellow canines. It turns out that the two are camping at the site of the very river Hal wanted to find, and he tracks them down for a confrontation, even though our heroes braved an arduous journey and Hal has been established as terrible traveler in a plot hole I’m not willing to overlook.

            Whatever problems there may be with the script (and don’t blame London, Hal doesn’t enjoy such longevity in the book), they’re nothing compared to the problems with the very look of Buck. It’s not like he’s “animated” in the traditional sense, he’s rendered using motion capture technology. Let’s say the movie wants Buck and Harrison Ford in the same scene, one where Ford talks to the animal. Forget having Ford talk to a real dog or even a blank space where a dog will be added later. He has to talk to a guy wearing a highly sophisticated motion capture suit for a movie set in the 19th century. Ford actually pulls it off, it’s the visual effects that fail. Motion capture is great for fantastical creatures, but the technology hasn’t yet reached the point where I can look at a motion capture dog and recognize it as an actual dog.

            There are actually a number of positive elements to “The Call of the Wild”: Buck’s journey is compelling, the scenery is beautiful, Sy is affable in his role, and Ford gives a dignified performance. But it’s all undone by the fundamental truth that the dog looks phony. I suppose it could be worse. Buck could be designed to look like an animal/human actor hybrid, but I don’t see any non-musical being dumb enough to do that.

 

Grade: C

1:55 pm est          Comments


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