Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse Review: Michael B. Jordan Wows

by Jeff Ames

RATING

7/10

CAST

Michael B. Jordan … John Kelly
Jodie Turner-Smith … Karen Greer
Jamie Bell … Robert Ritter
Guy Pearce … Secretary Clay
Lauren London … Pam Kelly
Jacob Scipio … Hatchet
Todd Lasance … Dallas
Jack Kesy … Thunder
Lucy Russell … CIA Director Dillard

Written by Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples.

Based on the novel by Tom Clancy.

Directed by Stefano Sollima

WITHOUT REMORSE REVIEW

Tom Clancy fans rejoice! After nearly three decades, at long last, a worthy successor to the one-two-three punch of The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger finally emerges in the form of Stefano Sollima’s solid, though trite, Without Remorse.

Click here to purchase Tom Clancy’s original novel!

First thing’s first: this is not the book you read in 1993, the one that detailed famed Clancy hero John Clark’s rise from broken man to a badass, pimp killing, elite soldier in 1970s Baltimore. In the film, action shifts to modern-day and follows disgruntled Navy SEAL John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan) on his quest to avenge the death of his wife, executed via a Russian gang with ties to one of those elaborate conspiracies centered around the threat of — what else? — all-out war.

Obviously, there was no way to fully adapt Clancy’s massive 630+ page book for the big screen. Still, writers Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples make mincemeat of the text in favor of a straightforward, predictable revenge thriller that bears only a passing resemblance to the source material.

Even so, the film satisfies as a suspenseful yarn packed with a handful of Sicario-styled action beats, including a tense bit in which our hero must navigate a fallen aircraft before it sinks to the bottom of the ocean; and a climactic standoff in one of those ready-made, abandoned buildings in the middle of Russia perfectly suited for an explosive shootout.

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Yet, for all its gusto, Without Remorse makes the same mistakes as the last several Clancy adaptations — namely Phil Alden Robinson’s toothless The Sum of All Fears (2002), Kenneth Branagh’s by-the-numbers Bourne clone Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), and Amazon’s superbly cast but poorly realized Jack Ryan series starring John Krasinski — and trades brains for brawn in an attempt to win over Marvel-induced audiences.

Look, I get the reasoning. A majority of today’s young adults would just as soon listen to Liberace than sit through the leisurely paced, intricately plotted, PG-rated Hunt for Red October, hence the need to up the action and simplify the narrative. But why bother? Early Clancy adaptations worked precisely because they didn’t cater to action aficionados. Instead, they offered intricately plotted dramas packed with multifaceted characters who stood in direct contrast to the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of the day.

Oh sure, Clancy all but disowned Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger for (ironically enough) oversimplifying (or discarding) the plots of their respective books, but such films still bore the renowned author’s hawkish style and typically catered to fans of his work, i.e., older audiences who didn’t mind watching Alec Baldwin or a 50-year old Harrison Ford battle drug cartels, Irish terrorists, Russian sub-commanders and shady government types from behind their desks at the CIA. The carefully crafted plots offered the wow factor. All action was secondary.

Without Remorse has its protagonist light a car on fire before jumping inside the vehicle to interrogate a mustache-twirling villain. Later, Kelly takes on a prison full of police officers and inmates during an outlandish sequence ripped straight from one of those cheesy Steven Seagal flicks from the late 80s.

RELATED: Without Remorse Featurette Explores Tom Clancy’s Source Material

None of this is bad, mind you. Some of it is even thrilling in its own unique Call of Duty-styled way, but it still ain’t Clancy.

And yet, I’ll recommend Without Remorse simply because, despite my many criticisms, the film is a huge step in the right direction as far as Clancy adaptations go. Its revenge plot may be overly simplistic, but it still works. The action is riveting, Sollima’s direction sharp. There’s also some fun, shadowy government stuff centered around Jamie Bell’s mysterious CIA operative Robert Ritter that’s obviously set up for a big-screen take on Clancy’s 1998 novel (and subsequent video game series) Rainbow Six — the film everyone involved clearly wants to make — and strong performances from Jodie Turner-Smith (playing James Greer’s daughter) and the always reliable Guy Pearce to boot.

Still, this is Michael B. Jordan’s show, and the actor rises to the physical demands of his role whilst doing a damned fine job establishing a character worth rooting for. The Black Panther star fits the John Clark persona better than Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber, who portrayed the character in Clear and Present Danger and The Sum of All Fears, respectively, even if his iteration at times feels more like an extension of his embattled Creed character than the cold-hearted, methodical walking tank described in the novel. Still, at least Jordan has a solid foundation to leap from should the powers-that-be proceed with follow-up films.

After 27 years and two false starts, Hollywood finally delivers a cinematic Tom Clancy hero worthy of his own franchise — next time, just pack a little more intellect alongside all those assault rifles.

Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse streams on Amazon Prime this Friday.

Without Remorse

Adverse Review: a Solid Michael Mann-esque Crime Drama

by Jeff Ames

Rating:

7/10

Cast:

Thomas Ian Nicholas … Ethan (as Thomas Nicholas)
Mickey Rourke … Kaden
Penelope Ann Miller … Nicole
Lou Diamond Phillips … Dr. Cruz
Sean Astin … Frankie
Kelly Arjen … Mia
Matt Ryan … Jake
Andrew Keegan … Jan

Written and directed by Brian Metcalf

Low-budget thrillers carry a certain charm. Sure, the technical aspects may not be up to par with most modern-day productions; and, yeah, the acting never rises beyond B-movie standards, but such traits only add to the flavor. If anything, these films serve as interesting exercises in the art of filmmaking on a micro-budget, where creativity, strong storytelling and smart directing go a long way.

So, it goes with Adverse, a very low budget crime drama that comes surprisingly close to capturing the spirit and style of the Michael Mann thrillers it clearly aspires to be. As directed by Brian Metcalf, Adverse digs deep to tell its tragic tale of revenge; and introduces a handful of fascinating characters who all get their moment to shine.

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The story follows Ethan (Thomas Nicholas), a hard-working American who has had it up to here with society. His psychiatrist, played by Lou Diamond Phillips, says he’s angry; and we see that anger plastered all over Ethan’s face as he goes about his day-to-day activities, namely taking care of his druggie sister Mia (Kelly Arjen), confronting his a-hole boss Frankie (Sean Astin) and dealing with the loud and obtrusive customers who stumble into his car during endless late night Uber-like shifts.

Ethan’s predicament takes an even steeper dive when Mia and her boyfriend get wrapped up with a local drug kingpin named Kaden (Mickey Rourke) and wind up dead, forcing the angered sibling to seek out those responsible and exact bloody revenge-via-tire iron.

Sounds fairly rudimentary, right? Except, Metcalf, who also wrote the film, takes the time to really flesh out his characters, so much so that, cheesy acting be damned, we actually care about what happens to all of them by film’s end.

Indeed, the best scene arrives not with a wave of blood or violence, but via a quiet moment shared between Ethan and Kaden (molded after the famous coffee shop bit between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat) in which the world-weary drug dealer mournfully reflects on his past life as a kid yearning to play baseball.

“This is not how I planned my life to be,” Kaden says dejectedly.

Metcalf goes above and beyond the standard thriller and delivers a film that is, at its core, a study of broken characters undone by society, none of whom are right or wrong, just lost in a world they don’t understand. And while the execution of the story may leave you wanting —namely, the distracting jump cuts, bizarre line deliveries, unconvincing CGI blood and some silly plot contrivances — these central themes are strong enough to keep you invested in the story to the blood-spattered, Collateral-inspired end.

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Performances are mostly good. Rourke, in particular, now years removed from his Oscar-nominated turn in The Wrestler, offers up some fine work as Kaden. While Nicholas, tasked with playing a character who quite literally wears his intensity on his sleeve, delivers a convincing, if not slightly overstated performance as Ethan. The sequence in which the character unleashes his wrath with all the fury of an Old Testament god on an entire building full of drug peddlers — shot in one extended take — with nothing but a tire iron is both shocking and enthralling. You cheer for justice but mourn for Ethan’s soul.

Now, this isn’t anything new. Revenge flicks are a dime a dozen. But the best of the lot, such as Death Wish and, more recently, John Wick, are able to compound meaning with madness. After all, who gives a damn about John Wick if his dog isn’t killed?

Thanks to Metcalf’s steady hand, Adverse rises above the typical crop and delivers an intimate look at society’s underbelly, a place filled with murderers and scoundrels who quietly lament the broken path they chose.

Star Wars: Republic Commando Switch Review: Starts Fun But Falls Apart

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

6.5/10

Click here to purchase your Nintendo Switch copy of Star Wars: Republic Commando!

Star Wars: Republic Commando Review:

Over 15 years ago, LucasArts continued its expansion of the larger Star Wars universe with the Xbox and PC game title Republic Commando, an experiment of testing the tactical shooter formula in the sci-fi series and the initial result was great. Sure, its controls were a bit finicky at times and the sound design faltered under the franchise’s rules, but its overall presentation proved to be a fun ride for Star Wars fans, garnering a cult following in the years since and the titular group even being worked into the larger canon, which made the prospect of a port for the Nintendo Switch all the more enticing. Sadly, though, this port could’ve used a bit more time in the oven as it tends to fall apart as the game goes on.

Players step into the shoes of Delta-38 aka Boss, the leader of an elite squad of Republic Commandos comprised of demolitions expert Scorch, hacker and technical expert Fixer and sniper Sev, as they are thrust into the chaos erupting throughout the galaxy on missions to infiltrate, dominate and annihilate the enemy in the Clone Wars. Traveling between Geonosis, Kashyyk and the derelict spacecraft Prosecutor, the Delta Squad must battle a variety of enemies and follow Boss’ orders to achieve victory.

Upon booting up the game on both the handheld iteration of the console and dock connected to my television, I initially found myself quite impressed by the up-resed visuals, with the opening planet of Geonosis, the rest of my Delta Squad and the enemies all looking quite impressive still and the green blood splatters on the screen from the insectoid warriors of the planet being killed up close by my melee weapon and rapid fire rifle. The stages explored in both Kashyyk and the Prosecutor are still quite exciting to behold, although the rain element from the former and the larger groups of enemies in the latter makes for some horrific instances of frame drops.

While the environments of the planet remained pretty much the same across the entire level, it’s forgivable given its desert planet setting, but there was one thing introduced in the level that would carry over and mark a larger problem for the game: repetitive waves of enemies.

Though the enemies certainly vary from stage to stage and some prove to be exciting to battle against as a fan of the franchise, namely the droidekas, the problem is the level progression essentially boiled down to being in one place and facing wave after wave after wave of similar or increasingly-tougher enemies and it’s a rather dull formula. To make matters worse, given the game’s short runtime, players will frequently come upon truly ridiculous difficulty spikes inserted in a (frustrating) effort to pad the hours put into the game. The fact that some enemies players can encounter back-to-back in a level will take two or more clips from the base DC-17 pulse rifle before going down and extra ammo being sparse for the rifle in certain zones will leave some wondering what the intended plan of attack were in the encounters or why Apsyr didn’t elect to nerf the health and defense numbers for certain enemies.

One element of gameplay that should’ve come in handy for these more difficult scenarios — keep in mind, I was only on medium difficulty — is the ability to command your squad mates to conduct certain tasks, but unfortunately this system appears to be broken in this port. Where players are supposed to hold down a button to bring up the list of commands for the team, holding down the button certainly shows them, but the D-Pad directions set to each directive doesn’t work, leaving players to hope their cohorts are following behind and shooting down any enemies (which they do surprisingly well). Aside from this broken command system and a still finicky aim sensitivity, the controls overall do at least hold up, with the custom mapping option making it much easier for players to adjust to their more modern control schemes and making it relatively easy to move and shoot through the levels.

While it features some of the franchise’s iconic tracks and its own unique score, good weapon effects and great voice work, the sound design could’ve used a little refining. A number of lines of dialogue tend to run over each other, but even more distracting is the fact that the members of the titular group are voiced by different actors, despite the fact they’re all clones of Jango Fett and original actor Temuera Morrison even voices a handful of characters in the game, including player character Boss. With the other expanded medias of the Star Wars franchise, especially The Clone Wars, keeping the voice work consistent as one of two people for the clones and Morrison back in the fold with Disney+’s The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, it seems a bit surprising and disappointing they didn’t just bring him in to record the necessary lines, especially given the varied voice work was a complaint upon the game’s original release for breaking lore rules.

Whether stemming from my own nostalgia for the title or desire for a return to the classic LucasArts games days, Star Wars: Republic Commando certainly isn’t quite the awe-inspiring title I remember and while its excessive difficulty spikes and mildly finicky controls might not win any newcomers, it’s sure to at least entertain fans desiring to bring this title with them on the go.

Godzilla vs. Kong Review: A Visual Feast With Undercooked Characters

by Jeff Ames

Rating

8/10

Cast

Alexander Skarsgård … Nathan Lind
Millie Bobby Brown … Madison Russell
Rebecca Hall … Ilene Andrews
Brian Tyree Henry … Bernie Hayes
Shun Oguri … Ren Serizawa
Eiza González … Maya Simmons
Julian Dennison … Josh Valentine
Lance Reddick … Monarch Director
Kyle Chandler … Mark Russell
Demián Bichir … Walter Simmons
Kaylee Hottle … Jia

Screenplay by Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein

Story by Terry Rossio, Michael Dougherty & Zach Shields

Directed by Adam Wingard

Godzilla vs. Kong Review

Godzilla vs. Kong can best be described as a theme park attraction. Is it exciting? Yes. Is it visually appealing? Sure. But all the goodies are strung together by a hilariously thin plot that might as well have been ripped from one of those videos you watch while waiting in line for a ride at Universal Studios.

Here is a film where a giant monkey swings an enormous custom-made axe at a colossal lizard in the middle of Hong Kong and the persons witnessing the climactic moment react the way one reacts to a plate of macaroni and cheese. Now, thin plots and bland characters are par for the course in a film like this, but GvK spends its first hour introducing a whopping eight new characters played by some fairly well-known stars who end up with nothing to do but stare at a bunch of gorgeously rendered CGI.

That’s not to say GvK doesn’t entertain. From its astounding visuals and glorious action, director Adam Wingard serves up plenty for audiences to go bananas over, but it’s mostly monkey business.

The story, as it were, involves Godzilla losing his collective sh*t on an APEX facility run by multi-billionaire Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir). As such, Simmons seeks out renowned Hollow Earth expert Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) convinced that his half-cocked theories could lead to an energy source powerful enough to defeat Godzilla. Simmons funds a journey to the center of the Earth led, in part, by his daughter Maya (Eiza González), to retrieve said power.

Problem is, Nathan needs Kong to reach the power source but the big ape is currently housed in a Monarch facility under the care of Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), who worries that removing Kong from his habitat will draw the ire of Godzilla. As it so happens, Ilene’s adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle) is able to communicate with Kong via sign language… so, we all good!

If that weren’t enough, Brian Tyree Henry -in the film’s most memorable role- is on hand as a conspiracy theorist who thinks Simmons’ APEX company is monkeying around in all the wrong ways (mostly based on the aggressive name), an idea that jives with Madison Russell (Mille Bobby Brown) and her pal Josh Valentine (Julian Dennison), leading the three of them to team up to prove Godzilla’s innocence for reasons — guilty or not he’s still a fire-breathing loose cannon that probably deserves to die for the betterment of mankind.

Now, keep in mind, that entire setup occurs in the span of, like, 15 minutes. We’re bounced around to about 20 different locations all over the world and introduced to a group of characters who deliver rapid-fire exposition in a manner that would make Rise of Skywalker blush, all in the service of a plot essentially designed to give Kong his aforementioned huge-ass axe to wield against his reptilian foe.

No matter. People don’t attend movies with atomic fire-breathing lizards and skyscraper-sized monkeys to dive headfirst into family melodrama, as Michael Dougherty unfortunately discovered when he unleashed the underrated 2019 film Godzilla: King of the Monsters upon the world to meager box office receipts. Audiences want fun, Marvel-styled distractions with little (if any) consequence, where cities are scorched in a fury of Hellfire, but the death toll amounts to about eight people (as one news channel hilariously reports in GvK).

To that end, Godzilla vs. Kong delivers. In fact, the final 30 minutes or so, in which our titular titans go mano a mano in the middle of neon lit Hong Kong, is a spectacular visual feast with some truly jaw-dropping FX and more than a handful of goosebumps-inducing moments. Here, Wingard goes for broke and, like a kid playing with oversized monster dolls, delivers perhaps the best big monster vs. big monster smackdown ever conceived — hyperboles be damned — as Godzilla and Kong (and later, a special guest) chuck each other through buildings and engage in ferocious bare-knuckled combat that even pauses long enough to deliver a Lethal Weapon reference, all scored to Tom Holkenborg’s radical score.

Truly, this climactic sequence is worth the price of admission alone, but there are a couple of other bits that jolt the senses, including the much publicized battle royal atop an aircraft carrier, and a lengthy segment where Kong battles mutant pterodactyls in Hollow Earth, which looks like a cross between Mordor and Pandora. The visuals in these moments are dazzling to behold. Kong, in particular, looks incredible with his expressive eyes, hulking physique and soft-flowing hair that clearly took an army of animators to render. Godzilla likewise looks as menacing as ever — at one point he even delivers a wicked, scaly smile — and walks, or runs the fine line between hero and villain. The big guy must have purchased a treadmill in-between films because this giant lizard moves with all the nimbleness of a ninja, an upgrade that allows him to keep up with Kong’s more agile fighting style; and likely proves the King of the Monsters signed the same contract as Vin Diesel stipulating he was not to be outdone by his onscreen co-stars.

So, yeah, the movie delivers in terms of action and visuals. Unfortunately, none of it matters much because the characters and plot are strung together so haphazardly there isn’t much time to breathe between all the spectacle. No less than five writers are credited for the screenplay and story, which is nuts considering there is no story and the characters have practically nothing to do.

Then again, this looks like another case of behind-the-scenes tampering. When Lance Reddick appears for a brief scene and delivers exactly one line of dialogue you know somebody got screwy in the editing room. Does that mean it’s time to #ReleaseTheWingardCut?

Actually, the shorter runtime, more clearly rendered battle scenes and lack of character development feel like features that resulted from the largely (however unjust) negative reaction to Dougherty’s film — too long, too dark, too hard to see — which itself was a course correction to the negative reaction to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla, which was deemed too slow and dull by many. Oddly enough, no matter the style, length or plot, every Godzilla film ends the same: with two or three monsters duking it out in a crowded city while the rebuild team watches from afar, ready to endure another painfully long cleanup process. (That said, it’s a wonder we don’t get more characters like Emma Russell, an embittered parent seeking revenge for a dead family member. There has to be hundreds if not thousands of grieving souls by now.)

As a side, each Godzilla film in WB’s trumped up MonsterVerse managed to deliver intermittently in drastically different ways. Want slow burn, Spielbergian adventure? Or big budget spectacle laced with hokey melodrama? Or easy-on-the eyes, cartoon-flavored action? Check. Check. And check. This Godzilla trilogy* may not be perfect, but it serves as passable, sometimes extraordinary, Saturday-matinee styled entertainment.

Then again, the fact that studios still haven’t found a way to successfully merge characters with big budget spectacle remains one of Hollywood’s more perplexing on-going problems.

*Kong: Skull Island stands as its own beast. Yeah, obviously it functions within the MonsterVerse but feels detached from the Godzilla trilogy. So, there.

Godzilla vs. Kong will hit select theaters and HBO Max on Wednesday, March 31.

Nobody Review: The Better Call Saul-John Wick Action Mashup We All Need

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

9/10

Cast:

Bob Odenkirk as Hutch Mansell

Connie Nielsen as Becca Mansell

RZA as Harry Mansell

Aleksei Serebryakov as Yulian Kuznetsov

Christopher Lloyd as David Mansell

Gage Munroe as Blake Mansell

Paisley Cadorath as Sammy Mansell

Michael Ironside as Eddie Williams

Colin Salmon as The Barber

Directed by Ilya Naishuller; Written by Derek Kolstad

Nobody Review

Nearly five years ago, audiences were first introduced to the creative mind of Ilya Naishuller with his directorial debut Hardcore Henry, which proved to be one of the most innovatively-crafted films of 2016 and of the decade and established him as a talent to look out for in the action genre and now he’s finally returned with the Bob Odenkirk-led Nobody, an absolute blast of thriller brilliantly blending the worlds of Vince Gilligan’s Better Call Saul and Keanu Reeves’ John Wick into a darkly funny, hard-hitting ride.

Hutch Mansell is an underestimated and mild-mannered family man, unresisting to his life’s hardships. One night two thieves break into his suburban home and he declines to defend himself or his family, hoping to prevent any serious complications. His son, Blake and wife, Becca are disappointed in Hutch and begin to drift away from him. Deciding to look into the robbery for a special trinket belonging to his daughter, Hutch runs afoul of some dangerous people and igniting his resentment about being an unsubstantial father and husband, he finds his suppressed skills awakened and the dark secrets of his past coming to light.

With a script hailing from John Wick franchise creator/writer Derek Kolstad, it comes as no surprise that a number of the story’s elements feel derived from the Reeves-led series, from underestimating a seemingly normal guy to a city with more mafia than law enforcement, and even feels as though borrowing a few things from the Michael Douglas-starring Falling Down and Denzel Washington vehicle The Equalizer. That being said, though, it doesn’t make any beat feel like a cheap knockoff but rather an interesting homage of the various action flicks that all add up to make for an enjoyable and easy enough to story to grasp and carry viewers from set piece to set piece.

Speaking of, while not nearly as cleanly-executed as the Wick films, the action scenes in the film are all incredibly exciting, uniquely-crafted and an absolute joy ride for fans of the genre, but their evolution is what helps keep them feeling fresh and thematically appropriate. Unlike other similar films, in which the protagonist is a bad ass right out of the gate who takes little-to-no hits in every fight, audiences watch as Hutch goes from messily taking down enemies in his first couple of fights and taking a number of devastating-looking hits to honing back in on his skills and becoming a certified ass-kicker and it offers a much nicer progression for its fights. This messiness also provides a better challenge for the stunt team and coordinators to create an air of controlled chaos to the early set pieces and make them all the more exciting and authentic.

While a film such as this can certainly coast on some well-performed action sequences, what can really help elevate it or further boost its entertainment value is a well-written or charismatic lead and Odenkirk certainly delivers in spades in an against-type performance for the star. Instead of a typically quip-heavy or fast-talking character audiences are used to seeing him portray, Odenkirk’s Hutch is a far quieter and more downbeat persona that the Emmy winner expertly hones into, from the few truly moving character moments involving his wife and family to the cold and calculating bad ass he used to be and the struggle of holding it all back in his new quiet life. His performance becomes all the more exciting as Hutch gets to be his face-smashing old self, knowing he’s playing into action hero tropes and relishing every moment of drawing bad guys into dramatic face-offs, dropping cheesy one-liners and so on and so forth. While Aleksei Serebryakov’s Yulian might not be the hammed-up or intimidating villain as other genre fare à la Michael Nyqvist’s Viggo Tarasov or Paul Giamatti’s Karl Hertz, he’s got a more intriguing character arc than most to keep him interesting.

Nobody certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel of its genre, but it beats it over the head enough with some skillful action, stylish direction from Naishuller, a wonderfully dark sense of humor permeating throughout and awesome performance from Odenkirk demanding he lead more action pics and is an absolute joy ride sure to keep audiences on the edge of their seats and beaming with excitement.

Happily Review: A Devilishly Clever Twilight Zone Riff on the Rom-Com Genre

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

9/10

Cast:

Joel McHale as Tom

Kerry Bishé as Janet

Stephen Root as Goodman

Natalie Zea as Karen

Paul Scheer as Val

Natalie Morales as Patricia

Jon Daly as Donald

Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Maude

Charlyne Yi as Gretel

Breckin Meyer as Richard

Shannon Woodward as Carla

Al Madrigal as Arthur

Written and Directed by BenDavid Grabinski

Click here to rent or purchase Happily!

Happily Review:

Whether in the first few months of your umpteenth relationship or over a decade in with the partner you’ve decided to spend the rest of your life with, the concept of remaining in an endless state of bliss with your partner and having the worst conflict between the two of you be asking your significant other to cook a dish for you, only to make up for it the very next day with a candle-lit evening and breakfast, sounds like heaven. Though such a partnership isn’t entirely out of the realm of reality, there is always a degrading of relationships to some extent over time, but what if you found someone who you connected to in such a way but were presented with the biggest challenge of all: covering up a murder?

It’s an interesting quandary most couples only ever hope to joke about, but BenDavid Grabinski has made it a reality for Joel McHale’s Tom and Kerry Bishé’s Janet in his directorial debut Happily, an odd, Twilight Zone-style breath of fresh air for the romantic comedy genre worthy of multiple visits.

Tom and Janet have been happily married for 14 years and are just as lustful and in love with each other as any couple still in their honeymoon phase or in their early stage of a relationship, a thing all of their couple friends resent that they come to learn from Karen and Val. When a visit from a mysterious stranger claiming their marriage is a mistake in the balance of the universe leads to a dead body, they decide to get out of town with their friends for a weekend getaway, only to begin questioning the loyalty of their so-called friends and the strength of their relationship.

The start of the film introduces the film as a pretty typical comedy, plenty of spiteful banter between their couple friends and calling Tom and Janet out for their sexcapades and deliberate public displays of affection in front of everybody, but it’s the way the tone gradually evolves is something to marvel at. The moment the mysterious stranger, played by the delightfully-off-putting Stephen Root, steps into their lives and the downward spiral the two take afterwards is what really keeps the film intriguing.

It never fully abandons the comedy in favor of its central mystery, but instead infuses the latter with a devilishly clever sense of dark humor to undercut the palpable tension as the couples head off for their weekend getaway together, which in itself adds an extra layer of both humor and brainteasing as Tom and Janet begin to wonder if one of their friends orchestrated the events surrounding the stranger and just who actually didn’t want to invite them to the vacation. While its whodunnit-like plot might not reach the same heights of an Agatha Christie novel or Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, Grabinski’s sleek direction and skillful writing go a long ways to keep audiences on edge while still being allotted opportunities to take a breath with some hilarious character moments.

While Grabinski has worked in the comedy world for years and proves to be a stylish director in his debut, it really is a major credit to the film’s incredible ensemble that the dichotomy of tones proves effective for the film. Just as the genre vets have their timing down for every punchline, gag and bizarre antics, they also illustrate a firm grasp on acting in a world of more serious storytelling, arguably the most impressive of which being Charlyne Yi’s Gretel. Since her debut in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, Yi has done a phenomenal job of playing the painfully-awkward type but, without outright spoiling anything, it’s when we learn more about her backstory and explanation behind her actions that we see a new, more serious and tragically-relatable personality from her that she absolutely nails, stealing every scene she’s in and easily standing out as one of the best characters in the film.

Overall, its ambitions of a Rod Serling-styled mystery built around a romantic comedy might sometimes exceed Grabinski’s grasp, he still shows a remarkable sense of balance in his multiple tones and thanks to his stellar ensemble cast delivers a timely, insightful and beautifully shot pic that certainly has me excited to see what comes next from him in the director’s chair.

SXSW 2021 Reviews: Jakob’s Wife, Language Lessons & More!

by Grant Hermanns

SXSW 2021 Reviews: Jakob's Wife, Language Lessons & More!

SXSW 2021 Reviews: Jakob’s Wife, Language Lessons & More!

The 2021 virtual South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival is finally kicking off and ComingSoon.net got the opportunity to attend and catch some of the incredible films in its catalogue, including the Barbara Crampton-led chiller Jakob’s Wife, the powerful and hilarious dramedy Language Lessons and more! Be sure to follow along as we regularly update our roundup with new reviews throughout the week!

RELATED: Sundance 2021 Reviews: Judas and the Black Messiah, Passing & More!

Sisters

  • Written and Directed by: Jess Brunetto
  • Starring: Sarah Burns, Mary Holland, Jorma Taccone, Rob Huebel, Florence C.M. Klein
  • Rating: 8/10

If the story of two estranged siblings coming together to help care for their gravely-ill mother sounds familiar, you wouldn’t be blamed for believing such as you’re right and Sisters doesn’t shy away from knowing its genre and tapping into tropes of it for good. Unlike plenty of feature-length efforts of a similar story, Jess Brunetto’s implementation of the topic into a short format prevents it from overstaying its welcome or creating a meandering plot around it, but rather allows viewers to meet the titular siblings, choose quickly whether they feel a desire to connect to either or both of them and just enjoy the character moments and humor that all feels authentic and grounded, thanks in part to the stellar turns from stars Sarah Burns and Mary Holland.

See You Then

  • Directed by: Mari Walker; Co-Written by: Mari Walker & Kristen Uno
  • Starring: Pooya Mohseni, Lynn Chen, Nican Robinson, Danny Jacobs
  • Rating: 8.5/10

Aside from maybe Richard Linklater’s iconic Before trilogy, it’s rare that filmmakers explore the topic of a couple reuniting years after they originally split and have each gone on to live their own lives, but even moreso when one of the two have undergone a transition in the time since and Mari Walker and Kristen Uno’s See You Then does well to explore this in a unique manner, even if a bit too surface-level. With Kris having left Naomi suddenly and without a word during their time together in college as she struggled with the realization she needed to transition, it’s pretty surprising to see how much the two get along for the majority of the film and how rarely they sit in an awkward silence or stumble. But what really sets it apart is as the film goes on and it almost seems as though there will be a reconciling of sorts between them, Walker and Uno are not afraid to pull the rug out from under audiences’ feet and see Kris and Naomi forced to confront their problems and every insult hurled, every personality flaw noted, every tear and heartbroken sigh comes across so authentically thanks to the skillful writing and Pooya Mohseni and Lynn Chen’s incredible performances, all resulting in a thoughtful, moving and insightful tale.

Lily Topples the World

  • Directed by: Jeremy Workman
  • Featuring: Lily Hevesh
  • Rating: 9/10

In exploring the world of viral stardom, so many films and documentaries tend to get swept up in the dangers and more toxic areas of that realm that when a film such as Jeremy Workman’s Lily Topples the World chooses to approach its subject with a kind-hearted and optimistic take, it’s a breath of fresh air. Lily Hevesh, the titular world toppler, is a very sweet and interesting subject and her domino art is nothing short of breathtaking, with her friends and family’s testimonies all offering a nice insight into the artist, thus allowing the viewers’ journey with her from her crossroads of choosing between remaining in college and pursuing her passion to be a compelling one. Though the documentary could’ve benefitted from diving a little deeper into Lily outside of the domino world, giving her a little more of a well-rounded profile, it still proves to be a thoroughly satisfying and charming watch.

Woodland Dark and Days Bewitched

  • Directed by: Kier-La Janisse
  • Rating: 6/10

The subgenere of folk horror is certainly a joy to behold and its history is a rich textbook with intriguing connections to the various social standings and while Kier-La Janisse’s Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched clearly did its research to explore this realm, it might have gone a tad too far. Running at over three hours long, the film certainly covers nearly every extent of the world of folk terror but the problem is it doesn’t move at a quick enough pacing and the expert testimonies frequently tend to circle back to the same points made earlier in the documentary, illuminating a need for trimming of some fat to shorten the length and make for a smoother and more quickly-compelling documentary. That being said, the film is still relatively interesting and the experts referencing titles even the biggest of cult fans might not have heard about proves to be an enjoyable enough exploration for hardcore genre fans.

Broadcast Signal Intrusion

  • Directed by: Jacob Gentry; Written by: Tim Woodall and Phil Drinkwater
  • Starring: Harry Shum Jr., Kelley Mack, Chris Sullivan
  • Rating: 7/10

Aside from his filmmaker son, it feels as though the unique style and atmosphere of David Cronenberg’s cult classic filmography, namely his techo-surrealist Videodrome, has yet to truly be recreated by another filmmaker, though one of the few to come close not once but now twice is Jacob Gentry, one of the minds behind the woefully-underrated 2007 gem The Signal and now the eye in the director’s chair of Broadcast Signal Intrusion. Following video archivist James as he falls down a rabbit hole of obsession in an effort to solve the mystery behind a series of broadcast signal hacks and their potential connection to his partner’s disappearance, the film may initially start out on the path of a fairly traditional narrative formula, but as it progresses it takes a few interesting twists and turns that keep things more baffling and ambiguous. While this approach worked in Cronenberg’s favor on the 1983 pic, it proves to be a bit more of a hindrance for Intrusion, with the film’s sudden arrival of a conclusion at the end feeling more akin to The Ring or FeardotCom than something original or compelling. That being said, Gentry’s direction is sleek and superb, Harry Shum Jr. delivers an absolute powerhouse of a lead performance and the visuals and atmosphere are appropriately haunting, resulting in a fairly chilling return to the ominous tech-based horror of the past.

Made For Love

  • Showrunner: Christina Lee
  • Starring: Cristin Milioti, Billy Magnussen, Ray Romano, Noma Dumezweni, Dan Bakkedahl, Augusto Aguilera
  • Rating: 9/10

Modern technology has made the world of dating and relationships all the more complicated and messy, giving people the opportunity to assert more control or create a more toxic environment than the past and HBO Max’s Made for Love does a great job of exploring this topic while still working to find a positive path for growth. Centered on a woman escaping her marriage to a suffocating and controlling tech genius, the series takes a few familiar narrative turns for those familiar with Leigh Whannell’s masterful The Invisible Man but never feels like a carbon copy but more an expansion of the formula and platform to showcase that humor can be found and explored while still dealing with some of the seriousness from it. Blending an expert balance of dark humor and drama with skillful direction and phenomenal performances from the always-superb Cristin Milioti and Billy Magnussen and a rare R-rated turn from Ray Romano, it’s a compelling journey thus far and is sure to be one of the best shows of 2021.

Language Lessons

  • Directed by: Natalie Morales; Co-Written by: Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass
  • Starring: Natalie Morales, Mark Duplass, Desean Kevin Terry, Christine Quesada
  • Rating: 9.5/10

As the global pandemic continues to keep many locked in their homes, especially Hollywood talent, the storm of Zoom-shot films continues to pour over audiences, but much like the early ventures of Rob Savage’s Host and Apple’s Mythic Quest quarantine episode, Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass’ Language Lessons smartly uses the duo’s creative talent and performances to focus on its compelling characters and their messy evolving friendship. Centered on a man whose husband buys him a large package of weekly Spanish lessons but is rocked by the sudden death of his partner, the film delves into how its two characters slowly become a lifeline for one another while is forced to confront the fact that assumptions about another person can also ruin a connection. Rather than forcing some Chasing Amy-style romantic story, the film instead elects to explore the world of platonic love and thanks to a fascinating script full of rich dialogue and moving character moments, plenty of charming humor from its talented creative duo and phenomenal performances, it quickly establishes itself as one of the timeliest, sweetest and best films of 2021 already.

Here Before

  • Written & Directed by: Stacey Gregg
  • Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Jonjo O’Neill, Martin McCann, Eileen O’Higgins
  • Rating: 8/10

A parent losing their child is the most unthinkable and unenviable thing imaginable in life and while those going through it try to tell themselves they’re children are still with them in spirit, what would happen if that child seemingly has returned to you? That’s the question Stacey Gregg’s Here Before poses to viewers and, much like Don’t Look Now, it takes a tense and dramatic approach to the material and the result is a unique and haunting effort. Andrea Riseborough adds yet another stellar performance to her resume, Gregg delivers an emotional script and sleek direction and the narrative takes some unique twists and turns, but the film finds itself somewhat hampered by its convoluted storytelling in its latter third as it seems unsure what side of the road it wants to land on the resolution to its mystery.

Recovery

CS Interview: Writers/Stars Mallory Everton & Whitney Call on Recovery [SXSW]

  • Directed by: Mallory Everton and Stephen Meek; Co-Written by: Mallory Everton and Whitney Call
  • Starring: Mallory Everton, Whitney Call, Anne Sward Hansen, Julia Jolley, Baylee Thornock, Jessica Drolet, Tyler Andrew Jones, Dora McDonald
  • Starring: 9/10

As mentioned with Language Lessons, the field of COVID-related productions has quickly become overcrowded and full of similar stories, so, much like the Morales and Duplass-led masterwork, Mallory Everton and Whitney Call’s Recovery comes as a true breath of fresh air. Focused on two aimless sisters braving a road trip to save their grandmother from a COVID outbreak at her nursing home, the film doesn’t seek to make endless political-based jokes or try and delve into the sadness many are experiencing from the pandemic but instead offer a form of heartwarming catharsis by taking its story on the road and focusing on the beautiful friendship between the siblings an their good intentions in a time in which it seemed everyone was out for themselves for a while and it’s wonderful. While some of its jokes at the start of the film feel a little too on the nose, the film is nonetheless a sweet, hilarious and truly enjoyable ride from start to finish.

Witch Hunt

  • Written & Directed by: Elle Callahan
  • Starring: Gideon Adlon, Elizabeth Mitchell, Abigail Cowen, Christian Camargo, Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti
  • Rating: 7.5/10

Persecution of witches is a theme long-explored in the horror genre, but whether the theme is used for a pro-feminine message or generic horror is up for the storyteller to decide, but with Witch Hunt Elle Callahan finds a nice balance between the two. In an alternate modern America in which witchcraft is outlawed and witches are hunted, a young teenager must come to grips with her personal demons and prejudices while her and her family aid witches in escaping to Mexico. While its story tends to be a bit familiar and hard to grasp in moments and it spoils its own ending halfway through the film, there’s something unique about its world building and characters that feels unique and compelling and its scares are mostly effective, adding up to a film that doesn’t quite capitalize on its full potential but offers a rewarding experience nonetheless.

Offseason

  • Written & Directed by: Mickey Keating
  • Starring: Jocelin Donahue, Joe Swanberg, Melora Walters, Richard Brake, Jeremy Gardner
  • Rating: 8/10

The past few years have seen a major resurgence in Lovecraftian storytelling — inexplicable monsters, psychological horror, ominous world-building — and while Mickey Keating’s Off Season may not reinvent the wheel of the genre, it does utilize many of its tropes to its advantage to deliver a chilling effort. Centered on a woman journeying to a desolated island in the wake of her mother’s death and a letter that her grave has been desecrated, it has all the it’s a great setup for all the trappings of the subgenre, from isolated location to odd population to tales of a regional curse. Though it occasionally seems to have loftier ambitions in mind, it frequently settles for more ominous storytelling that still works to deliver a chilling atmosphere, creepy visuals and a strong performance from Jocelin Donahue, all of which saves it from its predictable plot and bland ending.

Jakob’s Wife

Jakob's Wife Trailer & Poster: Who's Your Master?

  • Directed by: Travis Stevens; Co-Written by: Travis Stevens, Mark Steensland, Kathy Charles
  • Starring: Barbara Crampton, Larry Fessenden, Nyisha Bell, Bonnie Aarons, Mark Kelly, Sarah Lind, CM Punk, Robert Rusler
  • Rating: 9/10

Since her breakout work in the ’80s and ’90s, Barbara Crampton has been an icon in the horror genre but only a handful of filmmakers have seen the true potential in her acting ability and given her roles in which she can capitalize on her talent and thankfully Travis Stevens has added himself to the list with the wildly enjoyable Jakob’s Wife. Focused on a bored housewife to a small-town preacher whose encounter with a mysterious entity invokes a dark change in her, the film may prove a bit predictable but thanks to its cleverly dark script, brilliant use of against-type performances from Crampton and fellow genre vet Larry Fessenden and exploration of feminist ideals regarding the vampire mythos, it’s a delightfully gory and entertaining treat for horror genre fans.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League Review: A Rousing, Heartfelt Adventure

by Jeff Ames

Rating:

9/10

Cast:

Henry Cavill … Superman / Clark Kent
Gal Gadot … Wonder Woman / Diana Prince
Ben Affleck … Batman / Bruce Wayne
Amy Adams … Lois Lane
Amber Heard … Mera
Jared Leto … The Joker
Connie Nielsen … Queen Hippolyta
Robin Wright … Antiope
Jason Momoa … Aquaman / Arthur Curry
Ciarán Hinds … Steppenwolf
Diane Lane … Martha Kent
Ezra Miller … The Flash / Barry Allen
Joe Manganiello … Deathstroke
Willem Dafoe … Nuidis Vulko
J.K. Simmons … Commissioner Gordon
Jeremy Irons … Alfred Pennyworth
Jesse Eisenberg … Lex Luthor

Screenplay by Chris Terrio
Directed by Zack Snyder

RELATED: First Zack Snyder’s Justice League Reactions Praise it as Epic

Zack Snyders Justice League Review

Zack Snyder’s Justice League will go down as one of the better Hollywood fairy tales of the modern age. A great many articles have already been written about its tumultuous production, including the Joss Whedon reshoots that turned the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice follow up into something akin to Frankenstein’s monster — a weird amalgamation of Snyder’s darker sensibilities and Marvel’s goofy, on-the-nose humor. The theatrical cut of Justice League all but abandoned Snyder’s deeper exploration of the superhero myth in favor of a cookie cutter production that merely teased fans with the endless possibilities of Snyder’s vision; and, worse, failed to deliver a single memorable moment outside of Henry Cavill’s much publicized fake upper lip.

And yet, out of the ashes of that film’s abysmal failure rose a legion of Snyder fans who clamored for the director’s true vision to see the light of day. [In Galadriel voice] History became legend and legend became myth and for three and a half years the Snyder Cut movement grew until, when chance came, it convinced Warner Bros. to drop upwards of $70-90 million for Snyder to complete his grand design. [End Galadriel’s voice] All this to say that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has achieved mythical status — a film resurrected almost entirely out of fan support and the tireless devotion of its creator.

But is it any good?

Thank the film gods, the answer to that question is an exuberant, “Hell yeah!” Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a rousing, crowd-pleasing, Lord of the Rings-sized epic packed with humor, character and heart. Even at a whopping four hours, the film doesn’t feel long enough as it leaps from one set piece to the next with all the confidence of a black-suited Superman blasting the holy bejesus out of Steppenwolf with his laser eyes. Where Man of Steel and BvS at times struggled to blend tangible themes with kick ass superhero action, Justice League strikes the perfect balance between Snyder’s darker aesthetic and Super Friends-styled high adventure. Indeed, despite a few needless F-bombs and a couple of instances of CGI gore, Justice League is very much a family-friendly superhero flick that will delight (and hopefully unite) audiences, comic book aficionados and fans of Snyder’s previous work. The film also stands as a strong example of how minute details can drastically alter a production.

Look, as many will say, Zack Snyder’s Justice League follows the same basic plot outline of 2017’s Justice League. Steppenwolf, a minion of Darkseid, shows up to collect three Mother Boxes from the Amazons, Atlanteans and men, all of whom leave their box easily accessible to intruders — the men bury it about six feet underground where, we learn, it was later discovered by Nazis, of all people — because the plot would stall if they did the smart thing and hid it below 30 miles of metal surrounded by laser fencing or some sort of radical technology. Anyways, it’s up to Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman to stop Steppenwolf from finding and synchronizing the Mother Boxes, which would effectively eliminate all life on Earth.

That’s the gist of it. Yet, Snyder’s cut adds more motivation to Steppenwolf, here banished from his home planet and forced into servitude by his nephew Darkseid; and our heroes are given deeper backstories — Aquaman is a king shrinking from responsibility, Wonder Woman remains on the fence about helping humanity, Batman seeks to correct the errors made in BvS that ultimately led to Superman’s death, Flash longs to help his imprisoned father and find his place in the world, and Cyborg must adapt to his new life as a machine and forgive his absentee father for the role he played in his mother’s death. Some of this stuff existed in the theatrical cut but was either truncated, re-edited or spliced with poorly timed jokes that lessened the emotional impact. In the new version, the stakes feel heavier because the characters are fleshed out and handled with greater care. Yeah, there are funny moments, but they don’t come at the expense of the scene; and instead feel perfectly in synch with the situation.

Action sequences, such as a thrilling tunnel battle between the heroes and Steppenwolf, and a breathtaking game of keep away on Themyscira, are more fluid thanks to a consistent tone, stronger editing and Tom Holkenborg’s adrenaline-pumping, rock-heavy score. Comparisons to Lord of the Rings are apt as Snyder, like Peter Jackson, never allows the spectacle to overpower the characters. When people die, the story takes time to linger on their sacrifice; and by the climatic finale, motivations are clearer, the super heroic actions greater as a result.

Perhaps a stronger comparison is Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. The theatrical release of that film had plenty of visual spectacle and featured fine performances but lacked an emotional core. The extended version, or director’s cut, added an additional hour of footage, including extended scenes, small character beats and important subplots that fleshed out the narrative, improved characters and added stronger thematic material. The result wasn’t just an extension of what we already saw, but an entirely new experience and a much better film.

Make no mistake, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a completely new dish, even if the ingredients are familiar. Comparing Snyder’s version to the theatrical cut will be a fascinating exercise in the years to come for us film nerds who care about that sort of thing. Indeed, it is interesting how a simple edit or additional shot, piece of dialogue or score can significantly alter the tone and pacing of an entire sequence.

That said, there are some clunkier elements to the proceedings. Superman’s shirtless return still feels a tad underwhelming. There are also a handful of scenes, such as a brief interlude with Aquaman and Flash in which they discuss Cyborg’s mental state, that feel like deleted scenes. Sure, they’re nice to see, but they’re not entirely necessary. Also, the midsection gets a tad derivative as the film falls into a pattern that seems to repeat itself — Steppenwolf attacks, a battle ensues, Steppenwolf escapes, our heroes gather to talk next steps, Steppenwolf speaks to his masters, rinse and repeat. Finally, there’s also about three different endings with conflicting styles that don’t quite gel. And yeah, the Knightmare bit does feel tacked on — but it’s still fucking awesome.

Yet, for every minor nitpick there are a handful of truly breathtaking moments such as the much-touted bit when Barry Allen saves Iris West from certain death while “Song to the Siren” by Rose Betts plays over the soundtrack (he takes the time to steal a hotdog). A climatic sequence has Batman driving the Batmobile through a legion of parademons while the league offers support — the group even freeze-frames Avengers style in an awe-inspiring, why-the-hell-was-that-cut moment. Wonder Woman, no longer bereft of her sword, shield and guitar riff, returns to her bad ass roots and slices, dices and lassos her way through a number of incredible fight scenes. Even Mera, a supporting player in the Aquaman universe, goes toe to toe with Steppenwolf and (briefly) establishes her formidability in a unique way. Again, these small moments pack an enormous punch and transform a serviceable scene from the theatrical cut into something extraordinary and memorable.

Still, the greatest addition to Snyder’s cut is Ray Fisher’s expanded role. Cyborg’s evolution from angry, bitter machine to compassionate superhero now serves as Justice League’s backbone and the actor delivers a wonderful performance that is equal parts heartbreaking and magnetic. A Cyborg film/TV show would actually be pretty damned cool to see.

The remaining cast serve their parts well. Ben Affleck is back to form as the Dark Knight, Gal Gadot is heroic as ever as Wonder Woman; Ezra Miller, no longer serving merely as comic relief, enjoys some truly great moments as Flash; Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman is a fierce, hard hitting bad ass who drinks too much for a man with a six pack; and Henry Cavill’s Superman is both frighteningly powerful and delightfully corny all at once.

That’s the key to the film’s success: everyone gets a chance to shine. This is exciting, ambitious blockbuster filmmaking — an action-packed extravaganza that sets a new standard for superhero epics and stands as Zack Snyder’s best film to date. It’s also a Hollywood film with a fairy tale ending; and a truly powerful story about redemption.

Now, please, for the love of God, give us more.

RELATED: Zack Snyder’s Justice League Gets a Final Trailer

Additional notes:

– The 1:33:1 aspect ratio wasn’t nearly as jarring as expected. It takes a little time to get used to, but the film looks grander as a result of the verticle format. WB needs to release this film on Imax.

– Another shoutout to Tom Holkenborg’s score. It’s genuinely awesome and adds so much more excitement to the film. This is definitely a soundtrack you’ll want to pick up.

– The big question: did this need to be four hours long? Fans will enjoy every additional moment, but casual moviegoers may balk at the length. Still, Snyder breaks the film into seven different parts, including the epilogue, thus providing stopping points for those who can’t handle the extended viewing experience. Truthfully, the length wasn’t cumbersome even on the second and third viewing (ha!). Snyder paces the film well.

– Did it need to be R? Nah. The only bit that felt even remotely close to R was the Knightmare sequence featuring Jared Leto’s Joker. Otherwise, there are a few F bombs, some CGI blood but nothing too intense for a 13-year old.

– Speaking of Leto: more of his Joker, please. The actor clearly relishes the role. And while his take is decidedly more cuckoo than Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix, it actually stands in perfect contrast to Affleck’s grittier take on Batman.

– Can we also get more Deathstroke and Mera?

– Darkseid, Steppenwolf and Desaad make a formidable trio. It would be a shame to never see these villains again.

– There are a number of scenes people mocked in the theatrical cut that were indeed shot by Snyder. And yeah, you’ll probably snicker at a few, including Batman’s appearance during the Superman versus the league battle. These moments aren’t as terrible as they were before thanks to the score, color correction and sharper editing, but they’re still noticeable.

– Finally, a number of “jokes” are left out of this version. For example, the “I hear you can talk to fish” line is omitted as is a second scene featuring Commissioner Gordon where he tells Batman, “It’s nice to see you playing nice with others again.” Snyder has said that Geoff Johns and WB continually made him add more jokes to the film in order to lighten the mood. The irony, of course, is that Snyder was already making a light-hearted film. As it stands, Snyder’s cut is easily the strongest of the two versions released — an action packed marvel you’ll want to watch again and again.

Greenland Review: Compelling Moments & Plenty of Fine Performances

by Jeff Ames

Rating:

7/10

Starring:

Gerard Butler … John Garrity
Morena Baccarin … Allison Garrity
Roger Dale Floyd … Nathan Garrity
Scott Glenn … Dale
Randal Gonzalez … Bobby
Scott Poythress … Kenny
Claire Bronson … Debra Jones
Madison Johnson … Ellie Jones
Gary Weeks … Ed Pruitt
Tracey Bonner … Peggy Pruitt
Merrin Dungey … Major Breen

Written by Chris Sparling
Directed by Richard Roman Waugh

Purchase Greenland [Blu-ray] here!

Greenland Review

Greenland follows the long tradition of disaster films such as Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 — basically any movie directed by Roland Emmerich — in that it tells a tale of a broken family who rekindle their love amidst a devastating apocalypse. People die by the billions in this movie, but who cares so long as the main cast survives until the end? In this case, John Garrity (Gerard Butler) and Allison (Morena Baccarin) are newly separated parents struggling to adapt to their new lifestyle. “How long is this going to be awkward,” John asks his ex-wife early in the film. “As long as there’s not a world-ending event just around the corner,” she replies.

Not really. But you get the gist.

As it turns out, there is a world-ending scenario headed their way in the form of a deadly comet dubbed Clarke, which has broken off into smaller pieces during its flyby over Earth that now rain down on the planet like a Biblical plague. As such, NASA employs some oil drillers to plant a nuclear device into the oncoming asteroid — nope, sorry. Wrong film. The comet hits and starts a deadly frost that chases our heroes around a building — dammit. That’s The Day After Tomorrow. Oh, yeah, the oncoming comet smashes into the ocean and creates a wave that topples New York in spectacular fashion. Close enough.

No, we never get the big money shot of the Statue of Liberty exploding into flames, but that’s probably because Greenland only cost roughly $35 million to make. And while there are indeed intense moments featuring stuff blowing up real good, director Ric Roman Waugh keeps the action focused on John and his wife and child; and their endeavors to fight off a world thrown into chaos.

Naturally, the harder this family unit tries to stay together, the more separated they become. Early on, we learn that their young son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) has diabetes and figure it’s only a matter of time before that particular plot point comes along and bites them in the ass. Sure enough, the kid loses his insulin which inexplicably sets off a chain of unfortunate — though actually fortuitous, considering everything that happens — events and leaves John separated from his wife and child.

Will they reunite in time to reach Greenland, the location where a bunch of underground bunkers await to keep a select few individuals alive amidst the oncoming global killer? If you’ve seen any disaster movie then the answer will be easy to guess, though writer Chris Sparling does manage to throw a few curveballs our way to keep the suspense and emotions running at full throttle.

In a chilling early scene, John gets an emergency broadcast phone call that orders him to pack up his family for evacuation. See, the government understands the devastation that lies ahead and have organized a Deep Impact-ish lottery to ensure the survival of the human race. John and his family are selected. His neighbors aren’t. And there’s an awkward moment where the message appears on John’s TV in front of said neighbors leading to an emotional scene where John has to turn down a neighbor’s requests to take her young daughter.

“What are we supposed to do,” John reasons, “bring her with us and then leave her alone on the tarmac by herself?”

Well, one might reply, we could at least try. Or, hell, bring the mom too so the daughter won’t be alone because later we learn there are indeed other ways to arrive at the safe haven provided you happen to bump into someone with a plane. Oopsies.

The best thing Greenland has going for it is the cast. Butler, Baccarin, and Floyd make a believable family unit while a supporting cast consisting of Scott Glenn, David Denman, and Holt McCallany, among others, make the most of their brief screen time. There’s a great scene in which Allison begs an Air Force Major (played by Merrin Dungey) for help and cries out, “What would you do if it were your family?” to which the Major replies, “My family wasn’t chosen [to survive]. Neither was I.” In fact, only a small handful of military personnel are selected for survival, but the film shows the soldiers dutifully helping others regardless of their personal plight.

That’s another cool thing about the film. Despite the numerous scenes dedicated to violent, desperate people, Greenland also sneaks in quiet moments of hope and compassion. John saves a man from a burning car; a weary pilot allows John’s family to board his plane and a soldier helps Allison find her son. Like Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact, Greenland isn’t so much focused on the tragedy but rather the hope that grows from it. The film follows the same customary routes as most disaster pics and doesn’t earn any points in terms of novelty, but there are enough quietly compelling moments and plenty of fine performances to justify Greenland as passable entertainment.

A Kid from Coney Island Review: Stephon Marbury Doc Is Packed With Emotion & Insight

by Jeff Ames

A Kid from Coney Island Review: Stephon Marbury Doc Is Packed With Emotion & InsightRating:

9/10

Starring:

Stephon Marbury
Ronald Stewart

Directed by Coodie and Chike Ozah

Available to stream on Netflix, or order your copy here!

A Kid from Coney Island Review

The life of an NBA player is hard. While fans drool over the athleticism, talent, and finesse of legends such as Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, and Tim Duncan, we often forget that these boys are, well, boys. The human element gets overshadowed by the business side of professional sports where the multimillion-dollar contracts are signed; and where players are quickly discarded when the franchise decides to pursue other options.

No one better exemplified the rags-to-riches-to-rags storyline than NBA superstar Stephon Marbury, whose talent made him a legend in his hometown at a very early age; and whose passion for the game eventually drove him out of the NBA altogether. From the outside looking in, Marbury looked, at the time, like another case of an ego run rampant. ESPN ran endless stories about his inability to work with others, his lack of leadership, and his constant clashes with coaches. The man once touted as a shoo-in for a title when he was drafted alongside Kevin Garnett in Minnesota was bounced around the league until the league decided it had seen enough.

What really happened?

A Kid from Coney Island retells Marbury’s story from his point of view via interviews with close friends and family members who (rightly or wrongly) paint the man as a tragic hero — a misunderstood victim undone by a series of unfortunate events, including the sudden death of his father late in his NBA career. But Coodie and Chike Ozah’s documentary is much more than another redundant 30 for 30 episode. The film ultimately serves as a cautionary tale about the sleazy underbelly of professional sports, particularly the NBA — an organization that chews through young stars the way a lion consumes a gazelle. Young men like Marbury are too blinded by fame to see their eventual demise lurking just around the corner; and before they know it find themselves blacklisted or rotting on a lottery-bound team that views them as little more than a trade chip.

We watch this firsthand in Coney Island as Marbury rises from young up-and-coming superstar alongside the likes of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Antawn Jamison, to a generational talent drafted fourth overall by the Milwaukee Bucks (who traded him to Minnesota for a future first-round pick and the draft rights to Ray Allen). Marbury and Garnett formed an incredible one-two punch, but contract disputes ultimately led to their separation; and Marbury quickly found himself leapfrogging from New Jersey to Phoenix to New York to Boston and finally out of the NBA completely.

Marbury was considered difficult to work with, a title that cemented itself when he clashed with Larry Brown at the 2004 Olympics. In fact, when the U.S. Men’s Basketball Team failed to to bring home the gold for the first time in the NBA players era, Marbury, whether deserved or not, endured most of the blame.

Before long, Marbury was seen as the superstar that never was, which forced him to pack his bags and head to China where he saw a career resurgence and eventually led the Beijing Ducks to its first-ever CBA championship; and even had a statue built in his honor.

Sounds like one of those cheesy Disney sports movies from the 90s, right?

A Kid from Coney Island is much more than that. Surprisingly packed with emotion and plenty of insight into the darker world of professional sports, this documentary hits hard in its endeavors to clear the air on one of sports’ more controversial figures. As a fan, you may still bitterly resent Marbury the player after the credits roll, but you’ll also likely gain a newfound respect for Marbury the man after watching his fall from grace and astonishing return to prominence.

Falling Review: Viggo Mortensen & Lance Henriksen Deliver Career-Bests

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

9/10

Cast:

Viggo Mortensen as John Peterson

William Healy as 15-year-old John Peterson

Etienne Kellici as 10-year-old John Peterson

Grady McKenzie as 5-year-old John Peterson

Lance Henriksen as Willis Peterson

Sverrir Gudnason as Young Willis Peterson

Laura Linney as Sarah Peterson

Ava Kozelj as 10-year-old Sarah Peterson

Carina Battrick as 5-year-old Sarah Peterson

Hannah Gross as Gwen Peterson

Terry Chen as Eric Peterson

Piers Bijvoet as Will

Ella Jonas Farlinger as Paula

Written & Directed by Viggo Mortensen

Click here to rent or purchase Falling!

Falling Review:

The subject of dementia is one so fraught with sadness and unknowingness that it’s often tackled on screen in one of two ways: Humor or Tragedy. While the former path is certainly a feasible one, as humor is a coping mechanism for sadness, it often leads to unfair or disingenuous portrayals of the very real mental issue many face as they get older, whereas the latter approach generally bashes a viewer over the head with the message to sympathize with those suffering from it. While Viggo Mortensen’s Falling, might not find the right balance of both worlds, it does offer a far more honest and raw portrayal of the disease that sees its debuting writer/director/star and co-star Lance Henriksen delivering career-best performances.

John (Viggo Mortensen) lives with his partner, Eric (Terry Chen), and their daughter, Mónica (Gabby Velis), in California, far from the traditional rural life he left behind years ago. John’s father, Willis (Lance Henriksen), a headstrong man from a bygone era, lives alone on the isolated farm where John grew up. Willis is in the early stages of dementia, making running the farm on his own increasingly difficult, so John brings him to stay at his California home so that he and his sister Sarah (Laura Linney) might help him find a place near them to relocate to. Unfortunately, their best intentions ultimately run up against Willis’s adamant refusal to change his way of life in the slightest.

Unlike most films centered around characters suffering from dementia, the film takes an interesting narrative path by illustrating how Willis was during John’s childhood and up to the present day, but instead of a kind-hearted father whose struggle against the disease sees him devolve into a despicable character, we’re shown that he’s always been problematic and it presents a more compelling question for the viewer. How far does unconditional love for a parent go when they give you no avenue to connect with?

Drawing from his own experiences, Mortensen certainly doesn’t hold back in crafting the character of Willis, delivering a thoroughly conservative, wildly racist and homophobic misogynist whose time has long past. At times, it greatly works to create some gripping and emotionally heated moments between John and his father, as well as Eric, Sarah and the rest of the extended family, but admittedly there are times it becomes hard to watch. It’s undeniably an honest portrayal of those who exhibited these behaviors prior to succumbing to dementia, which only exacerbates and brings forth these negative traits more frequently and without filter, but at times the writing does draw dangerously near depicting Willis as a caricature more so than a genuinely complex or flawed person.

This is frequently saved, however, by Mortensen’s direction and the incredible performance from Henriksen in the role. The 80-year-old actor holds nothing back bringing Willis to life, delivering every harsh criticism, horrible slur and occasional expression of love and heartbreak with such a truthful abandon it’s hard to completely hate or feel unsympathetic in watching his spiral. Be it John’s endless attempts to help his ailing father or the rare moments indicating he’s really hurting deep down from a life of abandonment, the way the story keeps characters from endlessly turning their backs on him helps create a similar connection in audiences to Willis and keeping a sliver of hope alive that maybe he will come around.

While it might feel a little familiar or predictable in moments and Willis occasionally strays into caricature territory, Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut nonetheless proves to be a powerful, beautifully shot and incredibly performed honest portrayal of dementia that establishes the three-time Oscar nominee as a directorial talent certainly worth waiting for.

Sundance 2021 Reviews: Judas and the Black Messiah, Passing & More!

by Grant Hermanns

Sundance 2021 Reviews: Judas and the Black Messiah, Passing & More!

Sundance 2021 reviews: Judas and the Black Messiah, Passing & more!

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival has finally arrived and ComingSoon.net got the exciting opportunity to take part in the virtual iteration of the classic festival and watch some of the incredible films in its catalogue, from Robin Wright and Rebecca Hall’s directorial debuts Land and Passing to the biographical drama Judas and the Black Messiah. Check out our reviews for the films below!

RELATED: Nightstream Reviews: Dinner in America, Bloody Hell & More!

Knocking

  • Directed by: Frieda Kempff; Written by: Emma Broström
  • Starring: Cecilia Milocco, Krister Kern, Albin Grenholm, Ville Virtanen, Alexander Salzberger
  • Rating: 5/10

Often times a psychological thriller with little-to-no explanations for the events of the story depicted is a smarter move as some ambiguity for the film breeds intriguing debates and compelling character work, but there’s still the occasional efforts in which this lack of exposition leaves a viewer underwhelmed and disinterested, such was the case for me with Knocking. Centered on a woman slowly losing her mind after moving into a new apartment and hearing a mysterious knocking sound from the walls, which no other tenant hears or is willing to believe her about, the film’s attempts at taking a pointed look at gaslighting and many countries’ incapacity to properly help those with a mental illness are certainly admirable, but by locking them in the psychological thriller genre they’re not really explored effectively or obvious enough for audiences to understand that’s part of the point of the film. Instead what we’re given is a mildly-tense-yet-ambling story that features a strong performance from Milocco and stylish direction from Kempff, but not much else in the way of a well-paced narrative or satisfying conclusion.

Luzzu

  • Written & Directed by: Alex Camilleri
  • Starring: Jesmark Scicluna, Michela Farrugia, David Scicluna
  • Rating: 8.5/10

The story of a young family struggling as both must come to terms with their pride regarding their extended families, jobs rooted in tradition and temptations of a turn to crime is certainly a well-worn genre here in the States, but it’s one not often explored so richly and so uniquely as with Alex Camilleri’s Malta-set Luzzu. Centered on fisherman Jesmark as he seeks to find a way to provide for his wife and newborn baby while dealing with a leak in his boat and an increasingly problematic industry in the region, the film might follow the general formula of a slow turn to crime but rather than see him revel in it or suddenly become in the favor of all those around him, Camilleri keeps hammering Js down with realistic problems and moral hurdles and provides a nice slow burn to its story. In addition to its nice subversions of genre formula, the story does a fascinating job of exploring some very real-world issues of the European Union hurting local fishing industries rooted in family generations as well as the toll global warming is taking on the ecosystems of the region and local jobs, and with a proper minimal usage of Jon Natchez’ powerful score, it all culminates in a moving, gripping and often-heartbreakingly real tale.

John and the Hole

  • Directed by: Pascual Sisto; Written by: Nicolás Giacobone
  • Starring: Charlie Shotwell, Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle, Taissa Farmiga
  • Rating: 3/10

Evil children is a trope in the horror and thriller genre that has been explored in every aspect, from spawns of Satan to influenced by evil entities to just downright maniacal souls, but few have been quite as haunting to watch as the titular teen in John and the Hole, but whether that works in its favor or against it really lies in the preferences of the viewer. After drugging his family and dragging them into the bottom of an unfinished bunker, John casually goes about enjoying some freedom, including stealing money from an ATM using his parents’ debit card, telling lies to various adults regarding the whereabouts of everyone and inviting a friend over, all while bringing his family food scraps, bottles of water and garbage bags full of clothes. The tension and sense of dread permeating from this film is certainly handled expertly and Sisto’s directorial eye is quite artful, but the writing and the story really feels so bland and purposefully controversial that it doesn’t feel more than a poor attempt at trying to start a conversation regarding John’s actions. Is he a monster? Is he just odd? Is this part of some adolescent angst? No matter what the answer is, the way the film progresses and presents the character doesn’t feel like an intelligent or meaningful exploration of him, but rather a slow-burning experiment designed to torture the viewer and make them question what the point of any of John’s actions actually were, or if there even was one.

Passing

  • Written & Directed by: Rebecca Hall
  • Starring: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård, Bill Camp
  • Rating: 9/10

Nowadays when filmmakers choose to explore the issue of race in America, so often is the lens pointed towards the past during the era of slavery or Civil Rights Movement period of the ’60s and ’70s, but there’s a truly fascinating time in between with the Harlem Renaissance that feels so untapped with its potential. Not only does debuting writer/director Rebecca Hall properly explore this time with her adaptation of Nella Larsen’s Passing, but she also compellingly dives into so many of its fascinating themes, from its titular social status to the homoerotic subtext and repression in some of its characters, with an air of authenticity and a beautiful eye that makes her first outing in the director’s chair nothing short of remarkable. Centered on two childhood friends as they reunite by chance and see what their lives have become as they’ve chosen different sides of the race line, with Irene (Tessa Thompson) choosing to embrace her African-American heritage while Clare (Ruth Negga) has chosen to embrace her ability to “pass” as a white woman and marry as such, while also becoming increasingly obsessed and intrigued by the other’s life. Hall brilliantly utilizes the black-and-white styling of the film to tap into the story’s titular theme while simultaneously letting it shine through her thoughtful script and thanks to the gripping performances from leads Thompson and Negga, this is an absolutely absorbing, beautiful and timely work of art sure to turn heads at any awards ceremony with good taste in film.

Censor

  • Co-Written & Directed by: Prano Bailey-Bond; Co-Written by: Anthony Fletcher
  • Starring: Niamh Algar, Nicholas Burns, Vincent Franklin, Sophia La Porta, Adrian Schiller, Michael Smiley
  • Rating: 8.5/10

Though beloved by many and comprised of a devoted fan base going back nearly a century, the horror genre has often been the subject of ire and criticism in regards to the effects some of the violence portrayed in their works have carried over into the real world. While there have been a handful of entries in the genre that have elected to either satirize or spoof said belief, Prano Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher’s Censor offers something far different and more unique by not only showing a reverence for what’s come before but also almost a more meta-yet-direct desire to protect the genre from fairly ignorant criticisms. Following film censor Enid as she slowly loses her mind while investigating a mysterious new film and its potential connection to her sister’s disappearance in her childhood, it takes a fascinating approach to revealing a facet of the film industry and the video nasty era not hardly explored. Though Enid’s descent into madness might feel similar to The Ring‘s Rachel or In the Mouth of Madness‘ Trent, Censor offers a better driving force and more intriguing explanation for her devolution, never fully diving into the supernatural but offering just enough hints of it to please both genre enthusiasts and those generally fond of nostalgic storytelling. With a powerful leading turn from Niamh Algar and artful direction from Bailey-Bond that simultaneously utilizes the best of modern technology and the color palette and framework of horror’s past, this is an absolute dream of a film in every facet and marks a promising future from its co-writer/director.

RELATED: PG: Psycho Goreman Review: A Bloody, Clever & Hilarious ’90s Throwback

Searchers

  • Director: Pacho Velez
  • Rating: 9/10

Even prior to the global lockdown, the world of online dating has been an area of real fascination as it continues to expand with dating apps but unlike last year’s similar documentary Shoot to Marry, which focused more on the filmmaker than the modern world of dating itself, Pacho Velez takes a far more simplified and entertaining approach to this subject with Searchers. Placing various New Yorkers in front of a very innovative screen allowing the viewer to see what the subjects are seeing as they scroll through potential matches, messages and setting up their profiles, Velez finds an amazing ability to just draw out everyone’s authentic selves as they react to what they’re seeing. By choosing to really only make the apps and subjects the center of the story, especially in regards to what they’re looking for, instead of himself despite his occasional insertions as he uses the apps himself, Velez has crafted a hilarious, poignant and thoroughly entertaining documentary from start to finish.

Eight for Silver

  • Written & Directed by: Sean Ellis
  • Starring: Boyd Holbrook, Kelly Reilly, Ailstair Petrie, Roxane Duran, Áine Rose Daly
  • Rating: 8.5/10

The werewolf horror genre recently saw a nice change of pace thanks to Jim Cummings’ offbeat and fascinating The Wolf of Snow Hollow and though Sean Ellis’ Eight for Silver takes a similar character-focused approach without any of the sense of humor of Cummings, he still delivers a compelling and fairly original take on the formula. Centered on a pathologist as he heads to a small country village in the 1800s to investigate an animal attack with a darker meaning behind it, the film isn’t your typical werewolf film as it offers a more concrete explanation behind its creature’s origin and features more daytime attacks, but these not only work largely in the film’s favor but also spawns from the attacker behind the local murders being something more terrifying and conceptually fascinating than a normal lycanthrope, a near-Lovecraftian terror that’s somehow made its way to the middle of the woods. Though the film occasionally moves at a sluggish pace and some of its CGI proves a little shoddy, the scares dispersed throughout are very effective, the practical effect work is downright stellar and the performances from its cast are all top-notch, making for an outright chilling and intriguing affair.

In The Earth

  • Written & Directed by: Ben Wheatley
  • Starring: Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Hayley Squires, Reece Shearsmith
  • Rating: 7/10

With the world still stuck in the middle of one, film and TV creatives have sought various ways to address the ongoing pandemic in their work, be it by directly incorporating it into their stories, making stories about a pandemic or shooting over technologies such as Zoom to keep everyone safe. Last year saw the heinous attempt at offering a pandemic thriller with the poorly-thought-out Songbird but now writer/director Ben Wheatley has come along with a different kind of chiller with a virus as its initial driving force in his first horror film in nearly a decade, In The Earth, and the result is a beautifully-shot mind-bender. Unlike arguably the worst film of 2020, Wheatley uses the backdrop of a pandemic to heighten his story’s themes of human connection and as a minor catalyst for its survivalist thriller and takes a nice slow-burning approach to unveiling further details about its central three characters and their various motivations for being out in the woods, as well as blurring the line between psychedelic hysteria and a very real monster living in the woods. Though its latter half’s dive into a meld of science and fantasy feels a little mismatched with its first half, it does offer an intriguing enough story and breeds more gorgeous direction from Wheatley, resulting in a mildly disappointing but nonetheless compelling ride.

On The Count of Three

  • Directed by: Jerrod Carmichael; Written by: Ari Katcher, Ryan Welch
  • Starring: Jerrod Carmichael, Christopher Abbott, Tiffany Haddish, J.B. Smoove, Lavell Crawford, Henry Winkler
  • Rating: 8.5/10

Films regarding suicide are a really slippery slope, as one certainly wants to depict the mental struggle with authenticity and respect to those who have thoughts of self-harm without entirely alienating an audience and though Jerrod Carmichael’s feature directorial debut On The Count of Three might be a mixed bag of genres but thanks to a nice layer of dark humor and incredible performances from the stand-up comic and Golden Globe nominee Christopher Abbott, it’s a damn impressive first outing. Following two men ready to commit suicide as they decide to take care of some unfinished business before leaving this Earth, the film moves at a steady enough pace and sees Carmichael expertly tapping into the pitch-black comedy to come from such a premise and directing with a soulful eye, even if Katcher and Welch’s script proves to be a little underwhelming and fairly predictable, and its modest ensemble cast all deliver truly powerful performances, very much disappearing into their roles and bringing them to life with a level of authenticity that is truly gripping to watch.

Together Together

  • Written & Directed by: Nikole Beckwith
  • Starring: Ed Helms, Patti Harrison, Rosalind Chao, Anna Konkle, Evan Jonigkeit, Tig Notaro, Nora Dunn
  • Rating: 8/10

Modern parenting is a much more complex and fascinating world than that of the past, especially thanks to scientific breakthroughs with surrogacy, but a formula so rarely explored is a single man nearing the end of his own biological clock for raising a kid and electing to find a surrogate mother who he has no prior connection with. Basically a gender-swapped Baby Mama, the film takes a more dramedy approach to its story, amps up the overbearing nature of its desperate-to-be-a-parent character to somewhat annoying degrees and repeats a number of jokes from similar genre efforts — Sex during pregnancy? You’re ordering that? You’re turning to a surrogate? — but there is plenty here to admire in comparison to other of its ilk. Rather than having the mother be a supporting character to the hopeful parent, Patti Harrison’s Anna is a well-rounded individual with her own aspirations and agency while Ed Helms’ Matt mostly proves a little two-note across its short runtime, but thankfully the duo’s evolving chemistry saves the latter from being too much of a bore. The inclusion of therapy groups that are vital to the process makes for a nice subversion and helps ground the film in a better sense of realism than some studio efforts exploring similar themes and formulas.

Land

  • Directed by: Robin Wright; Written by: Jesse Chatham, Erin Dignam
  • Starring: Robin Wright, Demián Bichir, Kim Dickens
  • Rating: 8.5/10

Stories regarding humanity going up against nature so often take an adventurous or drastic approach to their tellings that it’s so often easy to forget the characters at the heart of the film and their emotional and personal struggles. Films such as EverestThe 33The Mountain Between Us all pride themselves on the spectacle of their plots while frequently losing touch with the souls at the heart of the stories, and though Robin Wright’s directorial debut Land may take a fairly safe and predictable approach to its premise, it largely shines thanks to its fascinating character development and gorgeous direction. Centered on a woman as she heads into the mountains following a family tragedy and takes the opportunity of a near-death experience to find a path towards having a desire to live, the way the film never truly divulges the trauma from Wright’s Edee until near the very end better allows viewers to establish a deeper and truer emotional connection with the character and feel her pain as she grieves and attempts to grow with the friendship of the always-charming Demián Bichir. While its semi-exposition dump at the end felt a little unnecessary for the journey that preceded it, Wright shows an incredible grip on both the visual and storytelling duties that come with the director’s chair and has delivered an emotionally beautiful, moving and powerfully-performed tale that any viewer can resonate with.

Prisoners of the Ghostland

  • Directed by: Sion Sono; Written by: Aaron Hendry, Reza Sixo Safai
  • Starring: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Bill Moseley, Nick Cassavetes, Tak Sakaguchi, Yuzuka Nakaya
  • Rating: 6.5/10

In this day and age, I think it’s safe to say when going into a film starring Nicolas Cage to temper one’s expectations and be prepared for an absolute gonzo ride and while Prisoners of the Ghostland might feel like a more disjointed effort than some of his recent critical hits, it’s nonetheless got some fun for fans of the Oscar winner. Centered on a bank robber tasked with tracking down the escaped adopted granddaughter of Samurai Town’s The Governor in exchange for his freedom, the film has a real odd meld of tones between the Western, samurai and post-apocalyptic genres that sometimes lends itself to a great air of ambiguity and mystery akin to the best films of David Lynch and Richard Kelly though often times feels like some of their worst. The Mad Max-esque wasteland is fairly interesting in concept and may have a solid message regarding the environment behind it, but if it does exist it’s lost in the scattershot writing and storytelling. That being written, said storytelling delivers Nicolas Cage’s testicle exploding, Sofia Boutella getting to be an action badass that I’d love to see her do more of and some well-shot samurai action sequences resulting in one of the weirdest yet oddly-compelling films from its star in years.

First Date

  • Co-Written & Co-Directed by: Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp
  • Starring: Tyson Brown, Shelby Duclos, Jesse Janzen, Nicole Berry, Ryan Quinn Adams, Brandon Kraus
  • Rating: 6.5/10

A high school first date gone wrong is a concept plenty of films have explored, but very few have involved gunfights, car chases and kilos of cocaine and while First Date‘s involving of these conflicts does frequently lend itself to some outrageous and funny situations, the film itself can never quite live up to the promise. The action scenes are certainly well-executed, especially for a film with no seemingly no budget, some of the acting is great in the film, especially sure-to-be-breakout star Shelby Duclos, and there’s quite a few hilarious moments, but unfortunately the film just moves at such a sluggish pace and repeats a few too many gags that it proves underwhelming. One thing similar-plotted Date Night got right in comparison was not overstaying its welcome with its runtime, a fast-paced 88 minutes instead of the overextended 102 that feels like a misguided attempt to pad the film’s length and go for some unfunny jokes.

Mass

  • Written & Directed by: Fran Kranz
  • Starring: Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, Reed Birney, Breeda Wool
  • Rating: 9/10

The United States is a country that never seems to get a respite from shocking reports of a mass shooting occurring somewhere and as lawmakers continue to struggle to figure out how to address the issue, filmmakers similarly continue to show an uncertainty in how to approach the subject. While this year has already seen an egregious attempt — which I shall not name, but a quick Google will lead you to it — debuting writer/director Fran Kranz has brought his own approach with Mass and it’s a painfully raw, authentic and far more respectful exploration of the subject. Centered on the parents of a victim of a mass shooting meeting the parents of the perpetrator years after the event, Kranz’ incredible script covers nearly every facet of the argument on either side of the aisle, from pride driving some to turn a blind eye to those displaying dangerous characteristics to gun control to the sad truth that sometimes therapy may not work or have an adverse effect on those attending. Kranz, who took to Broadway in 2012 and 2014, brings his experience and lessons learned from the stage and expertly translates them into the film world, as the nearly-two-hour runtime feels more like a stage production with its one setting and minimal production design, which goes a long way to allowing the viewer to focus on the incredible performances from its central four stars, even if there are a few too many cuts during conversations. It appears as an attempt to properly illustrate everyone’s fascinating performance from every angle possible during every conversation, but sometimes it feels a little too much and feels like the film could’ve used a few less camera angles. That being said, however, Kranz has delivered a thoroughly intelligent, powerful and urgent tale that is supported by incredible turns from its talented leads.

Mayday

  • Written & Directed by: Karen Cinorre
  • Starring: Grace Van Patten, Mia Goth, Havana Rose Liu, Soko, Théodore Pellerin, Juliette Lewis
  • Rating: 7/10

A decade ago, Zack Snyder tried and failed to deliver a world in which women seeking to escape the harsh reality of their lives in a mental institution turn to a fantastical world in which they are badass action heroes. Where he missed the mark with a misogynistic depiction of his characters, Karen Cinorre has displayed a better understanding of how ambitious a premise could be and that a less straightforward and more ambiguous approach can be far more thrilling with her debut Mayday. Following two women at low points in their life who are magically transported to an alternate world in which one is the leader of a crew of female soldiers caught in an endless war, the film may take a more reductive approach to its feminist themes for much of its runtime and is heavy on atmosphere and light on actual exposition, but it feels like a much richer and intriguing approach for the premise. Cinorre’s direction is thoroughly engrossing, almost creating the feel of a Hayao Miyazaki film brought to life, the performances from its cast are solid, especially a career-best turn from Mia Goth, all culminating in a visually beautiful, thoughtful and delightfully odd little genre effort establishing its writer/director as a talent to watch.

Marvelous and The Black Hole

  • Written & Directed by: Kate Tsang
  • Starring: Miya Cech, Rhea Perlman, Leonardo Nam, Kannon Omachi, Paulina Lule, Keith Powell
  • Rating: 9.5/10

Teenagers are rebellious. It’s one of the oldest tropes/traits in the book for storytelling, but it’s the motivation behind said behavior and the execution of a film that can help set it apart from the bunch and while Kate Tsang’s Marvelous and The Black Hole may prove a bit familiar, it’s nonetheless and a sweet and energetic take on the formula. The film centers on teenager Sammy as she struggles to come to terms with the loss of her mother and her father moving on and dating someone new and pushing her to taking a summer course at her local community college, where she meets magician Margot, who introduces her to the world of magic as an outlet for her grief and frustrations and they slowly build a friendship that will change her life for the better. Yes, it’s a story told time and again, but the way Tsang presents it is far better than other similar genre efforts. With an energy and style akin to Matthew Lillard’s adaptation of Fat Kid Rules the World but still full of its own unique flair, interesting characters and authentic performances from its cast, namely Miya Cech, Rhea Perlman and Leonardo Nam, the film is a hilarious, moving and rewarding tale of loss, growth and imagination.

Jockey

  • Co-Written & Directed by: Clint Bentley; Co-Written by: Greg Kwedar
  • Starring: Clifton Collins Jr., Molly Parker, Moisés Arias
  • Rating: 8/10

Horse racing has been explored on screen a number of times, from seven-time Oscar nominee Seabiscuit to the recent Toni Collette-starring dramedy Dream Horse, but it’s rare that a story is willing to genuinely focus on the jockeys themselves and the toll their careers can take on them and Clint Bentley’s extremely personal drama delivers thanks to the fantastic performance from lead Clifton Collins Jr. Centered on an aging rider as he finds himself confronting potentially his final season, the arrival of a young man claiming to be his son and helping train a promising new horse, the film takes a similar approach to Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler for the world of horse racing and much like said film the formula works. The establishing of Collins Jr.’s Jackson is handled with such a quick-yet-emotional touch that it helps the viewer quicker connect to him and his full immersion in the role and while he looks like he’s rather enjoying the ride in moments such as dancing a jig at a party, we also can feel every ounce of pain coming from him, in his heart, his soul and especially his body. While it may run a little overlong in its pacing, Bentley’s skillful direction and Collins Jr.’s committed performance make this a worthwhile race around the track.

The Blazing World

  • Co-Written & Directed by: Carlson Young; Co-Written by: Pierce Brown
  • Starring: Udo Kier, Dermot Mulroney, Carlson Young, Vinessa Shaw, John Karna, Soko
  • Rating: 7.5/10

Imagine a film who finds a way to bridge the general premises of Alice in WonderlandThe Odyssey and Jacob’s Ladder then cranks them up with some of the most potent acid on the planet. The result is Carlson Young’s fascinating and haunting feature directorial debut The Blazing World. Surrounding a young woman haunted by the drowning death of her sister in childhood as she journeys through a dark and dangerous fantasy world in hopes of saving her sister’s soul from demons while herself on the brink of suicide, there’s a lot to process and unpack in the film. From its opening moments, it becomes clear to the viewer to never fully trust what they’re seeing as hallucinations and false memories are presented, the former of which delivers some nice jump scares and both of which help create an intriguing air of mystery and delusion akin to the Tim Robbins-led cult classic. Though its plot begins to feel a little simplistic as it goes on, journeying from one twisted realm to the next, each does present a vast amount of symbolism and breathtaking imagery that keeps the audience glued to the screen while wanting to crawl back in their seats in fear. The visual design of the brief glimpses of demons we see are terrifying and unique, the sharp colors palette of the evil dimension feels very reminiscent of the giallo films it seeks to pay homage to and Young’s direction is incredibly stylish, making it a shame that the story can never quite keep a steady pacing or intriguing throughline.

Judas and the Black Messiah

  • Co-Written & Directed by: Shaka King; Co-Written by: Will Berson
  • Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Martin Sheen, Algee Smith, Lil Rel Howery, Jermaine Fowler
  • Rating: 9.5/10

Three years ago, Spike Lee delivered one of the most exhilarating and stylish undercover police stories based on a true story from the Civil Rights movement and now Shaka King is looking at a story on the flip side of the coin with Judas and the Black Messiah and the result is one nearly as electric but equally as timely and as powerful. Centered on William O’Neal as he is enlisted by the FBI to infiltrate the Black Panther Party and bring down its chairman, Fred Hampton, the film takes a far more character-focused approach to telling its story and sets itself apart from Lee’s — and others — similar films by electing to put a proper spotlight on the good Hampton sought to put out into the world for the Black community and the level of O’Neal’s betrayal against the revolutionary. But rather than treat O’Neal as the villain of the story, a route some filmmakers could have easily taken, King and co-writer Will Berson ensure to display the reality that he was a man backed into a corner who tried to stick to his morals and support the positive messages the Black Panthers put out even as he is constantly put down by his authority bosses, delivering a brilliant balance with their saint-like depiction of Hampton. Alongside King and Berson’s urgent script and the former’s strong direction, the film is carried by the downright stellar performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield. The Get Out Oscar nominee quite literally seems to only get better and better with every role, absolutely dominating every single scene he’s in and had me damn near standing up and chanting and cheering alongside him in every public event, and the Atlanta star has now absolutely established that if he’s snubbed for any major award, something’s wrong with Hollywood because he is an incredible anchor and hones in on every level of duplicity, paranoia and charm O’Neal needed to bring to his work as an informant. King, his cast and crew have set a very high bar for the rest of 2021 and already delivered what is sure to be one of the best films of the year.

PG: Psycho Goreman Review: A Bloody, Clever & Hilarious ’90s Throwback

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

9/10

Cast:

Nita-Josee Hanna as Mimi

Owen Myre as Luke

Adam Brooks as Greg

Alexis Hancey as Susan

Kristen MacCulloch as Pandora

Anna Tierney as the voice of Pandora

Matthew Ninaber as Psycho Goreman (or “PG”)

Steven Vlahos as the voice of Psycho Goreman

Written and Directed by Steven Kostanski

Click here to rent or purchase PG: Psycho Goreman!

PG: Psycho Goreman Review:

When one turns on a film with a title as wild as PG: Psycho Goreman, expectations are directed in two paths: one of the worst and most graphic horror movies they’ve ever seen or the most outrageous genre spoof in the vein of The Final Girls. Thankfully, writer/director Steven Kostanski’s third solo directorial effort is the best of both worlds as it delivers loads of blood and guts but keeps its tongue firmly in its cheek as it spoofs a number of the most beloved genre efforts from the ’90s and the result is an absolute blast.

In PG: Psycho Goreman, siblings Mimi and Luke unwittingly resurrect an ancient alien overlord. Using a magical amulet, they force the monster to obey their childish whims, and accidentally attract a rogues’ gallery of intergalactic assassins to small-town suburbia.

To reflect and critique the story of a film such as this, which knows what it is and is purposely exploiting various tropes of its multiple genres, is hard to do as it’s easy enough to appreciate its embrace of a general formula to deliver its fun. Though it may slightly hamper the whole experience, as it generally proves predictable, there are a few subversions to the story that work well for the film, from double and triple crosses of alliances to offering an actually fleshed-out backstory for its titular villain-turned-antihero.

The film really shines in the mayhem that spawns from the arrival of the titular character, some of which initially proves chilling and brutal but slowly becomes hilarious and increasingly exciting from sequence to sequence. The casual willingness Mimi and Luke’s parents take to accepting PG into their lives and taking him around town feels like a great change of pace from similar movies of the past in which the children at the center of the story take slapstick-bordering steps to hide their alien friend and even brings a funny new dynamic to the family in the film, with the siblings’ parents’ marriage having more of its flaws exposed and offering a decent development with Alexis Hancey’s Susan, a more elevated change than other genre fare.

Taking PG around town to clothing stores for a makeover montage, grabbing ice cream and blowing up children who laugh at his terrifying face and terribly mutilating a local cop who attempts to kill him, resulting in melted-face zombie whose gun has melded into his hand, but is fully aware of his new existence and is unable to kill himself. The decision to utilize almost exclusively practical effects instead of an over-reliance on low-budget CGI is phenomenal, keeping the tone feeling grounded in the hyper-reality of the sci-fi and horror genres of the ’90s.

One of the best effects in the film proves to be that of a young child transformed into a horrible-looking walking brain unable to truly talk or emote outside of his eyes. It feels like the perfect combination of a wacky creation right out of John Hughes’ Weird Science or a villain from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers with one of the Lovecraftian monstrosities Kostanski helmed bring to life in the wildly underrated 2016 gem The Void. It hits the right balance of a family-friendly monster that could give both adults and kids nightmares and shows some of the awesome imagination both Kostanski and his visual effects team put into developing the various creatures seen in the film.

PG: Psycho Goreman‘s only real flaws lie in some of the predictability in spoofing the genres and eras it does, but thanks to its nostalgic throwback tone, stellar practical effects and solid performances from its central cast, it’s an absolute bloody blast from start to finish.

One Night in Miami Review: A Complex, Powerful & Graceful Adaptation

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

9.5/10

Cast:

Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X

Eli Goree as Muhammad Ali

Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown

Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke

Joaquina Kalukango as Betty Shabaz

Nicolette Robinson as Barbara Cooke

Beau Bridges as Mr. Carlton

Lance Reddick as Brother Kareem

Michael Imperioli as Angelo Dundee

Jerome A. Wilson as Elijah Muhammad

Amondre D. Jackson as L.C. Cooke

Aaron D. Alexander as Sonny Liston

Click here to watch One Night in Miami!

One Night in Miami Review:

In just three years at trying his hand as a screenwriter on the hit CBS All Access series Star Trek: Discovery and Pixar’s latest acclaimed effort Soul, Kemp Powers has quickly established his voice as one of the most insightful and intelligent in Hollywood, especially in regards to looking to authentically capture the Black experience in America. Prior to becoming a screenwriter, Powers was a playwright and made his debut with the historically-inspired One Night in Miami and eight years later it has found its way to the screen with Regina King at the helm in her directorial debut and deftly illustrates she was exactly the right talent to translate the powerful material for film.

Set on the night of February 25, 1964, One Night in Miami follows a young Cassius Clay (before he became Muhammad Ali) as he emerges from the Miami Beach Convention Center the new World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. Against all odds, he defeated Sonny Liston and shocked the sports world. While crowds of people swarm Miami Beach to celebrate the match, Clay – unable to stay on the island because of Jim Crow-era segregation laws – instead spends the night at the Hampton House Motel in one of Miami’s historically black neighborhoods celebrating with three of his closest friends: activist Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke and football star Jim Brown. The next morning, the four men emerge determined to define a new world for themselves and their people.

While the titular night’s events may become fictional after Cassius’ victory over Liston, the character development and conversations shown over the course of the story’s hours nonetheless feels like a truly authentic and captivating glimpse at a point in history. Much like the works of Aaron Sorkin, the film remains crackling with energy and moving steadily in its pace thanks to the dialogue from Powers, who uses his experience as a playwright and his own source material to ensure that every scene, even if confined to one location, never feels dull. A roster of four main characters may not seem overly difficult to properly balance, especially with a runtime of nearly two hours, but even when it feels as though Malcolm X is threatening to outshine and outtalk his fellow Black icons, one of the three take their own command and illuminate their insightful natures.

Powers’ sharp script is only further elevated by the incredible performances on display from its four leads and the absolutely stunning direction from King in her feature debut. Though a film primarily set in a hotel room might sound easy (and cheap) enough to direct for a debut, but King doesn’t settle for a solely minimalist approach as she interweaves her sole-location narrative with a flashy concert flashback and personalized character introductions that show a firm grasp and appreciation for the film’s iconic central characters.

Being an Oscar, Golden Globe and Emmy winner herself and having worked with some of the best directors Hollywood has seen, from John Singleton to Cameron Crowe to Barry Jenkins, King demonstrates a clear understanding of where best to place a camera and sit back while her incredible cast go to work. Odom Jr.’s Sam and Ben-Adir’s Malcolm might occasionally outshine the other two with their constant bickering that’s wholly authentic and compelling, but that doesn’t prevent Goree and Hodge from delivering equally stellar performances that brings them to life in respectful fashions.

One Night in Miami‘s only real flaw lies in the occasionally repetitive arguments between Cooke and X, but thanks to its sharp writing full of powerful modern parallels, breathtaking direction from King and stellar performances from its four leads, this has already set the bar high for every 2021 film to follow.

Fatale Review: A Well-Acted & Fairly Unique Twist On Well-Worn Formula

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

7/10

Cast:

Hilary Swank as Detective Valerie Quinlan

Michael Ealy as Derrick Tyler

Mike Colter as Rafe Grimes

Geoffrey Owens as Bill Cranepool

Damaris Lewis as Tracie Tyler

Danny Pino as Carter Haywood

David Hoflin as Officer Lowe

Sam Daly as Officer Stallman

Tyrin Turner as Tyrin Abenathy

Directed by Deon Taylor; Written by David Loughery

Click here to rent Fatale!

Fatale Review:

The adultery-fueled erotic stalker thriller subgenre is frequently one of the least interesting and most predictable of the bunch, generally appearing more cartoonish in their portrayals of unhinged characters and forcing audiences to side with the married/partnered person in the equation. Though the film may home some issues in its dialogue and pacing, Deon Taylor and David Loughery’s latest entry into the subgenre, Fatale, actually proves to be a happy surprise with some departures from these well-worn tropes to deliver a relatively enticing tale.

After a wild one-night stand, Derrick (Michael Ealy), a successful sports agent, watches his perfect life slowly disappear when he discovers that the sexy and mysterious woman he risked everything for, is a determined police detective (Hilary Swank) who entangles him in her latest investigation. As he tries desperately to put the pieces together, he falls deeper into her trap, risking his family, his career, and even his life.

The opening act of the film is admittedly pretty rough, with the setup for Derrick’s failing marriage feeling far too familiar and underwhelming, especially given his career position as a Black man in power, which feels far too rare still in stories. Once the inevitable night arrives and audiences are introduced to Hilary Swank’s Valerie, the film takes a real dour turn for a short while, with no real initial chemistry being shared between the two as Ealy plays the awkward-might-cheat-on-my-wife angle while Swank’s dialogue drifts hard into bad porno-level territory.

But once this passes and Derrick returns home looking to repair things with his wife and the break-in leads to Valerie returning into his life, things start taking a turn for the better. The moment Valerie walks into Derrick’s living room is honestly nothing short of brilliant, not on a story-level per se, but more in the direction and performances from Swank and Ealy. Often times in these scenes actors and characters devolve rapidly into a stuttering mess with bugged-out eyes, but Ealy delivers a slower look of realization as Swank enters the room that really tightens the film’s grip on its audience and helps establish the palpable tension that remains for nearly the remainder of the film.

The evolution of Swank’s Valerie is also a far more unique and grounded path that keeps the mystery going and leaving audiences wondering on how exactly to judge her. As previously mentioned, so many films in the genre portray the non-partnered half of the affair to be a clingy and deranged individual willing to throw their life away to be with the other person, but with Valerie, Loughery has written a very well-rounded and compelling character. She has her own goals and troubled backstory audiences can sympathize with, but Swank bolsters the character further with a cold ambiguity that helps encapsulate audiences’ concerns as to whether they can actually trust her or ignore her troubles.

The primary problems in the film really lie in its pacing and some of its dialogue, with more than a handful of conversations proving too vulgar and cringe-worthy that takes the atmosphere out of a number of scenes. The story nearly speeds through its opening half as though it intends on only running a 90-minute race, only to shift gears to a more deliberate pace and it’s not an entirely poor decision on its part, but it does create a disjointed feeling that also will drive the question in some audiences’ minds of how much further can this story go?

Overall, Fatale may not be a masterpiece or break entirely new ground, but thanks to more original character development and storytelling, stylish direction from Taylor and solid performances from Swank and Ealy, it proves to be one of the best thrillers of its kind in years.

News of the World Review: Bland & Predictable Oscar Bait

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

4/10

Cast:

Tom Hanks as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd

Helena Zengel as Johanna Leonberger

Michael Covino as Mark Edgefield

Fred Hechinger as John Calley

Neil Sandilands as Wilhelm Leonberger

Thomas Francis Murphy as Merritt Farley

Mare Winningham as Jane

Elizabeth Marvel as Ella Gannett

Chukwudi Iwuji as Charles Edgefield

Ray McKinnon as Christopher John “C.J.” Kidd

Bill Camp as Corey Farley

Co-Written and Directed by Paul Greengrass; Co-Written by Luke Davies

News of the World Review:

The film industry is one full of rarities. Sequels that outshine their predecessor(s), biopics that aren’t watering down the true story of its subjects, but one of the rarest is Tom Hanks starring in a bad movie, and while his latest effort, News of the World, may not be an entirely bad film, it’s certainly very disappointing given all involved.

Based on Paulette Jiles’ novel of the same name, the story is set five years after the end of the Civil War and centers on Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks), a veteran of three wars, who moves from town to town as a non-fiction storyteller, sharing the news of presidents and queens, glorious feuds, devastating catastrophes and gripping adventures from the far reaches of the globe. In the plains of Texas, he crosses paths with Johanna (Helena Zengel), a 10-year-old taken in by the Kiowa people six years earlier and raised as one of their own. Johanna, hostile to a world she’s never experienced, is being returned to her biological aunt and uncle against her will. Kidd agrees to deliver the child where the law says she belongs. As they travel hundreds of miles into the unforgiving wilderness, the two will face tremendous challenges of both human and natural forces as they search for a place that either can call home.

The story for the film offers a lot of unique angles not previously explored in the Western genre, from its specific time period to the fact its protagonist was actually on the side of the Confederates during the Civil War, yet it frequently feels like it doesn’t take full advantage of these elements or uses them in very believable fashions. The locals in a few of the towns Kidd and Johanna visit are just outright mean and hostile, but despite the location and time, they feel really watered down. There’s little-to-no hateful sentiments spat from their mouths in regards to Native or African-Americans, the worst being a settlement leader trying to claim he’s successfully wrangled racial problems in his area by dominating with his white posse and a group of men attempting to steal Johanna to turn into a sex worker.

The latter point may sound disgusting, and it most certainly is, but the writing makes it all feel too bland and too safe of an approach to the subjects it presents that it frequently feels like it wants to be a Western of Oscar-worthy proportions akin to True Grit and 3:10 to Yuma. It’s also these clear aspirations that just keep the film from ever taking off, with the pacing never really getting going and the story frequently proving far too predictable to be compelling. The film really only sees two areas in which things become interesting to watch, a chase scene between the sex slave bandits (not their real names, but what else is there to call them, really) and the final 30 minutes or so in which we finally learn some backstory on why Kidd pushed himself to always be on the road and never return home.

While generally known for the shaky camerawork of the Bourne franchise and another Hanks-starrer Captain Phillips, co-writer/director Paul Greengrass displays a better grip, both literally and figuratively, on properly blending steadier camerawork with the shakier moments, most notably in the standoff between said bandits and Kidd and Johanna. It’s a very well-shot and well-executed bit of action that taps into some of the best tropes of Western shootouts while also offering a few unique twists in how they normally play out.

Despite all these problems, one would hope at the very least to see another great performance from its two-time Oscar-winning star, but unfortunately even Hanks proved to be fairly underwhelming in the film. When the moment called for it, he was plenty warm and charming, as comes natural to him, but the rest of the film really just feels as though he’s sort of going through the motions and more detached from the material than some of the weaker films he at least shined in.

It’s by no means a bad performance, as the final chunk of the film opens it up for him to show the dramatic chops that generally make him a marvel to watch, but given Hanks’ general consistency for greatness, it’s kind of disappointingly basic, much like the film as a whole. There are certainly worse Westerns out there to avoid, but there are certainly better one to visit before turning to News of the World.

Promising Young Woman Review: Subversive, Timely & Wildly Entertaining

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

9.5/10

Cast:

Carey Mulligan as Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas

Bo Burnham as Dr. Ryan Cooper

Alison Brie as Madison

Clancy Brown as Stanley Thomas

Jennifer Coolidge as Susan Thomas

Laverne Cox as Gail

Chris Lowell as Alexander “Al” Monroe

Connie Britton as Dean Elizabeth Walker

Adam Brody as Jerry

Max Greenfield as Joe

Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Neil

Sam Richardson as Paul

Alfred Molina as Jordan

Molly Shannon as Mrs. Fisher

Written and Directed by Emerald Fennell

Promising Young Woman Review:

The rape and revenge subgenre of thrillers is one that goes way back in films, but generally its titular violent crime generally acts as a catalyst for breeding equally brutal violence for the remainder of the story, either at the hands of the original victim or someone close to them, but what if it didn’t have to? What if, instead of delivering (incredibly justified) graphic kills and torture to perpetrators, audiences were left unsure as to what happened to each antagonist encountered by the protagonist and the film took a more psychologically destructive approach to knocking them down a peg? This is the path that Carey Mulligan’s Cassie takes in Emerald Fennell’s black comedy thriller, Promising Young Woman, and it proves to be one of the smartest decisions any film in the genre has made.

Everyone said Cassie (Carey Mulligan) was a promising young woman — until a mysterious event abruptly derailed her future. But nothing in Cassie’s life is what it appears to be: she’s wickedly smart, tantalizingly cunning, and she’s living a secret double life by night. Now, an unexpected encounter is about to give Cassie a chance to right the wrongs of the past.

Breaking the story down into various chapters not only allows for a great trickle of expository revelations, namely in the past and Cassie’s motivations for her actions throughout, but it also helps keeps the proceedings moving smoothly and its various genre transitions from feeling too jarring. Jumping between a seemingly unconnected string of perverted men passing themselves off as nice guys being tormented by Cassie to a slow-building romance between her and former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham) to the outright reveal of her past trauma may seem like a truly impossible task and yet with skillful writing infusing everything with a simultaneous dark wit and sympathetic heart, Fennell pulls it off with ease.

In addition to the stellar writing, Fennell displays a remarkably stylish eye for direction in the film, never over-saturating the proceedings with its neon colors like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Elle Fanning-led disappointment but still utilizing plenty of vibrant colors in both set design and wardrobes that make every shot of the film a visual work of art. She also does a great job of electing to not show some of the things audiences are most wanting to see, but rather leaving them to their imaginations and keeping the lens on the talented ensemble roster.

Speaking of, one would be hard-pressed to go back over the course of the past 16 years and find a bad performance on Carey Mulligan’s resume, but her turn as Cassie in this film is Oscar caliber and a career best. She brings a real charm and easily sympathetic presence to the film’s protagonist that further bolsters the story and the audiences’ desire to root for her as she seeks to expose the nasty nature of men one at a time and shifts between carrying herself with confidence and struggling to pick herself back up effortlessly. Alongside Mulligan, the supporting ensemble cast are all remarkable to watch, with Bo Burnham proving to be a solid romantic leading man and all of the “nice guys” making the most of their short screen time by chewing up every bit of dialogue and scenery possible.

One of the best things about the film that is sure to spark endless debate and conversation moving forward is its insane ending. Now don’t fret, no spoilers will be spilling from my fingers in writing this, but with a story that already proves to be wildly unpredictable in the lead up to its final act, audiences will surely never see the genius and shocking finale coming.

Admittedly, as much as I love the ending for its unpredictability, it was the only thing that kept the film from being a full-fledged masterpiece in my eyes, but thanks to its wonderfully subversive nature, the darkly hilarious and far-too-authentic timeliness of its story and characters, a career-defining performance from Mulligan and phenomenal writing and stylish direction from Fennell in her feature debut, Promising Young Woman is a brilliant film from start to finish.

CS Reviews 1BR: An Intriguing Apartment-Bound Thriller

by Jeff Ames

Score

7/10

Cast:

Nicole Brydon Bloom … Sarah
Giles Matthey Giles Matthey … Brian
Taylor Nichols Taylor Nichols … Jerry
Alan Blumenfeld Alan Blumenfeld … Sarah’s Father
Naomi Grossman Naomi Grossman … Janice
Celeste Sully Celeste Sully … Lisa
Susan Davis Susan Davis … Miss Stanhope
Clayton Hoff Clayton Hoff … Lester
Earnestine Phillips Earnestine Phillips … Esther

Written and directed by David Marmor

Click here to rent or purchase 1BR!

CS Reviews 1BR

1BR is one of those low-budget thrillers that caters to our modern appetite for deplorable human behavior but ultimately frustrates by refusing to push its admittedly whacky concept to the brink. There’s a hilarious dark comedy buried somewhere in David Marmor’s script, but the film never strays from its preposterously somber tone; and is more content basking in predictable horror tropes than charting a course towards more appropriate Texas Chain Saw levels of absurdity.

The plot sees a young woman named Sarah struggling with her life in LA. She’s one of those depressed gen Xers who hates her father and yearns to make it on her own in the big city, even if her emotionally fragile personality lacks the necessary umph to propel her beyond a bland day-to-day office job. To her surprise, Sarah manages to land a room at a cozy apartment complex packed with overtly friendly citizens, a helpful landlord and a neighbor so perfect you’d swear he was up to something.

As it turns out, this particular apartment complex is home to a bunch of friggin’ weirdos attempting to create the perfect utopian community. Sure, said utopia involves the nailing of hands to a wall and enduring brainwashing sessions by way of gunpoint on a day-to-day basis — but, hey, it’s home! This community sets their eyes on Sarah who must adapt to the program or die. There’s no way out, you see? The friendly landlord Jerry holds the only means of escape — the key to the front door — and takes the necessary steps to sever all of Sarah’s communication with the outside world. He even cuts her phone subscription!

Oh, and that friendly neighbor? Turns out he’s actually not a nice guy and really just a weird combination of Dwight Schrute, Louis Tully and one of those evil bastards from Children of the Damned.

Will Sarah ever escape this twisted, hellish prison? Or will she give in and learn to respect its bizarre ideology? And what will she do with her one-eyed husband-to-be who submissively offers this advice: “This our life. Nothing can change that. But it can be a good life.” Sure.

Everyone in the pic works hard to make the material work. Nicole Brydon Bloom is perfection as Sarah, a difficult role that requires her to emote a lot or pretend not to emote. Yet, the actress’ performance never feels overstuffed even amidst objectively preposterous circumstances. Taylor Nichols oozes sleaze as Jerry the landlord, whose idea of a good time is to gather the neighbors for some friendly manslaughter followed by a fun-filled BBQ around the pool. If only the script weren’t so in love with its concept this might have made for a truly unusual motion picture along the lines of Ari Aster’s Midsommar.

As is, 1BR offers more ideas than most films in its respective genre and does a pretty good job wringing tension from its admittedly unique premise. The film does entertain thanks to sharp direction and the aforementioned performances, and — for what it’s worth —probably stands as the best thriller to ever be set in a dingy apartment complex.

And, hey, it has the balls to roast a cat in an oven. That’s got to count for something.

CS Reviews Gap Year: A Fascinating Look at the Path to NBA Success

by Jeff Ames

Rating: 

8/10

Cast:

Darius Bazley
David Stern
Rich Paul
Jay Williams
Jay Bias

Directed by T.J. Regan and Josh Kahn.

Click here to rent or own Gap Year!

Gap Year Review

Professional sports are a tremendous source of entertainment, but it’s the behind-the-scenes drama revolving around the business aspect of organizations such as the NFL and NBA that remain endlessly fascinating. As fans, we aren’t often privy to the backdoor deals, business talk and organizational factors young athletes must endure all the while fighting to stand out amongst thousands of other athletes in the hopes of landing a big contract — we take their hard work for granted.

Gap Year is a fascinating documentary that follows rising basketball star Darius Bazley as he attempts to enter the NBA draft via his own unique method. See, most high school talents commit to a university where they play for, at minimum, one season before making the leap to the big show. The issue with this is that the players 1) don’t receive pay for their time in college and 2) risk an injury that could swiftly derail their NBA dreams.

The money issue has been a hot debate for some time now. One side believes these young athletes do get paid to play via free tuition and scholarships at really expensive colleges, while others feel these players deserve a slice of the money colleges reap from their talent. Gap Year touches on this issue via interviews with former commissioner David Stern, Klutch Sports Group founder Rich Paul, ESPN’s Jay Williams and Jay Bias, among others, but mostly uses the discussion as a base to launch its true narrative: Bazley’s unorthodox rise to the NBA.

In the film, Bazley, a five-star recruit, shocks the world when he de-commits from Syracuse University in favor of a million-dollar internship with New Balance — a shoe company itching to get out from the shadow of Nike, Reebok and its own “dad shoe” label. The opportunity helps both parties. New Balance gets to work with a potential superstar while Bazley makes money as he prepares to enter the NBA.

More than that, New Balance benefits from Bazley’s insights; and there are a couple of great scenes featuring the basketball prospect openly gathering opinions from young athletes regarding their preferred shoe style.

As for Bazley, he gets to work in a professional environment alongside the likes of Jaden Smith; and get a taste of corporate work. Sure, the internship only lasts for three months, but, as one of his manager states, Bazley quickly became one of the crew and was expected to work traditional hours — certainly, the film argues, a more valuable experience than he would receive from one year at college.

Naysayers suggest he missed out on valuable professional basketball experience by taking the non-traditional route. Indeed, Bazley was selected 23rd overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2019 draft. Would he have gone higher had he played one year of college ball? Or possibly even lower?

Making the leap into professional sports takes more than just amazing skills. If anything, the ruthless environment — filled with greedy agents, no nonsense coaches and overeager players — requires a player to surround himself with the right crew; and take advice from people who (hopefully) have his best interest at heart. One misstep or ill-timed decision could leave even the likes of LeBron James (himself an athlete recruited right out of high school) missing out on their true potential. In this case, Bazley’s gamble paid off, but that was certainly a long wait to pick 23.

Gap Year is, admittedly, quite short at just 50 minutes. It would have been cool to see Bazley’s journey continue into his first NBA season or learn a little more about his person — his home life, high school successes, etc. As it stands, the documentary raises fundamental questions that are sure to raise (or re-raise) discussions about an ongoing topic that will likely never be solved. Even if it feels more like a resounding “fu**k you” to college sports than a documentary about one man’s unorthodox path to success.

Songbird Review: A Poorly-Timed Waste of Timely Potential

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

1.5/10

Cast:

KJ Apa as Nico

Sofia Carson as Sara

Craig Robinson as Lester

Peter Stormare as Emmett Harland

Alexandra Daddario as May

Demi Moore as Piper Griffin

Paul Walter Hauser as Michael Dozer

Bradley Whitford as William Griffin

Jenna Ortega as Izzy

Ethan Josh Lee as Giffords

Lia McHugh as Emma Griffin

Michole Briana White as Alice

Co-Written & Directed by Adam Mason; Co-Written by Simon Boyes

Click here to rent Songbird.

Songbird Review:

When the announcement first came that Michael Bay would produce a pandemic thriller while we are in the midst of one and that it would be filmed entirely during this time, I tried to keep an open mind. On one hand, even if he’s not writing or directing it, Bay could easily glorify or exploit this issue, on the other, this is on opportune moment for something of value to offer some emotionally-charged thrills for a timely subject, as we’ve seen of late with films and shows exploring issues of systemic racism and police brutality. Unlike a majority of them, however, not only does Songbird drop the ball in handling its central gimmick, but it fails to even elicit some mildly enjoyable or pulse-pounding sequences, instead evoking feelings of disgust, anger and frustration throughout.

Set in Los Angeles, four years in the future, the Covid virus has mutated, culminating in a more infectious and deadlier strain: COVID-23. Lockdowns are now mandatory, curfews, food shortages, and broken supply chains are a fact of life.  Amid this dystopian landscape, a fearless courier, Nico (KJ Apa), who is immune to the deadly pathogen, finds hope and love with Sara (Sofia Carson), though her lockdown prohibits them from physical contact. When Sara is believed to have become infected, Nico races desperately across the barren streets of Los Angeles in search of the only thing that can save her from imprisonment … or worse.

The film opens up with a credit sequence montage of news reports discussing the coronavirus — which I will come back to — and its spread around the world and the death toll since its mutation, but the problem with sequences such as these is they too often feel like a rapid plot dump to get audiences right into the action. While Marc Foster’s World War Z wasn’t a perfect film or example of it, the way it utilized its opening credits to deliver warnings of the zombie outbreaks and the speed at which it then dove into the fast-paced, globe-spanning race against time worked well, especially for its near-two-hour runtime.

The opening credits or Songbird is indicative of one of its biggest flaws, which is simply its ridiculously poor pacing. With a runtime of only 84 minutes, one would think no time would be wasted in getting to the action of Nico racing to get him and Sara safely out of LA, or at least would spend more time making the latter’s struggle feel like a home invasion thriller, but alas no such luck. Instead co-writers Adam Mason and Simon Boyes take their sweet time introducing audiences to the ensemble cast and far too long on the romance of Sara and Nico, which may have been an intention of creating sympathy in the viewer for their plight, but the reality is it’s just boring.

The plotline for Alexandra Daddario’s struggling singer May is simultaneously woefully under-written and the most emotionally interesting of the cast as we watch her try to earn revenue via streaming during the day while carrying on a dangerous affair with a record executive in the night. Her connection to Nico and Sara’s story is very thin, but the bond her and paralyzed veteran drone operation Michael Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser) feels more interesting to watch than the central couple and learning of their own struggles prior to the pandemic and May’s during feels like the more compelling that really should have been expanded upon and better used its talented performer.

The action and thrills themselves are also wildly lackluster, with Mason continually fluctuating back and forth between distanced-aerial shots of Nico racing around a desolate LA to shaky up close work that becomes a bit nauseating to watch. The scenes shot around Sara’s apartment complex certainly offers a feeling of claustrophobia necessary for the tension, but it never escalates enough to actually raise the pulses of the audiences.

For the pièce de résistance of the s**t pile that is Songbird, the filmmakers made the decision to name the central disease COVID-23 and treat the government’s intervention of combatting it as authoritative and unflinching. In a time in which the country is still trapped in its first wave of outbreaks because people, and its leader, refuse to listen to health care officials regarding quarantine procedures and treat those who chose to listen as idiotic and sheep, maybe having the government act as the big enemy of your story without giving them a better reasoning for their methods other than killing the virus is a bad idea during this time and the wrong political message to put forward.

There’s certainly potential to come from a pandemic thriller during this time period and a small handful of positives to come from this film, namely another brilliant villainous turn from Peter Stormare, the tension is flatlined from start to finish, the story is a gross misunderstanding of timing and its script is generally underwritten, resulting in arguably the worst film of 2020. If looking for good COVID-pandemic-set content, I urge you to go watch Rob Savage’s haunting Host on Shudder, Charlotte Nicdao’s heartbreakingly-relatable performance in the special episode of Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet on Apple TV+ or literally anything that’s not Songbird.

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