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.

Archenemy Review: Kinetic, Colorful & Refreshingly Original Superhero Take

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

8.5/10

Cast:

Joe Manganiello as Max Fist

Skylan Brooks as Hamster

Zolee Griggs as Indigo

Paul Scheer as Tango

Amy Seimetz as Cleo

Glenn Howerton as The Manager

Written, Co-Story & Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer; Co-Story by Lucas Passmore

Click here to digitally pre-order Archenemy!

Archenemy Review:

We’re in an age in which superhero movies and comic book stories remain all the rage on both the big and small screens, but admittedly even as the adaptations remain mostly quality or entertaining, even I’ve felt a bit of the comic book fatigue in my content viewing. So when a film as intriguing, as colorful, as subversive and as original as Archenemy comes along, I’m reminded of how exciting the world of superheroes can be, even if it’s not based on an actual comic book.

Max Fist (Joe Manganiello) claims to be a hero from another dimension who fell through time and space to Earth, where he has no powers. No one believes his stories except for a local teen named Hamster. Together, they take to the streets to wipe out the local drug syndicate and its vicious crime boss known as The Manager.

The story surrounding Max and his past is one that often feels very unique, with displaced and disheartened heroes having been seen before in the pages of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn and Mark Millar’s Old Man Logan, but never in such a way as Max’s case. He’s not just disheartened by his past but also by being trapped in a world he’s unfamiliar with, and having no one to turn to.

Writer/director Adam Egypt Mortimer’s approach to how the world sees Max and how Hamster learns about him is also brilliantly played out through the story as we really are left to wonder for much of the film if he is actually who he says he is or just a poor and delusional man. With his powers taken away from him due to the hole in the universe he punched himself, according to Max, it makes it that much harder for one to believe his tales and though he makes plenty of attempts to prove it to his young follower, it plays out in the “blink and he misses it” formula that works to further test audiences’ judgments on Max.

Given the more indie nature of the production, especially in comparison to Marvel and DC’s $150+ million budgets, Mortimer finds a workaround to bringing the world of Max’s home planet to life by utilizing colorful and vibrant comic book-style animation and it works entirely. It not only allows the filmmaker to ensure all of his live-action material looks as stylish as possible with the money he has, but it also creates a shared visual language between animation and the real world that works marvels.

Alongside the skillful and well-paced storytelling, there’s also a marvelous sense of humor that runs throughout that prevents the film from plunging into the overly-serious and boringly-dour depths of Zack Snyder’s DC Comics efforts, of which Manganiello has previously been a part of. From the erratic nature of Paul Scheer’s coked up Tango to Glenn Howerton’s deliciously evil Manager, and even Manganiello’s ability to bring some self-aware levity to Max, there’s plenty of moments worthy of chuckles or laughter that keep the proceedings just light enough.

The performances in the film also shine, be they comedic or serious, especially in Manganiello, Howerton and sure-to-be-breakout-star Zolee Griggs. Admittedly, Griggs’ Indigo feels somewhat familiar and underwritten at times, a typical big sister doing crime to get her and her brother out of the ghetto and in a better life, but the 23-year-old star brings a real heart and charisma to the character that enlivens her and makes her a compelling center to the story.

Archenemy may fall short of some viewers’ expectations with some occasional uneven writing and steadier pace than other comic books outings, but thanks to stylish direction, a unique and intriguing concept, brilliant animation and stellar performances from its cast, it continues Mortimer’s win streak and proves he’s far more than just a horror director.

CS Reviews Sweet Parents

by Jeff Ames

Rating:

9/10

Cast:

Leah Rudick … Gabby
David Bly … Will
Casey Biggs … Oscar
Barbara Weetman … Guylaine
Chris Roberti … Josh
Sunita Mani … Claire
Willie C. Carpenter … Gérard
Katie Hartman … Christine

Written and directed by David Bly

Click here to rent or own Sweet Parents!

Sweet Parents Review

Sweet Parents opens with a young couple, Will and Gabby, looking at various apartments in New York City. The first is a basement that barely functions as appropriate, the second has yet to be vacated and the third comes with a Nazi swastika painted on the wall.

“What are we doing here,” a frustrated Will asks. “I get it, everyone has to struggle here. I know it takes time. You don’t just find five-hundred dollars sitting in the middle of an empty street. We find a dollar bill floating in a puddle of mud with fifty hands grabbing for it.”

And so, begins a story many can relate to in which an ambitious couple struggle to make ends meet in a highly competitive world where opportunities are rare and success is based more on who you know than actual skill.

Will, an aspiring chef, must deal with pompous restaurant managers with zero food knowledge and terrible people skills. Gabby must contend with the complicated world of design where her sculptures have yet to make much noise.

One night, the couple meet a man named Pierce who brags about his recent travels to the Hamptons. As it turns out, Pierce latched onto what he dubs a “sweet parent,” or a rich older person who gives him everything he wants in exchange for, ah, intimacy. “You should try it,” Pierce exclaims to Will, who scoffs at the idea and proclaims, “He’s the reason this city is so goddamned expensive!”

Naturally, Gabby begins mingling with an older Brazilian man named Oscar and, unwittingly or not, finds herself the recipient of his lavish gifts. The man is well connected and whisks her away to other countries where she has the opportunity to show off her work to renowned artists across the globe. Will, unsure how to react to Gabby’s new relationship, mainly knowing he can’t possibly compete with Oscar’s extensive bank account, then proceeds to find his own “sugar momma,” or, a woman named Guylaine who likewise uses her considerable resources to help his career.

Amidst their newfound success, Will and Gabby’s relationship struggles; and before long the couple must choose between love and career.

Sweet Parents is a fascinating morality tale that asks some very intriguing questions. Is it realistic to have a family and a successful career at the same time? Is it wrong to latch onto someone with more experience and resources, even if the relationship doesn’t result in intimacy or love? Can a young relationship survive the difficulties that come with financial hardships?

The film doesn’t offer any solutions — probably because none exist — but warns that whatever decision we make will ultimately come laced with regret. In other words: choose wisely and prepare to live with the consequences.

Sweet Parents is well acted and well-constructed. We know what’s coming, but the script takes the time to establish Will and Gabby’s predicament before tossing their relationship into the blender. There’s a terrific scene in which Gabby tries to convince Will to let Oscar take her to Brazil where she can mingle with other artists. A great opportunity, sure, but Gabby clearly knows where her relationship with Oscar is headed; even as she assures Will otherwise. Later, to counter Gabby’s move, Will engages in a dinner date with Guylaine and must decide just how far he is willing to go to get what he wants — a scene ripe with delicious tension.

These scenes only work because the characters are well constructed, the writing is sharp, and the acting remains on point throughout. And, to its credit, the film, as directed by David Bly, never devolves into schlock — in a manner like, say, Indecent Proposal, which likewise asked whether a small amount of sexual frivolity was worth a lifetime of financial security.

Instead, Bly keeps his camera focused intently on his characters and watches them grapple internally with decisions they know will forever impact their lives. The results are delectable — an intricate battle between the heart, mind, body and soul.

Uncle Frank Review: A Heartwarming, Heartbreaking & Timely Road Movie

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

9.5/10

Cast:

Paul Bettany as Frank Bledsoe

Cole Doman as young Frank Bledsoe

Sophia Lillis as Beth Bledsoe

Peter Macdissi as Walid “Wally” Nadeem

Steve Zahn as Mike Bledsoe

Judy Greer as Kitty Bledsoe

Margo Martindale as Mammaw Bledsoe

Stephen Root as Daddy Mac

Lois Smith as Aunt Butch

Written and Directed by Alan Ball

Click here to watch Uncle Frank!

Uncle Frank Review:

The LGBTQ+ genre has seen a wide range and frequency of films for decades, but between Miranda July’s Kajillionaire, Olivia Peace’s Tahara and Clea DuVall’s Happiest Season, this year has seen some of the greatest and most unique representative stories on screen and though Alan Ball’s Uncle Frank may tread familiar roads in its various genres, it joins the group in simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming fashion and features career-best turns from its central trio.

In 1973, teenaged Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis) leaves her rural Southern hometown to study at New York University where her beloved Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany) is a revered literature professor. She soon discovers that Frank is gay, and living with his longtime partner Walid “Wally” Nadeem (Peter Macdissi) — an arrangement that he has kept secret for years. After the sudden death of Frank’s father — Beth’s grandfather — Frank is forced to reluctantly return home for the funeral with Beth in tow, and to finally face a long-buried trauma that he has spent his entire adult life running away from.

Ball’s decision to put the still-learning Beth at the center of the story and as the audience’s anchor for the events that transpire is a truly brilliant avenue as it not only allows the viewer to feel compelled by her own journey, but also treat every character with a blank-slate mentality and then judge them based on their actions surrounding the titular character. As we first meet the various family members of the Bledsoe kin, we feel vague connections to each and can somewhat pick up on their behaviors and personalities, but as Beth builds her connection with outcast Frank, the lens shifts and we get an idea of the resentment and negativity hiding in a few of their hearts, namely in family patriarch Daddy Mac.

This may feel par for the course for some viewers, a family shunning the one gay member in the family, despite most not even being aware of his sexuality and living situation with partner Wally, but the fact is there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s a number of moments throughout the film in which one could look at it and point to similar genre fare in the past, but it’s this embrace of the various tropes that makes the film so enjoyable and so compelling to watch from start to finish. One of the best subversions of expectations was letting much of the road trip focus on building the relationship between Wally and Beth, as the opening of the film takes so much time highlighting Beth’s fascination with her uncle that when we get to see her branch out and learn a lot about Frank from his partner, the story becomes far more compelling than what was initially being established.

One of the key reasons the road trip nature of the story works so well stems from the brilliant chemistry and awards-worthy performances turned in from its three leads, each of whom deliver equally-powerful turns in their roles. Since her breakout performance in the latest adaptation of Stephen King’s It, Lillis has remained consistently powerful in each subsequent project, but Uncle Frank sees her absolutely shining and proving that if she doesn’t take home a trophy from the Golden Globe or Oscars ceremonies sometime in the next five years, it will be disappointing.

Uncle Frank might occasionally cover familiar territory, but thanks to some truly emotional moments — on both sides of the scale — powerful performances from its cast and an ever-timely exploration of its themes, it proves to be another beautiful, moving and wonderful LGBTQ+ tale that should be viewed and loved by all.

Happiest Season Review: Holiday Rom-Com Has Beautiful Representation

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

10/10

Cast:

Kristen Stewart as Abby

Mackenzie Davis as Harper Caldwell

Mary Steenburgen as Tipper Caldwell

Victor Garber as Ted Caldwell

Alison Brie as Sloane Caldwell

Aubrey Plaza as Riley

Dan Levy as John

Mary Holland as Jane Caldwell

Burl Moseley as Eric

Jake McDorman as Liam

Co-Written & Directed by Clea DuVall; Co-Written by Mary Holland

Click here to watch Happiest Season on Hulu!

RELATED: CS Visits The Set of the Gay Holiday Rom-Com Happiest Season

Happiest Season Review:

Before I begin, I want to throw myself under the bus on two facts that used to be true about me: I was not a fan of romantic comedies and I would give every movie I liked a perfect 10-star rating. The former has changed over the past few years as the genre has seen a resurgence with brilliant new and heartwarming stories while the latter has changed somewhat slightly as I find I still try to enjoy every movie I see, though now rarely handing out the 10-out-of-10s I used to, so when I tell you that Happiest Season is the quintessential holiday rom-com sure to be revisited for decades to come, please believe me as I don’t deliver that lightly.

Meeting your girlfriend’s family for the first time can be tough. Planning to propose at her family’s annual Christmas dinner — until you realize that they don’t even know she’s gay — is even harder. When Abby (Kristen Stewart) learns that Harper (Mackenzie Davis) has kept their relationship a secret from her family, she begins to question the girlfriend she thought she knew.

There’s been plenty of holiday and gay rom-coms over the years, but the two have never come together for a major studio production and co-writer/director Clea DuVall and co-writer Mary Holland not only do a fantastic job of playing into each subgenre’s strengths, they also don’t fall short of the expectations set for the film in its groundbreaking nature. One of the things that really works best about the story itself is that, though there’s the “home for the holidays” and “keep it secret” sense of humor running throughout the film, it never feels as though it’s forcing its timely themes of gay acceptance down viewers’ throats but is rather treating them with an organic feeling.

There are no stereotypically flamboyant or egregiously-conservative personas present in the film, but rather real people living their lives and allowing their characters to just feel wholly authentic in every moment they’re on screen. Dan Levy’s John and Aubrey Plaza’s Riley are two of the best examples of representation in the story, as the former may have a little outrageousness to his actions but yet never feels like a poorly-written or overly-acted caricature but rather an outright funny and kind-hearted supporting character while the latter is depicted so charismatically and so neutrally that she almost feels as though she could be played by any gender or sexual identity and that feels so true to the film’s message.

That being said, the film isn’t afraid to use its gay sensibilities for both gut-busting comedy and some truly powerful moments throughout, namely in Abby and Harper’s struggles with keeping their relationship a secret and Abby learning new things about the love of her life. Utilizing a beautifully-drawn art montage for its opening credits sequence, audiences instantly fall in love with the couple that it seems as though nothing can act as a road bump for their happy ending, but the hurdles DuVall and Holland present are very real for those in Abby, Harper and DuVall’s situation and are depicted in very moving and honest ways that doesn’t prevent anyone from getting a redemption by the end of the story. As the story progresses and we learn about the rest of the family’s own internal struggles, we come to have a better appreciation for them and the actions they take towards the end is the heartwarming tale of acceptance and love we could all use in our lives, especially this year.

Happiest Season‘s heartwarming and moving story is further bolstered by the stellar performances from its breathtaking ensemble of both LGBTQ+ and straight performers, with the shining lights coming from Stewart, Davis and Levy. The chemistry between Stewart and Davis feels so natural and marvelous to watch, Levy not only taps into the sassy nature of the quick-witted John but also the sweet-natured desire of seeing his friend be happy, even if her desire for a heteronormative title on her relationship with Harper isn’t something he’s fully behind.

Clea DuVall’s second directorial effort not only further establishes her as a powerhouse talent behind the camera, but also delivers arguably the best holiday rom-com of the millennium and one of the best Christmas films of all-time that is sure to become a part of many viewers’ tradition watchlists for years to come.

Belushi Review: A Remarkable Journey Into the Mind of a Mad Genius

by Jeff Ames

CS Reviews Belushi: A Remarkable Journey Into the Mind of a Mad GeniusRating:

8/10

Cast:

Chevy Chase … Self
Carrie Fisher … Self (archive footage)
Dan Aykroyd … Self
Jim Belushi … Self
Harold Ramis … Self (archive footage)
Candice Bergen … Self
Bruce McGill … Self
John Belushi … Self (archive footage)
John Landis … Self

Written and directed by R.J. Cutler

Synopsis:

Using previously unheard audiotapes recorded shortly after John Belushi’s death, director R.J. Cutler’s documentary examines the too-short life of once-in-a-generation talent who captured the hearts and funny bones of devoted audiences. (Via IMDB.)

You can stream Belushi now on Showtime or buy the movie here!

Belushi Review

Why is it that comedians seem to experience the hardest lives? Remember Robin Williams, Chris Farley, and Phil Hartman? Brilliant artists ultimately undone by their own superstardom. Perhaps the fault lies with audiences demanding nothing less than hilarity at all times from these extraordinary people; or maybe the ruthless Hollywood system is to blame for its tendency to squeeze every ounce of talent from its creative visionaries before leaving them to rot when the money well dries up.

Belushi, Showtime’s fascinating documentary directed by R.J. Cutler, examines the tragic life of comedian John Belushi, whose reckless ways led to an untimely death at age 33; and suggests, in this case, it was probably a little bit of both.

Throughout the drama, friends describe Belushi as lovable and fun but also wildly out of control in every facet of his life. “He would walk on the stage and people would laugh,” said the late Harold Ramis of his Second City co-star. “There was something more comfortable about being me than being him.” Later, we learn that the comedian, during his downward spiral, was eyeing a dramatic picture to star in, but the studios, having been burned by the dramatic flop Continental Divide, wanted him for the Joy of Sex, a thankless comedy picture designed to appease the masses. “They wanted him to wear a diaper,” says Belushi’s closest friend Dan Aykroyd. “Hey, we’ll get Belushi to play the clown.”

The film also provides an alternative perspective and wonders if Belushi would have found success without the, ahem, magic powder, gallons of alcohol, and go-for-broke mentality that made him such a hit. Indeed, there’s something painfully ironic in watching an audience cheer on Belushi as he sings about drugs and alcohol, so enamored are they with the character that they forget the man behind the facade.

Make no mistake, John Belushi was a flawed individual whose abrasive personality at times clashed with co-stars (particularly the women) and alienated friends and family. He was also a lovable character who enjoyed helping others, loved making people laugh, and wasn’t afraid to stick his neck out for the little guy. Belushi pulls no punches in its dissection of its titular character and presents all sides of the figurative coin without ever judging the man.

Instead, the docudrama remembers Belushi for who he was, laments what he could have been and examines the choices that led to his death. Through this fascinating journey, friends such as Ramis, Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, and Lorne Michaels (among others) recall their relationship with Belushi via phone interviews and taped discussions. We even get snippets of a radio interview featuring Belushi during a time in which fame had left him bitter and broken visualized via beautifully rendered animation.

We learn about Belushi’s relatively traditional upbringing alongside his stern father and mother, his stint at Second City and his meteoric rise to fame via Saturday Night Live that paved the way for National Lampoon’s Animal House and the wildly successful Blues Brothers. The man was a rock star. A legend in the making. And, surprisingly, a sensitive artist who enjoyed poetry and wrote touching love letters to his girlfriend.

When fame hit, it hit hard. “It was a descent into Hell,” one of Belushi’s cohorts explains. Then, just like that, it all went sideways.

A couple of flops in Steven Spielberg’s 1941, the aforementioned Continental Divide and the dark comedy Neighbors on top of his off screen antics left Belushi’s career reeling. A downward spiral ensued. He died on March 5, 1982, right around the time Aykroyd was putting the finishing touches on his script for Ghostbusters — a film written with Belushi in mind in the Peter Venkman role — leaving us to wonder what if? 

“We’re all gonna suffer in life, might as well choose how we suffer,” Belushi exclaims at one point in the film. Indeed, the man lived big and died young. The documentary provides a haunting peek behind the scenes at a talented individual who gave his life to make the world laugh and asks a simple question: was it worth it?

CS Reviews Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales

by Jeff Ames

CS Reviews Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles MoralesRating:

9/10

Cast:

Nadji Jeter … Miles Morales / Spider-Man (voice)
Yuri Lowenthal … Peter Parker / Spider-Man (voice)
Jacqueline Pinol … Rio Morales (voice)
Fred Tatasciore … Rhino / Additional Voices (voice)
Darin De Paul … J. Jonah Jameson (voice)
Troy Baker … Simon Krieger (voice)
Griffin Puatu … Ganke Lee (voice)

RELATED: CS Unboxed: Sideshow’s Miles Morales Premium Format Statue

Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales Review

Order the PlayStation 4 version of the game here!

Order the PlayStation 5 version of the game here!

Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales is the follow up to 2018’s terrific Marvel’s Spider-Man title in which players experienced Spidey’s world like never before via exciting gameplay and a radical storyline that introduced a large portion of the web head’s rogue’s gallery and saw him square off against his former mentor, Doc Ock, in a climatic, emotionally driven finale. That game also served as a wicked origin story for one Miles Morales, a nerdy kid from Brooklyn whose run-ins with a genetically engineered spider force him to take up his own Spider-Man moniker alongside Peter Parker.

Phew! That’s a lot of setup for a game review, but them’s the deets. Miles Morales continues the story established in Spider-Man. And while the game doesn’t leave the same sense of awe as its predecessor, Miles Morales still packs a wallop as a supercharged DLC — a bold and impressive new entry in the Spidey universe.

Plus, it’s an absolute blast to play.

Miles zips through a brilliantly rendered Christmas-coated New York City and tackles opponents big and small, such as the mighty Rhino, who destroys half the city in the game’s first set piece. An action sequence that leaves Peter Parker yearning for some R&R with Mary Jane. As such, Miles is put in charge of NY’s violent streets and quickly finds himself dealing with a new organization called the Underground, who wear lots of purple and follow a violent villain called the Tinkerer. Into the mix drops the Prowler, who is obviously Miles’ uncle Aaron (unless you’re one of the few who have not seen Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, in which case, sorry!), a quasi-villain stuck between his love for his nephew and allegiances to some very bad people.

The story is quintessential Spider-Man packed with double-crosses, secret reveals and epic action sequences ripped right out of the comics. As typical, everyone involved in the story, whether they be friend or foe, has some personal connection to Miles. Silly? Sure. But such contrivances coat the action-driven plot with a much-needed layer of emotion. Like its predecessor, Miles Morales actually takes the time to tell an interesting story that uses its comic book characters in interesting and unpredictable ways.

Really, though, Miles Morales excels at delivering an exciting open-world experience on par with the Arkham City games. You are Spider-Man! Replete with a plethora of gadgets, combat moves, and cool abilities that render all but the klutziest gamers invincible against waves of faceless baddies. Take them head-on with your venom powers or sneak up on them by employing Miles’ cloaking ability.

Or, you can take the time to swing around town, stop crime, and help the crazy NY locals with various activities. At one point, Miles rescues a cat for its owner in a harmless but entertaining side quest. Another bit sees Miles unfreeze a crane which subsequently slams into a nearby building.

Other side missions pop up throughout the game, some of them story-based, others designed to generate new tech powers for Miles to mess around with.

Set pieces are brilliant, if scarce. A wild chase through New York in which Miles pursues a villain launching waves of explosions is wild, while the much-publicized bridge sequence is as good as advertised.

Tellingly, the only out-and-out criticism I have revolves around the game’s length, which runs roughly half as long as the original Spider-Man game. Fine, but then it should probably only cost half the price, right?

At any rate, Spider-Man: Miles Morales is an exciting entry into the Spider-Verse that introduces a spectacular new web head for the world to embrace. Next time, just give him more time to shine, okay?

Note: I played the game on the ole PS4 as my abilities to obtain a PS5 over the last few weeks have fallen laughably short.

The Croods: A New Age Review

by Jeff Ames

Rating:

7/10

Cast:

Nicolas Cage … Grug (voice)
Emma Stone … Eep (voice)
Ryan Reynolds … Guy (voice)
Catherine Keener … Ugga (voice)
Cloris Leachman … Gran (voice)
Clark Duke … Thunk (voice)
Leslie Mann … Hope Betterman (voice)
Peter Dinklage … Phil Betterman (voice)
Kelly Marie Tran … Dawn Betterman (voice)

Written by Kevin Hageman, Dan Hageman, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan

Directed by Joel Crawford

The Croods: A New Age Review

After seven long years of waiting, the Croods are back and … much different than you remember in the sequel The Croods: A New Age. Where 2013’s The Croods remains something of a minor animated classic brimming with the same heart and humor co-director and writer Chris Sanders lent to How to Train Your Dragon and Disney’s gallery of 90’s gems — namely Mulan, The Lion King, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast — in its story of a cave dwelling family desperately trying to survive amidst a dangerous and ever-changing world of weird creatures and treacherous locales, A New Age, as directed by first timer Joel Crawford, feels more like a weekend acid trip with the neighbors during which the titular family gets stuck in a tar full of madness.

A New Age finds everyone’s favorite modern stone age family encountering the cultured and sophisticated Bettermans, a father-mother-daughter trio who have mastered the art of farming and carved a virtuoso paradise out of a tree replete with dining room, separate bedrooms (!) and windows. Predictably, Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage) shrugs off everything he learned at the end of the first film — his acceptance of contemporary sensibilities and willingness to allow his children to make their own choices — and instead clashes with this newfound culture despite the obvious safety and comfort it affords.

To make matters worse, Eep (Emma Stone) and Guy (Ryan Reynolds) have become more romantic and, as all kids do, yearn to break away and explore the world on their own; or, at the very least, sleep somewhere outside of the family sleeping pile.

Cue the madness.

No, really. Cue. The. Madness. The Croods: A New Age devolves into something akin to a wild fever dream packed with lots of shouting, broad comedy and the type of wacky hijinks usually reserved for carnival fun houses. Is it funny? Absolutely. In fact, there are any number of moments that left me in stitches, including a bit where Grug joins Mr. Betterman (Peter Dinklage) in his literal mancave-cum-sauna and eventually spills his emotions amidst the overwhelming heat; a running gag involving Grug’s son Thunk (Clark Duke) and a window (the ancient equivalent of a TV); the scene in which Eep convinces the Betterman’s daughter, Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran), to explore the world beyond the wall surrounding her parents’ fortress of solitude, an adventure that leads to an unfortunate bug sting; and a mishap involving a stick and a seal chicken — or is it a chicken seal?

The zany adventures are rendered in gorgeous, jaw-dropping animation by the talented folks at DreamWorks who pack the picture with enough eye-popping color, vibrant imagery, land sharks, punch monkeys, and silly creatures to keep audiences visually stimulated for the film’s relatively brief 95-minute runtime.

And yet, despite the frequent jokes, madcap humor and impressive visuals, A New Age feels closer in spirit to Hotel Transylvania than its more nuanced predecessor. The film is entertaining, sure, but lacks the warmth and ingenuity of the original film and instead employs a whiplash-inducing pace to gloss over a rudimentary plot; and, worse, struggles to develop the Croods family in a satisfying way.

Grug, in particular, shifts from relatable, simple-minded fella just trying to do right by his family to an easily manipulated Homer Simpson-esque father figure driven by his own personal selfish needs. From a narrative standpoint, wouldn’t it be more interesting if he were the one yearning to break free from his family after adapting the ability to think in terms of more than just survival? And shouldn’t Eep, for all the excitement she displayed for Guy’s ingenuity in the original film, be more ecstatic about the Bettermans’ new age lifestyle? Her character still exhibits plenty of spunk, particularly in her endeavors to free Dawn from her familial prison, and during the action-driven finale in which the Crood women team up to form the “Thunder Sisters,” but mostly she throws angry tantrums when Guy focuses his attention elsewhere.

To be fair, after seven years, expectations might have been a bit to high, though watching all of these sitcom-y plot lines play out it’s easy to surmise that the makers of The Croods: A New Age returned to the well not out of some fundamental desire to continue the story, but because audiences demanded a follow up. As such, the results are indeed more but also wholly unnecessary; and the story concludes as most animated sequels do: with a handful of new, wackier characters drowning out the original pack.

In the end, you may wish for more time with the Croods and less time at the nuthouse.

CS Reviews: Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist

by Jeff Ames

Rating:

7/10

Starring: 

William Friedkin

Written and directed by Alexandre O. Philippe

Click here to watch Leap of Faith!

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist Review

Fans of The Exorcist should check out the new documentary Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist, which offers plenty of unique insight into the crazy production of everyone’s favorite demon-possesses-a-child gore fest straight from the mouth of the film’s Oscar-winning director. That is, unless you’ve already tuned in for Friedkin’s previous commentary recorded for the 25th Anniversary Special Edition DVD way back in the late 90s or watched the hundreds of documentaries, featurettes and fan videos that have floated around the internet over the last few decades.

Honestly, there’s not much more to say about The Exorcist; and yet, in Leap of Faith, Friedkin spends a good 90-minutes gleefully regurgitating oft-told stories about the contentious production, namely his intense dealings with composer Bernard Herman over the film’s score — “I think I can save this piece of shit!” — criticisms over the much maligned opening sequence in Iraq and some of the film’s more controversial moments involving child actress Linda Blair.

Chances are, you’ve heard all of this before; and while Friedkin’s energy is infectious — it’s clear he still carries a fondness for his picture even after nearly 50 years and 38 additional directing credits, including the classic cop drama The French Connection — particularly for a man who just turned 85, his conversational style at times feels more pompous than informative.

It doesn’t help that he sidesteps topics such as his abusive directing style that left stars Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair with injuries they deal with even to this day; and blames any and all contentious interactions with individuals such as composer Lalo Schifrin, whose sprawling score was rejected on the spot in favor of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, on creative differences rather than his own abrasive personality.

At times, Friedkin is a little too revealing about his directing process to the point of unintentional hilarity. Take, for example, the scene in The Exorcist when a clock behind Father Merrin suddenly stops working. What does it mean? Is it foreshadowing? Is it symbolic? No, says, Friedkin, it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

“I don’t think there’s any conscious meaning behind my choices, but really I was just following my instinct,” the man explains. That’s great! But think of all the people who spent the last 45+ years debating the meaning behind that goddamned clock!

William Friedkin: accidental genius or brilliant man of intuition? You be the judge.

Though, it is telling that, in some weird way, Friedkin seems to believe The Exorcist’s production incurred divine intervention due to the importance of its story, which is clearly the only way to explain how and why everything came together at the right time to form a perfect blockbuster — one that continues to resonate in the public psyche despite its numerous sequels, remakes and rip-offs.

Is there such a thing as too much information ruining a classic film? Debatable. Regardless, someone should probably pull Friedkin aside and explain that a good magician never reveals his secrets.

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