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"Sound of Metal" Review

UPDATE: This movie garnered an appalling six Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay, Sound, and Editing. The problematic ones are Picture and Screenplay. 2020 was a bad year and the Oscar nominations reflect it.


The most devastating thing that can happen to most musicians not related to physical infirmities like losing your hands would be losing your hearing. Other than Beethoven, there's not a lot of musicians known for performing while stone deaf and even good ol' Ludwig van was a composer and they can tell what music sounds like from reading the score. In general, "deaf musician" is as workable as "blind sniper." As a musician myself, it was with some interest that I approached Sound of Metal, the story of a drummer (and thus not a musician, hiyo!) whose life is upended when he suddenly goes deaf. Unfortunately, it's a woefully told tale.

 Riz Ahmed (The Night Of, Star Wars: Rogue One) stars as Ruben, the drummer in a two-man band with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke, Ready Player One) which is like a gender-flipped White Stripes except not good. While on tour, Ruben begins to experience profound hearing loss. Advised by a doctor that he may be able to salvage what remains of his hearing if he avoids loud noises (kind of difficult in his line of work), he naturally ignores the advice and blows out what remains. 

As a former junkie, Lou is worried that he'll relapse and gets the name of a program, a facility in a rural area for the deaf run by a deaf, recovering alcoholic, Vietnam veteran named Joe (Paul Raci). In meeting him, he lays down the strict rules of the place to Ruben, no contact with the outside world, everyone works, focusing on adapting to their condition. Lou has to go and Ruben initially rebels.

 Eventually he gets with the program, but is sneaking looks on a computer to see what Lou is doing, as she eventually starts doing music on her own. He sells his gear and the RV they lived and toured in to fund cochlear implants to restore his hearing, ultimately getting the surgery done. But because Joe and his group believe deafness isn't a handicap, Ruben is expelled from the group.

He  goes to Lou's father's house where we learn a whole bunch of backstory about her family; her mother committed suicide and her father is a wealthy French musician. Their reunion is strained and they end up parting.

 I only spell out the entire plot because there is so little to it and it ends up going nowhere slow. Why the sudden heavy stuff at the end? Why does Joe, knowing Ruben is a junkie and, rejected and cast out, likely to relapse, pretty much condemned to die for not adhering to the "we are not broken" mentality without care for how Ruben wants to live? That the cochlear implants don't sound right implies he wasn't counseled as to expectations beforehand or calibrated over time afterwards; it's not like getting a tooth filled. Also, the leap between Ruben resisting learning sign language and being shown as fluent is literally a hard cut to the next scene without as much as a "Six Months Later" or learning montage. It's as if a reel was missing.

The performances from Ahmed and Raci are very good, though Ruben being thinly-written means the Ahmed has to inflate the character himself. Press materials claimed he studied the drums for six months in order to appear credible playing, but that's laughable as all we ever see the band doing is bashing the finale chords of songs. Anyone could sit down and do what's shown. Tara Reid plays drums more credibly in Josie and the Pussycats and she's hit-and-miss in her accuracy. (Miles Teller in Whiplash fakes it really well.)

Raci is fine, but he is in real life not hearing impaired, but the child of deaf parents. This means he speaks perfectly clearly and not with the voice modulation issues that deaf people like Marlee Matlin (who won an Oscar for Children of a Lesser God) exhibit and this makes it hard to believe he is deaf. While those who go deaf as adults manifest less of the warble, they still have it; just record yourself talking with your ears plugged to see. 

One thing the movie really does well at is capture the sound of hearing impairment, muffling frequencies to get us in Ruben's head. (A Quiet Place did this as well with the daughter.) 

Despite a promising premise and good performances, Sound of Metal simply doesn't understand what it's trying to say as well as it imagines and ends up frustratingly inert.

Score: 4/10. Skip it.

"Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies" Review

There's a certain appropriate poetry that one of the executive producers of Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies is "Mr. Skin" - the nom de cyber of one Jim McBride who has built an Internet Mecca of the same name, exhaustively cataloging the onscreen nudity in movies under the rubric of "fast-forwarding to the good parts" - as the documentary is almost a two-hour commercial for the site disguised as a lengthy history lesson and analysis of the subject.

As the trailer below details, Skin traces the progression of the exposure of flesh and depictions of sexuality on film from the late-19th Century through the current early-21st Century. With film historians, movie trades writers, filmmakers and lots of actors and actresses who've appeared in the more notorious films discussed plus, naturally, loads of illustrative footage, the viewer is treated to an overview of changing mores and how filmmakers continually pushed the envelope to make even more money under the guise of loosening up the squares.

Throughout there are some nice bits of trivia like how uber-cheapie producer Roger Corman realized that the MPAA never looked at movies in the theaters after they'd been rated, so they'd make cuts to attain the desired rating (usually R), then put that material back in and send it out to the drive-ins. Actresses discuss the pressures to show themselves and the sometimes harsh conditions they had to work under. (Women in prison shower fight scenes were particularly rough because the water would be freezing cold.) 

Sean Young discusses her audition for No Way Out  where the director asked her to lift up her top to show that she didn't have any scars and that actresses have to ride a line between being attractive enough to have producers want to hire them but not be so hot as to be only hired for nudity. Of course it's "lookest" to notice which actresses are still looking good into their 40s, 50s, and even 60s (Betsy Russell, Rena Riffel) and those who aren't (Linda Blair, yikes).

It's to Skin's credit that a two-hour clip show of nudity manages to come off as educational and not just prurient, but with so much history to cover it's unavoidably only a skin-deep perusal of the topic. It opens with lots of discussion of the #MeToo era that would've been better covered at the end given the chronological format and recency of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and while delving into the casting couch aspects of Hollywood would've been off topic, the demands of nudity during auditions as mentioned by Young and Showgirls's Rena Riffel (though to be fair, when you're playing a stripper...) could've been touched upon since the newly prominent role of "intimacy coordinators" is broached.

Still, it's got lots of bewbz, so it delivers on Mr. Skin's promise. 

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable. (Currently on Hulu)

"The Rundown" Review

 It's getting hard to remember now that Dwayne Johnson used to be known only as "The Rock" (the same way John Mellencamp used to be John Cougar), but that's the name he was going under when 2003's The Rundown was released. Only his third feature role, after playing the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns and its eponymous spinoff, it was seen as his entree into mainstream action movie stardom, filling the void left as Ahnuld Schwarzenegger (who makes a meta torch-passing blink-and-miss-it cameo) had become the Governator of California at that time.

 Rock plays Beck (not the musician), a "retrieval expert" (read: bounty hunter), whom we meet listening to a chef discussing mushrooms on the radio while he awaits admittance into a swank club where a debtor needs dealing with. After that splashy set piece, we get into the main plot as the mobster he works for offers him the proverbial One Last Gig which will free him from some unspecified obligation to the boss, plus give him the money needed to open his dream restaurant, thus the cooking show he's listening to.

The gig is to go to Brazil where the boss's son, lets call him Stifler because Seann William Scott plays him and the character is the same Stifler part Stifler has played since American Pie, has been treasure hunting in the Amazonian rain forest. Junior owes some other boss and apparently daddy wants him to face the music, so Beck is off to run him down. 

 Getting to the butt end of nowhere, Beck finds himself in a squalid mining town where the locals toil in near-slavery conditions in the massive open pit gold mines run by Christopher Walken's character, who may as well also be named Christopher Walken. (Frankly, only The Rock and Rosario Dawson, playing a barmaid with an interesting side gig, seem to be playing actual characters.) Knowing that operating in such a boss's turf without permission could be difficult, Beck attempts to ingratiate himself to Walken and gets his blessing which lasts only a while before he renegs after learning Stifler claims to have found a legendary golden artifact called O Gato do Diablo (The Devil's Cat) in a lost jungle temple.

 So the race is on as Beck finds Stifler and attempts to get him to the airstrip for the ride home before Walken's forces find them and force Stifler to take them to the treasure. Complicating matters is that Stifler is a massively annoying twerp (which makes it very satisfying whenever Beck clocks him) who knows how to survive in a jungle while Beck isn't more an urban jungle kind of fellow. This leads to encounters with local rebels and horny monkeys (don't ask) and all sorts of hijinks ensuing.

One thing that has always elevated Johnson above many other musclebound matinee men has been ability to calibrate his performances to the kind of movies he's been in with a surprising acting range capable of drama and comedy, which he has a rather deft touch. The Rundown was his first showcase for what would typify his career, though looking over his filmography, other than his role as a closeted gay wannabe country singer goon (not kidding!) in 2005's Be Cool, it would take until 2011 and his introduction as Luke Hobbs in Fast Five, the movie which transformed the Fast & Furious franchise into the juggernaut, that all the pieces came together material-wise.

Once you get over seeing him with hair and looking relatively "small" in stature compared to his current meat mountain size - he's still brawny; just saying he's amped it up insanely over the years - The Rundown shows that he was Big Movie Star material early on. Actor-turned-director Peter Berg (in his second feature; he'd go on to direct Friday Night Lights, Lone Survivor, Patriots Day, and others) shows a good touch managing the action clearly and the comedy. Stifler is annoying as always, Dawson is caliente, and Walken is in Full Walken mode like Jeff Goldblum is Full Goldblum these days.

Somewhat forgotten like most of his aughts oeuvre, The Rundown should be caught by fans of Johnson. 

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable.  

"Let Me In" Blu-ray Review

In checking for previous reviews here for this film, I discovered my original theatrical review, seen exactly 10 years and two weeks ago was finished, but never posted. Now it's up and you can read my thoughts which have not changed in the intervening decade, although my score then was higher (8.5 vs. 7). 

I still don't care for the obvious CGI used for Moretz's vampire scenes, but I've read subsequently that director Matthew Reeves - who went on to direct the superior Planet of the Apes reboot sequels and is currently making The Batman - deliberately when for that artificial look to

On the technical side of this Blu-ray, the shallow-focus, monochromatic-scheme cinematography makes for a soft and stylized image that's representative of the film's intent, but not anything you'd show off your home theater with. In a couple of scenes, the murkiness looked blotchy, but those moments are fleeting. On the audio front, the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track is clear and has a wide dynamic range which could startle your pets if you turn it up to better hear the quiet dialog and then one of the several BOOM audio moments occur.

 There's a commentary and good smattering of making-of featurettes. I recall looking at those back when this hit video, but never reviewed because I hadn't watched the movie. They were decent, IIRC.

Let Me In is a good, quiet, excellently-acted horror film. It's just a bit less substantive on second viewing.

Score: 7/10. Rent it.

"World War Z" Blu-ray Review

I haven't rewatched the 2013 fast-running zombie flick World War Z since its initial theatrical run (review here) and after watching this Blu-ray, nothing much has changed in my take on it's inconsistent storytelling. The unrated cut adds some extra violence and gore, especially noticed with the poor Israeli soldier's bite treatment scene, but nothing too over-the-top; The Walking Dead routinely has much worse.

It's interesting to see actors pop up who went on to greater nerd culture notoriety in subsequent years: Peter Capaldi, a WHO doctor, went on to be a Doctor on Doctor Who; Ruth Negga (another WHO worker) went on to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Preacher and garnered an Oscar nomination for Loving; Mireille Enos is Hanna's ally in Amazon Prime's Hanna series.

On the technical front, the 2.40:1 aspect transfer is OK, but nothing to write home about. The cinematography and color-grading - drab and naturalistic in the first act, high-contrast and dark in Korea, warm straw tones in Israel, etc. - don't provide much showcase opportunities, but the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 audio track is good with plenty of surround activity and LFE rumble. 

There are about 53 minutes of featurettes discussing the development of the movie from a book not really laid out for straight adaptation; the scientific premises applied to this portrayal of zombies; and a four-part making-of discussing the production of various major settings. It's all rather lightweight other than surprises that Glasgow, Scotland doubled Philadelphia for the initial outbreak sequence (with some changes in street signs, digital landscape enhancement, and lots of imported cars) and Malta filled in for Israel. No mention of the film's abandoned third act that I'd hope would be included in my theatrical review.

World War Z is a pretty good zombie action flick held back from excellence by some dippy plot choices. The Blu-ray is as adequate as the film.

Score: 6/10.  Rent it.

"John Was Trying to Contact Aliens" Review

The missus and I had a little time to kill before the 11 o'clock news came on and decided this would be the perfect opportunity to knock off the oddly-titled, 16-minute-long John Was Trying to Contact Aliens, which we had noticed (for its brevity) while perusing Netflix's virtual shelves. We wondered how much information could be crammed into such a short running time. Afterwards we wondered why it was so long.  The preview below is 6% of the films running time, but almost entirely encompasses the doc's content.

John Shepherd lived in an unnamed northwestern Michigan town with his grandparents who indulged his hobby of building ever larger collections of electronic gear and antennas dedicated to reaching out into the cosmos to find signs of extraterrestrial life. It's not clear where he was making the money for this assemblage, but as it took over the house eventually his grandmother helped funded a massive two-story addition to the house to shelter an even more powerful antenna array.

 Part of his plan to attract aliens attention was to beam music out to the stars, particularly left-of-dial jazz, world, and Afro-beat tunes, which led me to remark that it seemed like his true goal in life was to be a DJ for a public radio station. His odd pursuits led the missus to muse about his popularity with the ladies, which was shortly mooted by John discussing being gay and how difficult it was to be that way in rural Michigan. (Frankly, I think the hobby would be more of a stumbling block, but whatevs.)

Eventually the money ran out and he had to dismantle and warehouse his collection of archaic whatnot. (He could probably run his entire operation off a laptop these days.) But he eventually found a soulmate in an equally hirsute fellow, so that's nice. 

Which begs the question of what took 16 minutes for John Was Trying to Contact Aliens to tell? You've already read everything that happens. Odd fellow is enabled by his grandparents to spend 30 years accomplishing nothing, but he met someone. The end.

Score: 2/10. Skip it.

"I'm Thinking of Ending Things" Review

Certain screenwriters names in film credits give a strong hint of what kind of movie experience you're in for. Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin are synonymous with hyper-literate characters (who may or may not all sound the same) and wildly verbose, yet quotable, dialog (e.g. "Do you know what they call the Quarter Pounder in Europe?" "If you guys were the inventors of would've invented Facebook.") But when it comes to Charlie Kaufman - writer of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - the general consensus is "weird." 

So that's how we went into I'm Thinking of Ending Things, his third film as a writer-director,  expecting a long (running time: 2h 15m) slog of oddness and it certainly does take a leisurely stroll to nowhere in the process.

The film opens with a Young Woman (Jessie Buckley; and her character is literally credited that way) waiting on a cold winter's day for her boyfriend Jake (Jessie Plemons), whom she has been dating for six (or seven) weeks, to pick her up for a road trip to meet his parents for the first time. During the exceedingly long drive there, which almost feels like real-time, there is a building sense of tension underscored by her voiceover internal monologue repeatedly saying the movie's title. 

When they arrive, the parents aren't immediately evident, so he takes her on a tour of the farm's barn where the sheep stay and he tells a gruesome story about what happened to the pigs. Returning to the house, she meets his odd parents played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, and after a half-hour something finally happened to pique my interest. 

On the drive out Jake mentioned that his mother hadn't been feeling well and there probably wouldn't be a big spread for dinner, but when they adjourn to the dining room it is laden with a feast suitable for  multiples of the four present. I had been lulled into a light stupor by the tedium and actually backed the movie up to check what had happened; in the previous shots the dining room was clearly empty and dimly lit, but suddenly there was warm light and all the food.

As the meal proceeds, other anomalies present themselves: Her career seems to have changed from what they discussed in the car; she is getting a stream of text messages with someone with her same name, except her name seems to have changed; and as things move along sharp-eyed viewers will begin to notice some subtle changes to the parents appearances which eventually become so jarring that the WTF?!? alarms start sounding constantly. 

Eventually Jake and Young Woman head for home as she has work in the morning and as the blizzard intensifies things become even more surreal to the extent that in one moment an actress seen in a weird (there's that word again) scene from a rom-com shown replaces Buckley as the Young Woman. Whut?!?! The weirdness compounds itself until they end up at his old high school for the express purpose of throwing away milk shakes they'd bought (another weird scenario) and an ending where the vaguely surreal vibe of the movie manifests into full-blown crazy pantsness.

Throughout the movie we're given baffling cutaways to an old janitor as he goes through his workday and his significance is hinted at throughout, but it's not until the end when his significance is explained (somewhat) and if you were wondering if all this oddness was going to amount to anything, the answer is decidedly "not really." 

I suspected that this trip was going to end up in a disappointing dead end and it did. It's frustrating to have to immediately look up explainer articles after finishing a movie to have opaque narratives illuminated, especially when a movie made large changes to the source's narrative as Kaufman did to Iain Reid's novel. While film snobs like to sniff about lowbrow plebes not "getting it" the fact remains that if you can't tell a movie story without reading the book first or having someone who did explain it after the fact, it's a failure of the filmmaker. That it all amounts to almost nothing of any relevance that a viewer can relate to makes the time wasted even more acute.

The performances are all adequate to the task with Buckley doing the most heavy lifting which is ironic considering where it's going. Once you get hip to what Kaufman is doing with the breadcrumb drops, it strings you along, teasing something coming until it doesn't, ultimately devolving into a self-satisfied wank at the expense of the audience. (There are elements of David Lynch's oddness at play, but the quality it shares the most is how Twin Peaks: The Event Series continuation also ended in audience time-wastage.)

While it's presented in Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos audio (on properly equipped sets), there's little to showcase the formats potential benefits given its mostly dark and gray palette and dialog-driven audio. 

Perhaps if the movie had been trimmed down to a shorter running time (say, 90 mins) befitting its slight narrative, I'm Thinking of Ending Things may've merited the jaunt, but as it stands it's best to not even begin things.

Score: 4/10. Skip it. 

"Ava" Review

Alrightee then. It's going to be one of these reviews where you watch the trailer then we discuss. Start here, please:


OK, what is Ava about? Is it about Jessica Chastain playing the titular assassin, recruited and trained by John Malkovich, who has run afoul of Colin Ferrell's rules and wants her dead? Shooty shooty, fighty fighty, pretty girl gets mussy and she shoots him at the end? (Not a spoiler if you watched the trailer.) Also something with Common being an ex-boyfriend, too?

We'll you're partially right. Did you also notice the part about her incredibly toxic family (sister Jess Weixler and mother Geena Davis, who are so snarky that at one point I asked my girlfriend, "She's going to murder them, right?") and how singer sis is now engaged to Common having come together after Ava had bolted from their lives 8 years previously? How about how Ava is a recovering alcoholic and junkie and that big chunks of time are spent with her going to an AA meeting and thinking about drinking when she's not rescuing Common from his gambling addiction? No? Hmmm, wonder why?

It's as if writer Matthew Newton (whose Wikipedia page raises big questions as to how he's kept working with his track record of violence against women) couldn't decide whether he wanted to make a kickass assassin chick flick or a Lifetime movie about lousy families and addiction and decided to mash them together into a story that's half predictable thriller and half annoying melodrama. Perhaps he imaged it was a nuanced portrait of someone something overcoming demons blah-blah-woof-woof, but it's not.

The premise of there being Assassinations 'R' Us-type corporations with massive unseen infrastructures able to dispatch "cleanup teams" to mop up botched hits who have to knock off their best assassins is so hoary as to be as lame as wondering if the bickering couple with fall in love by the end of a rom-com. Just off the top of my head I can name La Femme Nikita, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and the John Wick series, but at least those had some buzzy style and didn't bog down in family drivel.

The thing is that trimmed of the entire family aspect, there may have been an interesting story to be told about an ace assassin who's always been verging on wobbly, finally annoying her masters too much with her existential angst. (You really need to pay attention to the opening credits because almost all of Chastain's backstory is conveyed via photos, news clippings, and screenshots.) This is mostly due to Chastain's usual brittle-shelled vulnerability that clues us into her inner turmoil. But it's all in service of a story that needed to pick a lane.

 Other than Chastain, Malkovich's performance is interesting if only he's not being his usual "I'm the new Christopher Walken; the guy who brings the weird to the supporting character tier" though his surrogate father figure purpose to Chastain is also threadbare. Davis is fine as an awful person with one scene clearly put in to justify her not being whacked. Ferrell is adequate in a cliched role. But it's Common who lives down to his moniker with yet another trademark wooden performance where he's only distinguishable from the sets by being the one wearing a watch cap.

While the fights are nicely choreographed and satisfyingly visceral - it's no Atomic Blonde, but that was directed by the guy who did John Wick and Deadpool 2 - and Chastain is plausible enough as an action heroine, Ava simply can't stand out from either of its genres to make it worth watching for either reason.

Score: 4/10. Skip it.

"Project Power" 4K Review

The latest Netflix Original movie which looks like it could've played in theaters is Project Power, a glossy high-concept sci-fi action flick starring Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Dominique Fishback. Budgeted at $85M, it's hardly a TV movie, but despite an intriguing premise, it doesn't really pay off.

The movie opens with a group of New Orleans drug dealers being addressed by a clearly Evil Corporate Guy about how he was going to give them free supplies of a new drug called Power to sell. What does it do? It gives the taker five minutes of superpower, though there is no way to tell what that power will be. You may become invisible or super strong or bulletproof or you may explode, so caveat emptor. (But once you find your power, it's the same thing every time; the only question is answered with the first dose.)

Six weeks later, the Big Easy is awash in reports of freaky incidents of people outrunning or throwing cars as the Power spreads. We meet Robin (Fishback) in an abandoned amusement park getting jumped by a trio of customers. Fortunately, NOPD Detective Frank (Gordon-Levitt) is on the scene to break up the deal, arresting her and allowing the guys to leave. After they do, he uncuffs her and it's revealed that he's not only a cop, he's a customer for Power, seeking to even the odds against the Power-enhanced crooks. This is illustrated in a subsequent scene where he captures an invisible bank robber who shoots him in the head only to have the bullet bounce off Frank's Powered bulletproof skin. 

Meanwhile, Art (Foxx) is trying to find the suppliers of Power who also kidnapped his daughter. He tracks down one of the opening scene's dealers, Newt (Machine Gun Kelly, credited as Colson Baker), in a squalid tenement posing as a buyer. In a bonkers sequence that ensues, we get our first look at what Power does as Newt basically becomes the Human Torch from Fantastic Four. Art narrowly escapes, but retrieves a cell phone which is receiving texts from Robin, so he begins to track her down.

In the aftermath of the bank heist, Frank is suspicious of the dark-suited guys who showed up to take control of the robbery scene and pressures his Captain (Courtney B. Vance) to not suspend him for using Power so he can find out what's going on. Captain gives him a sheet with Art's photo on it listing him as "The Major" and the source of Power. This sets everyone on a collision course based on misinformation as to who's really in control and what the ultimate plan is. 

While the premise seems like something from a comic book, it's actually an original screenplay by rookie Mattson Tomlin (who is co-writer of the upcoming Matt Reeves The Batman reboot) and the lapses here raise some concern for the Caped Crusader. For starters, the five-minute time limit raises some logical problems namely what is the user's incentive to keep taking a $500 pill for such a short effective period. OK, you've taken the pill, you're now a fire monster or have bone spikes bursting from your body making you an ersatz Wolverine, but then what? You burn the house down or stab someone and then want to shell out $500 more? Seems like a pricey high even if you can throw cars for five minutes with your superstrength. 

But the bigger problem is that the concept is trapped within a very predictable trope-bound plot. The makers are a Very Evil Pharmaceutical Company using the users as paying lab rats intending to sell the Power to the highest bidder - get it? - who will then have what exactly? A fighting force of random X-Men for five minutes at a time? When Art demurs about what his power was, is it any question that the Big Star is going to uncork something uber-strong by the end? No, it isn't. 

On the plus side, directorial team Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman (Catfish, Paranormal Activity 3 & 4, Nerve reviewed here) shoot things with a shiny neon-lit eye similar to Nerve, focusing on the rundown areas of NOLA that don't appear on the tour brochures. You don't often see movies set with economically-deprived areas and characters. Of course it ladles in a dose of social justice wokeism on top of a cast where nearly all the villains are white with Levitt being the only "good one," but it's not sledgehammered and one scene flips the script a bit for laughs. The Power trips are well executed with top notch visual effects for the most part.

Performances are solid, though no one is really bringing their AAA game. The shocker was Fishback as the teenaged dealer with a flair for freestyle rap (written by Chika, who appears as Robin's classmate) because she's unrecognizable under her braids as being from The Deuce. (She's actually nearly 30 years old.)

On the technical side, the Dolby Vision version is a good showcase for your capable home theater, but the attendant Atmos soundtrack doesn't really utilize the height channels very much; mostly settles for low end hip-hop boom for the subwoofer.

Since there's nothing in theaters due to Hot Fad Plague 2020 and you're already paying for Netflix, Project Power is already waiting for you as The Old Guard was a few weeks back. While not as good as the somewhat underwhelming Charlize Theron actioner, it's not that bad. Just go in with appropriate expectations.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on Netflix.

"Howard" Review

This documentary's titular Howard is Howard Ashman, the brilliant lyricist who teamed with composer Alan Menken to power Disney's animation Renaissance with their songs for The Little Mermaid, Beauty & the Beast, and Aladdin as well as previously collaborating on the cult musical Little Shop of Horrors in an impressive run before dying of AIDS in 1991 at age 40. He won two Oscars (out of seven nominations over just four movies), two Golden Globes, five Grammys, and numerous theater awards, but no Tonys despite four nominations.

Comprised of narrated photos and archival clips narrated by friends, family, and colleagues, it recounts his life story, his youthful forays into theater as an actor, his homosexuality and travels to New York City to establish a noted small theater company, eventually leading to his career as a lyricist which, along with Ashman, created the aforementioned blockbusters. 

Aimed more at musical nerd adults than children who enjoy the cartoons, Howard will mostly interest those interested in the gritty Boho days of NYC in the Seventies and pre-Guliani Eighties. While it doesn't lean too heavily into Pride wokeness agenda-pushing, it does candidly address his lifestyle which, while committed to his partners, still resulted in his untimely death. 

Score: 7/10. Catch it on Mouse+. 

"You Should Have Left" Review

Writer-director David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Carlito's Way) and star Kevin Bacon (he's six degrees of separation from everyone in the world) reteam for the first time since their 1999 collaboration Stir of Echoes for the haunted vacation home thriller You Should Have Left, which would've been better titled Satan's Airbmb.

Bacon is Theo, an older man with a past that has people giving him the side eye everywhere (he was accused of murdering his first wife) now married to younger actress Susanna (Amanda Seyfried) with whom he has a young daughter Ella (Avery Essex). He's stressed about her career and the sex scenes she has to perform, so they decide to get away as a family for a few weeks before her movie moves to shoot in London, renting a oddly modern house in the Wales countryside.

When they arrive, Theo immediately notices that the nearly decor free house seems much bigger on the inside than out, but puts it out of mind as he tries to relax. However, when he goes into town for groceries, the locals do everything short of warn, "Beware the moon and stick to the road," to imply they know things about the house.

Rapidly the "something's up with this place" manifests in Theo experiencing bizarre nightmares with the house becoming a cross between an M.C. Escher drawing and Labyrinth. As domestic troubles surface to separate Susanna from Theo and Ella, it becomes apparent that perhaps the house should've been called the Hotel California, if you catch my drift.

While somewhat moody and well-acted, You Should Have Left feels heavily padded and drawn out at only 93 minutes long. Just about everything before their arrival at the house is superfluous and very few of the plot revelations surprised throughout to the end. It would've made an adequate 45-60 minute episode of a Twilight Zone anthology perhaps, but it's too shadowy a premise and execution for a feature.

Score: 4/10. Skip it.

"Not Another Teen Movie" Review

I was surprised to see while browsing that Amazon Prime Video had the 2001 teen comedy spoof Not Another Teen Movie in 4K UHD (albeit, no HDR), so I fired it up. I saw it when it originally came out, but probably haven't seen it again since buying the DVD in 2002, but have always remembered it fondly as an above-average parody of both then-recent teen movies like She's All and 10 Things I Hate About You as well as classic Eighties John Hughes movies  like Pretty In Pink and The Breakfast Club with heavy dashes of Cruel Intentions, American Beauty and American Pie among many others. (The Hughes connection is sledgehammered by having the school named John Hughes  High School and if you look carefully in the library, there's a Weird Science section.)

The central plot concerns football BMOC Jake (Chris Evans in only his 2nd movie role) being dumped by his girlfriend (Jamie Pressly) for a weird guy who's basically the Wes Bentley character from American Beauty. A teammate bets him that he can't turn an "ugly duckling" girl into a prom queen and selects as his project Janey (Chyler Leigh) who's from the wrong side of the tracks, has glasses and a ponytail, and absolutely disgusting (to Jake) paint-spattered overalls. (Janey is clearly a riff on Rachel Leigh Cook's character in She's All That of whom I remarked, "It's easy to transform an ugly duckling into a swan when she's got flawless skin and great bone structure," and the obligatory makeover scene calls this trope out.) Will Jake win the cynical bet or will he learn a Valuable Lesson about love and people? What do you think? The movie is so self-aware of this hoary cliche that when he makes his bets, they're exactly these conditions.

The rest of the movie is somewhat scattershot as it sometimes leans too hard into direct movie parodies with varying degrees of success and bounces from vignette to unrelated throwaway (like the Risky Business riff where a boy's parents are warning him not to have a party while they're away while kegs and a PA system are being loaded in around them), but it never gets too scrambled and if any specific segment annoys, it will be gone in a minute. A slightly larger issue is that now in 2020, many of the references are foggy memories citing movies from over 20 years ago. The immediate "this is mocking that" familiarity is gone.

But most gags work and there is a blink-and-miss-it cleverness in the details. For example, an early scene has a tour guide explaining to new students that at John Hughes there are no cliques then immediately says, "Let's get all you big jocky guys into a group here on my right and get all you slutty girls over here by me...and all you losers should hang out in the back. Take a good look at the kids standing beside you. They're going to be the only friends you have for the next four years." The five guys' varsity jackets spell out J-O-C-K-S and a banner in the background reads, "Welcome Prospective Cliques." A little obvious, sure, but funny. There's a great out-of-nowhere musical number setting up the prom finale, too.

The cast is uniformly good and there are a few meta cameos, though one may slip by due to the time factor previously mentioned. This sort of broad parody comedy can be tricky as actors have to calibrate just how aware they are of the humor, but it works. It's surprising that this is so early in Evans career - Captain America was a decade away - but it shows he's had a flair for comedy that being the Star-Spangled Avenger doesn't always showcase. (He showed his dramatic chops in Sunshine and more comedy in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.)

While revisiting Not Another Teen Movie I found that while it wasn't quite as good as I remembered, it's still a cut above other lazier parodies. It moves fast, has laughs in both smart and gross flavors, and it entertains.

Score: 7.5/10. Catch it on cable.

This trailer is surprisingly bad and also has several alternate takes not in the movie:

"The Gentleman" Review

The interest surrounding British director Guy Ritchie's return to the gangster movie genre of his beginnings with The Gentlemen stems from the bizarre path his career has taken. After the one-two punches of his feature debut Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch (remembered as the one where Brad Pitt has the incomprehensible Irish accent), he fell under the spell of aging pop singer/succubus Madonna with whom he collaborated on producing a son and directing a near-career-ending remake of Swept Away, earning Razzie nominations.

After a pair of exceedingly mediocre attempts to get his gangster back on with Revolver and RocknRolla (after which I demanded his career be ended), he lucked back into relevance with the post-Iron Man hot Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes film and its sequel, following with the lackluster The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

2017 saw him blow up his career again with the trailer-so-awful-I-had-zero-interest-in-seeing-it King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, a flop so massive it caused a planned five sequels - who plans on making six movies before the first one has proven itself? - to be scrapped. It appeared he'd finally be done for but no! For some reason Disney hired him to helm the 2019 live-action cash grab of Aladdin(!?) with Will Smith.

Which brings us to The Gentlemen, his first original work in over a decade and returning to his old British crime ensemble territory for a splashy, kicky, snappy, snazzy, and incredibly self-satisfied and ultimately meaningless exercise. It manages to be well-done in almost every way while being disposable and banal.

Built around the framing device of sleazy tabloid freelancer Fletcher (Hugh Grant, clearly looking to assume Michael Caine's old go-to position since Caine is pushing 90 and mostly only works for Christopher Nolan these days) attempting to explain to Ray (Charlie Hunnam) why Ray's boss Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) should pay him £20 million to not publish his reporting, we're introduced to Mickey's world.

A poor trailer trash American, he somehow won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. While attending and earning a horticulture degree, he became a weed dealer. Coming up with an elaborate and clever method of farming his crops in a small country like England with little way to not have it discovered and distributing it, he has become extremely wealthy and ensconced in British high society, partially because he's paying cash-strapped aristocrats for the use of their estates as grow sites.

But he's grown tired of the grind and has decided to sell his operation for $400 million to a fellow American (Jeremy Strong) and retire with his wife (Michelle Dockery). But other parties are interested in making bids or conducting an extremely hostile takeover, foremost of whom is Dry Eye (Henry Golding from Crazy Rich Asians, whose presence piqued my girlfriend's interest and she fell asleep early on), a hot-headed Chinese gangster whose nickname is never explained. Add in a gang of breakdancing rapping thugs called The Toddlers who rob one of Mickey's grow sites to the chagrin of their home gym's owner, Coach (Colin Farrell), a sleazy tabloid publisher, the smack addict daughter of a lord, Russian gangsters, and a snazzy table/foot warmer/barbecue and you have the makings of a crackin' good romp.

The problem is that Ritchie, who also wrote the screenplay, is both overcompensating and seems immensely self-satisfied with just how colorful everyone is. (I could imagine him typing the script with one hand while the other congratulates him on how wonderful he's doing if I was a cruel person.) Right out of the gate as Grant spits out reams of purple dialog it becomes clear that The Gentlemen is going to be one of those kind of movies; the kind which dazzles the rubes with twisty-turny wibbly-wobbly stories jam-packed with characters who are mostly caricatures and verbose dialog which implies ownership of a thesaurus and little more.

The thing is, very little about The Gentlemen in isolation is subpar. The performances are lively, the action is clear, the production quality quite rich, and until it makes a couple of excessive final turns leading to a dead end up its own arse, the knotty plot is fun. But the overall effect is like watching a mime pretending to walk into the 150 mph winds of a  hurricane, expending massive effort, but going absolutely nowhere. The final meta scene with Fletcher pitching the story we watched as a screenplay to Guy Ritchie himself is an onanistic finale which I always suspected it was heading towards from the start.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.

"Blumhouse's Fantasy Island" Review

When the trailer for what appeared to be the latest imagination-bereft rehash of an old television show that most younger moviegoers never watched (while Hervé Villechaize croaking, "Thee plaaane! Thee plaaaane!" is part of the common cultural shared reference bank, who remembers much about it and doesn't confuse it for The Love Boat? ) and the Generation X moviegoers probably wouldn't trek to a theater for (think: Charlie's Angels 2019 version with Kristin Stewart vs. the far superior 2000 version with Cameron Diaz) dropped, I rolled my eyes. "Who asked for a Fantasy Island movie?" I wondered. Then I watched it and realized that money-printing horror studio Blumhouse had given it a distinctively darker horror spin (as well as prefixing the title with their moniker.)

Following the old show's format a seaplane delivers guests the the tropical paradise presided over by the enigmatic Mr. Roarke (Michael Peña). This Very Special Episode's guests includes a young woman (Lucy Hale) whose fantasy is to get revenge on her high school bully (Portia Doubleday); a businesswoman (Maggie Q) who rejected a marriage proposal and wants a do-over; a cop (Austin Stowell) who wants to join the military to honor his dead war hero father who died when he was a child; and a pair of step-brothers (Ryan Hansen and Jimmy O. Yang) who want the fantasy of having it all and living a large party lifestyle.

With a final warning that all fantasies must play out to their natural conclusion, Rourke sets the guests off on their fantasies. Q says yes to her suitor (Robbie Jones) and wakes up with it seemingly five years later and they have the little girl she'd always dreamed of. The brothers have a PG-13-rated rager (the teen-friendly rating means they're plenty of bimbos, but no nudity; there's also little gore and one obligatory F-bomb) in their own party mansion with a safe room and armory.

But things turn darker when the cop finds himself immediately captured by soldiers and discovering they are from the unit his father sacrificed his life to save which he is also leading on that fateful mission. The real tipoff is Hale's fantasy, where she first believes she's simulating torturing her tormenter as a hologram before realizing the real girl is being hurt and she ultimately acts to liberate her.

As they escape, they are themselves saved from one of those Unstoppable Killing Machine guys by a grizzled Michael Rooker, who's been watching the various islanders from the shadows. He explains why he's on the island and shows them its true dark secret power.

As various fantasy scenarios turn more dangerous, one guest demands a new fantasy, one which seeks to undo the regret that spawned their original fantasy's basis. Rourke reluctantly allows it and we gradually realize what connects all of the visitors and how they all ended up in this group.

While it's not a pinnacle of cinema, I had a decent time with Fantasy Island. The cast is fun and attractive, there are some smart laughs, and while the horror and gore is muted by the rating, it actually exceeded my modest expectations, especially considering how director Jeff Wadlow's previous Blumhouse joint also starring Hale, Truth or Dare, was only so-so; something passable because we'd snuck into it. (He also directed Kick-Ass 2, which managed to kill that franchise by being too mean-spirited even with its edgy milieu.) Even with the twists, it's a little predictable, but again we're not comparing it to Lawrence of Arabia.

Looking at how it was killed by the critics on Rotten Tomatoes, I have a suspicion that they didn't remember how the original show went. I hadn't either, but my girlfriend remarked afterwards how the movie was just like the show in that everyone's fantasies always turned ironic on them.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

"Banksy Does New York" Review

In October 2013, notorious and anonymous British street artist Banksy did a month-long "residency" in New York City, creating a unique piece of art every day, leaving cryptic hints as to its location and providing audio commentaries for select pieces (which sound like an American performed them). The excitement surrounding this event is captured in Banksy Does New York which is available on HBO GO/NOW. (Also on YouTune, see below.)

This immediate prompted a mad rush for "Banksy hunters" to rush and locate and photograph the works before they were destroyed (some businesses painted them over), defaced (jealous graffiti artists tag over them), or sometimes cut out and hauled away. Enterprising street hustlers covered one piece with cardboard and charged spectators for them to remove it so they could see and photograph it.

One day's stunt was hiring an old man to sell small signed original spray pieces (spraypainted onto canvases with stencils) from a booth in Central Park for $60, only revealing what he'd done the next day. There was no sign indicating what they were, though anyone familiar with Banksy would've recognized his style. The film documents some of the purchasers ranging from a woman who bought a couple for her children, but only after haggling a 50% discount, to a man who bought four to hang in his new Chicago home which needed something for the walls. The total sales for the day were $420 and each piece was worth an estimated $250,000 on the market!

Another bit of stunning generosity came in the form of a painting that had been bought from a charity shop which funded homes for HIV+ people for $50. Banksy added additional elements, signed it, and had it slipped back into the shop a couple weeks later upon which he announced it was hanging there. It was immediately put up for auction and raised over $600,000 for the charity.

Some pieces were whimsical, some surprisingly dark and political, some as simple as a quit spray on a wall while others involved massive installations which somehow got put up without anyone noticing until its unveiling. ( One day's art was "cancelled due to police activity.") All of this is documented by social media videos, Twitter posts commenting on it, and post-event interviews with art critics and writers and Banksy fans. (One pair which keeps popping up is this weird and annoying couple who look like the real-life version of the rom-com trope about high school losers who agree to marry each other if they can't meet anyone in 10 years.)

There is also some discussion about the tension between the "graffiti is art/graffiti is vandalism" sides and the high dollar world of art galleries who have removed Banksy's works and sold them for many monies. One dealer, who looks like a stereotypical art culture vulture who fancies himself a Bond villain, is shown examining a large cinder block Sphinx which a trio of Latino garage workers hauled away and stashed in their grandmother's garage. They'd turned down a $50,000 offer when they took it and agree to have Mr. Art Guy handle its sale. (As far as I can see, it still hasn't sold, so they're not rich.)

I find a lot of what's called "art" these days to be post-modernist garbage with no technique or skill required other than writing a brief Leftist political manifesto on the placard. It used to require years of training and practice in disciplines like drawing, painting, light, color, etc. Now it's low-effort nonsense with no purpose but to shock the squares.

But I like Banksy because, unlike Andy Warhol who ended up making himself the brand with his signature look and mien, his work is usually instantly identifiable (which is probably why the Sphinx hasn't sold; it looks too different) and he seems to have a perspective on what he's doing and what it means. That he does it from the shadows forces the focus on the art and as Banksy Does New York shows, it's how people react to his art that becomes part of the experience itself.

Briskly-paced - cramming 30 pieces into a less than 80 minutes necessitates that - and fascinating, Banksy Does New York is a must-watch for his fans and it's also a good introduction for those unfamiliar with his style and method.

Score: 8.5/10. Watch it on HBO.

If you don't have HBO (or someone's password), here it is in SD.

"The Rhythm Section" Review

It's a mark of bad marketing when the first hint you have of a movie's existence is a TV commercial about a week before its opening. My girlfriend and I were watching Saturday Night Live at our respective domiciles and texting during the commercials and I glimpsed the end of an ad for The Rhythm Section featuring a short dark-haired Blake Lively staggering away from an explosion scene. "What the heck was that?" I texted. She hadn't been paying attention.

Later I looked it up and found it was some sort of revenge spy thriller whose opaque title referred to controlling one's "rhythm section", thinking of your heartbeat as the drums and breathing as the bass, to focus on the target when shooting. It's a dopey metaphor, but spy novels gotta spy novel. (It's based on a book whose author penned the screenplay.)

Lively plays an English woman whose entire family, parents and two siblings died in a plane crash. We see their idyllic lives during the opening credits which makes our next look at her all the more jarring when we see she's spent the three years since the crash plunged into the hell of being a drug-addicted prostitute. This time though her john (Raza Jeffrey) is only looking to talk; he's a freelance reporter who tells her the crash was actually a bombing that had been covered up.

Despite initially having him  tossed out of the brothel, she later contacts him and goes to his apartment where he has a room covered in photos of the crash victims and stacks of documents he says came from an ex-MI-6 agent code-named "B" pointing to the bomb being the work of a local college student. Acquiring a pistol from her drug dealer, she quickly locates the student in the cafeteria, but chickens out on killing him. He somehow managed to grab her bag and with the information inside, finds the reporter and kills him.

With no other options available, she goes to Scotland in search of B (Jude Law) and once she finds him, he grudgingly agrees to train her and after eight months she's ready for her first mission, to kill a man in Tangier who was involved in arranging the bomb to be on the flight.

Now this is where most movies would have Lively montage herself into a formidable killing machine a la Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, Angelina Jolie in numerous action epics, or Anne Parillaud/Bridget Fonda/Maggie Q in La Femme Nikita/Point of No Return/Nikita, but instead she rather sucks at pretty much everything; getting beaten badly, chickening out because she can't bring herself to kill (except for one moment where she's suddenly Annie Oakley gunfighting like a champ) and relying on luck or outside intervention for most kills.

Lively has really come on in recent years as an actress, outgrowing her simpy late-teen ingenue image from Gossip Girl with her deglamed performance here, in 2016's solo girl-vs-shark The Shallows, and especially her crackling turn in 2018's trash-camp blast A Simple Favor (a must for fans of movies like Wild Things). She's smartly realized that passing 30 years of age requires transitioning from girlie parts to adult acting and she's got the chops; she's just let down by the material here.

While director Reed Morano (most noted for the first three episodes of The Handmaid's Tale) does a good job directing the globe-trotting action and drama with style and clarity - there's a "one-shot" car chase sequence which is pretty sharp - the whole endeavor is undercut by Mark Burnell's script. While spy stories are supposed to have twists, double-crosses, third-act reveals and whatnot, things get simply too convoluted and confusing with one character, an ex-CIA agent turned information broker (Sterling K. Brown) who should know everything about who he's dealing with seemingly bamboozled by her meager ruse as a presumed dead Russian assassin.

Once again, a poorly reasoned script makes everything disposable. If not for Lively's performance, I'd probably knock a couple points off and make this a skip.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

"Gretel & Hansel" Review

The Brothers Grimm fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel has been told many times in many forms since its publication in 1812, most recently in the campy action-horror take of 2013's Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters where the grown-up siblings are butt-kicking witch hunters for hire. But the tale takes a bit of a twist in its latest incarnation, the title-flipped and moody Gretel & Hansel.

Set in an unspecified Medieval time and place, this take begins with the telling of a little girl born in a village who took ill as a baby. The father took her to an enchantress who removed the illness, but gave the power of foresight to the girl. While the villagers initially liked having a seer in their midst, she started to use her power to kill, including her father, which earned her a trip to the woods to be abandoned and become a fairy tale.

Then we meet Gretel (Sophia Lillis, IT, I Am Not Okay With This) and Hansel (newcomer Sam Leaky) as they go to seek employment with a wealthy landowner who seems more interested in Gretel's virginity than other skills. They flee back home to their mother, who in her poverty and madness banishes them to go find someplace else to live and fend for themselves, which could be difficult for children who look to be about 14 and 8.

After a run-in with some unexplained ghoul from which they're saved by a huntsman, he gives them directions to where they may find work and home a couple days away. Along the way they encounter a home deep in the woods. Starving, they peer in the windows and see a great feast on the table and let themselves in, soon making the acquaintance of an old woman (Alice Krige, the Borg Queen from Star Trek: First Contact) who anyone familiar with the story isn't what she appears.

The new angle Gretel & Hansel takes is to focus on Gretel's incipient witchcraft powers, which the Witch encourages her to develop, offering her access to her grimoire. While Hansel enjoys the good food which mysteriously appears and playing at cutting down trees, Gretel is suspicious and as her powers grow, she becomes concerned about what that could do to her; will they make her evil?

It's a common knock on films that they're style over substance and unfortunately that's what makes Gretel & Hansel difficult to recommend. On the plus side, it looks amazing. Director Oz Perkins and cinematographer Galo Olivares (in only his 2nd feature, he's definitely one to watch) immediately set a lush, rich, moody tone of a bleak world painted in colored light. The compositions feel like cousins to Kubrick or Bergman films and there's a very European vibe though Perkins is American and Olivares is Mexican.

The performances are also fine; Lillis is definitely on a tear and was only 16 when this was filmed. But the plot itself is extremely thin and unsubstantial and when the reveals occur, they actually confuse more than clarify. Despite a brief 87-minute run time, it still feels slack, empty, and not particularly scary while lovely to look at. I'm not sure if they were trying to make some feminist statement about how women in Medieval times weren't exactly equals, because if there was a little boy killing people in his village, he probably would've found himself dumped in the woods, too.

Overall, Gretel & Hansel is a meandering trip through the woods with no particular destination in mind despite being a fine scenic trip.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.

"Bloodshot" Review

With the Pepsi and Coke of comic book companies tied to their respective film studio masters, Disney (who owns Marvel titles) and Warner Bros. (DC), anyone else looking to make movies based on funny books needs to sift through the various indie publishers and thus we have Bloodshot, based on a Valiant Comics character whom I'd never heard of, same as the publisher. Intended to be a potential new franchise for Vin Diesel, it had the twin misfortunes of opening on the last weekend of 2020 before the Wuhan coronavirus shut down the world, effectively making its theatrical run only a few days - it was rushed to digital within two weeks - and also not being very good. It's not exactly BAD bad, but it's definitely not good.

Diesel plays Ray Garrison, a Marine who we meet on the job killing bad guys in Mombasa, Kenya. Returning to base he's reunited with his wife Gina (Talulah Riley) and they head off to vacation in Italy. There they are kidnapped by comic book-named villain Martin Axe (Toby Kebbell), who demands Ray tell him who provided the intel for the Mombasa operation. Ray doesn't know, but Axe kills Gina and then Ray. Shortest. Movie. Ever.

Nope, he wakes up in a lab at Rising Spirit Tech, where founder Dr. Harting (Guy Pearce) informs him he'd died, but had been resurrected by nanite technology in his blood which gives him incredible strength and healing skills. (He's RoboCop and Wolverine now.) Initially having amnesia, he starts to have flashbacks from his life, remembers his wife's murder, leading him to break out of RST and using the nanites ability to connect to the Internet (now he's The Lawnmower Man) and track Axe down and kill him. Very short movie at 35 minutes long.

Oh wait, it's not over at the end of what turns out to be only the first act. Here comes the twist: It turns out that Ray's memories of Gina's death are fake, a computer simulation implanted to fuel Ray's need for revenge against the perceived perpetrators, who are actually Harting's former business partners whom he is bumping off in order to bring his super-soldier project to market himself.

Naturally, Ray doesn't like being made into a puppet, so he teams up with hot ex-Navy diver KT (Eiza González), who has bionic lungs thanks to RST, to take down Harting. Still loyal to the boss are a pair of also-enhanced bruisers, one with robot legs (and later an exoskeleton) and another who was blinded, but has an array of cameras on a vest providing vision. Hijinks ensue.

Rookie director David S. F. Wilson shamelessly apes Michael Bay with some shots in spots (you'll spot them if you see this) and some frames are clearly translated from comic panels, but Bloodshot is generally anemic with a rote Evil Corporate Guy Making Soldiers of Mass Destruction plot - co-written by Jeff Wadlow (a lot of mediocre horror flicks) and Eric Heisserer (probably hired to rewrite; has a better CV and an Oscar-nomination for Arrival) - and unimpressive visual effects.

Diesel doesn't exactly phone in her performance - he hasn't reached Bruce Willis level apathy...yet - but with few exceptions doesn't really do much other than be Vin Diesel. The other performances are adequate with the exception of Lamorne Morris as an amusing uber-hacker who helps Ray counteract the control Harting normally has over the nanites.

 Overall I was bored by Bloodshot. It just looks and feels second-rate with this supposedly sinister corporation seemingly having a handful of employees and the ropey VFX not being up to snuff these days. Movies like this used to fall under the "not bad if you're stuck inside on a rainy day flipping channels" category, but even by that lowered standard, there's not enough to really recommend spending  the time.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

"Vivarium" Review

A vivarium is defined as "an enclosure, container, or structure adapted or prepared for keeping animals under semi-natural conditions for observation or study or as pets." It's also the title of an odd fantasy drama starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots as a young couple in England or Ireland (it's not specified; nor is how American Eisenberg landed there) who decide to go house hunting and find themselves trapped in a literal forever home. (The definition at the beginning of this review is a huge hint as to what happens.)

After stopping in an office displaying models of the homes on offer, which all look the same, they follow the very oddly-mannered salesman (Jonathan Aris) to Yonder, a subdivision with very suspiciously identical houses. While cookie cutter subdivisions are a long-running thing, Yonder is next level artificial. After a tour of the house with #9 on the door and an a nursery already painted blue for a boy, the couple find their guide has disappeared, leaving them behind. They attempt to leave the sub, but repeatedly find themselves looping back around to #9 eventually running out of gas after driving until after dark.

After staying the night, they climb up on the roof and discover the neighborhood sprawls as far as they can see, one identical row after another. The Sun seems artificial and the clouds are unnaturally uniform. They decide to follow the Sun, climbing over fence after fence (why not use the roads?), in hopes of eventually finding the end of Yonder, but as with their attempt to drive, they end up right back where they began at #9. This time however, there is a box waiting in the street filled with packaged food and toiletries.

A frustrated Eisenberg proceeds to set the house on fire and while they watch it burn from the curb across the street, they fall asleep. When they awake, they find the house is unscathed and another box awaits them. This one contains a baby boy and a note printed on the lid: "Raise the child and be released." We next see the boy being measured against the door frame and while the mark is dated three months later, the boy looks to be about eight-years-old.

In addition to being unnaturally large, the child mimics them or speaks in an adult voice. Other times he shrieks tot bully them into catering to his whims. When he watches television, it's a psychedelic monochrome flashing pattern. Of course, all this weirdness and confinement takes a massive toll on their relationship with him become obsessed with digging a very deep hole in the front lawn, unearthing some non-dirt artificial material, while she attempts to figure out what exactly they're raising.

While the initial scenario of Vivarium piques the interest, it's not long before one starts to wonder where this is all going and what's it supposed to mean? While merely 97-minutes-long, it feels very drawn out and repetitive; it feels as if it could've been if not a half-hour classic Twilight Zone episode, a sub-hour-long Black Mirror installment. Once the premise is set, we're just waiting for it to pay off.

It eventually resolves in a manner that explains the opening nature film passage involving the life cycle of cuckoos, but it's not as much of a twist as it clearly thinks it is as we're too bored to really care in the end.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.

"Underwater" Review

Studios making competing movies with similar themes happens from time to time, resulting in situations like dueling volcano movies (Dante's Peak and Volcano) or big celestial something about to destroy Earth movies (Armageddon and Deep Impact).

But 1989 was special in that there were three "something happening at the bottom of the ocean" movies released: Leviathan, DeepStar Six, and the Big One that the other two raced to beat to theaters, James Cameron's follow-up to Aliens, The Abyss. (Which STILL has never received a proper home video release.) Arriving three decades later (and a year-and-a-half after the similarly-themed monster shark movie The Meg due to the film languishing on the shelf after filming in 2017, which is why T.J. Miller is present back when he still had a career), comes the blah-titled Underwater.

Starring a buzzcut Kristen Stewart as a mechanical engineer at a drilling installation at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, the deepest part of the ocean where these movies are invariably set, the movie gets going almost immediately with a literal bang as what feels like an earthquake triggers a catastrophic collapse of the station. She is barely able to close a bulkhead in time to prevent total disaster, but has to condemn a pair of random workers to an instant death as they raced to safety.

Along with another survivor who may as well be wearing a red shirt (Mamoudou Athie), they proceed through the wreckage to reach escape pods, meeting along the way a trapped worker (T.J. Miller, playing the T.J. Miller part he always plays), the Captain of the rig (Vincent Cassel), a biologist (Jessica Henwick) and her engineer boyfriend (John Gallagher, Jr.).

With all the escape pods gone, communications with the surface cut, and the rig's nuclear reactor damaged and 30 minutes away from overloading and exploding, they need to get the heck out of there. Cassel's plan is to get to the ocean floor, traverse a tunnel to a sub-station, then walk a mile in pitch dark to another drill site where they should find escape pods. Along the way, they discover Something Is Down Here With Us which adds an extra layer of tension because visibility is almost nil and thus your first clue that a monster is about to get you is a monster getting you.

There are two competing aspects to Underwater which simultaneously elevate it above B-movie level and also sink it. On the plus side, the production design of the film is excellent, especially the dive suits which look like something out of the StarCraft games. The various installation environments look legitimately industrial and used.

The visual effects are also believable. Unlike The Abyss, which was actually filmed underwater in an abandoned nuclear power plant cooling tower, Underwater was shot on soundstages with the actors in dive helmets without glass and everything rendered with CGI. Granted, it's murky water and darkness with a little cheating for lighting, but it looks good.

Director Williams Eubank maintains a heart-pounding sense of tension and menace, reinforced by a booming sound design that really gives your home theater subwoofer(s) something to work with. (Thus the dual when-to-see recommendations below.)

That said, all the surface excellence is in service of an overly familiar plot and tissue thin characters who barely rise above caricature due to the story's structure. The opening scene is Stewart brushing her teeth in a locker room while her narration refers to something someone told her that has no bearing on anything and we don't know who that person is/was to her. She rescues a Daddy Longlegs spider that's somehow down there and then BAM!!! the station implodes and we're off to the races.

I hadn't seen the trailer below before now and it's gives a misleading impression that we get to know the characters before the accident, like how we meet the crew of the Nostromo in Alien before they go down to the planet. In reality, the trailer clips together moments from the journey and our introductions. Because we're always on the move, there is no time to develop anyone minimally, much less adequately. With no connection to any of these people, when they get knocked off by monsters or misfortune, we don't care. The only question is whether the Big Movie Star On The Poster is going to survive or not?

It seems as if the movie may've originally been longer and got hacked down to a tight 90 minutes at the cost of all coherency. When we meet Stewart, she's wearing glasses, but they're damaged and she never wears them again and seems to suffer no ill effects. She repeatedly presses on her sternum as if in pain, but it's never explained why and never impacts anything. Cassel had a daughter who died young and seems confused about it, but that never matters.

In a couple of scenes, recorded announcements are heard explaining the locations as if tourists would be visiting, which makes no sense. An opening title gives the crew compliment as over 300 workers, but including dead bodies and the two killed in the opening, there are only 10 people in the entire movie, so why in the end were there so few survivors when all the pods were gone? There's an obligatory "Evil corporation meddling with nature unleashing unknown horrors" smack, but it's such a stock trope, it's meaningless. It's as if a deeper-than-needed story and characters may've existed, but were edited away to just the core action.

But these are all details that you notice after watching Underwater. During your viewing, you're too busy holding your breath to really notice how skeletal everything else is. If you've got a good sound system, are down for a quick-and-dirty heavy metal thriller, and wouldn't mind seeing K.Stew running around like this for a chunk of the movie because more clothes wouldn't fit under the suits...

...then Underwater is a taut, but shallow (considering the depth it's set) popcorn flick.

Score: 6/10. Rent it if you've got the sound system, otherwise catch it on cable.

"Mayhem" Review

I must've ignored the 2017 comedic horror flick Mayhem when it came out because it looked like a cheapie movie starring Steven Yeun, who'd recently been killed off on The Walking Dead. It popped back on my radar recently because it also starred Margot Robbie lookalike Samara Weaving of Ready or Not and Guns Akimbo. That it also had a rage-inducing virus a la 28 Days Later made it timely for the current Wuhan virus pandemic which has shut down the world at this time, so it was time to cherkitert.

During the exposition dump intro we're introduced to Yuen's world: A virus called ID-7 causes victims to get one massively bloodshot eye and causes their ids to take over, resulting in a breakdown of inhibitions leading to effects ranging from emotional outbursts to having sex in public to murder. Yuen, a rookie employee at a consulting firm discovered a loophole in the law which exempted people from responsibility for crimes they committed, getting the first ID-7 killer off on the technicality. This earned him a corner office, but he's become jaded and cynical. 

One day he has a meeting with a young woman (Weaving) who's begging for a couple months extension on her mortgage, which has been foreclosed. He brushes her off and calls security to have her bounced from the building.Shortly thereafter, he himself finds himself made the fall guy for a superior's screw-up and is fired. However, as he's being walked out through the lobby, SWAT team and CDC trucks are outside, sealing the building and threatening to shoot anyone who leaves. The ID-7 virus has been detected and an antidote has been released into the air vents, but it will be eight hours before everyone is cured.

What to do when you've lost your job and are trapped in a building with a horde of equally-infected office workers? The answer's in the title: Commit Mayhem! Yuen quickly discovers Weaving is still in the building and they team up to battle their way up the tower to get to the corporate board, to save her house, and get plenty of payback along the way.

The trailer's description of it being "a cross between Office Space and The Purge" is apt. While there are the obligatory cursory nods toward the evils of corporations and how one should avoid selling out to the system, but for the most part it packs what's advertised on the tin, plenty of over-the-top Grand Guignol ultraviolence with a comic edge. (Think The Evil Dead 2.) It's not a nature documentary; it's Mayhem.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable.

"Tell Me Who I Am" Review

The setup for the documentary Tell Me Who I Am is summarized in the trailer below: At age 18, English teen Alex Lewis was in a motorcycle accident where his helmet came off, allowing his head to impact the pavement, putting him into a coma. When he awoke, he had total amnesia other than recognizing his identical twin brother Marcus. He didn't remember his mother, father, their home, nothing.Over ensuing months, Marcus rebuilt Alex's memories, showing him photos which allowed him to weave together a new history of the life he lived.

But there are oddities gnawing at the edges. Why is so much of the house off-limits? Why did they sleep in a "garden shed" instead of the main house, a dark, sprawling hulk of a mansion? Why wouldn't Marcus forgive their father when he asked for it as he was about to die of cancer when the twins were in their mid-20s?

When their mother died five years after their father, they were finally able to go through the house and discover its secrets and what they found raised ever more questions about their childhood. A wardrobe in a bathroom was packed with sex toys. In the attic they discovered an entire childhood of wrapped birthday and Christmas presents given by godparents and family which never made it to them. And in the back of a closet was a locked chest which contained a photo of the brothers at about age 10, nude, with their heads cut off. This last item prompts Alex to ask Marcus if their mother ever sexually molested them, to which Marcus silently nodded and refused to discuss further.

(This isn't really a spoiler because no one make a documentary about a happy, well-balanced family where everything was fine. You know going in something happened; the only question is the specifics.)

Director Ed Perkins tells this twisted tale in three acts with the first two consisting of the brothers speaking directly into the camera from their perspectives - Alex about trying to reclaim his life and Marcus explaining why he tried to shield his tabula rasa brother from the horrors they'd endured. The third act is their facing off in person with Alex demanding to know what happened to them, no matter how horrible the facts. And they're pretty horrible, even more so than implied.

Without spoiling the final details, it's some pretty grueling stuff, but after the big revelation, I couldn't help wonder why they didn't name names and act to take down this circle of upper crust monsters? Their education isn't mentioned; did they not go to school where teaches could notice problems? The filmmakers also omits a couple of huge details, namely that the twins' father wasn't their biological father (who'd died shortly after their birth) and that their mother had another boy and girl with her second husband, the man they called father. There is not a hint of their existence in the film.

While I understand director Perkins desire to focus on the twins, he gives a false sense of isolation to their lives. If the brothers had no one around to intervene, that would be one thing, but with half-siblings and a man who raised them, but allowed his wife to do what she did to her sons, is much more troubling.

While it's interesting to be a voyeur to the damage sexual abuse can wreak upon people into middle age - the brothers were 54 when this was filmed - a far more useful and cathartic resolution would've been them joining forces to expose and destroy those who abused them and clearly many, many more children. In taking too close a look, they miss the bigger troubling picture.

Score: 7/10. Watch it on Netflix.

Oscars 2020 Livesnark

Another year, another wasted Sunday night as the Virtual Signalling Olympics for movie stars were a thing and I was on the case via my @DirkBelig Twitter account. Now for your dining and dancing pleasure here's what I had to say:
  • So does this Janelle Monae opening take care of all the issues and check the intersectionality boxes?
  • Why aren't Steve Martin and Chris Rock just hosting the ? This opening was probably this good because they would be one and done.
  • Brad Pitt finally wins an acting and takes a massive dump on the stage to whine about the Democrats' failed sham impeachment. Classless and unnecessary. He's a giant star and producer and doesn't need to virtue signal like this to get work. Weak. Gonna be a long night.
  • Toy Story Quatro wins Best Animated Feature at to the surprise of no one. The nominations freezing out Frozen II were as much as the Mouse could lose. How did Hair Love win when we were told no black people were nominated? Looks cute.
  • So every intro and every acceptance speech at the is going to be packed with Leftist politics and wokescolding? Going to be interesting to see how the ratings dive as the Deplorables tune out?
  • Why do I know that the Frozen II "Into The Unknown" medley with the global dubbing Elsas was assembled by the producers requesting photos of the other 44 and picking the 10 hottest?
  • Irony is the Best Original Screenplay being intro'ed with horrible banter for Annie Hall and Neo. Parasite wins. I liked it until the ending which was so bad that it nearly sank the entire film. Snowpiercer also had a bad ending. He's the Bong Joon-Ho is the Korean Alex Garland.
  • Kind of a shocker for Taika Waititi to win Best Adapted Screenplay for Jojo Rabbit. Figured Greta Gerwig would be an automatic after all the whining over her lack of Best Director nom. (Little Woman was OK, but her choice of randomizing the timeline was a bad choice.)
  • Too long a buildup to the point of the Maya Rudolph/Kristen Wiig bit. What production was designed for Once Upon A Time...? They dug out photos of Hollywood in 1969 and recreated it. Parasite created everything from scratch. (The whole slum street was on a soundstage.)
  • audience seems split between head-bobbing and utter confusion as to why Eminem is performing "Mom's Spaghetti", his Oscar-winning Best Song from 2002. Wait, what? It's been 17 years since it won?!?  
  • Best Sound Editing goes to Ford v Ferrari. Best Sound goes to 1917. For max irony, I muted their acceptance speeches. (Not really)  
  • YES! Roger Deakins gets his 2nd Best Cinematography . 1917 didn't need its one-shot gimmick, but Deakins made it work. The nighttime scene with the flares alone was worth it alone. A legend.
  • Ford v Ferrari wins Best Editing at . Worthy victory in a tough category this year. Parasite and Jojo Rabbit could've legitimately won. Parasite's cinematography was also excellent. If not for Deakins', it should've won.
  • First completely wrong winner at as 1917 wins Best Visual Effects over Avengers: Endgame or Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. This is the oldsters pissing on the "kiddie movies" like when Intersuckular won Best VFX. Boooooo!!!! Hilarious intro with the Cats victims.
  • And the rebound with the correct winner of Best Hair and Makeup for Bombshell. The way they gave John Lithgow the Churchill treatment (same makeup guy did Darkest Hour) and transformed Charlize Theron into Megan Kelly was amazeballs.
  • In the Least Surprising category victory, Best International Feature (formerly Best Foreign Language) goes to Parasite. This was the no-brainer bet other than pretty much all the acting categories.
  • Oh look, it's the bitter angry actress who claimed men were frightened of strong female characters with two well-liked actresses whose beloved characters are badass lust objects of those same men.[thinking emoji]
  • In response to "Jesus, Joaquin is actually going to shoot someone at the end of this isn’t he?"OK, so I'm not the only one who thought this was going to happen.
  • Appropriate that Rami Malek, who won an imitating a famous singer, hands the award to Renée Zellweger for imitating a famous singer. [roll eyes emoji] Why do actors who create fictional characters out of nothing keep rewarded impressions? Jeez, this speech is worse than Joker's.
  • What's the bigger shocker: That Parasite won Best Picture or that Jane Fonda wasn't the most obnoxious speechifier? I didn't love any of the nominated pictures this year. Many had serious script issues and its ending wrecked the film, but at least it failed the least.
  • After letting Joker and Judy ramble endlessly about nonsense, they cut the mic off for the Best Picture winners? So typical
  • Exit Thoughts: * The show was dull with very few surprises beyond the Parasite upsets.
    * The show was overloaded with obvious diversity & inclusion. While Hollyweird's rich white liberal guilt needed it, the ratings will probably show the Normals tuned out. 1/
  • So glad The Irishman got skunked on all noms. It was my least fave pic and its noms prevented 11 more deserving folks like Greta Gerwig, who didn't deserve her Lady Bird nom, but did well with Little Women, though the scrambled timeline was a fatal flaw. Still better than Marty
  • * Surprised Tarantino didn't win. I thought they might spread the wealth around and would've guessed he'd win for Once while 1917 won Best Pic.
    * After Janelle Monae's snappy opener & Steve Martin/Chris Rock, the show lost steam as wokeness and TDS took over. 3/
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