Greetings! Have you ever wondered if a movie's worth blowing the money on to see at the theater or what to add next to your NetFlix queue? Then you've come to the right place! Enjoy!

"Nefarious" Review

 Movies about demonic possession predate disco and are an evergreen topic because, prior to the society's current plunge into utter depravity, who doesn't want to see good triumph over evil? (Nowadays, too many people ask whether evil is really so bad?) "The Devil made me do it" is a well-worn phrase and also a stock trope where an innocent is possessed and used to commit evil deeds. But what if the demonic possessor wanted some credit for his puppeteering? That's the premise of the unique faith-based film Nefarious, which looks like one thing on the surface, but has something else on its mind.

Psychiatrist Dr. James Martin (Jordan Belfi, Entourage) has been summoned to an Oklahoma prison to evaluate whether condemned prisoner Edward Wayne Brady (Sean Patrick Flannery, The Boondock Saints) is competent to be executed. The previous shrink has jumped off his office building, so the case has passed to Martin who has to make his determination quickly as Brady is slated for execution that evening.

 After some chit-chat, the prisoner gets down to it: He's actually a demon named Nefarious and he used Brady as a puppet to commit murders, but now wants to be executed, presumably to move on to another host. (The rules aren't made clear.) He challenges Martin, telling him that by the end of the day he will commit three murders. This launches a battle of wits and will between the atheist doctor and the man who claims to be a demon and seems to have an outsized knowledge of the newly-arrived doc's life.

 What's different about Nefarious, the demon and movie, is that its theme isn't so much what will happen to the poor schlub that got possessed, but whether people are as enlightened and free as they've convinced themselves they are. Nefarious isn't a crossroads demon offering riches in return for souls; he's a prideful jerk who wants the meatbags to know that they've been Hell's bitches for a long long time and it's time to rub humanity's nose in it and he's literally written a book bragging about it that he wants Martin to publish.

 While Martin scoffs at Nefarious's "three murders" challenge, the way the film explicates the premise may be a problem for some viewers; if one believes life is only valuable when it's convenient or easy, then one will have difficulty with the assertions of the movie. Which is precisely the point. Society has become very comfortable with all sorts of horrible things that would've been unthinkable not that long ago, but this demolition of morality has been sold as freedom from pesky rules which sap the fun from the party. 

When Martin rattles off all the supposed progress society has made with the usual liberal pieties about being on the right side of history and holding the moral high ground, Nefarious fires back with how few high school graduates read at a sixth grade level, black athletes making fortunes then cry about racism, and how there are tens of millions of slaves in the world today that no one seems too bothered about.

 As a low-budget two-hander, Nefarious rides on the sturdy performances of Flannery and Belfi. Flannery's is the showier role as he oscillates between the personas of the arrogant Nefarious and his terrified meat puppet host Edward and while he almost leans too much on twitches and ticks, he doesn't make a cartoon of the demon. It's a well-modulated performance that gets the points across. 

But the more impressive performance is Belfi's because he's got an arc to navigate as he walks in disbelieving in many things and ends up gutted and haunted by what he's experienced. Instead of tritely having Martin end up racing to a church to offer his life in service of Jesus and living happily ever after, he ends up in a more ambiguously gray area and not looking particularly enthused about it.

Co-writers/directors Chuck Konzelman & Cary Solomon (God's Not Dead series, Unplanned) working from conservative talker Steve Deace's novel, A Nefarious Plot (which was structurally inspired by C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters), have crafted an uneven tale which wavers between moments of hard-hitting subtlety to preachy soapboxing little different from liberal movies where characters start spouting talking points from pamphlets. 

 On the subtle side, as in the novel, Nefarious refuses to call God or Jesus by name, referring to them as "the Enemy" and "the Carpenter" as his rage at God choosing to love mankind over the fallen rebellious angels simmers. His taunting of Martin's utilitarian view of life works at first - there's a great aside about how "hate speech" was something even the demons didn't think of - but egregiously the script sets up a major whammy of a beat for Martin halfway through the story which is never addressed again, even in the epilogue scene when you'd figure it'd come up. Why make such a big deal and then nevermind it? What purpose did it serve? Instead they handwave it away along with the dossier on Martin that appears near the end.

I haven't finished reading the source novel yet, but its format of a demon general of Hell boasting of how he'd engineered humanity's collapse was going to be a challenge to adapt - there are no movie adaptations of The Screwtape Letters either, though it has been mounted as a stage play - but the manner they transform it into a prequel to the novel dilutes things in an attempt to set up a Nefarious Cinematic Universe franchise. This really trips up the film in its third act as they dwell way too much on the run-up to the execution, introduce a plot device that makes no rational sense, and hinges the penultimate scene upon the presence of a gun in an area of the prison where cell phones wouldn't have been permitted. The final moment before the credits is eye-rollingly bad as they threaten future stories with the worst buddy duo ever.

 The response to Nefarious has sadly broken down along the usual tribal lines with those already sold on its unspoken message calling for revival wildly overpraising a well-intentioned and mostly successful film as deserving all the Oscars. Those fully committed to their lifestyles of nihilistic hedonism bashed it as a false flag operation, a film that sells itself as a demonic horror flick but is actually a "Jesus movie with Glenn Beck showing up" as an unhinged dogpile of a Reddit thread shrieked when it was in theaters.

While selling Nefarious as one thing to lure in those who really need to hear another perspective on how to live may've seemed clever in the planning, the box office told a different story, ironically because the usual faith-based film crowd were frightened off by its R-rating (despite having zero curse words, nudity or gore, though the execution scene was needlessly grisly; The Green Mile did it far more tastefully) when that same audience watches The Passion of the Christ (which makes Nefarious look like a Teletubbies episode) every Good Friday; and the heathen got wise to the bait and switch immediately because you mustn't allow your fellow sinners to have their consciences pricked, can you?

 Trying to point out sin to the sinners in hopes of their turning away from it is always an uphill fight because sin is fun. They aren't selling Heaven in the beer and perfume ads, are they? While the performances of Flannery and Belfi elevate the material to a higher plane, a lack of grace and clumsy plotting of the script prevent Nefarious from completely achieving its laudable goals. But when it's not misfiring, it's some riveting and provocative stuff and worth a watch.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable. (Currently only available for PVOD rental; purchases and physical media coming later)

"Extraction 2" 4K Review

One of the few above-average Netflix original productions was 2020's Extraction. Directed by former stuntman Sam Hargrave (who doubled Chris Evans' Captain America), he brought the same philosophy for shooting action as the John Wick series, eschewing shaky cam and edit fu for elaborately choreographed sequences filmed wide and long to show the performers actually executing the combat moves. 

The centerpiece of the otherwise forgettable story was a 14-minute-long oner (pronounced "one-ner"; an extended uninterrupted shot, sometimes pieced together from many separate takes masked by whip pans or other distractions) consisting of car chases and close-quarters combat through the streets of Bangladesh, much filmed by Hargrave himself, strapped to the front of chase vehicles, operating the camera.

The movie ended with a gravely-wounded Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) tumbling off a bridge into a river, presumably a watery grave, but a coda implied that he'd survived. Well, duh, considering Rake is back in action for Extraction 2 which opens with his fall into the river, his being recovered and flown to Dubai (why?) for a lengthy, against the odds, recovery which leaves him walking with a cane and an arm in a sling.

One day he comes home to the rural Austrian Alps cabin he'd been set up with to find Alcott (Idris Elba) waiting for him with a job to do. Rake protests that he's retired, but the job is from his ex-wife, Mia (Olga Kurylenko, who I didn't even recognize), and involves extracting her sister Ketevan Radiani (Tinatin Dalakishvili) and her children Sandro (Andro Japaridze) and Nina (Mariam & Marta Kovziashvili) from the prison in Georgia (the one by Russia, not the one by Florida) where they're being held with her husband, a Major Crime Kingpin whose brother continues to run things on the outside. 

So after a couple minute montage of training to fully recuperate, Rake heads off on the mission assisted by associates Nik Khan (Golshifteh Farahani) and her brother Yaz (Adam Bessa) from the first movie. What seems to be going smoothly rapidly goes off the rails for the dumbest reason leading to the aforementioned oner which begins in the bowels of the prison with mild hand-to-hand combat to a prison yard riot to a wild car chase ending up on a speeding train. While a sophisticated viewer will be able to discern where the seams are in wild ride - same as with the feature-length WWI gimmick movie 1917 - it's still an impressive feat and the centerpiece of the film.

Which is sort of the problem because while there are a couple of other major set pieces afterwards, the movie has blown the bulk of its load in the first hour. Afterwards, there's a lot of downtime for processing feelings and hating on the stupidity of Sandro. If you thought the kid from the first Extraction was a moron, you'll be screaming at your TV at the dumb things this dumb kid does which gets a lot of people killed in the process. Twerp.

 Screenwriter Joe Russo, who co-directed four massive Marvel movies including the final Avengers films is a good director, but based on his two Extraction scripts and the already-forgotten Netflix actioner The Gray Man, he's a mediocre writer. We don't need elaborate, sometimes too elaborate, mythologies like the John Wick series has developed, but to describe the non-action parts as inconsequential and skeletal almost implies too much heft to them. Most action flicks have borderline irrelevant plots which merely exist as a clothesline to hang the action from, but unfamiliar actors playing cartoonish people acting aggressively stupidly isn't great even by the low standards of the genre.

 Hemsworth is solid portraying the angst-ridden Rake as far as the material gives him something to act and Farahani needs to make more American films. But the real star is Hargraves who takes inspiration from fellow stuntmen turned directors Chad Stahelski (the John Wick series) and David Leitch (Deadpool 2, Bullet Train, Atomic Blonde) to reinvent and expand the style of action filmmaking, steering it away from the shaky cam/edit fu noise Paul Greengrass unleashed with the Bourne sequels back towards a form more related to old musicals and swashbuckler pictures.

While the stakes aren't as high due to Extraction 3 having already been ordered by Netflix and the story and characters are disposable, Extraction 2 is a respectable sugar fix of down and dirty action filmmaking without preaching or scolding.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on Netflix.

"Reality" Review

 The Max (formerly Hobo Max) Original movie Reality is an odd movie - a recreation of the serving of a FBI search warrant in 2017 on the unlikely-named Reality Winner, a former Air Force translator working for a national security contractor in Georgia. Sounds exciting, no? No, it's not. Based on the transcript of a recording by one of the agents, the big selling point is all the dialogue is directly taken from what was actually said. While this may imply added verisimilitude, in actuality it illustrates how "natural dialog" is wildly different from how people actually speak, which is banally.

 Sydney Sweeney (Euphoria, The White Lotus) stars as Winner, who arrives at her Augusta home to find a pair of FBI agents (March├ínt Davis and Josh Hamilton) waiting for her. After a lot of awkward, weird conversation about securing her dog and cat and whether she has any weapons (a pink AR-15 and a Glock), she's held outside as FBI agents toss her house looking for something. She seems oddly unconcerned, not demanding what the heck is this all about, but chatting emptily about her CrossFit training and hopes to deploy to Afghanistan to utilize her Pasto translation skills.

Eventually they go inside to a bleak unfurnished spare room with nothing but a dog crate in it, no furniture to sit on, where the purpose for the search finally comes into view: They know she accessed, printed and leaked a secret document to the press (its subject and who it was sent to is redacted, but we learn it's about Russian election interference in 2016 and was sent to The Intercept) and they gradually wear her down to admit that she did it, not to "be a Snowden" - referring to the notorious NSA who exposed the shenanigans US intelligence agencies were up to - but that she was angry about the Bad Orange Man being President, though she doesn't explicitly say that.

Ultimately, she is hauled away in handcuffs and the movie ends with cards explaining that she caught a five year sentence for violating the Espionage Act while all the "secrets" she was sent to slam for were eventually exposed to the public, the implication being that she was a martyr for truth while the Bad Orange Man was bad and orange and Putin's Puppet and ORANGE MAN BAD! 

The problem with this veiled thesis which is intended to give Trump Derangement Syndrone-afflicted audiences thrills down their legs is that a couple of weeks prior to its debut the Durham Report confirmed unequivocally that there was absolutely zero collusion between the Bad Orange Man and the Ruskies, the entire predicate for years of investigations and denunciations of the Bad Orange Man as a treasonous Russian asset was a lie funded by Hillary Clinton then weaponized by the highest levels of our government and law enforcement agencies to hamstring and ultimately overthrow a duly-elected President because the Deep State believes only Democrats are entitled to rule. (I only learned of this movie when seeing some liberal on Twitter soiling himself over how unfair it was for this noble #Resistance fighter to be jailed for a single document when the Bad Orange Man had stolen hundreds to sell to Russia and the Saudis, which are more lies these people tell themselves to cope with Hillary being a terrible candidate.)

 But setting aside the specious thesis of the film, Reality is weighed down by its core conceit of all the dialog being exactly what was said by Winner and the agents (Free Band Name!) because beyond being able to claim that nothing was invented for dramatic purpose, all it accomplishes is that real people talk in circles about nothing interesting. I guess it's of passing note that real FBI agents don't talk like they're portrayed on TV shows, but who cares? The mic drop moment of The Social Network was when Mark Zuckerberg snarls during a deposition, "If your clients had invented Facebook, they would've invented Facebook." Was that taken from an actual transcript or was it an invention of Aaron Sorkin, who won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, probably for that line alone? I don't know, probably the latter, but sometimes drama requires creative license. 

The other purpose of Reality is to provide Sweeney a showcase to alter her current sexy cherry bomb image garnered from her role as the always crying and naked Cassie on Euphoria or the super naked lead in Amazon Prime's The Voyeurs which has made her a Reddit fave. This is done by putting her in a shapeless large shirt and giving her a "no makeup" look, but she does fine with what isn't much of a role, limited to what is on the tape, conveying her reaction to finally getting hip to the fact the FBI already know the answers to their questions.

 Co-writer and director Tina Satter, who originally wrote a stage version of this transcript, does what she can to make the very banal happenings not put the audience to sleep. When redacted content in the transcript occurs, she visualizes it by the image glitching and the speaker vanishing. She also intercuts photos from the real Reality's social media and FBI photos to illustrate references which also blurs the line between fact and recreation, but other than reminding use that actresses are more attractive than normal people, they add little.

With little insights to provide for an crime which barely merits a footnote's asterisk in history and told in a fashion which makes it even less compelling when you know what really happened, Reality struggles to avoid reality, so it's not a winner, but a DNF.

Score: 4/10. Skip it.

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