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!

"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/

"I Lost My Body" Review

If you're familiar with The Addams Family - TV show or movie - you'll recall the disembodied hand, Thing, which popped out of a box on the TV show and ran around freely in the movies (with the performer's body digitally erased). Have you ever wondered where Thing came from and what a movie about him trying to cross Paris to reunite with his host body would be like? Me neither, but that could explain the plot of the artsy animated French movie I Lost My Body - winner of an award at Cannes 2019 and up for a Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2020 - as well as anything in the actual movie.

The hand belonged to Naoufel (voiced in the English dub by Dev Patel), an aimless young man whose parents were killed in an auto accident, which he survived, and is currently living in Paris with his distant uncle and mean cousin. He's delivering pizzas, frequently late, to the annoyance of his boss. One night he doesn't meet cute with with Gabrielle (Alia Shawkat) when he's unable to work the security door of her apartment to deliver her pizza, which had been mangled in a delivery mishap. With it raining outside, he hangs in the lobby, eating her pizza while talking with her through the intercom.

Obsessed by her voice, he proceeds to locate her work at a library and follows her to her woodworker uncle's (George Wendt) shop because that's not the least bit stalkerish at all. He begs the uncle to take him on as an apprentice, a gig which comes with a room above the shop, in order to be around when she comes to visit. She doesn't realize who he is, which surely won't backfire somewhere down the line.

Intercut between his shy attempts to impress this snarky girl and flashbacks to his childhood - with plenty of references to flies, an astronaut, and so many compositions featuring the hand which will eventually be disassociated from its host because they don't want you to miss the symbolism, get it? - we follow Thing the hand from one close scrap to another, fighting off animal predators and environmental threats as it tries to make its way back to Naoufel.

While it's a critical smash and clearly better people than this reviewer reveled in its "meaning" (Narrator: "Those people are high.") in online reviews, I Lost My Body left me cold, especially in its inconclusive ending. Maybe it's a French thing, but watching a dork mismanage his love life and then maim himself with improper shop safety skills isn't that edifying. While it has a mesmerizing pace (read: bordering on boring) and intriguing premise, it doesn't add up to much. If it had simply been Thing's Big Adventure it would've been an oddball movie half its length and twice as entertaining.

Score: 4/10. Skip it.

"1917" Review

The sales pitch and gimmick for Sam Mendes' WWI epic 1917 is very simple: Two British soldiers (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) are dispatched to warn a battalion preparing to launch an assault upon retreating German forces, but aerial photos have determined it's a trap sure to result in annihilation for them. The pair must cross No Man's Land and reach the force, which includes one of their brothers, by dawn tomorrow or all will be lost.

The gimmick? The entire movie is filmed to appear to be a single shot like was done with 2014's Best Picture Birdman. While there are tricks used to hide the cuts and a time jump, it's meant to feel like a real-time march across the hellscape of France during The Great War.

While co-writer/director Sam Mendes hypes the gimmick as being critical to the storytelling, it's not. No one watched Apocalypse Now or Saving Private Ryan and wished they got to spend all the time sailing/walking to the next action set piece listening to the characters have banal discussions to fill the time.

An unfair knock on the hurried plot of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker was to compare it to videogame fetch quests (i.e. go to a place, get a thing, use it to go the the next place and thing, rinse, repeat), but in reality 1917's structure is more like a videogame due to its one-shot conceit. I'm currently playing Gears 5 (of the Gears of War Xbox series) and since the player never leaves their avatar and sidekick as they guide them from battle to battle, fetch quest location and back, the intervening time is filled with the characters discussing what they're doing and how it relates to the overarching narrative.

The difference is that in the game, the dialog is painting a canvas detailing the plot and world beyond what you're doing; in the movie, it's just uninteresting chatter to keep it from being a silent film. Writing this now, I can't remember a single thing the soldiers said to each other or anything about them as people.

To contrast, in Pulp Fiction, our introduction to Jules and Vincent as they drove to the apartment was entirely superfluous. It's two gangsters on their way to do gangster stuff and could've begun with their knocking at the door, but instead we got to meet them and gain a feel for their personalities as they chatted about what a Quarter Pounder is called in France and foot massages. And we remember the so-quotable dialog a quarter-century later.

While the characters are ciphers and the gimmick is only necessary as a means to pump up the hype, 1917 is still a tremendous technical feat. The verisimilitude of the trenches and battlefields is impressive and Roger Deakins should win a second consecutive Oscar for his cinematography, if only for one sequence set at night, lit the glow of blazing buildings and glaring flares flying overhead. Mendes stages everything well and the tension is palpable when it needs to be.

But these are details that spark the filmmaking nerd in me, not elevate the tale told. It's like watching a band of wildly talented musicians playing the hell out of banal pop song. You can appreciate the chops on display, but when it's over, you can't hum the tune. There are far better movies about war - that reminds me, with the passing of Kirk Douglas, I really should open my Criterion Blu-ray of Paths of Glory and watch Kubrick's take on the Great War - which are told cinematically without the shackles of a neat, but unneeded, gimmick.

Score: 7/10. Rent the Blu-ray.

There's something really ironic about a trailer for a one-shot movie using EDITING to create excitement.

"Marriage Story" Review

A recurring issue I'm having with many of the most lauded films recently is how people are so enraptured by the spectacle of impressive acting or aesthetics that they don't seem to realize how deeply flawed the screenplays have been. A prime example was Joker where Joaquin Phoenix's all-in performance and the production's meticulous Scorsese's-New York-in-the-late-Seventies-early-Eighties production design and cinematography beguiled people into not noticing the extremely unreliable narrator storytelling left one questioning whether much of what we saw was even real and there's no way this guy could've been Batman's arch-nemesis.

This came to mind while considering my thoughts about Marriage Story, writer-director Noah Baumbach's semi-autobiographical film about a director and actress ending their marriage (he was married to Jennifer Jason Leigh before taking up with muse and current lauded actress-filmmaker Greta Gerwig) which is currently in contention for six Oscars including Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay and Score. While lavishly written and movingly performed, in the end it doesn't amount to anything meaningful and really should be honestly titled Divorce Story.

Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansson are Charlie and Nicole Barber, a couple living in New York City with their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson). He's a rising theater director and she's a former teen actress who has enjoyed career rehabilitation appearing in her productions, leading to a role in a TV pilot back in Los Angeles. The film opens with montages of each one listing what they love about the other, showing what appears to be a happy family only to ultimately reveal they're in a marriage mediator's office working through their separation.

She takes their son back to LA and stays with her mother (Julie Hagerty) while he works on preparing his show which is moving to Broadway. While they had discussed amicably splitting without involving lawyers, on a visit to LA she ambushes him with divorce papers prepared by a ruthless shark of an attorney, Nora (Laura Dern). Pushed into a corner, Charlie is forced to hire his own counsel, first meeting with a pricey shark (Ray Liotta), before settling on kindly, but elderly, Bert (Alan Alda).

As the process grinds on, Charlie slowly realizes how terribly the deck is stacked against him. Nicole was from LA, grew up and worked there, they had been married there, and being back with their son, working on a TV series, she's got all the home field advantages and his concept that they were a New York family and they'd be coming back takes a beating. However, as the legal beagles take over the case and start getting nasty on behalf of their clients, we can tell that the couple aren't happy that it's come to this. But while there are flare-ups, outbursts and a shouting match, they don't really seem to hate each other.

While Baumbach's script gives everyone plenty of meaty dialog and scenes to play and he elicits top-notch performances from everyone - Alda should've been nominated as well - I kept having the recurring thought, "What is the point of this?" I waited for some massive shoe to drop that Charlie was the villain, but other than being too focused on his theater company and having a fling with the stage manager after his wife had shut him out, there's nothing to deserve the treatment Nicole subjects him to.

She's selfish, self-centered, and conniving (as revealed when Charlie discovers, as he's frantically trying to secure a lawyer, that she's burned the top candidates by meeting with them first) and that makes her hard to root for as her only acceptable solution would've been for Charlie to sacrifice his career to relocate for her.

But unsympathetic characters aren't what undercuts Marriage Story for me, it's that none of them have much in the way of arcs; no one ends up much different in the end from where they start. We wait for some tangible rationale for their split, but it never comes. It seems they could've communicated better in their relationship and tried to get on the same page, but the overall impression is that while they may not have loved each other enough to stay married, they didn't dislike each other enough to spend the small fortune the divorce cost them to execute.

Frankly, if not for Henry, none of this movie would happen - she would've gone to LA, he would've stayed in NYC, they would've grown their careers, and the lawyers would've had to split up other couples for fun and profit. (Now I think the movie should've been entitled Half-Hearted Custody Battle.) The final beat of the movie, involving an untied shoelace, really shows how meaningless the previous two-plus hours of drama were.

The movie Marriage Story has been frequently compared to is 1979's five Oscar-winner Kramer vs. Kramer where selfish mother Meryl Streep abandons Dustin Hoffman and young son only to return over a year later to demand custody. That film was about a man trying to become Mr. Mom in a time where they didn't do the housework, but Charlie is portrayed as a great cook and attentive father. Steep is also the unmitigated heavy, while Nicole is just conceited like an actress would be.

While Half-Hearted Custody Battle Marriage Story doesn't add up to a sum greater than its parts, it's still worth a watch for the ace performances and, ironically, for Baumbach's script which almost gets away with camouflaging its general irrelevance by being so well-observed about the surface details overlaying its empty core.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on Netflix.

"6 Underground" Review

When the trailer dropped for 6 Underground the first question many people had was, "Michael Bay made a movie for NETFLIX?" How could all that shiny Bayhem fit on anything less than the megaplex's big screen? After watching it, my question is how could Bay, the writers of the Zombieland and Deadpool series, and Ryan Reynolds make such a muddled, tonally dissonant, unfun movie and burn a reported $150 million of Netflix's dollars in the process.

After an odd opening scene where Reynold's character is faking his death in a crash of the Red Bull racing plane (so much product placement in this movie), the opening sequence is a chaotic car chase set in Florence, Italy introducing Reynold's crew of numbered (no names) associates as they flee....something (it's not clear like most of this movie), some sort of mission gone wrong with one woman on the team shot and Reynolds holding an eyeball. Running nearly 20 minutes long, it feels like Bay watched Baby Driver and said, "Hold my beer, Edgar Wright."

It ends with their wheelman (Dave Franco) dead, so Reynold's One needs to find a Seven and that turns out to be a depressed former Delta Force sniper (Corey Hawkins) who wasn't allowed to take out a truck bomb in Afghanistan and his comrades were killed. One promises that he'll never make him hold his fire, so Seven fakes his death, witnesses his funeral at Arlington, and joins One's squad of colorful one-dimensional stereotypes.

One's backstory is that he was a prodigy who became a tech billionaire with powerful magnet tech, but maintained a low profile that a billionaire who looks like Ryan Reynolds can easily pull off. (Note: sarcasm.) In a flashback we see his impetus for the team's Big Mission: While doing a publicity visit at a refugee camp in (fictional Central Asian country) Turgistan where he planned to pose for photos appearing to care before cutting a fat check and splitting the scene, he narrowly survived a nerve gas attack by the local dictator. Outraged that the "civilized world" wasn't doing anything, he's faked his death and assembled the team to pull of a wildly complicated coup d'état scheme involving killing Turgistan's top generals then breaking the dictator's brother out of a luxury penthouse in Hong Kong he's detained in.

6 Underground's fatal structural problems emerge rapidly after the whiz-bang opening as we delve into One and Seven's backstories. They're simply too grimly realistic in contrast to the cartoony bloody mayhem before. Since anonymity is supposed to be the team's protective shield - "Invisibility is a Ghost's superpower," One lectures - hitman Three isn't supposed to be visiting his Alzheimer's stricken mother in the nursing home, but this humanizing transgression is followed by One threatening to kill him if he does it again.

Is he serious? It's hard to tell from Reynolds' performance, but that's the fault of the screenplay by Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese. The difference in quality between the first and second films of their Deadpool and Zombieland series was pretty stark, but that doesn't explain this mess. It's as if they had index cards with notes like "Tony Stark + Deadpool = One" and "bad dictator is bad" and "Hong Kong = China $$$" and they just put them in a pile with no concern about minor things like character, plot, logic, emotions, or anything much. The Bayhem™ will carry them. So we get typical Reynolds' snark which is starting to wear thin with repetition and a few hints at depth quickly glossed over by the filmmakers choice to be all frosting, little cake.

Because the tone whipsaws too much, the perfectly polished set pieces and locations just pass before the viewers glazed eyes. Bay movies are notorious for their rapid editing pace, but he always manages to make every fleeting frame shine like a million dollars. There will be soap bubbles floating in a background or the camera pushes past a couple sipping tea overlooking the car chase; details that took someone a lot of time to put in place and are completely superfluous. (I'm surprised it doesn't take years to shoot a Bay film, but this reportedly took just over four months.) If we could have cared just a little about what was going on

While pondering whether it would've been even possible to balance splashy comic action mayhem and a heavier subtext, I remembered Bay had done something similar with his second movie, the 1996 Nicolas Cage-Sean Connery vehicle The Rock which had as its inciting incident a rogue band of Marines stealing nerve gas weapons to blackmail the government into paying compensation to families of black ops warriors who died in action.

That's some heavy stuff and the actions the Marines take got pretty extreme, but the balance between that and Cage's post-Oscar peak-Nineties popcorn movie phase antics (he'd follow this with Con Air and Face/Off) and Connery's grumpy old spy held together. (The Rock was in the Criterion Collection!) 6 Underground doesn't even seem to know what it's trying to do, so it just turns everything up to 12 and calls it a day. (Speaking of which, if you want to use your home theater's subwoofers to help find loose and rattling paneling in your basement, this is the movie to provide the boom in your room.)

Netflix is in a transition period with its feature movie productions. The hit-to-miss ratio has been rather sketchy, but the past few years have seen notable quality improvements with multiple Oscar nominations and wins, culminating in a studio-leading 24 in this year's race led by The Irishman and Marriage Story. More and more big names are making films for them and a balanced diet of lofty artistic movies and popcorn munchers is to be expected. Unfortunately, 6 Underground is the unpopped kernel in the bottom of the bucket.

If you want a better military caper flick, try the flawed-but-OK Triple Country, also a Netflix Original.

Score: 2/10.Skip it and watch to this Sneaker Pimps' video instead. (Kelli Ali is pretty hot.)

"Ghosts of Sugar Land" Review

While scrolling around for something to watch, the missus and I decided to finally watch the Netflix documentary short Ghosts of Sugar Land due to its intriguing trailer and premise and because it was only 21 minutes long.

Sugar Land is a suburb of Houston where a black guy referred to as "Mark" hung out with a group of Muslim friends in high school. Since the area was predominantly white, Asian, and Hispanic, he was one of the few black kids in his high school. He would ask them about Islam and they'd teach him some prayers and advise him as best as they could. Eventually he would convert to Islam and rapidly became radical, culminating with him traveling to Turkey and going over the border into Syria to join ISIS.

Basically an oral history from his former cohort, the hook of this documentary, as stated by one participant, is that they don't have to wear masks for what THEY did, but because of what HE did, and to that end everyone wears superhero and videogame character masks and when photos of "Mark" and the speakers are shown, matching mask photos disguise them. It's a cute variation on the usual "interviewed in shadowy silhouette with voice pitch-shifted like Laurie Anderson" method of anonymizing interviewees.

Despite being shorter than a half-hour commercial television show, Ghosts of Sugar Land still feels too long and not particularly insightful. While the friends speculate as to whether "Mark" was an FBI mole, there's nothing to support this conjecture; it just feels better than acknowledging in a post-9/11 world that there are radical Muslims and it's not just "Islamophobia" raising concerns about radicalism. A postscript reveals news learned about "Mark" (including revealing his real name) after filming had been done, but his final fate isn't detailed.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on Netflix.

"Parasite" Review

Judging from the title alone, Parasite sounds like a horror movie and not a biting social commentary about economic classes. But in the hands of South Korean writer-director Bong Joon-Ho (Okja, Snowpiercer, The Host), it's a metaphor for the divide between rich and poor, but not in the way you'd think and in the end, it does turn somewhat into a horror film.

Since the cast is all foreign with unfamiliar actors and characters almost having the same surnames, I'm going to describe things thusly: The Kim family - a mother, father, son, and daughter - are poor and unemployed, living in a cramped semi-basement (meaning top of walls are windows at sidewalk level) flat, relying on neighbors Wi-Fi for Internet connectivity. The only work we see them do at first is folding pizza boxes for a local shop.

A friend of the son's visits one day with the gift of a large scholar's rock which is supposed to bring them wealth. While hanging out with the son, he suggests that the son take over the English tutor gig with a wealthy family's - the Parks - daughter because he's about to go abroad for school. The sister forges up some documents implying son has more credentials than he does and the wife of the family doesn't care because he seems good at teaching.

Noticing a child's drawing, son discovers there's a young boy in the family and he suggests hiring an art tutor, the cousin of a friend, but actually his sister. In rapid order, the entire family is working for the wealthy family after manipulating the employers into believing the driver is having sex in the boss's Mercedes and the housekeeper is hiding active tuberculosis. However, they are pretending to be unrelated; it's just coincidental that everyone seemed to know just the right replacement for the workers being booted.

One night, while the employer family is away on a camping trip, the Kim family are hanging in their employer's home, eating and drinking, living the high life when the former housekeeper arrives, begging to be let in because she forgot something in the basement in her rush when she was dismissed. The reluctantly let her in at which point the story takes a hard turn into bonkers terrain. To say more would spoil the surprises.

While Parasite has been lauded for its commentary on economic differences by critics anxious to foment class warfare to usher in the mythical Socialist Utopia they never stop pining for, I think they have blinkered themselves to the fact they don't wish to see: THE POOR PEOPLE ARE THE VILLAINS, NOT THE HEROES! 

The hints are right there in the beginning when the pizzeria notes their folded boxes are 25% defective, indicating they don't care to do quality work. (We have no explanation as to why they're poor in the first place.) Then in order to get the parents in on the scam, the kids frame two innocent employees and have them kicked to the curb. Should the rich couple have been suspicious? Sure, but that's not the point. Without spoiling the ending, it goes completely off the rails and jumps all the sharks because we're supposed to be sympathetic to a character's actions because someone else made a sour expression about a smelly person? Really? All the layered subtly of the movie to that point goes out the window and the ending where the son dreams of reuniting his family by working hard and earning success legitimately is the final irony Parasite's class war fans overlook.

While the story may not be as deep as some may perceive, it's presented in a visually stunning manner with detailed production design - the Kim's apartment (and entire street!) and the Park's house interiors were built on soundstages; the Park's exterior on a empty lot - and sumptuous cinematography. Bong's camera movements and editing are deliberate orchestrated and dynamic, providing a lustrous sheen and tactile griminess as needed. The cast is uniformly excellent with Park So-dam, the Kim daughter, standing out with her sly manipulative demeanor. (She's also cute.)

Already winner of the 2019 Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the first foreign ensemble winner from the Screen Actors Guild, it's currently nominated for six Oscars including Best Picture, Director, International Film (which it's a slam dunk to take home). While I may not seem as overly impressed by Parasite as the critical herds - I've found all of Bong's movies I've seen to be good, but not that good - it's still a good movie worth watching. Let's just not lose our heads over it.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable.  

"The Laundromat" Review

When the trailer dropped for The Laundromat it was hard to tell what the largest surprise was: That it was a Steven Soderbergh film made for Netflix, that it starred Gary Oldman, Meryl Streep, Antonio Banderas, Robert Patrick, David Schwimmer and more, or the crazy Dana Carvey-as-Hans (of SNL Hans and Franz fame) accent Oldman was working. Based on the Panama Papers, a scandal which exposed numerous celebrities and toppled several world leaders, The Laundromat attempts to explain the internecine and opaque world of off-shore shell corporations used for tax avoidance by the well-heeled and sometimes downright criminal element.

It opens with Meryl Streep and her husband (James Cromwell) setting off on a lake boat tour based on an actual accident when a rogue wave capsized the boat, killing 21 passengers. Presumably the tour operator's liability insurance would've covered the settlement, but due to a messy web of re-insurance companies and shell entities, it turns out there was no coverage.

Since her husband had provided sufficient life insurance to supplement the meager settlement, Streep plans to buy a Las Vegas condo overlooking the spot where she'd met her husband. But that is snatched away when the agent (Sharon Stone) informs her someone else had not only offered double the asking price, they wanted three adjoining units. Denied again, she begins to investigate how these Russians were able to swoop in and how the tour operator's insurance got so bollixed up.

The common factor is a Panamanian entity called Mossack Fonseca operated by Jürgen Mossack (Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Banderas), a mill which sets up shell corporations in various tax havens, utilizing "directors" who are merely secretaries or hired notaries of sketchy repute. The two serve as our narrators in some flashy visual sequences explaining concepts like money and credit.

If you're thinking this sounds like The Big Short, Adam McKay's 2015 film about the 2007-2008 financial crash which used celebrities like Anthony Bourdain, Margot Robbie, and Selena Gomez to explain arcane financial concepts in understandable terms, you'd be right, except Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who also wrote Soderbergh's Contagion, Side Effects, and The Informant!) fail to stay focused, ultimately leading to confusion and disinterest.

Instead of sticking to the relatable Streep character's quest, things go wildly astray in the 4th chapter, "Bribery 101", as we are introduced to a mega-wealthy African magnate (Nonso Anozie) living in Los Angeles whose college graduate daughter (Nikki Amuka-Bird), whom he's throwing a massive party for, catches him dallying with her roommate and best friend. In order to buy her silence, he offers her $20 million in bearer shares to a company he owns. When everything blows up with the family, she and her mother (who also got paid off by her husband) go to collect their money and discover their $20M corporations had less than $100 in the accounts. Where did the money evaporate to? We never find out.

The final chapter, "Make A Killing", is based on an actual poisoning of a businessman by a Chinese Communist Party honcho's wife involving bribes and shell companies and by this point I was thoroughly lost as to what was going on. After the last two segments, it was hard to remember what the point of this story was and what exactly Mossack Fonseca were doing and even whether they were swindlers or just enablers of these schemes.

The movie ends up on a soapbox railing against the fact that the bad part of these schemes isn't that they're illegal, but that they're LEGAL and how the politicians who instituted these laws must be pressured to change them which is adorably naive and silly especially when the movie gets very meta and mentions Soderbergh has five entities incorporated in Delaware and Burns one, a weird flex, but OK. (For all the hammering on Delaware, they conveniently leave out who the Senator from there whose cokehead loser son was given a position with the largest bank in the state while Daddy had legislation favorable to them before him.)

Despite a brisk pace, some amusing moments and good performances, The Laundromat feels like a much longer movie than its 96-minute running time would suggest. As it runs astray in its back half and loses the audience in a fog of poorly-explained concepts, it stops making sense. Why are we spending time with this rich family just to introduce the idea of bearer shares only to not explain why there were no assets left? What does the Chinese murder mean to Streep's widow? We don't know other than a vague "the system is rigged in favor of the rich at the expense of the poor" which is cheap and hypocritical bumper sticker philosophy coming from a writer-director team with a half-dozen tax dodge things between them. How about less lecture and more divestiture, fellas? Show us the way!

Score: 5/10. Skip it.

"You Might Be The Killer" Review

It's a frequent and legitimate complaint about how there doesn't seem to be any creativity in movies anymore; it's nothing by sequels, remakes/reboots, movies based on comic book/videogame franchises, etc. Looking at the top 25 grossing domestic box office films of 2019 at this writing, only FOUR aren't in the aforementioned categories: Jordan Peele's disappointing Us at #7; Elton John biopic Rocketman at #19; Yesterday (man wakes up in world where no one has heard of the Beatles and he exploits their songbook for profit) at #24; and cheapie horror movie Escape Room at #25.

What originality that seems to be out there seems to be coming from odd sources. Rather than books or magazine stories inspiring movies, social media posts have been snapped up by studios, though nothing appears to have come from them. A Reddit post musing on whether a Marine battalion transported back in time with their modern weaponry could topple the Roman Empire sold in 2011 and was never heard from again. Ryan Reynolds signed on to produce a horror movie based on another Reddit post, but it's early in the process.

An exception is You Might Be The Killer, a movie I'd never heard of until it popped up on my cheap movies app, but discovered was based on a funny Twitter thread (you may want to skip it since it's basically the whole plot) I'd actually read when it happened in 2017. Sci-fi writers Sam Sykes and Chuck Wendig had a deadpan back-and-forth where Sykes is asking for help about his job as a camp counselor and how everyone seems to be dying around him and Wendig trying to talk him through the situation and determine what's going on based on clues, ultimately realizing, Sykes may be the killer. It was hoot that took five minutes to read, but now it's been transformed into a 92-minute horror-comedy which has its moments, but is just too long for the concept to sustain.

Fran Kranz (the stoner from The Cabin in the Woods) is Sam the panicked summer camp owner and Alyson Hannigan (Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is Chuck (get the names?), the manager of a comic book shop, he frantically calls begging for advice on who's killing all his counselors. Since it's determined pretty early on that he's the killer - not a spoiler since it's the title! - the run time is padded out with flashbacks on how this came to be and how it turns out.

While there are a few laughs (e.g. the kill counter that starts with "LOTS") and a couple of decent bloody kills, there's simply not enough substance to the premise to draw it out to even a modest feature length. There's probably a concise 30-45 minute version of this story that'd work on an anthology series.

Kranz is good at conveying the freaked-out state of Sam and it's nice to see Willow Hannigan again, though all she does is play the horror movie rules expert from a Scream movie. The cast playing the counselors are all for the most part (literally) disposable randos with the exception of Brittany S. Hall who was Sam's former flame, but is best described as Supa-Hawt Black Girl Who Looks Like Young Angela Bassett Hubba Hubba.

While too long by at least a third, You Might Be The Killer is modestly entertaining, though if you read the linked Twitter thread, you've pretty much seen it all.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.(It's currently streaming on Shudder)

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