THIRTEEN LIVES (2022)

August 4, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It is 2018 and a group of boys have just finished soccer practice. After some motivational words from their coach, the boys start joking around with one of their teammates who has a birthday party slated for later that day.  Boys being boys, they decide to bike over the local cave for some pre-party exploring. Their coach tags along to keep an eye on them. All of that sounds innocent enough until we realize this is the Tham Luang cave, and they don’t realize Thailand’s monsoon season is about to arrive early and with full force.

The film is directed by Oscar winner Ron Howard, who is adept at mainstream storytelling as evidenced by APOLLO 13 (1994), A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001), and CINDERELLA MAN (2005). The script was penned by William Nicholson (GLADIATOR, 2000) and Don MacPherson (THE AVENGERS, 1998), and tells the all-too-true story of the daring rescue mission that most of recall following on news reports. When the boys were no-shows for the birthday party, parents and friends rushed to the cave to find the bicycles, but not the 12 boys and their coach. Immediately, rescue efforts began with Thai Navy SEALS rushing to the sight. Cave diving is a unique skill practiced by only a few, and is much different than the open water diving in which the SEALS excel.

British cave divers John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) are called in. Volanthen is the father of a son, and can’t help but empathize with what the parents must be going through, while Stanton is crusty old geezer who admits to not liking kids, while also understanding he’s one of the few on earth capable of making the necessary dive. Once the two men reach the stranded boys and coach, it becomes apparent that, as difficult and challenging it was to find the group, getting them out of the cave seems all but impossible. Death hung heavy over the operation of last resort, which included calling in Dr. Harry Harris (Joel Edgerton), a cave diving hobbyist, and more importantly, an anesthetist.

The diving scenes are expertly filmed by DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and underwater camera operator Tyrone Canning. The ever-present claustrophobia and risk of disaster underscores how courageous these men were. Director Howard offers up multiple perspectives: the government, the military, the divers, and the parents. We get very little from those trapped, but that adds to the tension. We get a feel for the entire operation as water is being pumped out of the cave, a water expert and volunteers frantically divert new rainwater into the rice fields, and political maneuvering occurs as the outgoing Governor (Sahajak Boonthankakit) is being set up as fall guy in case the efforts fail.

So many elements could have caused failure – low oxygen levels in the cave, a brisk current of water making diving more difficult, and obviously too much rainwater entering the cave would endanger the boys and the divers. The rescue mission lasted more than two weeks. It’s a disaster movie based on a real event, and follows up the excellent 2021 documentary, THE RESCUE. Evidently the dramatization is for those who don’t watch or have access to documentaries, and as strong as Howard’s movie is, there is simply no way for it to eclipse the documentary or what occurred in real time. At its best, the film offers tension and a reminder of what can be accomplished with collaboration.

Available on PRIME VIDEO beginning August 5, 2022

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BULLET TRAIN (2022)

August 3, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. If you are one that still needs proof that movie stars matter, this latest from director David Leitch (a former stuntman who also directed ATOMIC BLONDE, 2017) and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz (adapted from Kotaro Isaka’s 2010 novel, “Maria Beetle”) may be submitted as evidence. Replace Brad Pitt with almost any other actor, and this one becomes borderline unwatchable. However, with the Oscar winner, there is sufficient charm, humor, and entertainment to keep us around for the more than two hour run time.

Mr. Pitt stars as Ladybug, a floppy bucket hat wearing last minute fill-in for an assassin who called in sick. His handler (voiced by Oscar winner Sandra Bullock) walks him through what is supposed to be a simple snatch and grab job involving a briefcase. Of course, it turns out to be anything but simple as the train is filled with what seems to be an endless stream of contract killers intent on securing the same briefcase. Among those are Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry). Mr. Taylor-Johnson continues his tradition of over-acting and lacking the charm he believes he has, while Mr. Henry’s obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine at least gives his character a reason for us to be annoyed. The two are referred to as British brothers or even ‘twins’, which gives you some idea of what the film wants you to buy as humor.

A slew of other characters include Joey King as Prince, the “Shibumi” reading type who pushes a kid off a roof, and then uses her skill of crying-on-demand to escape most danger; Andrew Koji as Kimura, that kid’s distraught father; Hiroyuki Sanada as Kimura’s father; Zazie Beetz as The Hornet; rapper Bad Bunny as Wolf; Logan Lerman as the son of a Russian gangster, and Lerman spends much of the movie auditioning for the title character in “Weekend at Bernie’s”; and Michael Shannon as said Russian gangster, White Death. Beyond all of these highly recognizable folks, we also get two very high-profile cameos, both used for comic effect.

In between the one-minute stops on the trip from Tokyo to Kyoto, there is an abundance of fighting – comical, rapidly-paced, and violent – using such available props as the features on a smart toilet, knives, guns, swords, poison, bombs, and a venomous (incorrectly labeled as poisonous in the movie) Boomslang snake. Since most of the action takes place on the train, we get action in passenger cars, the galley, the lounge, the control booth, and even on top of the speeding train.

It’s Pitt’s character who keeps us interested, and the movie drags when he is off screen. Ladybug is a skilled improvisational fighter, although his recent personal growth through therapy has him eschewing guns, dwelling on his inherent bad luck, and reciting affirmations and wisdoms, when he can remember them. Mostly, by golly, he just wants to be a nicer person (quite a short trip for a contract killer). This chaos and spontaneous convention of bad players were all part of White Death’s plan, which is revealed late in the film.

It appears director Leitch (a former renowned stuntman) worked diligently to create a new form of zany by blending Guy Ritchie’s best work with Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” films, and then adding a dash of ‘who-done-what-to-whom?” Instead, with the near slapstick action and goofy dialogue, it plays more like a modern day CANNONBALL RUN, which was also directed by a former stuntman (the legendary Hal Needham). As a bonus, we also get the Japanese version of “Stayin’ Alive”, replete with Brad Pitt strutting through Tokyo in tennis shoes.

Opens in theaters on August 5, 2022

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RESURRECTION (2022)

July 28, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. You never want to be the ex-partner who causes a panic attack for another person … especially after 22 years apart. Writer-director Andrew Semans puts a face to whatever you call the opposite of a dream partner or role model by casting Tim Roth as David Moore. However, before we first glimpse Roth’s David, we meet Margaret (Rebecca Hall), a woman who seems to have seized control over every part of her life. Her apartment is immaculate. Her business attire classy. Her glass-paned manager’s office efficient. Her married-co-worker-with-benefits at her beck and call. Her speedy runs through town keep her focused and fit. Her about-to-turn 18-year-old daughter is prepped for college. Yep, every aspect of Margaret’s life is under control.

Most of us know what happens when we are arrogant enough to believe we are in control – life usually slaps us with a dose of reality. For Margaret, the hints are there. A tooth found in her daughter’s wallet. A bike ride gone wrong. A glimpse across the room at a seminar. Another at the shopping mall. And finally, a confrontation in the park. This is how, after 22 years, David drops back into her life – a stalker creating turmoil, doubt, and anxiety. By this point, we’ve seen Margaret doling out advice to young intern Gwyn (Angela Wong Carbone) on how to handle a manipulative boyfriend – one she deems sadistic. Margaret appears strong and is counseling Gwyn on how to be strong and find someone worthy of her love. It’s this conversation, along with how Margaret hovers over her daughter Abbie (Grace Kaufman), that tells us Margaret has a past that’s not as perfect as her present.

Margaret’s backstory is told via a single-shot extended monologue where she recounts her relationship with David. It’s a stunning bit of acting by Ms. Hall, and filmmaking that not only explains the emotional baggage weighing down Margaret, but also makes her relatable. The moment is so taut with emotion that it ends with a kinda-sorta punchline from Gwyn. The first two acts build tension and hint at the bizarre nature of the long-ago David/Margaret relationship, and the “kindnesses” (twisted shows of loyalty and devotion) involved, but we simply can’t prepare ourselves for the ‘off-the-rails’ occurrences in the final act.

Wyatt Garfield’s cinematography and the muted colors of every scene and set, enhance the feeling of suspense and pending trauma. The film provides an excellent example of the long-reaching impact of mind-control, gaslighting, and sadistic manipulation as one person tries to control another. Since Margaret refuses to come clean with her daughter, Abbie is convinced her heading off to college is causing her mother’s breakdown. Instead, the psycho-thriller goes much deeper in showing just how Margaret’s vulnerability at a young age has stuck with her more than two decades later, and no amount of Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman” can break the spell … it requires action to stifle a diabolical jerk like David.

Ms. Hall is outstanding and believable in the role, and without her performance, the story would seem like a parody of the genre. She has quite a career of playing the victim, which seems to come naturally to her, as she’s proved in such films as CHRISTINE (2016). Mr. Roth is a multi-talented actor and doesn’t shy away from becoming a despicable face of evil. Both are ‘all-in’ for these characters, as is Grace Kaufman, who has worked consistently as an actor since the age of nine, mostly in TV roles. While I’m not a huge fan of the third act or the ending, there is plenty here to admire.

Opens in theaters on July 29, 2022

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NOPE (2022)

July 20, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. With his first two films, GET OUT (2017) and US (2019), writer-director-producer Jordan Peele already has an Oscar and has firmly established himself as one of the most innovative and visionary filmmakers working today. He has entered the revered class of directors whose new films are automatically ‘must see’. This is in spite of our knowing full well that he doesn’t strive for mass accessibility, and typically seems less focused on character development and more focused on what’s happening to those characters and how they react. Mr. Peele’s latest is a unique blend of Science Fiction, Horror, and Comedy, with a dose of horses, UFOs, and box store employees. At its core, the film is about chasing the spectacle of a spectacle, so that one might also become a spectacle.

A cold opening is a bit of ‘found footage’ from a horrific event on the set of a TV show featuring a chimp named Gordy. We have no idea how this fits in to what we are about to watch, but it’s shocking and disturbing. We then shift to find Otis Haywood Sr (Keith David) working the horses on a ranch with his son, OJ Jr (Oscar winner Daniel Kaluuya, JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH, 2021). Dad founded the Haywood Hollywood Ranch to train and handle horses for the entertainment industry – movies, TV shows, advertisements. A mysterious death means OJ Jr and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer, AKEELAH AND THE BEE, 2006) must take over running the ranch; however, a hilarious scene on set highlights the differences between big brother and little sister. OJ understands horses, but is laconic and reserved. Emerald is hungry for personal fame and is bursting with energy and dreams. She has little use for the ranch, while OJ is devoted to carrying on dad’s work – knowing he needs Emerald’s personality.

The suspense is turned up to 11 when strange things begin happening on the ranch and in the sky. OJ (his name is a running gag) and Emerald recognize this is their opportunity to cash in by securing photographic evidence of UFO (or UAP) and alien activity. Joining in on the mission is Angel (a terrific Brandon Perea), a tech nerd from Fry’s Electronics. The trio is joined later by renowned cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott using a Tom Waits voice), who understands the importance of capturing what OJ and Emerald call “the Oprah shot”. Obviously, this is Peele’s commentary on how folks today long for their chance to shine in the spotlight – and capitalize monetarily on the moment. Also recognizing this shot at fame is Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), the owner of a local western-themed amusement park. Jupe is a former child actor whose career included “Kid Sheriff” and a role in the sitcom featured in the opening sequence with Gordy the chimp. He has tapped into the skyward activities, but longs for more.

Purposefully vague is my approach in writing about this, as director Peele and cinematographer extraordinaire, Hoyte Van Hoytema (frequent collaborator with Christopher Nolan) serve up some incredible visuals and high-suspense sequences, and it’s best if you know as little as possible going in. It’s easy to spot influences of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), “The Twilight Zone”, and other Sci-Fi classics, as well as directors Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock. In a tip of the cap to film history, Peele ties in the early moving picture work of Eadweard Muybridge and his 1878 clip, “The Horse in Motion.” It’s a brilliant touch that cinephiles will appreciate.

Supporting work comes from Donna Mills, Oz Perkins, Eddie Jemison, and Terry Notary as Gordy the Chimp, but it’s the chemistry between Kaluuya and Palmer that make a relatively thin story succeed as commentary on society. Peele even gets in a few pot shots at the media (TMZ) and the oversaturation of celebrity. The desolate setting of the hills and valleys outside of Los Angeles make for a perfect setting, as does the contrasting use of daytime and nighttime for certain shots. Peele proves yet again that he has a real feel for serving up commentary disguised as tension, or is it tension doused with commentary? Either way, I’m lining up now for his next film, whatever that may be.

Opening in theaters July 22, 2022

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THE GRAY MAN (2022)

July 15, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. You’ve likely heard, and maybe used, the old adage, “everything but the kitchen sink.” It’s typically meant to emphasize the inclusion of many unrelated and often unnecessary elements into a conversation or event. It also provides a description of the strategy filmmaking brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo have taken with the action sequences in the highest budget Netflix original movie to date. Of course the Russo brothers have directed numerous Marvel movies, including AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), so subtlety is never anticipated in their films. If you are curious to know what kind of kitchen sink you get for $200 million, Anthony and Joe show us: lots of guns, a global trek to various countries, more big guns, plenty of characters – some relevant, some not, even larger guns and weapons, lots of rayon, and the destruction of a town square in Prague.

Fans of turbo-charged action films such as the John Wick and Jason Bourne films will likely be quite satisfied with the set pieces, stunts, and manic gun fights and fist fights that are packed into a two-hour run time. There is so much bouncing around the globe that it’s kind of difficult to keep up – especially since there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for all of the globetrotting (well, other than it’s pretty unusual). I couldn’t keep track of every locale, but we definitely visited Bangkok, Austria, Croatia, and Czechoslovakia. And that’s beyond Washington, D.C., and Langley, where we spend time in dark offices.

Co-director Joe Russo co-wrote the screenplay with frequent Russo Brothers collaborators Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and it was adapted from Mark Greany’s novel (the first in a series). Ryan Gosling stars as Court Gentry, codename Sierra Six, a CIA black ops hit man recruited directly from prison by veteran CIA agent Donald Fitzroy (Oscar winner Billy Bob Thornton). This is Gosling’s first movie in 4 years (FIRST MAN, 2018) and it’s nice to have him back in a role that will recertify his ‘man card’ before next year’s BARBIE movie. As you might expect, Gosling’s Six is cool as a cucumber, popping off quips, and stoic in the face of adversity. In fact, much is made of his character’s ‘street cred’, despite most every scene involving colossal mistakes, should-be death encounters, and enough mayhem to make Allstate jealous. Six is so cool that he has less reaction to being shot or stabbed than I have when I stub my toe on the leg of the bed.

When Six’s mission goes awry due to his human compassion, three things happen. First, Agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) bails him out (the first of a few). Second, his target gives him advice and the always mysterious thumb drive with incriminating evidence; and third, his corrupt station chief, Denny Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page, “Bridgerton”) throws a tantrum and hires a psychopath to track down Six and eliminate him. The psychopath is Lloyd Hansen played by Chris Evans, sporting an evil mustache and resort casual attire. It seems Mr. Evans is having fun with the villainous role that he hopes will put distance between his career and the Captain America role he has embodied for more than a decade. The argument could be made that he overplays his hand here, but he does get to spout the already infamous line, “If you want to make an omelet, you gotta kill some people”.

Other players here include the always terrific Alfre Woodard as a former station chief, Jessica Henwick (Bugs from THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS), Dhanush as yet another hired assassin, Shea Whigham in flashbacks, and Julia Butters as the ‘damsel in distress’. You might recall Ms. Butters’ scene-stealing turn as the precocious child actor in Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD. This film’s title is derived from the term for a CIA operative who effectively moves around without being noticed or remembered (the opposite of a Kardashian). The ironic thing is that Gosling’s Six is almost never undetected. He is frequently in fights, shootouts, car chases, and either causing or escaping explosions. Even the Russo’s “gray” lacks subtlety! It makes perfect sense that the film’s cinematographer, Stephen F Windon, is best known for his work on multiple entries in “The Fast and the Furious” franchise. Here he employs some supersonic drone shots in order to add further hyper-activity to the proceedings. Again, this one is for extreme action fans, not those looking for a brainy spy-thriller.

Opens in theaters on July 15, 2022 and on Netflix beginning July 22, 2022

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SHE WILL (2022)

July 14, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Coming from the IFC Midnight stable, this first feature film from writer-director Charlotte Colbert and co-writer Kitty Percy, may be judged as a thriller or horror, depending on one’s perspective. By creating an ominous atmosphere, the movie highlights how certain events can grab hold and remain with us, often buried deeply, for our entire life. We don’t always know how these memories will manifest or how or when we deal with them, but if the scars remain, a reckoning likely follows.

Alice Krige is perfectly cast as Veronica, an aging movie star. She’s coming off a double mastectomy and is expressing more than a touch of grumpiness towards her much younger nurse Desi, played well by relative newcomer Kota Eberhardt. Veronica has booked an extended stay for rehabilitation at an isolated countryside manor, and though she and Desi have a private cabin on the grounds, Veronica is quite miffed that there are other guests in the main house … with odd therapy sessions led by Tirador (played by an almost unrecognizable Rupert Everett).

Almost immediately, strange things begin to occur and much of it is related to the earth and ground. The mud seems to have supernatural effects on Veronica’s visions and dreams. This is explained as healing power due to the heavy presence of ashes from witches burned at the stake many years prior. The memories of a traumatic event return to Veronica. She was a child actor in a film by the legendary Hathbourne (the always great Malcolm McDowell), and now he is re-casting for a remake of that film. So as Veronica faces her perceived loss of femininity at the edge of scalpel, she’s also dealing with fears of aging as the same filmmaker recreates a project she is now too old for.

Symbolism is entrenched in the film, and the approach to Veronica’s revenge on Hathbourne is handled through mysticism that can’t easily be explained … though it’s a welcome new approach to the #metoo movement. One of my favorite aspects of the film is how the initial gulf between Veronica and Desi gradually changes as the two generations of women bond over their strength. Italian ‘Master of Horror’ Dario Argento is a producer on the film, and though we don’t know what input he had, it’s quite a compliment to Ms. Colbert to state her debut film deserves to be mentioned alongside his.

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THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022)

July 5, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. With a steady stream of Marvel movies and TV serials, maintaining coherent and connected storylines has become challenging. In fact, it’s probably best if fans take these at face value, rather struggling to connect the dots, only to end up frustrated. Perhaps no one understands this better than Taika Waititi, the director behind what many (including me) consider the best MCU film, THOR: RAGNAROK (2017). Waititi and co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson once again embrace the blend of quick quip comedy and expected action sequences, supplemented this time a love story.

The pre-opening credits sequence provides the backstory for the film’s villain, Gorr the God Butcher, played by Oscar winner Christian Bale. Gorr has spent a lifetime worshipping the Sun God, only to realize his worshipping has occurred in an actual God-forsaken world that costs him dearly. Gorr ends up learning the lesson of ‘never meet your heroes’, and this confrontation gives him the power and curse of the Necrosword, and sets him on a revenge mission to kill all Gods. We have to respect a villain who has a legitimate claim to his mission – it’s not just a thirst for world domination. Gorr wants the Gods to pay for their ambivalence.

We then pick up Thor Odinson (Chris Hemsworth) as he has been fighting with the Guardians of the Galaxy since the end of AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019). With no shortage of characters who excel in comedy, this sequence shifts us into laughter and light-hearted mode after the bleak Gorr opening. It’s this pacing that holds for most of the movie … Waititi never lets things stay too serious for very long. Soon, Thor splits off from the Guardians, as he returns to New Asgard, being run by King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). Now based on Earth, New Asgard is a theme park and tourist attraction. One of the features is the theater acting group we’ve seen previously, and this time Matt Damon, Luke Hemsworth, and Sam Neill are joined by Melissa McCarthy as Hela. While this is going on, we learn Thor’s old flame, astrophysicist Jane Foster (Oscar winner Natalie Portman) is now an author being treated for Stage 4 cancer. A trip to New Asgard provides her strength as the shattered Mjolnir hammer magically re-forms in her presence. Jane’s story boils down to whether she wants to try to extend her life through science or live every remaining day to it’s fullest.

Gorr kidnaps the Asgardian kids, forcing Thor, Valkyrie, Korg (voiced again by Waititi), and Mighty Thor/Jane Foster to track him to the Realm of Shadows. Their plan is to stop by Omnipotence City to request assistance from the almighty Zeus (Russell Crowe). They are shocked to discover that Zeus is little more than a colorful televangelist with a Borat accent performing a whiz-bang show so that he can get on to the next orgy. Zeus refuses to assist with an army, but he does manage to chain Thor and strip him nekkid centerstage. The good guys nab Zeus’ golden lightning bolt and head off to rescue the kids and confront Gorr.

In a reverse Wizard of Oz twist, the films turns to Black & White when they reach the Realm of Shadows. It’s an eerie environment befitting Gorr. Bale is certainly at his best when he is terrifying and menacing, although the writing is a bit inconsistent for the character, and sometimes it drifts into Pennywise mode, a definite drop in suspense. The action sequences are fine, but really nothing we haven’t seen before. And that’s probably the biggest issue with all superhero/comic book stories these days. Anything new must come from the story or the characters, and we know the characters far too well at this point.

Waititi’s version delivers many laughs throughout. Among the best is the odd relationship between Thor and his hammer Mjolnir and his axe Stormbreaker. Thor’s jealousy of his ex-hammer hooking up with his ex-girlfriend is almost as funny as Stormbreaker’s jealousy of Thor trying to steal back the hammer. Also cool is Thor’s homage to Jean-Claude Van Damme, and the look of the Altar of Eternity, where one last wish is granted. Maybe not as effective is the apparent Guns ‘n Roses fetish or Jane’s struggle to come up with a catchphrase. Sure to be a divisive element is the recurring gag of bleating goats … I found them hilarious, but many won’t. Another piece that simply didn’t work for me is Ms. Portman’s performance, especially in the scenes with Hemsworth. Her comic timing can’t match his, and it’s a match that just never clicks.

Obviously, the characters originated from the minds of Stan Lee and Jason Aaron in Marvel Comics, and it’s Taika Waititi who brings his unique touch to the project. Since he directed THOR: RAGNAROK, he won a screenplay Oscar for JOJO RABBIT (2019), and I’ve been a fan of his style dating back to EAGLE VS SHARK (2007), and on to the brilliant HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (2016), and TV series “What We Do in the Shadows”. Waititi is scheduled to direct a Star Wars movie in the near future – one surely to be divisive among that fan base. As for this latest Thor movie, it may be tonally jagged and have a few too many zippy quips for some, but it manages to be silly and tender and emotional, while having the look and feel of a comic book come to life. Stay for the two end-credit scenes.

Opening in theaters on July 8, 2022 (Thorsday)

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SPIDERHEAD (2022)

June 16, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. “We are changing the world!” These days, those words tend to be more chilling than hopeful. More cautionary than exciting. Spoken a few times by scientist Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), those words have long ago lost the intended impact with his assistant Mark (Mark Paguio).

Steve is the warden of a high-tech experimental prison where the convicts have agreed to participate in drug studies in exchange for a relaxed/comfortable environment and the hope of early release. In fact, these folks are guinea pigs for mind-altering drugs controlled through a surgically attached mechanism on their lower back. We recognize that Steve is smart because he wears wire-rimmed glasses, and we recognize his villainous intent because of his smarmy nature and impossible to trust false charm.

Much of the focus here is on Jeff (the very talented Miles Teller) who is serving time due to his responsibility in a tragic car accident. Steve tests each of the drugs on Jeff, and each test requires Jeff to “acknowledge” his consent … as if it’s his choice to see what happens with the next round of mind-bending. The drugs have hilariously descriptive names: “Verbaluce” forces one to speak their mind, “Phobica” causes paranoia and fear, “Laffodil” generates uncontrollable laughter, and “Luvactin” … well, you get the idea.

Beyond the drugs, Jeff finds a soulmate in Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) and ultimately, Steve pits the two against each other in order to elevate the drug testing and human behavior to extreme levels. The film carries a science fiction label, but mind-altering drugs are as much a part of the past and present as they are the future. Any promise shown in the early stages of the film have long evaporated by the insipid final act that pits Jeff and Lizzy against Steve and the other convicts.

The basis for the film is a George Saunders short story originally published in The New Yorker entitled, “Escape from Spiderhead”. It has been adapted for the screen by DEADPOOL and ZOMBIELAND co-writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Unfortunately, the wit and cleverness of those two films is never flashed here … except for the use of Thomas Dolby’s song, “She Blinded Me with Science.” Other late 70’s and 80’s songs provide only cringing, as they weren’t even that enjoyable at their peak. The director of this film, Joseph Kosinski, is riding high right now with his “other” film currently setting box office records. Perhaps you’ve heard of it: TOP GUN: MAVERICK. It’s unusual for a director to have two films out simultaneously, but the pandemic has caused quite a few oddities. I will “acknowledge” that the execution of this story is quite disappointing.

Releases globally on Netflix beginning June 17, 2022

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JURASSIC WORLD DOMINION (2022)

June 8, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been almost 30 years since Steve Spielberg captivated us, and John Hammond (the late Sir Richard Attenborough) “spared no expense” in stunning Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) with our first look at dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK (1993). Best-selling author Michael Crichton’s original characters and ideas have since spun off into THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK (1997), JURASSIC PARK III (2001), JURASSIC WORLD (2015), and JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM (2018). We now have this latest franchise entry to cap off the second dinosaur trilogy, and it finds director Colin Trevorrow back at the helm. He also wrote the story and screenplay with Derek Connolly and Emily Carmichael.

The big news here (other than the dinosaurs) is the 4-doctor reunion of Dr. Alan Grant (Neill), Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), and Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong). It’s the first time all of these characters have reunited since the original, and those of us who hold a special place in our movie heart for the transformative 1993 film, are most appreciative of the nostalgic touch. However, the hopes for a magical finale to conclude the franchise are dashed in the film’s opening segment … a cringe-worthy “news” report designed to catch us up four years after the destruction of Isla Numbar, and set the stage for what’s to come.

You might assume that dinosaurs roaming our planet would be the headliner, but somehow locusts get the nod. Well, they are genetically modified locusts threatening the world’s non-Biosyn food supply. See, Biosyn is the evil corporation run by twitchy CEO Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott) that is attempting to control dinosaurs, the food supply, and even human cloning via DNA manipulation. It’s that last part that brings Maisie Lockwood (an excellent Isabella Sermon) into the fold, and the DNA-mix also provides an easy punchline to Trevorrow’s approach to this final film (blending DNA from the two trilogies). Maisie has been living deep in the Sierra Nevada forest with Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). When poachers nab both the offspring of Owen’s favorite raptor and his quasi-offspring Maisie, the hunt is on. The only question remaining is how are they going to finesse this so that the old crew (Grant and Ellie) collides with the new crew (Owen and Claire)?

A stop in Malta to confront smuggler Santos (an impeccably dressed Dichen Lachman) results in the film’s most frenetic action sequence. As Owen eludes trained killer-raptors while zipping his motorcycle across streets, alleys, and stairwells, Claire is sprinting (not in high heels) across rooftops like she’s Jason Bourne or James Bond. While Owen and Claire deliver the heart-pounding action, Ellie has tracked down Grant on a dig in New Mexico, where he’s “educating” a group of teenagers who remain glued to their mobile devices. Ellie convinces Grant to help in her mission to expose Biosyn, but we get the feeling he’s making the trip for her, not to save humanity. With an assist from ice-cold pilot-for-hire Kayla Watts (DeWanda Wise), everyone ends in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains at Biosyn’s stunning headquarters. Slowly the connections become apparent, as it’s Malcolm (Goldblum) who is the resident philosopher (all evil corps need one), and the one who has been feeding intel to Ellie.

The rest of the movie exists so that all of these characters, along with Biosyn whistleblower Ramsay (Mamoudou Athie) can get in and out of trouble and dodge various stages of peril. The callbacks and nods to previous ‘Jurassic’ films are numerous. Some work and some don’t. Malcolm’s sardonic quips are mostly in tune, Grant’s grumping and knowledge are spot on, and Ellie has remarkably little to do for someone who is responsible for one of the two main plot lines. Owen and Claire spend the bulk of their non-Malta time consistently recreating the facial expressions that have become all too familiar, though of course, Owen does get to hold out his palm in an attempt at controlling dinosaurs. There is a well-timed small dose of John Williams’ iconic score from 1993, but it’s the musical work of composer Michael Giacchino who mostly guides us along the way.

Credit goes to director Trevorrow for the multiple location shoots around the globe, which helps minimize the set pieces … most of which disappoint. Especially surprising was the weak CGI effort in the mines as some of the characters end up where they shouldn’t be. DNA manipulation run amok is perhaps the underlying theme, but we have to ask why this is … all we really desire are cool dinosaurs and a story that makes sense. Despite the film’s best shot coming at the end – a Mosasaurus underwater – we do hope that, in regards to continuing the franchise, Hollywood doesn’t find a way.

Opens in theaters on June 10, 2022

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WATCHER (2022)

June 2, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s tough being the new kid. Moving to a new city with no friends is always a challenge. That’s especially true for a grown-up when the new city is in a country where you don’t speak the language – and you gave up your career to support your spouse who got a promotion to his home country. The first feature film from writer-director Chloe Okuno and co-writer Zack Ford is a bit of a throwback thriller that reminded me of some of Brian DePalma’s work in the 1970’s and 1980’s, while also recalling other genre films.

Maika Monroe (IT FOLLOWS, 2014) stars as Julia, wife of Francis (Karl Glusman, LOVE, 2015). Their new apartment has a large picture window that overlooks the run-down tenement located across the street. Julia immediately notices the shadowed figure of a man who appears to be watching her. Yes, the set-up reminds us of Hitchcock’s classic REAR WINDOW, though this one heads off in a different direction. The pressures of Francis’ new job keep him working long hours, which means Julia is left alone a great deal of the time. As a former actor, now ‘re-evaluating’ her career path, Julia spends the days walking the local streets and listening to language tapes. See, their new place is in Bucharest, Romania, and the language gap plays a huge role in casting her as an outsider in all social interactions.

But wait, there’s more! Local news reports detail a serial killer nicknamed “Spider” has been murdering and beheading women. So when Julia begins seeing that shadowy figure from the window everywhere she goes, she assumes he’s following/stalking her. Is he the serial killer?  Perhaps the question is, who is the cat and who is the mouse? While making the point that the film so desperately wants to make, it does so in the least believable manner. Husband Francis dismisses her paranoia as that of a lonely woman – a reaction that seems absurd given the presence of a serial killer (Grace Kelly believed Jimmy Stewart!). Fortunately, filmmaker Okuno and the performance of Ms. Monroe prevent this from becoming an eye-roller for viewers.

As Julia and the “watcher” (played with a creepy stoicism by Burn Gorman, CRIMSON PEAK, 2015) continue to cross paths, Francis asks, “Is he watching you, or is he watching the person who is watching him?” It’s this attitude that every woman will recognize … being accused of having it be “all in her head”, and having concerns minimized by men (spouses, cops, doctors, etc). Ms. Monroe gives a subdued, quiet performance that works terrifically in this setting. She kind of glows on screen and excels at conveying the feeling of isolation that Julia experiences, some of it enhanced by her husband’s approach.

There are a couple of terrific scenes featuring Julia and her neighbor Irina (Madalina Anea), a single woman who understands Julia’s trepidation. Other excellent scenes include Julia going solo to the movie theater to watch CHARADE, a film from which Okuno obviously draws inspiration; and best of all, a scene on the train where Julia and the watcher come face to face and have one of the more uncomfortable conversations (with a wonderful prop) we’ll likely ever see on screen. Both actors are superb here.

The cinematography of Benjamin Kirk Nielsen and the score from Nathan Halpern perfectly correspond to the slow-burn pacing that lacks the typical ‘jump-scares’ that have become commonplace in thrillers. Despite some ‘iffy’ dialogue, the film is effective in isolating Julia and presenting the fear that women live with, while often having their feelings minimized. A strong ending sets up Chloe Okuno as a filmmaker to watch.

In theaters June 3, 2022 and On Demand June 21, 2022

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