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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THERE ARE NO SAINTS (2022)

May 27, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. If you’ve ever wondered what it would look like if the often-great Paul Schrader wrote his version of the Liam Neeson action-revenge film, TAKEN (2008), well here is your answer. Okay, so it’s not the exact story line, but it’s close enough for conversation, and director Alfonso Pineda Ulloa seems happy to work with a script that is not Schrader’s best, yet clearly bears his stamp. The esteemed screenwriter has had recent success with THE CARD COUNTER (2021) and FIRST REFORMED (2017), both of which he also directed. And his track record of screenplays includes such remarkable work as TAXI DRIVER (1976), HARDCORE (1979), AMERICAN GIGGOLO (1980), RAGING BULL (1980), and AFFLICTION (1997).

Jose Maria Yazpik stars as Neto Niente, known on the street as “The Jesuit”. We first see him being released from prison in Huntsville, Texas after serving only four years as a convicted murderer. As Neto is leaving, the jailer says, “I’m sure I’ll see you again.” Neto’s sleazy attorney (played by Tim Roth) recommends he leave town and stay away. Of course, Neto says he first needs to see his young son. Julio (Keidrich Salladi, “The Americans” son Henry) is happy to see his beloved father, but Neto’s wife Nadia (Paz Vega, SEX AND LUCIA, 2019) is frightened for their safety because her boyfriend, Vincent (Neal McDonough, fun to watch in two of my favorites “Justified” and “Boomtown”), is a psychopath criminal kingpin, and his reaction to Neto’s visit is murder and kidnapping.

Before learning that his son has been kidnapped, Neto tries to calm the waters with those pursuing him. This includes the local police and the Mexican cartel that he once worked for. We see flashbacks of Neto’s work and it’s obvious the film’s title fits. During all of this, he meets Inez (Shannyn Sossamon) a capitalistic strip club worker. The two team up to track Julio to Mexico, but not until Neto has had a few brutally violent run-ins with the cartel and a gun dealer who goes by the name Jet Rink (James Dean’s character in GIANT was Jett Rink). The gun dealer is played by Tommy Flanagan (“Sons of Anarchy”), and their meeting is yet another brutally violent scene.

Neto is a tough, confident, man, who despite his particular set of skills, remains mostly quiet; however, he is consistently involved in brutally violent interactions, which is why I keep referring the film’s brutal violence. I’d like to say this is an exaggeration, but it’s not. And just in case some viewers need more, Act 3 ratchets things up a notch. Ron Perlman (a hardworking actor recently seen in last year’s NIGHTMARE ALLEY) shows up as Sans, some kind of crime lord who has a dungeon perfectly set up for torture and imprisonment, and director Ulloa takes full advantage.

The film’s opening quote, paraphrased from the book of Exodus, reads “The sins of the father shall be visited upon the sons.” This is a B-movie packed with thrills, adrenaline, energy, and yes … brutal violence. It’s a world of payback and retribution that never offers Neto the chance for the spiritual new beginning he hopes for. Schrader’s script lacks the character depth of his best work, and seems to be aimed at a group of viewers with a very particular set of tastes.

In theaters, On Digital, and On Demand beginning May 27, 2022

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TOP GUN: MAVERICK (2022)

May 22, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Heavy on melodrama. Heavy on cockiness. Heavy on fighter jets. Heavy on nostalgia. Check. Everything that we want and expect in the long-awaited sequel to the 1986 film is present. It’s a movie spectacle featuring one of the few remaining bonafide movie stars front and center, as well as breathtaking action sequences that beg to be experienced on the largest screen possible and with the highest quality audio available. Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr are credited for the characters, while the new screenplay involved collaboration from Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, Christopher McQuarrie, Peter Craig, and Justin Marks. The original film’s director, Tony Scott, passed away in 2012 at age 68, and Joseph Kosinski (OBLIVION, 2013, also starring Tom Cruise) takes the helm.

Callbacks to the original are plentiful, and we get our first in the opening title card – the same one used in 1986 to explain the “Top Gun” training center. Of course, there is one reason we are here, and that’s Tom Cruise. He was only 24 years old in the original, and now lives and exudes the swagger of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. When the film opens, Maverick is an extreme test pilot pushing himself and an experimental aircraft to Mach 10, and yes, this goes against the wishes and order of the program’s Rear Admiral in charge played by a curmudgeonly Ed Harris. It’s a shame that Harris only has a couple of brief scenes, but he is the one that informs Maverick of his new orders to return to Top Gun immediately. His new commanding officer is Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm), who is none too happy about Maverick being back. However, the order came directly from Maverick’s old nemesis/friend, Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), now a highly decorated Admiral in failing health.

Maverick is disappointed to learn that he has been brought in, not to fly, but to teach a group of Top Gun graduates how to execute an extraordinarily dangerous mission involving extended high speeds at a low altitude, dropping bombs on the uranium enhancement plant protected by a mountain range, and then immediately elevating to a nearly impossible level to avoid a crash – all while being targeted by the enemies radar and defense system. The enemy goes unnamed so that the movie can remain timeless and avoid any type of political backlash. Plus, this film is about thrills and action, not a political statement.

Being back means Maverick crosses paths with Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), who was mentioned briefly in the first film as an Admiral’s daughter. She now owns the local bar, has a daughter, races sailboats, and still carries a bit of a torch for Maverick, although she’s quick to bust his chops whenever possible. However, it’s the pilots he’s charged with training that cause the biggest issue for Maverick. One of them is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller). Rooster is the son of “Goose” (played in the original by Anthony Edwards), who flew with Maverick as his Radio Intercept Officer (RIO) and died in an ejection mishap. Rooster holds Maverick responsible and Maverick is still haunted by his friend’s death. Goose is seen in photos and via flashbacks, and Rooster emulates his dad at the bar’s piano. The conflict between Rooster and Maverick adds complications to the mission – and a bit of melodrama to the entire film.

The newbies (and the Navy) consider Maverick a relic of a bygone era, so of course, ‘instructor’ Maverick takes to the sky to strut his pilot stuff. In addition to Rooster, the standouts in the new group include Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Bob (Lewis Pullman), and Hangman (Glen Powell), the latter of whom, along with Rooster, tries to recreate that symbiotic relationship we originally saw with Iceman vs Maverick. Teller and Powell are both solid, but this aspect never really clicks like the Rooster vs Maverick piece.

We can’t help but notice that the dramatic elements seem to be more of a focus this time around. The biggest impact comes from the scene where Mavericks visits Admiral Kazansky (Iceman) at his home. Despite his well-known physical limitations, Val Kilmer delivers a memorable performance, and the two actors seem to relish this opportunity. The situation is handled with grace, and we are appreciative of Cruise standing firm in his demand for Kilmer to appear in the film. As for the love story between Penny and Maverick, it had to be a bit frustrating for Ms. Connelly to work so hard on an underwritten role, while Jon Hamm’s constant furrowed brow and barking leaves him coming across as little more than jealous of Maverick.

Obviously it’s the fighter jets and aerial sequences that folks will come for, and spectacular and exhilarating are the best words I can find to describe what we see. I was fortunate to see his in IMAX, and if you have one near you, it’s certainly the preferred viewing format. Thanks to the Navy and the training and equipment received by the cast, there is an authentic feel that’s almost throwback in this day and age of CGI. We sense the speed and gravity pulls, even if we are never in peril. The aircraft carrier sequences are mind-boggling, though it’s jets in the air that provide the energy jolt.

Wise-cracking and heartstring-tugging moments fill the screen, and you can relax knowing Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” is back, while Berlin is thankfully not. Sand volleyball has been replaced by some semblance of shirtless and sweaty beach football as a team-builder, and yes, we get the patented Tom Cruise sprints – three times: on a treadmill, during beach football, and in a forest. The familiar sounds of Harold Faltermeyer’s original score are back, this time enhanced by Hans Zimmer and an ending song by Lady Gaga. Those from the original who are absent this time are the great Tom Skerritt, James Tolkan, Kelly McGillis, and Meg Ryan (whose character is mentioned as having passed away). Producer Jerry Bruckheimer is back, though his partner on the original, Don Simpson, died in 1996 at age 52. Deserving of kudos are cinematographer Claudio Miranda, film editor Eddie Hamilton, and those involved with sound, visual effects, and music. For those feeling the need for speed, this sequel delivers; just embrace the cliches and familiarity, and predictability.

Only in theaters (as it should be) Friday May 27, 2022

Here is my link to my 2013 article when I revisited the original TOP GUN

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EMERGENCY (2022)

May 20, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. When we discover someone in the midst of a medical emergency, most of us wouldn’t hesitate to call 911 for assistance. In this film, developed from their Sundance award-winning 2018 short film, director Carey Williams and writer K.D. Davila remind us things aren’t always quite so simple. Two best friends and college students, return home to find a white girl passed out in their living room. Since the two young men are black, and their roommate is Latino, their discussion revolves around how the situation will be viewed by paramedics and law enforcement. It’s a terrific premise, and one handled deftly by the filmmakers and cast.

The first act is outstanding as we quickly get a feel for the friendship between Sean (RJ Cyler, “I’m Dying Up Here”) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins, “The Underground Railroad”). Sean is the fun-loving one who is constantly vaping for effect, but also paranoid and aware. Kunle is the strait-laced son of two African immigrant doctors. Kunle has been accepted to the PhD program at Princeton, while Sean’s big plan is ensuring he and Kunle become the first black students at Buchannan to attend that evening’s ‘Legendary Tour’ … seven invitation-only frat parties held over the course of one night. Kunle wants to hang with his buddy – just as soon as he finishes with his bacteria specimens (his “babies”) in the campus laboratory.

The early buddy-comedy banter is spot on, and leads us to make assumptions about the type of movie this will be. It’s only after Sean and Kunle stop by the house and discover the girl, that we realize this is a rare buddy-comedy loaded with social commentary. Their gamer-obsessed roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon, “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels”) joins the mission on how best to handle the situation. Carlos catches grief for his fanny pack, which is always filled with granola bars. Sean enjoys teasing Kunle, calling him an “Oreo” for being too white inside, and we hear Kunle described as “Black excellence”. As these three men of color debate the next step – how to provide care to the girl (who has since thrown up on their floor), while also protecting themselves from possibly dangerous racist reactions.

What they don’t know is that while they are arguing, the unconscious girl’s big sister (Sabrina Carpenter) has rallied two friends to go searching. Rather than improve the situation, racial profiling plays a part at just about every turn. The tone of the film shifts when Emma (Maddie Nichols) wakes up and freaks out at the situation. It becomes a comedy of errors in the mode of ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING (1987), only with fear and risk involved. Two sequences in particular standout: when they stop at Sean’s brother’s house to borrow a car, and when they do finally encounter the cops. Both scenes present the paranoia and constant uneasiness felt in these situations.

When utilizing comedy to express social commentary, there is a fine line between effective messaging and too-obvious. Both of these occur during the film, but for the most part, Williams and Davila and the cast are superb in making their points without preaching. The commentary on friendship and racism blends well into entertainment, despite the messages never leaving the screen.

In Select Theaters May 20th

Available worldwide on Amazon Prime Video May 27th

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THE INNOCENTS (2022)

May 12, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Norwegian filmmaker Eskil Vogt wrote the screenplay for last year’s terrific THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD, and that’s just one of his collaborations with fellow countryman Joachim Trier. The two seem to enjoy, or at least have a knack, for creating films that take viewers out of their comfort zone. This is Vogt’s second feature as director, and you will likely find yourself questioning your ideals of the complexities of childhood and debating what makes a kid “good” or “bad”.

A family moves to a new apartment so that their eldest daughter Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) can receive the best possible treatment for her non-verbal autism (seemingly trapped inside her own body). Anna’s younger sister Ida (Rakel Leonora Flottum) spends an inordinate amount of time on her own as their mother (Ellen Dorrit Petersen is also Rakel’s real life mother; THELMA, 2017) focuses on Anna. Immediately we are struck by how cruel Ida is to Anna, obviously envious of the time her parents devote to the child in need. The film moves meticulously as Ida befriends Ben (Sam Ashraf), a young boy from the same apartment building. Ben has an ability to move things with his mind. His telekinesis is in the early stages, and Ida pushes him to develop his powers. One particularly disturbing sequence involves the two kids and a local cat at the top of the building’s stairwell. Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), another young girl from the building starts hanging out with Ida and Ben. This also draws in Anna, as the sweet Aisha has a connection with her and a way of communicating telepathically. It’s at this point where our brains shift into overdrive as we realize there is something supernatural going on.

As Ben’s ability grows, so does his sadistic nature. He reacts (often violently) to situations where he feels disrespected. At the same time, Anna and Aisha grow closer, and Ida and her parents are thrilled with Anna’s improved demeanor. As viewers, we come to realize that director Vogt has made the apartment building a character itself. Is the building behind the special abilities shown by these kids?  Or is it the ominous nearby forest? Why are the powers strongest when the kids are together? For a film that mostly progresses very slowly, there is much for us to take in – although we do wish more time had been spent on the makeup of all four kids. We are only teased with what other kids in the building are experiencing, but the supernatural aura is clearly in play.

None of the four child actors have any previous feature film experience, yet each is superb in their own way. They perfectly capture the curiosity and confusion that goes with childhood, and there is an insightful “kid” moment when Ida shows her one ‘talent’ to Ben. We are left to wonder if the film’s identical title to the 1961 classic is coincidental or purposeful. It’s not a remake, but it works as an homage. The staircase shot is even similar in the two films. Filmmaker Voigt excels at ensuring we believe something evil is just around the corner, yet he never rushes to the next moment. An eerie, ominous atmosphere is perfectly complemented by these four kids. Vogt’s dark film sticks the ending, and stays with us for a while.

Opening May 13, 2022

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THE NORTHMAN (2022)

April 21, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. After two incredible arthouse films that earned the label “visionary filmmaker” for Robert Eggers, some would not have been surprised to find him cashing in on a huge payday for the next colossal superhero movie. But for those of us who adore and respect him for THE WITCH (2015) and THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019), we knew Mr. Eggers was not the comic book type. Instead, he secured a hefty budget (still less than $100 million) and with his co-writer, Icelandic author Sjon (writer of last year’s mesmerizing LAMB), created the most epic Viking movie to date … while firmly maintaining his artsy stylings.

Every now and then a movie comes along and I must accept that my words will fall short; that I won’t be able to do justice to what I’ve experienced on screen. This is certainly one of those times. Based on the same Scandinavian folk tale that inspired Shakespeare to pen “Hamlet”, this Eggers film is not just meticulously researched, it also pulls us right in so that we slosh through the mud and muck. We shiver from the cold. We feel the wind and the brutality of the violence. We live the harsh elements of Viking life.

The film opens in the year 895 AD as young Prince Amleth welcomes home his battle-weary father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke). Not long after jester Heimer the Fool (Willem Dafoe) jokes about the Queen and the King’s brother, the boy witnesses his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang, the excellent “Dracula” TV mini-series, 2020) strike dead the king. Amleth escapes, pledging to avenge his father’s murder and the kidnapping of his mother, Queen Gudrun (Oscar winner Nicole Kidman). Flash forward twenty years and Amleth has become a behemoth of a man played by Alexander Skarsgard (Eric Northman in “True Blood”), who lives, fights, and kills alongside violent 10th century Vikings. Amleth is a hulking beast unmatched in battle, yet one who never unnecessarily harms women or children.

His revenge plan leads him to the farming village where his mother and Uncle Fjolnir now live as wife and husband, an arrangement Amleth is certain she adheres to for her own safety and that of her new son. Bjork, in her first big screen role since DANCER IN THE DARK (2000), appears as the seeress who knows Amleth’s destiny. It’s here where Amleth meets Olga “of the Birch Forest” (Anya Taylor-Joy) and reveals his plan to her. Olga describes her supernatural abilities as breaking men’s minds in contrast to his breaking their bones. The two are quite the match.

Eggers stages a stunning final showdown with a naked sword fight atop a burning volcano to ensure we aren’t subjected to an ending that falls short. The visceral savagery on the screen is somehow both brutal and beautiful. This is epic cinematic brilliance from Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who treat us to numerous long takes in harsh weather and discomforting action. This is 136 minutes featuring some of cinemas best faces, while also proving that visionary is simply not a strong enough word to describe director Robert Eggers.

Opening in theaters on April 22, 2022

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THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT (2022)

April 21, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Calling all Nicolas Cage fans! Put the bunny back in the box and get ready for the most fun you’ll ever have with Nicolas or Nic or Nick or Nicky. And if one Cage isn’t enough for you, you’re in luck. This film has Nicolas Cage playing the (somewhat) fictional Nick Cage, and Nicolas Kim Coppola (Nicolas Cage’s birth name) playing imaginary alter-ego Nicky, a younger version of Nicolas Cage from the WILD AT HEART era who spends the movie constantly reminding Nick that he’s a movie star.

If you can’t make much sense out of all that, don’t worry, writer-director Tom Gormican and co-writer Kevin Etten have created a film that is sure to strike a chord with Nicolas Cage fans. What we see is a parody going meta in a surreal way. Very few get to star in the tribute to their own legend, but that’s what happens here. Nicolas Cage goes ‘inside baseball’ on the career of Nicolas Cage … only he does so as struggling actor Nick Cage, an actor so desperate for “the role of a lifetime” that he improvs a reading for director David Gordon Green (Cage’s director on JOE) in the parking lot of Chateau Marmont.

Having been kicked out of his rental after falling behind $600,000 in rent, Nick agrees to take a humiliating job pitched by his agent, Fink (Neil Patrick Harris). For one million dollars, he is to fly to Mallorca and hang out at the birthday party of rich super fan, Javi Gutierrez (a terrific Pedro Pascall, “The Mandalorian”). The twist here is that CIA agents played by Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz suspect Javi of being a notorious gun dealer who has kidnapped the young daughter of the Catalonia President. Spy-type shenanigans ensue as Nick and Javi develop a bromance that finds the two new buddies writing a film script together. And if that’s not quite enough subplots, you should know that Nick is at a breaking point in his relationship with his ex-wife Olivia (Sharon Horgan) and teenage daughter Abby (Lily Sheen, real life daughter of Michael Sheen and Kate Beckinsale).

The zaniness includes nods to more than a dozen Nicolas Cage movies, and much of the fun is derived from recognizing these. Easter eggs are everywhere for fans, and Nic expertly plays Nick (and Nicky) as a loving tribute to the characters we’ve seen in so many iconic films over the years. Additionally, on screen love is provided for the 1920 classic, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, as well as the more recent gem, PADDINGTON 2 (2017), making this a tribute to cinema lovers, Nicolas Cage fans, and comedies in general. I will admit to disliking director Gormican’s 2014 movie, THAT AWKWARD MOMENT, so much that I hoped he was done as a filmmaker. It turns out, he’s back (and much improved) … not that he ever went anywhere.

Opens in theaters on April 22, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER