BITTERBRUSH (2022, doc)

June 16, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. The work of director Emelie Mahdavian and cinematographers Derek Howard and Alejandro Mejio make this one worth watching if only for the wide panoramic views and stunning landscapes of the wild west in today’s America. However, the views are really the bonus, as the focus is on Colie Moline and Hollyn Patterson, two cattle wranglers working together on a job in Idaho.

Colie and Hollyn have partnered on jobs for ‘around’ 5 years, though neither is sure how long it’s been. Some will be surprised that two women have become so proficient at herding cattle – a job that has traditionally been the domain of men, the cowboys we are accustomed to. Make no mistake, Colie and Hollyn are real cowboys (cowpersons?) and they are experts at managing cattle, horses, dogs, the terrain, the weather, and the solitude.

We ride along with them through Idaho, though at times, we feel like intruders. Colie and Hollyn enjoy the life, have an efficient partnership, and have grown to be friends despite their differences. Hollyn is moving towards a more traditional life (out of necessity), while Colie dreams of having her own ranch. This seasonal work is for 4 months and covers late spring, summer heat, and early snow. They are truly hired hands, and one extended sequence finds Colie working to break a horse. It recalls the 2011 documentary, BUCK, on horse whisperer Buck Brannaman, but here there is no audience and no ‘show’. It’s just a hired hand putting in the work.

Neither have a “real home”, which becomes a factor as spreading the ashes of a beloved dog constitutes a challenge. Being away from family during special events and illness is part of the job, as well as part of the conversation. Director Mahdavian utilizes expertly played and beautiful Bach piano music as accompaniment, but we can’t help but feel this is cheating. Why should we hear this when the two women doing the work only hear the sounds of nature? Their toughness and resilience are quite something to behold.

In theaters on June 17, 2022 and On Demand beginning June 24, 2022

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THE WALK (2022)

June 16, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. This “inspired by true events” film opens with a history lesson: In 1954, in the landmark Brown v Board of Education case, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. This was followed in 1965 with SCOTUS ruling there should be no more delays in desegregation, and another ruling by the high court in 1971 stating that busing students was appropriate in facilitating desegregation. But it took the NAACP bringing suit against Boston Public Schools before a specific court ruling in 1973 forced the city to comply by the following year. The film from writer-director Daniel Adams (THE LIGHTKEEPERS, 2009) and co-writer George Powell picks up in 1974.

Justin Chatwin (“Shameless”) stars as Boston Police Officer Bill Coughlin, a born and raised “Southie”, whose daughter Katie (Katie Douglas) is finishing up one school year and looking forward to her upcoming senior year of high school. Her world is rocked when her best friend receives a letter stating that she has been reassigned to another school as part of the desegregation. Reacting as a teenager would, Katie claims it’s all unfair and she should get a normal senior year without having to share her school with black students. What we soon learn is that those black students feel the same way. Wendy Robbins (an excellent Lovie Simone) lives with her EMT dad (Terrence Howard), and her faith and courage and maturity aren’t quite enough to overcome the emotions, but she’s strong enough to follow in the steps of MLK rather than the Black Panthers.

We see that neither side wanted it handled this way. “Why do they hate us?” It’s the question asked a couple of times, and goes to the heart of the cultural and racial divide in Boston at the time. Officer Coughlin is at the center of much of what happens. He’s struggling with the bubbling emotions in his city, his concern for his daughter, his reassignment to protect the black kids getting bused to south Boston, and facing threats from Johnny Bunkley (Jeremy Piven), a local thug recently released from prison. Bunkley is protected by McLaughlin, the neighborhood power broker played by Malcolm McDowell. On top of all that, Coughlin considers himself fair, but wonders if he’s a racist … and wonders how exactly to define the word (a dilemma that still exists 50 years later).

The film does capture what a tumultuous time it was to be a parent, a kid, or a cop. Everyone was uneasy and looking for someone to blame and a way to maintain the status quo. Many characters are involved here, but most of the focus is on Coughlin and Katie. His challenges stem from work, home, and the neighborhood, while hers are that of a teenager feeling wronged and smothered. Some of the sub-plots work, while others are misfires. It’s vital to keep in mind that the story is set in 1974 … the first year of busing for desegregation in Boston public schools.

As powerful as the issues covered are, the film likely would have benefited from better casting, and a simplified and focused script. Mr. Piven is a fine actor, but miscast here as a street thug. Mr. Chatwin lacks the physical presence of a cop who commands respect, though his sensitive nature is a plus given his inner turmoil. Malcolm McDowell is always a treat to watch, but casting a Brit as a native Southie only exacerbated the inconsistencies many had with the accent. The film is one to watch for the history lesson, though not so much for cinematic expertise.

Opens on June 10, 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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HUSTLE (2022)

June 7, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. As a sports fan and movie fan, I approach every sports movie with trepidation and low expectations. Let’s face it, most actors aren’t great (or even good) athletes, and most athletes aren’t great (or even good) actors. We would have no interest in a western where the cowboys can’t ride horses, just as we have no interest in watching John Goodman portray a baseball legend in THE BABE (1992). I tell you this to convey my state of mind while preparing to watch this basketball movie from director Jeremiah Zagar and co-writers Will Fetters (A STAR IS BORN, 2018) and Taylor Materne. It gives me pleasure to say that even though the premise is kind of similar to Kevin Bacon’s 1992 film, THE AIR UP THERE, this one should satisfy most sports and basketball fans.

Adam Sandler stars as Stanley Sugermen, a long-time scout for the Philadelphia 76’ers. An opening montage gives us a taste of why he’s worn out and beaten down after so many years on the road. Rushing to catch flights, too many fast-food meals, crashing in one hotel after another, and chasing down tips on the next great player … it all adds up to frustration and too much time away from his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and teenage daughter (Jordan Hull). Feeling unappreciated and questioning his professional future, Stanley is ecstatic when the long-time Sixers owner played by (Oscar winner) Robert Duvall promotes Stanley to assistant coach. Unfortunately, the dream-come-true turns into a nightmare when the beloved owner dies, leaving his cocky son Vince (Ben Foster) in charge of the team. Vince has little respect for Stanley and promptly sends him back on the road.

It’s in Mallorca, Spain where Stanley stumbles on a nighttime game at a local outdoor court. Immediately catching his eye is an intense, lanky player in work boots. NBA player Juancho Hernangomez stars as Bo Cruz, a true previously undiscovered diamond in the rough. The dream of all scouts is to be the first to find a transcendent player, and once they hear the NBA minimum salary, Bo’s mother and young daughter are on board with Stanley taking Bo to the United States. Of course, things don’t go according to plan. Vince rejects Bo, and a history of anger issues comes back to haunt Bo. Stanley ignores the naysayers, trusts his instincts, and takes on the project of preparing Bo for the scouting combine. The training montage is very well done, as Sandler and Juancho are both believable and draw us in for support.

Cinematographer Zak Mulligan and director Zagar deserve credit for filming the basketball sequences in a style that highlights the athletic talent without resorting to cheap editing tricks. Of course it helps that the basketball sequences are loaded with actual NBA players and playground legends. These guys look like they can play because they CAN. I’ll leave the closing credit montage to highlight most of those involved, but a couple of standouts include Boban Marjonovich and Anthony Edwards, the latter playing Bo’s head-game nemesis, Kermit Wilts. Also making appearances are Kenny Smith as a player agent, and the great Julius “Dr J” Erving, who has a couple of scenes.

When most people think of Adam Sandler, his long list of sophomoric and absurd man-child movies come to mind. Certainly, he can’t be blamed for giving the masses what they want. It’s made him a very rich man. However, his talent in more dramatic roles should not be ignored. The recent UNCUT GEMS and THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES are examples, and going back further, his turn in PUNCH DRUNK LOVE remains one of his best. As Stanley Sugermen, Sandler injects humor into his love of basketball, tossing in a couple of ‘soccer’ and ‘geezer’ jokes. Overall, he successfully captures the essence of an everyman seeking redemption for his self and his family.

Streaming on Netflix beginning June 8, 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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CRIMES OF THE FUTURE (2022)

June 2, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. So, what happens when society evolves to the point that pain barely exists? Well, of course, people will then desire pain for pleasure and will go to extremes to experience the new forbidden bruised fruit. Anyone familiar with filmmaker David Cronenberg’s 40+ year career is already anticipating ‘what else’ the master of ‘body horror’ and twisted provocations will add to the proceedings. And the answer is … plenty.

Viggo Mortensen stars as Saul Tenser, and Lea Seydoux co-stars as Caprice, his performance art partner with benefits (such as they may be). If you’ve ever wondered what a second career for a trauma surgeon might look like, well Caprice’s role in the live shows is to first tattoo and then remove the newest organ that Saul’s body has generated – all while the appreciative audience looks on as if Picasso were painting or Edith Piaf were singing. Wait, what? His body grows new organs? Yes, Cronenberg has set this in a future where a segment of the population has an evolved digestive system and mutations, pain has been mostly eradicated, and Saul’s body grows new organs that may or may not have a legitimate function – they’re never left in the body long enough to find out because it’s Show time!

An opening sequence features a young boy’s inexplicable action, which leads his mother to an unfathomable next step. We are clearly in a (not so bright) future and Cronenberg delivers his first crime. That boy is linked to one of the many sub-plots in the film, though it’s Saul and Caprice who are at the center of most. A secretive government agency is responsible for registering all new organs, and it’s run by Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart). Wippet worships Saul as an icon, while Timlin takes it a step further by whispering in Saul’s ear, “Surgery is the new sex.” Stewart plays polar opposite to her usual subtle on-camera style, delivering a humorous take on a curious, bird-like creature with tics and a lack of social graces.

Outstanding supporting work comes from Scott Speedman, Welket Bungue, Tanaya Beatty, and Nadia Litz. I’ll say little else about these characters or their story lines, because this film works best as you uncover each layer for yourself. A general description of the film would be what happens when anatomy and art collide with science-fiction. One can easily draw connective dotted lines between this Cronenberg film and many of his earlier ones. It has the bizarre sensuality of CRASH (1996), a nod to THE FLY (1986), common ground with EXISTENZ (1999), a line from DEAD RINGERS (1988), and social commentary in line from both VIDEODROME (1983) and SCANNERS (1981). This is Viggo Mortensen’s fifth collaboration with Cronenberg, but surely the first where he’s said, “I’m not very good at old sex.”

Carol Spier’s signature Production Design plays a significant part in the film, and best I can tell, she has worked on each of Cronenberg’s films since 1981. The two Canadians make a good team. It’s been 8 years since Cronenberg’s last film, and the 79-year-old filmmaker is already in pre-production for his next. The Inner Beauty Pageant and Accelerated Evolution Syndrome are elements within this film, and as you would expect, he delivers visual effects that will stick with you. That said, nothing is over the top, and if anything, the cult filmmaker is on pretty good behavior, though he fully expects “walk outs” within the first few minutes. While I’m not sure the twist is even a twist, this is vintage Cronenberg offering no apologies while choosing to leave us with yet more of his provocations … “don’t spill”.

Opens in theaters on June 3, 2022

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DEEP IN THE HEART: A TEXAS WILDLIFE STORY (2022, doc)

June 2, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s easy to see why this film was selected for opening night at this year’s EARTHX Film Festival. Ben Masters’ feature length documentary is filled with historical information, geographic differentiations, a timeline of human impact, and some of the most stunning wildlife photography we have ever seen … and that includes any productions from Disney Nature and National Geographic. And if that weren’t enough, the film leaves us with a lesson on the importance of wildlife and nature conservation.

Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey narrates the film, and as a native Texan, his drawl and pacing are in perfect sync with what we see as filmmaker Masters guides us through the various areas of Texas. The opening segment from the high plains of the Panhandle focuses on the history of bison, and how hunting had dwindled the once massive numbers to the point where only five (5, not 500 or 5000) remained. Remarkable conservation efforts have resulted in bison now once again roaming the plains in packs. It’s a majestic sight.

Time is spent on White Tail Deer, and it’s a trip to the south Texas brush country that provides one of the most fascinating segments. Sightings of the “near mythical” Ocelots are rare, but here we follow a mother and cub. These gorgeous creatures are photographed up close and in their natural habitat. Despite only a few remaining in the species, we get to see them hunt and prowl. It’s quite a treat. Texas wildlife is the focus here, but when the film shifts to the Hill Country, it’s water that takes center stage. The state rivers, creeks, and aquifers are highlighted and how, just like many other states, severe drought has had a direct impact on wildlife in Texas.

After glimpsing the awe-inspiring views of the Bracken Cave bats, the film takes us to Big Bend country where the top predator roams – the Mountain Lion. By this point, we’ve learned about the Guadalupe Bass (the Texas state fish) and the piney woods and wetlands of east Texas, so we head to the Gulf and witness an array of colorful birds, and learn of the wildlife swimming the depths of the ocean around and through the coral reefs not far offshore.

The visuals here are truly stunning thanks to the innovative work of Director of Photography, Skip Hobbie and a large team of cinematographers. Some of the shots of Ocelots and Mountain Lions leave us gasping, ‘how’d they do that?’ As beautiful as the film is to look at, it never strays far from the message that humans have the ability to destroy, conserve, and recover wildlife. Examples of each are provided, and that’s what sets the film apart from so many nature docs that simply preach. Ben Masters takes a different approach – he shows us the bad that has occurred, the good that helped, and how conserving is a never-ending project, but one that is well worth the effort.

Opens in Texas theaters on Friday, June 3, 2022

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MONTANA STORY (2022)

May 27, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Watching two of our most talented young actors do their thing within the framework of old-fashioned storytelling and a breathtaking geographic setting is just about as good as it gets in independent filmmaking. The pacing may be a bit slow for some viewers, but the joy here is in watching two actors own their characters and battle through the emotions that tore apart a family.

Co-writers and co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel previously collaborated on WHAT MAISIE KNEW (2012) and BEE SEASON (2005), and are joined this time by co-writer Mike Spreter. We certainly can debate the script’s handling of specific moments, but Haley Lu Richardson (OPERATION FINALE, 2018, the underrated COLUMBUS, 2017, SPLIT, 2016, and THE BRONZE, 2015) and Owen Teague (best known for the two recent IT movies, and he’s also delivered in two recent films, TO LESLIE and THE COW) are the reason we buy in quickly and stay engaged to the breakthrough.

Cal (Mr. Teague) returns to the ranch where he grew up when he’s notified his father has had a stroke and is in a coma on life support. Cal readies the ranch for a bankruptcy sale and tends to the other business issues while Kenyan nurse Ace (Gilbert Ouwor) takes care of the father. Longtime housekeeper Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero, Winona from “Seinfeld”) helps when she can, but the ranch itself, including some chickens and an arthritic 25-year-old horse, Mr. T, aren’t much better off than Cal’s comatose dad. Cal is shocked when he sees that his estranged sister Erin (Ms. Richardson) has returned in order to say goodbye to their dad.

The film is at its best as Cal and Erin (I’m sure it’s a coincidence that the EAST OF EDEN siblings were named Cal and Aron) strain to avoid the discussion of what caused the split. It takes a while for us to get the details, but the scene is devastating for both characters, and the actors pull it off beautifully. A single night, seven years ago, blew up a family and led to broken trust and pent-up anger and animosity in Erin, and near debilitating guilt and sadness in Cal. Doing the right thing plays a recurring role here in regards to Erin’s high school article, Cal’s decision on Mr. T, and their dad’s job and actions.

Family relationships can be tainted and forever altered by a traumatic event, and rebuilding that trust requires raw pain and emotion … and even then, there are no guarantees. Additional supporting work is provided by Eugene Brave Rock and Asivak Koostachin, each of whom bring a touch of humor to their character (“sentimental horsey girl”) – or perhaps it just seems that way due to the intensity of Erin and Cal. There is a terrific scene where Cal and Erin ‘negotiate’ her spontaneous purchase of a pickup and trailer, and the meaning is hard to miss as Erin educates Cal on Dante’s circles of Hell in “Inferno”. Kudos to rising stars Haley Lu Richardson and Owen Teague for capturing a strained sibling dynamic and showing how trauma can have varying effects. Thanks also to cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (HELL OR HIGH WATER) for the sprawling Montana landscape and mountain vistas. This is a “western” only in the sense that it takes place out west and in near isolation, with most folks only speaking when necessary. It is a kind of showdown between brother and sister, but the weapons are words and memories, not pistols.

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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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