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Old (2021)
A win for Shamalyan and a treat for Twilight Zone fans.
24 July 2021
"There's something wrong with this beach!" Prisca (Vicki Krieps)

Although aging is rarely a topic for mainstream films except in sci-fi (think 2001, for instance), M. Night Shyamalan brings it home in Old. While his films since Sixth Sense have been uneven or unimpressive, Old is s homecoming for the master of plot twist. While there is a twist, he uses it to resolve plot questions as much as titillate those who look forward to his inventiveness. Mostly he keeps attention as his tale plays with a Twilight-Zone type of conceit in which a group of tourists ages quickly within hours.

Because most of us experience old age unwillingly, Old is of interest if only to toy with the idea that it seems like a day since we were once young. We cannot escape our aging, and like those characters we may hide violent motives, try to hold it off, or punish others for it.

These pilgrims face two deaths within a short time arriving on the undeveloped island (filmed in The Dominican Republic), and even with a doctor present, Charles (Rufus Sewell channeling Jaws' Robert Shaw), they are not safe. In fact, both children and adults are in danger and do harm even when they don't mean it.

But beyond escaping from this cursed island, several participants face issues of love, some marital discord or lack of it, and some existential questions such as their role in life. Yep, more here than a sunny day at the beach.

"La vecchiaia e carogna" (My grandmother complaining old age is carrion).
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Pig (2021)
One of the best films and performances of the year.
21 July 2021
"Pig" is a title so unimpressive that you may ignore what is arguably one of the best films of the year. Additionally, Nicolas Cage does his finest work since Leaving Las Vegas, for which he won the Oscar playing a troubled drunkard. Forget his hack work of late-this is his real deal.

In Pig, he plays a troubled former top chef (companion piece at this time to the doc Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain?), Rob, who has forsaken his domain, Portland, Oregon, and gone into the wilderness with his truffle-hunting, brindle-colored pig, Brandy. When she is kidnapped, he must leave his hideout to find her in the city.

In a slowly-distributed exposition, we learn about his culinary influence on Portland and his sorrow at losing his wife. Cage plays him taciturn and gruff, a literate Grizzly Adams, if you will. When he does briefly open up, or unload, on a current chef he knew back in the day, talented writer/director Michael Sarnoski and writer Vanessa Block have him express his belief that people should follow their dream, grasping onto something that has meaning and losing all that distracts from that goal. Well-written apologia, and well-acted.

Of course, pursuing his dream of isolation is what he has done until his love of Brandy drives him into the world and his past. Cage plays Rob right, just slow and introverted enough for us to savor the greatness he was and the misanthrope he has become. A talented and philosophical recluse he is.

As we eventually see him re-create a gourmet meal from his capacious memory (he forgets neither meals nor those he has served), we verify his greatness and understand his dislike for mankind. The narrative is lean and reasons not always evident, but the truth about what he says of the world is never lost.

In the isolation all of us have experienced over the last year and a half, it is enlightening to experience someone else's, which is never totally understood but nonetheless profound and relatable. Don't let anyone tell you nothing happens in Pig, for as in Nomadland, everything is happening. It is about all of us, our successes and failures with our losses of love hurting most of all. In theaters.
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Expert satire and imitation of the John-Wick-type thriller .
19 July 2021
"That's a pretty f---ing good milkshake. I don't know if it's worth five dollars, but it's pretty f---ing good." Vincent Vega (John Travolta), Pulp Fiction

Not this year or many others will you see such a successfull thriller-satire with humor that takes away from neither the robust bloody plot nor the affecting love of tough mother and daughter and their extended family. Sam (Karen Gillan-channeling Jennifer Lawrence) had been abandoned by her assassin mother and years later has become as proficient as she. They are all locked in a death struggle with The Firm, a group of powerful men who could easily stand for paternalistic males.

Gunpowder Milkshake has more talented actresses and creative blood spilling than any other gangster film in recent memory. However, along with a close-to-surfeit of artsy shots such as slo-mo dollying scenes of guns, knives, and deaths comes some not-so-incisive dialogue between mother, Scarlet (Lena Headey), and daughter, Sam, as they work through Sam's bitterness and Scarlet's regrets.

Add to the emotional mix eight-year-old Emily's (Chloe Coleman) loss of her dad to Sam's gun and her immediate bonding with Sam without Emily knowing Sam was his murderer. The crazy, sometimes inscrutable underworld could be compared to John Wick's, including a library sequence rivaling even the most sumptuous Wick hotel set piece. As for the soundtrack from Bobby Darin to Janis Joplin, the synch of the songs to meaning is a pleasure.

As we are reminded more than once explaining any of these heartbreaks and deaths is complicated, but somehow writer/director Navot Papushado and writer Ehud Lavski make it logical if not poetic. The kind of satire is similar to that of Quentin Tarantino, whose Pulp Fiction $5 shake sequence is referenced in the title (see above) and whose off-handed humor lends gravity even when it is not required.

Set pieces of balletic proportions are many, one for instance in that beautiful library where books and bullets combine for an ingenious allegory of innocence and experience, therefore glossing Emily's coming of age and Sam's growth to adulthood. Yet it's not difficult to see that the women participating in the mayhem (including Gillan, Headey, Michelle Yeoh, Carla Gugino, and Angela Bassett) represent the new wave of combatants in a culture war where women are slowly but surely achieving equality if not revenge for their thousands of years of subjugation.

In general, Papushado references flashy killer movies other than Pulp Fiction and John Wick, such as the colors of Nicholas Winding Ren's very neon Drive and choreographed gunplay in John Woo's The Killer, while retaining a lightheartedness solely this picture's.

Of course, the mayhem with its countless loss of thug-men and minimal loss of women speaks to the fantastic difficulty of women eventually gaining parity. Like the recent Black Widow, our artists must write largely to gain a foothold on justice. In fact, make this film a companion piece to BW, and you'll have a wildly amusing evening of distaff mayhem.

Meanwhile, taking a cue from the titular milkshake, this comic thriller will make you exclaim what a good taste for the price ("Netflix).

Scarlet: You are an incredibly impressive young woman. There's not a single person on Earth I'd rather kill people with."
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Outstanding insight into a remarkable celebrity.
17 July 2021
Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain is not the documentary you thought it might be. It is not a fluff piece of praise about arguably the most famous celebrity chef of this century, nor does it claim to explain why he committed suicide at age 61. What it does do is thrill with his charisma, a personal magnetism that makes this tall, handsome man taller than anyone else in the room.

From the moment his Kitchen Confidential hit the streets and became an instant New York Times best seller, the food world had an apologist for its greatness and a foodie realist who trumpeted the greatness of eating around the world. Not even tales of his heroin addiction could dissuade food lovers from making him the emblem of in-your-face food fashion. Home videos of him at times such as when he berates a fishmonger in front of Bourdain's Park Ave steak house, Les Halles, are endearing.

As the doc depicts him, he is almost more interested in how a nation's cuisine mirrors its culture than the actual nature of the food itself. If fish is the Japanese signature food, then how it is presented is more important than the fish. He is roguish and bad-ass, not Batali or Emeril.

The doc is itself more interested in spying on Bourdain or tracking him walking and talking than it is in how he helps his or someone else's restaurant attain star ratings. Director Morgan Neville has found the most charming footage, much of it outtakes from the hundreds of hours of him at play and occasionally at work on his celebrated cable shows. The kerfuffle about their using a bot for some of his narration is interesting but does not compromise the overall Bourdain depiction.

The most fascinating "at play" is his intriguing love affairs with his second wife, Ottavia, and Italian actress Asia Argento, who eventually leaves him for another man and us to wonder if that split is the cause of his final act (he hung himself in a hotel room in 2018). Lamentably this great writer left no note to help us understand that inscrutable act.

To its credit, the documentary makes no claims to know why but neatly allows voice overs to make insightful, if not superficial, conclusions that this peripatetic celebrity could not find his place in even the most exotic places on earth. Ironically, Bourdain claimed to be an open book about his talent and his demons, but really never allowed the latter to reveal themselves or explain his exit.

My own inference from the tantalizing details of this outstanding documentary is that, like Hemingway, Plath, and Robin Williams, to name only three famous suicides, his talent and his charm overwhelmed even him, to the extent that they were crushing the real Tony out of existence. He never knew himself well enough to be able to save himself.

Who knows? The doc does well, anyway, showing the daily thrills of Bourdain, how much he loved people more than food, and how restless his soaring talent was. In the end, he may have been too gifted to be able to live with himself. And that's what I thought about Hemingway as well. Great gifts require great care lest they destroy.

Roadrunner: The Life of Anthony Bourdain is a fascinating study of a celebrated chef who was far more interesting than the food he celebrated.
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Black Widow (2021)
Fun to see 2 very strong young women navigating in what was a man's world.
14 July 2021
Warning: Spoilers
You both have killed so many people. Your ledgers must be dripping, just gushing red. I couldn't be more proud of you.' Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour): to Natasha and Yelena

What helps me through the bombs and kicks of super-hero films is the consistent "family" theme. It may be whole families or individual members looking for parents or siblings. In Black Widow, Natasha (Scarlett Johannson) is seeking reconciliation with her sister and her parents. BW frames the entire adventure around the family dynamic. Notwithstanding the combative family of Avenger superheroes themselves, this version brings home the importance of real home.

Although Black Widow is historically placed between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, it has its own surfeit of mano-mano fighting and explosions. When the dust settles, Natasha joins forces with her sister, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) to find her mother, Melina (Rachel Weisz), and father, Alexei (David Harbour). Things are not as they seem when the daughters do catch up to join forces after some rocky initial actions.

The first forty minutes of the family's escape from their idyllic Ohio home are as exciting an opener as you will likely see this summer. Then, as the formula demands, there is a Bond-like megalomaniac, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), whom the girls will target as he dominates other "widows" around the world with chemically-induced mind control.

Twenty-one years later, Natasha escapes a SWAT team to Norway, then briefly rejoining Yelena in Budapest before they both try to evade an armored vehicle and the menacing Dreykov soldiers who mimic the fighting techniques of their prey-even Avengers.

The vials of antidote Yelena steals were designed by Dreykov to erase free will of the world's widows-a McGuffin-like device that is lost amid the chaos. The nice touch is that the sisters not only can knock off this world enemy, but they can also liberate strong young women, a gentle way of introducing the feminist motif without beating the audience with it. After quite capable director Cate Shortland and writer Eric Pearson allow the sisters to reconcile, watch for Yelena mocking Natasha's balletic hair-toss pose. Not all the impact of the heroic epic is explosions.

Johansson and Pugh are in the Butch Cassady tradition of buddy bonding, a characterizing that promises future Avengers' sagas to be more humane and endearing. BW is solid summer fun either at the theater or on Disney+.
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Zola (2020)
A comic crime story with loads of talent.
3 July 2021
If the Safdie Brothers had made Zola, then no one would be surprised. But they didn't because a bunch of other lesser-known artists managed to blend pop, blazing color and attitude as they riffed on a tweet by A'Ziah King. Writer-Director Janicza Bravo joined her Lemon mind with writer Jeremy O. Harris, both taking on David Kushner's tweet adaptation to create a strangely effective crime-comedy about two young women bouncing around a parlous life in Florida.

Theirs is a Safdie world of cons and comedy, danger and colorful language with enough naivete and worldliness to cross Elmore Leonard with Leonard Cohen. Wiry blonde Stefani (Riley Keough) has enticed gorgeous stripper Zola (Taylour Paige) to accompany her on an escapade to Florida that takes Zola, a neophyte when it comes to crime, close to murder and prostitution.

Although it's her story, it is also the tale of twenty-something women finding their way dangerously close to spiritual and mortal danger.

Along the way, we find humor and a bit of love with enough street and ethnic vocab to be a primer for us traditional adults on urban life running amok in the digital age. Pimps, guns, and smart phones layer the background for wildly colored costumes and characters peopling the underside of a free-wheeling street scene.

I don't plan to say more about the plot lest you think it is important because what is the center of the story is the experiential arc of seemingly innocent Zola and the charm of definitely-experienced Stefani. Although the story may elude you, you'll not forget these two as they flirt with danger and themselves looking for thrills and fulfillment in all the wrong places.

Zola is a crazy road trip that mashes up Midnight Cowboy and Thelma and Louise to give us laughs about the digital age, and maybe enough caution to keep us inside, pandemic or not.
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Formulaic summer fare but entertaining in a light summer way.
3 July 2021
I must be in summer mode because as super-cliched as the sci-fi thriller The Tomorrow War is, I enjoyed it. That appreciation may be the result of my putting aside the usual critical solemnity and expectations for fine art. Like f9, this alien-apocalypse future feature is entertaining, absurd, and contains kernels of universal truths to raise it above the comic-book level or the indulgence of violence for its own sake.

Dan Forester (Chris Pratt), dedicated science teacher and devoted dad, must go 28 years into the future to stop ugly aliens from destroying humanity. They're hungry, and strangely, we look delicious! They probably never attended a Republican rally or saw the audience for Will Smith's Independence Day.

How Dan saves mankind and keeps his family whole in this wildly improbable fiction is not as important as what writer Zack Dean and director Chris McKay wanted to say about being human, even during parlous times when kindness is in short supply. Relying on the primacy of family is a major stimulus for success, and it seems lately many thrillers rely on the father-daughter combination to carry the success, as well as machine guns and time loops, of course.

Closely allied is the seeking home motif, or in this case, protecting it at almost any cost. Such is the case for the Foresters, whose divorce is predicted by looking into the future, and whose daughter is in grave danger by their looking into the future, which is accessed through a time link going only from present to about thirty years ahead. Not pretty are the results of climate change, a source of dread we thirty years behind can fully appreciate.

The Tomorrow War is escapism today replete with spindly, ravenous aliens and flawed humans. But hope springs eternal-try some by way of this entertaining piece of candy.
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The Ice Road (2021)
Formulaic with as little aesthetic warmth as possible.
29 June 2021
Liam's at it again, an aging man kicking butt in formulaic action films that depend almost wholly on his charisma. At least, Netflix's The Ice Road has some snow-capped Canadian mountains, supposedly in Manitoba, to ease the boredom of just another thriller with a remarkable old guy more agile than you would expect and stronger than men half his age.

Trucker Mike (Neeson) needs the work that driving a heavy-duty Kenworth can provide. With a mine accident and miners only a few hours from losing oxygen, Mike and his PTSD brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas) volunteer to drive rescue equipment to the mine. A healthy reward that would help them buy one of those Kenworths is inducement enough.

Only problem is the Ice Road, a real-life strip on which you could spin right to death or fall through with equal end. Mike engages in fisticuffs and spinning trailers with multiple bad boys who want him to fail because of some logic that makes disaster a benefit for the company.

The truck fights are disappointing, less impressive than CGI and dexterous cameras have made us accustomed to lately. Mike's defense of his brother, who is repeatedly harassed, is hardly the stuff of Steinbeck, or even F9.

Yet if you have a couple of hours to veg out or test different martinis, Netflix offers no surprises with The Ice Road except that Neeson, once a promising young actor, descends further into pop-cult silliness. Yet, he's fun to watch, and I'll bet his bank book is even more fun.
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Light summer absurdity well worth getting away from the home theater.
26 June 2021
Remember when summer movies used to be fun. They're back after a fun-sucking year, headed by Justin Lin's ridiculously enjoyable F9: The Fast Saga. With nine installments, the Fast and Furious franchise is arguably the leading purveyor of endless car wrecks, physics defying, and melodramatic fixation on family to reduce even jaded critics like myself to tears and laughter. Vin Diesel and crew deserve credit for making sure this summer is light and airy.

The foundation for anything thematic and even aesthetic is the struggle between brothers Dom (Diesel) and Jakob (John Cena), the latter threatening to wield malevolent power over the world with the heavy-handed guidance of snarky hacker Cipher (Charlize Theron). The F9 crew, headed by the occasionally smiling, gravel-voiced, saturnine Diesel and his sharp-as-hell girlfriend Letty (Michelle Roderiguez), are determined to stop Jakob and his superiors, who include the kingpin looking suspiciously like an aging Kurt Russell. While the competition is furious, the laughs are equally charged, mostly done in a low delivery so as not to draw attention to themselves.

Although the several world locations like London and Tokyo add visual beauty to the backgrounds, the car races are the real heart of the action, edited with first-rate precision by Stephen F. Windon and his cinematography crew. The number of vehicles destroyed is countless, but the ballet that brings on their destruction is so furiously fast as to make the aud breathless or at least dazzled by the verisimilitude. The car to beat even the best of the Dodge Chargers is a Pontiac Fiero, capable of taking an orbit at a single bound. F9 is a car buff's heaven.

Besides breathless chases, F9 includes an out-there dream sequence, enough flashbacks to make their own origin-story movie. And characters re-appearing from the dead, so charismatic as to make you wish they'd stay around longer. Dom's son Little Brian (the Holdane brothers), named for the late Paul Walker's character, is the sweet topping for the family motif. Fellow F9 wisecracking mates Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) are at home teasing each other and quipping in a most delightful way. Han (Sung Kang), long thought to be dead, is greeted wildly. Add an immature Eurotrash dictator-to-be, Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen), and you're in Bond megalomania territory.

They're all looking for pieces of high-tech hardware that endanger the world if put together in orbit (again reminiscent of Bond films discovering the hair-raining thought that satellites could be used for evil, as if today's smart phones were not enough). Along the way are brief but thematically relevant conversations about the seeming-immortality of the F9 operatives and the importance of family.

Regardless of whether or not you care about the philosophical musings, F9 rests firmly on its summer laurels of blindingly creative action sequences and appealing actors, even the baddies. So, get off your lounger and go to your local cinema with even more comfortable chairs and sight and sound beyond the capability of your tricked-out home entertainment center.

This is pure entertainment, done by a Hollywood that knows about action, sentiment, and summer.
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You may not know The Sparks brothers, but after this electric doc, you will not forget them.
19 June 2021
"How can a band be successful, underrated, hugely influential, and overlooked all at the same time?" Edgar Wright (director)

Although the cult art-pop band Sparks has been playing its idiosyncratic music for fifty years, you may never have heard about the two brothers or their music. Be prepared to remember them forever after seeing Edgar Wright's loving and comprehensive documentary covering their zany years of performance.

The two boys, Ron and Russ Mael, were born in California with the creative influence of the Beach Boys but a definite affinity for Brit bad boys like the Beatles and The Stones and touches of Queen. In fact, Ron and Russell Mael may have been a major influence on British synthpop.

Wright skillfully shows their emerging theatrics of Ron's culturally-sharp lyrics and Russell's stagey falsetto gyrations evocative of Mick and Freddie. They have their career careening from high on the charts to being absent from them, but never stopping the two from inventing themselves over and over again.

If you don't believe me, listen to persuasive talking heads who know what they're talking about, like Duran Duran, Weird Al Yankovic, Patton Oswalt, Sonic Youth, et al. However, just listen to their sometimes-inscrutable lyrics and watch Russell gyrate around the implacable Ron, and you will experience music in all its forms, wild and expressive.

As Ringo was alleged to say while watching Top of the Pops, "Marc Bolan is on the tele playing a song with Adolph Hitler" (Ron wore a Hitler-like stache much of the time). In the course of their half century, they went from glam-rock to orchestral art-pop to their take on Sgt Pepper and everything in between. It's exhausting just to try to catalogue their phases.

In Theaters.
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Unique revenge film with dark and light and Mads Mikkelsen.
31 May 2021
It's unlikely a revenge film as odd as Anders Thomas Jensen's Riders of Justice you will ever see again. It is in the Liam-Neeson, vengeful old-man "Taken" tradition with a father, Markus (Mads Mikkelsen), consoling his daughter, Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadesberg) over the death of his wife, at the same time seeking revenge for the train explosion that may have been planned.

What's odd is his cohorts espouse a data-driven theory that claims to be able to predict events, thereby identifying the perpetrators based on the data. Writer/director Jensen layers in enough comic bungling with these three eccentric buddies for the revenge thriller to qualify for a Danish Three Stooges spinoff. With their information, Markus goes after the baddies.

Never has this genre been so light and so dark at the same time. Markus, under a heavy beard, doesn't crack a smile (missing therefore the haunting Mads visage), and the automatic weapons take a considerable toll, while the buddies also dabble in the possibility that chance trumps data. The discussion is worthy of a more sophisticated film yet cogent enough here to make the aud think about a theme of chance.

Looked at in every sequence, chance is present from the train explosion to flawed data. Although Markus, as a soldier in the Afghanistan conflict, shows superior marksmanship, the clash between data and chance takes over for the thinking audience. Although Markus is accomplished in warfare, like Othello, he bungles his role in the civilian world as the two cultures are wholly different.

In any case, Riders of Justice (named after the biker gang which is the object of Markus's wrath) is a unique revenge film, light-hearted and philosophical while maintaining the formula's stringent demands for satisfactory violence. It has it all.
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Terrific sequel. Bring on Part III.
28 May 2021
The conceit about hearing works just as well in A Quiet Place: Part II as it did in the blockbuster original. Blind aliens with super-sensitive hearing immobilize humanity by forcing it to shut up to shut out the ugly invaders. As for the monsters, mash up Alien with Jurassic Park-they're pretty ugly if unimaginative. As for the silence, anytime cell phones are marginalized in life and in art is a good time.

The prequal at the beginning if Part II dets the scene almost as well as the original. Cut to 474 days later when Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) must evade the monsters with her three children, including a hearing-impaired daughter, Regan (an even more this time remarkable Millicent Simmonds), who because of her understanding of sound, again plays a pivotal role combating the creatures.

Even if horror is not your genre, this PG-13 scare-fest has more than death and jump scares on its mind. Although Part II was already completed over a year ago, writer/director John Krasinski had something like pandemic on his mind-humanity banding together to fight an intrepid invader is as much the story here as a seemingly unstoppable virus.

Krasinski also is thinking of his impressive wife, Blunt, as he gives her and Regan heroic tasks, two women strong and smart enough to stop the invasion. He is also mindful that the best way to treat multiple story lines is by parallel editing, cross cutting among actions to enhance the excitement and keep the story clear. Although the cutting gets tiresome after a while, it does the job of informing us and binding characters.

The power of this mild-mannered horror film is in the characters, some who come quickly to heroism and some who come reluctantly. Most do rise to the task of saving their fellow humans. In a movie where cell phones can't play a part as they do for us daily, the silence is a salve to modern cacophony.
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Profile (2018)
A thriller about online seduction for ISIS. A cautionary tale for all of us users.
22 May 2021
Online seductions are many and varied and not new to those of us who engage with the Internet regularly. Profile takes the online search further than Searching or Her did by showing an undercover journalist, Amy (Valene Kane), being recruited by ISIS as easily as you might order a pair of socks from Amazon. Based on a true story, Profile has cultural and global inferences as many as the seduction techniques.

Brit reporter Amy interacts with recruiter Bilel (Shizad Latif), who thinks she is a naïve young aspirant for ISIS. Such is the power of the Internet to bring world computer travelers together in real time showing real emotions. In a sub-genre of the Stockholm Syndrome, Amy falls for Bilel and eventually agrees to marry him.

Profile doesn't give much information on Amy's background to justify why she falls for the dangerously charismatic, except for her clueless boyfriend, Matt (Morgan Watkins), who is one of the reasons such an attractive woman would go to the other side. Yet, the film is not really about being a recruit for global cult ISIS; it is about how the medium of the Internet, with the dexterity it gives to cons like Bilel, makes crooks out of the smartist of us.

Or should I say in Bilel's case, to a charming grifter are given the tools to conquer the world. On an esthetic note, Valene and Shizad are gifted performers who could sell just about anything. Likewise, director Timur Bekmambetov and writers Britt Poulton and Olga Kharina have crafted a thriller that shows the awful potential of the Net, even more than the notorious ISIS.

Persuasion has a new level of sophistication: Witness two smart operatives persuading each other. Profile will add to your understanding of human emotion and the power of the computer.
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Exciting neo-noir worth a comfortable night with Hetflix.
20 May 2021
True to the title, this neo-noir thriller set in a small Utah town is small in the crimes and the colorful characters, most of whom wouldn't last in an urban battleground. That also means the crimes have a heft because nothing much else happens that's even remotely big.

Disgraced ex-cop Mike Kendall (John Hawkes), in his muscle car discovers an almost-dead woman on the side of the road. He's still a good guy, tries to help her, then tries to find her murderer, pro bono. As Mike hits the bars (he's also an alcoholic who asks a buddy to accompany him around bars after an AA meeting) to find out who knew her, he meets a variety of thugs who definitely feel they're big-city, but they're not.

Although the plot unfolds in formulaic fashion, with good and bad guys exchanging barbs and bullets, the interesting stuff is the variety of characters-even the women, Octavia Spencer as Mike's adopted sister (she's a producer) among them, are given room to develop small characters. As Grandpa of the murdered girl, Robert Forster once again proves his affinity for noir with an uncommon affinity for guns; his death 2 years later in 2019 was a loss for those who love small films with talented actors like him.

However, hardboiled Hawkes is the draw in Small Town Crime, a large nose dominating a mouth that says little but carries big warning. This thriller is small with tones that vary wildly as Hawkes himself does, but the characters are figuratively big like the film as it chronicles small minds bent on large menace.
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Intriguing fraught romance with a gothic touch.
18 May 2021
Now and then a small film deals successfully with the small things that live within the larger life, in this case David (Clayne Crawford), a husband separated from his wife, Nikki (Sepideh Moafi), and trying desperately to save the marriage. As writer/director Robert Machoian portrays them, they are a not-extraordinary couple, he a former singer with a band and she a type of para-legal out West with immovable mountains the ever-present background.

Although they have agreed to date others, he is not happy she is seeing Derek (Chris Coy), a clean-cut local seemingly nice but a serious rival. Underneath David's tortured longing is a seething urge to end the pain by shooting her, and when that fails, maybe Derek.

And so, the little story begins to look like American gothic or kitchen-sink realism, and indeed it has the potential to be both. Yet it is more because Machoian shapes his simple story into an allegory about the need of families to stay together despite the odds of being whole in today's world.

The spare story with Greek-tragic potential is treated with respect and a lingering dignity for this couple desperate to keep things together, best exemplified by teen Jess (Avery Pizzuto) and her wailing about the family staying together. Her teenage taciturn angst helps accentuate the gravity of the separation in need of mending.

The story's end brings the violence promised by the opening with an inevitability for which audiences can only shake their heads in confirmation. In other words, while nothing much happens, everything happens, each set piece measured to illuminate the struggle men and women have endured forever to try to make things right.

Only the mountains evade the effects of fate and human folly while David and Nikki have potential by virtue of their passion to overcome the losses felt deeply out where the mountains rule and man is mostly a bystander.
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Oxygen (2021)
Well made, suspenseful, a seriously good sci-fi.
16 May 2021
Join Buried, Gravity, and 127 Hours with 2001 and you'll catch the vibe of the Netflix single-location sci-fi, Oxygen. With only one main character, Liz (Melanie Laurent), director Alexandre Aja and writer Christie LeBlanc have crafted an intriguing space mystery about a scientist trapped in a cryogenic coffin with only 19 minutes of oxygen left.

Not only is it nail-biting to witness a smart lady contesting her death with a Hal-like computer, M. I. L. O (Matthew Aamalric), but it is also interesting to connect with our experience of claustrophobic COVID-19 and our wish to live. How filmmakers can make the experience epic while the stage is a small pod is the magic that draws me in and doesn't let go.

Another suspenseful part of this thriller is the regular reminder of how much oxygen is left, or rather, how much time she has before death. Like a detective in a crime novel, Liz has to use all her resources (her mind) to find out how to stop the descent. Part of the tension is that the filmmakers allow her to cry at times when she should be conserving the air as we shout from our comfortable seats for her to stop. This sexist trope is out of date.

The most human element besides the will to live is her drive to re-unite with her husband, Leo (Malik Zidi), who also is doing the cryogenic dance. Like a dream in which she is close to her goal but never reaching it, this segment is the most emotionally powerful.

Oxygen is a smart sci-fi with enough smart challenges to satisfy the most discerning cinephile-and the rest of us who just enjoy well-made films.
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Run-of-the mill thriller with a few fine performances.
14 May 2021
The struggle between appearance and reality has been a staple in fiction since even before Oedipus thought he ruled his kingdom. More recently knowing whether the ghosts are real or not anchors the uncertain reality of Henry James's Turn of the Screw. Of course, in the cinematic universe, Alfred Hitchcock has no equal-his work is riddled with characters who think they know the truth but alas are clueless, as his audience is. Hitch is not called the master of suspense for nothing.

When A. J. Finn claimed fame recently for his thriller novel, The Woman in the Window, part of his success was evoking the uncertainty of what his titular character, Anna (Amy Adams), sees through a window just as Jeff did through his long camera lens in Rear Window. As a psychologist, she might be expected to control her perception, but, alas, irony rules her little world.

Because she is agoraphobic, she not only secludes herself inside, but she also distances herself from the daily intercourse that would keep her in contact with reality. Director Joe Wright and writer Tracy Letts (also playing Anna's shrink) keep us guessing about the reality of what she sees, allowing the jump scares and suspicions to arise in an unremarkable thriller.

Background checks help unravel the uncertainty of her perceptions, including the old haunted-house theme of domestic memories plaguing the spacious Harlem brownstone. Having separated from her husband Ed (Anthony Mackie cut down in the editing to a cameo) and losing custody of their daughter, child psychologist Anna has nothing else to do but ruminate about her losses, divert herself from alcohol, and spy on new white, gentrifying neighbors (Anna is probably the only other white in the hood).

Not that this is all the action, for Anna thinks she sees new neighbor Jane Russell (Joanna Moore) being stabbed by husband Alastair (underused Gary Oldman). This uncertainty is eventually unraveled, leaving us with a heightened awareness of the accuracy of what we think we see and the hidden intentions of our fellow humans.

This cinematic adaptation of The Woman in the Window may be too beholden to the original, which had old horror, thriller tropes a plenty, and the tired idea of a wacked-out psychologist on her spying own. Amy Adams helps save it from complete obscurity just as Netflix has done by streaming it.
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Spiral (2021)
The Saw series has now officially spiraled out of control.
13 May 2021
When I teach intro to film again, I will use Spiral (subtitled "From the Book of Saw") as an example of thriller and revenge themes coupled with torture porn. At least I know the Gitmo operatives will enjoy it. But like that real life torture chamber, the Saw series just won't quit.

Nothing is creative about the formulaic nature of the film although the father/son dynamic gives it a bid for the unusual. As for the torture, the Saw series (this in the 9th?) has been exemplary for creative variations of torture.

Most especially this iteration with the Dantean punishments fitting the crime. One ring of this hell, for instance, has the cop victim losing his tongue most horrifically for having lied regularly on the stand. In another, a victim can bypass electrocution in a tub by allowing a machine to rip off his fingers!

The Jigsaw copycat certainly has Jigsaw's flare for the macabre while Chris Rock playing homicide detective Zeke Banks underperforms as the only decent cop in sight heading the investigation into the sick murders of the men and women in blue. Samuel L. Jackson as his dad and former chief of police is just Jackson reprising his bad-ass persona from a hundred other movies.

After absorbing the variations of torture, you might notice this is just a conventional and unremarkable police-as-corrupt thriller. But then, Rock is a producer, so like the Jigsaw imitator, he allows the series to live again. Or die, if I can predict the drift of critical reviews.
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Wrath of Man (2021)
Statham and Ritchie are supreme entertainers, and Wrath is no exception.
8 May 2021
"I'm beginning to think he's a psychopath."

So says one of the bad boys in Guy Ritchie's Wrath of Man about super operative, "the limey" H (Jason Statham). Well, you could say the same for the famously taciturn actor, Statham, who is an expert at kickboxing and jiujitsu in real life. Except that in Wrath he uses a gun.

"The dark horse" H rarely cracks a smile but here brings a slight grin when he kills six robbers while he's on a run to guard cash for an armored car company called Fortico. One of the successful outcomes of this otherwise standard heist film is Ritchie's ability to weave past and present into a coherent narrative about H's secret revenge wish in a super-charged atmosphere of high-end heist with multiple motives.

It's interesting to contrast Statham's stoicism with Bob Odenkirk's relatively more animated dad in the recent actioner, Nobody. Both have scores to settle but come at the revenge in different ways. Such is the lucrative world of kick-butt heroes. There is plenty of room for shenanigans that are at the same time absurd and rational.

Helpful to underscore the criminal side of this film is Christopher Benstead's suspenseful score, slightly reminiscent of Bernard Hermann's Hitchcock work. Emphasizing the lighter side of the story is the characters' nicknames seemingly out of the comic books: Bullet (Holt McCallany), Boy Sweat Dave (Josh Hartnett), and Hollow Bob (Rocci Williams), and Hot Betty (?).

Add a creative filmmaker like Guy Ritchie, who is at home with Sherlock and Statham, and even Madonna. Without the cockney that demands subtitles, his previous actioner, set in LA, with Statham called The Gentlemen shows Ritchie's ability to mix light and dark, like this lightly grim but eventful Wrath of Man.

"Let the painter paint." The Fed (Andy Garcia) about the violent H.
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A scare to distract from our horrible pandemic
30 April 2021
Warning: Spoilers
"Things that are in heaven are more real than things that are in the world." (Emanuel Swedenborg)

When is a horror film not a horror film? When it is about things that go wrong all day, like marriage and education, but are influenced by the past. Based on the novel All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage, Things Heard & Seen is a pleasant scare fest emphasizing the sins of its principal characters, present and past, and the robust life after death.

Swedenborg's philosophy (see quote above) that sees a continuation of this life into the next pervades the story, giving it surprising heft. The 18th-century mystic's influence on well-known Hudson Valley landscape painter George Inness, who showed the "reality of the unseen" connecting the "visible upon the invisible" extends the film's creepy conjunction of past, present, and location. The Puritanical motif and Dutch locale accentuate punishment for sins. Ghosts? It's set, after all, in Ichabod Crane country.

The strength in this lightly-cliched horror piece is the emphasis directors/writers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have given to a virtuous wife/painter, inexplicably bulimic Catherine (Amanda Seyfried), who has sacrificed her art success to move to the Valley with her husband, George (James Norton). He just secured a professorial job at a small college. As a friend comments, the town called "Chosen" (typical horror telegraphing) has "rich horsey weekenders and full-time rednecks."

Almost immediately Catherine feels tremors in the house, hears voices, and puts up with bizarre electrical activity. Seems there is a history of wives being murdered well before the current 1980. (Luckily no cell phones means we will not be annoyed by calls that too easily propel plot.)

Berman and Pulcini dot the plot with hints about a current bad dude tied to the past as its instrument in the present. Not good for Catherine, whose husband George is preoccupied with his new job and pursuing pretty young co-eds. How he secured this job and keeps it is a commentary on charismatic teachers and harassment that continues to this day in the halls of academe.

The film features the shenanigans of the haunted-house's past denizens rather than over-supplying horror fans with the usual motifs and tropes, not a bad thing at all. However, as a commentary on the insidiousness of corrupt marriages and their usual outcomes, Things Heard & Seen is enjoyable. That Catherine is not immune to the downside of infidelity, potentially her own, adds another layer to the complexity of the marriage theme.

In a sense it is a low-rent Who's Afraid of Virginial Woolf, where alcohol was the devil, not some bloody ghosts from the 19th century. Yet those ghosts are at the least a contemporary manifestation of the marital disease very real today for the protagonists.

All in all, Things Heard & Seen highlights the emerging acclaim of Amanda Seyfried, lately of Oscar-nomination fame, and smart filmmakers' willingness to merge philosophy and art with standard horror entertainment. As we usher out our own pandemic horror, it's fun to be scared virtually.

(On Netflix)
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Vizontele (2001)
An entertaining Turkish dramady about the first TV in Eastern Turkey.
29 April 2021
I rushed to see Vizontele, a Turkish dramady, because recently Netflix offered Paper Lives, a neorealist Turkish drama that could compete favorably internationally with its sweet characterization of an Istanbul dumpster diver. Vizontele, a less impressive drama but oddly effective comedy, is as much silly as it is subtle in its satire of the effect television has on a small Eastern Turkey town of the '70's and, of course, the world.

Director, co-writer, and star Yilmaz Erdogan deftly uses almost slapstick humor about the delivery of the first TV to the town to remind us all that 50 years later we have never yet slipped the bonds of the medium. Through a series of vignettes, some more successful at comedy, others more so at drama, Vizontele (so new they can't even give it the right name) gives us laughs at the town's bungling efforts to get the TV working while hinting that even more than cinema, which they have nicely adjusted to over the years, television, and by extension technology, changes things.

This new medium will not go away, no matter how deep they try to bury it. The local news shocks them, some from Pakistan, ye gods! Bringing bad news they might have lived happily without. Like visiting strangers in dramas of the West, this new arrival changes things profoundly. More so TV

Notwithstanding the comic struggles of the town to broadcast, the deeper drama in the last act prophetically warns of the enduring effects of technology, not all good. Yet Vizontele remains positive about humans, and I am beginning to gain affection for Turkey's film output, which so far has fun with the present while it subtly comments on the effects of progress, not all good.

Balancing between the comic and the serious with sure footing is the Turkish legacy, aided by a gifted Yilmaz Erdogan.
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Another Round (2020)
Love without sex. Is it possible? Yes, and sweet it is.
26 April 2021
"So, when you run around totally wasted, throwing up in bushes and alleys, don't feel alone, because you're in great company." Martin (Mads Mikkelsen)

Another Round is a Danish drama rightfully awarded the "International Feature" Oscar while the director, Thomas Vinterberg, was nominated for director. Although mid-life crisis has been amply treated in films around the world (think Wild Hogs and Sideways for starters), this one goes deeper than most exploring the chaos of four teachers experimenting with alcohol to spice up their lives.

The acting is superb-Mikkelsen should have been nominated. The analysis of the crisis is better than any lecture.

Using Norwegian psychologist Finn Skarderund's work about the need for human blood alcohol to maintain a 0.5% level, Martin tries it and finds he's a better teacher when he's drunk. His three buddies follow, with degrees of success that impel them to reach higher levels. Only the most dimwitted audience wouldn't see the disruption to personal and professional lives that will ensue.

However, the film keeps it even between the obvious domination of drinking and the needs it reflects, especially for domestic lives that are immediately affected by the excess. Actually, nothing dramatic erupts during the first two thirds of the film, just a slow deterioration of each one's ability to control his environment. Family life for Martin is almost from the beginning vulnerable to his change, and not for the better.

Nor does Another Round take it easy in the end by showing them mature and sober. In fact, it's hard to decide, even after a tragedy touches them, that they will lead sober lives after the graduation of their students. The fact that these middle-aged teachers need to revive their lives is ample proof that they need intervention, but alcohol is not the candidate.

"The world is never as you expect." Martin.
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A pleasant romcom with an unusual story.
25 April 2021
Two loners create a new life while finding a new way of loving. Together Together is a romantic dramady without sex and with so much Platonic action that there might be converts to "friends without benefits," a small society to be sure. Twenty-six-year old Anna (Patti Harrison) is surrogate for 40-something Matt (Ed Helms), who is lonely and intuits how good a father he would be.

The humor is wry, the mood is relaxed, as these good souls find friendship possibly more caring and intense than in any conventional romcom with its sexy heroes and rocky relationships. One unusual conflict is her trying to withdraw from the warmth of a lasting relationship and he wanting even more, e.g., feeding her folic acid and outfitting her in clogs.

This chill comedy is just what COVID prisoners should want to see-a workable friendship that depicts love without the usual entanglements. Some, however, may not like the uncertain ending. That's life!

A pleasant date in sparsely-populated theaters.
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Stowaway (2021)
It's crowded in that ship with universal themes and human challenges. Good stuff.
23 April 2021
"What are we gonna do, ask him to walk out of the airlock?" Zoe (Anna Kendrick)

The problem in the entertaining Stowaway on Netflix is that an extra person hidden away on a two-year trip to Mars sucks out too much unplanned oxygen. Four occupants cannot survive even getting to the planet.

Although director Joe Penna likes the tech too much for my liking, the survival motif is still strong enough as only the Donner family could have known well enough. The three astronauts and the stowaway engineer, stuck in a claustrophobic ship originally made for two but tricked out for three, must decide who goes, as medical doctor Zoe simply states above. The tight ship symbolizes the slim options available to the crew.

No new sci-fi ground covered here, just the usual tropes of bungling outside the ship as they try to get oxygen from outer tanks to the sentimental stories of a child left behind and a scientist's life work destroyed. What it does have is a new take on an enduring human dilemma: What sacrifices must be made to ensure the survival of the species, not just the individual.

Additionally, at what point must the adventure of living stop in order to guarantee the survival of the many rather than the few. Not all of these themes are fully explored in Stowaway but enough to spark conversation. The ultimate conversation, however, is with ourselves: What would we do? What sacrifice would we make?

It's comforting to see the commander of the ship a woman, Marina (Toni Collette), and the hero a woman (Zoe).

Enjoy an evening of release from the pandemic to the liberation of space travel only to realize we are still left with very human decisions no matter where we go.

"I need you to be mentally prepared for what's gonna happen." Marina.
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Synchronic (2019)
Challenging, complex, and reflective of our times.
21 April 2021
Paramedics are perfect as subjects for thrillers and sci-fi. Synchronic is the mixture of both set in, where else? New Orleans. As paramedics Steve (Anthony Mackie) and best friend Dennis (Jamie Dornan) try to figure out the reason for the spate of recent grisly murders, Steve discovers a hallucinogenic drug responsible for them, Synchronic, and the effects are, well, not of this world.

That's the sci-fi: time travel to places such as Ice-Age tundra via the pill but only as many trips as the supply of drugs. The parallel to the devastation of opioids today is easier than figuring out the flight plan of each. Staying in the same spot is crucial for the bus to stop, so to speak. Being historically savvy is also helpful, especially when one meets former slave owners, who think they own you (Mackie is Black in case you didn't know).

More important than the logistics, however, is the underlying theme of being rooted in present time to family and friends. Steve's selfless time return to find his best bud's daughter, Brianna (Ally Ioannides), is the linchpin of love that compels good guys like Steve maybe to survive the dangerous journeys.

Synchronic is within the thriller (who's killing these folks?) and sci-fi formulas, satisfactorily heating the tropic beats and emphasizing the humanity behind these shenanigans. If for nothing else, the film reveals just what it means to be alive (yep, existential). It's a pleasant, albeit challenging, Netflix evening.
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