GOD’S COUNTRY (2022) – Powerful Drama Uses Subtlety to Ratchet Up Tension

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GOD’S COUNTRY (2022) is a slow-burn thriller that grows stronger the longer it goes on, using subtlety to ratchet up the tension the way other lesser-made movies use violence to do the same. As such, it’s a refreshing and resounding drama that packs a punch from start to finish.

What GOD’S COUNTRY has to say, that racial disparities and violence against women continue to be unchanged is disturbing, mostly because it is hard to argue that the movie is wrong.

Figuratively, the film plays out like a western of old, only the protagonist is a woman of color, alone on the prairie, dealing with bad men with guns, pushed to the limit, until she has to stoop to their level, like a classic gunfighter of yesteryear, and beat the villains at their own game. But GOD’S COUNTRY isn’t a “western,” nor an action movie, but a drama about a college professor dealing with both subtle racism and in-your-face violence.

It’s a masterful story and movie well worth the price of a movie ticket.

GOD’S COUNTRY takes place in beautiful western Montana, “God’s country,” where college professor Sandra (Thandiwe Newton) has recently moved from New Orleans, and with the passing of her mother, she is grieving. She lives alone with her dog in a farmhouse with stunning mountains and wilderness all around her. One morning after her morning jog, she finds a red pickup truck parked in her driveway. Her employer and dean at the college Arthur (Kai Lennox) tells her not to worry about it, that it probably just belongs to some hunters, and they never bother anyone.

But Sandra takes offense to their parking on her property, and when the truck is parked there again, she leaves a note asking for them not to park on her property. But they ignore her request, even after she speaks to them in person, and when they shoot an arrow into her front door, she calls the police. Acting sheriff Wolf (Jeremy Bobb) tries to tell Sandra that things are different in Montana than in New Orleans, and that most of the time, these issues are solved not by calling the police, but by the folks themselves. But Sandra says she feels threatened, and so against his better judgment Wolf agrees to talk to the two men. Sandra insists on going with him, which doesn’t make the situation any easier.

They meet the first man Nathan (Joris Jarsky) at his job, and he takes offense at Sandra being there with Wolf, and he worries that Wolf’s presence there in the store will cost him his job, which Wolf assures him it will not. Nathan reluctantly agrees not to park in Sandra’s driveway anymore. But when they visit the second man, Samuel (Jefferson White), the more unpredictable of the two, at his place of work, cutting down pine trees, they find themselves in the forest suddenly surrounded by hostile men wielding chainsaws, in one of the movie’s most riveting scenes, men who refuse to listen to Wolf, because, as we find out, the former sheriff is on a leave of absence for shooting and killing one of the men’s brothers, and so they do not trust the police at all. It’s Sandra who steps up and offers her sympathy and condolences to the men and gets them to agree that the man who shot the brother is not there with them, and so she convinces them to let her, and Wolf walk away, no harm, no foul. It’s here where Wolf recognizes that Sandra wasn’t a college professor back in New Orleans.

And later over a conversation at a party hosted by Arthur, Wolf learns that his suspicions are correct, that Sandra was a cop back in New Orleans. And in one of the movie’s best scenes, Wolf asks Sandra why she left the force, and he guesses that she shot someone in the line of duty, to which she replies, that’s the worst thing you can think of? When she goes on to tell him that the reason she left was because of what happened after Hurricane Katrina, how the authorities and the system failed her people, and her mother specifically, it’s a powerhouse moment, where the audience feels as dumbfounded and as foolish as Wolf, who offers a weak “I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” which causes Sandra to walk away.

The tension rises when Sandra begins to follow Nathan and Samuel to learn more about them, and they view this as an escalation, and the acts of violence against her grow more serious. Meanwhile, Sandra grows more frustrated at her job when Arthur fails to include a person of color for an open professorship. Things build to an explosive climax, and as I said, this one gets better as it goes along.

There’s a lot to like about GOD’S COUNTRY. Director Julian Higgins continually inserts brief snippets of close-ups of items inside Sandra’s home, soaking in pouring rain, giving the audience a sense of foreboding that something awful is yet to come. The entire film is beautifully shot in western Montana, and this natural scenery is at odds with the humans who inhabit it. The film’s title GOD’S COUNTRY has multiple meanings here. The literal, the setting, but it also refers to the recurrent theme of useless faith. Sandra’s mother put her faith in God yet was left to fend for herself in the hurricane in New Orleans. It also speaks to what God’s country ultimately is in the United States, a flawed unfair system that hides behind the notion of God while it does whatever the heck it wants.

Thandiwe Newton, who stars in the TV series WESTWORLD (2016-2022), plays Sandra as a sad, cautious, and ultimately fed-up woman who is sick and tired of being bullied by the folks around her. She comes off to the casual viewer as being somewhat of a pain in the backside, and early on in the movie the audience tends to agree more with her levelheaded boss Arthur, and the two hunters don’t at first seem all that unreasonable. But Sandra asked them not to park in her driveway, and they refused. That in and of itself needed to change, and when it doesn’t, the audience’s view on Sandra changes. It doesn’t matter that she might seem annoying, those guys should one, be off her property, and two, should leave her alone, and when they don’t, that’s when the problems get worse.

Jeremy Bobb as acting-sheriff Wolf is convincing as the laid-back country police officer who became a cop because his high school coach was also a cop, and he figured it was a worthwhile profession.

Kai Lennox is excellent as dean Arthur, the man who seems fair minded at first, but the more we learn about him, the more we realize he’s not as progressive as he says he is. The scene where Sandra has had enough and tells him to f*ck off, is one where the audience feels the same exact way.

Jefferson White is sufficiently slimy as the unhinged hunter Samuel, but Joris Jansky is even better as his buddy Nathan. In another of the film’s many powerful sequences, the scene where Sandra follows Nathan into a church is a perfect microcosm for the story this movie tells. When Nathan sees Sandra, he tells her she has to leave, but when she sees his mother playing the organ, she tells him that her mother also used to play the organ at church, and she also tells him that her mother has just recently died. The two converse quietly in the back of the church, on their mothers, and on faith, and they seem to gain an understanding of each other and bond, but moments later, he tells her in a harsh and threatening manner, that she has to leave the church now!

That’s what happens in God’s country.

The screenplay by director Higgins and Shaye Ogbonna is a real strength. It makes its points without hitting you over the head with them. It uses subtlety to great effect. When Arthur’s young secretary confides in Sandra and tells her that Arthur sexually assaulted her, when she gives the details, it at first sounds so harmless— in other words, it’s not a blatant rape or grope, but it is a massage, and the film gets you to realize, of course this isn’t harmless!

The film’s ending, in which Sandra realizes there is only one way to finally stop these men, which comes after they have inflicted great harm to her, hearkens back to the classic westerns of old. In a way, this seems disappointing, that this is the best we have as an answer. But that is what the film is ultimately saying, that as much as we want change, nothing is changing.

It’s a somber message, but it all works.

GOD’S COUNTRY is well-made drama that speaks volumes as to what life is really like in this nation some people call God’s country.

I give it three stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

END OF THE ROAD (2022) – Netflix Action Thriller Doesn’t Go the Distance

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END OF THE ROAD (2022) opens with main character Brenda (Queen Latifah) having her credit card declined at the store, and then we see her moving her reluctant family, her teen daughter Kelly (Mychala Lee) and young son Cam (Shaun Dixon), out of their empty home, about to take a road trip with her brother Reggie (Ludacris) to the Southwest to stay with her mother. As the car pulls away from their home, the title credits emerge in bold letters, END OF THE ROAD.

It doesn’t take much imagination to understand what the title refers to, in terms of the lives of these characters.

The central premise of END OF THE ROAD, a new action thriller which just premiered on Netflix, I bought into and liked. Brenda, an ER nurse, is now broke because when her deceased husband took ill, all their money went towards his medical expenses. This plot point is very real, since it’s no secret that in the U.S. medical expenses are astronomical, and insurance plans are largely ineffective with ridiculously high deductibles. The angst she and her two children feel about having to leave their home is real and palpable, and since she’s the surviving parent, it makes sense that her kids kind of blame her.

Then there’s her loser brother Reggie, who can’t seem to do anything right, but he’s there for his sister and his niece and nephew, so at the end of the day, he’s not really a loser. So, I liked all these characters and their initial story, and as they travel through New Mexico, you know they are going to run into trouble, and they do.

In their motel room, they hear a fight in the room next door, and then a gun shot. Brenda and Reggie investigate, find a man who has been shot, and try but fail to save his life. They call the police, and after making statements, they continue on their way, and that is that. Except Brenda doesn’t realize that Reggie found a bag of money in the man’s bathroom, and he took it, thinking that it could solve all their problems, and Reggie doesn’t realize that the money is drug money which the local crime lord wants back badly.

Enter Sheriff Hammers (Beau Bridges) who is hot on the trail of this mysterious crime lord, and because the officers who first arrived at the crime scene allowed Brenda and her family to leave immediately, Hammers wasn’t able to question them, and so he’s also hot on their trail, guessing that they took the missing money and believing their lives to be in danger.

So far so good, and the first half of END OF THE ROAD is a pretty compelling drama, with a decent set-up for an action thriller. But then, in the second half of the movie, it all falls apart. Completely falls apart.

When forced to fight for her family against violent thugs and criminals, Brenda morphs into superwoman, making the action scenes in this one both ludicrous and far-fetched. This combined with an even more ridiculous plot twist involving one of the characters, and all the credibility which the first half of this movie owned, disappears like stolen money from a motel room.

END OF THE ROAD goes from being a compelling thriller to a laughable action flick in the blink of an eye, which is too bad, because the first half had a lot of potential.

It’s also a bit heavy-handed. Yes, race problems are real in the U.S., but the white folks in this movie are so over-the-top nasty they become cliche, and as a result, they simply don’t resonate. There’s nothing subtle about anything that happens in this movie.

The performances are fine at least. I enjoyed Queen Latifah in the lead role, and Mycala Lee and Shaun Dixon as her children, but most of all I enjoyed rapper Ludacris as Reggie, who’s the most interesting character in the movie, and also, sadly, the most underutilized. Ludacris gives the best performance in the movie.

Beau Bridges was fine for a while as Sheriff Hammers, at first playing a role similar to the one his brother Jeff Bridges played in the superior HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016). In that film, Jeff Bridges played a Texas Marshall hot on the trail of two bank robbers. Here, Beau Bridges plays a New Mexico sheriff hot on the trail of a drug lord. Both characters share a similar passion and drive. However, once the plot twist is revealed, Bridges’ performance goes out the window as it becomes part of a story which makes little sense and isn’t believable at all.

Millicent Shelton directed END OF THE ROAD, and technically there’s no problems here. The action scenes are all polished and slick. They’re just not very believable. I mean, Brenda is an ER nurse, not a law enforcement officer.

David Loughery wrote the screenplay, based on an original script by Christopher J. Moore. It’s a mixed bag, as it creates likable, sympathetic characters, and places them in a compelling situation, before it jettisons all believability as it deteriorates into a laughable action flick which by the time it ends no longer has any semblance of truth.

This one reaches the end of the road long before its end credits roll.

I give it two stars.

—-END—

SAMARITAN (2022) – Sylvester Stallone Kicks Butt as Grizzled Gray Superhero

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Sylvester Stallone as a superhero?

Who’s he playing? Senior Citizen Man?

And with that, we’ll dispense with the “old people” jokes for the rest of this column. I just think it’s funny that in this day and age, between CGI effects in the movies, and the healthy regimens of many actors who like Stallone are aging much better than previous generations, you can tell a story about an older superhero with a 76-year-old actor in the lead role and have it be believable! This is a good thing.

SAMARITAN (2022) opens with young Sam Cleary (Javon “Wanna” Walton) recounting the story of twin brother superheroes Samaritan and Nemesis, who fought to the death twenty years earlier when Nemesis went rogue and tried to kill his good superhero brother Samaritan with a special hammer he forged just for the job. Both men were killed in a massive explosion inside a warehouse, but Sam doesn’t believe Samaritan died. He believes the former superhero is just hiding out somewhere.

And when the garbage man named Joe (Sylvester Stallone) who lives in the apartment across the street from him shows up one day and saves him from some gang member bullies, showing off superior strength and fighting skills, Sam believes he has found his man. He believes Joe is Samaritan.

Meanwhile, local gang leader Cyrus (Pilou Asbaek) discovers Nemesis’ hammer and mask and decides to use them both as he begins a crime campaign to wreak havoc and cause chaos across the city. Sam is part of this gang, and Cyrus has taken a liking to him, but when things get more dangerous and Sam’s life is endangered, he turns to Joe for help, and he gets it, but not in the way he was expecting.

As superhero stories go, the one told in SAMARITAN, now playing in theaters and also available to watch for free on Amazon Prime Video, is pretty standard. It didn’t really do all that much for me, and the longer it went on, the less I was interested in it. Also, the big reveal at the end wasn’t that hard to figure out, because there were enough clues in place earlier in this one to see how it was going to go down. Bragi F. Schut wrote the screenplay, and other than a few good lines for Stallone, it’s nothing to write home about.

I like Stallone, and admittedly he’s the main reason I wanted to see this move, and on that front, it wasn’t a disappointment because he’s pretty darn good in the role. Of course, he’s been doing this for so long he can probably do it in his sleep, but that doesn’t mean it’s not another enjoyable performance. From Rocky to Rambo to a myriad of other action film performances, Sylvester Stallone has a presence and persona that serves him well. He’s the working man’s action hero, the blue-collar tough guy, who is more at home dishing out wisdom and advice over wise-cracking one-liners.

And he’s at it again here. Joe becomes a mentor and father figure to Sam, and late in the movie schools the boy on the nuances of good and bad in the world, of how people mistakenly believe it’s all about good vs. evil. Joe tells Sam it’s not that clear cut because there is good and bad in every person, and it’s all about the choices people make. It also goes without saying that Stallone is believable here as the grizzled superhero, as he efficiently kicks the butts of much younger villainous foes.

This also isn’t the first foray into superheroes for the Rocky/Rambo star. He provided the voice for the CGI-created King Shark in the hilarious THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021), a fun performance in a very fun movie. He was less memorable in a small role in Marvel’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 (2017) as Stakar Ogord. Stallone is currently working on THE EXPENDABLES 4, due out next year, a series I’ve enjoyed.

I can’t say that I was all that impressed with Javon “Wanna” Walton as Sam. There was something rather annoying about his personality.

Pilou Asbaek is decent as the villain, Cyrus. He’s had plenty of practice. He’s played similar tough guy roles in films like OUTSIDE THE WIRE (2021) and GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017). He also played Euron Greyjoy on GAME OF THRONES (2016-2019).

I did enjoy Dascha Polanco as Sam’s mom Tiffany. She makes for a memorable hard-working single mom who because of her job can’t be there as often as she likes for her son. She’s as tough as nails, a side of her which she gets to show off later in the story.

Moises Arias also stands out as an annoying gang member named Reza who is a constant thorn in Sam’s side.

Directed by Julius Avery, SAMARITAN is a decent superhero movie, but not a great one. Its look is standard and didn’t offer anything I hadn’t seen before, and its action sequences, while okay, aren’t mind-blowing. It’s ultimately successful for a couple of reasons. It tells a simple straightforward story and doesn’t get lost in a convoluted muddled mess of storytelling like some of the recent Marvel entries, films like DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS (2021) and THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022). It’s also not overlong and doesn’t get boring.

Most of all, it benefits from the presence of Sylvester Stallone. Watching him play the lead role was a real treat. It’s like ROCKY meets UNBREAKABLE (2000).

He’ll not only go the distance; he won’t even be down for the count. Not ever.

Yo, Adrian! Look, no black eyes!

—END–

BEAST (2022) – Idris Elba Anchors Solid African Adventure

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For an actor as talented and as popular as Idris Elba, he sure has made his share of bad movies.

And based on the trailers for his latest, BEAST (2022), a tale where he plays a dad protecting his two daughters from a menacing lion in the wilds of Africa, I expected this one to be added to that list. The good news is BEAST is not a bad movie.

Not at all.

BEAST opens in Africa, where we see a bunch of poachers killing a pride of lions, but the male lion gets away and moments later returns to attack and kill the poachers who had remained in search of him. So, right off the bat, we learn that this isn’t just some random hungry lion, but rather, an animal with an agenda. He’s out for revenge, against the poachers or any other human who gets in his way!

Cue Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) and his two teenage daughters Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries) who arrive in Africa from the U.S. to reconnect after the death of Nate’s wife and the girls’ mother. Nate and his wife had been separated, and while separated, she had died from cancer. Meredith blames her dad for not being there for their mother while she was sick, and the guilt is something Nate carries with him deeply. He never intended not to be there for his wife, and he wants to make amends now by being there for his daughters. His wife was born in Africa, hence the trip, to reconnect with her roots.

They are greeted by Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley), Nate’s good friend and uncle to his daughters. Martin is the man who introduced Nate to his wife, and so they all share a special connection. Martin spends his days helping the authorities keep the poachers away from the animals. When he takes Nate and his daughters out for a ride through the wilds of Africa, they unfortunately cross paths with the vengeful lion from the movie’s opening, an animal with only one goal in mind: kill every human it comes in contact with.

And that’s the set up for the rest of the movie, as it pits Elba’s Dr. Nate Samuels against the vicious lion, as Nate vows never again to let his daughters down.

As premises go, the one in BEAST isn’t bad, but it’s not great either. The reason it works however is the material is handled well by everyone involved.

The screenplay by Ryan Engle, based on a story by Jaime Primak Sullivan, rises above the material mostly because the dialogue is excellent, and it gets the dynamic between Nate and his daughters right. They act like real people, and when you put real people in danger, you have an exciting movie. There is just so much stress in the conversations between Nate and his daughters, and all of it comes off as real. It also helps that both Meredith and Norah have distinctive personalities. There’s one scene where Nate tells his daughters to stay behind while he goes up ahead to see what’s going on, and when Martin tells him to run, and he turns to say the same to the girls, he sees that Norah is missing, and he asks Meredith where she is, and she says she was there minute ago. As Nate desperately searches for his youngest daughter, he says to Meredith, “You had one job!” In this one moment, you have genuine father/daughter angst plus the suspense of the rogue lion closing in on them.

Engle co-wrote the screenplay to RAMPAGE (2018), a very different “attacking animal” movie, as that film, which told the story of a giant ape and some other giant monsters, was based on the popular video game and was high camp and was a perfect vehicle for Dwayne Johnson. Engle also wrote a pair of Liam Neeson action thrillers, THE COMMUTER (2018) and NON-STOP (2014), both of which were formulaic but ultimately worked because they were Liam Neeson action thrillers! I liked these movies, and BEAST is not only on par with them, but it’s probably the best of the lot for creating realistic believable characters.

Director Baltasar Kormakur also does a nice job here. First and foremost, the lion scenes are intense, better than I expected. Sure, it’s CGI, but it looks really good. The best part is the lion moves with a speed and a ferocity that is quite scary. There are these quick bursts of insane aggressive energy which jostle the audience. Even though the final outcome of this movie is never in question, the lion sequences where he constantly attacks Nate and his daughters are quite suspenseful.

And of course, the film takes place in the wilds of Africa, which is a plus. I believe it was movie critic Gene Siskel who once said when he was reviewing the Sidney Pollack film OUT OF AFRICA (1985), a love story starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford which took place in Africa, that any movie which was set in Africa would be improved just by the scenery and setting alone. He wasn’t wrong.

But I didn’t go to see BEAST because of its African scenery or its marauding lion. I went to see it because of Idris Elba. As I said, he’s a terrific actor, and I’m a big fan. And yes, he has made his share of bad movies…. NO GOOD DEED (2014) and THE DARK TOWER (2017) come to mind…. but the thing about Elba is, regardless of the movie, he always delivers a top performance and often lifts up lesser movies by his performance alone. And when he’s in a movie that really works, like THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021) for example, the results are usually outstanding.

Elba is terrific here in the lead role as Dr. Nate Samuels, a man who is guilt-ridden over the death of his wife, since he wasn’t there for her, and who is hell-bent on protecting his daughters from the menacing lion. He’s also believable in the physical aspects of the role, having to go toe to toe— or is it claw to claw?— with the lion, even if towards the end some of the sequences do border on the far-fetched. The other neat thing about his character is at first his daughters seem to have lost a lot of respect for him, and later, when his skills as a doctor become so important to their survival, and they witness this, it makes for some noteworthy moments.

Of course, the gold standard for Elba fans remains his work on the superior TV show LUTHER (2010-2019). And for years now, Elba’s name has been floated as possibly being the next James Bond, and even though the producers of that series are supposedly seriously interested in him for the role, he’s on record this year as saying he’s not interested in Bond, so it sounds like that’s not going to happen. Which is too bad. He’d be really good.

Both Iyana Halley as Meredith and Leah Jeffries as Norah bring their characters to life, and they represent a complicated family dynamic that only ads to the tension in the film. They are both fiercely independent characters, and for example, at one point when Nate tells them to say inside the vehicle, Meredith believes otherwise and doesn’t listen to her father. What makes this moment and these characters work is that she’s not wrong, She sets out to do something she believes she can do, and she does it.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Sharlto Copley in a movie, and he’s fine here in a supporting role as family friend and guide Martin Battles. Back in his heyday, Copley was playing major roles in some pretty big science fiction movies, as the soft-spoken hero in DISTRICT 9 (2009) and as the violent and vicious villain in ELYSIUM (2013).

BEAST was better than I expected. It’s a well-written movie that creates believable characters and puts them in danger. For the most part, it keeps things realistic, although things do grow more far-fetched towards the end, and its ending does strain credibility. I think most people would be dead when put in similar predicaments. Elba’s Nate pretty much challenges the lion to a hand-to-hand combat battle. Yeah. That’s the one part of the movie that— yeah.

But the rest is all very good. You have an exciting story throughout, amazing African scenery, and yet another worthy performance by Idris Elba anchoring the whole thing.

BEAST is a genuine popcorn movie that provides solid summertime entertainment.

Give it a roar!

—END—

DAY SHIFT (2022) – Horror/Action/Comedy at Its Worst

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The mindless action/comedy tour continues, and with DAY SHIFT (2022), you can throw horror into the mix.

In recent weeks, I’ve been writing about the plethora of mindless action comedies at the movies these days, films filled with clever rapid-fire banter between main characters but with stories so ridiculous and over-the-top that they possess no semblance of truth and are about as interesting as watching someone else play a video game. Yawn. These movies have become absolutely wearisome, but since they continue to make money, they aren’t going away anytime soon.

They run the gamut from generally entertaining and fairly well-written, like BULLET TRAIN (2022), to not-so-well written and too-ridiculous-to-be-believed-and-enjoyed, like THE GRAY MAN (2022), to the horribly dreadful and uber boring because not only is the action mindless but the characters as well, like UNCHARTED (2022).

DAY SHIFT, a new horror/action/comedy which premiered this weekend on Netflix, falls into the latter category. It’s pretty bad.

The movie opens with swimming pool cleaner Bud Jablonski (Jamie Foxx) entering a home and immediately being attacked by an old lady who in reality is…. a deadly vampire! We learn everything we need to know about the rest of this movie in this opening action sequence. It goes on for a while, the stunts and action are impeccably polished, and it’s generally entertaining for an opening scene of an action movie, and when it’s done, Bud wins, and he makes a wisecrack.

And that’s what DAY SHIFT is all about. See, Bud’s not really a pool cleaner. He’s a vampire hunter! And in this movie, Los Angeles is crawling with vampires, and so Bud is plenty busy! The gimmick here is that Bud’s ex-wife Jocelyn (Meagan Good) has threatened to move to Florida with their young daughter Paige (Zion Broadnax) because they can no longer afford her private school which costs $5,000, or her need for braces, which will cost $6,000, so in order to keep his family in L.A. with him, he has to come up with $11,000 real fast! So, he has to get extra aggressive with the vampire hunter gig. However, this plot point is a head-scratcher. Moving to Florida isn’t going to remove Paige’s need for braces or the expense that goes with it, and private schools in Florida are just as expensive as private schools in California, so Bud, if he took two minutes to think about things, should have realized he has other options for keeping his daughter with him in California. But that would suggest some intelligence here, which is something that the script lacks.

Bud is paired up with the dorky Seth (Dave Franco) who has been tasked with making sure that Bud follows all the rules of the vampire hunting company, something that Seth isn’t interested in doing because he likes his desk job and isn’t interested in working in the field. And the main villain here, a female vampire named Audrey (Karla Souza) is intent on two things, populating the city with vampires, and exacting revenge on Bud since the old lady he killed in the film’s opening was her daughter. Don’t ask. The explanation doesn’t make sense. So, eventually Audrey goes after Jocelyn and Paige, and it’s up to daddy Bud to save the day.

As stories go, this one is very lame.

DAY SHIFT reminded me somewhat of another Netflix action/horror/comedy movie, ARMY OF THE DEAD (2021), only in that movie, which was directed by Zach Snyder and starred Dave Bautista, the good guys were battling zombies, not vampires. This similarity comes as no surprise as screenwriter Shay Hatten wrote both movies. Here, Hatten shares screenwriting credit with Tyler Tice.

It’s a pretty ineffective screenplay. The dialogue and banter is neither funny or clever, and there’s nary a laugh to be found. There is one amusing conversation between Bud and Seth about the TWILIGHT series, but that’s about it. It tries to be clever and creative with the vampires, as Seth offers an explanation into the different types of vampires, but the movie never makes an effort to make this part of the film’s lore, and so it’s quickly forgotten. The characters are shallow, and the plot forgettable. Vampire Audrey has the upper hand once she captures Bud’s ex-wife and daughter, and the only reason she doesn’t succeed is she went to the Dr. Evil School of Villainy and talks about all her plans but never acts on them. It’s pretty stupid. And finally, the story embraces one of the worst plot contrivances in the movies, where after the dust settles, mommy realizes that her ex-husband and daddy of their child really isn’t so bad after all since he’s a vampire hunter hero, and they decide to get back together. Gag! That simply is not how people act. This plot point is almost as bad as the “it was just a dream” shtick.

DAY SHIFT was directed by stunt man J.J. Perry, and the result is what you would expect. The action sequences are really well done and slick, and they are the best part of the movie, but that’s pretty much all DAY SHIFT has to offer. The horror and comedy are pretty nonexistent.

Jamie Foxx is pretty much hit or miss with me. Sometimes I enjoy his work, and other times I don’t. I really enjoyed him in DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) and RAY (2004), but he did little for me in another recent Netlix actioner PROJECT POWER (2020), and he was rather ineffective in BABY DRIVER (2017). Here, he’s okay, but it’s a terribly written role.

But he fares much better than co-star Dave Franco who plays one of the most embarrassingly pathetic characters I’ve seen in a movie in years. Seth is a disaster. Let’s put it this way: the running gag in the movie is that every time Seth gets scared, he pees himself, and so after each action scene, we get to see Seth humiliate himself, and the other characters plus Seth himself make jokes about it. I can’t believe Franco would even play this role. It’s so bad. And then once you think he’s been put out of his misery, after he is turned into a vampire, and Bud beheads him, it turns out he can put his head back on to survive and become a “good” vampire.

Your guess is as good as mine.

One of the best performances in the movie belongs to Natasha Liu Bordizzo in a small role as Bud’s neighbor who also turns out to be a “good” vampire, and late in the film, she helps Bud and Seth. She’s fun to watch, and she makes for a better action hero than either Bud or Seth. We just saw Bordizzo play a very different character in the thriller THE VOYEURS (2021).

Also making an impact in a small role is Eric Lange, who plays a shady character who buys goods from Bud. It’s the kind of role Lange is good at, having played a similar shady type in the TV series NARCOS (2016-2017). He was also memorable in a dark role in the effective horror movie ANTEBELLUM (2020).

But Karla Souza is ineffective as the one-note vampire villain Audrey. She holds all the cards, yet she loses in pathetically stupid fashion.

Rapper Snoop Dogg is on hand as experienced vampire hunter Big John Elliott, but he, like everyone else in this movie, is let down by the script. He has nary a memorable line.

DAY SHIFT is not only the most recent example of the action/horror/comedy movie trope that is already passe and cliche, it’s also one of the worst examples.

If I were you, I’d request the night shift instead.

—END—

BULLET TRAIN (2022) – Stylized Action Sequences and Silly Banter the New Norm in Hollywood

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Stylized action and banter.

That’s the new normal in Hollywood action movies these days. Sure, it worked for Marvel’s AVENGERS movies, and actually for most of their movies pre-AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), but for that level of success you need both nifty writing and characters you care about, which is not as easy as it sounds.

BULLET TRAIN (2022), a new action/comedy/thriller— why not throw in musical while we’re at it? — directed by David Leitch, the man who directed FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS AND SHAW (2019) and DEADPOOL 2 (2018), and starring Brad Pitt, is the high concept story of several assassins all on the same bullet train roaring through Japan, all interested in the same gray briefcase. Before I go any further, I have to give a shout out to Peter Bogdanovich’s classic comedy of yesteryear and one of my all-time favorites, WHAT’S UP DOC? (1972), one of the most underrated comedic films ever made, which featured Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal and used a similar plot point, but in that film, it was a bunch of cases that all looked the same. That was a funny movie. BULLET TRAIN has its moments, but it also has to split time between being a comedy and a thriller and an action movie. Maybe it should have just picked one and focused on that!

BULLET TRAIN reminded me a lot of a movie we just saw a couple weeks ago, THE GRAY MAN (2022) which starred Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans. Same formula, action and banter, similar results. BULLET TRAIN has a couple of things going for it which makes it preferable to THE GRAY MAN. One, its action scenes aren’t as ridiculously over the top (although some come close), and two, it has Brad Pitt, who creates a character in this movie who is more fleshed out and enjoyable than either character played by Gosling or Evans in THE GRAY MAN.

Pitt plays an assassin whose codename is Ladybug, and as the movie opens, he’s in Japan enjoying some rest and relaxation, working on getting his head and mood together, so when he agrees to return to action and take another job, he’s feeling rested and terrific, even if he feels he’s always plagued by bad luck, which is a running gag throughout the movie. The job he receives from his handler (voiced by Sandra Bullock) is described as very simple: just board a bullet train, locate a gray briefcase, and take it off the train.

But the job is anything but simple because there are a bunch of other assassins on board, and they also want the briefcase. And that’s the plot folks, as pretty much the entire 126-minute running time is spent with assassins vying for the same case on a speeding train. I half expected Bugs Bunny, the Road Runner, and Wile E Coyote and friends to show up.

As I said, BULLET TRAIN was directed by David Leitch, and it plays like any number of movies he’s made already, although it reminded me the most of his HOBBS AND SHAW vehicle, which was more silly than fun, and I felt similarly about BULLET TRAIN. Leitch also directed ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) which was not a comedy and featured some of the best action fight scenes in a movie in a long time, and so that’s probably my favorite Leitch film.

BULLET TRAIN looks great with its colorful cinematography, and you can’t go wrong with its polished stylish action sequences. You just aren’t going to believe many of them, because they come off as cartoonish. Pitt’s Ladybug is like Bugs Bunny. Bombs explode and he walks away without a scratch. Always.

Zak Olkewicz wrote the amiable screenplay based on the book by Kotaro Isaka, and it’s filled with nonstop banter, so if you like that sort of thing, you’ll have fun here. It works for me up to a point. It’s certainly better than the dialogue in another action/comedy hit (which I did not like at all) from earlier this year, UNCHARTED (2022), a ridiculous movie that featured Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg exchanging barbs while travelling the world in search of treasure. Audiences ate this one up, though. I found it dumb and redundant.

Here, Brad Pitt is very funny as Ladybug, the assassin who can’t stop thinking and philosophizing on life. His character and his performance are the best parts of the movie. His laid-back attitude is the perfect foil for the high-octane action sequences. From his genuine disappointment upon being attacked— you stabbed me? Really?— to one point where he’s speaking to a woman during a fight sequence and catches himself, saying I’m mansplaining.

Pitt is very good, and the script does its best job with his character, but it’s not enough. The biggest knock against BULLET TRAIN is I’m just getting tired of this kind of movie. After a while, the action and banter get boring. Even with a whole host of assassins on board.

The two best, besides Pitt, are Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), “twins” who work together but who share nothing in common other than the fact that they treat each other like brothers. Tangerine is a proper speaking Englishman, while Lemon bases his entire life on the Thomas the Tank Engine children’s stories. Their banter is also funny, but as is the case with Pitt, they are simply not enough to carry this movie.

This is probably the most fun role I’ve seen Aaron Taylor-Johnson play since way back when he was much younger playing the lead in KICK-ASS (2010), and the most satisfying role I’ve seen him play since SAVAGES (2012). Bryan Tyree Henry is equally as good, and it’s probably the best performance I’ve seen him give. Henry has also appeared in GODZILLA VS. KONG (2021), JOKER (2019) and HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018) to name just a few.

Joey King as Prince was probably my least favorite character in the movie. She’s a young woman pretending to be a victim when in reality she’s a major villain. In spite of the duality of the part, it’s pretty much a one-note character and performance on King’s part.

The Japanese characters pretty much play it straight. Andrew Koji as Kimura and Hiroyuki Sanada as The Elder are serious throughout, and as such, kinda seem out of place because the rest of the movie takes nothing seriously.

Michael Shannon shows up late in the game and briefly as The White Death, but it’s both way too late and too short for him to make much of an impact. And when we finally see Sandra Bullock, she looks like she’s either been heavily airbrushed to look younger or they used CGI on her. She just doesn’t look natural. For such a brief appearance, it was weird.

BULLET TRAIN doesn’t really know what kind of a movie it’s supposed to be, yet it feels comfortable in this role, because that’s kind of a new genre today. Make a movie that’s equal parts action, comedy, and thriller, with lots of good-natured banter, and the audience will go home happy. In other words, show lots of stylized violence and bloody deaths, but if the main characters remain cool and make jokes about it, and survive, it’s all okay.

Sort of.

At times, BULLET TRAIN with its R rating seemed to be aiming for a Quentin Tarantino vibe, but it’s vastly inferior to Tarantino’s work. First, Tarantino isn’t above showing the gruesome realities of violence. His characters are still funny and still banter, but his worlds are less cartoonish and safe. Also, the editing here, especially early on, seemed off. It took me a while to really settle in with BULLET TRAIN, as its jumping-around early scenes were more jarring than introductory.

BULLET TRAIN had a lot of moments that I liked, and it featured performances by Brad Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Brian Tyree Henry that I really enjoyed, but at the end of the day it simply wasn’t enough because it’s part of a new “genre” of films that likes to link action and comedy, and through amiable clever banter give the illusion that death and destruction is safe and harmless.

A la Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner. But they’re cartoons. And movies should be more than cartoons. I’m not arguing that you can’t make “safe” action comedies. You can.

But you can also make less safe action comedies that are even funnier and work better because the audience is on edge and feeling less safe.

BULLET TRAIN, in spite of its high body count, remains a safe passage for its audience for the entirety of its ride, even with its R rating.

Fans of nervous laughter might want to ride a different train.

—END—

THE GRAY MAN (2022) – Emphasis on Action over Story Hinders Netflix Pairing of Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans

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Too much action. Not enough story.

That’s how I felt after watching THE GRAY MAN (2022), a new action thriller from Netflix, which is also playing in theaters. In spite of an impressive cast and a pair of talented directors, at the end of the day, this one was all about the action, which admittedly was very good, but in terms of story, sadly, there simply wasn’t much there.

In THE GRAY MAN, a shadowy CIA assassin known as Six (Ryan Gosling), uncovers a plot by his superiors Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page) and Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick) to assassinate a fellow agent who had learned of their illegal activities, and once Six learns this information, he also becomes a target. To take down Six, Carmichael hires their most ruthless and unpredictable assassin, Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) who immediately abducts Six’s former handler FItzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) and his young daughter Claire (Julia Butters) for leverage.

Six ends up teaming with fellow agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) who is also targeted by Carmichael and Lloyd, who seem to want to take out every other CIA assassin on the planet. And that’s it for plot, as the rest of the movie is simply a set up for one action scene after another as Lloyd and Six go after each other. And it’s not a very original plot either, as it’s right out of a Jason Bourne movie.

THE GRAY MAN was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, the guys who directed AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018), AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVL WAR (2016). They know how to make blockbuster action movies. The action sequences in THE GRAY MAN are excellent, and I’m not going to lie, I had fun watching them, but without an exciting story or fun characters, the action scenes on their own weren’t enough for me to really enjoy this movie.

There’s an exciting sequence on a plane, which hearkens back to two old James Bond movies, THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1987) when Six is tangling with assassins on the plane which has a big hole in it, and MOONRAKER (1979) when Six falls out of the plane without a parachute and then fights a bad guy in midair, two sequences which were both done better in those aforementioned James Bond movies. There are slick car chases, lots of loud shoot-outs and explosions, and some nifty hand-to-hand combat scenes, all professionally executed, but without a story or memorable characters, none of them truly resonate.

Joe Russo wrote the screenplay, along with Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley, and all three of these guys have lots of screenwriting credits, but it didn’t really help them here. The plot, as I said, is right out of a Jason Bourne movie, and the characters are cardboard and dull, with the exception of Chris Evans’ character, Lloyd.

I’m a fan of the work of Ryan Gosling, and he’s enjoyable here as Six, and he’s also believable in the role of super assassin. But, Six is kind of a one note character, and ultimately, he doesn’t really give Gosling a lot to do other than to look unstoppable and heroic. And he is heroic. Unlike Jason Bourne, who in spite of always wanting to clear his name, still operated with a sense of uncertainty and explosiveness about him, Six is a good guy to his core, which kinda makes him boring.

Chris Evans has more fun and more success playing against type as the over-the-top villain, Lloyd Hansen. This guy is not Captain America! He’s the complete opposite of Six in that he is all villain. Strangely, at the end of the day, he’s also on the boring side. And that’s because even though this movie is called THE GRAY MAN, neither main character has gray areas, and that’s just not that interesting. Characters with more balance in general are more captivating. So, it’s kinda sorta fun watching Evans ham it up as a bad guy, but it’s not completely satisfying because it turns out Lloyd is nothing more than a glorified assh*le.

I’m also a huge fan of the work of Ana de Armas, and her performance as super tough assassin Dani was probably my favorite of the movie. She just starred in the latest James Bond movie NO TIME TO DIE (2021), a film I enjoyed much more than THE GRAY MAN, but it was a very small role, and basically, she just got to strut her stuff in one brief sequence. She’s in THE GRAY MAN a whole lot more, and the movie is that much better for it. She’s believable in her action scenes, and unlike Gosling or Evans, she holds back on letting us know who Dani is exactly, and if there’s one character in the movie with a gray area, it’s Dani.

THE GRAY MAN reunites Ana de Armas with Ryan Gosling, as the two co-starred in BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and they work well together, as in both movies they generated some decent on-screen chemistry.

Rege-Jean Page and Jessica Henwick are okay as the main villains in the movie who are constantly pulling strings behind the scenes, but neither of them is terribly exciting. Neither is Billy Bob Thornton as Six’s former handler Fitzroy. It’s a rather thankless role without any depth.

I did enjoy the work of Dhanush, who plays yet another super assassin Avik San who’s called in late in the game to take down Six. Avik, in his brief time on screen, benefits from some gray areas in his personality. If only the two leads had benefitted from the same.

Also in the cast are Alfre Woodard as another CIA handler, an unrecognizable Wagner Moura as a shady character who provides new identities, and in a blink-if-you miss him cameo, Shea Whigham plays Six’s abusive father in a flashback. This is the third movie in as many weeks in which the plot involved an abusive dad, following WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (2022) and THE BLACK PHONE (2022). It’s also the third time that Wagner Moura has co-starred with Ana de Armas, as they previously starred together in SERGIO (2020) and WASP NETWORK (2019).

THE GRAY MAN was okay. With its talented cast, directors, and writers, it should have been better. And while I enjoyed its action scenes, even those weren’t fantastic. Another recent Netflix actioner EXTRACTION (2020) starring Chris Hemsworth had superior action sequences. But what ultimately drags THE GRAY MAN down is its unoriginal blah story, and characters who in spite of the film’s title, just don’t possess many gray areas.

All action and no plot make THE GRAY MAN a dull man.

—END—

THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022) – Fourth Thor Movie A Misfire From Start to Finish

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So, THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022) opens and in the first scene we see a thin bald humanoid on a barren desert landscape, and for a split-second my mind flashes back some thirty some odd years to the opening of STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER (1989) which opened in a similar way. I chuckle and quickly dismiss the memory, but then a funny thing happened over the course of the next two hours.

THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER, the latest Marvel superhero movie and the fourth Thor movie, goes full throttle with the humor, most of it silly, and sadly, most of it misfiring, which once more reminded me of that STAR TREK movie of old, STAR TREK V, which is generally considered to be the weakest in the original STAR TREK movie series. STAR TREK V followed the immensely popular and successful STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986) which had a superior script and at times was laugh out loud funny. STAR TREK V tried to recapture this formula, but with a far lesser script, its humor didn’t really work, and the film suffered from a bad case of the sillies which sadly didn’t translate into laughter.

THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER also suffers from a bad case of the sillies.

The bald humanoid in the opening scene is Gorr (Christian Bale) who, after watching his young daughter die, gets to meet their god, only to be disappointed when he learns from this god that his and his daughter’s life means nothing to the gods. When Gorr denounces the god, the deity tries to kill him, but an all-powerful dark sword reaches out to Gorr, and he uses it to slay the god. Not only this, but Gorr decides to make it his life’s goal to kill all the gods in the universe.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is still hanging out with the Guardians of the Galaxy, busily saving different planets and civilizations from disaster, but when he receives a distress call from Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) who’s running the new Asgard on Earth, he leaves his guardian friends and returns to Earth with his rock buddy Korg (Taika Waititi). There they learn that Gorr is in town, and he’s taking no prisoners.

Thor also learns that the love of his life, the woman who he has not been able to forget, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) has changed her look a bit: she’s now wielding his old hammer and dressed in fighting garb, and she calls herself The Mighty Thor. While he’s impressed, he’s also confused, but it turns out that Jane has cancer, and she doesn’t have much time left, and so when she felt the hammer reaching out to her, she accepted it, hoping that perhaps it could restore her to health. And while it does give her great strength and the ability to fly, it’s not doing anything to rid her of the cancer.

Gorr wants Thor’s new hammer, Stormbreaker, to use it to access unlimited power in the universe to destroy all the gods, and when he manages to steal it away from Thor, it’s up to our heroes, Thor, Jane, and Valkyrie to chase Gorr to the ends of the universe to get it back and save the gods.

I’ve said this before, but I’m just not a big fan of fantasy plots in superhero movies, and the Marvel films have increasingly gone this route, being more about witches, evil spells, gods, and a whole host of other things that are so far outside any sense of reality. So, the plot here in THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER did nothing for me. In fact, I was quite bored. I did like the theme of the uselessness of gods, of how they really don’t help humanity all that much, and much of what Gorr has to say in this movie makes a lot of sense, but the film downplays this theme.

The rule of the day in THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER is silly humor, and unfortunately, it just isn’t all that sharp. I saw this is in a fairly crowded theater, and it was a fairly quiet theater. No loud laughter, cheers, groans, just silence. Even after the two post-credit scenes, the audience departed quietly. No chatter, no buzz, no excitement.

It’s no surprise that humor is a huge part of this movie, since it was written and directed by Taika Waititi, a very funny guy who wrote and directed one of my favorite movies from 2019, JOJO RABBIT (2019). Waititi also directed the previous Thor movie, THOR: RAGNAROK (2017), a film I enjoyed more than THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER, mostly because the humor in that movie worked better.

Here, it’s one misfire after another, from Jane’s constant search for a catch phrase, which was more sad than funny, to Thor’s banter with the Guardians of the Galaxy, which for the most part fell flat. Speaking of whom, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and friends are completely wasted in a glorified group cameo that has nothing at all to do with the rest of the movie. Unlike the appearance of the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in THOR: RAGNAROK, who was integral to the plot of that movie, the Guardians of the Galaxy here in this movie have no importance whatsoever other than to exchange some quips with Thor before they disappear for the rest of the proceedings.

Then there’s the screaming goats— yes, you heard that right. Screaming goats—, two animals which Thor receives as gifts early in the film. For some reason, they can’t stop screaming, this horrendous high-pitched wail. They do this nonstop throughout the movie whenever they show up. It’s supposed to be funny. It’s not.

The humor reaches its lowest point when Russell Crowe shows up as Zeus, in one of the most unfunny tries-too-hard-to-be-funny scenes in the history of the MCU.

So, the humor is a complete disaster. The screenplay which Waititi co-wrote with Jennifer Kaytin-Robinson struggles to get laughs, and also doesn’t really have much of a story to tell. The whole thing just felt muddled from beginning to end.

The other theme that is prevalent in the movie is love, as the love story between Thor and Jane makes up a huge chunk of the film, and for the most part, I like these two characters and their story is interesting, but sadly, it’s not much of a love story. We have barely seen them on screen together, and when he have, it’s not like they were steaming up the theater. And the overall theme, that love is the reason for everything, as Thor tells Gorr at the end of the movie, and that it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all, largely falls flat. It all just seemed superficial.

Chris Hemsworth has never looked better as Thor. He’s in super shape, and he looks like he’s as powerful as the character he is playing. But the forced humor in the script doesn’t do him any favors, and gone are the days when his awkwardness with humanity would be funny, simply because he’s no longer awkward and that source of humor no longer exists.

Natalie Portman largely hams it up as The Mighty Thor, and while she may have been having a good time in the movie, it doesn’t translate all that well to her character. Her best scenes are when she is Jane, dealing with her cancer.

Tessa Thompson fares better as Valkyrie. She has a more natural story arc throughout the movie, and Thompson makes her formidable, and she’s very comfortable playing this exceedingly strong female superhero.

But the most intriguing performance and perhaps the best in the movie belongs to Christian Bale as Gorr. Yes, the Dark Knight is now a dark villain! Bale is now the second movie Batman to play a villain in a Marvel movie, as Michael Keaton played the villainous Adrian Toomes in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017). Playing Batman must be good practice because both these actors, Keaton and Bale, have been some of the best Marvel villains yet!

In Bale’s case, he doesn’t fare quite as well as Keaton did in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING for the simple reason that unfortunately his Gorr isn’t in the movie very much. But when he is, Bale is very, very good. He looks as if his character from THE FIGHTER (2010), boxer Dicky Eklund, donned some silver make-up and gained some superpowers! Gorr’s story is certainly the most intriguing in the movie, how he felt slighted by the gods, how they didn’t save his daughter, and so he has decided to take them all down, in the interest of making the universe a better place to live. There are times when it’s difficult to argue with that logic.

But like I said, as good as Bale was as Gorr, he’s not in the movie much. Instead, there’s plenty of Thor and Jane/aka The Mighty Thor, and gods, and silliness, and more silliness, and a pair of screaming goats.

I saw THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER in IMAX, and I can’t say that it added a whole lot to the movie experience. It was a bit louder, yes, the screen a bit larger, but the film did not have any element in its story which IMAX enhanced, unlike another Christian Bale movie from a few years back, FORD V FERRARI (2019), in which he co-starred with Matt Damon (who has a cameo here too by the way playing an actor who plays Loki on stage) in which IMAX made the racing car scenes even more authentic, and I really felt as if I were in those cars with the actors.

Marvel is officially in a slump. Since AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), they have really struggled to reclaim their mojo, and other than SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021) haven’t made a film that I’ve truly enjoyed since.

THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER means well but is a misfire from start to finish. Whatever seriousness its story wants to project is lost in humor that doesn’t work and in a plot that suffers from a very bad case of the sillies.

It simply tries too hard to be funny, so much so, that for the most part, the audience forgot to laugh.

—END–

SPIDERHEAD (2022) -Mild Science Fiction Thriller Can’t Take Advantage of Good Script and Solid Acting

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SPIDERHEAD (2022), a new science fiction action thriller now available on Netflix, is a mishmash of these three genres, never really developing into anything special, yet remaining generally entertaining throughout.

It stars Chris Hemsworth, who must have a deal with Netflix, because he keeps showing up in their original movies. He starred in the superior Netflix action movie EXTRACTION (2020), one of the streaming network’s best movies to date, and appeared unbilled in the recent INTERCEPTOR (2022).

In SPIDERHEAD, Hemsworth plays Steve Abnesti, a scientist who runs a special prison program in which he accepts volunteer inmates to be guinea pigs for drugs he is working on that he hopes will help curb humans’ criminal personality traits, in the hope of keeping more people out of prison. While generally safe, the drugs can be dangerous, and so in exchange for taking the risk, the inmates are housed in a rather fancy minimum-security prison, complete with some pretty nice living conditions and freedoms. These drugs are administered in packs which connect to the body, and the dosages are all controlled virtually with the help of Steve’s trusted assistant Verlaine (Mark Paguio).

Enter inmate Jeff (Miles Teller) who agrees to help and is one of Steve’s most cooperative test subjects, mostly because Jeff feels terribly low and worthless, due to the crime he committed which got him sent to prison in the first place. When he’s not being tested, he’s friends with fellow inmate Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), who’s harboring a dark secret from her past as well.

Everything is hunky-dory until Steve begins to ask Jeff and some other inmates to do some weird things, like having sex with another inmate Heather (Tess Haubrich) while Steve controls how attracted or unattracted they are to each other. And when things grow even more bizarre and dangerous, Jeff begins to question Steve’s motives, and so he does a little snooping and what he finds out is— of course— that things aren’t as they seem!

No surprise there.

SPIDERHEAD pretty much remains mediocre throughout. Its story is mildly interesting, mildly disturbing, but not overly exciting or mind-blowing. Honestly, throughout most of the movie I had a “so, what?” vibe going on. I was never all that invested in what was happening to the characters or their stories. While I understood Jeff’s plight, I never really cared for him all that much, and Steve is pretty much a one-note character without any real motivation other than to be the villain in this one by film’s end.

The screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, based on the short story “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders, is a mixed bag. The dialogue is really good, and there are some memorable exchanges between Jeff and Steve, but the story never becomes more than a standard melodrama. When we finally find out what is really going on, it’s not that explosive a revelation. And the characters, while fleshed out well enough are all kind of— boring. This comes as a surprise because Reese and Wernick are the guys who wrote the DEADPOOL movies and the ZOMBIELAND movies. Go figure!

Visually, SPIDERHEAD is impressive to look at, but like a lot of other Netflix films, it suffers from not being all that cinematic. It plays like a TV movie. It was directed by Joseph Kosinski, who is receiving high praise these days for his work at the helm of TOP GUN: MAVERICK (2022).

Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller do work well together, and their scenes together are the best in the movie. However, overall, Hemsworth plays Steve as a one-note guy, and even with the charismatic Hemsworth playing the role, at the end of the day, Steve’s boring.

Miles Teller fares better as Jeff, and while I have not been a Teller fan over the years, he gives the best performance in the movie. He makes Jeff a real person, and his story arc is the most interesting and emotional in the film. Sadly, it’s a story we’ve seen countless times before, where a character hasn’t meant to, but his reckless actions led to someone else’s tragedy, and he’s beating himself up over it because he can’t get over the guilt.

Jurnee Smollett is also solid as Jeff’s friend and possible girlfriend Lizzy, another character with a tragic past.

Themes of loneliness, abandonment, and letting down those you love, permeate the proceedings, but the film never rises to the level in terms of plot where these themes can take center stage. They’re there, but in the background of a tale that struggles to come to life.

I wouldn’t rush home to see SPIDERHEAD, but on a rainy summer night, when there’s not much else going on, it might be worth a look.

And for Chris Hemsworth fans, it’s something to watch before his highly anticipated Marvel movie THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022) opens in theaters on July 8.

SPIDERHEAD is a minor diversion, a mild science fiction thriller that possesses a good script and solid acting, but remains low-key and muted throughout, mostly due to plot points that fail to resonate because they have been done before and done better.

—END—

DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS (2022) – Underwhelming Doctor Strange Sequel Keeps Marvel Slumping

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The title says it all.

Multiverse of madness, indeed. That’s how I felt watching this one. As if I were stuck in a multiverse of bad Marvel adventures which after two hours eventually led me to madness.

I don’t know. Maybe, like a lot of you, I’m finally growing tired of the Marvel formula. Or maybe DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS (2022) just isn’t that great a movie.

Anyway, I finally sat down to watch the second DOCTOR STRANGE movie, which premiered in theaters in May and is now streaming on Disney Plus.

The movie opens with a long and not terribly exciting battle sequence with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a teenage girl (Xochitl Gomez) fighting a giant monster which ends with Strange waking up— ah, it was just a dream! Actually, it wasn’t. Because later, the girl, whose name is America Chavez, shows up in real life and tells Strange that it wasn’t a dream– that it was real but in a different universe. See, America possesses the ability to travel through the various multiverses, but the trouble is she doesn’t know how she does it. It only happens when she’s scared, which is a lot, since she is being chased by some unknown villain who wants her powers. She also tells Strange that dreams are real. They are just things that are happening in other universes.

Wait, what? Stop. Stop right there. Dreams… are real? Dreams… are events from other universes? Hmm. There are some pretty weird universes out there, that’s all I can say.

Anyway, back to our movie. Doctor Strange and his buddy Wong (Benedict Wong) decide they have to protect America— that’s the character, not the country— from this unknown villain, but since doing so involves witchcraft and evil spells, Strange decides he needs the help of an old friend, and so he seeks out Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) aka The Scarlett Witch. But it turns out good friend Wanda isn’t over her “WandaVision” trauma, and much to Strange’s horror, he discovers that she’s the villain who is after America’s power, which she wants in order to travel to other universes to find her sons who do not exist in this universe.

The battle lines are drawn, and the battles takes our heroes and villains through all sorts of multiverses and multiple versions of characters, which sounds like much more fun than it actually is in the movie.

Yeah, at the end of the day, I just wasn’t all that impressed with DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS. I had much more fun with the most recent SPIDER-MAN move, SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021). That film also involved the multiverse, but it had a much more playful attitude, and what it did with the various universes in that movie, like bringing back previous versions of Spider-Man and previous villains, was much more fun than what happens here in this second DOCTOR STRANGE movie.

Speaking of previous Spider-Man movies, DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS was directed by Sam Raimi, who directed the three Tobey Maguire SPIDER-MAN movies. Of course, Raimi is mostly known for helming the EVIL DEAD horror movie trilogy. There are some neat Raimi touches here, like Doctor Strange having to resurrect himself as a corpse, which later has a key scene in the movie. And with evil spells and some violent ends to some of the heroes, along with some well-timed humor, there were plenty of moments that had me thinking more of the EVIL DEAD movies than a Marvel film.

But it wasn’t enough for me, largely because the screenplay by Michael Waldron I found to be a snooze. Granted, I’m a bit biased, because I’m just not a fan of magic, fantasy, or supernatural when it shows up as the main plot point in a superhero movie. These stories ultimately don’t work for me. So, there’s that. But I also didn’t find the dialogue very effective, and it certainly wasn’t the snappy kind of dialogue one has become accustomed to in a Marvel movie.

Yes, I appreciated the story arc of Doctor Strange having to learn how not to do everything himself and at the end defer to America, but at the end of the day it wasn’t terribly exciting. I actually preferred Wanda’s story arc, where she is driven to find her children, who in reality don’t exist because she invented them in a fantasy, but as she tells Strange, they do exist, in other universes, and she knows this to be true because she’s dreamt about them.

On the other hand, none of the other characters, including teen America, did much for me. And the storyline following Strange’s failed relationship with Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) was disappointing in that it didn’t really go anywhere.

You know things are bad when even Benedict Cumberbatch is boring. The guy is a tremendous actor, and I believe I have enjoyed every performance I’ve seen him play, but this time around as Doctor Strange he plays second fiddle to the special effects, which of course, are first-rate. But effects alone are not enough to carry a movie.

As I said, I enjoyed Wanda’s storyline more here than Doctor Strange’s, and as such I really enjoyed Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda/The Scarlet Witch. Not only was her story the most compelling in the movie, but she also makes for a heck of a villain! Part of her effectiveness is because she was an Avenger, after she wasn’t, and so there’s the whole back and forth element for the character, and we’ve seen her enough to understand that she wants to do well by others, but life keeps knocking her down and giving her sh*t, and finally she snaps and says she’s not taking it anymore. As I said, I really enjoyed Olsen here.

But the rest of the cast not so much.

Xochitl Gomez was fine as America, the teenage superhero, but the character was pretty boring. Benedict Wong adds nothing new to his Wong shtick, and Rachel McAdams, another terrific actor, is stuck in a bunch of redundant dull scenes as Strange’s former love interest Christine Palmer. Chiwetel Ejiofor reprises his role as Baron Mordo from the first DOCTOR STRANGE movie but does nothing terribly exciting here.

A bunch of other folks show up in bit scenes and cameos, to little avail, including Haley Atwell as Captain Carter, Lashana Lynch as Captain Marvel, John Krasinski as Reed Richards, Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier, Charlize Theron as Clea, and Bruce Campbell as Pizza Poppa, to name just a few. But none of these portrayals and reprisals do much for the movie.

The whole tone of the movie is underwhelming. The DC movie, THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021) is a film that also featured a ton of superheroes and crazy shenanigans, but that film had a script that rocked, and the movie just took off. DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS just sort of runs in place as it jumps around from one multiverse to another, with nothing particularly memorable happening in any of them.

I remember liking the first DOCTOR STRANGE (2016) movie well enough, but I didn’t love it. Similarly, I liked DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERS OF MADNESS less, but I didn’t hate it.

And yes, I’m still a Marvel superhero movie fan, and I’m looking forward to the next release in two weeks, of THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022), but there’s no denying that these folks have been in a slump lately. With the exception of SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME, they have really struggled to get the ball rolling after they wrapped up their initial story arc with AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019).

With DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS, that struggle continues.

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