THE MENU (2022) – Thought-Provoking Social Satire Won’t Spoil Your Appetite

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So, what’s on the menu?

Exquisite food from one of the world’s top chefs, tension, plenty of tension, a little violence, a little horror, and to top it all off, satire. Lots of satire.

THE MENU (2022) is an odd movie, as many satires are, but at the end of the day, if nothing else, it’s thought-provoking. It’s the type of movie that will have you thinking, and that’s a good thing.

THE MENU opens like an episode of the old TV show FANTASY ISLAND (1977-1984) where a group of strangers are about to travel to a remote island, but rather than taking a plane (“da plane! da plane!”) they take a boat, and rather than meeting Mr. Roarke and Tatoo, they meet one of the greatest chefs in the world, Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), and he’s their host. They have all paid exorbitant amounts of money to be treated to a private dinner by one of the world’s most renowned chefs.

The characters we meet first are Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), who is so enamored with the Chef that he practically has an orgasm every time he talks about him, and Tyler’s date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who becomes the central character and the person who the audience most identifies with, because as we soon learn, she wasn’t supposed to be there, as Tyler’s girlfriend broke up with him, and so she was a last minute second choice.

All the guests are wealthy, and all of them have their reasons for coming to this dinner, but with the exception of Tyler, none of them are really there purely for Chef’s food. Things start out well enough, as if it’s going to be an evening of fine food and performance dining, but then in what once more feels like an episode of FANTASY ISLAND, things begin to grow weird and unsettling. Tortillas are served with personal images on them, and so secrets are suddenly revealed. And later when one guest has a finger chopped off, and a cook shoots himself in the head as part of a dish, the guests realize they may not get off the island alive.

That being said, THE MENU is not a straight thriller or horror movie. While those elements are there, the main focus of this movie is undoubtedly satire, and there are various levels to it.

There’s the social status satire. These folks are all there because they have tons of money and can afford to be there, but Chef makes it clear that they’re not really there for his food. He talks about the art of food preparation and consumption, and tells them not to eat, but to taste. His passion for the symbiotic relationship between food and nature reaches almost religious proportions. And it’s also clear that he is insulted that they are there only because they can afford to be, and his passion for cooking is totally lost on them. At one point, he reminds a guest that he has been to multiple dinners on the island, and he asks the man to name at least one dish he’s eaten while there, and the man can’t even do that.

But the sharp screenplay by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy doesn’t stop there. There’s a food critic on the guest list, a washed-up actor, and three arrogant moneymakers who work for the company which sponsors these dinners, and so they feel entitled to threaten the Chef when he doesn’t please them. Each of these characters have back stories, all of which add to the social commentary.

As such, one of the film’s most significant moments comes when Tyler becomes increasingly frustrated by Margot’s complaints about what is going on, and he snaps his fingers at her before becoming flat out rude and insulting, prompting her to get up and leave. It’s a moment where we see his complete lack of acknowledgement of Margot as a person, and that the only reason he is there is because of his blind passion for the Chef, something that the Chef later shows him to be a waste of his time. It’s a moment in the movie that speaks to the way men sometimes treat women, and while that theme is not the main one of the film, it works all the same.

When Chef speaks to Margot privately, he laments that she wasn’t supposed to be there, and he needs to know her story for the dinner to work, because he needs to know who she is. Is she a server, and thus belongs in the kitchen, or is she like the other guests, a taker, and belongs out with the guests in the dining room?

In another biting moment, Chef reveals that he told Tyler ahead of time that everyone was going to die that night, and yet not only did Tyler still agree to come, he also still invited Margot, knowing that she too would die. And when Chef asks Tyler why he invited Margot, Tyler answers that guests were not allowed to come solo. They had to have a guest. Which speaks to the shallowness of our society and the total disregard people have to their fellow humans.

Similarly, the Chef mocks his guests later in the movie, telling them that if they really wanted to escape, why didn’t they make a stronger effort to do so? Would it really have been that difficult to overpower him and the other chefs? He asks them to think about that, and the audience does as well. Why didn’t these people try harder to escape? Is it because they are all too lethargic and passive? Because they wanted to remain to get what they paid for? Or did they on some level enjoy what was going on? Or perhaps they all believed it was just an act, and a safe answer would be revealed in the end?

Again, it’s a thought-provoking script, and it will have you thinking.

Anya Taylor-Joy is a terrific actress who continues to deliver in her movies, often giving the best performance in the film. She’s best known for her work in the Netflix TV show THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (2020) and in the horror movie THE WITCH (2015). But we just saw her deliver back-to-back excellent performances in LAST NIGHT IN SOHO (2021) and AMSTERDAM (2022). She’s at it again here in THE MENU. Margot is the most dynamic and interesting character in the movie, and the more we learn about her, the more we like her. Anya Taylor-Joy brings this character to life, creating a fiery yet sympathetic person who we feel comfortable rooting for.

Ralph Fiennes is perfect as Chef, a culinary version of Mr. Roarke. While he has his own agenda, his own final masterpiece, he also sheds light on the make-up of each and every one of his guests. It’s yet another masterful performance by Fiennes, and while he doesn’t exactly make Chef a sympathetic character, he does make him understandable. We get where he’s coming from, and why he is doing the things he does. While he has countless movie credits, this performance follows upon the heels of two other equally impressive ones, in THE DIG (2021) and THE FORGIVEN (2021).

The supporting cast is terrific.

Janet McTeer is cold and biting as food critic Lillian, and Paul Adelstein is agreeable as her yes-man magazine sponsor Ted. John Leguizamo is the washed-up actor who is looking to make a comeback. He’s also the butt of one of the better jokes in the film, when Chef pretty much tells him he’s there to die because Chef hated his last movie, which was a complete waste of his time, and he doesn’t like wasting time.

And Hong Chau nearly steals the show as the tight-lipped yet brutally honest right-hand person to Chef, Elsa, in effect playing Tatoo to Ralph Fiennes’ Mr. Roarke.

Director Mark Mylod keeps things tight, and the pacing here is brisk, and the suspense builds. I was unsettled throughout, and really didn’t know where this one was going. The photography is brilliant, the island locales beautiful, with my favorite part being the connection shown throughout the movie between people and the ocean. The dining area and kitchen also share special significance, as at times it feels like a fortress in a James Bond movie, only much smaller.

Not everything works. Like most satires, the humor is there, but often you have to work hard to find it, and much of the laughter is of the under your breath variety. And while the plot of this movie is built around food and food preparation, don’t expect the kind of movie, a la CHEF (2014) and THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014) where all the mouthwatering meals cooked in the film make you want to buy a second popcorn and then go out to dinner afterwards, because as this one goes on, the food becomes less appetizing, and in general there’s less of it, rather than more.

While things grow dark, the film never becomes an all-out horror movie or gross fest. For the most part, I liked this, but it could have gone further in the disturbing department, because there were moments where I felt things didn’t go far enough.

Speaking of horror movies, with a little imagination, it wasn’t difficult to imagine this one being made in the 1970s with Vincent Price playing Chef. Now that would have been a black comedy/horror movie to be sure!

But overall, I really liked THE MENU. It makes its points about what money has done to our society, and it presents its satire like a five-course meal, spreading out over the evening in a movie that will have you on the edge of laughter and of your seat from beginning to end.

Waiter? I’ll take mine to go, thank you very much!

I give it three and a half stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

AMSTERDAM (2022) – Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington Lead All-Star Cast in David O. Russell’s Lighthearted Murder Mystery Period Piece

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AMSTERDAM (2022), director/writer David O. Russell’s first film since JOY (2015), is loosely based on a true story, a political conspiracy in 1933 known as the Business Plot, where wealthy businessmen and bankers plotted a behind-the-scenes coup d’état to overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt and replace him with a military general.

With its all-star cast, led by the triumvirate of Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington, combined with its artful cinematography capturing 1933 New York and its impactful and hopping screenplay by David O. Russell, AMSTERDAM largely entertains for all of its two hour and fourteen-minute running time.

The movie gets off to a lively start as we meet Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) in 1933 New York. Berendsen is a doctor and World War I veteran who treats his fellow veterans who returned from the Great War with unspeakable scars, injuries, and pain. So much pain. Berendsen is always looking for more powerful drugs to help his patients deal with the pain, and he himself lost an eye during the war, and his back is terribly scarred and twisted, so much so he has to constantly wear a back brace. Bale with his character’s glass eye and odd manner of speaking channels a lot of Peter Falk throughout his performance. When they are later trying to solve the mystery, it was easy to imagine Columbo on the case.

Burt and his fellow veteran and best friend from the war Harold Woodman (John David Washington), an attorney, are hired by Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift), the daughter of their former commanding officer, to look into her father’s death, which she believes is the result of foul play. And when Liz is pushed in front of an oncoming vehicle and murdered right in front of their eyes, they realize something big is going on.

Burt, who narrates the movie, then says it’s time for some background information, and the film jumps back in time to 1918 where he and Harold are cared for in army hospital by a nurse Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). The three become inseparable, and their friendship blossoms as they spend a magical period shut off from the rest of the world in Amsterdam. But they pledged to always be there for each other. And so eventually when the action returns to 1933 New York, Valerie re-enters their lives as they, in the process of investigating their former commanding officer’s death, uncover a vast conspiracy against the United States government.

All of this sounds serious, and some of it is, but the screenplay is anything but a straight drama. It’s quirky and humorous, generating enough clever laughs to keep this one lighthearted throughout.

The biggest story with AMSTERDAM is its cast, both its three main players and the supporting cast of actors. Anytime you have Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington sharing ample screen time in your movie, chances are things are going to be purdy darn good. And they are.

Christian Bale is a phenomenal actor, and his performance as broken Burt Berendsen drives the entire movie forward. With his quirky Peter Falk-style delivery, Bale is watchable throughout. The same goes for Margot Robbie and John David Washington. The three of them deliver throughout this movie.

The supporting players also make their mark. Probably the two best supporting performances belong to Rami Malek as Valerie’s manipulative brother Tom, and Anya Taylor-Joy, who other than Bale, delivers hands down the best performance in the movie, as Tom’s eccentric wife Libby.

It was fun to see Mike Myers back on screen again, playing a British intelligence officer named Paul Canterbury, in a role which would have been perfectly suitable for Michael York a few years back. Myers and Michael Shannon, who plays Canterbury’s American intelligence counterpart, share lots of scenes together and seem to be having a great time as the two men who steer Burt and his friends towards uncovering the conspiracy plot.

Chris Rock in limited screen time gets some genuine laugh out loud moments as Milton King, one of the other soldiers in Burt’s and Harold’s platoon. Timothy Olyphant is also memorable under heavy face-altering prosthetics as Taron Milfax, a villainous henchman and murderer. And Zoe Saldana is enjoyable as a beautiful coroner who has eyes for Burt.

By the time Rober De Niro shows up as the level-headed general who refutes the coup, the film has lost a lot of its energy and pizzaz. While it remains entertaining throughout, the first two thirds of AMSTERDAM are much more energetic than its third act, which slows down as all the answers are revealed.

And David O. Russell’s screenplay keeps things simple. When De Niro’s General Dillenbeck delivers his much-anticipated speech, the words he uses to explain the evil that these men plan to do sounds like he’s speaking to a room of first graders. I suppose this is better than an explanation that is unclear and cryptic, but things are explained in straightforward simplistic black and white terms, in language that definitely calls to mind current events and what was attempted in the United States on January 6, 2021.

Overall, I enjoyed AMSTERDAM quite a bit, and I liked it better than Russell’s previous two movies, JOY and AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013). My two favorite Russell movies remain THE FIGHTER (2010) and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), but AMSTERDAM is right up there with them.

The 1933 New York sets, costumes, and cinematography were so authentic, I half expected to see King Kong rampaging through the streets on his way to the Empire State Building.

AMSTERDAM covers more than just its murder/coup plot, as it touches upon love, relationships, race, and art. At the end of the movie when Valerie and Harold have to leave the country, because they know their mixed-race relationship will not be allowed in the United States, it’s a powerful point that not many movies have felt comfortable making, and when Burt vows to work towards changing things, so his friends can return and live in this country freely, it’s a bittersweet moment because while we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go.

But the overall feel of this drama/comedy period piece is definitely on the lighter side, and the film provides plenty of humorous moments and laughter, most of it of the quirky variety, and it all works, even if the final third of the film slows down somewhat.

AMSTERDAM is well worth the visit.

I give it three stars.

—END–

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

BODIES BODIES BODIES (2022) – Horror Satire Defines Generation Z

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BODIES BODIES BODIES (2022) is a generation-defining horror movie.

Its story, about a group of 20 somethings or members of Generation Z, who get together for a hurricane party and find themselves in the middle of a murder mystery game gone wrong, works because the filmmakers here know their subject matter.

This group of friends are toxic, mean, emotionally unstable, and when things go wrong, they flip out and overreact in the most tragic of ways. This isn’t to say that this is what all Generation Z folks are like, but it is to say, that the characters in this movie are unique to 2022, and a story like this couldn’t have been written the same way even just ten years ago, let alone twenty or thirty. If Michael Myers had set his sights on this group for his first HALLOWEEN adventure, they might not even have noticed him because they would have been too preoccupied with themselves and each other.

BODIES BODIES BODIES is billed as a horror comedy, and it is, but this label needs to be clarified. The horror is not gimmicky or manipulative. Not one iota. This is not SCREAM (1996). All the horror elements in this film are based on the characters and what happens to them in the story. And while BODIES BODIES BODIES is funny, it is not a spoof of horror movies. It’s a social satire of Generation Z. The best part of this movie is that it all works, and the result is a frightening movie that is instantly one of the better horror movies of the year.

Twenty something Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) brings her new girlfriend Bee (Maria Bakalova) to meet her friends at the elegant mansion… all these folks, with the exception of Bee, are very, very wealthy… owned by the parents of Sophie’s one-time best friend, David (Pete Davidson) who has the social graces and warmth of a great white shark. David is dating Emma (Chase Sui Wonders) an actress who doesn’t seem to know the difference between real life and acting. Also at the party is the emotional Alice (Rachel Sennott) who is there with her new boyfriend Greg (Lee Pace), who she met a couple of weeks earlier on Tinder and who is much older than everyone else there, and Jordan (Myha’la Herrold) who once she meets Bee also seems attracted to her, and when she gets Bee alone warns her to be careful around Sophie.

It’s also clear that David, Emma, Alice, and Jordan are not happy with Sophie because of something that happened in the not-too-distant past. This is a hurricane party, meaning that a hurricane is bearing down upon them, and they plan to party hearty during the monster storm. To which they drink and do drugs and eventually decide to play the murder mystery game “bodies, bodies, bodies,” in which one person is secretly chosen to be the “murderer” and they have to “murder” people by tapping them on the shoulder, and once someone finds a body, the game stops, and the players have to figure out the identity of the murderer.

One thing they’re not doing is having sex. I don’t know if you have noticed, but sex is gradually disappearing from American movies. Not sure why. I’m just making an observation. Whether the film is rated PG-13 or R, it doesn’t matter. Sex scenes just are not being done, and since sex is a part of life, I can’t imagine that this recent movie trend is a healthy one.

During the game, tensions rise, and emotions boil over because in their drunken drugged state they say some pretty mean things to each other— or maybe they’re just mean to begin with? — and then the storm knocks the power out saturating the place in darkness. Not long afterwards, they discover a dead body for real.

And then with their cool heads they logically come up with a plan to defend themselves from the murderer and — no. There are no cool heads here. They flip out. And what goes on inside the house after the discovery of the dead body makes what’s going on outside the house— the hurricane— seem like a harmless drizzle in comparison.

BODIES BODIES BODIES is an excellent movie. I really liked this one. I haven’t been this intrigued by a horror movie since IT FOLLOWS (2014), which had a style all its own that was exceedingly fresh. In terms of style and tone, BODIES BODIES BODIES is nothing like IT FOLLOWS. What they do have in common however is a freshness and an edge that lift them above the standard horror movie trope. Plus BODIES BODIES BODIES has the whole social satire thing going which works exceedingly well.

The screenplay by Sarah DeLappe based on a story by Kristen Ropenian says all the right words and phrases, from “toxic” to “trigger” to “I can’t believe you’re making this about you!” It also does a great job creating unlikable characters who you still enjoy watching. I didn’t like most of the characters in this film, but yet that didn’t stop me from liking the movie. And the story is a good one, as is the mystery, and it’s not ruined by some dumb plot twist or an over-reaching agenda by a secretly demented character. It all plays out as real, from start to finish, which makes it scary.

And it is scary! I have to admit, I was on the edge of my seat for most of this movie.

I enjoyed the direction here by Halina Rejin. The camerawork is kinetic, up close, and most of the time in the dark. Like the characters, the audience isn’t able to see things clearly which only adds to the suspense. This is also not a gross-out horror movie with over-the-top killings. In fact, the murders keep this one grounded in reality. The killings are not sensationalistic. They are simply tragic.

The cast does a bang up job. Amanda Stenberg is potent as Sophie, a young woman with a troubled past, whose friends helped her with her drug addiction and then felt abandoned when she got healthy and walked out of their lives. But she’s just edgy enough to make audiences question her make up, and if she is capable of harming those she loves.

Maria Bakalova is just as good as Bee, seemingly the most innocent of the characters, as she’s not really part of this group of friends. She also doesn’t have their wealth, is Russian, and comes from a poor family. But later when she’s caught in a lie, the others turn on her since they know so little about her.

Pete Davidson stands out as David, the toxic no filter friend who is described as being a complete d*ck by the others, and he is. It’s a terrific performance by Davidson. I also really enjoyed Rachel Sennott as the uber emotional Alice. She gets some of the best lines in the movie, like “Did you just f*cking shoot me?”

Chase Sui Wonders is sufficiently weird as the offbeat actress Emma, and Myha’la Herrold is icy cold as Jordan. Then there’s Lee Pace as Greg, one of the few characters besides Bee who seems somewhat likeable. Pace is perfect as the older “outsider” who is much more comfortable with himself and as such makes quite the impression on everyone there, but when things go wrong, he’s the first one the friends suspect since they know so little about him, and as he demonstrated when he opened a bottle of champagne, he’s also quite handy with a sword!

BODIES BODIES BODIES ranks with the best horror movies I’ve seen this year in 2022, including THE BLACK PHONE, X, and MASTER. But BODIES BODIES BODIES is the only one of these that is also a social satire which gives it an added element that the other don’t have.

Speaking of social satire, I don’t take the characters in BODIES BODIES BODIES to be the embodiment of all members of Generation Z, and so I don’t interpret this movie as slamming that generation. Rather, it shows their unique traits and emotions and uses them to tell a story about murder that couldn’t be told the same way with characters from a different generation. And for that reason, this is a horror movie that defines a generation.

So much so, that it probably needs its own trigger warning.

—END—

EMERGENCY (2022) – Exceptional Eloquent Drama About Racism Intense Yet Funny

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My favorite movies often are the ones in which the script is spot on and honest and taps into truth, so that regardless of where its story goes, it’s believable and clicks, because the audience knows where its coming from and understands what’s going on.

EMERGENCY (2022) is such a movie, with an exceptional script by K.D. Davila that speaks to race relations in the here and now, specifically the treatment of black men by the police, and it does so in a way that not only isn’t overbearing and heavy-handed, but instead is wild and insane and even funny.

EMERGENCY, now available on Prime Video, tells the story of two black college students, Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler), who on the eve of spring break, are on their way to an epic night of partying, but first they return to their campus apartment and there discover the door open and an unconscious body of a white girl lying on their living room floor. Their video game playing dorky roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) is in his room playing on his computer and doesn’t even realize there’s a girl sprawled out on their floor.

Kunle wants to call 911, but the streetwise Sean stops him from doing so, explaining that if they call the police, no one is going to believe them that this girl just showed up on their doorstep. They will suspect Kunle and Sean of foul play, and worse, things could get out of hand quickly and they could be shot. This plot point isn’t hard to believe because… it’s true.

Kunle, who is responsible to a fault, eventually convinces his two friends that they should drive this girl to the hospital, as she definitely seems intoxicated or perhaps worse, drugged, and needs medical attention. Sean and Carlos agree, and they covertly carry the girl out to Sean’s car where they hope to drive her across town and leave her at the emergency room.

And thus begins an odyssey of a night that gets crazier and more intense by the second, as what could go wrong does go wrong, and then some.

While director Carey Williams obviously seems to have been influenced by the work of Spike Lee and Jordan Peele, two other films come to mind when describing how EMERGENCY plays out. In terms of sheer intensity and frenetic stress, I was reminded of brothers Benny and Josh Safdie’s GOOD TIME (2017), the film which told the story of the harrowing efforts of a bank robber played by Robert Pattinson trying to spring his mentally challenged brother from a hospital before he was transferred to prison. EMERGENCY also calls to mind the original THE HANGOVER (2009), the insane comedy starring Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis, where three men awake after a bachelor’s night out to find the groom missing and their lives in complete disarray, and their attempts to locate the missing groom only make things worse. THE HANGOVER of course was played completely for laughs, whereas EMERGENCY isn’t, but the two films share the zany unpredictability of the best of intentions gone awry.

EMERGENCY captures that same HANGOVER- type journey blowing-up-in-your face vibe as things continue to unravel for these three young men as they try to do the right thing, even as they remain afraid of the simplest solution, calling 911, fearing it could cost them their lives.

Things that go wrong include the girl becoming more intoxicated when Carlos offers her a sports drink which he doesn’t realize is an alcoholic concoction created by Sean; the tail light on their car isn’t working, something that could get them pulled over by the police, and so they try getting another car; they learn that the girl, Emma, is underage, and Emma’s sister Maddie (Sabrina Carpenter) is hot on their trail with her friends, as she is tracking Emma with her cell phone.

I really enjoyed EMERGENCY. As I said, the script by K.D. Davila is as real as it gets, and it makes its points while also telling a compelling and entertaining story. Carey Williams’ direction is equally as good. The in-depth characterizations do not come at the expense of plot, as the film moves quickly through one ordeal after another. This is a high energy tale that does not sacrifice storytelling for poignancy.

Donald Elise Watkins is excellent as Kunle, the student with a bright future, described as the Barack Obama of the science world by his buddy Sean. Watkins plays Kunle as a young man who disagrees with his friend’s Sean’s take on the world and wants to call 911 and do the right thing, but ultimately, he doesn’t.

He also gets one of the best moments in the movie, the moment where his view of the world changes. When they are finally stopped by the police outside the hospital and are ordered at gunpoint to get out of the vehicle, Kunle is shoved to the ground after having a gun pointed directly in his face, even after he says that he is only trying to save the girl. The most interesting aspect of this scene is that the police do not overreact, but there is still a marked difference between the way Kunle is treated and the way the other students who are all white, are treated. It’s almost imperceptible, since this isn’t an overdramatic “shoot first ask questions later” scene, but it’s there. The experience not only frightens Kunle but traumatizes him, as shown by the last shot of the film, when he hears a police siren in the distance, and his expression goes cold.

RJ Cyler is also excellent as Sean, the street wise friend who knows a bit more of the real world than Kunle does. Sebastian Chacon as Carlos largely serves as the comic relief, and he’s very good at it. And although she spends most of the movie unconscious, Maddie Nichols makes her mark as Emma, and when she’s not vomiting and gets to speak some dialogue, has some key moments. Likewise, Sabrina Carpenter is explosive as Emma’s older sister Maddie, who is guilt ridden over bringing her sister to a college campus and then losing her. She has her own issues with racism which come out over the course of the movie, even as she pushes back and claims she’s not racist.

K. D. Davila’s screenplay provides first-rate dialogue throughout.

EMERGENCY is a superior movie, a film that tells a story of our time that as a wild and oftentimes funny vehicle is about as far removed from a preachy sermon as one can get. Yet, it makes its social and racial points as eloquently as any well-written speech or diatribe.

It’s one of my favorite movies of the year so far.

—END—

Best Movies of 2021

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Here’s a look at my TOP 10 LIST of BEST MOVIES from 2021.

As I did last year, I’d like to put an asterisk next to this list due to the pandemic. One of the drawbacks of not seeing movies at the theater, is that we don’t all get to see the same movies, as lots of smaller, obscure releases don’t always make it to the various streaming services. So, as much as I enjoyed watching movies once again this year on Netflix, Prime Video, HBO Max, and Disney +, to name a few, I didn’t get to see many of the movies that didn’t make it to these streaming services.

Hence, I know there are a lot of films from 2021 that I did not see, that I would have seen had I been able to go to the movie theaters like I used to before the pandemic struck in March 2020.

So, with that being said, here are my TOP 10 movies… all watched at home on streaming services…. from 2021:

10. THE TOMORROW WAR

One of the things I miss most watching movies at home, is that movie theater feeling. THE TOMORROW WAR, a science fiction action movie from Amazon Prime starring Chris Pratt, was one of the few movies I saw this year that by itself captured that movie theater feeling. This action-packed tale of humans travelling into the future to help battle invading aliens didn’t always make sense, but it was a fun ride, so much so that I could almost smell the buttery popcorn wafting through the air!

9. FEAR STREET: PART THREE – 1666

My take on this Netflix horror trilogy was completely opposite most folks, who found the third installment to be the weakest. For me, it was the best, mostly because the trilogy’s wraparound story about a witch’s curse I thought was pretty lame until this final installment where we find out its origins, and the writers flipped the story on its head, giving new insight into what really cursed the town. I really liked this revelation. The entire trilogy is uneven at best, but it finishes strong, so much so that it’s the only horror movie from 2021 to make it into my Top 10 List.

8. NO SUDDEN MOVE

Atmospheric crime thriller by director Steven Soderbergh, starring Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, David Harbour, Jon Hamm, and Brendan Fraser, makes for a compelling flick.

7. MOXIE (2021)

I really enjoyed this comedy drama directed by Amy Poehler about an awkward teen played by Hadley Robinson who draws inspiration from her mom’s activist past to take on sexism at her high school. Very satisfying, strong screenplay by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer, based on the novel by Jennifer Mathieu, well-directed by Poehler, who also plays the mom.

6. THE UNFORGIVABLE

Sandra Bullock delivers a transformative performance in this Netflix drama about a woman, played by Bullock, who after serving a twenty-year prison sentence for shooting a sheriff, tries to reunite with her younger sister who has lived with a foster family the past two decades and has no memory of her older sister, while fending off threats from both those who hate her in general because of her crime, and from the adult sons of the man she killed. Dark, depressing stuff, but fiercely acted by Bullock.

5. GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE

One of my favorite action movies of the year. I loved this movie! It’s basically nothing more than female assassins kick ass, but the action is all so stylized and expertly choreographed. It contains some of the best action sequences I saw all year. Wonderfully directed by Navot Papushado, who charges this one with energy and pizzazz.

4. THE DIG

Wonderful period piece from Netflix, this one is much better than it sounds. Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes co-star in this tale of the historic archeological dig in the English countryside at Sutton Hoo at the outset of World War II. Awe-inspiring, awesome movie.

And now, drum roll please, for my TOP 3 MOVIES from 2021:

3. THE COURIER

Another period piece, THE COURIER was actually filmed in 2020 but wasn’t released until 2021. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Greville Wynne, a British salesman who because of his dealings in the Soviet Union becomes an unlikely spy for Britain just before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Another topnotch performance by Cumberbatch, who seems to be able to play these dramatic biographical roles in his sleep.

2. THE SUICIDE SQUAD

Hands down, both my favorite action movie and superhero film of the year. Hailing from the DC Universe (sorry, Marvel, they bested you this year!) this “sequel” to 2016’s SUICIDE SQUAD is far superior to the first film. While Margot Robbie returns as Harley Quinn, it’s Idris Elba as Bloodsport and John Cena as Peacemaker who steal the show. The real star however is writer/director James Gunn, who works the same magic he wielded with Marvel’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies, creating an energetic, innovative, and nonstop laugh-out-loud actioner that never quits. This tale of supervillains turned superheroes is a must see for all superhero movie fans, although it is rated R for some pretty intense violence and language. A helluva fun ride.

And now, drum roll please: my Number One movie from 2021:

1. DON’T LOOK UP

Adam McKay’s sharp satire is so on-point that it is far more disturbing than funny. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence star as scientists who discover a large meteor on a collision course with Earth that will wipe out all life when it strikes in six months, but the President, played by Meryl Streep, won’t have any of it and plays fast and loose with their science, while the media simply isn’t interested in a negative story. Try as they might, they simply can’t get their message out. Eventually, when the meteor becomes visible to the naked eye, the president’s political party and followers adopt the ideology that those who want people to look up are doing so for political reasons, and their rallying cry becomes, “don’t look up!” A sad commentary on where we are as a nation in 2021 after suffering from four years of a presidential administration that also played fast and loose with the facts during a world crisis.

So, there you have it. My top 10 movies from 2021.

Coming soon, my Worst 10 Movie List from 2021.

Until then, as always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

DON’T LOOK UP (2021) -Adam McKay’s On Point Satire Is One of the Best Movies of the Year

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If the human race survives long enough, and we’re able to look back years from now at DON’T LOOK UP (2021), the new movie by director/writer Adam McKay, a satire which asks the question what if an extinction-event asteroid were on a collision course with Earth, and nobody cared because they were told it wasn’t really happening, we might say, “What was that all about? I don’t get it.

And if not for the times we now live in, and the absurd shenanigans of the prior Trump administration, I wouldn’t get it either. I certainly wouldn’t believe it. But the events depicted in DON’T LOOK UP while supposedly meant to be satiric and funny are in reality terrifying because of what happened during the years of 2016-2020.

Some people have complained that DON’T LOOK UP isn’t as funny as it should be. I disagree. The humor is definitely there, but more importantly, so is the truth, and the truth is, as ridiculous as this movie plot sounds on paper, it’s not any more ludicrous than what has happened in real life. I found this story frightening.

And that’s why I loved this movie. It scared the sh*t out of me and made me laugh while doing it. I hope we survive long enough to be able to look back and laugh at this one, at these insane times. I imagine it’s how audiences felt after first viewing Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant satire DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964), a film which poked fun at a possible nuclear holocaust.

In DON’T LOOK UP, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his Ph.D. doctoral candidate assistant Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) make the shocking discovery of an asteroid that is on a collision course with Earth and that upon impact will destroy all life on the planet. Their findings are corroborated by NASA scientist Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan). Because this is an obviously dire situation, they are granted an audience with the President, President Orlean (Meryl Streep), but their meeting doesn’t go as expected. They are met with doubts and skepticism and are told to sit tight and wait for the president to get her own people to check into the situation, even though they know with near absolute certainty that the cataclysmic event will indeed happen in six months.

Try as they might, Mindy, Dibiasky, and Oglethorpe just can’t get their message out, and eventually, when the asteroid does get close enough to become visible, the political lines become drawn, and the president’s party’s rallying becomes “don’t look up!” which people at her rallies continually chant, the argument being, the opposition party “just wants to scare you. You are free not to look up.” Sound familiar?

DON’T LOOK UP is sharp satire with a lot to say about where we are right now as a society, and Adam McKay is able to make his points successfully because he shakes things up just enough to prevent any obvious political lines being drawn. The fact-avoiding president is a woman, and so while many of the criticisms are aimed at the prior Trump administration, the president in this movie is not a white conservative male. Political parties are never named or mentioned. Even traditional conservative/liberal divisions aren’t identified. Streep’s President Orlean has a photo of Bill and Hillary Clinton on her desk, for example. What McKay aims for with DON’T LOOK UP is what happens when you play fast and loose with the truth, and he mostly hits his mark with a satire which doesn’t quit.

McKay has done this before, with films like THE BIG SHORT (2015) and VICE (2018), where he mixes humor with sharp hard-hitting points.

DON’T LOOK UP is full of so many on-point moments, from little ones like the news host on an unnamed news network who even as the asteroid is hitting the earth refuses to give the event any airtime, instead talking about “the big news event of the day, topless urgent care workers.” Again, years from now people might raise an eyebrow and wonder WTF? But you only have to watch news coverage today to see that the same things happens every day.

There are larger moments. DiCaprio’s Dr. Mindy finally loses it near the end, and on a national news magazine TV show goes off on a “mad as hell” rant that is obviously reminiscent and inspired by the classic Peter Finch scene in NETWORK (1976). It’s no less upsetting.

The cast is spectacular.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays a role he doesn’t often play, a neurotic nervous type who can barely get a cognizant word out when first on the national stage. It was fun to watch DiCaprio play someone who wasn’t cooler than cool. It was also eye-opening to see him playing someone his own age or older, with adult sons. DiCaprio is a terrific actor, and I’ve been a fan for a long while. He nails this role, which comes as no surprise.

It was good to see Jennifer Lawrence back on screen again. While she’s a bit more subdued here than we’ve seen her in the past, her Kate Dibiasky is still a fiery character and fun to watch. Because she is outspoken, she gets considerable pushback from people in power and also from viewers at home, and she gets pummeled in real time on social media, which is another target of McKay’s satire. What he depicts happening on social media is absolutely insane. It’s also true. Dibiasky also has to endure her boyfriend breaking up with her on a social media platform.

Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep, and she nails President Orlean, keeping her from being just a caricature. Cate Blanchett knocks it out of the park as TV news host Brie Evantee, who finds Dr. Mindy attractive and initiates an affair between them. She is so on point she makes her character almost nauseating to watch.

Jonah Hill, while once again playing a role that is within his comfort zone, nonetheless enjoys many fine moments as Orlean’s son Jason, who’s also Chief of Staff. His “prayer” near the end of the movie for “all the stuff we’re going to lose” is priceless.

Mark Rylance delivers the most inspired and disturbing performance in the film, as Peter Isherwell, one of the richest men on the planet who is also something of a feel-good digital age techno guru. It’s Isherwell who convinces President Orlean to ignore Mindy’s science and follow his own, which of course has not been verified by other world scientists.

Rob Morgan is solid as Dr. Oglethorpe, and Ron Perlman is hilarious as Benedict Drask, the foul-mouthed astronaut of “another generation” who is chosen to lead the mission to destroy the asteroid. The cast also includes Tyler Perry, Timothee Chalamet, and Ariana Grande.

Director McKay wrote the screenplay, based on a story by David Sirota. It’s a fabulous screenplay, as nearly everything about it works.

I loved DON’T LOOK UP, and while it’s showing up here late in the year, it just might be my favorite movie of the year. It’s a Netflix movie, and right now is showing both at theaters and on Netflix.

Check it out. This is one you definitely do not want to miss.

And unless you’ve had your head in the sand the past several years, you’ll get exactly what McKay is talking about. He’s giving us DON’T LOOK UP as both a frightening look at where we are and a wake-up call. The asteroid hurtling towards Earth is a perfect metaphor for any major problem we face in the world today and what happens when those in charge decide not to tell the people the truth but instead feed them lies.

DiCaprio’s Dr. Mindy’s final few lines are chilling and come after he and his family are enjoying a last dinner together, reminiscing about their happy memories and what they’re thankful for. He says, in effect, we really had everything, didn’t we?

We too have everything. And that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

There’s an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. You can see it if you just look up. Or you can listen to those who tell you that looking up is a sign of weakness, that it’s politically motivated, and that you need to stand up for your rights and not look up, and that the threat isn’t as dire as others say.

But it is, and to see for yourself, all you have to do is look up.

Do you?

—END—

MOXIE (2021) – Teen Comedy Drama Has Moxie

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MOXIE (2021) has moxie

MOXIE, a new Netflix original movie, directed by Amy Poehler, with a screenplay by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer, based on the novel by Jennifer Mathieu, tells the story of a shy high school girl who rebels against the male-dominated culture of her school by creating a zine and eventual movement called Moxie that empowers and gives a voice to the girls at her school.

You can add this film to the ever increasing list of quality coming-of-age teen comedy dramas about high school girls navigating through uncertain times, films that include LADYBIRD (2017) , THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016), and BANANA SPLIT (2020). The script is full of poignant, moving moments that resonate, as well as some funny ones. Where MOXIE falls short is its ending, which becomes too neat and tidy, dealing with the serious topic of rape in a rather superficial way, which nearly sabotages the whole film because it almost trivializes the subject. But its heart is in the right place, and it’s hard not to really like this amiable, timely comedy drama.

Vivian (Hadley Robinson) and Claudia (Lauren Tsai) have been best friends since elementary school and now find themselves navigating through their junior year of high school, which mostly means keeping their heads down and ignoring what they view as simply annoying behavior by a lot of the boys at their school, behavior that includes publishing a list every year ranking the girls on various topics, such as “best butt” and “most bangable.” But when a new girl Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena) enrolls at the school, and refuses to back down to the aggressive behavior of handsome jock Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), her behavior strikes a chord in Vivian. Lucy tells Vivian that she chooses to hold her head up high, not down like Vivian, and she adds that Mitchell isn’t just annoying; he’s dangerous.

Even though Vivian does not get along at all with her mom Lisa (Amy Poehler) she still manages to find inspiration in stories of her mom as a teenager and how rebellious she was. So, Vivian begins to anonymously publish a zine called Moxie, which surprisingly to her, catches on with the girls at her school, and the next thing she knows, she has created a movement, but it’s a movement that Mitchell and his friends do not take kindly to. And as Vivian and the girls find out, the rules at the school heavily favor the Mitchells of the world.

MOXIE isn’t perfect, but it largely succeeds in what it sets out to do, mainly because the screenplay by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer is really, really good. There are a ton of moments that really work in this one. The dialogue is sharp and lively throughout, the characters authentic, and the situations realistic. For the most part. The best part is that Chestna and Meyer get the relationships right. The dynamic between Vivian and her mom Lisa works throughout, as they do not get along, and while Lisa continually tries to get closer to her daughter, she seems less perturbed by the chasm in their relationship than Vivian, which is a fresh take on this dynamic.

Vivian and Claudia’s friendship is poignant throughout and takes on the subject of race and culture, as Claudia is Asian and feels tremendous pressure to do right by her strict Asian mom who has worked hard to overcome racial obstacles in her own life. Then there’s the first love relationship Vivian has with Seth (Nico Hiraga), who seems to be the only boy sympathetic with their cause. The dinner scene between Vivian, Seth, Lisa, and Lisa’s date John (Clark Gregg) is a keeper. It’s both funny and in a few minutes of conversation, moving, as Vivian lashes out when John asks Seth about physics and she takes offense that he didn’t ask her, inquiring if he didn’t think she took physics because she’s a girl? Which is not what John meant by the question. It’s a brilliantly played brief scene that tackles some serious issues. There are many such moments throughout the film.

Where MOXIE falters is at times things come off as too simple and superficial, which works against what the movie is trying to say, especially the ending, which deals with rape. It’s handled so quickly it really doesn’t do the topic justice.

Hadley Robinson is very good in the lead role as Vivian. She’s the right combination of shy introvert, angry rebel, and eventually unexpected leader. Alicia Pascual-Pena is also excellent as Lucy, the new girl who’s refusal to back down sparks Vivian’s Moxie movement. Lauren Tsai is also moving as Vivian’s best friend Claudia.

Nico Hiraga is sufficiently sensitive as Vivian’s first boyfriend Seth, while Patrick Schwarzenegger nearly steals the movie as the golden boy jock Mitchell who seemingly can do whatever he wants. Schwarzenegger is the son of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver. He delivers a very memorable performance here.

Amy Poehler makes the most of her scenes as Vivian’s mom Lisa, and nearly every scene she’s in is a good one. And Marcia Gay Harden is also memorable as the very annoying Principal Shelly. She trivializes the girls’ concerns at every turn, and whether she intends to or not, she empowers the sexist cruel behavior of the boys, by falling back on the notion that as long as the boys aren’t breaking school rules, everything is fine.

I also enjoyed the way Amy Poehler directed this one. It is an energetic film from start to finish. It grabbed me in its opening moments with a creepy dream sequence, and then dove right in to its coming of age storyline.

While I can find fault with certain aspects of MOXIE, like the fact that its school depiction is rather broad and cliche, what it has to say about the treatment of girls by sexist boys is far too important to nitpick about. Is every male a monster? No. Are there males out there like Mitchell? Absolutely! Just like there are plenty of boys like Seth. Are there schools as poorly run and as blind and deaf to the plight of their female students as the school depicted in this one? Yes. Just read the news. And while there are most likely more schools that are better run than the one in this movie, that’s not the point. The point is that the behavior depicted in this movie should never be tolerated. Never.

I liked MOXIE a lot. It’s funny, yes, but more importantly, it covers a serious topic and does a tremendous job doing it, even with a too tidy superficial conclusion. And the reason it works so well is it is chock full of moving, memorable moments that will have your eyes tearing up, because that’s what happens when real people in real relationships pull for each other and stand up for each other.

With MOXIE, Amy Poehler has delivered the real deal.

—END—

FATMAN (2020) – Dark, Violent Tale About Santa Claus Unusually Enjoyable

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If the Coen brothers made a movie about Santa Claus, the result might resemble today’s movie FATMAN (2020), a dark comedy/thriller about a downtrodden reality-bitten Santa forced to outsource his elves and workshop to the U.S. military to make ends meet, while becoming the target of a relentless hitman hired to kill him by a disgruntled child.

Yup, FATMAN is one weird movie. But you know what? I liked it all the same!

While not a Coen brothers movie, FATMAN was actually written and directed by another pair of brothers, Eshom and Ian Nelms.

Times are tough for Santa (Mel Gibson), mostly because the world’s children are becoming more naughty than nice, which is slimming down his business, and as such, he’s having trouble paying his bills. As a result, when the U. S. military comes knocking on his door with a lucrative contract to build control consoles for their fighter jets, he is unable to say no.

Meanwhile, a spoiled rich child Billy (Chance Hurstfield) is outraged that once again Santa has given him a lump of coal for Christmas. Of course, in Billy’s case it’s well deserved, as he recently had threatened a classmate and forced her into saying she cheated on her science fair project, so she would be disqualified and he would instead be declared the winner.

Billy hires a hitman known only as the Skinny Man (Walton Goggins) to kill Santa, a job the assassin is only too happy to accept, as he has his own Santa issues, having felt abandoned by the gift-giver as a child. As a result, the Skinny Man collects toys which were given to other children by Santa.

The Skinny Man makes his way to northern Canada— the true secret hiding spot for Santa and his elves—to kill Santa once and for all, and he’s such a cool customer that he’s not even deterred by the presence of the U.S. military at the compound, which sets up a violent and bloody conclusion that is the last thing you would expect in a movie about Santa Claus.

The best part about FATMAN is that its tone is consistent, and that tone is dark. There is a sense of gloom throughout this one. Santa is basically depressed and disillusioned by the behavior of people, and he sees himself as a failure. The Skinny Man is one deadly dude, and he remains that way throughout. By far, he’s my favorite character in the movie, mostly because of the performance by Walton Goggins, who is a terrific actor.

There’s also a lot of humor here, most of it towards the beginning of the movie. There’s a chuckle-filled scene when the soldiers share lunch with the elves, and Captain Jacobs (Robert Bockstael) gets into a debate with the elf foreman Elf 7 (Eric Woolfe) about the need for a healthy diet. Jacobs admonishes the elf for feasting on sweets and carbs when he should be eating protein and fruits and vegetables. The elf disagrees and cites their longetivity for knowing more about health than the captain!

The scenes with spoiled Billy are pretty much all played for laughs, although these scenes are probably the least comical in the movie.

The film sheds its humor in its third act and goes all in with violence and bloodshed, and I actually enjoyed this less, as I was having fun with the film’s earlier quirky moments. But overall I enjoyed the script by the Nelms brothers. The story is as fresh as it is weird, and I liked this. They score just as highly behind the camera. The film carries a dreary look throughout, and the icy cold snowy Canadian countryside looked absolutely desolate. The setting proved a nice metaphor for the way Santa viewed people of late.

Mel Gibson makes for a down to earth and depressed Santa. He’s trying his best not to lose faith in humanity, but it’s a losing battle. And when he has to resort to his inner strength to defend himself against the Skinny Man, Gibson is even better. When he bellows out in his throaty voice in answer to the Skinny Man’s declarations of harm, with “You think you’re the first?” you know the Skinny Man has his hands full. It’s a really good performance by Gibson, certainly one of the more unusual and earthy takes on Santa I’ve ever seen.

But the best performance in my book here is Walton Goggins as the Skinny Man. He makes for a determined assassin who while he is at times unhinged never loses control. It’s the type of role that Bruce Dern would have played years ago. Goggins himself is no stranger to this type of role, having played unhinged types in such films as DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) and THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015). He also played the villain in the Marvel superhero film ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018).

The confrontation between Santa and the Skinny Man is well worth the wait.

There are also some fine supporting acting performances here as well. Marianne Jean-Baptiste makes for a relaxed and supportive Mrs. Claus, again playing as unconventional a take on the role as you will ever see. Yet, her performance works.

Robert Bockstael plays Captain Jacobs with a sense of sincerity not often seen in a portrayal of a military officer. And Eric Woolfe is memorable as Elf 7, Santa’s top elf and one of his most loyal supporters.

FATMAN isn’t for everyone, and it is certainly not a “family” Christmas movie, but it is a well-written and well-directed tale that takes the most unconventional path regarding Santa Claus as you will ever see, and for that reason alone, it’s pretty impressive! I mean, a violent movie featuring Santa Claus as a main character that’s not entirely played for laughs? Can that even be pulled off? Well, these guys just did it!

And it helps to have veteran actors Mel Gibson and Walton Goggins in the two main roles, Santa and the hit man.

No coal for this one. FATMAN makes for quite the stocking stuffer! Unusually enjoyable, it’s that surprise gift you didn’t see coming but enjoyed all the same!

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

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Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949914437.

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, first short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

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Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

IRRESISTIBLE (2020) – Cynical Political Tale by Jon Stewart Depressing Statement of the Obvious

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Steve Carell and Mackenzie Davis in IRRESISTIBLE (2020)

IRRESISTIBLE (2020) is anything but.

Written and directed by Jon Stewart, of THE DAILY SHOW (1996-2020) fame, IRRESISTIBLE tells the tale of a Democratic strategist Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) who travels to a small Wisconsin town to help a folksy farmer Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) win a mayoral election.

Why is a national Democratic strategist from D.C. who led Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign interested in a rural mayoral election? Your guess is as good as mine! Actually, the movie makes it clear. He’s interested because he believes the only way to save the Democratic party is by winning back the heartland, one small section at a time. I guess. I just found this central plot point to be a stretch and not very believable.

Anyway, since IRRESISTIBLE was written by Jon Stewart, you can expect biting cynical commentary on the current state of politics, and to this end Stewart doesn’t disappoint. However, none of it is all that insightful or anything we don’t already know. The film is billed as a comedy/drama, and the drama stems from that commentary, but the comedy is seriously lacking. The film has its moments of levity, but mostly the cynicism here keeps things from being all that fun. As such, IRRESISTIBLE is a strange title for this one. It’s about as irresistible as a Trump/Biden debate.

So as Gary assembles a team of mostly locals to work on Jack’s campaign, led by Jack’s daughter Diana (Mackenzie Davis), he attracts the attention of his biggest rival, Republican strategist Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) who arrives in town to use her political machine to re-elect the Republican incumbent, Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton). The battle lines have been drawn. Let the mudslinging begin!

Part of the problem with IRRESISTIBLE is that it constantly reminds us that the current state of U.S. politics is a complete sh*t show, and unless you’ve been living under a rock, this isn’t exactly something we need reminding of. It’s evident every single day. And so without anything new to add, IRRESITIBLE comes off as rather depressing statement of the obvious.

It works best when it allows itself to go the route of the goofy, like when the volunteers on Jack’s team mix up the voters’ list with the volunteer list, and as they hit the phone bank, all their own cell phones start ringing and they all start talking to each other, to which a frustrated Gary has to admonish them to stop gabbing and use the right list!

The sequence where Gary is introduced to small town America as he is flabbergasted when the next day everyone in town already knows his name is a good one. If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you have certainly had this experience!

But more often than not, the humor just isn’t there.

Steve Carell does what Steve Carell does, and you’ve seen this shtick before, from THE OFFICE (2005-2013) to his latest Netflix TV show SPACE FORCE (2020). Incidentally, IRRESISTIBLE isn’t much funnier than the lackluster SPACE FORCE. I prefer Carell when he stretches his acting chops more, as he has done in such films as BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017) and THE BIG SHORT (2015).

I’m a big fan of actor Chris Cooper, having enjoyed his performances in such films as LITTLE WOMEN (2019), A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD (2019), and way back when as Jake Gyllenhaal’s dad in OCTOBER SKY (1999). Strangely, he doesn’t have a lot to do here as Jack Hastings. Most of the film focuses on Steve Carell’s DC Gary. I was hoping Cooper would be going for a Jimmy Stewart vibe, and he does have a couple of key moments, but for the most part the screenplay ignores the character, which doesn’t do the film any favors.

Mackenzie Davis, who’s been making big impressions in films like BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), TULLY (2018), and TERMINATOR: DARK FATE (2019), is solid here as Diana, the daughter who wants to do well by her dad and her town, although ultimately, it’s a role that never quite rises to its potential.

Rose Byrne delivers a one-note performance as the icy cold Faith Brewster, a role that has cliche written all over it.

The supporting cast is impressive and features Brent Sexton, C.J. Wilson, and Topher Grace, among others, in small roles.

IRRESISTIBLE has its moments and makes the social commentary it wants to make, but it simply isn’t clever or funny enough to work. It also, strangely, features a major plot twist towards the end which I found to be a head-scratcher. I get what the film is saying about what’s wrong with politics these days, and the twist speaks to that, but I couldn’t help but find it to be contrived and phony.

I can’t say I enjoyed IRRESISTIBLE all that much. And judging by what writer/director Jon Stewart had to say about politics in this one, that may have been the point.

Nonetheless, you don’t have to watch IRRESISTIBLE to understand what’s wrong with politics, and that’s my biggest issue with the movie. It adds little that is new to the conversation, and it’s simply not creative enough to make a lasting impression.

At the end of the day, it’s as painful to watch as the political campaigns it’s mocking.

—END—

 

 

 

UNKNOWN ORIGINS (2020) – Strange Hybrid of Superhero/Serial Killer Movie Doesn’t Really Work

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Before I get to the review, a bit of reality: Christopher Nolan, one of my favorite filmmakers working today, released his latest movie this weekend to theaters, TENET (2020). I really want to see it. However, here in the United States, things are still so bad with COVID-19, that to go to a movie theater now would be a very risky endeavor. And so, I passed and will continue to pass until things improve. Sadly, this may be a while yet. Most medical experts agree that things will get worse before they get better, due largely to the poor choices being made regarding masks and social distancing by so many in the country, thanks in large part to the completely incompetent and reckless leadership— lack of leadership really— of the Trump administration. And so, for the foreseeable future, I will continue to review movies accessed at home, rather than at the theater.

And now on to our review:

A couple of weeks back, I reviewed PROJECT POWER (2020), a superhero movie about a pill that gives people superpowers, a different and not overly successful tweak to the superhero genre. Up today it’s UNKNOWN ORIGINS (2020), which adds a tweak of its own: a serial killer who bases his murders on superhero origin stories. Yup, a superhero serial killer movie. A strange hybrid indeed.

UNKNOWN ORIGINS, which hails from Spain, and is now available on Netflix, tells the story of police detective David Valentin (Javier Rey) working his first case, and it’s a doozy: a serial killer who displays his victims in elaborate situations which seem to have no connection, that is until retired detective Cosme (Antonio Resines) notices a superhero connection while looking at some of the evidence upon David’s request. And Cosme is familiar with superheroes because his son Jorge (Brays Efe) who runs a comic book store is a complete geek on the subject and has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things superheroes.

Norma (Veronica Echegui), the idiosyncratic head of homicide, decides to hire Jorge as a consultant and immediately makes him David’s partner on the case. Jorge’s first contribution is that he informs them that the murders are all based on superhero origin stories. As the murders continue, it’s up to this oddball duo to find and stop the mysterious serial killer.

As I said, UNKNOWN ORIGINS is a weird hybrid of superhero and serial killer. The trailer on Netflix definitely highlighted the comedic aspects of the movie, and so when I sat down to watch this one, I expected it to be a lighthearted farce, perhaps even a spoof, but that’s not how this one plays out at all.

It begins all rather dark, as the serial killer aspects are lurid and disturbing. The opening segments have R-rated serial killer movie written all over them. But then things take a comedic turn once Jorge and David are paired together, a strange juxtaposition after the serious opening. But the film never becomes a full-fledged comedy either. Instead, it gravitates towards the straight superhero tale, and this is where the film falters the most, with an almost ridiculous plot point of David becoming less a cop and more a superhero.

At the end of the day, even though this one is full of potential, the story just didn’t work for me, and as such, I didn’t enjoy the screenplay by director David Galan Galindo and Fernando Navarro as much as I thought I would. The comedy is way too subdued, and the same can be said for the darker serial killer parts. The film starts off creepily enough but then pulls back. For a while, it looked like this one would have a WATCHMEN (2009) or KICK-ASS (2010) feel, but UNKNOWN ORIGINS is never as tight or as consistent as those movies.

And I thought the supehero stuff towards the end didn’t work at all. It’s supposed to be a homage to superheroes, particularly Batman, but it just didn’t work. The number one reason is I didn’t believe any of it, which goes back to the writing. Jorge is a believable character, and his character remains consistent. However, David hates superheroes, and so to believe he undergoes a transformation where he actually agrees to become a supehero, that just didn’t work for me.

And sadly, the poorest written character is the female lead, Norma. She’s the least believable character in the movie, and her romance with David is one of the most forced and least believable screen romances I’ve seen in a while.

Also, the twist here, where we learn the killer’s secret identity, is the same exact one I saw last week in the serial killer film THE SILENCING (2020).

Director David Galan Galindo scores highest when working darkest, but unfortunately, this only occurs in the film’s early moments which are actually quite creepy. The bulk of the movie is about superheroes and their need to exist, and that part to me never won me over.

And the comedy never really takes off either, which is too bad because the two main characters do share some chemistry. David has a Clint Eastwood vibe about him, and there’s a lot of Zach Galifianakis in Brays Efe’s portrayal of Jorge. So, imagine a buddy cop movie starring a young Clint Eastwood and Zach Galifianakis and you get the idea, and for parts of this movie, this chemistry really works, but it never becomes a dominant part of the tale.

I enjoyed both Bray Efe’s and Javier Rey’s performances, Efe in particular. And while I said Rey’s performance reminded me of a young Clint Eastwood, he’s also dressed like Chris Noth used to be on the classic TV show LAW AND ORDER. In fact, there’s a line in the film where Norma chastizes him for dressing like a 90s TV cop.

Speaking of Norma, while Veronica Echegui delivers a spirited performance, the role was my least favorite in the film, mostly because she was the least believable.

And Antonio Resines adds fine support as the not-so-retired cop Cosme.

UNKNOWN ORIGINS also suffers from two other major problems. It doesn’t have a strong hero, nor does it have a strong villain. Technically, David and Jorge are the heroes, but in the framework of the story, the hero is supposed to be the superhero which David becomes, and this doesn’t happen until the end of the movie. And by the way his superhero costume is rather lame. Likewise, the identity of the killer is not revealed until the end either, and so for the majority of the film he operates in the shadows.

If you’re in the right frame of mind, you might enjoy UNKNOWN ORIGINS. Its heart is in the right place, as it gets all the geeky references right and tries really hard to be a love letter to superheroes, but I found the tone and feel of this one to be all over the place and never consistent or believable enough to really win me over.

It tries hard, but at the end of the day, it’s just too superficial to become a major part of superhero movie lore.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

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Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949914437.

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, first short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

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Print cover

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Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.