IN THE SHADOWS: ELISHA COOK, JR.

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Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS, the column where we look at character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.

Up today, it’s Elisha Cook, Jr., one of the most recognizable character actors of all time. Small in stature, he often portrayed intense oftentimes frightened characters, especially in his horror movies. One of my favorite Cook performances in a genre film was in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959), in which he co-starred with Vincent Price as the terrified Watson Pritchard, the one man in the movie who believed ghosts were haunting the house. Cook also enjoyed a memorable moment in THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) when he falls asleep in the back of Kolchak’s car, scaring the living daylight out of the reporter (Darren McGavin) when he bolts upright in the back seat!

Here now is a partial look at some of Elisha Cook, Jr.’s impressive 220 screen credits:

HER UNBORN CHILD (1930)- Stewart Kennedy – Cook’s first screen credit is in this 1930 love story drama.

STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940) – Joe Briggs – co-stars in this film noir with Peter Lorre. Often cited as the first film noir movie ever.

THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) – Wilmer Cook – one of my favorite Elisha Cook Jr. roles is in this classic film noir by John Huston starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. Cook plays the enforcer for Mr. Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), who Bogart’s Sam Spade torments throughout, at one point slapping him around and eventually turning Gutman against him. Cook is wound up and intense throughout. Also starring Peter Lorre and Mary Astor. One of my favorite movies of all time.

A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO (1942) – Frank Lucas- supporting role in this Laurel and Hardy spooky comedy.

THE BIG SLEEP (1946) – Harry Jones – reunited with Humphrey Bogart, with Bogart this time playing Philip Marlowe. Directed by Howard Hawks and written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, this one is so complex that even after subsequent viewings it’s still difficult to figure out who did what to whom, and why! Bogart famously married co-star Lauren Bacall shortly after this movie.

SHANE (1953) – Stonewall Torrey – supporting role in this classic Alan Ladd western. His character is dramatically slain by the villainous gunslinger played by Jack Palance.

ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (1954)- “Semi-Private Eye” – Homer Garrity – plays private detective Homer Garrity hired by Lois Lane to prove that Clark Kent is really Superman in this episode of the George Reeves Superman TV series.

THE KILLING (1956)- George Peatty – supporting role in this film noir thriller directed by a young Stanley Kubrick.

VOODOO ISLAND (1957) – Martin Schuyler – zombie horror movie starring Boris Karloff, notable for featuring the screen debut of Adam West. Holy horror movie, Batman!

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959) – Watson Pritchard – one of my favorite Elisha Cook, Jr. roles is in this William Castle horror movie starring Vincent Price as a cold, calculating husband who along with his equally manipulative wife plan a party in a haunted house where the guests are each paid a large sum of money if they remain in the house all night. And they have no choice once they agree, because they are all locked inside until dawn. Cook plays the one man there who believes in ghosts, and spends most of his time drinking and warning the others that they are all doomed. One of the earlier horror movies to employ jump scares, and the scene with the old woman who appears out of nowhere in the basement is a classic.

BLACK ZOO (1963) – Joe – horror movie starring the Hammer ham himself, Michael Gough, playing a character who uses his zoo animals to kill his enemies. Of course!

THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963) – Peter Smith – reunited with Vincent Price in this horror movie directed by Roger Corman based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft. Cook plays a frightened townsperson who is a yes-man to a tougher townsperson played by Leo Gordon, and they lead the villagers in attempts to oust Vincent Price’s Charles Dexter Ward from their community fearing that he is a menace to their community. And they’re right! Also stars Lon Chaney Jr., in a rare paring with Vincent Price. One of my favorite Roger Corman/Vincent Price movies.

ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) – Mr. Nicklas – part of the terrific cast in Roman Polanski’s classic horror movie which also stars Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Maurice Evans, and Ralph Bellamy.

THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) – Mickey Crawford – plays an informant for Darren McGavin’s Carl Kolchak in this groundbreaking vampire movie written by Richard Matheson. Cook provides one of the better jump scares in the movie as noted above.

BLACULA (1972) – Sam – Cook appears in back-to-back vampire movies, this one featuring a commanding performance by William Marshall in the lead role in this underrated horror movie which is actually very good.

THE BLACK BIRD (1975) – Wilmer Cook – Cook reprises his role from THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) in this comedy about the son of Sam Spade, played by George Segal.

SALEM’S LOT (1979) – Gordon ‘Weasel’ Phillips – this TV movie adaptation of Stephen King’s vampire novel starring David Soul and James Mason is considered by many fans and critics as one of the two greatest vampire TV movies ever made, along with THE NIGHT STALKER. Elisha Cook Jr. appeared in both these movies!

MAGNUM, P.I. (1980-1988) – Francis “Ice Pick” Hofstetler – Cook’s final screen appearances were on the popular TV series, MAGNUM, P.I., in which he appeared in 13 episodes.

Elisha Cook Jr. appeared in tons of TV shows over the years, including GUNSMOKE, THE WILD WILD WEST, STAR TREK, BATMAN, THE ODD COUPLE, and STARSKY AND HUTCH, to name just a few.

I hope you enjoyed this partial list of Elisha Cook Jr.’s career. He was a character actor who starred in many genre films, some, like ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE NIGHT STALKER, are some of the more important ones ever made.

Join me again next time for another edition of IN THE SHADOWS, where we look at the careers of character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael


SHE SAID (2022) – Important Movie on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Is Must-See Viewing

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SHE SAID (2022) is the type of movie that I don’t feel like criticizing one bit because its subject matter— sexual harassment of women in the workplace— is so important.

In other words, while the movie is far from perfect, it’s still a film everyone should see. Period. So, let there be no ambiguity about that. SHE SAID is a must-see movie for everyone.

SHE SAID is based on both The New York Times investigative reporting by reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, and their book She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement, and while it chronicles their investigation into Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, an investigation which eventually led to his arrest and conviction, the story in general is really about how pervasive sexual harassment is in the workplace and how deeply rooted these attitudes against women are engrained in men, especially but not limited to, men in power. The screenplay by Rebecca Lenkiewicz makes this abundantly clear, and rightly so, as its take on this subject is spot on.

I found SHE SAID to be a very somber and unsettling movie because the story it told not only was true but exposes horrible things regarding the way men treat women that sadly are ongoing.

SHE SAID basically follows the two New York Times reporters, Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) and Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) as they painstakingly and persistently follow leads and search for victims to speak on the record and for proof to back up their claims as they try to tell the story and expose the abuse and harassment propagated by Harvey Weinstein over the years.

The film gets this right, as we witness how frightened Weinstein’s victims are, and how not only are they afraid to talk, but so many of them signed settlements which legally prevented them from talking. It also prevented them from ever working again in the movie industry, as Weinstein would make sure they couldn’t.

The more Twohey and Kantor learn about Weinstein, the more emotional they grow, because they know what he has done and continues to do, but they can’t get anyone on record to speak about it, and so they persist and go to nearly superhuman lengths to seek out and find both the proof and on the record accounts they need. They also have to deal with Weinstein, who with his connections learns they are investigating him, and he intimidates the women who are thinking of speaking out, and there are also anonymous violent and vulgar threats against Twohey and Kantor.

What the film doesn’t get right— and again, because of the subject matter, I encourage everyone to see this movie in spite of this— is a cinematic style. While the content held my attention throughout, both the writing and by-the-numbers directing by Maria Schrader kept this from being a powerful film in its own right. For example, the movie SPOTLIGHT (2015), which covered the Boston Globe investigation into the Catholic Church’s child molestation crimes and its subsequent cover-up, was a phenomenal movie in its own right on top of its riveting subject matter. Not only did it feature a strong cast and powerhouse performances, but the writing dug deep into the reporters writing the stories, and the film also had villains, portraying the Catholic Church as being stubbornly out of touch with its victims. It never got melodramatic. It stuck to facts. But it also went for the jugular and really hit hard with its message of just what happened and was continuing to happen.

SHE SAID doesn’t quite do this. While I applaud the choice the movie made not to ever show Weinstein speaking on camera, and we only see the back of the actor’s head who is portraying him, the sad side effect of this is we never really feel the ugliness and vulgarity of the man. Not that we have to. In terms of story and making its point, we don’t need more of Weinstein. But we need something. Because the movie is almost all Twohey and Kantor and their reporting. Why isn’t this enough? Well, technically it is, but as a movie, the two hours spent watching SHE SAID are nowhere near as riveting as watching SPOTLIGHT.

And the story does give us some family background on Twohey and Kantor, but their backgrounds aren’t what is missing. It’s the process of their investigation which needs more dialogue and angst. The drama is flat.

Carey Mulligan is a terrific actor, and she nails the experienced Megan Twohey, who while growing increasingly rattled by this investigation also is dealing with a newborn at home. She also has a great scene in the movie, where at a meeting at a bar, a guy comes over and hits on them, and when she tells him they’re not interested, and he persists and becomes vulgar, she lets him have it and tells him to f*ck off! Mulligan has wowed me since I first saw her in DRIVE (2011) and THE GREAT GATSBY (2013). She was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her phenomenal performance in PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020), and she also was pretty darn good in the more recent THE DIG (2021), in which she co-starred with Ralph Fiennes.

Zoe Kazan is also exceptional as Jodi Kantor, the less experienced of the two reporters, but the one who initially started the investigation. She also has her share of potent scenes, like when she inadvertently mentions to one of the victims’ husbands what supposedly happened with Weinstein, and the husband says his wife has never mentioned this to him. I’ve enjoyed Kazan in the horror movie THE MONSTER (2016) and even more so in the romantic comedy THE BIG SICK (2017).

The supporting cast is very good. Andre Braugher turns in a fine performance as executive editor Dean Baquet. The way he confidently pushes back against Weinstein provides some of the more satisfying moments in the movie.

SHE SAID is a very good movie, and while it has its flaws, its content is must-see viewing, and its perspective on sexual harassment in the workplace needs to be heard, acknowledged, and understood, and changes need to continue to be made.

I give it three stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

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

THE GOOD NURSE (2022) – Netflix Drama is a Really Good Movie

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Netflix has been able to attract A-list actors in many of their original movies. The results are fifty-fifty. Sometimes the films are disappointing, but other times they really work and make for solid movie viewing, all in the comfort of your own home.

THE GOOD NURSE (2022), based on the true story of serial killer Charles Cullen, a male nurse, who murdered dozens possibly hundreds of people while working at various hospitals, before he was finally stopped by a co-worker, the “good nurse” in the title of the movie, falls into the latter category. It’s really well done, and the two A-list actors in this one, Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain, both deliver compelling performances which carry the movie from beginning to end.

I was surprised how effortlessly THE GOOD NURSE plays out, and a lot of the credit here has to go to director Tobias Lindholm, who directs this one with a straightforward style that tells its story starting with the first frame of the movie, where we see a patient dying, doctors asking questions, and male nurse Charles Cullen in the room feigning innocence, and then moves forward without any diversions or wasted scenes.

Equal credit goes to screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who wrote the screenplay based on the book by Charles Graeber, as she outlines the story perfectly and includes superior dialogue throughout, which comes as no surprise, since Wilson-Cairns was nominated for an Academy Award for her co-written screenplay to 1917 (2019).

And then you have Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain, who both play their roles at the top of their games, and the result is THE GOOD NURSE is a really good movie, much better than I expected it to be.

Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain) is a single mom struggling to raise her two young daughters. She works long hours as a hospital nurse, and she also suffers from a heart ailment which could prove fatal, but she can’t stop working because she needs to work for at least six months longer in order to qualify for health insurance. Her supervisor can’t cut her hours, but she does hire an extra nurse to help out, and that nurse is Charlie Cullen (Eddie Redmayne).

Amy and Charlie hit it off immediately. They are both single parents with young children, and once Charlie learns of Amy’s condition, he promises to help her, and he assures her that with his help she’ll make it through the six months to get her health insurance. When one of their patients dies unexpectedly, Amy is surprised, but hardly takes notice, and when several months later, the police are alerted, the two homicide detectives Danny Baldwin (Nnamdi Asomugha) and Tim Braun (Noah Emmerich) shrug their shoulders and wonder why they are even being called in. But after meeting with icy cold hospital administrator Linda Garran (Kim Dickens) and the hospital attorney, and having their questions go unanswered, Baldwin and Braun feel that something is not right. And when Garran refuses to hand over the internal investigative report, citing one delay tactic after another, the officers’ suspicions are heightened.

They do a random background check on the hospital staff who dealt with the deceased, and they find that male nurse Charlie Cullen has a record for assault. When they attempt to follow-up, they find resistance from every hospital where Cullen ever worked. And when during follow-up questioning with Amy, she tells them that another patient has died, they see a blazing red flag. Amy of course, since Charlie has been such a good friend to her, can’t believe he would be involved in the killing of a patient, but then she begins looking into the matter on her own. What she finds surprises her. She then risks her career and possibly her life as she agrees to work with Baldwin and Braun to finally put an end to what Charlie has been doing.

The story is told through Amy’s perspective, and the events in the movie are framed around her. Jessica Chastain is in top form as the nurse who legally is not allowed to talk about any of the hospital deaths, as her contract explicitly prevents this, and so by helping the police she is risking losing her job. Chastain captures Amy’s exhaustion, from her strenuous nursing position, in a hospital that isn’t funded enough or prepared to properly take care of its staff, to her heart condition, to dealing with difficult children at home. Chastain makes the weary Amy sympathetic and later heroic.

I like Jessica Chastain a lot. She’s been enjoyable in so many movies, from THE HELP (2011) to ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012) to THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017), to name just a few. We just saw her in THE FORGIVEN (2021), where she co-starred with Ralph Fiennes, and she’s even better here in THE GOOD NURSE. And of course, she won the Oscar for Best Actress this past year for her performance in THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (2021)

Eddie Redmayne kills it as Charlie Cullen. While he is soft-spoken, gentle, and polite, the way Redmayne plays him, there is something off about him, as if he is covering a deep wound, or harboring a sinister secret, which he is. He gets one of the best lines in the movie, when asked by the police why he did it, he answers simply, because they let me.

And that’s a huge part of the story told in THE GOOD NURSE. Hospital after hospital where Charlie worked knew what he was doing, but none of them sought the authorities to go after him, because as explained in the movie, that would make them vulnerable to expensive lawsuits. THE GOOD NURSE does a nice job painting a troubling portrait of the health care system and of hospitals in general, and this is before COVID!

Redmayne won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014), so I won’t claim that his work here in THE GOOD NURSE is his best yet, but it’s pretty darn good! He’s really convincing as a man who would be capable of killing that many people for no other reason other than he could.

I also enjoyed both Nnamdi Asomugha and Noah Emmerich as the two homicide detectives who go from initially feeling like the hospital is wasting their time, to hmm, that seemed like a cover-up, but we doubt it, but we’ll check it out anyway, to full blown holy sh*t! this guy’s been killing people for years and no one has brought charges against him!

I didn’t really expect much from THE GOOD NURSE, but it exceeded my expectations. Driven by two exceptional performances by Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne, THE GOOD NURSE tells a riveting story that is about more than just a serial killer, as it also makes clear that the hospitals which knew of his crimes did nothing about them. And it tells this story through the eyes of one very hard-working nurse, Amy Loughren, who’s struggling to get through her life with a job that doesn’t give her health insurance— and she’s a health-care worker! —and as a single mom with two children. She’s in jeopardy long before she meets Charlie Cullen, and once she does meet him and learns what he’s been doing, she puts her friendship aside and her job on the line, in order to finally put an end to his killing spree.

Just before the end credits roll, the movie reveals what Amy is doing in the here and now, and after some family updates, concludes that she is still “a good nurse.”

I give THE GOOD NURSE a solid three 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’├ętat 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

BLONDE (2022) – Netflix’ NC-17 Rated Fictional Account of Marilyn Monroe Major Disappointment

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Some movies have “it.” Others don’t.

BLONDE (2022), unlike its subject, Marilyn Monroe, doesn’t have “it,” which is too bad because Ana de Armas is terrific in the lead role as Norma Jean, aka Marilyn Monroe, but this fictional account of the life of Monroe based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates just never came to life for me. It didn’t grab me at the outset, nor did it pull me in later as it went along, and for a movie that runs nearly three hours, that’s a long time to be uninvolved. A very long time.

The first issue I had with this movie is why do we need a fictional account of the life of Marilyn Monroe? Wasn’t her real life fascinating and tragic enough? I couldn’t really wrap my head around the idea. Sure, it’s based on the Joyce Carol Oates novel, but again, why? I was especially distracted by this in this day and age where a growing number of political leaders make their living promoting fictional accounts as true, and so this whole notion didn’t sit well with me here in 2022. That being said, I went in with an open mind, and was ready to enjoy this one regardless, but the film itself prevented me from doing so.

BLONDE, which is rated NC-17 for strong sexual content, nudity, rape, and child abuse, is now streaming on Netflix and playing at some theaters. Most of the content here is typical of R rated films. The one exception is a rather vulgar scene between Monroe and JFK, vulgar in the way the President treats Monroe. But this is all fiction so… it doesn’t resonate as it otherwise would.

The film opens with a young Norma Jean living with her alcoholic and abusive mom (Julianne Nicholson), giving the film a very unpleasant first few minutes which seem to go on forever before finally cutting to an adult Norma Jean (Ana de Armas) as she first breaks into the film industry. And in this story, she gets her first role after being raped by the studio head. He has his way sexually with her, and then he gives her the role. Again, fictional account. This never happened.

The rest of the movie follows Monroe’s traumatic life and career, following its factual path through movies she made and the lovers she had, but all with a fictional twist, right up until her tragic death in 1962 at the age of 36.

BLONDE tries to be stylish, and director Andrew Dominik mixes black and white cinematography into the mix, as well as different variants of color photography, and even inserts de Armas into real scenes from Marilyn Monroe’s movies where de Armas stands side by side with the real actors from those movies. Yet, none of this worked for me. In terms of style, BLONDE is vastly inferior to another bio pic from earlier this year, ELVIS (2022) by Baz Luhrmann. That film had me hooked within its opening seconds and it never looked back. BLONDE, in spite of all its technical innovations, labors from start to finish.

A large part of the problem is its pacing. It moves like a snail, and never builds on what has come before it. It just moves from one plot point to another. It really could have used some serious editing.

There are some impressive acting performances. I’ve been a fan of Ana de Armas for a while, and she is making a ton of movies these days. We just saw her in THE GRAY MAN (2022) and before that in the James Bond movie NO TIME TO DIE (2021). Her performance as an A. I. being was one of the better parts of BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017).

Here, she gives it her all as Marilyn Monroe, and at times she is good enough to lose herself in the role, and you think you are watching the real Monroe. Other times, however, de Armas’ Cuban accent is still detectable. If BLONDE had been a better movie, this distinction would have worked better because it would have supported the notion that this is a fictional account and not a true biography, but the film just isn’t up to the task, and so I imagine de Armas’ accent will only irritate Marilyn Monroe fans.

Bobby Cannavale turns in a fine performance as the “Ex-Athlete,” based of course on Joe DiMaggio, who famously married Marilyn Monroe, and Adrien Brody is even better as “The Playwright,” based on Arthur Miller, who married Monroe after she and DiMaggio divorced. Neither one of these two have much of an impact here though, since neither actor is in the movie all that much.

The screenplay by director Andrew Dominik based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates falls flat, and then some. I was amazed at how much I did not like this movie. Considering the subject matter, Marilyn Monroe, the actor in the lead, Ana de Armas, and the impressive looking cinematography.

None of it comes together. The story struggles. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the narrative because it’s a fictional account of a real person, and so these traumatic events which shaped Monroe’s life— didn’t actually happen, at least not in the way as depicted in this movie.

For me, the bottom line is this: did this really happen to Monroe? No. So, why do I care?

The short answer? I don’t.

So, in spite of tremendous potential, BLONDE was a huge disappointment.

Monroe and her fans deserve better.

I give it one and a half stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

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

DON’T WORRY DARLING (2022) – Utopian Thriller’s Reveal a Disappointment

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If you’re going to make a science fiction thriller with an anticipated “big reveal,” you’d best keep the “big” in the reveal.

DON’T WORRY DARLING (2022), a new quasi-science fiction thriller, fails to do this. It has a reveal all right, but it ain’t big! The only thing big about it is, it’s a big letdown!

DON’T WORRY DARLING takes place in the 1950s in an idyllic closed community located somewhere in beautiful sunny California, where the young husbands of the families who reside there all work for an ultra-modern, yet mysterious company run by the eccentric Frank (Chris Pine). It’s mysterious because no one seems to know exactly what the company does, as the husbands never talk about their work, and the wives don’t seem to care. They’re all wealthy and happy in their utopian community.

The story focuses on one couple in particular, Alice Chambers (Florence Pugh) and her husband Jack (Harry Styles). They are the perfect couple, and life has never been better, until one of the wives and one of Alice’s best friends, Margaret (Kiki Layne) begins to act strangely and make unexpected accusations against the company, saying it took her son away from her. Her behavior is dismissed by Frank as delusions after the traumatic experience of losing her son in an accident out in the desert, an area the wives are told not to visit because of the hazardous materials there. But when Alice witnesses Margaret commit suicide, and when she is later told that Margaret is fine and is recuperating at the hospital, she pushes back against being told she only imagined she saw Margaret take her own life.

More strange occurrences ensue, and Alice realizes that this utopian community isn’t as it seems. There is something else going on. And the rest of the movie follows Alice as she tries to figure out what is really going on, while everyone else, including Frank and her own husband Jack, fights back against her, telling her that she is unfortunately dealing with her own delusions since she too ventured into the desert and was affected by the “hazardous materials.”

This all leads up to the anticipated “big reveal,” which as I said, isn’t all that big. Nor is it terribly new or exciting.

But before the reveal, the film has a lot of good things going for it.

Things get off to a lively start with some energetic and creative direction by director Olivia Wilde, who also plays one of the wives in the movie, Bunny. The cinematography is bright and cheery, and the homes, cars, costumes, music, and characters all capture the 1950s perfectly in an opening montage that has this film hopping in its first few minutes. The setting and the characters are established with gusto.

The performances are very good. Florence Pugh, who has never looked better, by the way, is perfect as the fully content stay-at-home wife Alice, until she begins to doubt that she is living in a utopia, and that something far more sinister is going on. The one knock here is we’ve seen Pugh play this type of role before, specifically in MIDSOMMAR (2019). Not a big deal, but as good as Pugh is here, it wasn’t quite as fresh as some of her other performances. Still, she’s a wonderful actor, who I first noticed in the wrestling movie FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (2019), and who has since wowed me in the aforementioned MIDSOMMAR, in LITTLE WOMEN (2019), and in Marvel’s BLACK WIDOW (2021).

Harry Styles as Alice’s husband Jack is convincingly loving and supportive, until the plot takes a different direction, and his character takes on a ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) vibe, as he plots against his wife.

It was fun to see Chris Pine cast against type as the villain here, Frank, the man who coolly and confidently seems to have an answer for everything. Frank is super annoying, and he gets under your skin. Pine’s performance might be the best in the movie.

Timothy Simons makes for a dubious doctor who works for the company, Dr. Collins, whose stoic demeanor irritates as he counters Alice’s emotional accusations with calm comments to the contrary. And director Olivia Wilde is effective as Bunny, a housewife who seems to be one of the most loyal to the needs of the company.

The screenplay by Katie Silberman, based on a story by Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke, presents an interesting premise but then doesn’t deliver on that premise. From the get-go, the audience knows there’s going to be a twist, a reveal, as it’s pretty darn clear that this utopian society isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be. And so, it’s not a surprise when that reveal happens, but worse, the reveal itself is something we’ve seen before, and this take on it is nothing new.

On a metaphorical level, the story tackles the issue of the husband who stomps on his wife’s autonomy, which is the most interesting theme the film has to offer, but it’s handled in such a superficial way that it really doesn’t resonate.

And while the characters are generally interesting, and the two leads Alice and Jack likeable, no one really drives this movie. Pine’s Frank is the most effective character in the film, but he’s the elusive villain, and so the bulk of the movie isn’t built on him.

So while DON’T WORRY DARLING starts off well, it actually slows down and becomes rather dull long before the disappointing reveal.

Director Olivia Wilde does a decent job here, but I prefer her previous directorial effort, the sharp and funny BOOKSMART (2019).

DON’T WORRY DARLING has some creative direction, and a couple of strong acting performances by Florence Pugh and Chris Pine, but none of it is enough to overcome its dull reveal or sluggish second half pace.

Don’t worry about missing this one.

I give it two 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—

EMILY THE CRIMINAL (2022) – Aubrey Plaza Shines in Riveting New Thriller

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When the criminals treat you better than the employers, you know there’s something wrong.

I mean, if you’re going to work your fingers to the bone and get paid bare minimum, with no rights as an employee, why not work for the criminals who are paying you lots of money and are being more up front and honest with you than people in the workplace?

That’s the premise behind EMILY THE CRIMINAL (2022), a new thriller starring Aubrey Plaza about a young woman who is struggling to make ends meet who turns to crime when she is finally fed up with it all.

Emily (Aubrey Plaza) works long hours for a food delivery service and spends her days delivering and serving food to various clients. She is saddled with student debt that she cannot pay off… we witness one phone conversation where she learns that her recent payment only covered the accrued interest and not the principal of the loan…. and her efforts to find a better paying job continually fall short. She has a criminal record, for one incident of aggravated assault, and this hinders her job search. In one interview, the interviewer tells her he hasn’t read the record yet and asks her to explain it, and when she gives an alternate account, he reveals he has read it, which she sees, and rightly so, as an act of deception.

When she interviews for an upscale design position, she learns it’s actually an unpaid internship. And when her current boss changes her hours without warning, she complains, but he tells her there’s no union, no place to file grievances, so either work or leave.

All of this is why when a co-worker gives her a phone number and tells her to call it because it’s a gig that will pay her $200, she does it. After calling the number, she meets Youcef (Theo Rossi) who explains to her and the others who have also showed up that day that they will all make $200 cash, but that they will be doing something illegal. It turns out it’s a “dummy shopper” scheme where they use stolen credit card numbers to buy goods, in this case a flat screen TV, which they then turn over to Youcef who will then turn around and sell the TVs to make more money. Emily agrees, it goes well, and Youcef tells her there is another job if she’s interested, but the stakes are higher, but it will also pay $2,000.

After some soul searching, Emily decides to do the job, and even though it is more dangerous, she gets the money, and soon after decides to go all in with Youcef and continue this life of crime.

EMILY THE CRIMINAL is a well-made, smart and ultimately enjoyable thriller that I liked a lot. Its story works, like most good stories do, because it is based on truth. Employers often do treat workers terribly, prospective employers are sometimes less than honest in interviews, and there are lots of places that believe unpaid internships are real jobs. If you have spent time struggling to find work, especially work that pays well, you know this is the case. I certainly do.

Emily is an artist who loves to paint, but she can’t even think about doing what she loves because her life is a grind where she’s working only to pay bills and her student loans, and in spite of long hours, she’s failing at both. And so, it makes perfect sense for Emily when she discovers the illegal dummy shopper scheme, that she’s not going to say no. She’s desperate. And when she takes things to the next level, the audience understands her decision, because they understand her motives. She just wants to live her life. And capitalism just isn’t giving her a fair shake at the opportunities.

EMILY THE CRIMINAL features a terrific performance by Aubrey Plaza in the lead role. Plaza has been around for a while, and I have not seen a lot of her work, but she’s riveting here. She plays Emily as tough as nails, someone who is sick and tired of being pushed around, and when she decides to push back, it’s something to watch. Plaza of course played April on the TV show PARKS AND RECREATION (2009-2015) and she also starred in the TV show LEGION (2017-2019). She also starred in the remake CHILD’S PLAY (2019), which I liked, and she was in SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010) as well.

Theo Rossi, who has also been in a ton of stuff, plays Youcef, who in spite of seeming cold and detached at first, shows more honesty in his dealings with Emily than most of the traditional employers she has dealt with. He also has a soft side, and as the story goes along, he and Emily grow closer. Rossi nails the role, which was much more satisfying than his recent comedic turn in ARMY OF THE DEAD (2021). Rossi played the villain, Shades, in the Netflix Marvel TV show LUKE CAGE (2016-2018), and he was memorable as Juice on the TV show SONS OF ANARCHY (2008-2014).

Jonathan Avigdori makes for a nice villain, playing Youcef’s cousin Khalil, who is much more heavy-handed than Youcef, and who also doesn’t like Emily all that much.

EMILY THE CRIMINAL was written and directed by John Patton Ford, and it’s his first feature film credit. I loved the script, as it both tells a riveting story based on truth, and also creates a captivating character in Emily. You’ll root for Emily the same way you rooted for Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in BREAKING BAD (2008-2013).

There are some intense scenes here, like Emily’s attempt to steal an expensive car, and the sequence where a couple breaks into her apartment to turn the tables on her and rob her.

EMILY THE CRIMINAL is a satisfying small market movie that is more enjoyable and refreshing than many of the bigger budget movies in release today.

Definitely check this one out.

It would be a crime to miss it.

—END—