UNCHARTED (2022) – Actioner Based on Video Game Wastes Talents of Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg

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UNCHARTED (2022) proves once again that movies based on video games often play out like… video games, and as a result, aren’t any more fun than sitting there watching someone play video games. Some people like that sort of thing. I don’t.

I only decided to watch UNCHARTED because of its two leads, Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg, two actors I enjoy a lot, and I was curious to see how they would be working together. And you know what? After watching this movie, I don’t really know how they are working together, because they are playing two characters with as much depth as characters… in a video game. In short, while they were both doing their thing on screen, Holland acting like he walked off the set of his latest SPIDER-MAN movie, and Wahlberg like he was in another action/comedy, it didn’t matter, because the characters they were playing in this movie could have been played by any actor.

UNCHARTED, which is based on the popular video game franchise by Sony PlayStation, tells the story of Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) who is recruited by wisecracking treasure hunter…. always a bad sign in a movie when the main character has as his main job title “treasure hunter,”….Victor Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg) to help him find a treasure lost by Magellan some five hundred years ago. I swear, as soon as this plot point was mentioned in the movie, I was ready to bale. I mean, if there was such a treasure, these two knuckleheads would be the last two people to be able to find it!

Anyway, Nathan agrees to help Sullivan, or “Sully,” because Sully tells him he had been working with Nathan’s older brother, who’s been out of Nathan’s life for years, and if Nathan helps him, Sully promises that there’s a good chance he’ll find his brother. Now, you don’t have to listen to Sully talk for more than three seconds before you realize he’s about as trustworthy as a villain in an Indiana Jones movie, but Nathan listens to him anyway and joins him on his treasure hunt. Along the way, they join forces with fellow treasure hunter and equally untrustworthy Chloe (Sophia Ali), and cross paths with villains Braddock (Tati Gabrielle) and Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas).

Yawn.

And more yawns.

There’s no getting around it. UNCHARTED was by far the dullest and most boring movie I’ve seen all year. In spite of polished and energetic directing by Ruben Fleischer, the story is a snooze, and the characters are literally right out of a video game with no more depth than that. It’s also one of those stories where the main characters find all the clues so easily there’s simply no dramatic tension whatsoever.

The screenplay by Rafe Judkins, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway scores highest with the banter between Holland and Wahlberg, but at the end of the day, this dialogue doesn’t matter because neither character is fleshed out. The experience was like listening to Holland and Wahlberg exchange wisecracks while they were playing video games. Their characters were no more interesting than two dudes playing a game. And the story is dreadfully unbelievable and dull.

Director Ruben Fleischer has made some good movies, films like ZOMBIELAND (2009) and VENOM (2018), and this movie looks great, but none of it means anything. It’s one polished action scene after another with no compelling characters or story, the perfect recipe for a two-hour nap.

UNCHARTED opens with a rousing action scene featuring Tom Holland’s character battling bad guys while falling out of a plane. It’s a sequence that borrows heavily from a far better sequence in the Timothy Dalton James Bond movie THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1987). The sequence in THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS was better because they had real stuntmen up there falling out of the plane, whereas here it’s all CGI. Plus, it’s the opening sequence of the movie, and we know nothing about Holland’s character at this point. More importantly, we don’t know why he’s up there in that plane. Imagine if RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) began with Indiana Jones simply fighting villains without seeing him attempt to snag the treasure first. You’d be like, neat action, but who is this guy and why is he fighting all these guys?

UNCHARTED, which premiered in theaters back in February and is now available to rent on Prime Video, is the emotional equivalent of its source material, a video game. Some people like this. I don’t.

And if you like movies, you probably won’t either.

So, for movie fans, UNCHARTED is best left unwatched.

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SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021) – Third Tom Holland Spider-Man Movie Playful with the Multiverse

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I finally caught up with SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021), Marvel’s super successful Spider-Man movie, the third with Tom Holland in the lead, which hit the big screen this past December and is currently available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video.

Like the previous two Tom Holland Spider-Man films, NO WAY HOME is exceedingly playful, and definitely belongs with the lighter Marvel superhero fare. Of course, one of the main reasons it performed so well at the box office was its exciting and creative decision to play with the multiverse and bring back characters from previous unrelated Spider-Man movies, including the two previous movie Spideys, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, as well as their villains.

This happens because in SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME, which begins right where the previous film SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (2019) ends, dying villain Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) reveals Spider-Man’s (Tom Holland) true identity as Peter Parker, and the moment is captured on video and broadcast to the world by Spider-Man nemesis J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), who also frames Mysterio as a hero and Spider-man as his murderer.

The result not only is massive hating on Spider-Man but on his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon). So, Peter Parker pays a visit to Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and asks if he could use some time travel magic like he had wielded to save the world in AVENGERS: END GAME (2019) in order to help him out, to which the good doctor scolds him for suggesting such a thing, adding that even if he wanted to he no longer possessed the time stone. However, Strange suggests he could cast a spell which would make everyone forget Peter was Spider-Man, to which Peter agrees before he realizes he still wants MJ to remember him. And then there’s Ben, and Aunt May… Peter basically interrupts Doctor Strange’s spell and inadvertently causes him to screw up, and as a result, portals open from different universes, letting in villains like Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), and Electro (Jamie Foxx), to name a few.

Spider-Man and Doctor Strange then work together to capture these villains in order to send them back to their proper universes, until Spider-Man realizes that back in their prospective universes they all will die, and so he decides to find a way to “cure” them in the here and now in order to send them back with the chance of surviving, an idea that Doctor Strange disagrees with, but Spider-Man is undeterred, until the Green Goblin makes it known he has no intention of being “cured.”

Eventually, two other visitors arrive through the portal, Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) and…. Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire). and they decide to work with the Spider-Man in this universe in order to send everyone back home to their proper places.

So, pretty much the plot in SPIDER MAN: NO WAY HOME is nothing more than cleaning up all the messes made by Peter Parker and Doctor Strange because they decided to play around with the multiverse. No villains trying to take over the world or the universe. Nope. Just fixing what Parker and Strange messed up, and since this is a Marvel movie, you can rest assured that at the end of the day, all will be well. Did I mention that this was a playful movie?

I have been a huge Marvel movie fan since their amazing run started with IRON MAN (2008), the film which introduced Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark to movie audiences, and while others have been bemoaning the frequency of their movies and complaining that the formula for success has gone stale, I haven’t been one of them. However, since AVENGERS: END GAME wrapped up nearly every storyline their movies had been telling for over ten years, Marvel has struggled to keep it going. I was tepid on both BLACK WIDOW (2021) and SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS (2021), as neither film worked for me. I didn’t even see THE ETERNALS (2021).

Now, SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME worked better for me than the two movies mentioned above and went a long way towards recapturing the magic of the Marvel superhero movie. In short, I had fun watching it and enjoyed it a lot. However, the main reason I enjoyed it was watching the two previous actors who played Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire, on screen with current Spidey Tom Holland. When all three are on screen together, the movie rocks.

Likewise, I enjoyed watching the return of all the villains, most notably Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, who remains with apologies to Thanos, as one of Marvel’s best movie villains ever. Dafoe is excellent once again, and for my money, delivers the best performance in the film. He has such an evil presence as Green Goblin. I wish there were more superhero movie villains with this kind of edge. Dafoe is a master at it, and it’s sad to think that this is only the second time he’s been able to strut his stuff as the character. He did have cameos in the second and third Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies, but that barely counts.

So, while nostalgia rules the day in SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME, it doesn’t exactly look forward, unless there are plans to keep these resurrected characters in the mix. It does of course set up the next DOCTOR STRANGE movie, which hits theaters this week, DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS (2022), as it looks like Doctor Strange is still working on cleaning up the multiverse mess he started in this movie!

My favorite of the Tom Holland Spider-Man movies remains the first one, SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017), as that one not only featured Holland’s high-octane Spider-Man for the first time in his own movie, but also Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark and Michael Keaton as a nifty menacing villain. SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME is my second favorite of the Holland Spider-Man movies. All three were directed by Jon Watts, and he imbues all of them with an energetic and high-spirited style.

One of the reasons the Marvel superhero movies have been so successful is they have for the most part sported some amazing casts, and SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is no exception.

Tom Holland has been a bright spot as Peter Parker/Spider-Man since he first played the role in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2017), and he’s amiable once again here. Likewise, Zendaya is perfect as MJ, and she and Holland really generate chemistry in their scenes together. Jacob Batalon is back as well as their best buddy Ned, and as they have been doing since SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, they generally entertain when sharing the screen.

Then you have Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin, Jamie Foxx as Electro, Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus, Marisa Tomei as Aunt May, Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan— a role he’s been playing since IRON MAN, in addition to directing that Marvel trend setter! —and of course Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. Charlie Cox even shows up as lawyer Matt Murdoch from the Netflix’ Marvel show DAREDEVIL (2015-2018).

For my money, the two best parts of SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME are Willem Dafoe’s scene stealing performance as the Green Goblin, and watching Tom Holland, Tobey Maguire, and Andrew Garfield share the screen together. Their scenes are the best in the movie, and they really capture their individual Spider-Man personas and work seamlessly together in this movie. They really do seem to be three Spider-Man brothers here.

Last week I finally saw THE BATMAN (2022), Matt Reeves’ ambitious reimagining of Batman, a film I enjoyed for two of its three hours before it ran out of gas and stalled. It’s interesting to compare these two movies. THE BATMAN was by far the more ambitious and innovative of the two, and had more to say, but it went on far too long and ultimately lost me during its final hour. SPIDERMAN: NO WAY HOME was a much lighter and less ambitious flick that while also running fairly long at two hours and twenty-eight minutes, did not lose me. This film, with a screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, kept things simple and grounded in its characters, specifically its three Spider-Man characters. As such, the end result was much more satisfying.

The Marvel superhero movie universe still hasn’t found its full footing since ending its major storylines with AVENGERS: ENDGAME, but SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME provides a nice diversion as well as a friendly homecoming for some prior Spider-Men.

It’s a highly entertaining movie that shows that the Marvel movies are not quite finished yet. There are more stories to be told. Even if some of them, as was the case here, are older ones that are dusted off, revisited, and re-imagined.

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LUCY AND DESI (2022) – Documentary by Amy Poehler Chronicles Moving Love Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz

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LUCY AND DESI (2022), a new Amazon Prime original documentary directed by Amy Poehler, is filled with poignant moments as it chronicles the love story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, showing how they struggled to balance the demands of show business with their family life, a struggle that ultimately led to their divorce, but one that never stopped them from loving each other.

LUCY AND DESI makes for a nice companion piece to BEING THE RICARDOS (2021), Aaron Sorkin’s movie chronicling one of the most stressful weeks in the lives of the famous TV couple, starring Nicole Kidman as Lucy and Javier Bardem as Desi. I actually enjoyed LUCY AND DESI more than I did BEING THE RICARDOS, but this might be an unfair comparison, because LUCY AND DESI features the real Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in tons of archive footage both in character and behind the scenes, and that’s something that is simply hard to beat. As such, LUCY AND DESI is a heck of a documentary.

The film basically is the love story between Lucy and Desi. We see how they first meet, how well they worked together on I LOVE LUCY (1951-1957), how things eventually fell apart, and how they continued to be in each other’s lives long after their marriage had ended. In fact, the point is made that after they divorced, they actually got along better.

There are many fascinating tidbits and revelations made in this film, from the pushback they received from producers who did not want to cast Desi in I LOVE LUCY because they didn’t want a Cuban lead, but a generic white American, to the genesis for the plot line of the series which featured Desi’s Ricky Ricardo who was in show business but really wanted out, and his wife Lucy, who was not in show business, but really wanted in.

In real life, it was Lucy who loved to perform, and Desi who had a knack for the business side of things. It was Desi who built DesiLu Productions and turned it into one of television’s largest production companies. But it was also incredibly grueling work and wore him down to the point where he eventually because of failing health and drinking, just had to quit. Lucy would buy out the company from him, but since her interests were never in business, she eventually sold the company to Paramount.

Lucy and Desi’s daughter Lucie Arnaz, who is interviewed throughout the documentary, makes the poignant point that what Lucy and Desi really wanted in their lives was the perfect combination of show business and family life. They gave the world I LOVE LUCY, and so as Lucie Arnaz explains, the world got this perfect combination in the form of an everlasting TV show, but Lucy and Desi never got to enjoy it in real life, as their marriage ended in divorce. Whereas they succeeded creatively, giving the world the gift of I LOVE LUCY, they failed personally. They couldn’t live out what they had created in the fictional world of television.

Other notable points include Desi’s early life in Cuba, and how in the U.S., after fleeing the Cuban revolution and arriving here penniless as a refuge, he was always looking to recapture what he lost in his home country, that feeling of home, but sadly was never able to. And how Lucy and Ethel, as played by Vivian Vance, were shown as active women who were constantly plotting together and taking the lead in the storylines over their husbands, which was something unheard of in 1950s TV shows. Furthermore, Lucy’s second show, THE LUCY SHOW (1962-1968), broke new ground by having Lucy and Vivian Vance play two single moms raising children on their own.

We also see how Lucy helped many performers get their starts, including Carol Burnett, who appears in interviews and speaks of how generous Lucy was to her, and how she still thinks of Lucy nearly every day.

LUCY AND DESI is also filled with tons of archival footage of both Lucy and Desi, including famous clips from I LOVE LUCY. And one of the most memorable moments comes right near the end, after the film takes us through Desi’s final days, as he is sick with lung cancer, and we hear as told by Lucie Arnaz, how Lucy and Desi spoke on the phone, and how they told each other they loved each other, and how Lucy was the last person other than Lucie Arnaz who was with Desi when he died, to speak to him. Desi Arnaz died in 1986 from lung cancer. He was only 69 years old.

But the moment comes from footage from the Kennedy Center Awards in 1986, where Robert Stack reads a posthumous statement from Desi Arnaz in which he gives all the credit for the success of I LOVE LUCY to Lucy, and says I LOVE LUCY was never just a title. The audience then turns and gives an emotional Lucille Ball a standing ovation.

Lucy would pass three years later in 1989 at the age of 77.

LUCY AND DESI was written by Mark Monroe who provides a solid framework for the telling of the story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

Amy Poehler, known of course for her comic performances on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and on PARKS AND RECREATION (2009-2015), also directed and starred in one of my favorite movies from last year, MOXIE (2021). Poehler succeeds once again behind the camera and does exceptional work here directing LUCY AND DESI.

And it’s an important story to tell because I LOVE LUCY is not only one of the all-time best, if not the best television comedy series ever, but also one of the biggest influencers. It was the first show to use a live studio audience, the first to use film, and utilized a three-camera system developed by Desi Arnaz. It was also successful because Desi hired the best people and was comfortable delegating work out to these people, like acclaimed cinematographer Karl Freund. It featured a Latin male in the lead, two strong female characters, allowed Lucy to be pregnant in a storyline which was unheard of in the 1950s, and featured the amazing physical comedic talents of Lucille Ball, who unlike most beautiful actresses, was unafraid to make herself look ugly or foolish to get a laugh.

I still remember when Lucille Ball passed away in 1989, it was a big deal, both in my family and in the national media. Lucille Ball is easily one of the biggest stars of her generation, and she did it mostly in the smaller medium of television rather than film, which is also a testament to her talent, and she has lived on, cementing her place with the other entertainment greats in film and television history. And one of the reasons she achieved this success, was the tireless efforts of her husband Desi Arnaz, whose business sense provided I LOVE LUCY with the best people to create the show, giving Lucy her vehicle to finally display her talents to the world.

The story of Lucy and Desi is one that needs to be told, of how two people very much in love created a cultural and entertainment phenomenon with the TV show I LOVE LUCY, but sadly, they were unable to survive the pressures of doing so and eventually divorced. They both remarried and stayed married longer to their second spouses than they were with each other, but they never stopped loving each other and were there for each other until the end.

LUCY AND DESI is a tale of dreams, of hard work, of love, and the costs of trying to balance them, and how unlike in television, where happy endings abound, in reality, people are human, and stress often takes its toll, as it did with Lucy and Desi, but people are also resilient, and Lucy and Desi carried on, and they loved each to the last.

Indeed, I LOVE LUCY was never just a title. It’s also an everlasting love letter from Desi to Lucy, one that we are all invited to read.

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I WANT YOU BACK (2022) – Romantic Comedy is Sincere, Honest, and Very Funny

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Just in time for Valentine’s Day comes a romantic comedy that gets nearly everything right.

I WANT YOU BACK (2022), a new Amazon original movie, works because unlike a lot of other recent comedies, it doesn’t get bogged down with over-the-top vulgar humor or lose its way with unrealistic situations for the sake of trying to be funny. The script by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger in spite of its comedic shenanigans remains rooted in reality which results in a surprisingly fresh take on love and relationships in the here and now.

The movie opens with two break-ups. Noah (Scott Eastwood) breaks up with Emma (Jenny Slate) after a six-month relationship, as Noah feels like Emma just doesn’t have her life figured out, and he wants to move on to someone who does. Anne (Gina Rodriguez) breaks up with Peter (Charlie Day) after a six-year relationship because she feels he is stuck, and she wants to pursue her hopes and dreams, but feels she won’t be able to as long as she is with Peter.

Shortly thereafter, Emma and Peter happen to meet in the stairwell of their office building, as they work for different businesses on different floors inside the same building. They’re both in the stairwell crying over their break-ups, and they strike up a conversation. Later they agree to go out for drinks, and they get plastered as they commiserate. They agree to become each other’s “sadness sisters,” meaning that to help each other resist the urge to call their exes, they will call each other instead. Later, when they learn that both Noah and Anne are seeing new people, they come up with a plan to break up each relationship, hoping that this will lead to Noah and Anne “coming to their senses” and returning to Emma and Peter.

So, Emma volunteers at the middle school where Anne teaches English to insert herself in between Anne and her new crush, the drama teacher there, Logan (Manny Jacinto). Meanwhile, Peter joins the gym where Noah works and allows Noah to become his personal trainer in the hopes of becoming best buddies so he can help guide Noah away from his new girlfriend Ginny (Clark Backo) and back to Emma. Let the comedic games begin!

And while Emma proves very adept at being the seductress and getting in between Logan and Anne, Peter finds his job more difficult as Noah turns out to be an incredibly nice guy, and the two become real friends, and most importantly, Noah is really in love with Ginny.

I WANT YOU BACK is full of so many moments that work, from genuine sincere moments, like Emma’s friendship with a troubled middle school boy, to hilarious comedic ones, as in the sequence where Peter and Noah allow themselves to be picked up by a group of women at a club. Or the scene where Peter finds himself trapped in the bedroom when Noah plans to propose to Ginny. Everything plays out in satisfying fashion, including the climax, which takes place at a wedding on a river boat which brings Peter, Anne, Emma, Logan, Noah, and Ginny all together, and the ending, which the film gets right.

I really enjoyed I WANT YOU BACK, and I was probably most impressed by the screenplay by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger. First off, I laughed a lot during this movie, which is the true indicator of how good a comedy is. The writing and dialogue were spot on. The conversation between Peter and Emma, for instance, over whether you should put on your own oxygen mask first or put the mask on your loved one first on a plane is a keeper.

Director Jason Orley makes sure we get to know all the characters well, especially the four main ones. The film takes its time fleshing out these folks, and the movie is better for it. Part of the reason the comedy works so well is that we know the characters, and what they are thinking and feeling. The situations are also genuinely amusing.

Charlie Day is very funny as Peter, the nice guy who Emma says is the type of man someone could fall in love with… over a long period of time. And while he’s not sure how to take that, she says it’s a compliment, that the “slow burn” guys are the best. What I liked best about Day’s performance here is it never becomes too over-the-top. He keeps Peter grounded in reality which actually makes the guy even funnier.

Jenny Slate is equally as good as Emma. She has the arduous task of playing a quirky character who most people just don’t understand, but she succeeds in getting the audience to understand Emma. And as Emma, she gets most of the best scenes in the movie.

Scott Eastwood exudes sincerity as Noah, and it’s one of Eastwood’s best performances yet. Noah could have been such a cliche character: the dumb hunk, the handsome guy who tries to be loving but sucks at it, or the complete jerk. But Noah is none of these things. He really is a decent, insightful person. The scene at the club where he says he can’t go too far because of Ginny but gets drunk anyway and goes home with the women along with Peter, is ripe for him to fail at keeping his word, but things don’t play out that way. He even has a poignant conversation later with Emma saying that she never seemed happy with him and that they had so little in common, and so he asks her point blank why she thought he was her true love? And Emma answers that she just wanted the process to be over, she wanted to have found somebody so badly. It’s a wonderfully sincere and honest moment, and I WANT YOU BACK is full of similar moments just like this.

Gina Rodriguez draws the short straw with Anne, as she is probably the least likable of the four characters, as she seems the shallowest. But she still gets to enjoy some sincere moments as well.

Manny Jacinto also enjoys some fine moments as Logan, the middle school drama teacher who really wants to be working on Broadway. And Luke David Blumm is very good as the middle school student who Emma befriends and helps out with.

I WANT YOU BACK is that rare comedy which understands that realistic, honest situations can be just as funny as over-the-top exaggerated ones, sometimes even more so.

If you’re looking for a satisfying romantic comedy this Valentine’s Day, look no further than I WANT YOU BACK.

It’s the perfect match.

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A HERO (2021) – Intriguing Iranian Drama Is Relevant Beyond Middle East

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A HERO (2021), a new Amazon original movie which hails from Iran, tells the intriguing story of the complications one man endures as he tries to win his freedom and get released from prison.

Specifically, it speaks to today’s world of social media and instant hate and messaging and of how difficult it is to speak the truth and to be believed when lies on social media are spread at a rapid-fire pace. Add to this the distrust in modern day Iranian culture, and the result is a powerful yet frustrating story of a man struggling to gain his freedom in order to live his life.

A HERO opens with Rahim (Amir Jadidi) returning to his home after gaining a two-day leave from prison. He’s living with his sister and her family, and his young son. Rahim also has a girlfriend, who he plans to marry, but their relationship remains a secret because she doesn’t want her brother to know that she is dating a convict. She has found a bag full of gold, and she suggests Rahim use it to pay his creditor, his former father-in-law, which is the reason he is in prison in the first place, because he was unable to pay back his debt to his former relative.

When they learn the value of the gold is less than what he owes his father-in-law, Rahim decides to return the bag to its rightful owner, and he places an add seeking the owner. It’s answered by a woman who describes the bag correctly, and the bag is returned to her. This selfless act gains Rahim attention, and the next thing he knows there is a movement to raise the money he owes to his father-in-law to secure his release from prison. Even the prison officials support Rahim and help him gain positive publicity.

But his father-in-law is not so easily swayed, claiming that Rahim is very good at manipulating people and situations, and that he cannot be trusted. He doubts the story and believes Rahim made the whole thing up. Besides, he argues, why is doing what you’re supposed to do— returning someone else’s money— considered heroic?

Soon, more people doubt Rahim’s story, and he is pressured to find the woman who he gave the bag to so she can corroborate the story, but she has disappeared, and it seems she might not even have been the original owner but perhaps had swindled Rahim. Rahim begs his father-in-law to help him, and when the man instead insults Rahim’s son, Rahim loses it and attacks him, unaware that the entire attack is captured on video.

Rahim isn’t considered heroic anymore.

A HERO tells a fascinating story that held my interest from beginning to end. Rahim is shown to be largely a decent person who really just wants to earn his freedom. His past is shady, but everything he does in this story is pretty straightforward and honest, yet he can’t shake the doubts people have about him. His young son speaks with a severe stutter, and the boy is a perfect metaphor for Rahim’s plight in this movie. He is largely innocent, but he can’t get his message out fast enough. The powers that are working against him are faster, and the public opinion formed by social media and rumor are too powerful for him to combat.

At the end of the movie, one of the prison officials who largely had been helping Rahim says he wants to help him one more time, and he says if he films Rahim’s son, that the boy will gain sympathy, and more people will side with Rahim. Once he starts filming the boy, he encourages him to be over emotional to really win people’s hearts. When Rahim sees that his son is being exploited, he asks for the filming to stop, and when the official refuses, Rahim tries to force the issue. Everyone in the scene, including Rahim’s family, believes him to be acting crazy because they see the official as trying to help, but it’s clear to the audience that Rahim is thinking about more than just his freedom. He’s thinking about his son. Unfortunately, this is lost on everyone else, and he is viewed instead as a crazy person who is too unhinged to be trusted.

Amir Jadidi is in nearly every scene of this movie, and he does an exceptional job as Rahim. He is just quiet enough to give one pause to ask, is he sincere or isn’t he? But his actions are consistent, and they are the actions of a man who is genuinely trying not to con anyone but legitimately earn his freedom.

Writer/director Asghar Farhadi captures the flavor of the streets of Iran, and the plight of one man as he struggles to be free, a battle that becomes harder the more Rahim tries. It’s a compelling story that had me riveted throughout.

I haven’t seen a lot of Iranian movies, but I really liked A HERO.

Its tale of a man who tried to do the right thing, was hailed as a hero, until the tide of public opinion turned against him, is a modern-day story that has relevance in any country and isn’t just limited to the Middle East. People’s reliance on social media, and the strength that it wields, can be felt in any country.

Those who try to stand up against that tide are indeed heroic.

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ENCOUNTER (2021) – Decent Drama, But It’s Not Science Fiction

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Let’s talk about truth in advertising.

And let’s talk about it in terms of movies.

ENCOUNTER (2021), a new Amazon original movie, is marketed as a science fiction film. It’s not. At all. And while I realize the filmmakers don’t always have control over how their movie is marketed, in terms of this movie, the false claim was a major distraction throughout. I love science fiction movies and was in the mood to watch one when I sat down to view this film, and so it was a huge letdown when this turned out not to be the case.

That being said, ENCOUNTER is still a pretty darn good drama, which begs the question, why mess with viewers and tell them the film is something it’s not?

ENCOUNTER opens with a montage that made me think of the 1978 version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, as we see images of something crash landing on Earth, and then we watch close-ups of insects ingesting alien microbes, and then insects biting humans, transmitting the alien micro-organisms into the human race. I liked this opening and was looking forward to where this science fiction tale would lead me.

We next meet Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed) who’s working for the government, tracking this alien infection, as what is happening is again right out of an INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS movie as the alien microbes are taking over the humans’ bodies. Malik sneaks into the home of his ex-wife in the middle of the night to rescue his two young sons, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada), and he tells them he is taking them on a special trip. Eventually he does tell them about the aliens, and he says that he is taking them to a safe military base, and then he will return for their mom, who he says has already been infected.

But when he calls this military base, in reality, he’s calling Hattie Hayes (Octavia Spencer), his parole officer. See, in reality, Malik does not work for the government. He’s been in jail. And he’s not “rescuing” his kids. He’s kidnapping them. Of course, in his mind, he really does believe in the alien story. But this movie doesn’t even play up the angle that, is it really aliens, or is it just in his mind? Nope. As soon as Hattie enters the story, it’s as clear as day. Malik is simply messed up, dealing with his own personal demons. There are no aliens. This isn’t a science fiction movie.

The good news is the story that is told here works, mostly because of the performances of the three main players. Riz Ahmed is believable as the dad who is struggling with reality, and who really does want to spend time with his kids. He’s sufficiently unstable and jittery, yet convincing and strong when he says he wants nothing more than to protect his kids. He gets even better later in the film when he acknowledges his struggle with reality.

Even better than Ahmed are the performances of the two young actors, Lucian-River Chauhan as ten year-old Jay, and Aditya Geddada as his younger brother Bobby. Together, they pretty much steal the entire movie.

Octavia Spencer is reduced to a throwaway role as parole officer Hattie Hayes, a role that anyone could play. She doesn’t get to do much at all. Rory Cochrane fares a bit better as the weathered, experienced federal law enforcement officer who is in pursuit of Malik.

ENCOUNTER has its share of tense scenes, from a shoot-out with two adult sons of a man Malik shot and left for dead, to a rather riveting climax which includes a car chase and eventual stand-off, and director Michael Pearce handles all of these sequences well.

The screenplay by director Pearce and Joe Barton isn’t anything special. It’s a straightforward story of a man who kidnaps his children, driven by the desire to spend time with them, and the suspense lies in the knowledge that he’s just unhinged and delusional enough that he could harm them, or worse. The science fiction angle doesn’t really work because it’s dismissed so easily so early in the game, which is too bad because it’s an element of the story that had a lot of potential.

Barton also wrote the screenplay for THE RITUAL (2017), a horror movie from a few years back that I thought was okay but wasn’t all that crazy about.

As a straightforward drama, ENCOUNTER isn’t half bad. The three main players were good enough that I didn’t mind going along for the ride to see where their plight would take them. But it’s not a science fiction movie, which is doubly troubling, because not only is it marketed as one, but the science fiction elements were certainly the most innovate part of this story, and once revealed that they are only the figments of the main character’s troubled mind, the story loses any originality it may have possessed.

It’s not the encounter I expected.

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MADRES (2021) – Powerful Reveal Doesn’t Save Tepid Horror Tale

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MADRES (2021), a new Amazon Original movie, is a tepid horror movie that concludes with some powerful, important social commentary which sadly belongs in another movie.

In other words, the message from MADRES is a good one, but the horror movie which precedes the message is not. Not by a long shot.

MADRES is based on true events, and takes place in the 1970s. A young Mexican/American couple Diana (Ariana Guerra) and Beto (Tenoch Huerta) move to a new ranch home in California because Beto is beginning a new job as manager at a farm, and he got the job because most of the workers there share his Mexican heritage. Diana is pregnant with their first child.

It soon becomes apparent that something is not quite right in their new town, specifically with the mothers and babies, as the women there have an unusually high rate of miscarriages. Diana begins to feel ill as well. She learns that the farm has been using pesticides for years which might be causing the miscarriages. However, the locals believe in something more supernatural, that there is a curse on the town and that Diana needs supernatural help to protect herself. Of course, Diana thinks that idea is ridiculous, until she begins to see strange horrific apparitions in her house, which she attributes to hallucinations because of her new mysterious illness.

Eventually, Diana and Beto discover that the truth is far more sinister than either one of these situations which leads to a disturbing ending, by far the best part of an otherwise weak horror movie.

The big reveal is a good one and is powerfully disturbing as well. But the problem is the rest of this movie isn’t about the big reveal. MADRES would have been a far more effective movie had it been marketed as a straight drama than as a horror movie. The subject matter uncovered in the film’s conclusion is what this entire film should have been about.

The horror movie elements here are pretty bad. The film isn’t scary, and its supposed shock scenes featuring Diana and the ghosts are pretty tame and tepid. Director Ryan Zaragoza could have at least tried to scare the audience.

The screenplay by Mario Miscione and Marcella Ochoa misses the mark entirely. With few supernatural sequences, and fewer scares, it fails as a horror movie, and since the big reveal doesn’t appear until the final reel, it doesn’t work as social commentary either.

My favorite performance belongs to Tenoch Huerta as hubby Beto. He comes off as a real person, he’s got a great sense of humor, and he remains a stand-up guy throughout. No cliche detours into two-timing or secretly-sinister husbands.

Ariana Guerra, on the other hand, as Diana, didn’t wow me as much. Actually, her performance is fine, but Diana is such a sour, negative person throughout that every time she’s on screen, which is a lot, I found myself not enjoying this one. For example, she finds fault with the locals even before they start acting weird and creepy. When Beto tries to socialize with the new townsfolk and his workers, Diana frowns, claiming they’re his friends, not hers.

Kerry Cahill enjoys a few chilling moments as Nurse Carol, making the most of her brief screen time as the latest in a long line of evil nurse tropes. Cahill’s very good though.

Joseph Garcia is solid as Beto’s boss Tomas. He exudes sincerity which makes his later transition all the more dramatic.

At first, it looked like MADRES was going for the same vibe as a couple of horror classics, ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) and THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975), but it never comes close to capturing the feel of those chillers.

In spite of a worthwhile reveal in the final reel, MADRES is a weak and largely forgettable horror movie that struggled to hold my interest for its brief 83 minutes running time.

Which is too bad because what happened to the mothers in this movie is horrible, and their story deserves to be told, but it will need to be told in a different movie because MADRES did a terrible job telling it.

The mothers deserve better.

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JOLT (2021) – Kate Beckinsale Action Flick An Exhilarating Thrill Ride

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Kate Beckinsale kicking ass in a high voltage action movie. What’s not to like?

Actually, there could be a lot not to like. I am not a fan of Beckinsale’s UNDERWORLD vampire action series, as I find those movies poorly written and terribly boring. That being said, today’s movie, JOLT (2021), a new action flick now available on Prime Video, is actually a lot of fun.

In JOLT, Lindy (Kate Beckinsale) suffers from an unusual condition in which she cannot control her anger and as a result kicks the living sh*t out of anyone who makes her angry. If this were a Marvel superhero movie she’d be turning green and shouting “Smash!” In fact, she and the Hulk would be perfect for each other. JOLT is also marketed as a comedy, and while you won’t be laughing throughout, there are some laugh out loud moments here and there, but more importantly, the humor serves as a reminder that this film certainly does not take itself too seriously. So, Lindy’s condition is treated lightly. This is not a movie about angst.

Lindy finally finds some relief when her psychiatrist Dr. Munchin (Stanley Tucci) provides her with an experimental exoskeleton of electrodes that zap her with jolts of electricity which help manage her temper. Dr. Munchin also advises that she get out more and go on some dates. She takes his advice and meets Justin (Jai Courtney) who immediately sweeps her off her feet. She feels so good that she declares to Dr. Munchin that she’s now cured! But her joy is short-lived when Justin is murdered the next night. Her new hopes shattered, Lindy makes it her mission to find out who killed Justin and when she does to make them pay. She needs to stay one step ahead of the two investigating police detectives, Detective Vicars (Bobby Cannavale) and Detective Nevin (Laverne Cox), and her quest for justice doesn’t get any easier when she learns that Justin was involved with some very powerful and very dangerous people. Of course.

The worst thing that can be said about JOLT is its plot is threadbare. Lindy and all her talents are stuck in a plot in which she’s investigating the murder of a guy she dated twice. That’s as intricate as it gets, folks. And the plot twist at the end I saw coming a mile away.

But the rest of the screenplay by Scott Wascha is very good. The dialogue is fun and witty, and the characters fleshed out pretty darn well for a fast paced action movie. Of course it helps that JOLT is blessed with an impressive cast.

Leading the way is Kate Beckinsale. She makes for a believable action hero even in a film where believability isn’t always key. Just as the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, there’s a lot of playfulness in Beckinsale’s performance even as she is taking out the deadly bad guys in some pretty violent scenes. She’s in most of the movie, and she easily carries this one.

Stanley Tucci, who is always a joy to watch, is really good in his scenes as Dr. Munchin, and he and Beckinsale share a fun chemistry. Every time she bursts into his office, he pulls a handgun from his desk drawer to protect himself. And when she fights to control her anger over things he’s saying, she imagines herself killing him, and when she returns to the here and now, Munchin calmly asks her how she killed him this time. Asphyxiation? And she tells him no, punctured artery. And he nods and the session continues.

Bobby Cannavale is excellent as Detective Vicars. He is instantly attracted to Lindy, and he goes out of his way to help her. Cannavale and Beckinsale also share a strong chemistry. The characters and their relationships really come to life in this movie, which for an action flick, surprised me.

I also enjoyed Laverne Cox as Detective Nevin. Unlike her partner, Nevin doesn’t trust Lindy at all and makes it her mission to single-handedly capture the woman, and their spirited confrontations make for some of the livelier comedic scenes in the film.

Jai Courtney is charming as Justin, the boyfriend who meets an untimely death, and the film boasts a couple of notable villains as well. Ori Pfeffer plays Delacroix, a cool henchman and enforcer who Lindy tangles with on more than one occasion, and their final confrontation is a good one. And David Bradley makes for an icy cold deadly recluse Gareth Fizel, the villain who is pulling all the strings.

Even Susan Sarandon shows up as a mysterious woman with no name.

But the best part of JOLT, even better than the stellar cast, is the direction by director Tanya Wexler. JOLT is full of impressive and exciting action scenes, and even more so, thrilling chase scenes. JOLT features some of the more exhilarating chase scenes I’ve seen in a long time. The camerawork in these scenes is amazing. While the hand to hand fight scenes aren’t quite as impressive as similar scenes in ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) or EXTRACTION (2020), they come close.

The chase scene in which Detective Nevin pursues Lindy through a hospital is phenomenal, and the car chase sequence where Lindy steals Nevin’s car and is pursued by Nevin and Vicars is even more exciting.

Wexler also directed BUFFALOED (2019), a dark quirky film I really enjoyed, but I think I liked JOLT even more. There’s just so much spirited energy in JOLT. Other than its ho hum standard plot, JOLT as a comedic action flick really soars.

With Kate Beckinsale leading the way, JOLT is an enjoyable thrill ride that will give you quite the charge.

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THE TOMORROW WAR (2021) – Science Fiction Actioner Starring Chris Pratt An Entertaining Summer Popcorn Movie

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If this were a normal year in the days before the Covid-19 pandemic, THE TOMORROW WAR (2021) would be playing in theaters everywhere and being hyped as a true summer blockbuster. It’s that kind of movie.

It features high octane action sequences pitting soldiers and everyday civilians against some very hungry and aggressive alien monsters, time travel, and it stars Chris Pratt. It has all the makings of a true summer hit. And it really is a fun movie. But you’ll need Amazon Prime Video to see it, because that’s where it’s playing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. That’s just how things are for movies in the here and now.

In THE TOMORROW WAR, a group of soldiers from the future dramatically interrupt a major soccer match and declare to the world in a very cinematic scene that they have come from the future to recruit soldiers from present day to fight a war against vicious alien creatures that are wiping out the human race. While this is an interesting premise, I couldn’t help but wonder why with this time travelling technology they possess in the future they just couldn’t go back in time before the alien monsters arrive and come up with a way of stopping them before they invade. You know, what they do in the TERMINATOR movies. Then again, those plans always fail, so maybe that’s the reason!

The film does offer a couple of answers to this question, neither of which are overly satisfying. One, the humans in the future have failed to determine when the aliens first arrived, and two, there’s a quick scene of dialogue which explains that the time travel technology is new to the future humans and they are very limited in what they can do with it.

And also, there’s no way I see the world’s nations agreeing to send soldiers into the future. The idea that any nation would reduce its military might for any reason I find ludicrous and unrealistic.

The good news is none of this matters much. When Dan Forester (Chris Pratt) is drafted into the future and has to leave his wife and young daughter behind, he is immediately thrust into a world in which the alien monsters attack quickly and relentlessly, setting the stage for a series of very impressive action sequences. If you don’t think about things all that much, THE TOMORROW WAR is a lot of fun.

While Dan is in the future, he meets Colonel Muri Forester (Yvonne Strahovski) who happens to be his daughter all grown up. She sent for Dan from the future for a specific reason, and thus the time travel element of the plot begins in earnest.

I really enjoyed THE TOMORROW WAR. The action sequences are fun and frequent, and loud. Director Chris McKay sets up some very satisfying cinematic sequences, and while at times the action becomes intense, as the alien creatures are nasty and formidable, this one never becomes scary or horrific. The emphasis is on action. So, while I was reminded of classic movies like ALIENS (1986) and CLOVERFIELD (2008) when the alien creatures wreaked havoc, the film never ventures down the horror road, which for me, was a detriment.

That being said, the film doesn’t forget its roots and its connections to previous science fiction horror movies. There are nods to both ALIEN (1979) and THE THING (1982), which I appreciated.

THE TOMORROW WAR is also a bit long, clocking in at two hours and twenty minutes, and I can’t say that the whole thing was one nonstop thrill ride, although the pace is nonstop. It’s one of those movies that keeps pushing its way forward without taking a breath or giving the audience a chance to get to know the characters. I don’t usually like movies that are paced this way, but THE TOMORROW WAR supersedes this problem with its impressive action scenes, having Chris Pratt in the lead role, and finally deciding to take that much needed breath in the film’s final reel, in which the time travel elements come into full play and some of the characterizations finally come into the forefront.

And so while I knocked some of the time travel elements with this one, and the plot point about nations sending soldiers into the future, all in all I enjoyed the screenplay by Zach Dean. I definitely enjoyed the story, as well as the unusual plot construct of having things slow down a bit towards the end, setting up a very satisfying conclusion. I enjoyed the theme which ran through this one of not having second chances, and when some of the characters are finally able to get those second chances at film’s end, it makes for some rewarding moments.

The dialogue runs hot and cold. Sometimes the banter is tired and cliche, and other times there are some really memorable lines. One of my favorites is right near the end when James Forester (J.K. Simmons) asks his son Dan if he just told the creature to die, and when Dan says yes, James quips, “It worked. Why didn’t you tell it sooner?” In another scene, one of the characters is being chased down a staircase by a rampaging alien, and the character is repeatedly crying out, “Sh*t! Sh*t! Sh*t” all the way down. It had me laughing out loud.

Chris Pratt channels his amiable hero personality which he has used so successfully in both the Marvel GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and AVENGERS movies, and the recent JURASSIC PARK films, to once again anchor an action packed summer blockbuster movie. I like Pratt a lot, and he doesn’t disappoint.

On the other hand, Yvonne Strahovski doesn’t fare as well as Forester’s adult daughter Muri. While she does get ample screen time, her scenes and dialogue are mostly reduced to her character reacting to her dad. The story really is about Pratt’s Dan Forester. He’s the central figure, and the film doesn’t seem to want to allow other characters to cross into that territory. That’s probably the biggest problem I had with THE TOMORROW WAR. It’s not very “today” in utilizing female characters. Yvonne Strahovski’s Muri should have played a much more prominent role and not just played second fiddle to Chris Pratt.

Even worse, Betty Gilpin plays Dan’s wife Emmy and she gets very little screen time, which for me, was a huge missed opportunity. You have Betty Gilpin in your cast and she’s reduced to playing a supportive wife? She should have been in the forefront of the future action sequences kicking alien butt alongside Chris Pratt. For me, this was the biggest disappointment about THE TOMORROW WAR.

Veteran actor J.K. Simmons is excellent as Dan’s estranged dad James, and of all the characters in the movie, he probably enjoys the most satisfying story arc. And both Sam Richardson and Edwin Hodge add fine support in smaller roles.

While it’s not perfect, THE TOMORROW WAR doesn’t have to be. Its riveting action sequences and intriguing time travel story are enough to make this one an enjoyable summer popcorn movie.

So, don’t wait for tomorrow to see THE TOMORROW WAR.

See it today.

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