THIRTEEN LIVES (2022) – Ron Howard Expertly Chronicles True Story of Extraordinary Underwater Rescue

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THIRTEEN LIVES (2022), the latest movie from director Ron Howard, tells the extraordinary true story of the rescue of thirteen young soccer players from a flooded underground cave in Thailand in 2018, and it does so in a straightforward manner without fanfare or fuss.

This is both good and bad.

But since the story on its own is indeed so extraordinary, it’s mostly good.

In June 2018, a group of school-age boys on a soccer team decide to visit a cave before going to one of their teammate’s birthday parties, and they’re accompanied by their coach. Despite the fact that the cave has a history of flooding, it’s still before the monsoon season, so the boys feel they are safe. However, torrential rains hit shortly after they descend into the cave, flooding it and trapping them deep below. By the time their families arrive at the cave looking for them, it’s too submerged in water for them to go inside and search for the boys.

They call the local authorities, who quickly see they are in over their heads, both figuratively and literally. Soon, Navy Seals arrive, but they too cannot get far into the cave to reach the boys, as it’s all underwater in narrow passageways, and there is zero visibility. The call goes out worldwide for help, and two of the most skilled cave divers in the world, John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) heed the call and arrive in Thailand where they are looked down upon by the Thai Navy Seals for being too old, and while they certainly are older than the Seals, John points out that they train specifically for diving in and around caves.

John and Rick receive permission to dive into the cave, and after many trials and errors, they eventually, after a six hour plus dive, find the boys and their coach alive. They promise to return to the boys with help. When news breaks that the boys are alive, there is great joy and celebration, but Rick is not happy at all, and as he tells the authorities privately, the boys may be alive now, but there is no way they are getting out of the cave alive. For that to happen, each of them would have to be able to swim underwater with the divers for six to eight hours, and as Rick points out, even when earlier they helped an adult volunteer who had been trapped inside, he had panicked during a much shorter swim.

Faced with a no-win situation, the authorities go silent, frustrating the waiting families, but it’s Rick who suggests a very controversial plan, one that had never been tried before. Even though it is extremely risky, and he tells the authorities point blank that the boys may die, if they try nothing, they will die anyway.

Ron Howard directs this one without any frills, and it plays out like watching news footage or a documentary. It’s really well done. I’m not always the biggest fan of Howard’s movies, but he definitely taps into here the suspense of one of his best movies, APOLLO 13 (1995) starring Tom Hanks which chronicled the ill-fated Apollo 13 moon mission. I enjoyed THIRTEEN LIVES more than some of his recent movies, including SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018) and IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (2015). Howard won an Oscar for Best Director for A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001), which also won for Best Picture that year.

Here, the most amazing part of Howard’s work is the underwater photography. It’s breathtaking. The scenes of the divers submerged in the caves are claustrophobic, riveting, and heart pounding. And like I said, Howard doesn’t film these like a suspense movie. He simply lets the action unfold, and we are drawn in watching these volunteers risk their lives to save these boys. Just as astounding, the actors, including Mortensen and Farrell, did their own underwater stunts! Even though professional divers were there and available, Mortensen felt so strongly about the authenticity of the project that he and the others trained to dive in caves, and they convinced Howard to let them do it.

And while obviously it was filmed in a massive underwater set and not inside real caves, it was still a dangerous undertaking for all the actors. Their dedication pays off, because these scenes really work.

Viggo Mortensen is terrific in the lead role as diver Rick Stanton. His cool, aloof persona is perfect for a man who spends his time swimming in life-threatening, narrow underwater caves. And he’s not reckless. At one point, he says point blank that as much as he wants to save the boys, if he thinks they (the divers) can’t get out alive, he’s not going in.

Colin Farrell is also superb as fellow diver John Volanthen. He’s the more empathetic of the two, and as a divorced dad of a young son, his own child is always on his mind as he tries to rescue the trapped boys.

Equally as good in a supporting role is Joel Edgerton as Harry Harris, another diver who John and Rick call in to join them, as they assemble a team of the best cave divers in the world. And they are particularly interested in Harry because of his expertise, which is part of Rick’s controversial plan to rescue the boys. And when they first tell Harry of this, he refuses, because he knows it could kill the boys, but later, when he sees there is no other alternative, he relents and changes his mind.

The screenplay by William Nicholson based on a story by Don MacPherson is comprehensive and thorough and goes beyond just the story of the divers. There’s a whole other story of other volunteers led by a water expert who understands that the cave is not flooding from below but from the rains above, and so he assembles a team to find and plug up all the sink holes in the area, an undertaking that is nearly as impossible as the underwater diving mission. In fact, the sacrifice among the locals is just as great, as plugging up the sink holes means diverting the water, which will destroy the local farmers’ crops. The farmers agree, knowing they are helping to rescue the boys.

There’s the story of the families, waiting anxiously over the course of seventeen excruciating days, and of the local leadership who have to navigate around the politics of the lives and possible deaths of thirteen children under their watch. It’s a really good screenplay, which comes as no surprise, because William Nicholson has a ton of writing credits, including EVEREST (2015), MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (2013) and LES MISERABLES (2012) to name just a few.

If there’s any knock against THIRTEEN LIVES it’s that it runs for two hours and twenty-seven minutes, and with its no frills style, sometimes it seems a bit long. When the divers are underwater, the film had me on edge. When the action returned to above ground, things could have been edited a bit more tightly.

THIRTEEN LIVES is an Amazon Original movie and premiered on Prime Video and in select movie theaters. It’s one you definitely want to see.

Sure, you may already know the ending, but the story of human ingenuity, camaraderie, and bravery it took to rescue these boys under pretty much impossible odds, is one you don’t want to miss.

Thirteen lives could very easily have been lost that day. But they weren’t.

The movie THIRTEEN LIVES successfully celebrates this fact by so expertly telling this amazing story.

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THE FORGIVEN (2022) – Compelling Drama Features Superior Acting and Script

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These days, when so many movies are shamelessly superficial, and emphasize action and CGI effects over story and characterizations, THE FORGIVEN (2022), a new drama now playing in theaters and available to rent on Prime Video, is like a breath of fresh air, even if that air blows from the arid hot Moroccan desert.

THE FORGIVEN opens with married couple David (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo Henninger (Jessica Chastain) driving through the dark roads of Morocco on their way to one of David’s friend’s wedding. Lost, arguing with his wife, and heavily inebriated, David fails to see a young man in the road ahead of them, and he hits him and runs him over.

At the party in a ridiculously rich mansion in the middle of the desert, David’s friend Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) and his soon to be husband Dally Margolis (Caleb Landry Jones) entertain their guests and wonder why David and Jo are late. When they find out, they are none too happy, as they realize this will complicate their wedding. Even though they don’t trust the authorities, Richard makes the decision to call the police and report the accident and that they have a body on the premises, since David and Jo brought the body back with them from the desert road.

The police arrive, don’t ask for any bribes, and explain the body will have to remain until the boy’s family comes to claim it, which happens soon after, as the boy’s father Abdellah Taheri (Ismael Kanater) arrives and after seeing his son’s body, asks to meet David. The expectation is that Abdellah will demand money, but instead he requests that David return with him to pay his respects and bury his son’s body. David initially balks at the idea, fearing that Abdellah could be an ISIS terrorist, but he eventually changes his mind and agrees to go.

The remainder of the movie follows David as he journeys with Abdellah to bury his son and begins to learn about Abdellah’s Muslim culture and traditions, juxtaposed with scenes of the insanely lavish and ongoing wedding party with Richard and Dally and all their guests, including an American named Tom Day (Christopher Abbott) who grows close to Jo, as we learn that she is not happy being married to David, and this time away from him makes her ripe for a tryst with an interested young American.

THE FORGIVEN is a thoroughly captivating, intense movie that I really enjoyed from start to finish. It gets off to a riveting start with the car accident in the opening moments of the film, and it never looks back. Directed and written by John Michael McDonagh, based on a novel by Lawrence Osborne, THE FORGIVEN is both shot and written with great care and attention to detail, especially to its characters. The story is full of all kinds of different characters, and they all make their mark and are all written and acted to near perfection. McDonagh’s work here reminded me of the early work of Peter Weir, specifically THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY (1982) and WITNESS (1985).

The screenplay, unlike so many screenplays these days, really hammers out its characters and brings them all to life. Earlier this week I saw THE GRAY MAN (2022), a new Netflix actioner starring Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans. It has performed so well financially that Netflix has already announced a sequel. Yet, I found this movie terribly boring, as other than the action sequences, it had nothing to offer, with dull characterizations and a sterile plot. Yet, it’s making lots of money and is getting a sequel, which explains why movies like this continue to be made, while movies like THE FORGIVEN, which is superior in every way, will struggle to be recognized.

Which is too bad because it tells an intriguing story and features a whole host of fleshed out characters who could have walked off the pages of a modern-day F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

Ralph Fiennes is excellent as David, the alcoholic husband who snubs his nose at those beneath him, who is full of confidence and is not afraid to stir the pot, and who at the outset is about as sympathetic and likable as a scorpion. When he hits and kills the boy, he shows no remorse, other than a shrug and a “these things happen” attitude. But if there’s one character who journeys to self-awareness in the film, it’s David, as his time with Abdellah opens his eyes, not from bonding with the father, but from a combination of fear— it’s uncertain if the boy’s father will kill him for revenge— and a closeness to the deceased boy’s spirit. Add this to the long list of superb performances by Ralph Fiennes, following upon the heels of his equally engrossing acting in THE DIG (2021).

Jessica Chastain plays David’s wife Jo as a woman who is unfulfilled and unhappy with her marriage, and ironically, just as she invites the young American into her life at the party, unknown to her, David undergoes a transformation of character. Like Fiennes, Chastain is a superior actor, and she is every bit as good here in THE FORGIVEN, as is the rest of the cast.

Matt Smith, who we just saw in LAST NIGHT IN SOHO (2021), is memorable as Richard, the man who knows how to throw a wedding party. Smith, of course, is most famous for playing Doctor Who a few years back.

Caleb Landry-Jones makes for a lively young groom who is not above insulting his guests. It’s another in a long line of strong performances by Landry-Jones, who we’ve seen in such films as GET OUT (2017), THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), and THE OUTPOST (2019). The cast is really a strength here.

Likewise, Ismael Kanater is menacing and effective as the deceased boy’s grieving, probing, and uncertain father. While he brings David back with him as part of a tradition, he’s also trying to learn as much as he can about the man who killed his son and how it all happened. Kanater possesses the steely eyes of a Lee Van Cleef or Robert Shaw.

Said Taghmaoui is also very good as Anouar, the interpreter who accompanies David and Abdellah, and who actually becomes friends with David. Mourad Zaoui is superb as Hamid, Richard’s patient and dedicated head servant. And Christopher Abbott is amiable as Tom Day, the American who is attracted to Jo and makes no secret about it.

There are more characters as well, all of them equally as fleshed out and interesting.

The screenplay by John Michael McDonagh is really a strength of this movie.

In addition to the wealth of characters, there’s a captivating plot, and a theme worth exploring, of the wealthy and decadent Westerners who seem to have no further desire in life than to have fun, get high, and have sex, juxtaposed with the poor and traditional Muslims who simply want to survive. The contrast is unsettling.

It’s never said outright in the movie, but the plot drives home the reasons why Muslims in Morocco or elsewhere would hate Westerners. And the character who starts off as the most unlikeable of the lot, David, is the one who makes the journey of self-awareness learning just how shallow and uncaring he once was before finally embracing responsibility for the taking of another human being’s life.

THE FORGIVEN is a superior movie, a film that knows how to create characters and tell a story, and the story it has to tell, and the characters in it are both worthy of your time, even if the wealthy Westerners often represent the worst humanity has to offer.

That’s kinda the point.

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WATCHER (2022) – Thriller Speaks to Women’s Fears and Frustrations at Being Stalked

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The best part about WATCHER (2022) is that it speaks to the vulnerabilities and frustrations women face when speaking out about being stalked, as here even the main character’s husband struggles to believe her fears are real.

The worst part is its story is told at such a dreadfully slow pace that it is difficult to get through, and it withholds any real shock until the final few minutes of the movie.

WATCHER, which premiered in theaters in June and is now available to rent or buy on Prime Video, tells the story of Julia (Maika Monroe), an American woman who relocates with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) to Romania, as his job gives him the opportunity to return to his native country. Not knowing the language, Julia finds herself isolated and alone while Francis works long hours at the office, and she soon notices in the window of an apartment across from theirs the figure of a man who seems to be watching her. While she’s out and about in the city, she notices a man (Burn Gorman) following her, and she believes it’s the same man in the window.

Further complicating matters is the fact that there is a serial killer at large who decapitates his female victims. Julia tells Francis about the man, and they call the police, and the officer investigates and basically tells the man to stop watching Julia through the window. But Julia continues to see him, and she decides to be proactive and starts following him to learn more about his identity. Eventually he calls the police on her, and when the police show up at their door, Francis begins to believe that his wife is getting carried away with things that aren’t real. But Julia persists in believing that the man is following her, and her frustrations grow when her husband pretty much stops believing her.

The audience most likely stops believing her as well, as the film offers very little evidence to support that her fears are real. But just before the end credits roll, the film takes a shocking turn, and the final few minutes of this one, by far the very best part of this movie, go for the throat and really deliver a horrifying crushing conclusion.

That being said, while I really liked the ending, WATCHER is the type of movie with its long-drawn-out scenes of Julia alone roaming around Bucharest looking over her shoulder that I don’t generally enjoy, as for the bulk of the story not a lot happens. We mostly watch Julia exist alone as her fears ramp up that she’s being stalked by a serial killer. This doesn’t translate to easy viewing, even for a movie that’s only 91 minutes long. So, I have to admit that for a lot of this movie I was bored.

But director Chloe Okuno succeeds on two fronts. One, we really feel the same sense of isolation which Julia feels living in a foreign country not knowing the language and having a husband who works all the time. Most of the movie features scenes of Julia alone and struggling to adapt. And two, as I mentioned earlier, Okuno captures that sense of frustration for women who struggle to be believed when they report their fears of being stalked. At one point Francis makes a joke to his co-workers at Julia’s expense, in Romanian, but Julia gets the gist of it and storms away. And as the movie shows, the price for not being believed is often deadly.

Maika Monroe, with her fashionable haircut and clothes, looks more mature than the younger lead character she played a few years back in the superior horror movie IT FOLLOWS (2014), and she gives a performance that is equally as effective. She plays Julia as a character who is not overwhelmed by her isolation and who takes proactive steps to fit in, but the longer the stranger watches and follows her without anyone intervening to stop him, the more unraveled she eventually becomes. Even so, she remains steadfast and strong to the last. It’s a really good performance.

I also enjoyed Karl Glusman as Julia’s husband Francis. He’s just the right balance of concerned loving husband with the “I have to work, and I don’t know what else to do to help you” attitude to make him seem very real. He never deviates into a complete jerk which would have made him cliche.

And Burn Gorman is sufficiently creepy as the silent man who watches Julia, pretty much saying nothing until late in the movie, and even then, even as he is proclaiming his innocence, he still exudes weirdness.

Director Chloe Okuno wrote the screenplay based on a prior screenplay by Zack Ford, and it features realistic dialogue and characterizations, as well as a story that ultimately works, even though it takes its time getting to anything worthy of this movie being called a thriller. It’s a slow burn ride for sure.

However, the ending is really, really good! Shocking is the best word for it.

But because of its snail-like pacing, taken as a whole, WATCHER is a mixed bag. Intellectually, I liked its story and what it had to say about women needing to be believed and taken seriously from the get-go, but emotionally the film is lacking until its powerful final few minutes.

And the voyeurism theme is downplayed here. Even though the film is entitled WATCHER and does feature someone watching Julia inside her apartment, this plot point is minimal, and the story is more about the fear Julia feels from being followed on the streets of Bucharest. The film THE VOYEURS (2021) starring Sydney Sweeney did a better job overall dealing with the theme of voyeurism, although its plot eventually goes down a ridiculous path leading to a rather dumb disappointing ending, whereas WATCHER remains low-key throughout and then goes for the jugular in the final few minutes of the movie. The ending to WATCHER is its best part.

I imagine women will appreciate WATCHER more than men, as they can more easily relate to the fears Julia experiences throughout the story. However, regardless of gender, if you can stick with it and get through the slow burn pace, you’ll come face to face with quite the lurid ending.

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MONSTROUS (2022) – More Mournful Drama Than Monster Movie

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MONSTROUS (2022), a new horror movie starring Christina Ricci as a woman fleeing with her young son from her abusive husband and looking for a fresh start in a new home in a new town, has the advantage of taking place in the 1950s, not something you see every day in a horror movie.

But it also has the disadvantage of a plot twist, the likes of which audiences have seen all too often before.

The result is a slow burn horror film that takes its time laying out its story, a process that in its 1950s setting is generally interesting, but what it ultimately does with this story isn’t all that exciting or horrifying. In fact, the prevalent emotion throughout this movie isn’t horror but sadness, which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but it’s simply not enough to make this movie an effective horror film.

In MONSTROUS, Laura (Christina Ricci) and her young son Cody (Santino Barnard) relocate to a new California town, far away from her husband and Cody’s father. They set up shop in a farmhouse run by the pleasant Mr. Langtree (Don Durrell) and his cantankerous wife Mrs. Langtree (Colleen Camp). Laura enrolls Cody in a new school, and she starts a new job, all in the hope of starting a new life together and moving on from the life she had before with her husband, and with its brightly lit nostalgic 1950s cinematography, it seems like everything should be hunky-dory.

But such is not the case. And that’s because there is a monster in the pond in back of the farmhouse, a monster that emerges from the water and creeps into Cody’s bedroom. At first, when Laura is watching a black and white horror movie on TV also about a monster emerging from the water, the feeling is that perhaps MONSTROUS is going to be a creature feature type horror movie, but when Cody tells his mom that the monster isn’t really a monster, but a pretty lady, and that she’s talking to him, and he’s not afraid anymore, the film takes a different direction.

For most of the movie, the monster serves as a metaphor for the challenges and pain Laura experiences as she tries to raise her son on her own, dealing with his problems at school, stress at her job, and at home trying to deal with what seems to her to be a demon or spirit haunting their house, as well as her son’s changing personality. As I said earlier, there is a mood of sadness permeating the proceedings, and for most of this movie, I was reminded of another similar and better made tale, THE BABADOOK (2014). A lot of what happens in MONSTROUS is derivative of THE BABADOOK.

Carol Chrest’s screenplay works for most of the movie. I was definitely intrigued by the premise, and I was enjoying its 1950s setting, but the plot twist doesn’t do it any favors. It’s not awful. It’s just not very original. And there are enough hints throughout the movie for the audience to have a pretty good idea as to what is really happening.

I did like where the story finally goes, as it’s a touching emotional conclusion to a somber sad story. That being said, what comes before it doesn’t always make sense. In other words, l liked the conclusion, but the story of the monster and how the characters reach this point, didn’t completely work for me. The biggest question I have is, when you finally know the big reveal, why was it a monster in the first place?

Chris Sivertson’s direction is interesting. The brightly lit 1950s sequences work well, but the horror elements are few and far between. The film really isn’t scary. And without giving much away, the feel of this movie and the sense one has while watching it, is it definitely has a similar vibe as the Marvel TV show WANDAVISION (2021). You’re watching this “ideal 1950s world” and you just have that feeling in your gut that there’s something not right here. There’s also the TV commercial which plays nonstop nearly every time Carol turns on the TV, about a brand-new dishwasher— cleaning has never been easier, and water, water, water.

Water is everywhere here. Lots of hints. And the payoff works to an extent, but makes you question all that came before it.

Christina Ricci is fine as Laura, the mom who is fighting a losing battle in her attempts to raise her son on her own, and this in and of itself is sad to watch. Her life is a challenge even without a monster. And young Santino Barnard does what he has to do as Laura’s son Cody, acting sad, scared, and ultimately creepy weird. He does get the best scene in the movie, along with Ricci, when the two make peace with their situation, and Cody makes one final request of his mom. It’s an emotional moment, and the movie could have used more moments like this.

MONSTROUS really isn’t much of a horror movie, but it is a somewhat diverting drama with supernatural undertones that were enough to hold my interest for most of this slow burn chiller’s 90-minute running time.

It’s not the monster that’s monstrous here, but the hand with which life has dealt Carol. Seen through this prism, MONSTROUS is more mournful drama than monster movie.

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X (2022) – Exceptional Horror Movie Captures Feel of Both 1970s Horror and Porn Movies

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It’s 1979, and a group of young filmmakers set up shop at a farmhouse in rural Texas where they plan to shoot a porno movie, hoping to cash in on the growing genre, but the elderly owners of the farm where they are staying have some rather different ideas about sex and don’t take too kindly to the acts happening under the roof of their guest house. In fact, things get rather violent. And very, very bloody.

That’s the premise behind X (2022), a new horror movie by writer/director Ti West, which in the process of telling this compelling story, also captures the feel of both a 1970s porn flick and a 1970s horror movie. It’s DEBBIE DOES DALLAS meets THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977).

Maxine (Mia Goth) wants to be a star, and as she says, she doesn’t want to be denied all that life can give her, and so she travels with her much older boyfriend Wayne (Martin Henderson) to make an adult movie in which she will star. Wayne is the brains behind the movie and serves as the producer. He hires a young filmmaker RJ (Owen Campbell) whose intent is to make more than just a porn film, as he wants to give it style. Helping RJ is his young girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), and rounding out the team is Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), a stripper with adult movie experience, and her boyfriend Jackson (Kid Cudi) who plays the main male lead in their movie, “The Farmer’s Daughter,” which follows Jackson’s character as he arrives at a farmhouse when his car breaks down and meets the various daughters at the farm. Well, it is a porn movie, after all!

All is well, until the old couple at the main farmhouse discover what they are doing, and then the body count begins.

I really enjoyed X, and one of the main reasons is that Ti West’s screenplay in addition to creating interesting characters tells a far deeper story than a murder tale about two elderly prudes who want to stamp out the evils of sex. The prevalent them in X is aging and how life goes by in the blink of an eye. The couple, Howard (Stephen Ure) and Pearl (also played by Mia Goth)— both actors are under heavy prosthetic make-up to make them look exceedingly old— are haunted by the fact that the best times of their lives have passed them by, especially Pearl, who seeks out Maxine, and is sexually attracted to her.

Heck, you can break things down here to the fact that Pearl just wants to have sex, and she can’t anymore. Her husband Howard is too afraid to touch her because of his weak heart, and he fears that he won’t survive a sexual encounter. So, when Pearl observes these people having sex while making their movie, she is motivated more by jealousy than out of moral disdain.

There’s also a PSYCHO vibe happening here… in fact, Hitchcock’s classic is mentioned in a conversation in the movie… as when Pearl disappears, and Howard asks for help finding her, he says she’s not well, and after a pause says he’s afraid she would get lost in the woods alone, but during that pause, the implication is that, in the words of Norman Bates, “she just goes a little crazy sometimes.”

We will learn more about Pearl, because Ti West is filming a prequel to this movie about the character, and Mia Goth will reprise the role.

Speaking of Goth, she is outstanding here in the dual role of Maxine and Pearl. As Maxine, Goth exudes sexuality and promise, and it’s clear that she will do just about anything to fulfill her goal of becoming a famous star. As Pearl, Goth captures a weary sadness of a life gone by, while at the same time imbuing the old woman with an underlying sense of insanity. You know right away that there’s something off about this lady, and that she is capable of some truly violent acts.

Mia Goth is no stranger to horror movies. She starred in A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016), Gore Verbinski’s atmospheric and steamy flick about a sinister wellness center that captured the look and feel of the classic Hammer movies of yesteryear. It was one of my favorite movies that year. Goth also starred in the remake of SUSPIRIA (2018).

With his cowboy hat and southern drawl, Martin Henderson channels a Matthew McConaughey vibe in his performance as Wayne, the smooth-talking producer and man running the show. Brittany Snow as Bobby-Lynne is sufficiently sexy and wise to the ways of the world, and Kid Cudi is solid as Jackson, the porn actor who is also a Vietnam vet who is cool under pressure.

Owen Campbell is convincing as RJ, the young innovative filmmaker, who wants to be creating art here rather than pornography, and Jenna Ortega is spot on as Lorraine, RJ’s girlfriend who barely says a word and seems to frown upon the type of movie they are making, but then does an about face and decides she wants to be in the movie, a turnaround that does not sit well with RJ. She also gets one of the film’s better moments, late in the game, when she’s screaming and hysterical, and Maxine begs her to calm down, that they need to work together, to which Lorraine basically tells her to go f*ck herself and she runs smack dab into the end of her life, which is one of the few laugh out loud moments in the movie.

Once the movie pivots to straight horror in its final thirty minutes, director Ti West holds nothing back in the gore department. As I said, it captures the feel and flavor of 1970s horror. Some of the killings are over the top and will generate nervous laughter. In fact, in a few places, West uses humor well, including the last line of the movie, spoken by the sheriff who up until that point hadn’t uttered a single line in the entire film.

So, on top of ample sex, there’s plenty of blood and gore, and West handles it all expertly. The film earns its R rating, and then some. I was somewhat disappointed that the film included yet another “bare foot stepping on a nail” scene, which seems to be a thing nowadays and has been featured in numerous horror movies in recent years. But the rest of the fright scenes work well, from eye gouging to head smashing, and even a hungry alligator gets in on the action. If you love gore, you won’t be disappointed, and if you’re squeamish, you may find yourself looking away from the screen.

The “X” in the title obviously refers to the X rating which was used for porn films back in the 1970s, but it also has the double meaning for something Wayne continually talks about in the movie, the “X-factor,” which is as he says that thing which some people just have which makes them a success and separates them from people with equal talent. He continually tells Maxine that she’s got it.

And in life, this is largely true. Regardless of the endeavor, some people just have “it,” that uncategorized intangible thing, some call it charisma or a gift, that gives them an edge. In this film, Maxine believes she has this X-factor, and it drives her personality forward and influences her actions. She is someone who is trying to break away from her past, take part in the American dream, and become a success.

X, which was released theatrically back in March, and is now available to rent on Prime Video, is a well-made horror movie that I liked a lot. It has interesting characters, a plot that goes deeper than one would expect in a horror movie about the making of a porn movie, and once it gets to its horror sequences, takes no prisoners and goes for the throat all the way down to its final reel.

X is X-ceptional horror.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MASTER (2022) – Horror Movie About Racism by First-Time Writer/Director Mariama Diallo is as Subtle as it is Brilliant

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MASTER (2022), a new horror movie by first time writer/director Mariama Diallo, and now available on Prime Video, is GET OUT (2017) without the over-the-top horror elements thrown in at the end.

Diallo’s screenplay is subtle, deliberate, and at the end of the day, genuinely brilliant. Its point, like the actions shown in this movie, is that racism in the United States is pervasive, persistent, and so ingrained it becomes barely noticeable if you’re not paying attention, and worst of all, it’s never going to change. This final point, which is difficult to swallow, makes this movie a very uncomfortable experience. It’s also difficult to argue with the film’s main premise.

MASTER tells the story of three women of color at a prestigious New England university. There’s Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) who has just accepted the position of house master for one the dorms, meaning she’s not only a tenured professor at the school, but also an advisor and confidant to the students living in her building. She’s the first black house master, a fact she tries to play down, saying she’d rather be known as another in a long line of women house masters, but her fellow white tenured professors refuse to let her downplay the notion. Their attitude towards her, while not blatantly disrespectful, rubs her the wrong way, as she… and she can’t put her finger on it… feels at times as if she’s viewed as nothing more than a maid or a servant, and other times she feels the university only wants to celebrate her blackness because it’s good for the school to be viewed as diverse, two points that are handled honestly in Diallo’s screenplay.

Then there’s freshman Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) who has the most difficult time of the three. She has to deal with things like a professor assuming she’s come from an underprivileged neighborhood, different attitudes shown her by the friendly black cafeteria worker who gives her the cold shoulder, as well as hate messages written on her door, and worst of all, a noose strung up inside her room. These are incidents that house master Gail takes seriously, but she can’t seem to get her fellow tenured professors to see these acts as anything more than just typical college kids’ pranks. At the end of the day, Gail advises Jasmine to stay at the school and tough things out, a decision that ends tragically, and starts Gail on a journey of self-awareness.

Then there’s the story of the witch. Evidently, the university is haunted. Years ago, a witch was hung close to the grounds of the school, and she cursed the institution, and it’s said that every few years or so she comes back to claim the life of a freshman and drag her down to hell. In fact, a girl committed suicide in the very room in which Jasmine now lives. Fellow students go full throttle in detailing this legend to Jasmine, and although they mean it as a joke, Jasmine is greatly affected by the story. As threats to her well-being mount, she can’t help but think it’s the witch coming to get her.

Lastly, there’s Professor Liv Beckman (Amber Gray) who is up for tenure but is facing stiff resistance because she hasn’t published much, and also, she is the subject of an investigation into her dealings with Jasmine, as the student has accused her of treating her unfairly. When Gail speaks supportively of Liv, she is asked if she can be impartial, a question which immediately makes Gail think the questioning professor is referring to the fact that both women are black. She asks the professor directly what she means, and the woman answers she meant because Gail and Liv are best friends, which is true. Gail then changes her tune and speaks more critically of Liv’s candidacy.

All three actors are excellent. Regina Hall gets the most screen time of the three as house master Gail Bishop. It’s an intriguing role, as Gail evolves as the movie goes along. She is at first happy to be house master, but as things continually get under her skin, she begins to ask questions. And after Jasmine’s plight, Gail’s eyes are opened, and she’s the character who realizes the depths of which racism exists and that it’s just not going to change.

Zoe Renee is perfect as the troubled Jasmine. Confident and brilliant at first, she is driven to doubt and despair as the events around her relentlessly poke and prod until she becomes unglued. By far, Jasmine has the saddest story arc.

Amber Gray as Liv Beckman completes the trio. Beckman wants tenure so bad she is willing to lie to get it, but the depth of that lie is misunderstood by Gail who mistakenly believes her friend told a major untruth rather than a more subtle omission of a past life.

I would imagine that MASTER (2022) would struggle to find a large audience. Marketed as a horror movie, the horror elements, while there, in the form of the story of the witch’s curse, are downplayed and are not the main focus of the movie. MASTER works much better as a drama, and as such, soars, even though it is definitely a slow-burn story. It’s one of those movies that almost doesn’t work until the end credits roll, and then you look back and think about what you just saw, and you get it.

So, the true star of MASTER is writer/director Mariama Diallo. The script is quietly masterful. The best part is that the characterizations and situations never go over the top, become cliche, or even all that clear. Diallo makes it so the audience, like main character Gail, feels that something isn’t quite right, that somehow things are off, and yet we just can’t put our finger on what that something is. But it’s racism. And it’s not the in-your-face KKK racism of the deep South, but the quiet nuanced racism of the so-called progressive side of society, folks who say they support diversity, but what they say and do is a different matter. A phrase here, a gesture there, an assumption over there, things that normally aren’t associated with racism but at the end of the day are still attitudes which divide over race.

I thought the screenplay was brilliant. By the time the end credits rolled, I realized I had just watched a movie that while it’s not without flaws was able to say something poignant about race without being overhanded or trite.

And if its premise is accepted as true, then the story told in MASTER is certainly a horror tale for our time.

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THE TENDER BAR (2021) – George Clooney’s Heartwarming Drama Provides Ben Affleck with Best Role in Years

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THE TENDER BAR (2021) is… well, a tender drama.

Directed by George Clooney, THE TENDER BAR, now available on Prime Video after a theatrical release in December, tells the story of a young man who as a boy idolized and looked up to his uncle, played here by Ben Affleck, and rightly so, because Uncle Charlie, who’s a bartender, is there for his nephew throughout his life.

The movie opens in 1973 with nine-year-old JR (Daniel Ranieri) and his mother (Lily Rabe) returning to live with his grandfather (Christopher Lloyd) in the house his mom grew up in, and they’re doing this because things have not worked out for his mom. As JR explains in a voice over, his mom has had a very tough life, made worse by the fact that his father (Max Martini), who’s now a famous radio deejay, walked out on them and left them with nothing. While his mom is sad and depressed about having to move back in with her parents, JR is overjoyed, because it’s a home where all his cousins and aunts congregate, so he’s surrounded by family every day, and it’s also the house where his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck) lives.

JR looks up to and worships his uncle, and it’s hard for him not to, because the guy cares for him and is always there for his nephew. Charlie is a bartender, but he’s also an incredibly well-read and self-taught bartender, and so when JR tells his uncle he wants to be a writer some day, Charlie tasks him with reading every book he can get his hands on. JR is also a frequent visitor at the bar, and he enjoys a friendship and camaraderie with the regulars there. And while Charlie is well read, his philosophy of life and advice to JR, while commendable, is certainly a bit dated for the here and now in 2022.

But what makes the story in THE TENDER BAR work so well is in spite of all the hardships JR’s family endures, they are there for each other and pull for each other. The only one who isn’t there is JR’s father, who turns out to be quite the low life of a person. But not Uncle Charlie, who is always there for his nephew.

The second half of the movie jumps forward nine years to 1982 and follows a college bound JR (Tye Sheridan) adjusting to college life while questioning his future, all the while still seeking friendship and advice from his caring uncle. And while the first half of the movie works better than the second, the script by William Monahan, based on the memoir by J.R. Moehringer, remains sharp throughout and offers plenty of spot-on insights, like JR’s musings about becoming a writer, for example. He comments that to become a lawyer, you go to law school, and your degree declares you a lawyer, and all professions work like this, except a writer. No one declares a person a writer. A writer has to go out and do it, prove themselves, become published, and then they’re a writer.

I really enjoyed THE TENDER BAR, although I have to admit a personal bias to this story. The character of JR in the movie is my age, and I easily identified to the look and feel of this story in 1973, especially the scenes of his crowded grandparents’ house, as I also grew up with a grandparents’ home that was a bustling hub of relatives and was the place I loved being at. Similarly, I went to college the same years as JR, from 1982-1986, and so the look of these scenes also resonated.

But more importantly, I also grew up with an uncle like Charlie, who I looked up to and who was always there for me during these years. No, he wasn’t a bartender, but he was a supportive fan of my wanting to be a writer and shared my love for horror. So, there’s definitely a personal connection for me to the story told in THE TENDER BAR.

But even without this connection, THE TENDER BAR works.

George Clooney’s direction is spot-on. He captures the periods of both the 1970s and 1980s perfectly, and he also allows the story to be told without distractions. It’s told through the eyes of JR, both as a young boy and as a college student, and the film is consistent with this point of view. Like JR, the audience feels the caring from Uncle Charlie and the rest of JR’s family. As I said, this one really is a tender story. While Clooney is known in the business more as an actor than a director, he has directed a handful of movies. I didn’t see his previous directorial effort, THE MIDNIGHT SKY (2020), but I did see THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014), his World War II adventure, which I really liked. That being said, I enjoyed THE TENDER BAR even more than THE MONUMENTS MEN.

Clooney also just captures certain sequences so perfectly. The bowling sequence, for example, looks and feels exactly the way bowling alleys looked and felt in 1973, right down to what it felt like to be there as nine-year-old boy bowling with your uncle and his friends.

The best part of THE TENDER BAR however is Ben Affleck’s performance as Uncle Charlie. He exudes sincerity and straightforwardness. As JR says, everyone needs to have an Uncle Charlie in their lives, and Affleck’s performance makes that easy to see. He also is very comfortable playing Charlie during two different decades. It’s been a while since I’ve really enjoyed a Ben Affleck performance, probably going back to THE ACCOUNTANT (2016). This is probably Affleck’s best work in years, going back to ARGO (2012). I like Affleck a lot and hope he continues to have more roles like this.

Almost matching Affleck is young Daniel Ranieri as the nine-year-old JR. He’s fabulous, and I wish the story had been all about 1973, because then he would have been in the entire movie.

Tye Sheridan plays JR when he goes off to college, and Sheridan is fine, but this part of the story just wasn’t as interesting or as compelling as the first half. Plus, his infatuation with a fellow classmate who he wants to date and marry, is a head-scratcher because she treats him awfully throughout.

I really liked Lily Rabe as JR’s mom, and Max Martine makes for a brutal, arrogant, and thoroughly unpleasant deadbeat dad, who stands out in this story because he’s the one person in JR’s life who is a genuinely awful person.

And Christopher Lloyd delivers a fine supporting performance as Grandpa, enjoying many fine scene-stealing moments. The sequence where he agrees to go with JR to school to celebrate “dad’s day” is heartwarming.

William Monahan’s screenplay is exceptional. The writing is tight throughout, the situations realistic and agreeable, and much of the dialogue sharp and humorous. Monahan also wrote the screenplay to THE DEPARTED (2006), one of my favorite Martin Scorsese movies, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Jack Nicholson. The one knock on the script is other than JR’s mom, there really isn’t a strong female character in the movie. THE TENDER BAR is definitely a male-oriented story. But since it is the story of a young boy and his relationship with his uncle, I didn’t have a problem with this.

THE TENDER BAR is a coming-of-age movie that tells the inspiring and touching story of the relationship between a young man and his uncle. With all that is going on in the world today, it was nice to watch a movie about people who truly looked out for one another and cared for each other.

So, stop by Charlie’s bar after work and hang out for a bit, feel the camaraderie and friendship, and watch your favorite bartender always be there for his bright young nephew.

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THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN (2021) – Benedict Cumberbatch Performance Lifts Uneven Bio Pic

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THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN (2021), an original Prime Video movie, is an elegant and colorful bio pic of Louis Wain, a 19th century English artist famous for his drawings of cats. Wain is played here by Benedict Cumberbatch.

And Cumberbatch is the reason you want to see this one. He delivers a great performance as he always does, although truth be told, Claire Foy is equally as good as Wain’s wife Emily, but she is in the film far less than Cumberbatch. Still, these two powerful performances carry this movie, which is a good thing, because the rest of the movie is rather uneven.

Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a kind soul and a bit of an odd duck. As depicted in this movie, he’s definitely on the spectrum, possibly schizophrenic or autistic, but one thing that is indisputable is he is an extraordinary artist and can sketch animals in seconds. In 1881, his father dies, and Louis is left to provide for his ailing mother and five sisters. He secures a full-time position as an artist for a major English newspaper, as its editor Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones) is fascinated by Wain’s work. Over the years, Sir William serves as a mentor for Wain and remains a constant friend throughout his life.

The family also hires a governess, Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) to help care for the children. Emily and Louis instantly share a connection, and not too long afterwards, they fall in love and get married, which causes a stir since Emily is not of the same social class as Louis. The two share a wonderful life and inspire each other to create art as they both see the world the same way. It’s also during this time that they find a stray cat and welcome it into their home, which begins Louis’ obsession with drawing cats.

But when Emily is diagnosed with breast cancer, their magical life comes to an end. After Emily’s death, Louis struggles to keep himself together, and from here on out his life is one tragedy after another, but he finds that the harder and more horrific his life becomes, the more brilliant and vibrant his cat drawings become. He is able to turn pain into art which while providing the world great beauty, drives his own mental health deeper into despair.

The “electrical” in the film’s title refers to Louis’ unique take on electricity. He views it as something more than just a mysterious power source for lights. He saw it as a power source for people, something that could be harnessed artistically, and he would have electric moments where he would feel the electricity and use that power to create his art. Emily was one of the few people who understood what he meant by this. As a fiction writer, I can’t deny that when I am in that “zone” where words fly easily, it does feel like an outside force like electricity has entered my brain, because often I write things which I will read later and say to myself, “I wrote that?” so it’s a concept that I definitely understand.

As I said, while I enjoyed THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN, it is a rather uneven film. I definitely enjoyed the first half more than the second. The first half of the movie which depicts first the courtship and then the marriage of Louis and Emily is lively, entertaining, and fun. Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy share a warm chemistry and really bring these two characters and their love for each other to life. When describing the first half of this movie, words like “delightful” and “charming” come to mind.

But once Emily falls ill and eventually passes, the entire tone of the film changes, as Louis is assaulted by one mishap after another, some small, others tragic. And this part goes on for quite a while, and it’s simply not as satisfying as the first half of the movie.

And while the screenplay by Simon Stephenson and Will Sharpe, who directed, does a nice job depicting Louis Wain the man, one thing the film surprisingly does not do is offer much insight at all into the cat drawings. I mean, the audience gets to see plenty of these drawings, but no light is shed on Wain’s thinking behind them, and perhaps this is so because we might not know his thinking behind them, but the film doesn’t offer anything that speaks to this other than that Wain can draw cats and here are the drawings. There’s also not much insight into his relationship with cats. So, if you love cats, you might enjoy this movie, but I would argue that strangely cats really aren’t featured all too prominently here.

What is featured is yet another tremendous performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. He is the reason I enjoyed this movie as much as I did. He portrays Wain as a stand-up decent man, and his initial awkward attempts to woo Emily are fun to watch. Later, as Wain becomes more and more haunted by his own mental demons, Cumberbatch captures this part of the man as well. The make-up here is also topnotch, and Cumberbatch looks believable as Wain as both a young man and a very old man later in the movie.

The last time I saw Cumberbatch, he played Greville Wynne in THE COURIER (2020), and he provided another fascinating performance as another real-life figure. I enjoyed THE COURIER somewhat more than I did THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN, but in terms of acting, I thought Cumberbatch was even better here as Louis Wain than he was as Greville Wynne. And every time Wain mentioned electricity, I couldn’t help but think of another amazing biographical performance by Cumberbatch, as Thomas Edison in THE CURRENT WAR (2017). Benedict Cumberbatch seems to excel at playing these historical figures.

Claire Foy is also wonderful as Emily Richardson. She plays Emily as quite the eccentric character in her own right, the perfect match for Louis, and as I said, Foy and Cumberbatch are electric together. Had Foy been in this entire movie, I’d list her right up there with Cumberbatch for being the main reason to see this one, and up to a point she is, but her character dies midway through.

Foy is a wonderful actress, known for her work on the TV show THE CROWN (2016-2020), but she’s turned in some memorable movie performances as well. She stood out as Neil Armstrong’s wife Janet in FIRST MAN (2018), as well as in the Steven Soderbergh thriller UNSANE (2018). I first noticed her as the fiery “girl” in the Nicholas Cage action/fantasy/horror movie SEASON OF THE WITCH (2011).

Veteran character actor Toby Jones adds solid support as newspaper editor Sir William Ingram. Jones has been in a gazillion films and adds quality support to each and every one of them. And I always like to point out that he’s the son of actor Freddie Jones, who got his start in Hammer Films, and debuted as one of the more memorable Frankenstein “monsters” ever, in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969) with Peter Cushing.

Director Will Sharpe achieves mixed results here. At times, this one looks like an authentic period piece, while at others, the sets look cheap and backdrops phony. Now, I realize this may have been on purpose, to match the look of Wain’s drawings, but I can’t say I was convinced that this was the case. Had the entire movie owned this look, then I would have bought that premise more readily, but as it stands, it doesn’t. The film also doesn’t do the best job balancing its two moods, light and fun during the first half, and dark and tragic during its second.

But most disappointing of all is the lack of insight on Wain’s famous cat sketches. Little time is spent on what was going through Wain’s mind when he sketched those cats or his feelings towards cats in general. And no light is shed whatsoever on how he drew his art. There’s no depiction of any artistic process. The one time the film does this is Wain’s advice to Emily about her own art, where he tells her that there’s really only one rule to drawing, and that is to look. That is a notable moment in the movie, but it needed more of these.

While I did enjoy THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN, it did struggle to hold my interest the longer it went on. Keeping it together and the main reason to see this movie is the fabulous work of Benedict Cumberbatch with his portrayal of Louis Wain.

The first half of THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN is indeed electrical. The second half barely purrs.

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WITHOUT REMORSE (2021) Is Without A Clue

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WITHOUT REMORSE (2021) is without a clue.

Yup, this new thriller, based on the Tom Clancy novel and starring Michael B. Jordan, starts off well but then quickly deteriorates into a muddled mess of confusion and cliches that ultimately sinks this one beyond the point of rescue.

Perhaps the biggest head-scratcher of all is that the screenplay was written by Taylor Sheridan, one of the best screenwriters working today. His screenplays include SICARIO (2015), HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016), and WIND RIVER (2017). He’s also the creative mind behind the TV series YELLOWSTONE (2018- ). Yet the screenplay for WITHOUT REMORSE is pretty bad. Really bad. Again, it’s a head-scratcher. Well, I guess we’re all entitled to a dud once in a while.

WITHOUT REMORSE, now available on Prime Video, opens with a Navy SEAL rescue mission in Syria in which the elite soldiers discover they have just extracted a person from Russian special forces rather than from Syrian soldiers as they were told. This doesn’t sit well with soldier John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan) who calls out their CIA operative Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell) who had provided them with the intel on the mission, and Ritter’s cavalier response does nothing to assuage Kelly’s misgivings about the error in intel.

Kelly’s instincts prove accurate, as later Russian forces seek out and kill members of the Navy SEALS team. When they get to Kelly’s home, Kelly survives the attack, but his pregnant wife and unborn child do not. Kelly then makes it his mission to seek out answers, to find out who murdered his wife and unborn child and why, and to do this, he will proceed without remorse.

Blah, blah, blah.

Actually, I enjoyed the beginning to this movie. Up to the murder of Kelly’s wife and unborn child, this movie had me. I was intrigued by the opening, and I was primed and ready to go along for the ride with Kelly as he took no prisoners on his way in search of answers and retribution. But it’s here where the film drops the ball and completely unravels, which is not a good thing since this makes up the bulk of the movie.

So, what went wrong? The story, for starters. None of it is all that convincing, and the reasons for the original mission and the whole Russian connection remain muddled and unclear. The storytelling just isn’t very sharp, which is again very surprising since Taylor Sheridan wrote the screenplay. Sheridan’s films also usually have a strong subtext which make them work on a much deeper level. There is no subtext here.

There are plenty of action scenes, and the violence is way up there, but sadly none of these scenes really resonated with me. The sound editing was pretty good though. The sound effects, especially the gun fire, were loud and effective. My living room sounded like a war zone. Unfortunately, visually, these sequences weren’t anything special.

Director Stefano Sollima includes plenty of hard-hitting violent scenes of gun battles and killing, but in terms of cinematic choreography, none of it wowed me.

I did like Michael B. Jordan in the lead role as John Kelly. A lot. In fact, his performance is the best part of the entire movie, and about the only reason to watch this one. He makes Kelly’s plight believable, as you really feel for the guy. He sweats intensity. He also looks the part, and is very believable as an uncontrollable elite soldier. Jordan is a terrific actor who I enjoy a lot. He was especially notable in the lead role in the recent CREED movies where he plays Apollo Creed’s son in the continuation of the Sylvester Stallone ROCKY series. One of my favorite roles though of Jordan’s was his turn as the villain Erik Killmonger in Marvel’s BLACK PANTHER (2016). Not only did he play one of Marvel’s best movie villains to date, but he also arguably outshined Chadwick Boseman’s lead character Black Panther.

On the other hand, no one else in the cast really stands out. Jodie Turner-Smith is okay as Kelly’s SEAL’s leader Karen Greer, but the role isn’t written all that well, and the character never really comes to life.

Jamie Bell is actually very good as shadowy CIA operative Robert Ritter, but again, he’s done in by some lackluster writing. Guy Pearce also adds some solid moments as Secretary Clay.

The inferior script was co-written by Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples, based on Tom Clancy’s novel of the same name. And that’s the other thing that’s surprising about this film not having much depth, that it’s based on a novel.

I was extremely disappointed with WITHOUT REMORSE. While I certainly didn’t hate it, as watching Michael B. Jordan’s performance certainly kept me at least partially interested, I can’t say I enjoyed it all that much.

Without much to like, WITHOUT REMORSE is simply without merit. Which means, in terms of my recommendation, it goes…. without.

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