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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t worry about missing this one.

I give it two stars.

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RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

BEAST (2022) – Idris Elba Anchors Solid African Adventure

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

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

Not at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give it a roar!

—END—

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

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

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

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

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

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

No surprise there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WINDFALL (2022) – New Netflix Thriller Intriguing But Slow

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WINDFALL (2022), a new thriller now available on Netflix, is enjoyable in the subtlest of ways.

Had it been less subtle and more thrilling, I would have liked this one more.

WINDFALL is the story of a man (Jason Segel) who breaks into a luxurious empty home of a rich CEO, ostensibly just to know what it’s like to live like a king. But when the CEO (Jesse Plemons) and his young wife (Lily Collins) return home early, the man is discovered, and to protect himself, he takes the couple hostage. While they offer him money and invite him to take whatever he wants, and once he leaves, they will forget they ever saw him, he doesn’t trust them. And so he doesn’t leave.

In the ensuing conversation, they decide on the amount of money it would take for the man to leave them and disappear off the grid. The CEO arranges for the cash to be delivered, but it won’t arrive until the following evening, and so they settle in together, with the man keeping the couple hostage. Things grow more complicated when the gardener (Omar Leyva) arrives, and the tension builds as the bizarre hostage situation continues to play out.

The strength of this wannabe Hitchcock thriller is its screenplay by writer/director Charlie McDowell which scores higher with its intriguing dialogue than with its overall story arc. The conversations are wildly interesting and definitely help build the tension.

When it becomes clear the man— and all the characters here remain nameless— doesn’t really want to kill them, the CEO and his wife basically ask him what it would take to get him to leave, and they agree that it would be an amount of money that would safely enable him to disappear. He gives them a ballpark figure, and they nearly laugh him out of the room, as the figure is way too low. When he then goes sky high, the CEO reminds him of just how heavy that much cash will be to lug around. After more conversation, they finally arrive at an amount. There are other such conversations just like this one, which are equally as compelling.

The CEO asks his wife to get close to the man to try to win his confidence, and she does, but she also really does seem to strongly dislike her husband, and so the things she tells the man seem true, and there is doubt as to whether she is following her husband’s instructions or is up to something else.

The three main actors here are all excellent. I’ve never been a big fan of Jason Segel. He didn’t do much for me in either THE MUPPETS (2011) or SEX TAPE (2014). This is the first serious role I’ve seen Segel play, and he’s very good. It’s easily the best performance I’ve seen him deliver. He makes the man sympathetic, as he despises the CEO because of the way he treats his workers, but he’s not a hardened criminal, and so at the end of the day he doesn’t really want to kill anyone. Yet, he is just obscure enough so that the audience— nor the CEO or his wife—doesn’t truly know if he is violent or not. He certainly makes the case that even though he doesn’t want to kill anyone, he would.

I am a big fan of Jesse Plemons, who seems to be everywhere these days. We just saw him in THE POWER OF THE DOG (2021) in which he’s nominated for Best Supporting Actor. He’s memorable and different in nearly every movie he’s in, including THE IRISHMAN (2019). VICE (2018), and GAME NIGHT (2018) to name just a few. And of course, he was unforgettable as Todd in the last season of BREAKING BAD (2012-2013). Here, he’s sufficiently despicable as the unlikable CEO.

Lily Collins is excellent as the unhappy wife who seems just as uncomfortable with her husband as she is being held hostage by the stranger. I first noticed Collins in last year’s MANK (2021) in which she played Herman Mankiewicz’ secretary Rita Alexander. Starring opposite Gary Oldman, she was terrific. She was also in TOLKIEN (2019). Collins is the daughter of singer Phil Collins.

Director/writer Charlie McDowell has crafted a neat little thriller, but the problem with this one is the pace is…. oh….so….slow. You could get up and make yourself a sandwich and not miss anything. Heck you could pop your own popcorn and the three main characters would still be sitting in the living room discussing the situation.

And the film’s climax, when it finally does arrive, is just okay. It’s nothing earth shattering, and unfortunately isn’t as thrilling or satisfying as it should be, considering what happens.

At the end of the day, WINDFALL is a minor little thriller that will entertain for a while with its intriguing dialogue, and its unconventional hostage situation also has merit, but sadly, the payoff for this one just isn’t there.

What feels like a Hitchcock thriller for a time fades into something far less reminiscent of the Master of Suspense.

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KIMI (2022) – Steven Soderbergh Thriller Efficient and Effective

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KIMI (2022), the latest movie from acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh, is both efficient and effective.

My favorite part of this one, other than the fact that it really does tell an exciting story, is that in the days of overindulgent directors who make movies that go on for well over two hours, oftentimes flirting with the three-hour mark or more, KIMI clocks in at a brisk one hour and twenty-nine minutes. Nice! And none of them are wasted.

KIMI, which is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max, tells the story of Angela (Zoe Kravitz), an agoraphobic young woman who is also a sexual assault survivor. She works for the internet company which created “Kimi,” a new virtual assistant that the company boasts is superior to Alexa and Siri because they use real people rather than computer-generated algorithms to monitor and adjust people’s likings, and that’s Angela’s job. She listens to data streams and corrects errors, so when Kimi misunderstands a person’s request, Angela figures out what the person meant and adds it to Kimi’s memory.

But one day Angela hears what she believes is a violent crime against a woman, and she reports it to her superiors. This should be the end of that, except in what is the weakest part of an otherwise well-written screenplay, the crime she overhears is committed per order of the owner of her company. Small world! Anyway, he doesn’t take kindly to having been discovered, and suddenly Angela’s life is in danger.

So, the main plot in KIMI is a little far-fetched, in that the crime Angela discovers is committed by the CEO of her company. That’s a convoluted pill to swallow. But the movie is about more than just the crime, as a good chunk of it is spent on Angela’s character and how she deals with her agoraphobia, from refusing to see her dentist even when she needs a root canal, to her trying to maintain a relationship with her neighbor Terry (Byron Bowers) who she likes a lot.

Plus the suspense scenes and chase sequences work very well, thanks to the adept direction by Soderbergh. The ending is also very exciting, so KIMI is one of those rare movies which works in spite of having a rather dumb crime plot at its core. It helps that everything other than the crime plot is interesting and intriguing.

So, the screenplay by David Koepp is a mixed bag. The characterizations and the dialogue are both excellent, and the framework for the story, Angela’s dealing with her agoraphobia, and the fascinating elements of her job, are intriguing. When Angela discovers the possibility of a crime, this is also compelling. The only problem is the actual crime involves the CEO of her company, which makes things all rather a bit too neat and tidy. This one needed to be messier.

Koepp has written a gazillion screenplays over the years, having written or co-written scripts for JURASSIC PARK (1993), MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (1996), and SPIDER-MAN (2002) to name just a few. Of course, he’s also one of the folks who co-wrote the abysmal Tom Cruise version of THE MUMMY (2017).

I have mixed feelings about the work of Steven Soderbergh. Sometimes I like his movies, and other times I don’t, but more often than not, I enjoy his films. He’s on the top of his game here with KIMI. There’s definitely an Alfred Hitchcock vibe to this claustrophobic thriller, seen through the eyes of its agoraphobic main character. Lots of suspenseful scenes here, and I was on the edge of my seat for a good portion of this movie. It also builds to a satisfying conclusion, especially once Angela gets her hands on a staple gun.

I also enjoyed Soderbergh’s previous movie NO SUDDEN MOVE (2021), a crime thriller starring Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro. NO SUDDEN MOVE is a very different movie than KIMI, and the only reason I prefer it ever so slightly to today’s film is that it works on a deeper, more resonating level. But I enjoyed KIMI more than some of Soderbergh’s other thrillers, including UNSANE (2018), SIDE EFFECTS (2013), and CONTAGION (2011).

Zoe Kravitz is excellent in the lead role as Angela, which is a good thing since she’s in nearly every scene. In spite of the character’s agoraphobia, Kravitz doesn’t play Angela as a victim at all. In fact, she’s anything but, and it’s fascinating to watch her consistently gain the upper hand on folks who try to convince her to do things she doesn’t want to do. She is steadfast, determined, and resourceful, which serves her well later when she has to contend with the heavies sent to do her harm by the conniving CEO.

Kravitz will be playing Catwoman in the upcoming superhero movie, THE BATMAN (2022).

The rest of the cast are all decent as well. Byron Bowers makes for a sincere love interest for Angela, and Alex Dobrenko enjoys some scene stealing moments as Angela’s co-worker in a different country, Darius.

The fact that the story takes place during the pandemic is also notable, as it adds to the story, as it’s one of the reasons that Angela cites for her agoraphobia getting worse, since she has spent so much time indoors quarantining. There’s also a chase scene through an office building in which there seems to be no one there except for Angela and the men chasing her, which would seem odd, except that in the here and now during a pandemic, many businesses have cut back on personnel, and so it’s not unrealistic to believe that a building would be mostly unoccupied.

I liked KIMI a lot. With the exception of one dumb plot point involving the CEO of Angela’s company, the rest of this thriller works well and had me on the edge of my seat from beginning to end, which wasn’t hard to do, since the film clocks in at a most welcoming 89 minutes.

Kimi, play movie again!

—END—

THE VOYEURS (2021) – Erotic Thriller Mostly Just Eye Candy

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THE VOYEURS (2021), a new thriller by writer/director Michael Mohan, now available on Prime Video, asks the question, if you can see your neighbors through their open window, does that mean you have an open invitation to watch them?

The answer seems fairly obvious… no…. but several characters in this movie feel otherwise.

The first half of THE VOYEURS does a good job examining the moral implications of spying on one’s neighbors, while the second half deteriorates into a far less believable tale, jettisoning its thought-provoking inquiries and entering the world of plot twists and crime plots, the result being a mixed bag of a film that misses its mark by plenty by the time the end credits role.

THE VOYEURS opens with super cute couple Pippa (Sydney Sweeney) and Thomas (Justice Smith) moving into their first apartment together and starting an exciting new life with each other. They soon discover that their good looking neighbors like to have sex with their shades open in full view of anyone who wants to watch, and Pippa and Thomas in spite of discussing “should they or shouldn’t they” find themselves watching regularly and becoming sexually aroused while doing so. It’s all harmless, until they spy the husband, a professional photographer, having sex with other women during the day while his wife is away. He’s also physically abusive to her when she accuses him of cheating on her.

When she walks into the eye doctor office in which Pippa works, and Pippa finds herself giving her an eye exam, they make small talk and hit it off as friends, and they agree to see each other socially. Pippa tells Thomas she feels an obligation to tell the woman that her husband is cheating on her, but Thomas tells her absolutely not, as they are not even supposed to know that information, since the only reason they do know is because they’ve been watching through the window.

But Pippa can’t resist, and as she goes ahead with her plan to alert her new friend that her husband isn’t being faithful to her, unexpected tragic results occur instead, and that’s only the beginning. It gets much, much worse.

This actually sounds better than it is. I really enjoyed the first half of THE VOYEURS, mostly because it presented an intriguing story and more importantly it was believable. But the second half, which exposes a devious plot, is far less convincing and as a result far less enjoyable.

The plot and theme definitely calls to mind Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW (1954), but also Brian De Palma’s BODY DOUBLE (1984). I thought a lot about De Palma while watching THE VOYEURS. Had this been a De Palma film, it would have been an much more violent and bloody movie, but the thing is, the way the second half of this movie plays out, had it become over-the-top violent a la De Palma, it would have been a much more entertaining vehicle. The second half falls flat mostly because it’s not convincing, but also because the thriller aspects just aren’t very thrilling.

The first half of the movie is much smarter and as such works better.

The cast is very good. Sydney Sweeney is adorable as the spunky Pippa, and she definitely draws the audience in with her as she steps up her game to become involved in the lives of her neighbors. Justice Smith is likable as Pippa’s boyfriend Thomas, but his reactions in the second half of the film are a major part of the lack of believability factor. His character reacts in some bizarre and unbelievable ways.

I really liked Ben Hardy as Seb, the professional photographer who cheats on his wife, although he doesn’t see it as cheating. He thinks it shouldn’t matter since it doesn’t matter to him, and it doesn’t change the fact that he loves his wife. Hardy makes Seb the perfect alpha self-centered and self-confident male. His performance doesn’t miss a beat.

And Natasha Liu Bordizzo is pretty darn good herself as Seb’s wife Julia, a sympathetic character until late in the game when things change

THE VOYEURS contains lots of nudity and sex scenes, which makes this one a rather erotic thriller, and the scenes are all well done, much better than the thriller scenes later in the film.

The best thing that writer/director Michael Mohan does with this one is he definitely flips it so in the film’s final reel, when Pippa goes to Seb and poses for him in his apartment, we the audience become the voyeurs, watching something we probably shouldn’t want to watch, yet we are fascinated to see what will happen between Pippa and Seb.

Unfortunately, all that comes after this scene is forced, contrived, and simply not as good as what had come before it.

THE VOYEURS is a mild thriller, and works better as an erotic drama. It’s also a showcase for Sydney Sweeney, who’s the best part of this one. She’s good throughout.

While there’s a lot to look at in THE VOYEURS, not all of it makes sense, and it fails to generate the required suspense needed for this type of thriller to be successful. As a result, this one is strictly eye candy

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THE COURIER (2020) – Benedict Cumberbatch Historical Thriller Delivers

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I finally caught up with THE COURIER (2020) which was released back in March, and I was not disappointed.

This period piece drama based on true events and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Greville Wynne, an ordinary unassuming British businessman who finds himself in the middle of American/Soviet espionage at the height of the Cold War in the early 1960s tells a captivating story of real life bravery amidst the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

THE COURIER, now available on Prime Video, opens with Soviet General Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) worrying that Khrushchev is too unhinged to be in control of a nuclear arsenal, and so he reaches out to the Americans hoping to initiate a secret dialogue to keep the peace. CIA operative Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) reaches out to her counterpart at Britain’s MI6 Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) to help broker this arrangement because the U.S. does not have a solid footing of operatives on the ground in the Soviet Union. Franks agrees to send in one of their agents, but Emily suggests instead they send in someone who is not an agent, hoping to arouse less suspicion. They choose businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) since he had planned to expand his sales to the Soviet Union anyway.

At first, Wynne wants no part of the deal, as he has a wife and son, but he changes his mind when Emily lays out just how serious things are and what his involvement would mean for the safety of the entire world. Wynne travels to the Soviet Union where under the guise of expanding his business he meets with Oleg Penkovsky, and in public they talk shop, and in private Penkovsky slips Greville intel which he brings back to England upon his return home.

But the more Greville visits the Soviet Union, the more suspicious the KGB becomes, at a time when Emily refuses to suspend the operation as the intel clearly details Khrushchev’s interest in supplying Cuba with nuclear missiles. And Greville doesn’t want out anyway, as he and Penkovsky have become friends, and he wants to help Penkvosky and his family defect, an endeavor which proves to be the riskiest one of all.

I really enjoyed THE COURIER. It’s a handsome production. Director Dominic Cooke captures the look and feel of the 1960s locations, from the Soviet Union to Great Britain. The set pieces, costumes, and general feel of the time are all there.

It also tells a riveting story, with an excellent screenplay by Tom O’Connor. The characters are fleshed out, the dialogue is first rate, and the story compels from start to finish. The situations throughout are engrossing, emotional, and exciting. O’Connor also wrote the screenplay for THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD (2017), which is such a different movie from THE COURIER it’s funny to think that O’Connor wrote both, as THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD was a raunchy comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson that I enjoyed much more than I should have as I found myself laughing throughout. While I liked that movie, I enjoyed THE COURIER even more.

Benedict Cumberbatch as he always does excels in his performance as Greville Wynne. At first, he’s the consummate British businessman, successful because he knows how to make his clients feel good, even losing at golf regularly so his clients can win. And once in the Soviet Union he’s terrified, knowing that all eyes are on him and that he can’t trust anyone other than Penkovsky. But as the stakes grow higher, Greville changes, wanting to do more, so much so that he refuses to leave without trying to help Penkovsky defect first.

Likewise, Merab Ninidze is excellent as Oleg Penkovsky. He exudes the kind of confidence as Penkovsky that allows Greville to trust him and feel safe in his presence. Of course, when dealing with the KGB, no one is safe, and that becomes apparent as the story goes on.

I also enjoyed Jessie Buckley as Greville’s wife Sheila. Their story where Sheila suspects Greville’s frequent trips to the Soviet Union means he’s having an extramarital affair, since he had done this before, is a moving one, and one that becomes more emotional later in the film as Sheila learns the truth behind her husband’s visits out of the country.

The rest of the cast is just as good, and this one is well-acted throughout.

THE COURIER also enjoys an effective music score by Abel Korzeniowski. It captures the flavor of the Soviet Union and really enhances the drama in this movie.

THE COURIER is a superior piece of historical storytelling. It captures the efforts of two men who attempted to bring peace to the world and who in fact did contribute to the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile crisis. As Penkovsky tells Greville, “We are only two people. But this is how things change.”

If you enjoy period piece dramas, especially those steeped in historical intrigue, you should definitely check out THE COURIER.

It delivers.

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NO SUDDEN MOVE (2021) – Stephen Soderbergh’s Latest A Compelling Crime Tale

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Who knew the catalytic converter could cause so much trouble?

NO SUDDEN MOVE (2021), the latest movie by director Steven Soderbergh, now playing in theaters and on HBO Max, is a stylish thriller that takes place in 1950s Detroit about a pair of criminals who find themselves in the middle of a robbery gone wrong and suddenly are being chased by so many unsavory characters you’ll need a scorecard to keep track, in a plot which involves the auto industry and the fight over some innovative top secret information!

As plots go, it’s pretty darn interesting!

Recently out of jail, Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) is looking for work, and he’s none too picky about what he takes. He accepts a sketchy job from Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser) which involves a team of three, and includes Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro) and Charley (Kieran Culkin). They invade the home of a man Matt Wertz (David Harbour) and his family. While Curt and Ron remain in the home holding the family hostage, Charley takes Matt to his office and forces Matt to break into his boss’ safe and steal the documents located there. When Matt opens the safe, he discovers the documents are gone, but rather than tell Charley this, he hands the criminal substitute documents.

This leads to a violent chain reaction, upon which Curt realizes they have been set up, and he and Ron decide to go after the missing documents themselves and get paid handsomely for them. Which proves to be no easy task, since there are a lot of people who want those documents and who will kill for them. And not only do Curt and Ron need to stay one step ahead of the unsavory characters who are after them, but also they have to contend with detective Joe Finney (Jon Hamm) who is hot on their trail.

The less said about the plot the better, because it really is a compelling story. The screenplay by Ed Solomon is solid. It does get a bit confusing as it goes along, as there are so many characters and twists and turns in the story, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it. I liked the two main characters, Curt and Ron, a lot, and their back and forth chatter works well. The dialogue throughout is excellent. And I liked the connection to the auto industry, as it’s not every day you see a thriller about the catalytic converter.

Solomon also wrote NOW YOU SEE ME (2013) a snappy thriller which I enjoyed and starred Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, and Woody Harrelson, among others, and way back in the day, he co-wrote BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (1989), and he also wrote MEN IN BLACK (1997). So, he’s no stranger to writing catchy dialogue.

Don Cheadle delivers the best performance in the film. He gives Curt grit and determination, and he plays the character as a stand up guy, in spite of his criminal past. He’s only after the money to get back what he believes is rightfully his. And he’s not about taking innocent lives with him to do it. It’s some of Cheadle’s best work since HOTEL RWANDA (2004).

Benicio Del Toro is nearly as good as Ronald Russo, the former mob enforcer who is now running from the mob since he slept with his boss’ wife. Not smart, Ronald! Del Toro plays Russo as an often lethargic hit man who is constantly looking for a drink. It’s a terrific understated performance.

David Harbour, looking thinner and trimmer than as of late, is cast against his STRANGER THINGS Sheriff Hopper persona, playing Matt Wertz, a cowardly weasel of a man who is not above risking the lives of his family as he plots with his girlfriend and boss’ secretary to rip off the company, a plan which blows up in his face in far worse ways than he could ever imagine.

Amy Seimetz also delivers a strong performance as Matt’s long suffering wife Mary, who finds ordinary life a struggle and can’t handle going through the motions of what she views as a phony existence, and so she already has issues with life even before the violent plot against her family rears its ugly head. Seimetz has been in a bunch of things, from the remake of PET SEMATARY (2019) to ALIEN: COVENANT (2017) to co-starring with David Harbour in STRANGER THINGS (2016-2017).

While Jon Hamm is effective as Detective Joe Finney, he actually doesn’t get to do a whole heck of a lot. I expected more from the role.

It was fun to see Brendan Fraser back on the “big” screen again. I hadn’t seen him in a movie in a while. And he chews up the scenery as the mysterious mobster who sets everything in motion by hiring these men. Speaking of chewing up the scenery, Ray Liotta does just that in a small role as head mobster Frank Capelli.

And there’s an uncredited performance in the film’s conclusion that adds a lot to the climax of this movie.

I’m not the biggest fan of Steven Soderbergh. His thriller UNSANE (2018) shot entirely with an IPhone 7 was just so-so, and he’s made a bunch of other films I’ve found simply lukewarm, films like SIDE EFFECTS (2013) and CONTAGION (2011). And I’m not a fan of his OCEAN’S movies. But I really liked his quirky crime comedy LOGAN LUCKY (2017), and of course back in the day he made films like THE LIMEY (1999) and SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE (1989).

But I really liked NO SUDDEN MOVE. Soderbergh captures the look and feel of 1950s Detroit with seeming ease. He gets the most out of his actors’ performances, and he keeps this one thrilling throughout. I did think it slowed a bit towards the end, picking up just in time for its satisfying conclusion.

Overall, NO SUDDEN MOVE has a great cast, a superb script, and a creative director who is operating at the top of his game.

And you’ll even learn a little history about the catalytic converter.

Yup, it’s definitely a movie you “auto” watch.

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THE ICE ROAD (2021) – New Liam Neeson Adventure Dumb But Fun

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It may be getting a chilly reception from critics, but THE ICE ROAD (2021), a new Netflix adventure starring Liam Neeson is at bare minimum an entertaining thrill ride that provides some popcorn movie fun here at the beginning of summer.

In northern Canada a mining accident traps nearly thirty miners underground. Rescue proves nearly impossible, and with oxygen running out, and methane gas everywhere, their only hope lies in the people on the outside being able to cap the gas. But this can’t be done without a wellhead. The only way to get the heavy wellhead and pipe to the mine is by truck, and that means traversing over the dangerous ice roads in April, a time when conditions are exceedingly treacherous.

The man in charge of the trucks, Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) only has a few hours to put together a replacement team of drivers, since all of his staff have already left for vacation. He recruits a talented young female driver Tantoo (Amber Midthunder) who he had once fired for “borrowing” a truck during off-hours, and two currently unemployed truckers Mike (Liam Neeson) and his brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas). Goldenrod wants to know why Mike and Gurty can’t seem to hold jobs, and when Mike explains his brother has psychological problems after time in military combat, Goldenrod hires them.

There will be three trucks on the trip, each carrying the same wellhead and pipe, in an effort to increase the odds of getting the materials to the mine in time. The extra member of the team is an insurance representative from the company named Varnay (Benjamin Walker) who’s only there to keep an eye on things. Yeah, right. We just had this same exact plot point in the zombie apocalypse thriller ARMY OF THE DEAD (2021). If there’s a rep from the company, you know that can only mean one thing: trouble. That’s right, because here in THE ICE ROAD, we have once again that cliched villain in the movies, the dreaded evil company! Cue maniacal laugh!

And when it becomes apparent that the truckers not only have the thawing ice on the road to contend with, but sinister forces at work, it’s up to our friendly neighborhood action hero Liam Neeson to save the day!

If you are a Liam Neeson fan, you will no doubt enjoy THE ICE ROAD. I’m a fan, and I liked it. Even though at this point Neeson can play these roles in his sleep, he still excels at it and makes Mike a character you root for and feel good about following on this journey. And even though Neeson is pushing 70, he still makes this kind of tough guy character believable.

And there are some rather exciting sequences on the ice road, involving melting ice, trucks falling through, and wiping out in every direction. There are also some fun and exciting chase sequences. Director Jonathan Hensleigh gives this one a very cinematic feel. I felt I was at the movie theater watching it.

But THE ICE ROAD isn’t a very smart movie. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, and since Hensleigh also wrote the screenplay, as much as I enjoyed his direction here, I disliked his writing.

One of the stories told in THE ICE ROAD is the plight of the trapped miners, but it’s told superficially, and we don’t really get to know the stories of the men trapped down there. Had their stories been told, it would have added a whole other layer to this thriller. Holt McCallany, who was so memorable as FBI agent Bill Tench on the TV show MINDHUNTER (2017-2019) plays one of the trapped miners and makes the most of his scenes, but like the other men, his story is not fleshed out. It’s a wasted opportunity for McCallany.

And the sense of what is happening on the ground around the mine is not captured at all. Is there a rescue mission happening? Are people outside in a panic? Family members? Co-workers? Reporters? Any sense of urgency about these trapped folks is absent.

Likewise, the rescue mission with the trucks, which is clearly the focus of the movie, strangely is less about the natural dangers of getting the equipment to the mine in time and more about the silly subplot of the evil company trying to sabotage everything.

Which for me was clearly the worst part of THE ICE ROAD. The story of the trucks having to make a treacherous trip across incredibly dangerous roads of melting ice is naturally exciting. A plot built on this idea could have been really intense. Instead, the film goes the route of the “evil company”! And that whole story is convoluted and far less believable than a straightforward rescue mission tale.

Laurence Fishburne is every bit as good as Liam Neeson here as Goldenrod, in what turns out to be just a supporting role. I wish Fishburne had been in the movie more. And Amber Midthunder delivers a spunky, energetic performance as Tantoo, the young driver who is as talented as she is volatile.

But THE ICE ROAD belongs to Liam Neeson. Not because his performance is otherworldly good. No, it’s far from it. It’s a decent performance, of course, but we’ve seen Neeson do this countless times before. THE ICE ROAD belongs to Neeson because he possesses tremendous screen presence, and when he’s on screen, you pay attention.

I thought THE ICE ROAD was a rather stupid movie that should have been better because its main plot of trucks making a harrowing trip to save trapped miners was good enough on its own. Instead, the film adds a dumb plot of sabotage and cover-up. And yet I enjoyed THE ICE ROAD and had fun watching it, for the simple reason that Liam Neeson is that level of actor who can take a dumb movie like this, put it on his back, and make you forget that what you are watching is all rather inane.

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THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD (2021) – Angelina Jolie Forest Fire Thriller Not As Hot As It Could Be

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THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD (2021), a new thriller starring Angelina Jolie which premiered last weekend in theaters and on HBO Max, not only has a nifty title but is a pretty good movie in its own right.

Hannah (Angelina Jolie) is a Montana firefighter reeling from a tragedy. At a recent forest fire, she misread the wind, and people ended up dead. As a result, she is dealing with trauma and relegated to occupying a fire tower in the Montana wilderness. She’s also hearing it from a local deputy Ethan (Jon Bernthal) whose begging her to get her sh*t together.

Meanwhile, two deadly assassins Jack (Aidan Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Holt) are hot on the trail of a forensic accountant Owen (Jake Weber) and his young son Connor (Finn Little) because as Owen tells his son, he found out some information that people will kill for, but he assures his son that “he did the right thing” and that he didn’t do anything wrong. It turns out that Owen’s brother-in-law is deputy Ethan, and as Owen makes his way to Montana to seek his help, Jack and Patrick follow him there.

There’s a confrontation in the woods, and young Connor escapes and later meets up with Hannah, who finds that defending this boy from the men who want to kill him will help her with her own personal demons.

As stories go, the one told in THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD is a halfway decent one. It gets contrived at times, and the characterizations are nowhere near as on target as they need to be. It also never gets as deadly as one would expect. And for a movie that features forest fires heavily in its plot, and utilizes a major forest fire in an integral plot point, it doesn’t take full advantage of the spectacle. You don’t really feel the heat in this one. The forest fire action is all rather superficial.

THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD was co-written by Michael Koryta, Charles Leavitt, and Taylor Sheridan, who also directed. Koryta also wrote the novel on which the movie was based. Charles Leavitt also wrote the screenplay for BLOOD DIAMOND (2006), one of my favorite Leonardo DiCaprio movies, as well as the underwhelming IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (2015).

Taylor Sheridan, one of my favorite screenwriters working today, suffered a major misfire a few weeks back with the subpar WITHOUT REMORSE (2021) which starred Michael B. Jordan. THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD is better than WITHOUT REMORSE but nowhere near as good as Sheridan’s earlier movies, like SICARIO (2015), HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016), and WIND RIVER (2017). The best part of those Sheridan screenplays is they all contained deeper subtexts which really made their stories stand out. That’s simply not the case here with THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD. It’s a much more superficial movie than his previous efforts.

The cast is strong though.

Angelina Jolie is perfect as the scarred but resilient Hannah. She has a fearless off the wall personality that instantly makes her a compelling character. The only flaw is like the rest of the characters, there’s simply not as much depth or backstory as expected.

Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult make for an entertaining pair of assassins. They both possess personalities which lift them above cardboard cutouts. However, these personalities are never completely defined. The running “gag” which becomes almost a catchphrase, is that they “hate this place” as everything seems to go wrong for them on their quest to hunt down the boy. Which is true. So as the movie goes along, I couldn’t help but wonder: are these guys simply incompetent? They are certainly not meant to be comic relief… they’re assassins out to kill a boy… but at times, their plights becomes almost laughable. It’s a weird combination. But both actors are enjoyable.

Aidan Gillen has starred in PEAKY BLINDERS (2017-2019) as Aberama Gold and in GAME OF THRONES (2011-2017) as Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish. I’ve enjoyed his performances in both, and he’s just as good here.

Nicholas Hoult has a ton of credits, from Beast in the new X-MEN movies to playing J.R.R. Tolkien in TOLKIEN (2019) and Nikola Tesla in THE CURRENT WAR (2017).

Jon Bernthal is always good, and he doesn’t disappoint here as deputy Ethan. Medina Senghore is even better as Ethan’s pregnant survivalist wife who gives the assassins more than they bargained for in one of the movie’s best sequences.

Jake Weber adds fine support in a small role as Owen, the dad who became a target of assassins because he “did the right thing,” and Finn Little is very good as young Connor.

THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD is a solid piece of entertainment that kept me hooked for its brief one hour and forty minute running time.

At times, it flirted with being a deeper film, but sadly never succeeds in this endeavor, repeatedly returning to a superficial and shallow story that works no better than a pre-summer popcorn movie.

Yup, this is one forest fire movie that simply isn’t as hot as it should be.

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