KATE (2021) – Action Flick Lacks Originality

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I love movies about kick-ass female heroines as much as the next person, but KATE (2021), a new action flick starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the latest woman who kills first and asks questions later, suffers from the been there done that syndrome.

Especially because if follows so closely upon the heels of GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE (2021) and JOLT (2021), two other action movies featuring kick-ass female leads, and worse, shares too many similarities with both these movies. Of the three, GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE is the most visually stunning, has the best fight choreography, and is the overall best of the lot.

In KATE, Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Kate, an assassin who works for her handler Varrick (Woody Harrelson) who has been her protector since she was a young girl, grooming her to become an assassin from a very young age. Currently in Japan, Kate’s mission is to take out various members of a powerful mob family, but before she can finish the job, she is poisoned. With only 24 hours to live, she sets out to seek vengeance against the members of this family who she believes poisoned her. Along the way, she befriends Ani (Miku Patricia Martineau), a teenage girl belonging to this clan who feels betrayed by her family, as she believes they murdered her father, although the truth is, her father was killed by Kate.

And that’s pretty much the plot of this one.

While the plot point of Kate having only 24 hours to live is different from the stories told in the two movies mentioned above, that’s about the only difference. The rest is all too similar and familiar. In fact, KATE and GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE both share the same plot point of the young girl becoming friends with the person who murdered her father.

As such, the screenplay by Umair Aleem is just so-so. It’s not overly original, and the longer the story plays out, the more tired it becomes. The plot twist later on involving Woody Harrelson’s character can be seen coming a mile away mostly because it’s been done so many times before. The dialogue is also not a strength here.

KATE is visually impressive, however. Director Cedric Nicholas-Troyan captures the brilliant and vibrant colors of its Tokyo locale. But the fight scenes, while frequent, hard-hitting, and violent, didn’t impress me all that much. They lacked the ingenuity and creativity of similar scenes in GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE. There were a couple of cool nods however to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator character.

You can’t go wrong with Mary Elizabeth Winstead in a movie, and that holds true with KATE. She’s excellent in the lead role, and while I wasn’t nuts about the fight scenes, that’s not Winstead’s fault. She’s pretty believable as the take-no-prisoners assassin here. I’ve been a fan of Winstead’s since her role in SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010). She has also delivered notable performances in such films as THE THING (2011) and 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016).

Woody Harrelson, on the other hand, fails to impress here as Kate’s handler Varrick. Harrelson is usually the type of actor who creates characters you can’t stop watching, but here, Varrick is shoved into the background for most of the movie, and when he does appear, it’s an uncharacteristic subdued performance by Harrelson.

Miku Patricia Martineau is fun as Ani, although the role is so far from original it’s getting to be a cliche, the hip teen looking for acceptance and befriended by the very person who harmed her family.

Jun Kunimura makes for a respectable villain, Kijima, and his scenes with Mary Elizabeth Winstead are some of the better ones in the movies, certainly in terms of writing. He gets some of the best lines in the film, deep lines, not the kind of macho bravado one usually gets from a mob leader. And Tadanobu Asano makes for another notable villain, Renji.

Then there’s Michiel Huisman, who shows up as a man who Kate meets at a bar, and is directly involved in her poisoning. This is nearly the same exact role Huisman played in the recent TV series THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT (2020), except that overnight encounter with the main female character led to his being murdered. His role here is a small one and he’s hardly noticeable, which is too bad, because he’s had some memorable performances, in the TV show THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (2018) and the underrated horror movie THE INVITATION (2015).

KATE belongs to a genre I like a lot, the female action hero flick, but in this case it’s all a bit too familiar with fight scenes that didn’t wow me as much as I expected and characters that didn’t seem fresh and exciting

I liked the “having only 24 hours to live” gimmick, but other than that, this one didn’t offer much of anything that I hadn’t seen before.

KATE is a decent action movie but simply isn’t original enough to be a very good one.

—END—

MALIGNANT (2021) – James Wan Knows How To Make a Horror Movie But His Latest is Uneven

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MALIGNANT (2021), the latest horror movie by director/writer James Wan, the man who brought us SAW (2003), INSIDIOUS (2010) and THE CONJURING (2013), opens with a campy pre-credit sequence that’s an obvious nod to RE-ANIMATOR (1985) but then pivots into a slick action horror movie that gets better as it goes along until it stumbles with a weak conclusion.

I’m not a fan of RE-ANIMATOR (gasp!) so the ridiculous over-the-top pre-credit sequence with its laughable dialogue nearly turned me off to the point where I almost turned the movie off. But I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did, because for the most part I enjoyed all that followed.

MALIGNANT opens with a pre-credit sequence set in the 1990s at a medical facility where a patient who seems to feed off electricity is going haywire attacking everyone, and the doctors are struggling to control him. Finally an exasperated Dr. Florence Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie) cries out that it’s time to cut out the cancer, and at the moment the title credits begin.

The action switches to present day where a pregnant Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis) is struck hard by her abusive husband Derek (Jake Abel). She locks the door to their bedroom, and Derek spends the night on the couch. He is awoken by some strange noises in the house, and as he investigates, electrical appliances turn on and off. A demon-like figure emerges and attacks and kills Derek. The next day Madison discovers her husband’s dead body, and then she is attacked by the mysterious demon-figure as well, but she manages to escape.

When the police investigate, the two detectives Shaw (George Young) and Moss (Michole Briana White) upon learning that there are no signs of forced entry, and that Derek used to beat Madison, consider Madison their primary suspect. Later, when a prominent doctor is murdered and Madison sees the murder as if she is there in the room, she goes to Shaw and Moss along with her younger sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) with this information, which to the detectives seems farfetched and only fuels their suspicions of Madison. The mystery deepens when they discover that when Madison was a child she was once treated by the murdered doctor, a time that Madison can’t remember, as the years before she was adopted by Sydney’s parents are all blank.

The investigation continues, as do the murders, and the victims are all doctors who worked at the facility where Madison had once been treated.

As stories go, the one told in MALIGNANT is actually really good. While the big twist at the end is fairly obvious, I liked the fact that this one told a story that wasn’t about your typical demon or devil. The hints are all there, and at times it seems like this one may go that route, but it doesn’t. So, the story was fresh, and the mystery compelling. And while you may see the big reveal coming ahead of time, it still makes for quite the shocking revelation. It’s the kind of scene that I could easily see generating lots of screams and gasps from a crowded theater audience.

So the screenplay by Akela Cooper, based on a story by James Wan and Ingrid Bisu, scores high marks for its innovative plot. It does struggle with dialogue at times. The campy dialogue in the film’s pre-credit sequence is laughable, and while that may have been on purpose, it doesn’t really fit here, since the rest of the movie isn’t campy at all. And some of the lines during the film’s conclusion are just flat out bad, pure and simple.

Also the police in this movie aren’t very smart. Most of the answers to the mysteries in MALIGNANT are discovered by Madison’s sister Sydney. Detectives Shaw and Moss don’t seem to know how to follow leads and often make decisions that seem foolish.

Akela Cooper was also one of the screenwriters who wrote the horror movie HELL FEST (2018), a film about a masked killer terrorizing a Halloween-themed amusement park that I liked a lot. Interestingly, HELL FEST shares a similar problem with MALIGNANT in that it also had an opening sequence that was badly written but it… just like MALIGNANT— got much better. Hmm, maybe Cooper has something against opening sequences!

The best part of MALIGNANT is the work of director James Wan. He’s at the top of his game here. The film looks fantastic and is visually superior. There are many haunting scenes, the murders are violent and gory, the mysterious murderer is frightening and weird, and there are some excellent action scenes here as well. The chase scene where Detective Shaw pursues the murderer on foot is right out of a James Bond movie. Visually, MALIGNANT is a horror movie treat.

While I’m not a fan of SAW, I loved both INSIDIOUS and THE CONJURING, and while both those movies are scarier than MALIGNANT, their demon stories aren’t as fresh as the one told here in this movie.

I’ve been a fan of Annabelle Wallis since her days on the TV show PEAKY BLINDERS (2013-2019). She also starred in ANNABELLE (2014) and ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017), as well as in the Tom Cruise version of THE MUMMY (2017), a film I wish I could forget I ever saw. Wallis is solid here as Madison, who for large chunks of this movie is either frightened or in a dreamlike state forced to watch grisly murders. She eventually rises up to become a heroine.

George Young is also very good as Detective Shaw, and as previously stated, he gets one of the best sequences in the film, as he chases the murderer down a treacherous fire escape into the dark streets of underground Seattle.

Speaking of underground Seattle, the plot point in MALIGNANT where the killer hides in those forgotten streets reminded me of another horror classic, THE NIGHT STRANGLER (1973), the sequel to THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) and the second time we got to see Darren McGavin play reporter Carl Kolchak. The killer in THE NIGHT STRANGLER also resided in underground Seattle.

MALIGNANT also sports another energetic and effective music score by Joseph Bishara.

While overall I enjoyed MALIGNANT, taken as a whole, it’s a bit uneven for me. After its out of place campy opening, it gets better, and the bulk of this film is really well done. But it doesn’t end strong, as its conclusion isn’t all that believable, and as a result, I found the final reel disappointing.

Still, James Wan knows how to make a horror movie, and for that reason alone, I recommend MALIGNANT, even though it doesn’t entirely work for me.

—END—

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.

—END—

SWEET GIRL (2021) – Jason Momoa Action Flick Doesn’t Satisfy

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Let’s cut right to the chase.

I didn’t like SWEET GIRL (2021) all that much. In fact, it’s one of the least satisfying action movies I’ve seen this year.

I was interested in seeing SWEET GIRL, which is now streaming on Netflix, because it starred Jason Momoa, who I like a lot, but not even Momoa could save this dud. Truth be told, Momoa’s lackluster performance is actually one of the reasons this one is a dud. But the biggest reason this movie falters is it has a story that doesn’t resonate, that comes off as weird at times, and that sports a major plot twist two thirds of the way in that doesn’t work at all.

In SWEET GIRL, Ray Cooper (Jason Momoa) is desperate to save his wife Amanda (Adria Arjona) who is losing her battle with cancer, all the while trying to care for his teenage daughter Rachel (Isabela Merced). When an experimental drug is pulled from the market before it could be used on Amanda, Ray is livid, especially when he learns it was pulled by a pharmaceutical company strictly as part of a business decision. When Ray sees the CEO of the company on a TV news program, he calls in, and he threatens the CEO on the air if his wife should die. Well, Amanda dies, and… yup, Ray turns into a vigilante against the big drug companies.

Now, I don’t like these companies any more than the next guy, but there was something forced about this plot point of Ray going ballistic against a pharmaceutical company that made a slimy decision to pull a drug that may or may not have saved his wife’s life. The way it was handled in this movie made Ray seem more of an unhinged nutcase than a vigilante with a reason to kill. Not that it matters, because the plot quickly pivots. See, there’s more going on here than Ray knows. Yup, there’s more powerful people involved, and Ray learns this firsthand when a hitman named Santos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) shows up and starts killing the same people Ray is after.

The rest of the movie follows Ray and his daughter Rachel as they seek answers while trying to stay ahead of a pair of FBI agents and the murderous Santos. Until that is the big plot twist, which for me, didn’t work at all. It would have if Rachel’s character had been developed more. As a result, SWEET GIRL suffers from not being able to make up its mind over whether this is an action flick about Ray, about Rachel, or about both of them. As it stands, it doesn’t do a good job with any of these options.

As I said, I’m a fan of Jason Momoa. I enjoy him as Aquaman, and he was a memorable villain in the Sylvester Stallone actioner BULLET TO THE HEAD (2012). There’s a charisma about him that’s difficult to deny. Except, that charisma wasn’t really on display here in SWEET GIRL. Honestly, Momoa seemed so subdued here it was almost as if he were sleepwalking through the role.

Nor was I overly impressed with Isabela Merced as Rachel.

The best performance in the movie belongs to Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as the unstoppable cold-hearted assassin Santos. He’s so unstoppable that the way the story chooses to finally stop him is laughable.

SWEET GIRL was directed by Brian Andrew Mendoza. And while there were some decent action and chase scenes, they weren’t enough to lift this movie to something I’d want to watch again.

SWEET GIRL is nowhere near as good as the recent action movies GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE (2021) and JOLT (2021).

The biggest culprit is the screenplay by Greg Hurwitz and Philip Eisner. It couldn’t figure out what story it wanted to tell. Was this Ray’s story? Rachel’s? And the one they eventually settle on seems to have been the wrong one. I mean, you have an action film starring Jason Momoa, and he’s not around to finish this one off? That’s a decision that just didn’t work for me.

And the other big problem the film has is when it decides to feature Rachel more as the action hero, it’s simply not as believable. Unlike last year’s thriller BECKY (2020), which starred Lulu Wilson as a teenage girl who seeks vengeance against a group of convicts who hold her family hostage, where Wilson took that character and made you believe that she could kick the crap out of the adult baddies in that one, here in SWEET GIRL, there’s simply not that same level of believablility.

As an action thriller, SWEET GIRL simply doesn’t satisfy.

—END—

FEAR STREET: PART THREE – 1666 (2021) – Third Part is the Best Part of the Netflix’ Horror Trilogy

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Surprise.

That’s what I felt after watching Netflix’s FEAR STREET: PART THREE – 1666 (2021), the third and final installment in their FEAR STREET horror movie trilogy. Why? Because this third part is clearly the best part of the three. And I didn’t see this coming because honestly I wasn’t much of a fan of the first two chapters. For me, the weakest part of the first two movies was the wraparound story of the murderous witch which had cursed the town of Shadyside for centuries, sending demented serial killers into the town to slaughter innocent townsfolk every generation. Here in PART THREE, the writers take this wraparound story and turn it on its head, which for me, was a game changer. It made the weakest part of the trilogy the strongest part here in this final chapter.

That’s not easy to do.

So, for me, FEAR STREET: PART THREE – 1666 is by far the best installment in the series, and well worth your time. Can you skip the first two parts? Er, I wouldn’t. Because another reason this film works so well is the background information delivered in the previous movies. PART THREE uses the first two stories to its advantage. And the first two movies aren’t that bad. They’re just not as good as the third one.

The movie picks up right where PART TWO left off, with characters from the first installment, Deena (Kiana Madeira) and her younger brother Josh (Benjamin Flores, Jr.) reaching out to an adult Ziggy Berman (Gillian Jacobs), the sole survivor from the Camp Nightwing murders from 1978 chronicled in Part 2, asking for her help to save their possessed friend Sam (Olivia Scott Welch). At the end of PART TWO, Deena and Josh were attempting to reunite the witch’s severed hand with the rest of her remains, when a strange phenomenon struck Deena.

As PART THREE begins, we see that the strange phenomenon transports Deena back in time to 1666 into the body Sarah Fier where she will experience all that happened to create the infamous witch’s curse. Lots of familiar faces from PARTS ONE and TWO appear here in PART THREE as their 1666 counterparts, including Solomon Goode (Ashley Zukerman) whose descendant was Sheriff Nick Goode from Part One. In 1666, Sarah once again enters into a relationship with her friend Hannah (Olivia Scott Welch), but in this time and place, a sexual relationship between two women is strictly forbidden, and when they are found out, they are accused of witchcraft.

There is more to the story, but the less said about it the better, other than the plot in PART THREE works a heck of lot better than the plot in PARTS ONE and TWO.

Whereas FEAR STREET: PART ONE – 1994 captured the spirit of Wes Craven’s SCREAM (1996), and FEAR STREET: PART TWO – 1978 paid homage to the FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH movies, FEAR STREET: PART THREE – 1666 goes for THE WITCH (2015) vibe. And like she did with the first two installments, director Leigh Janiak nails the look and feel of the movie she is paying homage to.

The entire 1666 sequence is relentless. There’s not one ounce of fat on this animal, and the pacing moves with one beat after another. For me, this sequence is by far the most compelling part of the entire series. Now, eventually, to tie up all the loose ends, PART THREE returns to 1994 where it wraps up its story to end the trilogy. This last part, while interesting in that it does bring finality to the trilogy, is nowhere near as compelling as the first two thirds of this movie which take place in 1666. So, in spite of the fact that I like this one, the ending— once the time shifts back to 1994— is the weakest part of the movie.

Another reason I enjoyed PART THREE is I’m not the biggest fan of slasher movies, which Parts One and Two paid homage to. I much preferred the story told here which took place in 1666. The scares work on a much deeper level, and can be summed up by Sarah’s admission to Hannah that she fears Satan less than the people in their village who would hang them for kissing each other. It’s the people who frighten her, not some unseen spirit. And it’s this kind of depth which makes this movie resonate much more effectively than the first two parts.

Kiana Madeira and Olivia Scott Welch return to playing the two leads here in PART THREE, as they had done in PART ONE, and they are even more effective here in PART THREE. Their story has a deeper impact with a society that will execute them for loving each other. Of course, if you think about it, you realize this same fate exists for them in certain places in the here and now, which is another reason their story works so well.

I also really enjoyed Ashley Zukerman as Solomon Goode, as his character is one of the more interesting ones in the movie, and the revelations about his character finally explains the weird behavior of Sheriff Goode in Part One.

Gillian Jacobs makes the most of her brief time as the adult Ziggy Berman in the film’s opening and conclusion, and her take charge character was one of the best parts of the otherwise labored conclusion.

There are some fine scares in PART THREE, like the fate of the children in the church. When the townsfolk are searching for Sarah, these scenes are full of suspense. And the witch hanging sequence is powerful and emotional.

Director Leigh Janiak does a commendable job with all three installments. In fact, her direction was my favorite part of the entire trilogy, as her attention to detail with the camera was a constant throughout the series. All three films looked great, successfully captured the look and spirit of the films they were honoring, and all three were generally entertaining. I enjoyed PART THREE the most, because this was the one film where all the components came together, especially the script by Phil Graziadei, director Janiak, and Kate Trefry.

The plot about the witch in Parts One and Two did not work for me and was the weakest and most unbelievable part of those movies. But the writers turn that plot into a strength in PART THREE, making the witch’s story moving, believable, and extremely compelling. It also changes for the better the feel of the stories in Parts One and Two.

I have to say, I liked that the trilogy unfolded in backwards order, with Part One taking place in 1994, Part Two in 1978, and Part Three in 1666. This creative style of storytelling worked, and it made the events in PART THREE all the more intriguing.

And while I wasn’t nuts about the first two movies in this trilogy, the third part raised the series to a place where it simply wasn’t before. So, taken as a whole, the FEAR STREET trilogy is definitely worth a look.

FEAR STREET: PART THREE – 1666 is both the best movie of the lot and a worthwhile conclusion to the FEAR STREET trilogy.

It earns Black Philips’ hoof—er, stamp— of approval.

—END—

FEAR STREET: PART 2 – 1978 (2021) – Not Much Better Than The Films It Pays Homage To

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FEAR STREET: PART 2 – 1978 (2021) is, as its title plainly states, the second installment in the FEAR STREET movie trilogy now available on Netflix.

Word of mouth had it that parts two and three were better than part one, but I actually enjoyed the first part well enough which told the story of a group of teens in 1994 fending off a murderous witch who was hell bent on killing them. And that’s because their town, Shadyside, has been cursed since the 1600s by this witch, and the place has been a haven for serial killers throughout the centuries.

I somewhat enjoyed Part One because it paid homage to the 1990s slasher horror movies, in particular Wes Craven’s SCREAM (1996). Part Two takes place in 1978 and pays homage to the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies, a series which decades removed from its heyday still has a huge following. Many well-respected horror folks love these movies. I’ve always hated them. I thought they were stupid back then, and each time I watch one in the here and now my opinion hasn’t changed. So, that might be the reason why I wasn’t so keen on FEAR STREET: PART 2 – 1978.

The film opens right after the events from the end of the first movie, with Deena (Kiana Madiera) and her brother Josh (Benjamin Flores, Jr.) saving their friend Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) from the witch. Sort of. Sam isn’t completely saved, as she now seems to be possessed. So, Deena and Josh seek out the one person who survived the witch’s curse, C. Berman (Gillian Jacobs) who was a teenager at a summer camp with her sister in 1978 when a demented killer slaughtered a bunch of campers, the result of the witch’s curse.

Berman doesn’t want to help them at first, but eventually she yields to the teens’ persistence and tells them the story of what happened at Camp Nightwing during that fateful summer of 1978. And this becomes the plot of the movie, as we go back in time to 1978 and follow the two sisters, Ziggy Berman (Sadie Sink) and her older less rebellious sibling Cindy (Emily Rudd) as they deal at first with typical bullying and teen mischief at camp, before having to fight for their lives when the insane killer shows up.

And then the film turns into a FRIDAY THE 13TH clone, complete with over the top gory murder scenes and killers wearing masks and wielding sharp weapons. Sure, the acting is better, as are the production values, but at the end of the day, I didn’t like this one much better than any of the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies. However, if you’re a fan of the series, you most likely will really enjoy this movie.

I did like the cast. Both Sadie Sink and Emily Rudd turn in solid performances as the two Berman sisters. Sadie Sink, who has been so good on the TV series STRANGER THINGS (2017 -2022) as Max Mayfield is just as good here as rebellious teen Ziggy Berman. She’s as tough as nails and gives it right back to the more popular girls who constantly try to bully her.

Emily Rudd is equally as effective as the older and more responsible sister Cindy, who wants to take the high road and do all the right things to assure herself a future where she can eventually get out of Shadyside, and so she takes offense at her younger sister’s actions at camp. If Ziggy gets thrown out, Cindy will as well, and Cindy sees this as a knock against her chances of building a reputation that will enable her to leave her hometown successfully. Of course, Ziggy thinks this is all bullsh*t, and she believes her older sister is being a hypocrite by shunning their roots and pretending she’s someone she’s not.

I also enjoyed Ryan Simpkin’s performance as Emily’s friend Alice, an offbeat character that Simpkin really brings to life. McCabe Slye plays Tommy Slater, Emily’s boyfriend, who’s a decent enough guy until he falls victim to the witch’s curse which turns him into the demented slasher killer. Slye is more interesting as Tommy before he becomes an axe-wielding murderer. Once the transition occurs, he becomes a one-note character.

Ted Sutherland is very good as Nick Goode, a camp counselor who has feelings for Ziggy, and the two begin a relationship with each other. What’s most interesting about Sutherland’s performance as Nick Goode is that Nick is a younger version of a character we saw in Part 1, Sheriff Nick Goode, who was kind of an oddball character. The back story provided here really fleshes out the character and explains a lot of Nick’s weird behavior in Part 1. As such, I really enjoyed Sutherland’s performance.

Leigh Janiak directed all three parts of the FEAR STREET trilogy, and I have no problem with how these films look or how they play out. In fact, here in PART 2, a film I wasn’t overly keen on, Janiak’s direction is probably the best part. She nails the Friday the 13th vibe throughout, and for fans, the elaborate ultra violent murders will not disappoint.

But the script by Zak Olkewicz and director Janiak, based on a story by Phil Graziadei, I was not crazy about. I mean, it pushes all the right buttons and does what it needs to do to pay homage to the 1970s slasher flicks, but for me it simply didn’t add anything new to the mix. It was just another variation of the films it was giving a nod to. And the wrap around story holding the entire trilogy together about the witch and her curse on Shadyside, does little for me, which certainly doesn’t help my enjoyment of this series. I don’t find it all that credible, and it’s certainly not engaging. In fact, it’s my least favorite part of the trilogy so far. Separately, with their own individual stories, FEAR STREET Parts one and two are pretty darn good, but throw in that silly wraparound story of the witch, and everything drops down several notches.

I enjoyed FEAR STREET: PART TWO – 1978 slightly less than PART ONE, mostly because I enjoy 90s slasher flicks more than the FRIDAY THE 13TH series.

It’s not a bad horror movie, but like most movies with “Part Two” in its title, there’s not a whole lot there that makes it proudly stand on its own.

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REMINISCENCE (2021) – Science Fiction Love Story Mildly Intriguing

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REMINISCENCE (2021), a new science fiction movie by writer/director Lisa Joy, starring Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson, has been described by some as INCEPTION (2010) – lite.

Make that very lite.

It doesn’t even come close to the complex mind-bending excitement generated by Christopher Nolan’s ambitious hit. And I’m saying this as someone who’s not even a big fan of INCEPTION.

But it is mildly intriguing. And to be fair, it’s a much different movie than INCEPTION, which was a science fiction action/adventure. REMINISCENCE is a science fiction film noir romance, with the emphasis on the romance.

REMINISCENCE takes place some time in the future when wars and economic disparities have further separated the classes into the haves and have nots. Water levels have risen to the point where only the wealthy can afford to live on the dry lands. Things are so bad that most folks don’t even come out in the daytime anymore as life has shifted towards the nocturnal.

But one way people find joy is by using a new technology which allows them to revisit their memories, sort of a time travel back to their favorite moments in life. But evidently it’s not something people can do alone. Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) and his partner Emily (Thandiwe Newton) have access to this technology, and they run a business where the client pays to re-live their memories. The client is submerged into a tank of water, and as they listen to Nick’s soothing voice they drift into a sort of sleep, and their memories play out as holograms which both Nick and Emily can also see.

Life is good, until one night when a beautiful woman named Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) shows up at Nick’s door— of all the gin joints in the world—, and as Nick watches her memories play out, he finds himself attracted to her. They see each other again, and suddenly they fall in love. But then Mae disappears, just like that, and Nick refuses to believe that she would just leave him without saying anything. He believes something has happened to her. And as he starts searching for answers he learns that Mae isn’t the person he thought she was.

Of course she’s not! I bet she was associating with some rather unsavory people as well. Yup. You bet! Welcome to the movie world of love stories gone wrong, Nick!

Yeah, this is a story I’ve seen a lot lately. Two people fall in love, but then one of them is either killed or disappears, and the person left alone starts looking for answers and learns they didn’t really know the other person as well as they thought they did. We just saw this plot a few weeks back in the action film JOLT (2021) starring Kate Beckinsale.

Director Lisa Joy’s script isn’t really a strength here. The story it tells is interesting enough, but it doesn’t do a good job with the details. For example, the back story of the state of the world is glossed over too quickly. You don’t really get a sense of what happened or why things are so bad now. What kind of a war was it? Why are the water levels so high? Dunno!

Joy’s direction here doesn’t help either. The potential is there to create a memorable futuristic world, but the film barely does this other than shots of cities surrounded by water. Even the photography is bright and cheery, capturing the feel of a love story rather than a film noir.

Speaking of which, Hugh Jackman’s voice over narration is also a detriment. The writing isn’t so hot, and the things Jackman says seem out of place with the feel of the rest of the movie. In fact, the dialogue as a whole is pretty bad.

The love story isn’t so hot either. There’s no real sense of why Nick falls in love with Mae, and the two performers, Jackman and Ferguson, don’t really generate much heat with each other. Their relationship falls rather flat.

There’s also no background on the technology used by Nick. Is he the only one using it? Or are there other memory vendors? The movie has nothing to say on this. And Nick’s business is barely surviving, which makes one wonder why. You would think business would be booming. If people had the chance to relive fond memories you’d think there would be long lines of folks waiting to do this. But then again maybe not.

I like Hugh Jackman well enough, but I can’t say his performance here as Nick Bannister did much for me. He’s motivated at first because his new girlfriend has vanished, but then he pivots when lives are at stake, and so his intentions are admirable, but the character never really came to life for me.

Jackman is reunited with Rebecca Ferguson here, as the two also starred in the enjoyable musical THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017). Ferguson is okay as Mae, but she hardly generates the kind of sexual intensity of the classic femme fatale in these types of movies. Like Jackman, Ferguson is somewhat subdued here. Part of it is the script, which just doesn’t get all that dark and dirty.

I actually enjoyed watching Thandiwe Newton more as Nick’s business partner Emily. She exudes sincerity as Nick’s loyal friend, which is something neither Jackman or Ferguson do in their roles.

The most fun role however belongs to Cliff Curtis as a corrupt cop turned enforcer. He’s sufficiently creepy and nasty, and he gets some of the darker and livelier moments in an otherwise quiet science fiction tale.

Also making an impression in a small role is Angela Sarafyan as a client of Nick’s who uses her sessions to remember a former lover. Sarafyan’s grieving woman seems like a throwaway character until later when it turns out she’s something more.

REMINISCENCE has some twists and turns but none of them mind blowing. The film really plays like a science fiction romance. It’s not really much of a thriller. And with its two leads barely generating any sexual heat or tension, it’s not much of a romance either.

I was mildly entertained, and I was interested enough to want to follow Nick on his quest to find out what really happened to Mae. The answers are okay but again not fantastic. You won’t find yourself watching a spinning coin in the film’s final shot wondering what it all means a la INCEPTION. Nor will you be awed by being transported into a futuristic world a la BLADE RUNNER (1982).

Overall, I found REMINISCENCE to be somewhat diverting. Its story was just creative enough to catch my curiosity, but it didn’t possess enough details to really hammer its points home, nor did it move me in a way where I couldn’t stop watching.

Simply put, I don’t think I will be reminiscing about it any time soon.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE WIND (2018)

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It’s just the wind.

How many times have we heard that line before? In this case, it’s true.

Or is it?

I hadn’t heard much about THE WIND (2018), a slow burn horror flick which takes places in the 1800s western frontier, when I stumbled upon it on Netflix, so I had no idea what to expect. Usually when I pick a movie I haven’t heard of, I am disappointed. That wasn’t the case this time around. THE WIND is an exceptional horror movie.

Let me tell you about it.

THE WIND is a thinking person’s horror film, and its persistent low key style is similar to some other recent horror films, flicks like THE BABADOOK (2014), THE WITCH (2015), HEREDITARY (2018), and MIDSOMMAR (2019). Now, THE WIND wasn’t quite as disturbing as these other movies, but that didn’t stop it from getting under my skin, which it did, in the most subtle and effective of ways.

In the late 1800s, married couple Lizzy (Caitlin Gerard) and Isaac Macklin (Ashley Zukerman) live in their modest farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. They have no neighbors until another young couple move into a cabin across the way, Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) and Gideon Harper (Dylan McTee). When Lizzy and Isaac invite them over, they immediately realize there is something off about the couple.

What follows is an intriguing tale which through the use of flashbacks jumps back and forth in time and chronicles the efforts of an unseen demon in the wilderness which primarily seems to affect the women. Lizzy definitely is aware of some force haunting them, but Isaac tells her it is just her imagination. This demon wants to force them off the land and also has a keen interest in their unborn children. This combined with Emma’s eccentric behavior and unusual interest in Isaac creates a wedge between the two women and complicates the couples’ relationships, while seemingly fueling the demon’s actions. And it all leads to violence, bloodshed, and death.

By far, my favorite part of THE WIND was the way it was shot by director Emma Tammi. The cinematography is absolutely beautiful, and there are some truly hauntingly framed scenes which really resonate. THE WIND may not be scary, but it is so, so haunting, which is exactly the way a slow burn horror movie should be.

The screenplay by Teresa Sutherland is smart and effective. The way it frames its story…is it really a demon? Or is it just inside Emma’s mind?… works well, as it keeps the audience guessing all the way down to the final shot of the movie. The dialogue is lean and efficient. There are lots of spots in the film where no one talks. Where you just hear the wind. The film also uses sound winningly. The wind becomes a character in the movie just by our hearing it.

Caitlin Gerard is excellent in the lead role as Lizzy Macklin. She exudes strength and endurance and is the perfect character to suddenly find herself facing a demon in the wilderness. And later when doubts begin to seep in, when one begins to wonder if it really is just Lizzy’s mind playing tricks on her, Gerard is more than up to the task of capturing the self-doubts the woman endures. It’s a mesmerizing performance by Gerard. She really does bring the audience inside Lizzy’s head, making you feel like you too are alone on the prairie, hearing and seeing strange things in the wind in the middle of the night.

Ashley Zukerman is stoic and strong as Lizzy’s husband Isaac. For the most part, Isaac is there for his wife and supports her, except when he leaves her alone for an extended period of time to conduct some business. While he’s gone, the film really plays up Lizzy’s feelings of isolation.

Julia Goldani Telles is cold and weird as Emma Harper. She is certainly the creepiest human character in the movie. There’s just something about her personality that’s off putting and gets under one’s skin, like the entire movie does.

Dylan McTee plays Emma’s husband Gideon, and he’s also an odd one. And Miles Anderson makes his mark in a small role as a travelling reverend.

All in all, THE WIND is a satisfying low key thriller that takes its time unsettling its audience. It tells a tale of isolation, horror, and maybe even madness, as one woman squares off against haunting forces which seem to everyone but herself to be simply sounds in the wind.

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BLOOD RED SKY (2021) – Netflix Action Horror Movie Soars

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BLOOD RED SKY (2021), a new Netflix action thriller horror movie which hails from Germany, reminded me a bite…er, a bit of the classic Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino vampire movie FROM DUSK TO DAWN (1996) starring George Clooney, in that the first half is a hard hitting thriller, and then everything changes when the supernatural elements emerge in the film’s second half.

The big difference is that in FROM DUSK TO DAWN the audience found themselves rooting for the violent criminals played by George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino once they were pitted against a gang of vampires, whereas here in BLOOD RED SKY, the audience roots for the supernatural character.

In BLOOD RED SKY, a mother Nadja (Peri Baumeister) and her young son Elias (Carl Anton Koch) board a transatlantic flight to New York because Nadja is very ill and is seeking out a specialist to help her with a blood disease. But the flight is commandeered by a group of terrorists. To survive and protect her son, Nadja reveals the truth about her condition which is more than just a disease, but rather a supernatural affliction that makes her a force to be reckoned with.

Yup. It’s SNAKES ON A PLANE (2006) meets NOSFERATU (1922).

Actually, that makes the film sound campy, and BLOOD RED SKY isn’t campy at all. It’s deadly serious.

And it works.

I really enjoyed BLOOD RED SKY.

The first half is a riveting action thriller about a plane hijacking as seen through the eyes of a young boy and his mother. Carl Anton Koch is very good as Elias, the bright young boy who is happy to be helping his mother on this trip as they seek out a cure for her condition. His reaction when he believes his mother has been murdered is authentic and moving.

Peri Baumeister in these early scenes makes for a sufficiently sick mother, pale, weak, and struggling to find the strength to even get on the plane. And later when she becomes an undead vigilante, she is horrific and frightening.

Kais Setti plays Farid, a man flying alone who befriends Elias when they strike up a conversation in the airport while Elias is waiting for his mom to return from the restroom. His character is probably the one audiences will identify with most, as he is the everyday person caught up in the middle of the action, the man who is willing to help fight back against the terrorists and also protect Elias as best he can.

Dominic Purcell plays Berg, the menacing leader of the terrorists, but it’s Alexander Scheer who steals the show as the loose cannon terrorist Eightball who likes to shoot first and ask questions later. He’s also the terrorist who is up to the challenge of taking on Nadja in her new condition, and he uses it to his advantage.

Director Peter Thorwarth keeps the first half of the movie intense with scenes of heartless terrorists on the plane, and later turns things up a notch to the point where they become downright insane once the supernatural elements enter the movie. There are a lot of suspenseful scenes throughout as well as plenty of violent bloody ones. And while in general this one isn’t really scary, there are a couple of well-crafted frightening moments, one in particular being in a flashback sequence where Nadja is searching for her missing husband and finds herself exploring an empty farmhouse. There’s a moment in this sequence which shows the origins of her condition that made me recoil. Good stuff!

The screenplay by director Thorwarth and Stefan Holtz is a good one. The dialogue is first-rate throughout. One thing I wasn’t crazy about was the construct of the plot, which begins with the plane landing and then tells the rest of the story via flashback. To me, this ruined any chances for a suspenseful ending, as we know the plane lands from the get-go. A riveting landing scene at the film’s end would have made the conclusion that much more exciting.

But I loved the idea for this story, mixing a hard-hitting terrorist plot with the supernatural, all of it happening on board a plane. I was entertained from start to finish.

I also really enjoyed the vampire make-up, which is reminiscent of Count Orlok in NOSFERATU, and this is most likely on purpose.

The movie is in both English and German, with English subtitles.

If you’re looking for a high concept action horror movie, look no further than BLOOD RED SKY.

It soars.

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THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021) – James Gunn’s Sequel Best Superhero Movie of the Year So Far

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The burning question behind THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021), the follow-up to SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) is: is it a reboot or is it a sequel?

The promos and folks behind this flick have played coy with this information, my thoughts being that if they committed to calling this one a sequel, it would have had a stigma attached to it before it even played to an audience. It’s also the reason I’m guessing this one wasn’t called SUICIDE SQUAD 2. But I’m here to say without any secrecy that THE SUICIDE SQUAD is definitely a sequel.

And under the guidance of writer/director James Gunn, who was not attached to the first film, THE SUICIDE SQUAD is way way better than the first movie. In fact, THE SUICIDE SQUAD is so good it’s my favorite superhero movie of the year. Which I know isn’t saying a whole heck of a lot because I simply haven’t seen a lot of superhero movies this year, but it’s an exceptional movie, entertaining and fun from start to finish.

The first SUICIDE SQUAD (2016), which hails from the DC Universe, centered around a group of supervillains who were coerced into acting as superheroes, doing the dirtiest of jobs, the type that the authorities wouldn’t even think about approaching the likes of Batman and Superman to carry out. In short, these guys have no respect. They also have no choice, because their “handler”, the icy cold Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) injects implants into these dudes so that if they go off mission, they are killed instantly.

The first film was a mixed bag. Decent characters, pretty lame story, so-so writing, a very good performance by Will Smith, but it was Margot Robbie who stole the movie with her insanely electrifying performance as Harley Quinn.

Robbie returns as Quinn for THE SUICIDE SQUAD, and within the first few minutes of this second movie, the script jumps out at you with superior writing and just like that, you know you’re in for a helluva ride and a far better experience than what you had in the first film.

And that’s because THE SUICIDE SQUAD was written and directed by James Gunn, the man behind Marvel’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies. Those films were highly entertaining, the writing comedic, and the exchanges between the characters laugh inducing. It’s the same here in THE SUICIDE SQUAD, only this flick is rated R, so the violence is bloodier, and the body count— including the “good” guys, is much higher.

The film opens as Amanda Waller sends the suicide squad on another deadly mission, this time infiltrating the island of Corto Maltese. There has just been a deadly coup, and the military generals on the island have executed the ruling family and have taken over. Normally, this wouldn’t interest the United States all that much, but the reason the events on Corto Maltese matter is the previous government had access to a super secret weapon with alien origins, and if it falls into the hands of the new ruling generals, could be used to harm countless innocents. So, the suicide squad’s mission is to infiltrate the island, get past the army, break into the secret lab, and destroy the alien weapon.

Easy-peasy, right? Wrong! They’re not called the suicide squad for nothing!

And they’re not the only suicide squad in town. For this mission, Waller also sends in a second team, led by Bloodsport (Idris Elba). This team also includes Peacemaker (John Cena), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), and King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone).

The less said about the plot of THE SUICIDE SQUAD the better. There are lots of twists and turns, and the less you know going in, the more fun you’ll have with this one. I will say that what I just described takes place in the opening moments of the movie. After that, it’s a roller coaster thrill ride that simply doesn’t stop as these misfit superheroes converge on the island and attempt to thwart both an aggressive military regime and a deadly alien technology.

The script by James Gunn is so good and so well-written, that it is levels above the plot description. It takes a standard story and turns it into something really memorable. The dialogue and banter between the characters is off the charts entertaining.

Gunn’s direction is equally as good. The movie is chock full of cool scenes and moments. THE SUICIDE SQUAD is not afraid to take its time when getting a laugh. There are some moments where the characters are allowed to react to things that will have you laughing out loud. And the action scenes don’t disappoint. Even kaiju fans won’t be disappointed.

Margot Robbie is excellent once again as Harley Quinn. Yet, she doesn’t dominate this movie like she did the first one, and that’s because Gunn has written equally compelling characters. So, Robbie is every bit as effective as she was the first time around, except this time, she’s sharing the screen with characters who are every bit as interesting as she is.

Idris Elba as Bloodsport is probably the central character in this sequel. Elba carries this movie. He makes Bloodsport the noble assassin who says he’s loyal to no one, but inside, he’s a leader who takes care of those who work for him.

His relationship with Ratcatcher 2, played by Daniela Melchior, is one of the best parts of the film. Melchior is excellent as Ratcatcher 2, a young woman who can control rats. She was one of my favorite characters in this movie, and her relationship with Bloodsport is a big reason why. Especially because she reminds Bloodsport of his daughter, and he vows to protect her, and she gives it right back saying she’ll be the one protecting him. Both prove to be true.

Both John Cena as Peacemaker and David Dastmalchian as Polka-Dot Man have their moments and make for a couple of really interesting characters. And in a bit of inspired casting, Sylvester Stallone is hilarious lending his voice to the slow witted and very hungry King Shark.

Joel Kinnaman is also memorable as Colonel Rick Flag, reprising the role he played in the first movie. He’s far better in this movie, as is Viola Davis as Amanda Waller. The characterizations are just that clearer, they have more depth, and as a result the audience understands them better.

And like a lot of superhero movies these days, the villains in THE SUICIDE SQUAD are of less consequence, because so much of the focus is on the flawed heroes themselves. That being said, Peter Capaldi enjoys many scene stealing moments as the nefarious Thinker. He’s the closest thing to a main villain the movie has.

There are so many memorable moments in THE SUICIDE SQUAD, especially little ones, which hammer home themes like governments with secrets and the cost of keeping them. Peacemaker’s mantra is he loves peace but he’ll kill anyone to keep it. There’s symbolism with Ratcatcher 2’s rats, described as the lowest and most hated of all creatures, but even rats have value. And not to be a spoiler (so skip the next line if you don’t want to know anything about the film’s conclusion), but the final line of the alien creature was that it was happy floating in space looking at the stars, the implication being that yet again it was humankind who messed things up.

There are notable large moments as well, most of them unexpected, like the result of the romantic evening between the new dictator and Harley Quinn. He proposes to her, wanting to make her his queen, and since as she says he is so freaking hot, she says yes. But then he says the wrong thing, and that doesn’t sit well with Harley. Her brief diatribe after the fact about having bad taste in men, and the suffering men cause when women break up with these jerks, hits a bulls eye.

THE SUICIDE SQUAD is easily the most entertaining movie I’ve seen in 2021. It’s my favorite superhero of the year so far.

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