OUTSIDE THE WIRE (2021) – Netflix Action Movie Mixed Bag

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Well, here we are in 2021, the pandemic still with us, movie theaters still unsafe to visit, and for those of us who love movies, we’re reduced to watching them from home. Now, I’m sure some folks have no problem with this. I for one miss the movie theater experience, and I sincerely hope they survive the pandemic and reopen when it is safe. I will definitely be back inside those darkened walls.

In the meantime, I continue to review movies from home, available on streaming services. And as much as I miss the movie theaters, I’m just grateful that new movies continue to be released.

Up today, it’s an action/science fiction flick from Netflix, OUTSIDE THE WIRE (2021), starring Anthony Mackie, and I was excited to watch it because it would be the first film released in 2021 that I would be reviewing, and it felt like an unofficial reminder that yes, even in this pandemic, the movies are still coming. The well is not dry.

So, I was excited.

Sadly, that’s about as far as my excitement went. Yup, OUTSIDE THE WIRE isn’t exactly the most exhilarating actioner going. It’s not bad, but it could have been so much better. The biggest culprit? The script, which isn’t all that sharp. The action scenes run hot and cold as well.

OUTSIDE THE WIRE takes place in the near future, in 2036, and of course, the world is still at war. A young hot shot drone operator Harp (Damson Idris) ignores a direct order and sends a missile into a war zone, killing two of his own soldiers in the process. The way Harp rationalized his decision, he may have killed two soldiers, but he saved the rest of the platoon who would have all died had he not fired the missile.

But he ignored a direct order, and so there are consequences. For some reason, rather than being tossed out of the military, Harp is sent into a war zone in Eastern Europe, the thinking being he needs to gain experience in live combat in order to fully understand being a drone pilot. On his very first day, Harp is assigned to a special commander named Leo (Anthony Mackie) who Harp immediately learns isn’t human. He’s an advanced artificial intelligence prototype, and he tells Harp that he handpicked him for this mission, which will take them “outside the wire,” outside the protection of their troops and into hostile territory.

Their mission, as Leo explains it, is to locate a rogue terrorist who is planning to steal nuclear warheads and use them against the world. Hmm. Where have I heard this plot point before? Try a billion other movies! And so, this is what the rest of the movie is about, with various plot twists and turns, none of them all that interesting.

OUTSIDE THE WIRE is an average action movie, pure and simple. It trends below average for most of the film, but there were certain parts I liked that kept it watchable.

For starters, I enjoyed the two leads a lot. Damson Idris is excellent as Harp, and he channels a lot of a young Denzel Washington in the role. He has an edge, and you feel he has a chip on his shoulder throughout, and with a better script, the role could have been something special, which ultimately, it is not. But Idris is very good.

Anthony Mackie, known mostly these days to Marvel superhero fans as Sam Wilson/The Falcon in the AVENGERS movies and CAPTAIN AMERICA films, plays Leo, the advanced military robot who looks and acts exactly like a human. Mackie enjoys many fine moments and gets the best lines in the movie, but ultimately, the character just isn’t all that interesting, and the big reveals surrounding the character towards the film’s conclusion only made things worse. Where’s Arnold Schwarzenegger when you need him? But Mackie is a fine actor who has also had notable roles in films like THE HURT LOCKER (2008) and DETROIT (2017).

Emily Beecham plays Sofiya, one of Leo’s contacts in the war zone. She’s one of the more interesting characters in the movie.

And Michael Kelly enjoys frequent scene stealing moments as Eckhart, the no-nonsense takes-no-crap military officer. My favorite Kelly role remains his work on the TV show HOUSE OF CARDS (2013-2018) where he played Doug Stamper, the right hand man to the corrupt Francis Underwood.

As an action movie, OUTSIDE THE WIRE should be driven by its action scenes, which here, unfortunately, run hot and cold. The close-up hand to hand combat scenes are sufficiently intense and are the better action scenes in the movie, but the broader battle scenes, the ones involving big guns and missiles and drones and robots just don’t look all that realistic. There’s a very cartoonish look to them, very CGI, and I wasn’t all that impressed. The most memorable action sequence may have been the one to open the movie, where Harp shoots the fateful missile. That’s not a good sign when the best action sequence is the first one.

OUTSIDE THE WIRE was directed by Mikhael Hafstrom who at the very least keeps the pace of this one moving. Like I said, some of the action scenes work, others don’t. Hafstrom also doesn’t take complete advantage of the Eastern European setting either. The film never establishes a clear sense of place.

Hafstrom also directed ESCAPE PLAN (2013), an action film which paired Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, a film I liked better than OUTSIDE THE WIRE.

The weakest part of OUTSIDE THE WIRE by far is its script by Rowan Athale and Rob Yescombe. For starters, for a futuristic action thriller, the plot is a snooze, mostly because it offers little that is new. The race to get to a nuclear bomb before the bad guy? Yawn. For some reason, the whole story felt like an episode of the TV show THE BLACKLIST (2013- present) , and I kept expecting to see James Spader show up as Raymond Reddington, cooly offering a much better plot twist than the one offered in this movie.

It does offer some good banter between Harp and Leo, and one of the better conversations is when Leo explains why the military built their superstar robot to resemble a black man. So, there are moments where the script is better, but for the most part, expecially in terms of its general plot, it’s subpar.

OUTSIDE THE WIRE is a classic “mixed bag” of a movie. You’ve got a couple of strong lead performances, paired with some notable supporting performances, some good action scenes, some not so good ones, and a story that is when you come right down to it, a yawnfest. Not that saving the world from nuclear disaster isn’t a compelling story. It’s just that it’s been told so many times, and this film doesn’t really offer anything new in the storytelling department.

OUTSIDE THE WIRE could definitely have benefitted from some outside the box thinking.

—END—

10 Worst Movies of 2020

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And now for the 10 Worst Movies of 2020.

Just like with by Top 10 Best Movies List, this year’s list comes with a giant asterisk, thanks to COVID-19 closing movie theaters across the country. While I have continued to review movies throughout the year, they have been on streaming and OnDemand services, and so without national theater chains to provide the same movies for all of us, a lot of movies I saw this year, you may not have, and vice versa.

Okay, now that that is out of the way, let’s get to the list:

10. EMMA

This one doesn’t really belong on a Worst Movies List, but as I rank all the movies I see throughout the year, it did happen to fall 10th from the worst. This elegant version of Jane Austen’s novel is simply a colossal bore, pure and simple. Looked great, but the script and characterizations put me to sleep. Stars Anya Taylor-Joy in the lead role as Emma, and she’s much better in the current and superior Netflix TV show THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (2020). The film also wastes the usually reliable Bill Nighy. One of the few movies this year I saw on the big screen. Still didn’t help.

9. COFFEE & KAREEM

Forgettable Netflix buddy comedy starring Ed Helms. So forgettable not even worth mentioning!

8. THE RHYTHM SECTION

I love Blake Lively, but this was a really stupid action movie that not even Lively could save. She plays a woman who learns that the plane crash that killed her family wasn’t an accident, and so she…with no prior experience… decides to learn how to become an international assassin to make the terrorists responsible for her family’s death pay. Yup. That’s believable. Her trainer, played by Jude Law, is so good at what he does that she becomes the female equivalent of Jason Bourne and wipes the floor with these terrorists all rather easily. The film tries for an ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) vibe, but the plot is too dumb for it to pull it off.

7. WONDER WOMAN 1984

Where to start with this one? There are so many ways that this sequel is awful. For starters, it’s everything the original WONDER WOMAN is not. I didn’t even enjoy Gal Gadot’s performance as Wonder Woman. But the biggest culprit is the script, and a plot built around a relic that… wait for it…. grants wishes! That’s right, Aladdin, you wish it, and it can happen! Heck, that’s how this story brings back a deceased character from the first movie, played by Chris Pine. No basis in reality. Instantly one of the worst DC superhero movies of all time.

6. SPENSER: CONFIDENTIAL

Another Netflix clunker. This time it’s Mark Wahlberg playing Boston private detective Spenser from the Robert B. Parker novels, only the film changes everything about the characters, and tries to turn this into a comedy. So, not only will Spenser purists be disappointed, but so will those of us who like a good comedy, since it’s not funny at all. You know things are bad when not even Alan Arkin can make you laugh!

5. THE TURNING

Forgettable horror movie starring Mackenzie Davis and Finn Wolfhard, loosely based on Henry James’ novel The Turn of the Screw. Turn this one off.

Betty Gilpin as Crystal in “The Hunt,” directed by Craig Zobel.

4. THE HUNT

A lot of folks liked this one, a dark action thriller about a group of liberals who are hunting human prey, folks they view as right wing low lifes. Stars Betty Gilpin as the one victim who won’t quit, and yes, she is very good and the best part of this movie. But for me, the rest of this film was a misfire from start to finish.

3. LIKE A BOSS

Another unfunny comedy, this one starring Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne as friends sparring with villainess Salma Hayek over a beauty company. Very few laughs here, making it a chore to sit through.

2. WASP NETWORK

Netflix film about Cuban spies in the United States completely wastes the talents of Edgar Ramirez, Penelope Cruz, Wagner Moura, and Ana de Armas. Features the most uneven script of the year, with characters appearing and then disappearing for long chunks of time. Fails to build any kind of momentum. Probably the dullest movie I watched all year.

THE BABYSITTER: KILLER QUEEN
  1. THE BABYSITER: KILLER QUEEN

My pick for the worst movie of 2020 is THE BABYSITTER: KILLER QUEEN, a testament as to why you shouldn’t make a sequel just for the same of making one. A sequel to the clever and lively horror/comedy THE BABYSTTER, this flick isn’t funny, isn’t scary, and isn’t enjoyable in the least. Terrible script. By far, the movie I enjoyed the least this year.

And there you have it, my list of the 10 Worst Movies I saw in 2020.

Okay, on to 2021!

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL (2020) – Comedic Misfire From Start To Finish

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Sometimes I find myself asking why I watched a certain movie in the first place.

In the case of SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL (2020), a Netflix original movie which premiered earlier this year, it’s based on the series of Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker, or at least the characters are anyway, and it also stars Mark Wahlberg in the lead as Spenser. Now, Wahblerg has his detractors, mostly based on things he’s done in his personal life, but as an actor, he’s kinda been a guilty pleasure for me. The main reason, besides the fact that he can be a very good actor at times, is he simply reminds me of Boston, and having lived there for a large chunk of my life, that’s a good thing. He kind of embodies that whole Boston feel. I watch Wahlberg on screen and I picture myself sitting in the Fenway Park bleachers eating a Fenway Frank and drinking watery beer.

There was also a very good TV show featuring the character back in the 80s, SPENSER: FOR HIRE (1985-1988) which starred Robert Urich and Avery Brooks.

SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL was released back in March, but I kept away from it as word of mouth on it was not very kind. But anyway, for the reasons listed above, I couldn’t keep away forever and finally decided to check it out.

I should have listened to all the naysayers.

When SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL opens, Spenser (Mark Wahlberg), a Boston cop, is going to prison for assaulting his dirty cop police captain. After several years in prison, Spenser is released and moves in with his former boxing coach Henry (Alan Arkin) where he meets his new roommate Hawk (Winston Duke) who is a promising young fighter. On the day Spenser is released, the police captain he assaulted is murdered, and another officer, one who Spenser also knows and believes to be an honest man, is found dead from a self-inflicted gun shot wound, with evidence surrounding him implicating him of the police captain’s murder.

Spenser believes this good cop has been framed, and he sets out to solve the case, with his new roommate Hawk helping out when he can.

As plots go, the one for SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL is pretty bad. It’s another of those “all the cops are dirty” storylines, and Spenser sets out to expose them all. Nothing that happens in story is fresh or unexpected.

But the worst part of this one is that SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL tries to be a comedy, and unfortunately, the comedy here just doesn’t work. I found myself hardly laughing at all. The humor is a misfire from start to finish. Early on, for example, in prison, Spenser is surrounded by group of hulking inmates intent on teaching him a lesson. Instead, Spenser turns the tables on them as he goes all Jason Bourne and wipes them all out. It’s a fight scene played for laughs, but it doesn’t really work.

The whole mix of brutal acts by the bad guys and goofy shenanigans of Spenser and company never gels. It’s like watching a dark Martin Scorsese crime film only to have the Three Stooges show up. Actually, this sounds better than anything seen in SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL.

The biggest culprit is the humor just isn’t sharp. It is basically comprised of fight scenes that only go one way, in favor of Spenser and four letter expletives by Spenser as he calls out whatever thing he doesn’t like. The situations really aren’t humorous, and the script isn’t funny either. The screenplay was written by Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland, and Helgeland has a ton of credits, including 42 (2013), MYSTIC RIVER (2003), and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997), all fine films, but not comedic ones.

At times, Mark Wahlberg is a really good actor. I’ve enjoyed his performances in such movies as PATRIOTS DAY (2016), THE FIGHTER (2010), and THE DEPARTED (2006). But he’s made a lot of films that I haven’t liked either, films like the TED movies, CONTRABAND (2012), and THE HAPPENING (2008). I can’t say I enjoyed his performance here as Spenser. He’s just sort of playing a variation of his screen persona, and it’s nothing we haven’t seen him do before.

Alan Arkin plays his usual persona as well, and you can see much finer and more comedic Arkin moments on the TV show THE KOMINSKY METHOD (2018-present), in which he co-stars with Michael Douglas.

Winston Duke, who has starred BLACK PANTHER (2018) and US (2019) is amiable as Hawk, but the Hawk in the novels was quite the different character,

Fans of the Robert B. Parker novels will no doubt be disappointed with this movie, since the characters here are quite different and don’t really resemble the ones from the novels.

Even Iliza Shlesinger’s over the top performance as Spenser’s in-your-face Southie girlfriend Cissy doesn’t really work here.

Everything about the humor in this movie is a misfire.

It also suffers from what I call the “Bugs Bunny syndrome.” Everything Spenser does works, and everything the bad guys do fails. Spenser solves the case and saves the day without breaking a sweat. There’s barely any conflict.

Director Peter Berg, who has directed Wahberg in five movies now, doesn’t really capture the Boston flavor with this one. He did a better job capturing the feel of the city in PATRIOTS DAY. I felt like this story could have happened anywhere.

Ultimately, SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL plays like a weak comedy action buddy movie, tailored for the onscreen persona of Mark Wahlberg, and it is simply nowhere near as good as some of Wahlberg’s better movies. It’s also a horrible introduction to the Spenser character. If you want that, read the novels or watch the 1980s TV show.

I won’t be keeping this one in my Netflix queue.

—END—

THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES 2 (2020) – Disappointing Sequel Strictly for Kids

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Horror fans think fondly of Kurt Russell.

And with good reason. Russell starred in what many horror fans consider today to be their favorite horror movie of all time, John Carpenter’s remake of THE THING (1982). I don’t know if I would call THE THING my favorite horror movie of all time, but it is a favorite.

Russell also starred the year before in Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981). Those back to back performances jettisoned Russell’s film career, and he never looked back with starring roles continuing all the way up to day. Of course, those of us of a certain age remember Russell as a young actor starring in some silly Disney comedies like THE BAREFOOT EXECUTIVE (1971) and THE STRONGEST MAN IN THE WORLD (1975).

Two years ago, Russell made for a surprisingly charming and very funny Santa Claus in the above average Netflix movie THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES (2018). It was one of my favorite movies that year, and Russell’s performance was the main reason for that.

Now comes the sequel, THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES 2, and I wish I could say it is a worthy successor to the first film, but it’s not. And not even Kurt Russell’s presence can save this one.

Whereas the first film was a touching and pretty darn funny tale which placed Santa in the here and now and had a very flippant Russell interacting with lots of present day disbelievers, THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES 2 largely takes place at the North Pole and for the most part is a Christmas fantasy, filled with CGI special effects giving life to hordes of elves, reindeer, and various other creatures. Its target audience is largely chiildren. There’s not a whole lot here for the adults in the room to enjoy.

Kate (Darby Camp) the young girl in the first movie is a teenager now, and she is upset that she has been forced to spend Christmas on a tropical island with her brother and mother, and her mother’s new boyfriend and his young son Jack (Jahzir Bruno). Kate decides to run away and catch a flight on her own back to Boston.

But she is intercepted by the evil manipulative former elf Belsnickel (Julian Dennison) who whisks her and Jack to the North Pole so Santa Claus (Kurt Russell) can save them and inadvertanly let Belsnickel into the magical city where he can wreak havoc in an effort to get back at Santa and his wife Mrs. Claus (Goldie Hawn.)

The rest of the movie follows Mrs. Claus’ and Jack’s efforts to save Christmas town, while Santa and Kate pursue Belsnickel to retrieve the magical star he has stolen. If this sounds like fun for you, you might enjoy this movie. It wasn’t fun for me. At all. Mostly because Kurt Russell’s Santa performance was devoid of all the biting humor it possessed in the first movie.

THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES 2 was directed by Chris Columbus who years ago directed HOME ALONE (1990) and MRS. DOUBTFIRE (1993). He also directed the first two HARRY POTTER movies. More recently he directed the dreadful Adam Sandler vehicle PIXELS (2015). While THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES 2 isn’t as awful as PIXELS, it’s one of Columbus’s weaker movies.

The screenplay by Matt Lieberman, who co-wrote the first movie, and Chris Columbus, offers nothing for adults and remains on a child’s level throughout. If you’ve got young kids, they will probably like this one.

While it’s fun to see Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn on screen togeher again, they don’t actually do a whole lot together and spend most of the film separate from each other. Russell’s performance simply lacks the fun edge fromt the first movie.

The kids, Darby Camp and Jahzir Bruno are fine, but again, their performances are strictly for kids.

Malcolm McDowell does lend some nice voice over work in a brief scene.

The special effects are decent, and the film is bright, colorful, and Christmasy. Again, the little ones won’t be disapponted.

There is a brief neat time travel bit, but even that doesn’t really take this one to any worthwhile place.

So, to wrap thing up, you’re sure to love this one…. if you’re under the age of ten.

—END—

MANK (2020) – David Fincher’s Story of CITIZEN KANE Screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz with Gary Oldman in the Lead Is More Appreciated Than Enjoyed

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Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941) is often cited by critics and film historians as the greatest movie ever made. For me, it’s a movie I’ve always appreciated but just have never really loved. It’s a film that in spite of its innovative attributes simply has never reached out and grabbed me.

I kinda feel the same way about today’s movie MANK (2020), an ambitious film by director David Fincher which stars Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz, the alcoholic screenwriter who penned the ahead-of-its-time screenplay for CITIZEN KANE. I appreciated its attributes, but I can’t say I enjoyed it all that much. In a nutshell, I found most of its 131 minutes rather dull even while I appreciated the fine acting, storytelling, and black and white photography.

MANK, a new Netflix original movie, tells the story of Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) who when the movie opens has just broken his leg in a car accident. He’s been tasked by the young hotshot filmmaker Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to write the screenplay for his next movie, and Welles gives him just two months to do it. Welles sets up Mank in a room with a personal nurse Fraulein Frieda (Monika Gossmann) and a typist Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) who will type the script from Mank’s notes and dictation. And of course, no alcohol.

The script Mank sets out to write is based on the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, and just as CITIZEN KANE tells its story through flashbacks, MANK does the same, and so through these flashbacks we learn of Mank’s relationship with William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his young actress lover Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), who Mank develops a close friendship with. The story is a complicated one, covering the cutthroat studio politics of the time, as well as government politics, as studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) backs the Republican candidate for governor in 1934 and even produces a fake “newsreel” movie which blatantly labels the Democatric candidate, Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye) (Um, yes, the Science Guy!) as a socialist, under whose leadership immigrants will invade the state! Where have I heard that before? The more things change….

Once the script is finished, those closest to Mank beg him not to follow through, warning him that he shouldn’t cross William Randolph Hearst, while Marion asks him not to betray a friendship. Of course, Mank doesn’t take their advice, and the rest is history.

MANK is filled with impressive performances, starting at the top with Gary Oldman as Mank. I could watch Oldman act all day, and while his performance here is not as atonishing as his portrayal of Winston Churchill in DARKEST HOUR (2017), it’s still pretty darn good. I’ll do one better, it’s really good! Mank clearly has a drinking problem and when he’s drunk his sharp writer’s mind is even more cutting and he says things which offend and hurt, even while being true. It doesn’t win him many friends, except, ironically, William Randolph Hearst, who seems to enjoy Mank’s insights, so much so that it’s later revealed that Hearst paid Mank’s salary at the studio. Oldman convincingly captures this alcoholic behavior, and he does it while keeping Mank a sympathetic character. In spite of his sharp tongue, he doesn’t come off as a jerk, but as someone who refuses to remain silent when in the company of hypocrisy. The main reason to watch MANK is the performance of Gary Oldman.

Both Amanda Seyfried and Charles Dance make the most of their limited screen time, and I wish both these performers had been in the movie more. Seyfried gets to show off her acting talents as the sassy Marion Davies. It’s a much more satisfying role than the last time we saw her, in the disappointing thriller YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT (2020) in which she co-starred with Kevin Bacon. Of course, we’ve seen Seyfried do this before, lose herself in the part and completely become the character, as she did with her performance as Linda Lovelace in the superior movie LOVELACE (2013). I like Seyfried a lot, and I’ve enjoyed nearly every movie she has made.

Charles Dance, who starred in David Fincher’s ill-fated ALIEN 3 (1992) way back when, is authoritative, cool, and powerful as William Randolph Hearst. Dance is one of those actors who I’ve enjoyed more the older he gets! He stood out in a supporting role in THE IMITATION GAME (2014), and his master vampire was the best part of the underwhelming DRACULA UNTOLD (2014).

Also making a notable impression and with more screen time is Lily Collins as Rita Alexander, the woman who types the script and develops a friendship with Mank. Collins gets lots of screen time with Gary Oldman, and they’re very good together.

Other notable performances include Tom Pelphrey as Mank’s brother Joseph, Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer, Tuppence Middleton as Mank’s wife Sara, and Tom Burke as Orson Welles, just to name a few.

David Fincher uses black and white photography and captures the look of 1930s-40s Hollywood movies. He also mirrors the style of CITIZEN KANE, using flashbacks and jumping back and forth in time, something today’s audiences are use to, but 1940s audiences were not, and so for Mank, his screenplay was unusual and ahead of its time.

The screenplay by Jack Fincher, David Fincher’s father, who passed away in 2003, contains both hits and misses. The hits include the sharp tongues of Mank and his fellow Hollywood screenwriters. Their dialogue contains some real zingers, most of which come from Mank. Also, strangely, since this was written back in the 1990s, the script speaks to the political climate of today, touching upon such issues as the demonization of socialism and the notion that one can promote lies as truth simply by repeating the lies over and over, something that Mank balks at.

Where the screenplay misses is with emotion. As much as I appreciated the acting performances and the technical aspects to this one, the story never moved me. It remained flat throughout. And I think part of this is the screenplay focuses so meticulously on Mank’s motives for writing his CITIZEN KANE screenplay it forgets to give the viewer a reason for enjoying this one. In short, it tells more than it shows.

Yet, director David Fincher does fill this one with cinematic images, meant to call to mind similar images from CITIZEN KANE, and there are lots of memorable lines and anecdotes, like the one on the rumor of what the classic line “Rosebud” means. But emotionally MANK still falls flat. The characters, as well acted as they are, somehow never become truly fleshed out, truly like real people.

Perhaps its because the folks in Hollywood in the 1930s-40 weren’t acting like real people. Perhaps they were simply more concerned with the business of making movies to care about anything else. There’s certainly a line in MANK which speaks to this, when Mank begs Marion to go back and tell Louis Mayer not to release his propaganda movie against Upton Sinclair. She tells him she can’t go back…. because she has already made her exit. To which Mank, upon leaving her, bursts out laughing.

MANK is a movie definitely worth checking out, both for film history purposes and film appreciation, as its strong cast is led by Gary Oldman, who delivers an exceptional performance, and it’s got a veteran and talented director at the helm, David Fincher.

You just might not enjoy it all that much.

—END—-

MY OCTOPUS TEACHER (2020) – Amazing Documentary Tells Unbelievably Moving Story

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Fascinating and moving.

Those two words come to mind when describing MY OCTOPUS TEACHER (2020), a new Netflix original documentary that tells one of the most amazing stories I’ve ever seen, a story about the relationship between a man and an octopus that had it not been true or documented on film, I probably wouldn’t have believed it.

MY OCTOPUS TEACHER is a documentary by Craig Foster, who says at the beginning of the movie that he had just burned himself out with his work and decided he needed to get away from it all, and so he goes to a remote part of the ocean off the coast of South Africa and begins to dive there in order to seek some solitude.

What he finds there in the underground forest fascinates him, so much so that eventually he decides to bring his camera and return to the work that excited him, filming. And it’s there where he first encounters this octopus, which also fascinates him. He gets the crazy idea of going back every day in search of this octopus in order to chronicle its life.

What happens next surprises him, as the octopus develops a sense of comfort with him, and the next thing he knows, it is reaching out for him, touching him, and suddenly he becomes a part of this octopus’ world, seeing and learning things he never expected would be possible for a human to learn.

MY OCTOPUS TEACHER is an absolutely amazing movie. The story is remarkable and inspiring, and it’s also inredibly emotional, because of the bond Foster develops with the creature. Its life is constantly threatened by the sharks there, and it only lives about a year anyway.

In that year, what Foster learns is nothing short of astounding. Seeing this octopus approach him, touch him, seemingly hugging him, is awe-inspiring. Foster also witnesses the octopus hunting, losing an arm to a shark, only to grow it back again, and in another wonderful sequence, watching it play with a school of fish.

Foster is constantly astounded by the octopus’ intelligence, and he says it’s on par with a dog’s or a cat’s, and it’s not supposed to be that way for a mollusk. And it is incredbily intelligent. The way it escapes from a shark is extraordinary!

It also possesses the ability to blend in with its surroundings, to change its color and shape, and it even walks along the ocean surface, as well as on land when it flees from a shark! It’s right out of a science fiction movie, except it’s not fiction.

The underwater photography is brilliant. Even without the story it tells, the photography alone in MY OCTOPUS TEACHER is worth watching.

But it does tell a story, and that story is phenomenal. The connection between Foster and the octopus is a perfect love story. He kinda falls in love with this creature, as evident by the emotion he shows when he discusses its ultimate fate. Foster discovers a wild creature, and with his calm, silent observation and understanding, he invites the octopus to approach him, and it does, inviting him into a world and a relationshop few humans have ever seen or had.

MY OCTOPUS TEACHER is an outstanding movie, a must-see doctumentary not only because of the underwater world it reveals, but because of it’s powerful message of the relationship between two unlike creatures, a relationship that happens because these two creatures had the patience to approach each other with calm which allowed them to understand and appreciate each other.

If only humans could do the same.

—END—

HIS HOUSE (2020) – Refreshing Take on Haunted House Tale

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His House

Sometimes a film’s premise makes all the difference.

And here with HIS HOUSE (2020), a new horror movie now available on Netflix, the plot point of a refugee couple from the Sudan trying to make their way in their new home in England, only to find that it’s haunted, gives this one an edge.

It doesn’t quite lift this one on its own, but for the most part, HIS HOUSE is a decent horror movie worth checking out.

Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) survive a harrowing boat journey from the Sudan, seeking asylum in England. However, their daughter does not, as she drowns during a violent storm. While Bol and Rial mourn the loss of their daughter, they are set up in a home in a small English town, but they have to follow certain rules or else they will be deported back to the Sudan where violent tribal clashes would jeopardize their lives. One of the rules is they must stay in their home, as they are not allowed to move somewhere else.

While the house is an obvious slum, for Bol and Rial, they are happy to take it. However, soon after they move in, they realize that they are not the only ones there, as a sinister presence makes itself known, a presence that speaks to them about giving them their daughter back, but at a price and a sacrifice that is horrifying to accept.

As I said, the premise of HIS HOUSE helps this one a lot. The story of immigrants fighting to survive in a new nation speaks to current events, and the brutal tale of the Sudan exposes horrors even before the supernatural elements arrive.

I enjoyed the script by director Remi Weekes, based on a story by Felicity Evans and Toby Venables. The story speaks to the difficulties of trying to rebuild one’s life after devastating loss. And the revelation near the film’s end only makes this story all the more tragic.

The supernatural stuff works as well. While I wouldn’t call this one outright scary, it is very creepy, and there are some winc-inducing scenes toward the end.

I liked HIS HOUSE for the most part, although I thought the pacing was rather slow.

Both Sope Dirisu as Bol and Wunmi Mosaku as Rial are very good in their roles. They make for a convincing couple. And Matt Smith delivers a smart performance as their caseworker Mark who can’t help feeling empathy towards them.

Javier Botet plays the witch here, and he’s rather creepy. Botet has had lots of experience playing similar monster roles in SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK (2019), SLENDER MAN (2018), and INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY (2018), to name just a few.

HIS HOUSE didn’t knock my socks off, but it did creep me out for most of its 90 minutes, and I enjoyed it’s refreshing take on the haunted house trope.

You might want to visit.

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REBECCA (2020) – Latest Version of Daphne Du Maurier’s Novel Better Suited for Lifetime Than Netflix

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REBECCA (2020), the new Netflix movie based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier, is an elegant production billed as a mystery/romance. The emphasis here is clearly on the romance, and as such, it comes off more as a Lifetime movie than a Netflix one.

Du Maurier’s novel was filmed before in 1940, and was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starred Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. That version of REBECCA received ten Academy Award nominations and won two of them, including Best Picture. Hitchcock, of course, didn’t win for Best Director, as strangely, he never won an Oscar.

This new version of REBECCA I expect will not be receiving these kinds of nominations.

In REBECCA, a young woman (Lily James) meets the dashing Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). A romance follows, and de Winter asks her to marry him, and she does. They return to his massive estate, Manderley, on the English coast, and there, she discovers that he is not quite over the mysterious death of his previous wife, Rebecca, as her spirit seems to pervade over the entire household, including the head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) who also seems obsessed with the late Rebecca.

Caught in a situation in which she feels woefully unprepared to deal with, the new Mrs. de Winter attempts to save her marriage by learning the truth about Rebecca’s mysterious death, and her husband’s involvement in it.

Again, this new version of REBECCA plays up the romance, and the mystery of what happened to Rebecca, while it sounds intriguing in a review, hardly has much of an impact in the movie. In short, while I enjoyed the two main performances by Lily James and Armie Hammer, and appreciated the handsome photography, I found this one at the end of the day to be terribly boring. And for a film that runs for a full two hours, that’s a long time to be bored.

Director Ben Wheatley struggles mightily with the pacing here, and the film never becomes an exercise in the unraveling of a mystery like it should. Even the elegant photography is just so-so. While the film looks good, it doesn’t look special, and that’s one of my biggest knocks against this new version of REBECCA. It’s not cinematic. It plays like a TV movie, and I couldn’t imagine seeing this on the big screen. It’s just sort of there.

Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Ana Waterhouse wrote the screenplay, based on Du Maurier’s novel, and it does a nice job establishing the character of Mrs. de Winter, who as in the novel, is not given a name, to emphasize the influence and power of Rebecca, who is referred to by name repeatedly. And there are some attempts to tie her plight into modern day women’s issues, but not enough to make this story speak directly to 2020 audiences. And the rest of the story is pretty blah.

Jane Goldman has some pretty impressive writing credits, as she worked on the screenplays for such films as KICK-ASS (2010), X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011), and THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012), all very good movies. The screenplay here for REBECCA is far inferior to those other films.

Lily James gives the best performance in the movie in the lead role as Mrs. de Winter. She successfully captures the audience’s sympathy, and you want to go along with her as she tries to learn what happened to Rebecca. James was equally as good in DARKEST HOUR (2017), in which she shared lots of screen time with Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill. She was also memorable in a smaller role in BABY DRIVER (2017).

Armie Hammer acquits himself well as Maxim de Winter, but at the end of the day, his main job in this movie seems to be to look good. We don’t really get much insight into his tortured soul or how he truly feels about Rebecca. While Hammer has enjoyed some high profile roles, like the Lone Ranger in the flawed THE LONE RANGER (2013), and as Illya in THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015), I enjoyed him more in HOTEL MUMBAI (2018) and in a supporting role as Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband Martin in ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018).

Kristin Scott Thomas plays the cold Mrs. Danvers to the hilt, and she’s sufficiently icy throughout. Like Lily James, she also co-starred in DARKEST HOUR, as she played Churchill’s wife Clemmie.

I had higher expectations for this new version of REBECCA. For starters, I’d hoped it would speak to modern day audiences the way Greta Gerwig’s LITTLE WOMEN (2019) did. It did not.

I also hoped it would be an intriguing mystery. It wasn’t.

Instead, it was pretty much a basic romance with a secret lurking in the shadows which never comes to light enough to truly impact the story.

As a result, REBECCA remains substandard fare. If you love romances, you’ll enjoy it. For the rest of us, you’d be better off seeking out the 1940 Hitchcock version. That one, after all, was the Best Picture of the year.

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THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (2020) -Aaron Sorkin’s Courtroom Drama Lifted by Superior Cast

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Netflix seems to be excelling with the all-star cast.

Like its dreary drama THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (2020), Netflix’s latest original movie, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (2020), written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, features a superior cast which includes Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, and Frank Langella.

The only drawback is it’s an almost entirely male cast. Then again, back in 1969, the principal players in this story were almost all male.

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is the story of seven protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, who were leading the crowds outside the convention protesting the Vietnam war. After Nixon had won the White House, his Attorney General  John Mitchell (John Doman) decided to put these men on trial to make an example of them.

The seven included Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne,) Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Their attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) not only had to deal with the young hotshot prosecuting attorney Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) but also an incompetent judge, Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) and constant interference from the justice department.

The film chronicles the trial which between Abbie Hoffman’s and Jerry Rubin’s theatrics, and Judge Hoffman’s bizarre rulings and interruptions, like spending time explaining that although he shares the same last name with Abbie Hoffman, that they’re not related, often resembles a full blown circus.

Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, the man behind the classic TV series THE WEST WING (1999-2006), and such notable movies as THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010) and MONEYBALL (2011), for which he wrote the screenplays, and his screenplay for THE SOCIAL NETWORK won him an Oscar, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is a first-rate courtroom drama.

I was fully invested in this story, and it held my interest from beginning to end. One drawback, however, is as a director here, Sorkin does little to make this movie cinematic. It definitely plays like a TV drama, made for the small screen, rather than a film to be seen on the big screen at the movie theater. As compelling as its story is, there are surprisingly few memorable images from this flick.

And the screenplay, as interesting as it is, never really goes full throttle. This is a movie that I appreciated intellectually, but sadly, emotionally I was never moved as much as I expected to be. And I believe this is because the dialogue spends more time telling the whole story rather than focusing on the individual characters and their plights.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some emotional moments, the biggest of which occurs when Bobby Seale is cuffed and gagged in the middle of the courtroom. And there are some tense moments between Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman. Mark Rylance probably enjoys the best scenes in the movie, as his character attorney William Kunstler is frustrated throughout, but overall, there just aren’t that many sequences in the film where the heart starts racing.

The best part really as I said at the outset is the film’s outstanding cast, especially the veteran actors in the group.

Eddie Redmayne is fine as Tom Hayden, and Sacha Baron Cohen is excellent as Abbie Hoffman. And John Carroll Lynch adds fine support as David Dellinger. Lynch is one of my favorite character actors working today and has made notable appearances in such films as CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE (2011), THE INVITATION (2015), and THE FOUNDER (2016) in which he also co-starred with Michael Keaton.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is convincing as attorney Richard Schultz who, while he is all in to win the trial, understands that these folks probably shouldn’t be on trial in the first place.

Mark Rylance probably delivers the best performance in the movie as defense attorney William Kunstler. Every time Rylance is on the screen the film is that much better. He plays Kunstler as a veteran attorney, who’s cool under pressure, and incredibly smart, but as the trial proceeds and he is met with more and more unfair opposition and tactics, he finds it increasingly difficult to keep his cool.

Rylance is an awesome actor who has given some of the best performances in the movies that I’ve seen in recent years, including in BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) and DUNKIRK (2017). His work here in THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is every bit as good as his work in those movies.

Frank Langella is outstanding as the incredibly frustrating Judge Julius Hoffman. He’ll have you shouting at the screen in anger. The only drawback with Hoffman is he’s inept from the get-go and so often sounds like someone with dementia rather than with an agenda, so while he’s infuriating he’s not a straight “villain” because you can’t help but wonder if he just isn’t all there any more.

Langella of course played Richard Nixon in FROST/NIXON (2008), a performance that earned him his only Oscar nomination. But he’s a terrific actor with more credits than one can list, going all the way back….way back!….. to his turn as Count Dracula in DRACULA (1979).

And Michael Keaton delivers a scene stealing performance in his brief screen time as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark. His two sequences, where Kunstler visits his house and then later when he’s on the witness stand, are two of the best scenes in the movie. Keaton is an exceptional actor who I still don’t think gets the respect he deserves.

Especially in recent years, Keaton has really turned it up a notch with performances in films such as BIRDMAN OR THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE (2014), in which he earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination, SPOTLIGHT (2015), THE FOUNDER (2016), and SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017), where he played one of Marvel’s most memorable screen villains yet and arguably outshined both Tom Holland and Robert Downey, Jr.

Also giving notable performances are Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis, another of the seven, Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, Ben Shenkman as fellow defense attorney Leonard Weinglass, and in one scene John Doman as Attorney General John Mitchell.

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is a compelling courtroom drama which tells a story from 1969 that still retains incredible relevance today, serving as a another sad reminder that even after the traumatic events of the 1960s we still haven’t gotten that far in terms of healing and unification in this country.

As such, in spite of the fact that it never really rises above the standard courtroom tale and lacks the emotional wallop expected with this kind of story, it’s still highly recommended viewing.

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#ALIVE (2020) – Decent Zombie Movie from South Korea Just In Time for Halloween

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#ALIVE (2020) is a new zombie movie which hails from South Korea and is currently available on Netflix.

It’s the story of a young man Oh Joon-Woo (Ah-In Yoo) who wakes up one day alone in his apartment and discovers that the outside world has forever changed. A deadly disease has struck turning people into violent, vicious cannibals, otherwise known in the movie world as zombies. These folks are a bit different than your typical zombies, as they can remember things from their past lives, and so some are adept at turning door knobs and opening doors, while others, like a firefighter-turned-zombie, remembers how to scale the outside of an apartment building.

Oh Joon-Woo is a gamer and as such a whiz with technology, and he uses this to his advantage, but as the days turn into weeks, his hopes for survival dwindle. But then he meets a young woman Kim You-bin (Shin-Hye Park) from the apartment complex across the way, and eventually they join forces and do everything they can to stay…. alive.

#ALIVE is a decent horror movie. The biggest knock against it is it doesn’t really offer much that is new to the genre. As such, while I enjoyed it, I liked TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016) and THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS (2016) much more.

Ah-In Yoo is okay as Oh Joon-Woo, the young man who finds himself separated from his family and totally alone in his fight against the zombies. There was a quirky humorous side to him that for some reason didn’t really work for me.

I enjoyed Shin-Hye Park’s performance as Kim You-bin more, as there was something edgy and mysterious about her character that kept her captivating. I thought the film really picked up once she entered the story. And while I wasn’t a big fan of the humor in this film, I did enjoy the comical moment when Oh Joon-Woo shares his Nutella with Kim You-bin, and she is unimpressed, to which he blurts out to himself, “Why did I even share this with her then?”

There also aren’t really too many intense scenes or frightening ones. While there are plenty of zombie kills and sequences where our two main characters have to fight to survive and ward off zombie attacks, these sequences are not anything we haven’t seen before. The best one comes near the end, when Kim attempts to reach Oh’s building. That’s the best scene in the movie.

Director II Cho has made a quick compact horror movie that while it has little fat on its bones never becomes as intense as one would expect. Cho also wrote the screenplay, along with Matt Naylor.

If you like zombie movies, there’s no reason why you won’t enjoy #ALIVE. But if you’ve never seen one, there are plenty of others you probably want to check out first before watching this movie.

As for me, I liked #ALIVE well enough, and it certainly provides some horrific fun here around Halloween time, but it wasn’t quite a homerun for me.

While there were plenty of parts to this one that I enjoyed, taken as a whole, it just never really came… alive.

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