Bad Education

★★★★

Playwright-turned-filmmaker Cory Finley is prodigiously talented. At only 30 years old, he’s already made and released his second feature. Finley’s debut, “Thoroughbreds” (2018), was thoroughly accomplished. “Bad Education,” which debuted at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival before premiering on HBO Saturday, Apr. 25, is even better. Finley is a unique voice – a Millennial whose works thus far have traded in being tied to crime, being droll AF and having an air of East Coast affluence about them.

“Bad Education,” which is loosely based on a true story and was inspired by Robert Kolker’s 2004 New York magazine article, “The Bad Superintendent,” chronicles the single largest public school embezzlement scandal in American History. It’s 2002 in Long Island, NY. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) is the consummately coiffed and dapperly dressed Superintendent of Roslyn School District. Under Frank’s watch the high school became one of the best in the country with many of its students gaining acceptance to Ivy League institutions. Frank is thoughtful and deliberate in his position. He knows his teacher’s names and what subjects they teach. He remembers his student’s names well after they’ve moved on into adulthood. He can even recollect stories they wrote for his English class when he served as a teacher 10 to 15 years earlier. Serving as Frank’s right hand is Assistant Superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), a workhouse of a woman who’s often seen burning the midnight oil in the district’s office.

It’s Frank’s thoughtfulness and encouragement that proves to be his undoing when he prods Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan of “Blockers”), a student journalist who’s writing a self-ascribed “puff piece” on the high school’s gaudy skywalk construction project, to dig deeper. He tells her, “It’s only a puff piece if you let it be a puff piece.” She does what she’s told and uncovers what amounts to $11.2 million in fraud committed by Frank and Pam. Rachel brings the story to her editor, Nick Fleischman (Alex Wolff from the new “Jumanji” flicks and “Hereditary”). Alex wants to sit on the story as Frank is writing him a college recommendation letter, but ultimately the facts and the crimes being committed prove too much to be ignored. The story is published.

Jackman does some of the best work of his career as Frank. I might’ve preferred his performances in Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” or his final go around as Wolverine in James Mangold’s “Logan,” but this ranks right up there. He’s almost unrecognizable in the part and pulls heretofore unseen tricks from his hat. Janney excels in this sort of role and is quite ridiculous with her thick Long Island accent and bleached bottle blonde hair. She’s just so matter of fact playing this deeply flawed character much like she was in her Oscar-winning turn in “I, Tonya.” It’s a real pleasure to watch these two actors simply share a pastrami on rye in character. 

I enjoyed Viswanathan’s performance as Rachel, but was somewhat disheartened to read that she’s an amalgamation of a character. According to screenwriter Mike Makowsky (My wife’s cousin’s name! Only the surname ends in an “i.” Makowsky was actually a middle schooler at Roslyn Schools when the scandal broke.), Rachel is, “a part composite, part invention meant to be an audience surrogate who is finding out information with us.” Some of my favorite moments of the movie consist of Rachel and her unemployed father, David (Hari Dhillon, bringing great warmth in a limited appearance), making phone calls, doing research and getting to the truth at the heart of the matter. 

Ray Romano is also on hand playing School Board President Big Bob Spicer. It’s been a real joy in these past few years to see Romano develop as a dramatic actor in films such as “The Big Sick” and “The Irishman.” He brings the same quality he brought to those projects here. Rafael Casal is another standout as Frank’s former student, Kyle Contreras – the role is a complete 180 from Casal’s turn in the underseen and underrated “Blindspotting” from 2018, which he also co-wrote.

“Bad Education” is very much a movie of this particular time. It’s cathartic to see people in positions of power who’ve done wrong be held accountable and punished for their actions. It’s also an affirmation on the importance of student journalism (even though some of it’s fudged for the film) and the institution of journalism as a whole.

True History of the Kelly Gang

★★★

In director Justin Kurzel’s “True History of the Kelly Gang” (available on VOD as of Friday, Apr. 24) George MacKay’s Ned Kelly isn’t so much like Heath Ledger or Mick Jagger’s version of the famed Australian bushranger, outlaw and gang leader, he comes across more like the real-life Jagger himself. This is a revisionist rock n’ roll rendition of Peter Carey’s fictitious, Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name – it’s anachronistic as all get out, decidedly queer and has a lot more sizzle than steak.

John “Red” Kelly (Ben Corbett), is an Irish immigrant living in northeast Victoria. He is a Son of Sieve (this is an invention of Carey’s and never fully elaborated upon in the film), which essentially means he enjoys crossdressing and riding horses as a form of rebellion. Red’s of little use to his family as when he’s not gallivanting about in women’s garments, he’s drunk as a skunk. It’s therefore the responsibility of Ellen (Essie Davis of “The Babadook”) to bring home the bacon … she does so selling her hooch (distilled) and her hooch (God-given). 

Twelve-year-old Ned (Orlando Schwerdt, sportin’ a bitchin’ quarantine haircut) is the man of the house, Ellen says as much every chance she gets in an effort to shame Red. Ned slaughters someone else’s cow in order to feed his family. This draws the attention of Sgt. O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam), a john of Ellen’s with designs on being more. He arrests Red, who takes the fall for Ned. Red dies while imprisoned, which opens to door to prospective suitors O’Neil and Harry Power (Russell Crowe). Ellen sells Ned to Harry in hopes that he’ll make a man out of her boy. Harry talks a big game and writes a bigger one (he’s chronicling his exploits), but he’s really just a low-down criminal. Ned’s arrested after shooting O’Neil in the leg at Harry’s prompting. 

Ned doesn’t return to his family until he’s fully grown having done stints in prison and as a bare-knuckle boxer. It’s at home that Ned meets Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) and the two strike up a tenuous friendship. Fitzpatrick is even kind enough to buy Ned a night with Mary (Thomasin McKenzie of “Jojo Rabbit”), a working girl with whom he falls in love.

MacKay is good, much like he was in “1917.” He didn’t wow me in either outing, but he’s building a reputation of reliability. Perhaps I’m distracted by his resemblance to my buddy, Evil? Davis plays mania like a champ as evidenced here and in “The Babadook.” (There are truly icky moments of implied incest between Davis’ character and the characters of both Schwerdt and MacKay.) Hunnam oozes smarm as a British oppressor as does Hoult, an actor who’s generally very likable but has proven to be fun playing fuckheads – see “The Favourite” for further evidence. (If you’ve ever wanted to see Hoult do his best Louis C.K. impression – this is the movie for you!) McKenzie does a nice job, but I was kind of uncomfortable with her doing nudity. I had to Google how old she was to make sure no laws were being broken. Crowe is great in a limited role. With his increased girth, he kinda comes across like a demented Santa Claus. He’s the criminal spirit whose essence haunts the remainder of the movie.   

This is the first film of Kurzel’s I’ve seen. He’s best known for directing the Australian serial killer flick “Snowtown” and the Michael Fassbender/Marion Cotillard one-two punch of “Macbeth” and “Assassin’s Creed” (Everything from Shakespeare to Playstation or the Bard to Xbox!). If “True History of the Kelly Gang” is any indication, Kurzel is an immensely stylistic filmmaker who makes the enterprise a family affair – Davis is his wife and the picture is scored by his younger brother, Jed. Kurzel employs some truly innovative and immersive techniques when showing his anti-hero manning a rifle or mounting a horse. This isn’t a film for the photosensitive as strobes are a second language to Kurzel. Vagueness is a third language to Kurzel – he seems more preoccupied with pomp as opposed to circumstance.

Extraction

★★★1/2

Parents who are frustrated homeschooling their children in quarantine, have I got a movie for you. Netflix’s “Extraction” shows not just one but two kiddos getting graphically clipped. On top of that, star Chris Hemsworth legit pimp slaps a pipsqueak and smacks the snot outta a whole squad of squirts … he even refers to them as, “The Goonies from hell.” Let Hemsworth exact vengeance for the fact that you’ve forgotten how to do sixth grade math without harming a hair on your precious little angels’ heads.

Hemsworth stars as Tyler Rake, a mercenary who’s hired by his friend and handler, Nik (Golshifteh Farahani), to retrieve Ovi, Jr. (Rudhraksh Jaiswal), the son of jailed Bangladeshi drug lord, Ovi, Sr. (Pankaj Tripathi), when he’s kidnapped by rival pusher, Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyuli). There’s a catch however: Ovi, Sr.’s right-hand man, Saju (Randeep Hooda), doesn’t have the means to pay the mercs and would be in deep doo-doo if the big boss man knew he outsourced the task, so he sets his sights on jacking Jr. from Rake’s tines. Things pop off, so Rake enlists the services of his former comrade, Gaspar (David Harbour, Hopper of “Stranger Things”).

“Extraction” is based off the graphic novel “Ciudad” by Ande Parks, Fernando León González and Joe and Anthony Russo AKA the Russo Brothers (best known for their directing efforts in the Marvel Cinematic Universe including “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame,”), it’s produced by the Russo Brothers and Hemsworth, written by Joe Russo and helmed by stuntman-turned-director Sam Hargrave (he stunt coordinated the Russo’s MCU entries and doubled Chris Evans’ Captain America). Hargrave is the latest in a long line of stuntmen who left leaping off stuff and leapt into the directing game – among them Hal Needham (“Hooper”), David R. Ellis (“Final Destination 2”), Ric Roman Waugh (“Angel Has Fallen”), Chad Stahelski (the “John Wick” franchise), David Leitch (“Atomic Blonde”) and Joel Edgerton’s brother, Nash (“Gringo”). It‘s a hot trend in action filmmaking right now to unleash stuntmen behind the camera and the proof appears to be in the pudding. “Extraction” is at its best when it’s ripping shit up. Granted, character development is often waylaid in favor of kinetic chaos. Much has been made of the 12 minute oner here (faked, but nonetheless convincing and impressive), but I’d argue that while the action’s very good it never quite reaches the heights of the movies it’s aping – namely “The Raid” movies, the “John Wick” series and Timo Tjahjanto’s “Headshot” and “The Night Comes for Us.”

Hemsworth does good work as Rake. It ranks somewhere in the middle of the action flicks he’s done outside of the MCU – I prefer it to Michael Mann’s “Blackhat,” but less than “12 Strong.” (His best work outside the MCU remains Drew Goddard’s “The Cabin in the Woods” and “Bad Times at the El Royale.”) Jaiswall does a nice job with what he’s given. There’s a scene between he and Hemsworth that serves as the supposed emotional crux of the picture and essentially encapsulates their entire relationship – the kid carries the brunt of the dialogue allowing his co-star to emote with aplomb. Harbour is given a nothingburger of a role – you know this dude’s deal the second he appears on screen … that said, it’s always nice to see Hopper. The sneaky standout is Hooda, who gives as good as he gets as Hemsworth’s foil. There’s a scene where Hooda’s Saju speaks to his wife and son over the phone that tore my heart out – this is your emotional apex, movie! Hooda also absolutely rips it up on the action front.

“Extraction” is a riff on Tony Scott’s “Man on Fire,” its action is much better than that movie’s, but it’s severely lacking in heart and character development by comparison. In spite of this, there’s a lot to like here. So what if Hemsworth isn’t Denzel Washington? Who the hell is? He has enough of a presence to make me curious what he has lined up outside the MCU down the road. Hargrave also shows enough chops that I’ll most certainly check out whatever he directs next. It’s not every day we get to see a protagonist murder an adversary with a gardening tool that shares his surname. 

Clemency

★★★★1/2

Often a film critic takes two routes when writing a review.

First, they can just tell you if you’ll like the movie or not. Basically, making recommendations so the every day movie-watching public can decide whether to rent or go to the theater.

The other route is to express how they personally feel about the movie and why they feel that way. To analyze it and not give much regard to what others feel about the movie.

For this review of “Clemency,” I’ll be doing both for a good reason. This is a film I was blown away by. I didn’t get a chance to see it in theaters when it made its wide release in late January (it has a smaller release in December 2019 to qualify for awards) and it was only made available for rental in late March.

Had I seen this movie in 2019, it would have most certainly made my list for best movies of the year. In fact, no movie released in 2019 emotionally affected me as much as this film. And the acting is second to none. It’s a powerful film that resonated with me.

And yet, I can’t recommend this movie to most people.

I know in my heart that 90 percent of people will find this movie too slow and too depressing. Yes, admittedly it is both. There’s not a lot of dialogue and the first hour of the movie is a slog and the real drama doesn’t kick in until the second hour. The pace is slow (although I prefer to call it deliberate) and it is devastatingly sad. It doesn’t make you cry in a sappy Hallmark movie way. This film is not one that ends making you feel hopeful. It makes you angry and deflated.

See? Not a film I can recommend to most people.

For those that aren’t completely turned off, “Clemency” is the story of a warden played by actress Alfre Woodard. It begins with an execution gone wrong and there’s another execution upcoming and the prisoner, played by Aldis Hodge (you know him from “Brian Banks” and “Leverage”), professes his innocence. The reality of the profession begins to weigh on the warden and she drinks regularly and is disconnected from her husband, played by Wendell Pierce (Bunk from “The Wire”).

Richard Schiff (Toby from “West Wing”) gives a great supporting performance as a defense attorney and there’s even a cameo from the actor who played Mr. Belding from “Saved by the Bell.”

Both Woodard and Hodge were definitely snubbed for acting Oscar nominations and I don’t say that lightly. The entire film is a Masterclass on great acting but these two truly impress.

It’s a movie that is obviously anti-death penalty but it doesn’t shove its politics down your throat. It’s based on the case of Troy Davis, a prisoner executed in 2011. While race and injustice are themes you could interpret from this movie, it actually takes a much more nuanced approach to tackling the death penalty. It shows the toll it takes on those who see this loss of life on a regular basis.

OK, so why am I giving this movie such a high grade of four and half stars?

Because writer/director Chinonye Chukwu has something to say and she doesn’t do it in big showy speeches. She does it with subtlety and actors’ facial expressions. It’s the epitome of less is more and her “show, don’t tell” approach makes for an engaging character study.

Every eyebrow raise and head turn has meaning in this film. The characters don’t always say exactly what’s on their minds. They try to be brave. They try to hold in what they’re feeling. But their body language doesn’t lie. And the conclusion (which might feel unfinished or unsatisfying to some) focuses on the journey that the characters take and how they are forever changed.

The tension isn’t really whether or not the inmate will be executed.

It’s not whether or not he is innocent of the crime.

It’s about whether Woodard’s character can hold it together and not fall to pieces.

You feel for her and her pain becomes your pain.

Also (minor spoiler but not movie-ruining), you never really find out if Hodge’s character committed the crime or not. He professes his innocence in a believable fashion, but there’s no attorney or prosecutor with indisputable evidence one way or another. But that’s not the point. The director doesn’t want you to be against the death penalty just because innocent people could be executed (like the theme of the 2019 movie “Just Mercy”). Chukwu shows you the full weight of taking a human life, even in the clinical and quiet conditions of a prison lethal injection. To see a human — any human — know it’s the last moments that they get to live, it’s tough to see.

Hodge’s character is seen as a political hero to people he’ll never meet. Protestors stand outside of the prison every day chanting for his freedom. His former girlfriend tells him that his death will affect people and he’ll always be remembered and loved by people he’s never even met.

His attorney tells him, “Everyone wants to be seen and heard. That’s all what we want in life. Well, people have seen you. People are listening to you.”

But none of that matters to a man who just wants to be with his family. He doesn’t want to be a symbol. He wants a life.

The film explores the idea about whether the death penalty actually brings closure to the families of the victims. Maybe it does, but maybe it doesn’t.

In the end, the movie is vague in its message. It doesn’t broadcast it in neon letters or spell it out for you. Instead, it hopes that you’ll have a discussion with someone and maybe think about the issue in a different way.

Truly, that’s what great cinema is meant to do: make us think, make us feel and make us discuss.

Yes, this movie has flaws. The first half is slow. Some characters are underdeveloped. Some scenes aren’t needed. But what it does right definitely overshadows any of that.

The film itself doesn’t rely on a lot of words. There’s no grand speech like the end of a “Grey’s Anatomy” episode where characters say exactly how they feel.

It’s a movie that simmers in its silence. And by the end, I was speechless as well.

The Quarry

★★1/2

If “Hell or High Water” is equivalent to Bell’s Two Hearted Ale then “The Quarry” (available on VOD as of Friday, Apr. 17) is more akin to Bud Light. Sure, one pair are both beers and the other pair are both noir-tinged movies set in West Texas chronicling crime, but each of the pairs consists of an option with a lot more personality, taste and craftsmanship than the other.

I was excited to watch “The Quarry” after seeing a trailer on Facebook not having heard of it before. It stars two of the best character actors working today in Shea Whigham and Michael Shannon. Whigham plays The Man, a drifter who’s dehydrated, malnourished and in extreme dire straits when he’s picked up off the side of the road by a travelling preacher named David Martín (Demián Bichir’s brother, Bruno). Martín is kind enough to give The Man a lift and take him to a nearby café for breakfast and copious amounts of water. Afterwards, Martín takes The Man to the titular quarry so he can indulge in his particular vice – vino. Intoxicated, Martín begins evangelizing to The Man. The Man doesn’t take kindly to this and bludgeons Martín with a wine bottle … killing him. The Man stashes Martín’s corpse, dons Martín’s clean clothes from his van, steals the van and assumes the position he was about to start at a small-town church under the name David Martin. He’s greeted by Celia (Catalina Sandino Moreno, a 2005 Best Actress nominee for “Maria Full of Grace”), who agreed to rent a room to Martín as she had to the revolving door of former ministers. Her cousins Valentin (Bobby Soto of “A Better Life”) and Poco (Alvaro Martinez) break into the van arousing the attention of Chief Moore (Shannon), whom Celia makes time with. The boys get more than they bargained for when the police look to finger them for Martín’s murder.

“The Quarry” was supposed to debut at South by Southwest before it was cancelled. It’s based off a 1995 novel by Damon Galgut, which was set in South Africa and dealt partially with racial tensions stemming from apartheid. This prejudice is extended to West Texas and dealt to Valentin and Poco by some overzealous officers. The theme is present but never extrapolated upon with enough depth to truly connect. Co-writer/director Scott Teems has a good reputation having written and directed the well-regarded 2009 Hal Holbrook film “That Evening Sun” and serving as a writer and producer on critically-acclaimed TV series such as “Rectify” and “Narcos: Mexico.” He does a lot right here and you can see he has the pieces to make something special … they just don’t fit together cohesively. I’m guessing something was lost in translation. And brother is this mother SLOOOOOW!!! There ain’t much to this tale and the filmmakers take the long way getting there. Everyplace online says this is 98 minutes. I could swear it said 108 minutes on my Xbox while playing and it felt like 128 minutes.

Whigham does a decent enough job exhibiting conflict and guilt. Moreno inexplicably wears a pink bathrobe through much of the picture. (I’m sure this was a character choice. I just didn’t get it. Possibly conveying depression?) Shannon is the standout acting-wise. He lends the picture some much needed levity and I got a kick out of watching him ride around on a motorcycle sporting goggles. On paper I would’ve pegged Whigham for Shannon’s role and vice versa. This is the fourth time the two have worked together – “Take Shelter” (which I’ve never seen despite hearing it’s good and having caught almost everything else Jeff Nichols has done), HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and Paramount Network’s “Waco” being the other three. “The Quarry” doesn’t hit the heights of their TV collaborations. In fact, I was kinda bummed I spent seven bucks renting it and my biggest takeaway was really digging Ryan Bingham’s song, “The Man,” which played over the closing credits.

Sergio

★★★★

When I first heard about the new Netflix movie “Sergio,” which dropped on the service Friday, Apr. 17, all I could think of is the kindly old tailor I did business with over a decade ago in Nora. He was a little fella of Italian or Hispanic descent who also sported the moniker. I brought a suit into him that I needed taken in. He advised me not to do it as he couldn’t take it out afterwards. He must have deduced that I’m a dude who likes to eat like crap and drink too much or my reputation proceeded me. The suit no longer fits. Anyways, I was telling my then-girlfriend-now-wife about Sergio and in imitating him I definitely did a Mario voice (“It’s-a me, Sergio!”). Sergio’s come up now and again over the years and Mario voices were always trotted out while doing so. When I asked Jamie if she wanted to watch “Sergio” with me I did so with a Mario emphasis on the title. We’ve both probably said Sergio in a Mario impersonation at least 20 times in the past few days. Yay, quarantine!

Anyways, onto the business at hand … “Sergio” is a docudrama concerning United Nations diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello (Wagner Moura), his work alongside Gil Loescher (gifted Irish stage and film actor Brían F. O’Byrne, playing an amalgamation of various folks under the real-life Loescher’s name), his budding romance with fellow UN worker, Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas), his strife with George W. Bush crony Paul Bremer (an unrecognizable Bradley Whitford) and his struggle for survival after a bomb blast in Baghdad, Iraq leaves him gravely injured and stuck beneath rubble.

Documentarian Greg Barker makes a transition to features with “Sergio” after having made a documentary about the same subject with the same title back in 2009. I won’t lie. I didn’t know much about de Mello going into the movie. I left the movie with a great respect for the man. He isn’t perfect and isn’t portrayed as such. He doesn’t appear to have been a great husband. He is a loving father, but is often too preoccupied with his admittedly very important job to do the legwork needed to fully be there for his two sons. Sergio as presented here is an eternal optimist, a fighter, a peace broker, a romantic. “Sergio” presents the case that things would have worked out very differently in Iraq and the Middle East as a whole had situations transpired another way back in 2003. We could use a lot more folks like de Mello right now.

I haven’t seen Moura’s work on “Narcos,” but have heard positive things about it and the show as a whole. I’m more familiar with him from José Padilha’s Brazilian “Elite Squad” flicks, which he’s very good in. He’s excels here too. Moura was much beefier and more foreboding in the “Elite Squad” pictures. Here he’s slighter, handsomer, distinguished … probably in an effort to embody the actual de Mello. Full disclosure: I watched “Sergio” primarily because de Armas is in it. After her stellar performances in “Blade Runner 2049” and “Knives Out,” I’d pay to watch de Armas read the phone book. Hell, I’d watch de Armas do anything as she’s de Armas. She may have actually been too attractive here. There were times when I distractedly got lost in those pretty green eyes of hers. That said, she does great work in “Sergio” and may have been perfect casting because as a buddy of mine has said (My buddy said this! Not me!), “She’d be harder to pull out of than Iraq.” You’re a lucky man, Ben Affleck! O’Byrne is reliably solid as per usual. Whitford’s a bit of a distraction as he kinda looks like he’s ready to play Bremer on a “Saturday Night Live” skit from the early aughts, but he embodies the part. Gifted character actor Garret Dillahunt – a performer so solid he played TWO roles on “Deadwood” – is sort of wasted playing de Mello and Loescher’s primary rescuer, Army Reservist and firefighter Msg. Bill von Zehle. Dillahunt’s mostly relegated to shouting things such as, “Water! Now! Dammit!” He does get a moment to shine doing some emotive physical acting opposite de Armas late in the picture.

“Sergio” is told out of sequence and it’s a tad disorienting in the early goings, but once you get in a groove with it the structure does pay emotional dividends. Sergio cribs a quote from an East Timor villager he visits with late in the film, “I want to fall from the sky like rain and remain forever in the place that I belong.” Nonlinear or no, I think this is a sentiment that strikes a chord with all of us these days.

Selah and the Spades

★★1/2

I was curious about “Selah and the Spades,” which released on Amazon Prime on Friday, Apr. 17, because it has received positive notices from some Indianapolis-area film critics and was garnering comparisons to movies like “School Daze,” “Heathers,” “Election,” “Brick,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Dear White People.”  I can see the influence those films had on writer/director Tayarisha Poe, but the movie it most reminded me of is Justin Lin’s 2003 effort “Better Luck Tomorrow.” In both instances you have filmmakers that are people of color making their calling card features concerning high school kids dabbling in illegalities. Both movies also embrace and subvert stereotypes.

Lovie Simone stars as the titular Selah. She’s a cheerleader and fronts a faction known as the Spades at Haldwell Boarding School. The school is comprised of gangs – each gang serves its own purpose. The Bobbys, fronted by Bobby (Ana Mulvoy Ten), throw parties. The Skins, fronted by Amber B (Francesca Noel), run gambling operations. The C’s, fronted by Tarit (Henry Hunter Hall, late of Amazon’s “Hunters”), are brainiacs who sell term papers and exam answers. The Prefects, fronted by Two Tom (Evan Roe), run interference leaving the school’s teachers and administrators embodied by Headmaster Banton (Jesse Williams … it doesn’t seem like so long ago that he was playing a college kid in “The Cabin in the Woods”) oblivious to the students’ illicit activities. Selah runs the Spades alongside her right-hand man, Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome of “When They See Us”). The Spades handle the narcotics trade on Haldwell’s campus. The Spades are the crème de la crème of the factions, but they vie for that position against the Bobbys. Selah’s on her way out as she’s a senior, but wants assurance that the Spades will remain dominant. Enter Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), a sophomore scholarship student who works as a photographer for the school’s newspaper. Selah takes Paloma under her wing grooming her as a successor. Paloma observes whereas Selah acts, but she proves to be thoughtful and has a deft hand in faction dealings … this leads to infighting and jealousy as the pupil supersedes the sensei and does so somewhat cockily. 

Selah is a complicated and driven character to the point of being cutthroat … whether friend or foe she takes second to no one. You gain great insight into her psyche during a phone call she’s having with her mother, Maybelle (Gina Torres of “Firefly” and “Serenity”). Selah tells Maybelle that she received a 93 on a calculus exam to which mother curtly asks daughter, “Where’s the other seven points?” My folks would’ve been psyched had I gotten a 93 on a mathematics exam let alone taken calculus.

Simone and O’Connor do a nice job. They’re both lovely and talented actresses that have bright futures ahead of them. Simone is appearing in an upcoming remake of “The Craft;” O’Connor has a role in “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.” Jerome gave my favorite performance in any piece of 2019 media with “When They See Us.” He’s not nearly as good here, but he’s also given far less to do and far less time to do it.

While “Selah and the Spades” didn’t totally connect with me, I have to give it credit for subverting stereotypes. Many of the “black movies” I watched as a kid were urban and more of their characters were thugs than weren’t (“Boyz n the Hood,” “Juice,” “Menace II Society” and “Dead Presidents” among them). Most of the students at Haldwell aren’t white. These kids of color are a portrait of intelligence and affluence. They’re dabbling in crime, but there’s nary a gun seen. This is a movie about tryhards that ultimately tries too hard. The whole enterprise feels affected. That said, I think Poe shows great promise as a filmmaker and I’m happy to see more folks that are young, women and people of color given an opportunity to tell their stories. I might just be too old, white and male to fully get on board. The hangover I was enduring while watching probably didn’t help either. #QuarantineCantina2020

Wendy

★★1/2

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” was the surprise hit of 2012. At age 29, director Benh Zeitlin impressed so much with his feature film debut that he was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. His lead actress, only six years old, was nominated for acting as well.

Movie lovers eagerly anticipated his follow-up film, which has taken eight years to be made and released. Part of the reason for the delay is Zeitlin stuck a deal with the movie studio that he wouldn’t be rushed during the filmmaking process. He would take as much time as he needed to get the film just right. An encouraging sign for audiences.

His sophomore effort would be a reimagined take on the story of Peter Pan. The end result is “Wendy,” a mix of fantasy and realism with extraordinary performances from child actors, something that Zeitlin has proven to an a pro at.

The movie has beautiful visuals and music and some real poignant lines spoken, but unfortunately the overall end result is harmed by three things: an unfocused plot, high expectations for Zeitlin’s follow-up and source material that’s been on the silver screen many, many times before.

Peter Pan has been turned into so many movies, most famously in the animated Disney classic and the Robin Williams vehicle “Hook.” In the past 20 years, two ambitious versions have dropped as well. In 2003, director P.J. Hogan took on the story with a psychologically complex version called “Peter Pan,” with Lucious Malfoy himself Jason Isaacs chewing some scenery as Captain Hook. In 2015, amazing director Joe Wright (“Hanna,” “The Darkest Hour,” “Atonement”) took on an origin story of Peter Pan in “Pan,” with an excellent cast of Hugh Jackman and Garret Hedlund. Some criticized the whitewashing of the Native Americans in this version and the heavy reliance on CGI action scenes.

In Zeitlin’s take on the story, he focuses on Wendy, a rebellious young girl who sees her mother wait tables in a diner and regret growing up. So she follows a mysterious boy on a train and runs away to a volcanic island. It feels more like “Lord of the Flies” at times and there’s a manic, beautiful energy to the loosely plotted story. There are some interesting concepts explored, including aging because you stop believing. The creation of Captain Hook is done well here too. But overall the story feels like a collection of ideas thrown at the wall rather than a cohesive plot. It’s certainly “about something” but maybe there are too many different themes explored.

“Wendy” is currently rotten on the Web site, RottenTomatoes.com, with most reviewers expressing disappointment at Zeitlin’s follow up. Some think that he should have made a better movie given the time spent on it. But I think that’s unfair. Much of the criticism is coming from high expectations but if you rewatch “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” many of the flaws in “Wendy” can be found in his debut as well. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was a meandering movie with no real plot but had great acting and visuals.

Perhaps, “Wendy” isn’t as bad as some critics are making it out to be. It’s a nice film, but not amazing. And perhaps “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was a little overrated when it came out. Again, a nice film, nothing amazing.

Expectations are a crazy thing, but I understand it. Zeitlin was a young filmmaker (he still is at age 37) when he made his first movie so the flaws were excused. He showed promise and potential. But for good and for bad, this movie is just much of the same. No real growth.

Just like the Lost Boys in Neverland, it seems like Zeitlin hasn’t grown up as a filmmaker.

Code 8


★★★1/2

“Code 8” began its life as a short film back in 2016. The short served as a calling card for an Indiegogo campaign to finance a feature-length version. The filmmakers requested $200,000 and wound up raising $3.4 million when all was said and done. The movie was given a VOD and limited theatrical release late last year before dropping on Netflix this past Friday, Apr. 10. It’s currently the most-watched movie on the platform and the third most popular program behind “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” and “Ozark.” A spinoff series is in the works for Jeffrey Katzenberg’s newly-launched Quibi app, which specializes in content that’s 10 minutes or less and intended to be watched on cell phones.

Cousins Robbie and Stephen Amell have been with the project since its inception. They starred in and executive produced the short as they did with the feature. The movie takes place in fictional Lincoln City. This is a world where 4% of the population is born with superpowers. Instead of being celebrated, the gifted are pariahs who live in abject poverty and are often pursued by a militarized police force. Robbie stars as Connor, a superpower-enabled day laborer, who is in desperate need of money to help care for his ailing mother, Mary (Kari Matchett). Connor gets roped into a gang of thieves led by Garrett (Stephen) for the opportunity to make real bank. Garrett answers to drug kingpin Marcus Sutcliffe (Greg Bryk). As Connor and Garrett’s criminal activities mount they draw the attention of a police officer by the name of Park (Sung Kang).

I like the Amell’s, which says something as my wife has a crush on both of ‘em.  I diligently watched The CW’s “Arrow” up until a season or two ago and thought Stephen made for an awesome Casey Jones in what’s the second best “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” flick to date after the 1990 initial offering. Robbie was always solid in guest stints on Arrowverse’s “The Flash” and is immensely charming in 2015’s underseen and underappreciated teen rom-com “The DUFF.” Despite being the bigger name, Stephen takes a backseat to Robbie in “Code 8.” Connor is the character around which the whole movie revolves and Robbie is more than up to headlining the picture. Kang is an actor I’ve dug ever since seeing him in Justin Lin’s directorial breakthrough “Better Luck Tomorrow” and his Han is my favorite character in “The Fast and Furious” franchise. He brings an inherent likability here, but his character is woefully underwritten. Bryk gives boffo baddie in “Code 8,” but I had to stifle laughter every time he appeared as he looks exactly like the actor Jason Clarke sporting Nicolas Cage’s wigs from “Next” and “Bangkok Dangerous.”  

The whole enterprise plays out like “Heat” meets “Chronicle” with a healthy dose of Neill Blomkamp-ish imagery thrown in for good measure … it’s kinda like a grittier “X-Men.” Fair warning: Netflix slapped “Code 8” with a TV-MA rating citing language … they must have forgotten about or overlooked the scads of people shown being graphically shot and killed. It’s a real credit to director Jeff Chan and screenwriter Chris Pare (who served the same roles on the short) that this all plays bigger than its meager budget should allow. Robotic officers who drop from drones look like leftovers from Blomkamp’s Chappie … and I mean this as a compliment. It’s a discredit to Pare that the picture sags in its center and draws on threads that it never fully addresses. Perhaps these loops will be closed on the spinoff series? But one could also argue that a work should be able to stand on its own.

Double Review: “We Summon the Darkness” and “Satanic Panic”

What better way is there to follow up Easter than with a satanic horror double bill? So that’s exactly what I did watching We Summon the Darkness (available on VOD as of Friday, Apr. 10) and Satanic Panic, which dropped on Shudder back on Thursday, Mar. 19. Not all satanic horror movies are created equal as I quickly discovered during this double bill. I greatly preferred one of these pictures to the other.

We Summon the Darkness takes place in July 1988 in Indiana. Eighteen people have been murdered by a satanic cult nationwide. We’re focused on three young ladies – Alexis (Alexandra Daddario), Val (Maddie Hasson) and Bev (Amy Forsyth) – who are attending a barnstorming metal show. In the parking lot they meet three young men – Mark (Keean Johnson of Alita: Battle Angel and HBO’s Euphoria), Kovacs (Logan Miller from Love, Simon and Escape Room) and Ivan (Austin Swift, younger brother of pop superstar Taylor). The sextuplet proceed to toke up, shotgun a buncha beers and enjoy the concert together. Afterwards they take the party to Alexis’ family’s secluded, palatial mansion and all hell breaks loose. Jackass frontman Johnny Knoxville also factors in as a deep-pocketed pastor.

We Summon the Darkness really makes a meal of its ‘80s pastiche. The period details seem pretty spot-on – I especially enjoyed the era-appropriate Twinkies boxes that kept popping up as the girls are incessantly noshing on the snack cakes. The film is directed by Marc Meyers (My Friend Dahmer, which I never saw, but heard was good) and written by Alan Trezza (scribe of previous Daddario-starrer Burying the Ex – this movie’s much better than that one). The devil is in the details here – a recurring joke about one character always having to pee actually pays dividends, the ‘80s synth score evokes horror flicks of yore and the metal references dropped read as authentic (I’m assuming Trezza is a metalhead.). We Summon the Darkness doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but what it does it does well and sports enough twists and turns to keep audiences engaged.

Satanic Panic, which was produced by horror rag Fangoria (certainly a staple of my early-to-mid adolescence), is a big ole wet fart of a film. The picture focuses upon Sam (Hayley Griffith), a pizza delivery driver working her first night on the gig. She takes a call to deliver pies outside of their service area. As the delivery is in an affluent area, she figures she’ll score a fat tip. Not only is she stiffed, her moped runs out of gas. Pissed and seeking assistance, Sam enters the villa without invitation. She happens upon the beginnings of a satanic ritual being overseen by Danica Ross (Rebecca Romijn). The Satanists are portrayed by a random hodgepodge of actors – comedic actress Arden Myrin, writer/director/producer/cinematographer Michael Polish, Rob Zombie player Jeff Daniel Phillips and Hollywood royalty/horror staple Jordan Ladd (granddaughter of Alan Ladd, daughter of Cheryl Ladd and star of Cabin Fever, Club Dread and Death Proof). The Satanists are in need of a virgin to complete their ritual. Luckily for them, Sam is one. Sam must team with Danica’s dejected daughter, Judi (Ruby Modine, daughter of actor Matthew Modine) in order to survive the night. Popping up in supporting roles are a tighty-whitey and bad haircut-rocking Jerry O’Connell (probably done as a favor to his better half, Romijn), indie horror “It Boy” AJ Bowen as Sam’s concupiscent co-worker and Birdemic: Shock and Terror starlet Whitney Moore sporting a ginormous jackhammer dildo.

Satanic Panic is the feature debut of director Chelsea Stardust (What a name!) and it shows. I worry her hair dye seeped into her brain and effected the final product. It’s a cardinal sin for a horror comedy to be neither funny nor scary. There are no laughs or jolts to be had here. What’s worse, for a movie produced by Fangoria the gore’s a bore too.

We Summon the Darkness – 3.5/5, Satanic Panic – 1/5