The Lost Weekend (1945)

For today’s audiences, a story about an every-day man struggling with alcoholism might feel like an after school special. It’s a subplot in a network soap opera, not meaty enough to carry an entire film script.

But in 1945, the issue of alcohol addiction had not truly been explored on screen in an honest way. Director Billy Wilder, known for films like “Double Indemnity,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Apartment,” “Sabrina,” and “Some Like it Hot,” was inspired to adapt Charles R. Jackson’s novel after Wilder’s co-writer on “Double Indemnity” began drinking heavily during the work on that film.

Wilder wanted to make a realistic movie that didn’t exaggerate but also didn’t downplay the dangers of alcoholism. He wanted almost a documentary feel and insisted that the movie be shot on locations instead of built sets in order to add realism. He actually filmed inside the Bellevue Hospital which was never allowed before or since.

The movie’s story revolves around a writer played by Ray Milland, who won Best Actor for his performance. He’s supposed to go away for a long weekend with his brother to celebrate his ten days sobriety. He convinces his brother and girlfriend to go see a concert together while he relaxes by himself and writes. He promises he’ll make their 6 p.m. train. They search his apartment for booze and find none and they know he has no money so they agree to the deal. He finds $10 hidden in a tea pot that was meant for the housekeeper and he snatches it to buy two pints of rye whiskey and uses the change to buy a few shots at the local bar. Even the bartender knows he needs to slow down his drinking. His plan is to bring the bottles on the trip, not that he actually needs them but having them nearby makes him feel safe and secure.

Well, obviously he gets wasted out of his mind and misses the 6 p.m. train and the weekend turns into a sloppy drunk blackout. He begins to recall how he met his girlfriend, played by Jane Wyman, who was once married to Ronald Reagan in real life, and the movie goes back and forth between flashbacks and current day. By Saturday, he’s broke and begging for booze. By Sunday, he wakes up in rehab and the staff informs him he’s going to get the DT’s and see little animals as hallucinations.

“You know that stuff about pink elephants? That’s the bunk,” the orderly tells him. “It’s little animals! Little tiny turkeys in straw hats. Midget monkeys coming through the keyholes. See that guy over there? With him it’s beetles. Come the night, he sees beetles crawling all over him.”

I don’t want to spoil the ending but it’s pretty powerful.

The musical score by Miklós Rózsa makes extensive use of the theremin, an instrument that gives that eerie, wobbly sound that you might have heard in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Throughout his career, Rózsa earned 17 Oscar nominations and won three times for Spellbound (the same year as “The Lost Weekend”), “A Double Life” in 1947 and Ben-Hur in 1959.

“The Lost Weekend” is also famous for being the first movie to show the montage of a man walking slowly toward the camera as neon-signs float eerily around him to show that he’s been wandering the streets for bar after bar. That’s been parodied many times (see the “Futurama” image below) and it started with this movie. That’s where it comes from.

Interesting enough, the liquor industry at the time launched a campaign to undermine the film even before its release, even hiring mobster Frank Costello to offer to buy the movie for $5 million to burn the prints. The industry claimed that the movie would hurt sales of alcohol or could even lead to calls to bring back prohibition.

All in all, “The Lost Weekend” is a historic film and — when watched by today’s audiences — a very good movie but maybe not a great one. It hasn’t aged as well as Wilder’s other classics. The screenplay is top notch with witty dialogue and great quotable lines. Milland doesn’t have the charisma of William Holden or Jack Lemmon but he’s capable in the role. The story itself meanders and stretches believability at times. It seems to repeat itself without reaching a proper boil at the right time. But despite these minor criticisms it’s still very good. Maybe not in my top 200 movies of all time, but I can’t quibble with its win for Best Picture in 1945.

I’m No Longer Here

★★★★

“I’m No Longer Here,” which won the Golden Pyramid Best Film and Best Actor prizes at the Cairo International Film Festival and was a selection of the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, made its debut on Netflix Wednesday, May 27.

The film tells the story of Ulises (newcomer Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño), a 17-year-old boy living in Monterrey, Mexico. Ulises is the leader of Los Terkos, a youthful street gang in the area. Ulises and his crew don’t engage in criminality so much as they dance to cumbia (Definition per Wikipedia: “a broad genre of popular music that originated among Afro-Colombian populations in the Caribbean of Colombia, and developed into a range of different styles in the 1960s and later, particularly in El Salvador, the Andean region and Argentina.”), drink and do drugs. The young men in Los Terkos sport baggy threads and funky hairdos.

Things are going swimmingly enough for Ulises until a fateful day when he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time and observes a gangland massacre. The attack’s lone survivor thinks Ulises set them up. The perpetrators want to eradicate the sole eyewitness. Ulises leaves his friends and family behind and flees to the New York City neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens.

Ulises isn’t welcomed with open arms to the United States. He’s mocked and ultimately physically attacked by his room and workmates for the way he looks and the music to which he listens. He tries to kick up some scratch by dancing to cumbia in the subway, but is accosted by crazies and hassled by police for permits. Ulises does occasional odd jobs for an elderly bodega owner and begins squatting on the shopkeeper’s roof unbeknownst to him. It’s here that he meets Lin (Angelina Chen), the old man’s 16-year-old granddaughter. She takes an immediate liking to Ulises, but he’s ultimately more of a cultural curiosity than a friend.

Treviño impresses in his acting debut. He brings great vulnerability to the role. His Ulises overcomes a huge hurdle in being immensely likable despite me hating the way he looks. Ulises’ haircut is the worst ‘do committed to film since Gary Oldman and Chris Tucker’s doo-doo ‘dos in Luc Besson’s “The Fifth Element.” I had to laugh when Ulises’ bullies made a crack about him looking like he was from “Dragon Ball Z” despite it being unkind.

“I’m No Longer Here” is written and directed by Fernando Frias, who helmed all six episodes of Fred Armisen’s HBO series “Los Espookys.” It’s not an especially flashy movie, but it’s a sensitive and attractive one. The shot compositions dreamed up by cinematographer Damián García, who lensed much of Netflix’s “Narcos: Mexico,” are highly evocative of place and feeling. The filmmakers let the dance sequences breathe, which allows the craft to come to the forefront. This isn’t an overtly political film, but it certainly makes a clear-cut case for asylum and acceptance.  

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

“I am big, it’s the pictures that got small!” — Norma Desmond

Right now, the movie industry might be undergoing a metamorphosis. Due to COVID-19, the theater-going experience is endangered and more and more movies will go straight to streaming services and rentals from home. Sitting in a theater on opening night as a crowd of people laugh and cheer might become a thing of the past.

Hollywood has seen seismic shifts before and every time there’s always a relic of the past that gets left behind. A part of the world that is unable to adapt to changing times.

Maybe the biggest change came with the invention of “talkies.” Silent film stars who made obscene fortunes on a weekly basis were suddenly out of work. Some adapted. Charlie Chaplin made a few sound films and was even nominated for an Oscar. Others became reclusive. They became hermits, alcoholics and addicts. Some had mental health problems and some committed suicide.

They love you one day. The next day you’re forgotten. That’s Hollywood.

No movie has captured this reality truer than Billy Wilder’s 1950 masterpiece “Sunset Boulevard.”

This film noir classic tells the story of an out-of-work screenwriter played by William Holden who stumbles upon the mansion of Norma Desmond, a long forgotten silent film star that is in such denial about the world passing her by. Silent film actress Gloria Swanson — who had a similar stint of fame but actually handled the transition well by just moving to TV shows and plays — creates one of the most fascinating characters in movie history. She’s almost a monster with her clingy behavior and treatments meant to keep her looking young. When Holden enters her gothic mansion, which has been quiet for some years, Desmond is almost like Dracula, a seductive parasite who plans to suck the youth of this unsuspecting chap. “Sunset Boulevard” is not just a film noir classic, but it’s also a horror film and, at times, a dark comedy.

Billy Wilder is one of my favorite directors and he certainly is underrated. He won Best Director and Best Picture twice for “The Long Weekend” and “The Apartment,” along with several awards for screenwriting. He also made “Double Indemnity,” “Some Like it Hot,” “Sabrina,” “Stalag 17,” “The Seven-Year Itch” and “The Fortune Cookie.” He eschewed the visual flair of Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock and the politics of Frank Capra. Instead he was interested in human emotions. He wasn’t afraid to cast against type, giving lovable TV star (and the Absent-Minded Professor) Fred MacMurray the chance to play despicable characters. Most of all, he was a witty writer who know how to craft some of the most famous lines in cinematic history.

“Sunset Boulevard” ends with one of the most famous quotes in all of movies: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” In case you haven’t seen this one, I don’t want to give too much context to spoil the ending. But it’s the perfect way to finish the movie.

Setting is important to Wilder in “Sunset Boulevard.” He takes sunny Los Angeles and still gives it the grim look of a film noir classic and obviously you can see how David Lynch was inspired for his own movie “Mulholland Drive.” Norma Desmond’s mansion is perfectly ugly inside and every detail has been considered.

Wilder nails the casting too. He wanted an actual silent film star for the role and he considered Greta Garbo and Mae West. Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift were considered for Holden’s part.

Some turned down the role because they were offended by a romantic relationship between an older woman with a man half her age. Others thought it made Hollywood look bad.

Gloria Swanson didn’t want to submit to a screen test, saying she had “made 20 films for Paramount. Why do they want me to audition?” They worked that into the movie and Norma Desmond says, “Without me there wouldn’t be any Paramount.”

Holden was fairly unknown, having just served in World War II. After the movie, he teamed up with Wilder again for “Stalag 17” and won a Best Actor award.

Erich von Stroheim, who actually directed Swanson in some silent films, plays her loving man-servant Max. His Austrian accent makes him seem like the Igor to her monster. He slinks around the shadows like The Phantom of the Opera.

“Sunset Boulevard” is pretty dark when you consider when it came out. It hold the mirror up to Hollywood in a gruesome way that still packs a punch 70 years later.

“Sunset Boulevard” ranked 16th in the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest movies ever and it certainly deserves it. It’s available to stream for free if you have an Amazon Prime subscription.

Best Picture Catchup: Marty, In The Heat Of The Night, Terms of Endearment, The Last Emperor

Recently I decided to try to catch up and see all of the Best Picture winners at the Academy Awards that I had never seen before.

I decided to narrow the mission to just winners since 1950 since some of the older movies are harder to find, even with streaming services.

I had a strong start to my mission, having seen 44 out of the 70 Best Picture winners and I had not missed a winner going back until 1997. After four weeks, I’ve added 16 movies to my list, making my new count 60 out of 70 movies.

I think I’ve added a new favorite movie this week and I discovered that 1967 might have been the best year for movies ever. Enjoy!

Marty (1955)

I understand why I didn’t see “Marty” before I did. Ernest Borgnine is not an actor with star power among today’s audiences. The movie poster looks corny (he’s smoking a cigarette and has a smile like Groucho Marx). And it’s not a movie that most people talk about or reference. It’s not like other older movies like “Casablanca” or “Citizen Kane” where the imprint on cultural consciousness has been made.
But what “Marty” lacks in fame it makes up for in emotion and true acting. It’s a sad but sweet story of a lonely man played by Borgnine in a role that won him the Oscar. He’s in his mid thirties and he lives with his mother still. His brothers and sisters have gotten married but he hasn’t met the right girl and he starts to wonder if he’ll ever meet her. His mom keeps asking, “When are you going to get married?” to the point where he responds in angry tears that he’s an ugly man and no woman wants to date him. While watching this, my heart sank. We’re so used to seeing confident leading men in old movies, so to see someone with their insecurities laid bare like that took me by surprise. Borgnine’s character goes out with his friends one night and he meets a shy plain jane named Clara. She’s a girl who doesn’t consider herself attractive (and Marty’s friends don’t think so either) but he’s smitten with her. She’s nice and smart and sensitive and she believes in him when he talks about his dream to buy his boss’s butcher shop. Marty is on cloud nine and you think they’re going to race toward a happy ending until Marty’s traditional Italian mother starts to worry about her son leaving her and she begins to guilt him and try to break up his relationship. His friends — jealous that he wasn’t hanging out with them — start to trash the girl too. Although, his friends are pretty terrible to him and only seem to use him as a wingman to occupy the female friends of their dates so they can try to get some action themselves.
In the end, Marty stands up for himself and it reminded me of one of my favorite movies of all time, another Best Picture winner five years later: Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment.” In that story, Jack Lemmon plays a lonely bachelor who keeps getting kicked around in life and is unlucky in love. Finally, he stands up for himself and takes control of his life.
I don’t want to get too personal, but I’m going to share a little about my own life and why I really connected to both “Marty” and “The Apartment.”
I’m now 36 years old and I’ll have been married for three years when Labor Day weekend rolls around. My wife and I dated for a year before getting married, so I was in my early 30s when I found the right girl. Now, that doesn’t seem too late in life, but I will say dating in your late twenties is not as fun as dating in your early twenties. You start to get frustrated at the bad dates. You start to get down on yourself. You see all of your friends get married and have kids and you wonder if it’s just luck or if you’re doing something wrong. In the movie, when Marty kept being asked by his family or friends when he was going to get married, any single person in their 30s knows what that feels like. It gets annoying.

Here’s the dialogue between Marty and his mother that just broke my heart and I think won Borgnine the Oscar.

“Marty: Ma, sooner or later, there comes a point in a man’s life when he’s gotta face some facts. And one fact I gotta face is that, whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it. I chased after enough girls in my life. I-I went to enough dances. I got hurt enough. I don’t wanna get hurt no more. I just called up a girl this afternoon, and I got a real brush-off, boy! I figured I was past the point of being hurt, but that hurt. Some stupid woman who I didn’t even want to call up. She gave me the brush. No, Ma, I don’t wanna go to Stardust Ballroom because all that ever happened to me there was girls made me feel like I was a-a-a bug. I got feelings, you know. I-I had enough pain. No thanks, Ma!
Mrs. Pilletti: You’re gonna die without a son.
Marty: So I’ll die without a son.
Mrs. Pilletti: Marty, put on the blue suit, huh?
Marty: Blue suit, gray suit, I’m just a fat, little man. A fat ugly man.
Mrs. Pilletti: You not ugly.
Marty: I’m ugly, I’m ugly, I’m ugly!
Mrs. Pilletti: Marty –
Marty: Ma, leave me alone. Ma, whaddaya want from me? Whaddaya want from me? I’m miserable enough as it is. All right, so I’ll go to the Stardust Ballroom. I’ll put on a blue suit, and I’ll go. And you know what I’m gonna get for my trouble? Heartache. A big night of heartache.”

If you wondered who wrote this great script it’s Paddy Chayefsky, the playwright and screenwriter who is responsible for one of the best movie scripts ever: “Network.” This movie started off as a made for TV movie but was redid for theaters with a new cast.
The female lead is an actress you might not have seen before. Betsy Blair was married to famed dancer/actor Gene Kelly but her acting career was stalled when she was blacklisted for holding left wing views and attempting to join the Communist Party. She was only cast in “Marty” — for which she earned an Oscar nomination — because her husband threatened the studio that he wouldn’t appear in the film “It’s Always Fair Weather.” I wonder about all of the great acting performances we missed out on due to the Hollywood Blacklist.
It’s hard to say if “Marty” deserved to win Best Picture that year because, if I’m being honest, I have not seen any of the other films I noticed were nominated. The other Best Picture nominees were “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing,” “Mister Roberts,” “Picnic” and “The Rose Tattoo.” Honestly, I had not even heard of these movies before. Perusing the movies that came out that year, I suppose “East of Eden,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” “The Man With the Golden Arm” or “Blackboard Jungle” could have been contenders. My favorite movie that came out in 1955 was “To Catch a Thief,” a terrific Alfred Hitchock movie. But my guess is “Marty” was the best choice.

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

This is a great movie, but let’s get this out of the way: I’m not sure it should have won Best Picture that year. “In the Heat of the Night” is a tense crime thriller with great performances by Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier but the 40th Academy Awards might go down as one of the best years in movie history. Here were the other nominees for Best Picture that year: “The Graduate,” “Bonnie & Clyde,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” and “Doctor Dolittle.” Disregard that last nomination for a minute (I’m not a big musical person) and that’s a list of some of the best movies ever made. In addition, there were some other awesome movies that did not get Best Picture nominations that year: “Cool Hand Luke,” “In Cold Blood,” “The Dirty Dozen” and “Barefoot in the Park.” So to say that “In the Heat of the Night” isn’t as good as some of those other movies is no knock against it. That’s a killer year for movies.
If you aren’t familiar with the flick, “In the Heat of the Night” is the story of a black homicide detective who helps a slightly prejudiced small town Southern police officer solve a mysterious murder. It has one of the most famous lines in movie history when Poitier exclaims, “They call me Mister Tibbs!” and that actually became the name for a sequel they made. The crime itself is pretty much by the numbers and the mystery unravels like an episode of “Columbo.” It feels like a TV procedural at times which is why it isn’t surprising that it did become a TV series in the 1980s. But what makes this movie excel is the acting of Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier. Steiger won the Oscar for Best Actor that year and Poitier, surprisingly, was not nominated for this movie or “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” that year. Kind of a snub, but at least he had already become the first black male actor to win an Oscar back in 1963 with “Lilies of the Field.” If you’re going to make a list of the best actors of all time, Poitier makes that list. If you make a list of best black actors ever, he’s at the very top. No competition. Maybe Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Mahersala Ali and Viola Davis make the top five, but Poitier is at the very top.
My favorite scene in “In the Heat of the Night,” might be toward the end when the two men are drinking scotch and talking to each other honestly and candidly about their lives. They say so much with just their facial expressions and pauses between words. It elevates the entire preceding movies.
Interesting cameo in this move: Scott Wilson, who you might recognize as a old man Hershel Greene in “The Walking Dead” TV series (he passed away two years ago in real life), plays a man who was initially suspected of the murder. It’s weird to see him as a young man but the voice is unmistakable.

The Last Emperor (1987)

Right before I watched “The Last Emperor” for the first time, I watched another one of director Bernardo Bertolucci’s movies for the first time as well: “Last Tango in Paris.” It’s a controversial art film in mostly French starring Marlon Brando as a widower who has a purely carnal relationship with a woman he barely knows. It’s sexual and disturbing at times (I wouldn’t want to hear the words, “Pass the butter” after this movie) but Brando’s acting and Bertolucci’s direction turned it into a masterpiece of sorts. More than a decade later, the Italian director won an Oscar for “The Last Emperor” an epic historic biopic that still feels artistic and intimate even with its grand scale.
It’s the story of the last emperor of China based on his book and after reading the Wikipedia entry about him he’s certainly worth a movie. He became emperor at an insanely young age and was isolated from the world. He breast fed until he was eight years old and they had to force his wet nurse out of the Forbidden City. He adored Western culture and his tutor (played by Peter O’Toole in the movie) opens his eyes to the rest of the world. He talks about running away and going to Oxford. Eventually, China becomes a republic and the emperor is no more. Despite never wanting to be emperor originally, he begins to miss the power and he gets into bed with Japan who manipulates him and installs him as a puppet emperor of Manchuria. Eventually he serves 10 years in a prison camp for war crimes and the movie jumps back and forth a bit.
It’s a beautifully shot movie with great acting and impressive sets. It really was shot in the Forbidden City in China and it was the first Western movie to do so. The first 90 minutes is filled with gorgeous shots of the palace and the movie begins to drag when it leaves the city. I’m amazed at the access that the Chinese government gave this filmmaker, especially when you consider this is not a propaganda piece for the Chinese. It shares the good and the bad about Chinese history. It doesn’t smear Mao or the emperor but it shares some truths. Some things are cleaned up though. The emperor was cruel and sadistic as a youth, forcing the eunuchs in his palace to be flogged for his amusement. The movie touches on that when he asks a eunuch to drink ink for his entertainment but it’s downplayed quite a bit. The producer recalled the approval process for the screenplay with the Chinese government: “It was less difficult than working with the studio system. They made script notes and made references to change some of the names, then the stamp went on and the door opened and we came.”
It’s an amazing achievement for film and I think it was deserving of the Best Picture. The other nominees were “Fatal Attraction,” “Broadcast News,” “Hope & Glory” and “Moonstruck.” Given those choices, they made the right decision. Although it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, my choice for that year would have been Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.”

Terms of Endearment (1983)

I wasn’t a big fan of this one. I like Shirley MacLaine a lot. Like I said before, I love the movie “The Apartment” and she’s the female lead in that one and she’s settled nicely into a sassy old lady role. She was great in Richard Linklater’s “Bernie” and her appearance on “Downton Abbey.” Jack Nicholson might be in my top 5 favorite actors of all time and he oozes charisma in this movie. Both of them won Oscars deservedly for this movie and John Lithgow earns a nomination too (I’ve been a fan of his for years as well). I think my problem is with Debra Winger. She’s a good actress, but I just don’t like her. Apparently her directors and co-stars feel the same way and she’s a difficult actress to work with which is why despite two Oscar nominations in the 1980s her career sputtered to a stop. Her character isn’t extremely likable and she doesn’t help the cause much. What’s interesting is the amazing chemistry between her and MacLaine despite the fact that they hated each other in real life (MacLaine seemed to love the fact that she took the Best Actress Oscar from Winger who was also nominated).
There’s some good things about this movie. The scenes between MacLaine and Nicholson are classic and you almost wish there were more of them in the movie. The ending is a cliche tear jerker but it’s effective.
I think my problem with this movie is that it’s just an adequately made romantic comedy with a cancer twist at the end (I’m sorry to spoil it for anyone). It just feels like the Oscar bait moments are shoved in at the end and it doesn’t earn its pathos.
I also got annoyed at how repetitive the score was. The same music played over and over in every scene I felt like I fell asleep with the DVD menu on and the music was on a loop.
I have to admit that I’m not a fan of the film work of James L. Brooks who won Best Director for this one. He is a TV pioneer, having created the “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Rhoda,” “Lou Grant” and “Taxi” and being a founding producer on “The Simpsons.” But when it comes to films he can’t seem to break from the romantic comedies. I genuinely like “As Good as it Gets” but I’m in the minority it seems when it comes to not caring for “Spanglish.”
I didn’t hate “Terms of Endearment” but it’s not one of my favorite movies. Should it have won Best Picture? I might have picked “The Right Stuff” that year.

Debt Collectors

★★1/2

Yeah, I’m pretty much the President of The Scott Adkins Fan Club … to the point where a buddy of mine recently joked on Facebook that we, “should just bone and get that shit over with.” For those not in the know, Adkins is an English martial artist who stars in a whole slew of direct-to-video action movies. Adkins’ latest effort, “Debt Collectors,” a sequel to his 2018 vehicle “The Debt Collector,” released on DVD on Tuesday, May 26. For the time being it appears to only be available via Redbox (fitting for the current king of DTV action), but per Amazon it will be available for purchase on Tuesday, June 2. The movie’s Facebook page also says it’ll be available to rent on VOD Friday, May 29.

It’s kinda strange that a sequel to “The Debt Collector” even exists as (spoiler!) its protagonists for all intents and purposes died at the first picture’s conclusion. This is all written away – French (Adkins) escaped with two bullets in his chest in a coupe belonging to Sue (Louis Mandylor, whom my wife excitedly recognized as Carl, Joey’s “twin” on “Friends”). Sue died twice on the operating table, but was ultimately revived.

The duo’s reunited seven months after their near-death experience when Sue appears at the bar where French is working as a bouncer. Sue is looking to recruit French to assist him in making three collections. Before Sue can even make the offer, French is fired for his latest roughing up of ruffians. Hard up, French accepts the opportunity. Their targets are: Mal Reese (Marina Sirtis of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”), a Las Vegas club owner who used to make time with Sue; Esteban Madrid (Cuete Yeska), the thuggish proprietor of a boxing gym and Cyrus (Vernon Wells AKA Bennett from “Commando”!), the owner of a motorcycle garage. These folks took out loans from Barbosa (Tony Todd), who was dispatched in “The Debt Collector.” Barbosa’s brother, Molly X (Ski Carr), holds French and Sue responsible, so he forces their handler, Tommy (Vladimir Kulich, the Russian gangster Denzel clipped at the end of “The Equalizer”), to put them on the case in hopes that he’ll get paid and they’ll get laid to rest.

There’s as much good about “Debt Collectors” as there is bad. As much as I love Adkins, these movies actually belong to Mandylor. He kinda reads like Mickey Rourke prior to all the plastic surgery. His Sue is the emotional center of these pictures and he’s simply much cooler and more substantial than Adkins’ French. In the flick’s best scene Sue and French duke it out with one another. The fight stands toe-to-toe with the skirmish between Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David in “They Live” both in brutality and duration. This isn’t subtle stuff – the two begin scrapping in front of a dumpster after French concludes that Sue’s been lying to him – the dumpster has the word “Gaslighter” graffitied on it.

As for the bad, Carr doesn’t have nearly the presence Todd did in the big bad role. Go figure, a dude who made his bones as a dancer on “Soul Train” doesn’t have the gravitas of Candyman. The concluding shootout is also sort of a joke. Everyone’s in Tommy’s club, which reads like it’s 20 feet by 20 feet, and yet the gunfight goes on forever. Stuntman-turned-director Jesse V. Johnson employs the same coupla shots of Molly X’s henchwoman, Felix (first-time actress Charity Collins), firing machine pistols and loading then unloading a grenade launcher all the while annoyingly/hilariously exclaiming variations on a similar line, e.g. “Take this, bitch!,” “Take this, mf’er!” Budget and good sense be damned!

“Debt Collectors,” also known abroad as “The Debt Collector 2,” “Payback” and my personal favorite the Japanese variant, “2 Bad Buddies” (this is commonplace for low-budget genre fare such as this), is the sixth collaboration between Johnson and Adkins. It’s a lesser work for them. I greatly preferred “The Debt Collector,” “Savage Dog,” “Triple Threat” and “Avengement” (these are all available for streaming on Netflix). Their only joint effort I enjoyed less was “Accident Man.” Rumor has it “Debt Collectors” will be available on Netflix in three months … I don’t think audiences would be delinquent in waiting until then.

The Lovebirds

★★★1/2

“The Lovebirds,” which was originally supposed to premiere at SXSW on Saturday, Mar. 14 before opening theatrically Friday, Apr. 3, made its debut on Netflix Friday, May 22.

Directed by Michael Showalter (best known for being a member of comedy troupes The State and Stella, starring in “Wet Hot American Summer” and for directing 2017’s “The Big Sick”) and scribed by actors-turned-screenwriters Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall, “The Lovebirds” focuses upon Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae). Jibran is a documentarian; Leilani an advertising executive. We see the couple fall in love, flash forward four years and watch as they’re on the precipice of breaking up.

The couple is en route to a dinner party with her friends. The barbs between them grow sharper as each mile passes. When their fight reaches its apex, Jibran suddenly strikes a bicyclist (Nicholas X. Parsons) with their vehicle. The bicyclist is OK and in a hurry to get the hell outta there. Another man (skilled character actor Paul Sparks) opens the driver’s side door, claims to be a police officer, tells Jibran to hop in the back seat, gets in the driver’s seat and is in hot pursuit of the bicyclist. The man eventually catches up with the bicyclist and runs him over … repeatedly. As quickly as he got in the car the man gets out and splits. 

Jibran and Leilani, worried that they’re gonna get fingered for the murder, flee the scene. They put their differences aside to investigate the crime and clear their names. Their investigation leads them to interrogate a frat boy named Steve (talented actor and comedian Moses Storm) and as quickly as you can say, “Fidelio,” to an “Eyes Wide Shut”-esque orgy.

I enjoyed “The Lovebirds” a good deal, but it doesn’t reach the heights of Showalter and Nanjiani’s accomplished previous collaboration, “The Big Sick.” The movie starts strongly and maintains this momentum until its halfway point where it begins to drag a bit … this is an issue for a flick that runs a scant 87 minutes. In spite of the sluggishness, Nanjiani and Rae are funny and charming enough to carry the picture to its conclusion.

I was more familiar with Nanjiani coming into the film than I was with Rae. I knew Rae more by reputation than repertoire. I’ve heard many good things about her HBO series “Insecure,” and found her hilarious calling out perceived racism and sexism while announcing the Academy Award nominations with John Cho earlier this year. Nanjiani is good here – Rae is better. She’s an attractive and humorous presence. She even gets the movie’s best and funniest line quoting the commercial slogan of a popular breakfast product.

Somewhat reminiscent of other romantic action comedies such as “Date Night” or “Game Night” wherein couples have a crazy evening that brings them closer together, “The Lovebirds” is better than the former and worse than the latter. It’s much funnier and saltier than “Date Night,” but lacks the flash and panache of “Game Night.” So far as mindless weekend entertainment goes, you could do a lot worse than “The Lovebirds.”

The Vast of Night

★★★1/2

The Mrs. and I were fortunate enough to see a screening of “The Vast of Night” at The Tibbs Drive-In located on Indianapolis’ southwest side (480 S Tibbs Ave, Indianapolis, IN 46241) on Saturday, May 16 prior to its release on Amazon Prime on Friday, May 29. I can’t speak for her, but it felt really damned good to see a movie on the big screen again. The last one I saw prior to quarantine was the Vin Diesel vehicle “Bloodshot” way back on Saturday, Mar. 14, which humorously enough was playing on the screen next door to “The Vast of Night” at the same time.

It’s the 1950s in small town Cayuga, N.M. Most of the community is enraptured by a high school basketball game that’s transpiring. This doesn’t mean a hill of beans to 16-year-old student/switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) nor local radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz). They’re busy walking, talking, playing with her newly acquired tape recorder, discussing what makes “good radio.” A strange audio frequency comes through the radio, which leads the duo on a nightlong investigation canvassing Cayuga and interviewing a good portion of Everett’s “five-person audience.”  

“The Vast of Night” was first runner-up for the Grolsch People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as well as the directorial debut of Andrew Patterson and screenwriting debut of James Montague and Craig W. Sanger. It’s an auspicious start for the filmmakers, but not without its problems. “The Vast of Night” is so damned talky … arguably too damned talky. Much of the dialogue is witty and sharp, but there’s just such an abundance of it. There are instances where the filmmakers fade to black and allow the dialogue to roll onward. I most assuredly spaced out. Some of these folks make The Architect from “The Matrix Reloaded” seem mum by comparison.

Where “The Vast of Night” truly excels is in its cinematography by M.I. Littin-Menz, who also shot the recent Jesse Eisenberg Marcel Marceau Holocaust drama “Resistance.” The movie is almost entirely comprised of long take tracking shots. There’s an especially impressive one that sweeps the camera through Cayuga into the high school gymnasium and out again.

The performances are also impressive. McCormick and Horowitz (who reads like a younger Justin Long) are likeable in spite of often jerkily flirting with one another, which is important as the piece is essentially a two-hander. They do the walk and talk well enough it’d make Aaron Sorkin proud. Horowitz was sometimes hard to understand however as he incessantly had a cigarette dangling from his lips. Yay, youthful onscreen smoking! Also, yay period authenticity! 

“The Vast of Night” won’t be for all audiences. It sorta seemed like a combination of J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” (only concerning radio instead of film, taking place in the ‘50s as opposed to the ‘70s and with older and fewer kids) and the more loquacious entries of Richard Linklater’s filmography, i.e. “Slacker,” the “Before” trilogy and “Waking Life.” The movie is framed as an episode of “Paradox Theatre,” which apes anthology television series of the late ‘50s to mid ‘60s such as “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits.” Fans of those properties will likely dig it … I just knew it was bitchin’ to be at passion pit with my best gal even if there was no backseat bingo afoot.

Best Picture Catchup: The French Connection, Ordinary People, Chariots of Fire, Out of Africa

Recently I decided to try to catch up and see all of the Best Picture winners at the Academy Awards that I had never seen before.

I decided to narrow the mission to just winners since 1950 since some of the older movies are harder to find, even with streaming services.

I had a strong start to my mission, having seen 44 out of the 70 Best Picture winners and I had not missed a winner going back until 1997. In my first installment, I watched and reviewed “Braveheart,” “Patton,” “Unforgiven” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” Now I tackled four more, bringing my total to 52 out of 70 movies.

The four in this installment were a little disappointing. Two movies I liked but would not list among my favorite movies ever. The other two movies I found to be particularly dull.

THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)

Along with Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich, director William Friedkin was considered one of the premier directors of New Hollywood in the 1970s. Friedkin directed one of my favorite movies of all time in “The Exorcist” so I was interested in watching “The French Connection,” a true-crime movie that he won Best Director for. “The French Connection” might not thrill today’s audiences but it’s certainly more engaging or suspenseful than “Bullitt” or other 1970s crime movies. It has one of the greatest car chases of all time. “The French Connection” won Best Picture over two movies that I greatly prefer “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Last Picture Show” but that shouldn’t take away from “The French Connection’s” achievement. While it’s certainly a genre movie — and maybe not as amazing as those other two movies — it’s bolstered by stellar performances by Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. Hackman won an Oscar, which might seem odd since the role doesn’t require much heavy lifting, but he was very good. I really enjoyed “The French Connection” and maybe I’d put it in my top 50 crime/action movies of all time.

ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980)

Robert Redford makes his debut as a director and ends up winning Best Director at the Oscars for this drama about grief, family dynamics and mental health. It might feel a little dated 40 years later but at the time it was an honest and eye-opening look at mental health issues that were not often discussed. It features some awesome performances. Mary Tyler Moore, best known for playing bubbly lovable strong women such as Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and, of course, Mary Richard on her own starring sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” “Ordinary People” gave her a chance to breakout of her typecast and play an unlikable role and she was rewarded with a Best Actress nomination. I think her character was a little one-dimensional and unfairly villainous but there were hints at depth that she brought out. Judd Hirsch, another performer known more for a TV role (“Taxi”), earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for playing the psychiatrist and his portrayal earned praise from the psychiatric community. Hirsch ended up losing to his co-star Timothy Hutton, who really had a lead role. At age 20, Hutton became the youngest winner of the Best Supporting Actor and he hold that record to this day. The youngest nominee was 8-year-old Justin Henry in “Kramer vs. Kramer.” Hutton earned some starring roles after his win, most notably in “Taps” in 1981. He never solidified himself as one of the best actors in Hollywood and today’s audiences really only know him from the formulaic TNT drama “Leverage.” The one main star who didn’t receive an Oscar nomination was Donald Sutherland (President Snow of “Hunger Games” for today’s audiences) who did an amazing job as the father in “Ordinary People.” Entertainment Weekly called it one of the biggest awards snubs in history and interesting enough Sutherland has never been nominated for an Oscar to this day. I think he’s one of the best actors of all time without a single Oscar nomination, joining Martin Sheen, Alfred Molina, Danny Glover, Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Jeff Daniels and Ewan McGregor. “Ordinary People” is a great movie that I really enjoyed but interestingly enough it beat out a much better movie for Best Picture that year: “Raging Bull.” I had a few friends who said they like “Ordinary People” better than “Raging Bull” but in my mind that’s just incorrect. “Raging Bull” is one of the best movies ever made and in 1990, it became the first film to be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in its first year of eligibility. When the American Film Institute released its list of 100 greatest movies of all time to celebrate its 100th anniversary, “Raging Bull” ranked 24th of all time. When they updated the list 10 years later, “Raging Bull” shot up to fourth on the list. To me, there’s no real comparison between the two.

C

CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981)

Now we’re entering territory of Best Pictures that make me scratch my head. I always had an interest in seeing “Chariots of Fire” because I was so familiar with the iconic music. The piano you hear when they run in slow motion at the beginning of movie is famous and it’s been parodied so many times. Just think of Will Ferrell running in “Old School.” I knew it because my dad is really into 1970s/1980s progressive rock and composer Vangelis, who wrote this score (he also did the music for the movie “Blade Runner”), has teamed up with prog rock icons like John Anderson of Yes. So I’ve heard Vangelis many times before when my dad has played it in the kitchen of the restaurant we own. Unfortunately, that music is the best part of a dull movie. It’s a true story about Olympic runners but there’s no real stakes. One character is a very faithful Catholic and the other is jewish and faces anti-semitism. That’s it. I’m not downplaying their struggle, but it’s hardly losing a leg! (Although, I’m not sure we want a movie on an Olympic runner who lost a leg. The Oscar Pistorius story might not be so feel-good). “Chariots of Fire” beat “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Reds” and “On Golden Pond” that year. Heck, I might even say that “Arthur,” released that year but not nominated for Best Picture, was a better movie than “Chariots of Fire.” One list called this one of the biggest surprise Best Picture winners of all time, along with “Crash” upsetting “Brokeback Mountain.” Many people thought that it was a two-movie race between “On Golden Pond,” which won Best Actor and Best Actress for Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn, and “Reds,” which earned Warren Beatty the Best Director award while securing nominations for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress. “Reds” was the last film to gain nominations in all four acting categories until “Silver Linings Playbook” matched that feat in 2013.

OUT OF AFRICA (1985)

One of my least favorite Best Picture winners that I’ve seen. It’s an epic love story set in Africa in the time of World War One. Meryl Streep gives an amazing performance but Robert Redford seems to be mailing it in. It’s not the longest movie to win Best Picture. It’s only two and half hours long. But it feels really long since there’s just not enough meat on the bone to justify this length. Basically it’s the story of rich white people who fall in love and every once and a while they help some tribal Africans. Oh and there are a few lions. The lions are the best part. But nobody gets mauled. Unfortunately. It’s really hard to care about any of these characters and I would struggle to call this a good movie, let alone of one of the best movies put out in a year. One film critic, James Berardinelli, checked this movie out in 2009 and agrees with my assessment: “Watching Out of Africa a quarter of a century after its release, it’s almost impossible to guess how it won the Oscar for Best Picture … the lazy story is little more than an ordinary melodrama that simmers without ever reaching a boil.” “Out of Africa” beat “Witness,” “The Color Purple,” “Prizzi’s Honor” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” to win Best Picture. None of those movies are favorites of mine, but they’re all better films. Probably the two movies of that year that I’d really think should have been nominated are “Ran” by Akira Kurosawa or “Cocoon” by Ron Howard. We all know the best movie to be eligible for the Oscars that year was “Back to the Future” but oh well. Interesting side note: I was skimming through the Wikipedia page of the Oscars that year and “Return to Oz” was nominated for best special effects that year. What?!! Have you seen those special effects?! Maybe they were good for that day (I can’t imagine they were ever good) but they have not aged well. Revisit the freaky film “Return to Oz” if you want to be weirded out.

Dueling Reviews: The Wrong Missy

Alec Toombs’ Take:

★1/2

I’ve had a rough go of it with my movie selections of late. In the past three days I’ve watched my three least favorite films of 2020 thus far – “John Henry” (available on Netflix), “Capone” (available on VOD) and now “The Wrong Missy,” which dropped on Netflix Wednesday, May 13.

“The Wrong Missy” is the latest in a long line of Happy Madison productions where Adam Sandler is not only kind enough to keep his friends and family employed, but he also sends them on vacation. “50 First Dates,” “Grown Ups,” “Grown Ups 2,” “Just Go With It,” “Jack and Jill,” “Blended,” “The Do-Over” and “Murder Mystery” all fall into this subgenre of schlock too. Sandler seems like a good guy and I can appreciate him looking out for his people, but the creative output often leaves much to be desired. I want less stuff like this and more works along the lines of the quarantine music videos Sandler’s done solo and with Pete Davidson on “Saturday Night Live,” his inspired 2019 Netflix comedy special “100% Fresh” and worthwhile movies such as “The Meyerowitz Stories” and “Uncut Gems.”

David Spade stars as Tim Morris, an unlucky in love banking executive whose fiancée, Julia (Sarah Chalke of “Scrubs”), has left him for their co-worker, Rich (Chris Witaske). Tim’s Grandma sets him up on a blind date with Missy (gifted comedienne Lauren Lapkus), which goes horribly awry. Soon thereafter, Tim meets the girl of his dreams, Melissa (model-turned-actress Molly Sims), at the airport. The two are a perfect match – neither of them drink, they’re reading the same James Patterson novel, they have the same carry-on luggage and they’ve both been recently cheated on. They wind up snogging in a janitor’s closet, but the make out sesh is cut short when Melissa has to bail to catch her flight. Tim gets Melissa’s number before parting ways. There’s a snag however – Melissa’s nickname is Missy, which is how she enters her contact info into Tim’s phone.

The bank Tim works for has been bought by Jack Winstone (Geoff Pierson, forever the Dad from The WB’s “Unhappily Ever After”), who takes his employees to a Hawaiian resort for team building activities where Tim will have to compete with Jess AKA The Barracuda (Jackie Sandler, Adam’s Mrs.) for a highly coveted promotion. Tim’s overreaching Human Resources buddy, Nate (Nick Swardson, looking like he’s trying to fill out to such an extent that he can be another Chris Farley to Spade), takes it upon himself to invite Missy along. Unfortunately, for all parties involved, he invites “The Wrong Missy.” Chaos ensues.

Spade can be genuinely funny when given the right material. I enjoyed him in “PCU,” “Tommy Boy,” “Black Sheep” and “Joe Dirt.” He plays the straight man here and he’s fine at it I suppose, but the dude’s look seriously bothers me. He looks like Ellen DeGeneres’ stunt double. Also, what’s up with his hair? Is it a crappy wig or a worse haircut? Lapkus seems like a nice lady who I’ve dug on countless podcasts, but she’s annoying as all hell here. The worst actor of the bunch amid this motley crew is Jackie Sandler. She makes Tara Reid look like Meryl Streep. I found Denise Richards more convincing as a nuclear physicist in “The World is Not Enough” than I do Sandler as a businesswoman in “The Wrong Missy.” Nepotism thy name is Jackie Sandler.

“The Wrong Missy” is directed by Tyler Spindel, a Harvard University graduate who previously directed Spade in former Happy Madison/Netflix collaboration, “Father of the Year.” That movie was much better than this one, but his filmmaking overall seems to suggest Trump University more than the Ivy Leagues. The flick was co-written by Kevin Barnett, one of the army of screenwriters who penned the 2007 remake of “The Heartbreak Kid,” for which this feels like a lame-brained rehash. There’s little to recommend in “The Wrong Missy” other than a coupla cool needle drops including Elle King’s cover of Khia’s “My Neck, My Back” and Vampire Weekend’s “This Life,” which despite being a good tune is kinda played out with its omnipresence in ads for TBS’ “Miracle Workers: Dark Ages” and “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway.” The biggest and almost only laughs come courtesy of John Farley, Chris’ younger brother. Nepotism rears its ugly head again.

Adam Aasen’s Take:

★★

Sometimes your enjoyment of a movie really depends on your expectations.

If you get really excited to see a new movie in theaters. You shell out the money. Get a babysitter. Buy popcorn and expensive snacks. And the movie isn’t as good as you hoped… you’re somewhat disappointed.

When you watch a movie on an airplane, flip around on HBO on a lazy Saturday afternoon or watch something mindless on Netflix by yourself, the expectations are much lower. The lower bar leads to much more enjoyment.

After a string of terrible movies, Adam Sandler’s productions company Happy Madison has lowered the bar sufficiently.

The Sandler-starring theatrical offerings include some real stinkers such as “Jack and Jill,” “That’s My Boy,” “Don’t Mess With the Zohan” and “Grown Ups.”

At least those movies have the charm and charisma of Sandler.

The Happy Madison movies that he merely produces but doesn’t act in? If the bar were any lower you’d have to dig a hole in the floor.

Needless to say, I’m not a Happy Madison aficionado. I’ve steered clear of the “straight to Netflix” movies that have been lazily churned out.

But there was something that intrigued me by his latest streaming comedy starring David Spade called “The Wrong Missy.” And that’s the female co-lead Lauren Lapkus.

Lapkus is an underrated comic talent that started off doing improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. I first discovered her playing characters on a podcast called “Comedy Bang Bang!” Eventually I saw her pop up in small roles. She was a corrections officer on the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” and she played a cheating wife in the HBO series “Crashing.” Most people know her from her brief role in “Jurassic World” as a tech operator or from playing the girlfriend of the comic book guy on “The Big Bang Theory.”

The premise of the movie is David Spade, playing the straight man, goes on an awful blind date with Lapkus. Months later, he runs into his dream girl played by model Molly Sims. They exchange numbers but she has the same name — Melissa — and so he mistakenly starts texting the crazy girl from the blind date instead of his dream girl. He invites her to a work retreat on a tropical island and is shocked when “The Wrong Missy” shows up. She’s loud. She vulgarly talks about sex. She gets drunk. She embarrasses him and he’s too meek to tell her the truth.

The humor in the movie is certainly hit or miss. There’s a mean spirited — almost misogynistic — veil over how they treat Missy’s character. When she decides to have sex with Spade’s character when he’s not completely willing, well, it was uncomfortable. (But as much as Isla Fisher’s similar scene in “Wedding Crashers.”)

“The Wrong Missy” definitely isn’t for kids but it has childish humor. It’s got a lot of swearing and sex jokes. Plenty of prat falls and slapstick humor. There’s a three-way sex scene with some physical comedy that will make you cringe because it’s so bad.

Spade is obviously mailing it in. He’s the straight man so he doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting but some of his line reading seems like he just wants to get out of there.

One actress was so bad in her line reading I had to look her up to see how she got into this movie. Even for a Happy Madison movie she was bad. Turns out she’s Adam Sandler’s wife. Makes sense.

Still a few actors throw themselves into their roles with reckless abandon. Geoff Pierson, who often plays politicians on TV, is mildly amusing as the boss. Nick Swardson and Rob Schneider might not be your thing but they give their full effort in their cameos. And Lapkus brings a zany energy to her role that reminds you of Jim Carrey in “The Cable Guy.” It’s a shame her co-stars and the screenwriter didn’t put in the same effort that she did. My guess is her commitment stems from her improv background where you don’t second guess but rather say “yes and..” while fully committing to any comic premise. Her energy is contagious.

The screenplay is as lazy as some of the acting. Predictably Spade’s character starts to fall for the crazy Missy but the transformation is forced and seems to be predicated on the fact that she helps him get a promotion at work. At the end, the movie half-heartedly attempts to be a romantic comedy but there’s no teary-eyed moment like “The Wedding Singer” or “50 First Dates.” It limps toward the finish line.

I had really low expectations so I mildly enjoyed this one. I would never have seen it in a theater or paid to rent it even. But it was worth 90 minutes of my time. Barely.

I did not hate this movie. I laughed more than a handful of times. I liked Lapkus. But I can’t in good conscience give this movie a high grade. It’s a bad movie you might enjoy depending on your tastes.

The opening scene showing the blind date is particularly funny and showcases the talent of Lapkus. If you aren’t interested or amused by the opening scene, just turn it off because it’s pretty much more of the same. In fact, it kind of goes downhill from there.

Bull

★★★1/2

Rob Morgan isn’t a name most people know.

He’s a mild mannered actor who often plays stoic and subtle roles and hasn’t really been a leading man.

He’s 70 years old and his first credit in film or TV, according to my quick Web search, was in 2006.

For years, he played roles such as “cab driver” or “guy in the crowd” before becoming somewhat better known for a recurring character on the Netflix series “Daredevil” and the spinoff shows. Still, nobody really knew his name.

He gained more attention playing the father opposite Mary J. Blige in Netflix’s “Mudbound” and playing a death-row inmate in “Just Mercy.” He also appeared in a movie that I loved that not many people saw in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.”

Some felt he should have received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for “Just Mercy” and that’s when I started to remember his name.

Morgan now gives the kind of role that should earn him industry-wide acclaim in “Bull,” an indie film about a battered former bull rider who befriends a troubled 14-year-old girl who trashes his home.

Morgan plays Abe, who deals with constant pain from his years as a bull rider. Now he’s more a of wrangler who trains others and he’s reluctant to help Kris, his neighbor who has a mother in prison and is being raised by her grandmother. Kris gets drunk with some friends and rebelliously damages his property and he allows her to help him around the house rather than pressing criminal charges.

At first glance, this appears to be another indie film about a cranky older neighbor helping a troubled youth. They’re both broken and they help each other and become friends. Yada yada yada. It’s been done before. Another “unlikely friendship” movie.

But what makes “Bull” stand out is two things: it’s keen sense of place and a career-defining performance by Morgan.

Director Annie Silverstein, a relative newcomer, spent 10 years as a youth worker before enrolling in film school and it shows in her treatment of Kris in this movie. She gives us a window into the lives of those struggling in America and how mass incarceration (or poor parenting) can affect at-risk youth. She shows us a look at what it’s like to be a fearsome warrior like a bull rider who now is past his prime and doesn’t know what life is worth anymore. She gives us an authentic look at the marginalized in economically-hit Texas and you feel like you’re there. This film has a message on the social-economic dynamics but it doesn’t hit you over the head with it. Instead, it focuses on the compassionate friendship between these two amid a sea of societal apathy.

Of course, none of this would work without Morgan. Amber Havard is satisfactory as Kris, but she’s hardly a star. She’s young so I’m not being critical. She gives a restrained, realistic performance as a troubled youth. Morgan, on the other hand, gives a fantastically nuanced performance that will likely stand out among the best in 2020 for those that see this movie. You feel his pain and his nonverbal acting is palpable. He shows you what’s on his mind without saying a word.

“Bull” is not a perfect movie. It drags at times. Some acting is better than others in this film. It lacks any action or excitement. The story itself has been done before. But for a debut feature, Silverstein has done an impressive job and it does for the world of rodeos what “The Wrestler” did for pro wrestling.

I’d compare “Bull” to two indie movies released in 2017 that were slower paced, character-driven and animal-themed: “Lean on Pete” and “The Rider.” If you loved those movies, give “Bull” a stream.