Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story

John Kricfalusi, creator of “The Ren & Stimpy Show”


★★

I was seven years old when Nicktoons premiered on Nickelodeon in 1991.

The children’s cable network had mostly aired syndicated shows from other networks and was now launching its cutting edge original Saturday morning cartoons with three new shows: “Doug,” “Rugrats” and — the edgy rebellious one — “The Ren & Stimpy Show.”

I watched in anticipation for the new shows and enjoyed all three, but I was enthralled by “Ren & Stimpy.” It was like nothing else I had ever seen in a cartoon, not even “The Simpsons,” which premiered a few years prior.

It was beautifully (and disgustingly) animated with detailed close-up shots and exaggerated emotional expression that displayed madness on the screen. There was sexual innuendo, shocking violence and boiling rage. It wasn’t meant for kids, but it aired in the middle of the day on a network aimed at young children.

A new documentary, “Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story,” chronicles the rise and fall of the controversial cartoon. Directors Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood premiered their movie as part of the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020, a few months before COVID-19 put a halt to in-person film festivals.

For the most part, they tell a pretty standard story of how the cartoon got made and what made it so popular and controversial. Talking head celebrities like Bobby Lee and Jack Black heap praise on “Ren & Stimpy” creator John Kricfalusi for being an eccentric genius who pushed boundaries. The first 30 minutes of the documentary is full of glowing compliments and goes into great detail about what made the show so revolutionary. They interview animators, studio executives and obsessive fans. The usual documentary format.

Ren & Stimpy

I haven’t revisited this beloved cartoon in many years, but during the first part of this documentary, I was overflowing with nostalgia and a desire to rewatch this show. As they kept showing controversial clips that slipped through Nickelodeon’s censors, I kept thinking to myself: “How did they get away with this?”

But the troubled artist John K (as he’s called) is — predictably — exposed as a man who’s dealing with some serious mental health issues. He’s described as berating his staff with profanity and slurs. He fights with network executives, telling them to “Go f— yourself.” He refuses to meet deadlines, costing the network millions and leading to delays in episode air dates. He’s finally kicked off the show after submitting an episode in which an abusive dog trainer named George Liquor — based on John K’s actual father — is beaten mercilessly with a boat oar.

Some animators play off John K’s attitude by calling it self sabotage. Others play off his abusive behavior to his staff by calling it “being a perfectionist.”

But something darker seems to be at play.

Stimpy

And then the documentary takes a turn.

I was unaware of the accusations leveled at John K in 2018. I don’t know if I should even call them accusations since he freely admits it in the documentary, but he was never convicted in a court of law.

In summation, John K began writing letters back and forth with a 14-year-old female fan of “Ren & Stimpy” in 1995. He was 30 at the time. He basically was grooming her and then had her move in with him when she was 16. He admits to the sexual relationship and animators admit in the documentary that everyone knew. The victim speaks openly in the movie, saying that he wouldn’t let her leave the house and she still has nightmares about him. The documentary filmmakers question John K firmly but he gives a very weak apology without saying he did anything wrong. He basically says he’s sorry if she feels like she was hurt.

The woman tries to reconcile the art that is “Ren & Stimpy” with the artist that created it, saying: “I understand you need pain to make great art, but that doesn’t mean you need to inflict pain.”

So this is when the documentary sort of makes me angry.

What John K did was criminal (the statute of limitations have passed) and it feels weird that I just watched an hour of people heaping praise on him.

Yes, the cartoon itself was quite genius, but the movie clumsily tries to reconcile the fact that the show has been somewhat tarnished by the reputation of its creator.

There’s a big debate about whether you can still enjoy a piece of art that was created by (or includes) a reprehensible person. Can you still watch “The Cosby Show” or movies that feature Kevin Spacey? Where do you draw the line? Can you separate the art from the artist?

The documentary gives maybe three minutes to these questions and it’s a shame. It almost feels as if the documentary was deep into production when the 2018 Buzzfeed article came out that exposed John K. It’s quite possible that’s what happened, but these two directors should have used that as an opportunity to give more weight to this important subject. I’m not saying you can’t still explore the greatness that was “The Ren & Stimpy Show” but you can’t just tack these sexual assault incidents on at the end.

Furthermore, the documentary never even touches the fact that John K was alleged to have child pornography on his computer.

The smiling talking heads of Bobby Lee and Jack Black never come back on screen to say how these revelations have altered their nostalgia. Again, maybe they were interviewed before it all came out.

In the end, “Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story” is a fascinating look at a controversial show and its controversial creator. I was never bored watching it, but I felt like I needed a shower after the credits rolled. The title of this documentary is very misleading.

Rogue

★★

Megan Fox has had an interesting go of it in Hollyweird. She exploded onto the scene as a full-blown sex symbol in Michael Bay’s “Transformers.” She was jettisoned from the franchise after she made comparisons between Bay and Adolf Hitler. She did some good, interesting work in the Karyn Kusama-directed and Diablo Cody-scripted horror-comedy “Jennifer’s Body,” which wasn’t well-regarded upon its 2009 release, but has gained converts and a certain cult cache in recent years. Fox and Bay eventually reconciled when she was cast as April O’Neil in the two “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” pictures he produced. Fox claims to have been the victim of Hollywood misogyny … I believe her.

This brings us to “Rogue,” now available on VOD. Sporting a blacked-out Yankees cap and brandishing a machine gun, Fox plays Samantha O’Hara, the leader of a lively and diverse mercenary squadron (Philip Winchester of Cinemax’s “Strike Back,” Lee-Anne Liebenberg, Brandon Auret, Greg Kriek, Sisanda Henna, Kenneth Fok). Their mission is to retrieve the Governor’s daughter, Asilia (Jessica Sutton), from sex traffickers. They can’t in good conscience leave without also rescuing Chloe (Calli Taylor) and Tessa (Isabel Bassett). While they’re escaping criminal ringleader Zalaam (Adam Deacon), his right-hand hatchet man Masakh (Tamer Burjaq) and scads of other rebels give chase. The mercs’ extraction gets bungled and they’re munsoned out in the middle of rural South Africa where they’ll have to contend with the sex traffickers and a pissed-off lioness.

Fox is surprisingly adept in her action heroine role. I only rolled my eyes at her a handful of times. Honestly, she’s better than the material she’s been given. The real standout however is Winchester, who injects the proceedings with much-needed humor by repeatedly singing Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” Winchester played the stoic Stonebridge on the aforementioned “Strike Back.” Here he gets to harness his inner Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) by being a character who’s equal parts badass and smartass.

It’s a “Strike Back” reunion of sorts as “Rogue” is directed by M.J. Bassett (mother of Isabell, with whom she co-wrote the script), who helmed 15 episodes of the series. My interest in “Rogue” mostly stemmed from my “Strike Back” fandom and having dug a handful of Bassett’s other films “Deathwatch” (2002), “Wilderness” (2006) and the Robert E. Howard adaptation “Solomon Kane” (2009).

Bassett began her career in horror before evolving into action. The horrific elements of “Rogue” don’t work nearly as well as the action ones do. There’s a chase/shootout sequence early on that’s truly impressive in spite of being a little too reliant upon computer-generated imagery for my liking. Bassett opted to gild the lily by also making this a creature feature. Her intentions are noble as she’s trying to shine a condemning light on South African poaching, but the execution leaves much to be desired. The lioness is a sub-PlayStation 2 CGI gobbledygook of weightless pixels. It’s hard to feel for or be horrified by her when she’s so entirely unconvincing. A massive uncanny valley also exists when the lioness is shown side-by-side with actual lion cubs, though they’re certainly a welcome and adorable presence.

If you want to watch a movie about a merc busting up a sex trafficking ring check out “You Were Never Really Here.” If you want to watch a “when lions attack” flick opt for “Roar” (totally fucking bugnuts!) or “The Ghost and the Darkness.” “Rogue” has its charms, but they’re fleeting at best. If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’.

Bill & Ted Face the Music

In 2001, the satire Web site The Onion ran an article titled, “Alex Winter keeps bugging Keanu Reeves about third ‘Bill & Ted’ movie.”

It was a funny joke at the time because Reeves just jumped into superstardom with “The Matrix” franchise. Many years later, Reeves would solidify his box office status with the acclaimed “John Wick” action series. It’s already been announced that Reeves will reprise both roles in a fourth “Matrix’ movie and a fourth (and fifth) “John Wick” installment.

Meanwhile, Alex Winter has spent the years directing lesser known documentaries and episodes of television series. Not the same stardom.

So it seemed that Reeves was throwing his buddy a bone by agreeing to appear in a third “Bill & Ted” movie. Another reason to love Keanu.

Turns out, the movie was actually worth making. A smart screenplay coupled with top-notch direction from Dean Parisot (who did cult classic “Galaxy Quest”) make this years later sequel much funnier than it ought to be. It’s not a comedy classic that will reel in those that weren’t fans of the first two movies, but it’s not the disaster that “Jay & Silent Bob Reboot” was.

“Bill & Ted Face the Music” includes references to both 1989’s “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and 1991’s “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.” The eponymous duo is much older and still haven’t written the great song that will unite the world, align the planet and create universal peace. Their moment in the sun as a famous 90s rock band has faded and now they’re playing weddings. Their wives — princess they picked up in the 1400s while time traveling in the first movie — are getting fed up with them. The only people who still look up to Bill & Ted are their daughters, played by Samara Weaving (“The Babysitter”) and Brigette Lundy-Payne. Their offspring look and talk like their dads but they seem to know a lot more about music and they are apparently more intelligent too.

Just like the first movie, there are trips back in time to pick up historical figures and just like the first sequel there’s a trip to the afterlife, complete with a very funny cameo by William Sadler reprising his role as Death (he has some of the funniest lines in this movie).

Anthony Carrigan, known as mobster NoHo Hank in the HBO series “Barry,” plays a futuristic robot sent to kill “Bill & Ted” and he steals most scenes he’s in, constantly reminding people in an emotionally insecure way that his real name is Dennis Caleb McCoy.

Reeves gives an admirable performance but Winter actually seems to be better at delivering humorous lines. He needs it more.

Although their voices have changed in the 30-plus years (much deeper and gravelly), the chemistry between the two stars is still there and this new addition is actually quite fun. It’s fast paced and full of silly scenes like the two sequels to “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” but obviously with more Sci-Fi.

In the end, this sweet hearted goofball comedy doesn’t rely on gross-out humor, shocking jokes or political references to be relevant. It’s message about the power of music to unite all people is actually needed right now and it’s quite refreshing. It would be great if we all followed the message from Bill and Ted: “Be excellent to one another and party on, dudes!”

The New Mutants

★★1/2

A long preamble to my review of “The New Mutants:” The movie was originally supposed to come out Apr. 13, 2018, was pushed to Feb. 22, 2019 to avoid competition with label mate “Deadpool 2” and then to Aug. 2, 2019 so as to not compete with “Dark Phoenix.” It was later moved to Apr. 3, 2020 after Disney acquired Fox. COVID-19 hit and the movie was jettisoned from Disney’s release calendar altogether before finally being pushed to Aug. 28, 2020. Having finally seen the movie – I can say I didn’t hate, but it wasn’t great. Disney-owned streaming services such as Hulu or Disney+ would’ve been perfectly serviceable homes for this picture.

Additionally, I will say I felt safe seeing “The New Mutants” in a theater. I went to the AMC Traders Point 12 on Indianapolis, Ind.’s Northwest side. The theater was operating at 40 percent capacity, but attendance was well below that. The staff wore masks. Patrons were in masks. There were sanitation stations littered throughout the complex. The audience I saw the film with was one of the best-behaved I can recollect in recent memory because we all legitimately wanted to be there – even if none of us seemed particularly high on the picture itself. Maybe I have fewer reservations about seeing a movie theatrically than do some of my colleagues because I’ve also been bartending throughout this pandemic? My best advice to y’all – don’t go if you don’t feel comfortable; go if you want to and feel comfortable. We all – both sides of the aisle – need to work on not politicizing the situation we currently find ourselves in and not judging others for doing what they’re comfortable doing so long as they’re being safe about it – even if their actions are counterintuitive to your own.

OK, I’m hopping off my soapbox now. “The New Mutants” is directed by Josh Boone (“The Fault in Our Stars”) and features an impressive cast comprised of Maisie Williams, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton, Alice Braga, Blu Hunt, Henry Zaga and Adam Beach. The movie itself plays like a weird hybrid of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Glass” (Maybe that’s mostly Taylor-Joy’s presence and the institutional setting?) and your run-of-the-mill “X-Men” flick with a dash of horror thrown in for good measure.

The cast is uniformly good. No real surprise as Boone showed a deft hand with actors before in “TFiOS.” (Admission: I drunkenly watched “TFiOS” in bed on HBO a handful of years ago while my wife slept. The movie had its way with me and I wound up ugly crying like a little bitch.) Boone’s latest works best when trading in character. Williams kinda comes across like a young Angela Lansbury meets Teen Wolf, but she exudes the same charming grit she brought to Arya on earlier seasons of “Game of Thrones.” Taylor-Joy is enjoyable even with a Natasha Fatale accent. Heaton, looking strikingly like River Phoenix, is more likable here than he is on “Stranger Things” despite a questionable “Kentuck-eee” accent. Braga is a good actress and does what she can with a role that seems like it got hacked to pieces. Hunt is the film’s lead and does a decent enough job headlining. Zaga has a presence and I could see him going places due to his physique if nothing else. Beach is briefly on hand as Hunt’s character’s father – he doesn’t have a whole helluva lot to do, but it’s always nice to see this cat after his turns in “Joe Dirt” (“hoosker doos, hoosker don’ts”) and as Ira Hayes in Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers.”  

I enjoyed “The New Mutants” most when it was evoking “OFOtCN,” and that’s likely what kept getting it postponed. People aren’t going to this movie for McMurphy and Chief – they wanna see mutant mayhem. The horror feels more “Goosebumps” and less “Fear Street.” The action isn’t especially deft. Graphics often aren’t rendered particularly well. A buddy I went with suggested the film’s photography was too dark – I didn’t agree per se – but this is often a technique employed to camouflage budget deficiencies. Long story short – the picture has its charms, but it’s my least favorite “X-Men” film to date and you can wait six months to a year to watch this at home on Hulu or Disney+ – and that’s whether you feel safe going to the movies or not.

Tesla

★★1/2

Sometimes people can change the world without becoming incredibly famous.

In the musical “Hamilton,” there are a ton of references to the fact that Alexander Hamilton shaped the U.S. government into what it is today but many everyday people — before the musical came out — didn’t know him as well as Thomas Jefferson or George Washington.

Nowadays, Nikola Tesla is known by more people than he used to be. But he’s known mostly for his name being used on Elon Musk’s car company or the fact that David Bowie played a fictionalized version of him in “The Prestige.”

Most people can’t tell you what Tesla is famous for.

Some would say he “invented electricity” but that’s not entirely accurate.

Most of what I know about this historical figure came from the movie “The Current War,” which I watched a few months ago. Nicolas Hoult played Tesla in a supporting role in a film that really focused on Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, two titans who were battling in the 1800s to see who could have their form of electricity (direct current or alternating current) become commonplace and dominate the market.

You know, Tesla worked briefly for Edison at his company. Edison is who we learned about in second grade. Edison became rich form his inventions. Tesla struggled for money for most of his life and even was a ditch digger for a brief period of time.

Director Michael Almereyda tells much of the same story as “The Current War,” in his film “Tesla,” but with the lesser known inventor as the central figure. He teams up with Ethan Hawke as Tesla and Kyle MacLachlan as Edison, two actors he previously worked with in his superb retelling of “Hamlet” in 2000.

Almereyda tells his story in an unconventional way, having it narrated by Tesla’s love interest, the daughter of banker J.P. Morgan. She breaks the fourth wall, telling us about the Google results of Tesla versus Edison and often it feels like a high school documentary lots of historical explanation. It really gets odd toward the “climax” of the film (or as close as you can get in this movie) when Hawke sings a karaoke version of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears, dressed up as Tesla. It’s poignant but it’s also quite strange.

I’m not sure Almereyda’s film succeeded 100 percent. I kind of loved this movie and yet I kind of hated it. It takes risks and it made me think, but its meandering plot with its strict adherence to historical accuracy felt more like reading a textbook than watching a grand feature.

If you love history, this one might be for you. And there is a central theme: that Tesla’s pursuit of brilliance and world-changing inventions might have completely occurred during his lifetime, but the work he did let to further breakthroughs that changed the world. He died penniless, but not forgotten.

I know movie theaters are closed right now, but this is a film that’s better watched at home and probably by yourself. You don’t want to glance over at your yawning partner who is bored to tears by your rental choice.

The film lacks a real electric charge but you can see the tiny sparks in Hawke’s performance. I mildly enjoyed this film, but I preferred “The Current War.”

Random Acts of Violence

★★★1/2

I’ve always been a bit of a Jay Baruchel fan. I dug him on Judd Apatow’s Fox series “Undeclared.” I felt for him when he was getting his ass whooped by Anthony Mackie in “Million Dollar Baby.” He was funny and relatable in “Knocked Up,” “She’s Out of My League” and “This Is the End.” I enjoyed “Goon,” which he co-wrote and co-starred in. I enjoyed to a lesser extent “Goon: Last of the Enforcers,” with which he made his feature directorial debut in addition to co-starring and co-writing. This brings us to “Random Acts of Violence,” now streaming on Shudder, Baruchel’s sophomore directorial effort.

“RAoV” concerns Todd (Jesse Williams), a writer who’s made his bones crafting a comic book based around real-life serial killer Slasherman (Simon Northwood). Together with his girlfriend, Kathy (Jordana Brewster), his publisher, Ezra (Baruchel), and his assistant, Aurora (Niamh Wilson), the quartet return to the scene of the crimes in order to give Todd inspiration for the final issue of the book’s run. Upon their arrival, bodies begin piling up.

Williams isn’t an actor I’m especially familiar with. I know him primarily from “The Cabin in the Woods” … and for kinda looking like Derek Jeter. He did good work there … as he does here. He’s probably too cool and too good-looking to pull off being this nebbish, but he surprisingly makes it sing.

Brewster is an actress I’ve never been especially fond of despite having liked many of her movies, i.e. “The Faculty” and “The Fast and the Furious” franchise. I’ve always kinda thought of her as “Baby Ali MacGraw” due to her resemblance to the “Love Story” and “The Getaway” actress. Brewster does some of the best work of her career here. (Shallow Dude Alert: I also tend to find her much more attractive in glasses for whatever that’s worth.) The way in which her character eschews fear shows courage and makes a monologue she’s given especially powerful. (Props also to Baruchel and his co-writer Jesse Chabot (with whom he collaborated on “Last of the Enforcers”) for giving Brewster dialogue this juicy to sink her teeth into.)

Baruchel and Wilson aren’t given nearly as much to do as Williams and Brewster, but they acquit themselves well enough.

“RAoV” was produced by famed writer and inker Jimmy Palmiotti and is based off his 2010 comic of the same name. The picture does occasionally falter in its adherence to comic book stylings. Some of the cell-shaded animations employed echo Nintendo GameCube games of almost 20 years ago more than they do graphic novels.

I’m sure Baruchel had a limited budget and he does hit some stumbling blocks as a result of this. For instance, the dummy that’s supposed to be the carcass of one our primary characters reappears late in the flick and it’s laughably bad. That said there’s a tableau of multiple victims that’s shot and depicted in such a way that it’s insanely effective. Moments such as this make me think Baruchel has a real future ahead of him as a horror director. For the most part, the kills are staged and shot for maximum impact.

I liked “RAoV” a good deal. It’s an effective and affecting horror-thriller. I’m not sure I’d want to see the picture again as it’s brutally violent and somewhat emotionally draining, but its tale is told compellingly enough in a brisk 80 minutes.

Cannibal Corpse Killers

I don’t know what the hell I expected when I volunteered to review a film entitled “Cannibal Corpse Killers” – fun for the entire family?

The movie, now available on DVD and digital platforms, seemed like it could be good, dumb fun judging by the title alone. Maybe it’s a movie made by somebody with an axe to grind against grindcore band Cannibal Corpse? Lord knows it was messed up when their lead guitarist Pat O’Brien was arrested down in Tampa, Fla. with 50 shotguns, 10 semi-automatic rifles, two Uzis, 20 handguns, two flamethrowers, thousands of rounds of ammo, three skulls and a partridge in a pear tree. I’ve been listening to the band’s music to set a mood while writing this review – their ditty “I Cum Blood” is lovely. Mostly “Cannibal Corpse Killers” is a bad, dumb slog undeserving of its title.

The monsters in “Cannibal Corpse Killers” would likely be more at home in Italy with Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci as opposed to Pittsburgh with George A. Romero. They aren’t brought about by a virus or contagion, but rather through demonic possession at the hands of The Magistrate (Ron Jason, who kinda looks like a combination of an aged Jake “The Snake” Roberts and that My Pillow asshole).

The Magistrate’s selfish actions have brought about an apocalypse reminiscent of “The Road Warrior” or “The Book of Eli.” There is a quartet of survivors looking to exterminate these demonic cannibals and bring justice to The Magistrate. They are Pike (Dennis Haggard, who kinda reads like a Wish version of Timothy Olyphant), Ruby (Theresa Holly), Scar (Katherine Norland, rocking a look that’s Roxette meets “Final Fantasy”), Boots (Nate Philo) and newcomer/loner Slim (Chris Shumway, whose look is reminiscent of Stephen Moyer as Bill Compton in the goofy Civil War flashbacks on “True Blood.”).

I don’t want to rip something apart that obviously had limited means. I know filmmaking requires a ton of effort on lots of different people’s parts, but in some respects it’s a stretch to call “Cannibal Corpse Killers” a movie. I debated with my wife while watching it what was worse – the performances or the writing? I’d side with the latter. It took three people to dream this shit up (director Joaquin Montalvan, Eunice Font (awesome name!) and S.E. Feinberg) and yet it seems like it was written by the kid from your English Comp class who got the hall pass in order to hit the head and huff glue. There are continuity errors out the yin-yang. Characters randomly disappear and reappear with seemingly no explanation. The dialogue is often overtly flowery to the point of obnoxiousness bordering on stupidity. Why say in 20 words what you can say in two? There is bizarre voiceover that pops up periodically that seems like it was cribbed from a “The Dukes of Hazzard” episode, but Shumway is no Waylon Jennings.

The movie isn’t altogether bad. I did dig the design of a dude who showed up late in the picture – his goggles and crossbow were rad. A character did drop the word “vittles,” which warmed the heart of this often-hungry hillbilly. There were infrequent instances where there was some cool gore, but budgetary constraints likely put the kibosh on numerous money shots. (Speaking of money shots, there’s a cannibal who looks exactly like Ron Jeremy.) Lastly, for a flick called “Cannibal Corpse Killers,” these folks most assuredly sucked at slaying monsters. Maybe they should’ve borrowed some of O’Brien’s arsenal?

Project Power

★★★

If you’re Brian Austin Green (or BAG as I affectionately know him), Eminem or just generally wanna see Machine Gun Kelly/Colson Baker set ablaze, “Project Power” (now streaming on Netflix) may be the movie for you. Baker plays Newt and no, he’s not essaying the role of the little girl from “Aliens.”

“Project Power” focuses primarily on a New Orleans teenager named Robin (Dominique Fishback). Robin has aspirations of becoming a rapper (the movie cribs rhymes from Chika), gets in trouble at school and peddles a drug called Power on the streets.

Power is a pill that when ingested can instantaneously give the user superpowers. That’s if all goes according to plan and your physiology – the pill can also explode your person in graphic Cronenbergian glory. If things go swimmingly, you’ll randomly be assigned a specific superpower. The abilities of Mr. Freeze/Iceman, Poison Ivy, Wolverine, The Incredible Hulk, Pyro, Superman (in increased strength and being bulletproof – not flight) and Scarlet Witch are all aped.

Robin slings Power to a cop called Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who uses so he can compete with crooks popping the pills like Skittles. Robin’s low on the Power totem pole – the bigwigs are gangster Biggie (Rodrigo Santoro) and crooked Fed Gardner (Amy Landecker). The baddies have a lackey named Wallace (Tait Fletcher). (I bring Fletcher up not because he’s important to the movie – he’s certainly not – but because I kinda love the dude. He used to rock a Rollie Fingers mustache alongside his beard. This cat has such versatility – he played Thug #1 in “The Accountant,” Thug #2 in “Term Life” and Thug #3 on the newfangled “Magnum P.I.” He’s like a white, 21st century version of Al Leong.) OK, tangent over. Biggie and Gardner screw up by kidnapping and experimenting on Tracy (Kyanna Simpson), who’s the daughter of ex-soldier Art (Jamie Foxx). Art comes to town looking to kick ass, take names and get his little girl back.

“Project Power” accomplishes the rare feat of being both overlong and underdeveloped. Most of the characters aren’t especially well-drawn outside of Robin, but when you’ve got actors as good as Foxx and Gordon-Levitt they can sell their roles with little background. I believed Foxx’s Art cared about both Tracy and Robin because he sold it, which made me care about and root for him despite not really knowing him. Gordon-Levitt is a good-looking cat and a very capable performer, but he’s a little light in the ass to be playing a tough guy cop role. His New Orleans accent is both convincing and laughable, but I gotta give big ups to Gordon-Levitt or the costuming department for the Steve Gleason Saints jersey shout-out. Immensely talented character actor Courtney B. Vance (Check him out as Johnnie Cochran on FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” – seriously, so good!) is on hand for no reason other than to yell, “Badge and gun!,” at Gordon-Levitt. What a waste!

The clear standout of “Project Power” is Fishback as Robin. I was shocked to learn she’s 29 years old when doing research for this review. I didn’t doubt she was a teenager for an instant when watching the film. She handles the rap well, conveys intelligence and vulnerability and is hugely likable. She more than holds her own acting opposite heavyweights like Foxx and Gordon-Levitt. I look forward to seeing more of her in “Judas and the Black Messiah” next year.

“Project Power” is co-directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (“Catfish,” “Paranormal Activity 3,” “Paranormal Activity 4” and “Nerve”), written by Mattson Tomlin (co-writer of the upcoming “The Batman”) and budgeted at over $85 million. It’s simultaneously entertaining and sloppy. Much of the effects work is garish and unconvincing. The action choreography coverage is often confusing. Joost and Schulman’s low budget roots spring from the seams despite now playing with big boy toys. They’re lucky to have cast Foxx, Gordon-Levitt and especially Fishback who elevate the material and make it immensely watchable. “Project Power” is ultimately pretty forgettable – mostly it made me a Fishback fan and left me wanting to visit New Orleans again.

Indy Film Fest – Samurai in the Oregon Sky/Closet

★★★★

I agreed to review a pair of films for The Film Yap’s coverage of the 2020 Indy Film Fest, which kicked off today and runs through Sunday, Aug. 23. The two movies are “Samurai in the Oregon Sky,” a 48-minute documentary about the only manned aerial bombing of the United States during World War II, and “Closet,” a Japanese drama concerning a man who begins working as a “cuddler,” who aids insomniacs in going to sleep. As both works have ties to Japan, one’s too short to write a full review on and the other has no IMDb page (an important tool when writing a review so you know who’s who) nor Letterboxd entry (I couldn’t log “Closet”!), I’m gonna give you good folks two reviews for the price of one!

“Samurai” tells the tale of Nobuo Fujita, the pilot of the lone “attack,” which was perpetrated against an empty forest outside of Brookings, Ore. in 1942. Twenty years after the attack, a group of young men making up the Brookings Junior Chamber of Commerce (most of them Korean War veterans), invite Fujita back to Brookings for the town’s 1962 Azalea Festival. They aren’t inviting Fujita for retaliation, but rather reconciliation. The invitation caused a stir in the small community with the controversy ultimately being quelled by President John F. Kennedy (himself a WWII veteran).

“Samurai” is directed by Portland, Ore. native Ilana Sol, narrated by Kurt Weist and features animation by Zak Margolis. The story, which is conveyed via present day interviews, archival footage and the aforementioned animation, is undoubtedly one worth telling. It does occasionally feel like something you’d see at a museum or on the Discovery Channel, History Channel or TLC and less like a standalone film however. Margolis’ animation is sort of rudimentary, but has a manga feel to it that echoes Fujita’s culture and likely suited the film’s limited budget.

“Samurai” is a story of forgiveness and friendship. To see Fujita develop a relationship with the Brookings community over the course of 35 years is quite moving – he even eventually refers to the town as his second home. Fujita was an adorable old man and seemed to be a beautiful soul – it was a pleasure to spend 48 minutes with him.

I didn’t know much about “Closet” going into it. I actually thought it was the South Korean horror film called “The Closet,” which also came out this year. Alas it wasn’t, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that “Closet” (no “The”) was going to turn into a horror movie at any moment. Maybe I’ve too many Takashi Miike movies, but I kept waiting for this to devolve into smut or snuff.

“Closet” focuses on Tasuku (Yosuke Minokawa), who’s fresh out a relationship and still recuperating after a motorcycle accident. He begins working at a “Soine” (“sleeping together”) company in Tokyo. His clients are both men and women and range in age from teenagers to the aged. There are strict rules forbidding sexual contact.

Tasuku develops a rapport with a teenage girl (Aino Kuribayashi) who’s in a relationship with a manipulative shitheel of a kid. He helps a gay man (Ikkei Watanabe) come to peace with himself and his relationship – the man in turn does the same for Tasuku. There’s an interesting and affecting segment wherein an elderly woman calls upon Tasuku to stay at her home for 48 hours to help her usher her deceased husband’s lizard into the afterlife.

As written by Aya Sawada and directed by Takehiro Shindo, “Closet” is well-acted and emotionally resonant. It kinda reminded me of “Crash” (Paul Haggis’ not David Cronenberg’s) and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Babel” (more the latter than the former). It wasn’t what I ignorantly expected going in, but it was a pleasing watch nonetheless.

Spree

★★★★

“Spree,” which will be available on VOD and at drive-ins beginning Friday, Aug. 14, is a Generation Z take on “Man Bites Dog.”

Kurt Kunkle (Joe Keery, “Stranger Things”) is a young man who drives for a rideshare company called Spree. His true passion however is “Kurt’s World,” an internet broadcast that he hopes will go viral someday. Kurt’s tricked his ride out with cameras aiming to capture content that will catapult him to Internet superstardom. Kurt will pull out all the stops in order to accrue fame and/or infamy up to and including murder.

This found footage feature mostly plays out as a series of vignettes focusing upon Kurt’s desperate interactions with his passengers – asking them to retweet or follow him. His passengers are a motley crew ranging from a white nationalist motivational speaker (Linas Phillips) to a bitchy real estate agent (Jessalyn Gilsig of Ryan Murphy’s “Nip/Tuck” and “Glee”) to a meathead giving off big time Tom Cruise in “Magnolia” vibes (John DeLuca, “Staten Island Summer”) to a trio of scenesters (reality television stars Mischa Barton, Lala Kent and Frankie Grande – big bro of Ariana) to DJs both successful (Sunny Kim’s uNo) and washed-up (Kurt’s very own Dad, Kris, played by David Arquette, who’s great casting as he was playing burnouts even in his prime with flicks like “Scream” and “Never Been Kissed.”).

Kurt’s most notable fare is up-and-coming comedienne Jessie Adams (Indianapolis, Ind. native, Pike High School graduate and “Saturday Night Live” alumna Sasheer Zamata). Jessie has what Kurt wants – fame, notoriety, followers. He pimps “Kurt’s World” to her. She chastises him calling it, “Squirt’s World.” Jessie isn’t malicious – she simply has a low tolerance for bullshit. The only person actively watching and commenting on the proceedings initially is Bobby Basecamp (Joshua Ovalle), an influencer for whom Kurt once babysat.

“Spree” works best in its first half hour where it’s primarily a dark comedy before escalating further and further into horror. Keery is great alternating between pathetic and psychopathic. He’s genuinely funny throughout much of the flick and is worlds removed from his signature role of Steve Herrington.

Matching Keery in quality if not quantity is Zamata. She’s extremely likable as Jessie and I actively rooted for her success and survival. You see her grapple with fame and stay grounded spending time with Grandma Adams (Reatha Grey). The movie’s most woke moments come via Jessie. She sees the ills of social media (even if she profits from it) and keeps hangers-on like Miles Manderville (fellow “SNL” alum Kyle Mooney) at an arm’s length.

There’s an awful lot for Ukrainian co-writer/director Eugene Kotlyarenko to unbox with “Spree.” I’m not sure he’s entirely up to the task, but he comes damned close. Some will likely see the film as tasteless due to its similarities to the senseless violence perpetrated by Kalamazoo, Mich. Uber driver Jason Dalton in 2016 … and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. In spite of its inherent ickiness, “Spree” is undeniably darkly entertaining, features two really solid performances from Keery and Zamata and will hopefully make you think twice before seeking that next like, share or retweet. It also kinda feels like “Crank”-era Neveldine/Taylor riffing on Todd Phillips’ “Joker” … so there’s that.