Welcome to Sudden Death

★★★

I am a Michael Jai White fan. Two movies cemented my status as one – “Undisputed II: Last Man Standing” (arguably the greatest straight-to-DVD flick of all-time) and “Black Dynamite.” Much of White’s output isn’t up to snuff with his talent – in spite of this I always tune into his stuff so long as he’s punching and kicking people … just save the Tyler Perry melodrama for your Mama!

This brings us to “Welcome to Sudden Death,” now available on DVD, VOD and for streaming on Netflix, a sequel to the Jean-Claude Van Damme “Die Hard” in a hockey arena vehicle from 25 years ago. The movie is the latest product from Universal 1440 Entertainment – the production arm of Universal Pictures Home Entertainment. These are the folks who unleash “Tremors” installments upon us seemingly every year (“Tremors: Shrieker Island” drops Oct. 20, 2020!), “Jarhead” follow-ups that have fuck-all to do with the original movie (but my boi Scott Adkins was in #3!) and a “Backdraft” sequel 28 years after its predecessor that I wouldn’t cross the street to piss on if it were on fire. Despite their spotty track record, I must say “Welcome to Sudden Death” is a pleasant surprise. It’s better than Adkins’ “Hard Target 2,” but that ain’t an especially high hurdle. This new “Sudden Death” is an objectively bad movie, but it’s an entertainingly bad movie.

White stars as Jesse, a Special Forces veteran who’s reintegrating to life back home with his family. He wants to contribute, so he takes on a job working security for the Phoenix Falcons of the National Basketball League. He decides to take his kids Mara (Nakai Takawira) and Ryan (Lyric Justice) to the season opener. Unfortunately for them, a group of pissed off Geek Squad members with an axe to grind known as Alpha rig the arena with explosives at all of the exits. They’ve also taken hostages in the executive suite – the Governor (Paul Essiembre), the Mayor (Kristen Harris), a billionaire businesswoman named Diana (Sabryn Rock) and her rapper boyfriend, Milli (Anthony Grant). Leading Alpha is Jobe (Michael Eklund, who comes across like a bargain basement Craig Sheffer … then again Craig Sheffer himself is kinda bargain basement Craig Sheffer). Assisting Jesse in thwarting these terrorists is the facility’s custodian, Gus (comedian Gary Owen).

“Welcome to Sudden Death” is less a sequel to “Sudden Death” than it is a remake that substitutes hockey for hoops with a darker complexion, smaller budget and more humor. It’s directed and co-written by Dallas Jackson. The original film’s writer Gene Quintano is credited as well. I’m not sure if he wrote on the picture or if he’s given a nod since the filmmakers straight-up aped his original work?

There’s a lot to like here – White can still fight – a locker room-based skirmish between he and Marrese Crump (next set to appear opposite Nicolas Cage, Frank Grillo and Tony Jaa in “Jiu Jitsu”) is a showstopper. A sequence depicting Alpha making guns with 3D printers is cool and calls to mind John Malkovich’s shenanigans from “In the Line of Fire.” Owen can’t act, but he’s insanely likable and often very funny. Takawira isn’t anywhere near the best child actor I’ve ever seen, but she’s cute as a button, sassy as shit and can deliver one-liners like nobody’s business. Eklund has a certain presence to him as the primary baddie, but he’s no Powers Boothe. Then again, who is?

As fun as this all is, don’t get it twisted – “Welcome to Sudden Death” is dumb as a doornail. This is a movie involving basketball referencing a phenomenon that doesn’t exist in the game for the sake of name notoriety. The filmmakers should’ve just called this scrappy, crappy action flick “Overtime.” If you want another riff on “Sudden Death,” Dave Bautista’s soccer-themed “Final Score” from a coupla years back easily bests this beater.

Ava

★★1/2

The much-maligned Jessica Chastain-fronted hitwoman picture “Ava” is now available theatrically (it’s playing exclusively at Georgetown Cinemas here in Indianapolis, Ind.), on VOD and for rental at Redbox. While the movie’s not good, it’s better than many critics are making it out to be (it’s currently rocking a 22 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a 38 on Metacritic). Straight up, “Ava” is for folks who wanted “Atomic Blonde” to feel more like a Lifetime movie.

Chastain stars as our titular heroine, who turned her back on her father, mother, Bobbi (Geena Davis), sister, Judy (Jess Weixler of “Teeth,” a movie my wife and I watched together in the early stages of our relationship and are still making references to and jokes about 12 years later) and fiancée, Michael (Common), in the wake of familial dysfunction. She Martin Blanks ‘em all by joining the Army and later becoming a hit person under the tutelage of Duke (John Malkovich).

Ava returns to her family and hometown of Boston eight years later following her father’s passing. Michael and Judy are now an item. There’s no love lost between mother and daughter, but Ava has bigger fish to fry in maintaining her hard-fought sobriety and keeping a target off her back for breaking agency protocol. The black ops organization she works for (embodied by Colin Farrell’s Simon) is gunning for her after a botched job.

“Ava” reunites Chastain with her “The Help” director Tate Taylor. The results are a mixed bag, but I find it kinda funny that Taylor keeps dipping his toes into genre filmmaking with the leading ladies of “The Help” after having made horror flick “Ma” with Octavia Spencer last year. (I’m eagerly anticipating his Emma Stone Western and Viola Davis sci-fi vehicle. Hell, maybe he could remake “Salò” with Bryce Dallas Howard?) “Ma,” a movie I enjoyed more than most, is better than “Ava” … which I also seem to enjoy more than most.

Many of the movie’s shortcomings stem from its script by actor-turned-writer/director Matthew Newton (he played Armand in the 2002 Aaliyah-fronted Anne Rice adaptation “Queen of the Damned”). “Ava” is the first film Newton’s written that he didn’t direct. It wants to be an action movie, a character study and a domestic drama and doesn’t totally succeed at any of these avenues. It’s mostly just cliché city.

Newton isn’t done any favors at times by his director (employing speed ramping when filming Chastain doing karate kicks in her hotel room looks ridiculous as opposed to cool) and leading lady (Chastain brandishing a machine gun lacks the authenticity of Charlize Theron doing the same and is downright laughable). Chastain comes across better sporting a pistol, knife fighting and especially in the hand-to-hand combat sequences. She’s an actress I’ve always liked and admired, but she seems above this even if she steered the project creatively serving as a producer.

The supporting cast are hit-or-miss. Malkovich and Farrell (bringing BIG Tom Skerritt in “Top Gun” energy with his haircut and mustache) are fun. They too get in on the fisticuffs and appear to enjoy working with one another and with Chastain. Davis is crackerjack casting as a clever nod to Renny Harlin and Shane Black’s “The Long Kiss Goodnight.” As nice as it is to see Davis again after a prolonged big screen absence – the filmmakers should’ve given her more to do, though she does solid work with one meaty scene opposite Chastain. I like Common. He seems like a cool dude. But he can’t act. The cat is a charisma void on screen and often just stares blankly when delivering dialogue. He may be at his absolute worst here. Promising young actress Diana Silvers (“Booksmart,” the aforementioned “Ma”) is kinda wasted playing the daughter of Farrell’s character who’s following her father into the family business. (He’s old enough to play her Dad?!!! Man, I’m getting old.) She figures prominently into a final scene that either hints at a sequel that’ll likely never happen or concludes the picture on a foreboding open-ended note. I’m OK either way as I wasn’t mad at the $2.14 and 96 minutes I spent watching “Ava,” and that’s about all it’s worth.

Enola Holmes


★★★1/2

What does Sherlock Holmes have in common with Santa Claus, Dracula and God?

They are the four most portrayed characters when it comes to TV shows, movies and books.

That’s rare company for the fictional detective and the Guinness Book of World Records lists him as as the most portrayed literary human character in film and television history (the other three don’t fit that description). There have been more than 25,000 stage adaptations, films, television productions and publications featuring the detective. Movies alone count more than 250.

So to say there’s another movie featuring Sherlock Holmes might give many a groan, even if there’s a new twist.

Netflix’s newest original movie “Enola Holmes” gives Millie Bobby Brown a starring vehicle in which she portrays the titular heroine, who is the younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes.

It’s based on a series of young adult novels that debuted in 2006 and while the movie is appropriate for teens and tweens, fans of the Robert Downey Jr. movies and the Benedict Cumberbatch series will still enjoy this two-hour feature. It’s not just for children. In fact, kids younger than middle school might get bored or confused.

Henry Cavill (“Man of Steel,” “The Witcher”) plays the famed detective with obsessive brilliance and arrogance, but lacking the eccentricities of other version. He’s not a misanthrope or a drug addict in this version. It’s a softer Holmes. And yes, he’s far far better than Will Ferrell’s terrible version.

Trusty sidekick Watson isn’t by Sherlock’s side. Maybe they’re saving him for some sequels. Yes, this movie is meant for sequels. The movie itself could have easily been turned into a series, but I’m thankful that Netflix is still providing options that I can watch in two hours rather than eight.

The plot itself is disposable. It’s a generic mystery where you could care less about the clues that are found or who the ultimate villain ends up being. With the exception of the brilliant twist in last year’s “Knives Out,” most detective movies are more about the journey than the answer.

The real reason to watch “Enola Holmes” is to see a star in the making with Millie Bobby Brown. She was introduced to the world in 2016 as Eleven, a bald-headed 12-year-old with telekinetic powers on the hit Netflix show “Stranger Things.” She was shy, scared and unable to speak. It was a powerful role, but one that gave us no hint of how Brown would fare as a confident, verbose, witty young feminist in “Enola Holmes.” With only one other feature film under her belt (a small role in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”), this is Brown’s film breakthrough. It showcases her leading star ability and it’s not hyperbole to say that I see the same charm and acting ability that we saw in Anne Hathaway, Natalie Portman and Emma Stone before they went on to win Oscars many years later. Brown is only 16 and if she keeps selecting the right roles (which is very important) her future will be bright.

Brown brings a ton of charisma to “Enola Holmes.” When she breaks the fourth wall and looks into the camera, the viewer feels like she’s looking directly at them because of Brown’s personal connection and relaxed performance. It’s a strong enough debut to warrant sequels, even if the mystery itself isn’t incredibly engaging.

Lost Girls and Love Hotels

★★

My interest in Japan and its culture and my baser, more prurient instincts led me to “Lost Girls and Love Hotels,” which is now available on VOD. Don’t make the same mistake I did.

“Lost Girls” focuses on Margaret (Alexandra Daddario), an American expatriate living in Tokyo and teaching English pronunciation to aspiring Japanese flight attendants. Margaret spends her evenings drinking and joking with fellow expats Ines (Carice van Houten) and Liam (Andrew Rothney). She makes cracks about other people’s problems with the bottle, but it’s eventually revealed that she’s the one with the issue. Margaret often shows up late to her gig, disheveled and hungover, which draws the ire of her boss, Mari (Mariko Tsutsui), but Mari gives Margaret slack because she likes and even empathizes with her.

Joking and drinking aren’t Margaret’s only nighttime activities – she often closes her evenings by talking strangers into renting rooms at love hotels where they’ll engage in anonymous sex and BDSM. During one of these sessions she actually makes a connection with the Yakuza-tattooed Kazu (Takashi Miike veteran Takehiro Hira).

Why is Margaret in Japan? Who or what is she running from? Why is she so damaged? These questions are answered in the most cursory sense via throwaway lines. Catherine Hanrahan adapts her 2006 novel of the same name to little fanfare. I imagine this story worked better as a book where you’re provided the inner workings of our heroine’s mind. This is a character piece with little to no character. I know very little about Margaret besides the fact that she likes to drink, smoke, fuck, get choked out with a belt and has a predilection towards Asian dudes. That’s it. Swedish director William Olsson and screenwriter Hanrahan feel as if they took “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” “Leaving Las Vegas,” “Lost in Translation” and “Fifty Shades of Grey,” shoved ‘em in a blender, hit puree, dumped the contents into a pan and began photocopying them until almost any individualistic and/or interesting attributes of the original works become fuzzily indiscernible.

Daddario is serviceable as Margaret. She’s de-glammed in the role, but still lovely. I feel as though the writing and direction of her character did the performance a disservice. Van Houten is given an absolute nothingburger of a role. I actually think if she and Daddario had traded roles the picture might’ve been better, as she’s proven in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book” and on HBO’s “Game of Thrones” to be an actress who can plumb the depths of a part. The most interesting performance and character of the lot is Hira as Kazu. His character changes the most through the course of the movie. He’s mysterious and yet I feel like I know him much more than Margaret.

There’s not a whole lot to recommend about “Lost Girls” aside from Hira’s performance and some really striking opening and closing credits. It’s not sleazy enough to be guiltily entertaining nor substantial enough to be a true character study. It ends in an open-ended fashion that’s open to interpretation … I wasn’t invested enough to care much either way.

The Babysitter: Killer Queen

★★★

You’ll likely know whether “The Babysitter: Killer Queen,” now available for streaming on Netflix, is for you prior to firing it up. Did you see its 2017 predecessor “The Babysitter?” Did you dig that ditty? “Killer Queen” is more of the same only bigger, longer and dumber. McG returns to the director’s chair, which will either entice you or fill you with dread … either reaction is perfectly understandable. I’m a bit of a McG apologist having enjoyed “Charlie’s Angels” (2000), “We Are Marshall,” “Terminator Salvation,” “This Means War,” the first “Babysitter” picture and “Rim of the World,” but make no mistake … “Killer Queen” feels every bit the work of the dude who helmed the Offspring’s “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)” music video.

Judah Lewis reprises his role as Cole, a nerdy kid who survived an attempted cult killing at the hands of his babysitter, Bee (Samara Weaving), and her cadre of cronies – Max (Robbie Amell), Sonya (Hana Mae Lee), Allison (Bella Thorne) and John (Andrew Bachelor). Cole vanquished his foes, but was too open and honest about what transpired and has subsequently been labeled as crazy by the police, his classmates, his teachers and even his own parents, Archie (Ken Marino) and Phyllis (Leslie Bibb). Cole’s only friend is his neighbor, Melanie (Emily Alyn Lind), on whom he harbors a crush. Unfortunately, she’s dating a musclehead by the name of Jimmy (Maximilian Acevedo). In spite of this, Melanie invites Cole along for a weekend excursion on a houseboat where he runs into Phoebe (Jenna Ortega), the new girl in school with a dark history and an accompanying rap sheet. Figures from Cole’s past reemerge, things become complicated and the bloodletting begins.

Lewis is a talented young actor who’s made a name for himself in genre fare such as these “Babysitter” pictures and “Summer of 84” after having broken out opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Demolition.” He kinda reminds me of Giuseppe Andrews, who some of y’all might remember from the Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979” music video as well as “Detroit Rock City.” The kid’s reliably good here, but I’m curious whose decision it was to dress him like Max Fischer in “Rushmore.”

Lind is memorable here much in the way she was in last year’s “Doctor Sleep.” It’s safe to assume this young lady has a bright future in horror flicks if she wants one. I wasn’t familiar with Ortega prior to “Killer Queen,” but liked her well enough that I’m looking forward to seeing what she has up her sleeve in the upcoming “Scream 5.” As good and lovely as these young lasses are, the movie’s sneaky standout is Carl McDowell as Dr. Big Carl McManus, the guidance counselor/nurse at the kids’ high school. Some of y’all might remember McDowell as TTD from HBO’s “Ballers.” He brings much of the same manic comedic energy to this role and a lot of it seems improvised. Humorously, McDowell’s McManus and the movie itself are strangely preoccupied with whether or not Lewis’ Cole is gonna get laid.

“Killer Queen” is a horror comedy that skews far more towards the comedic, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its fair share of gruesome gore. When the jokes hit – they hit hard. When they miss – it’s brutal. The movie is chock-full of pop culture references ranging from “Deliverance” to “Risky Business” (going so far as to borrow its theme) to “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” There are a ton of cool needle drops including the Queen tune from which the movie lifted its subtitle and “Hocus Pocus” by Focus, which many would now understandably say belongs to Edgar Wright and “Baby Driver.”

“The Babysitter” clocked in at a svelte 85 minutes. “Killer Queen” feels flabby at an hour and 42 minutes. Brian Duffield, who wrote the first film, serves as Executive Producer this time out, having been busy making his directorial debut, “Spontaneous.” Duffield was replaced on scripting duties by McG, Brad Morris, Jimmy Warden (who’s engaged to Weaving) and Dan Lagana (showrunner of “American Vandal”). The writing-by-committee didn’t result in as clear of a vision as its predecessor, but it’s still pretty fly for a bunch of white guys. Hell, I’d even happily watch a third installment of “The Babysitter” franchise.

Tenet

★★★★

Writer/director Christopher Nolan is in rarified air amongst modern filmmakers. He’s one of a few big name auteurs who have yet to make a bad movie – the only other ones springing off the top of my head are Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson and Ryan Coogler. There are huge expectations resting on Nolan’s shoulders as theaters reopen. He’s like Michael Jordan calling for the rock late in a playoff game during the ‘90s – he’s more than happy to put everything on his back, doesn’t really give a damn if his actions harm others and is ultimately gonna win.

“Tenet” is my second least favorite Nolan movie to date … and I still really enjoyed it. My least favorite Nolan flick is his first effort “Following,” which is also good. There have been many complaints lodged against “Tenet” – it’s too long (it kept my attention), it’s too loud (I only noticed dialogue getting drowned out a time or two), it’s overly serious (guilty, but leading man John David Washington lends levity), it’s overly complicated (probably true, but if you can tune out the excess it actually becomes pretty simple).

Washington stars as Protagonist, a CIA agent in pursuit of Russian arms dealer, Andrei Sator (a scenery-chewing Kenneth Branagh). He’s aided in his pursuit by Sator’s estranged wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), and Jack-of-all-trades, Neil (Robert Pattinson). They get further assistance from soldiers named Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson … I didn’t even know he was in this!) and Wheeler (Fiona Douriff, Chucky’s daughter!), lab rat Barbara (Clémence Poésy) and a fixer named Mahir (Himesh Patel, a welcome presence after his charming turn in last summer’s “Yesterday”).

I don’t want to delve into the plot much more than I already have. “Tenet” is ultimately a simple story told in a complex manner. The movie’s time travel elements are less a necessity and more a stylistic flourish. This may be Nolan at his most Michael Mann-ish and the dude straight aped Mann’s “Heat” with “The Dark Knight.” In the world of “Tenet” what somebody does for a living says a lot more about them than who they actually are. In this respect, the film reminded me a lot of recent Mann efforts “Miami Vice” and especially “Blackhat.” Sure, Nolan farts around with time travel, but ultimately this is a story about a lone professional who falls under the charms of a woman entangled with a dangerous man and the lengths he’ll go to in order to extract her from the situation. Hell, the movie is also reminiscent of “Mission: Impossible II” and JDW’s Daddy’s own flick “Déjà Vu” too for that matter.

The performers generally excel. I’ve always liked Washington. He was good on “Ballers” and in “BlacKkKlansman.” He’s more convincingly badass here than he’s been before. The dude sounds exactly like his Pop and looks a lot more like him Mama. It’s probably not the time or place to say it (seriously, utmost respect and RIP to Chadwick Boseman), but I could see Washington being a decent replacement for the role of T’Challa if Coogler and Marvel proceed with a “Black Panther II” at all or one that isn’t fronted by Shuri (Letitia Wright).

I get the sneaking suspicion Nolan was a big fan of Steve McQueen’s “Widows,” which led to Debicki’s casting in this picture. He saw her play an abused woman who finally stands up for herself and plugged her and that vibe into this flick. Debicki is a talented actress whom I’ve enjoyed in a variety of projects (“The Great Gatsby,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” AMC’s “The Night Manager”). She’s not given a part as meaty as her “Widows” role, but she does an admirable job with it.

Pattinson doesn’t make the splash here that he did a coupla weeks ago with “The Batman” trailer, but that’s not to say the reliably consistent performer didn’t register. I just assumed there might be more to his character due to a resemblance between Neil and one of Pattinson’s castmates as a younger man.

“Tenet” is undeniably goofy and often falls into video game pitfalls that you’d assume Nolan was beyond at this point (the whole enterprise devolves, albeit entertainingly, into “Red vs. Blue” at the end, Taylor-Johnson’s essentially playing Captain Price from “Call of Duty”). I’ve really admired the direction Nolan’s gone in with his last few efforts – “Inception” and especially “Interstellar” show the depths of a parent’s love for their children and the lengths they’ll go to for reconciliation; “Dunkirk” was IMHO for all intents and purposes a horror movie that clearly conveys the terrors of war. These are my favorite Nolan features due to their level of feeling – something that’s often been seen as lacking from the filmmaker’s chilly oeuvre. “Tenet” is handsome, entertaining and leaves itself wide open for a sequel. I suppose I’d just say, “One more time with feeling!”