Cruella

★★★★

Cruella de Vil has to be considered one of the most hated animated villains in the Disney film world.

Sure, Scar betrays and kills his brother. Maleficent and the Evil Queen put young girls in comas in their quests for power. Gaston is just arrogant and gross (the original creepy frat bro).

But Cruella tries to kill puppies. That’s an unforgivable sin for many people.

Just mention Michael Vick on a Facebook post and see how many angry comments you get.

“Poison them. Drown them. Bash them in the head. You got any chloroform?” Cruella yells in the 1961 film. “I don’t care how you kill the little beasts, but do it, and do it now!”

People hate seeing animal cruelty in movies. Even a dog dying of natural causes leads to uncontrollable sobbing, which is why the Web site, DoesTheDogDie.com, is a real thing.

Trending in the top 10 of searches on that Web site is “Cruella,” the new origin story of the Disney villain starring Oscar-winner Emma Stone.

And not to spoil too much, but no, this newest film doesn’t display animal cruelty. We don’t even see Emma Stone’s character kick a dog, let alone show the future seeds of puppy homicide. That’s because the goal of this prequel is to portray a sympathetic look at one of Disney’s most hated antagonists.

Set in 1970s London, Estella is an orphaned drifter who makes friends with two thieves, Horace and Jasper, after her mother dies in a horrible fashion. Estella is cunning and conniving as a criminal but too meek when it comes to traditional employment.

The two-tone black-and-white mop of hair symbolizes the dual nature brewing inside of Estella’s messed up head. Ever since she was young she’s had an “extreme side,” an alter-ego that her mom nicknamed Cruella. She dyes her hair to cover up her natural hair-color abnormality, but eventually her “Mr. Hyde” bursts through.

Estella designs and sews all of the disguises that she and her bandit-buddies use on con jobs. She has a natural flair for design and longs to work in a high-end clothing store.

After a few misadventures, Estella lucks her way into a job as a clothing designer with the famed fashion icon The Baroness, played deliciously by Oscar-winner Emma Thompson. The Baroness is rude, pompous and cut-throat. Obvious comparisons will be made to Meryl Streep’s performance in “The Devil Wears Prada,” but that’s a disservice to Thompson. She creates her own character.

The Baroness abuses her employees. She toasts to herself at meals. She forcibly throws out guests at her parties that dressed too well and might upstage her. It’s a fun performance by a truly underrated actress.

“Let me give you some advice: You can’t care about anyone else. Everyone else is an obstacle. If you care what an obstacle wants or feels, you’re dead. If I’d cared about anyone or thing, I might have died. You have the talent. Whether you have the killer instinct is the big question.” — The Baroness in “Cruella.”

The relationship between Estella and The Baroness begins as one of an underling desperately seeking the approval of a cruel boss but later turns into a vicious rivalry. The back-and-forth acting tennis match between the two Emmas is a joy to watch.

Unknown to the The Baroness, Estella transforms into her alter-ego Cruella, a singular-named fashion-vandal who crashes event after event with avant-garde, focus-stealing, punk rock creations. Cruella is part Banksy, part Joey Ramone and part Lady Gaga. She’s edgy and aggressive and poses an unacceptable threat to the reserved Baroness.

I’m a straight white man who can barely dress himself (my wife often corrects me when I try to wear a brown belt with a black suit) but even I had to appreciate the imaginative costume design in “Cruella.” Audiences are treated to a fun montage of increasingly bold looks. I particularly enjoyed when she fells of a garbage truck with a dress that looked like rubbish and old newspapers. It’s not a stretch to say the “Cruella” should receive Oscar nominations for Best Costume Design and Best Makeup.

I suspect that cosplay enthusiasts will have some fun with this film. You might even see some inspiration on display when Halloween rolls around.

“Cruella” ends on a solid note, but with a run time of more than two hours, it feels like it takes a long time to get there.

In fact, my wife had to go to bed about an hour into this one and she commented that she felt that she really didn’t get to see Estella’s transformation into Cruella. Truly it takes more than an hour for the movie to really kick into gear.

References to the 1961 classic animated film abound in this original story including Roger and Anita, Cruella’s terrible driving, how “Hell House” got its name and where her devilish last name originated.

But the main question: why does she hate dogs? That question is clumsily answered.

We find out why Cruella isn’t a fan of dalmatians in particular, but Cruella and her bumbling sidekicks actually own two very small mutts. It’s understandable. This movie wants to paint Estella/Cruella in a sympathetic light and so animal cruelty is off the table. The most we see is an off-color joke about turning the spotted dogs into a coat, which she quickly laughs off when scolded.

So how does this version of Cruella differ from the previous incarnations?

In the 1956 novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians, Cruella is presented as the epitome of old-money greed. She has a meek furrier husband and a malnourished Siamese cat — both removed from the movies — which are abused by her. She’s swimming in debt and is a tyrannical figure grasping on to her fading power.

The 1961 animated feature follows the novel fairly closely with a few exceptions. She’s a scrawny figure with a phony accent that reminds viewers of Tallulah Bankhead (born in Alabama but often used a fake British accent). She’s homicidal and uncaring.

Glenn Close seems to be channelling “Sunset Boulevard” in her 1996 live-action portrayal. She has more sex appeal and glamour than the book or cartoon. Close chews scenery in her over-the-top performance which unfortunately has a lot more slapstick than is needed.

Emma Stone’s version is more calculated and vengeful rather than a heartless sociopath.

“Cruella gets things done. Estella doesn’t,” she yells at Horace and Jasper as justification for her less-than-kind leadership.

She gets to flex her acting chops with a tearful, mascara-dripping monologue at the very end of the movie. She provides depth and motivation to a universally hated femme fatale.

Stone doesn’t go quite as psycho as Joaquin Phoenix in another spinoff origin story “Joker,” but remember that “Cruella” is still rated PG-13. It definitely won’t appeal to elementary school aged children but middle school and above could enjoy this mildly maniacal flick.

There’s a lot I didn’t like about “Cruella.” It’s overly long. It takes nearly an hour to get rolling. There’s unnecessary narration throughout that spouts cliche sayings and restates plot points that I already understood. The soundtrack is filled with the most overused 1970s rock songs that it almost feels like one of those generic compilation albums you used to see advertised on TV in the 1990s. And the songs seems to be thrown into scenes without much thought to how they fit into the context of what’s going on.

In the end, this is probably the best version of this movie we could expect to see given its constraints. It’s a Disney-studio movie. It’s not going to be artsy or violent. It’s not going to have a main character without any redeeming factors. It’s not going to give a writer/director complete reign to craft their vision. This was always going to be heavily influenced by notes from the studio.

But given all of that, it succeeds quite nicely. That’s mostly due to the chemistry between Emma Stone and Emma Thompson. These two Emmas certainly know how to breathe life into their characters and it’s always a joy to see them act, even in a cash grab from Disney.

Cruella is available in theaters or you can pay $30 to unlock it from Disney+. I’d say it’s worth a trip to the movie theaters, especially since COVID numbers are improving.

A Quiet Place Part II

★★★★1/2

John Krasinski quietly stumbled upon a huge hit in 2018.

Teaming up with his wife Emily Blunt, he starred and directed “A Quiet Place,” the innovative alien thriller that had audiences on the edge of their seats and earned more than $300 million worldwide on a tiny budget of $17 million.

When the studio asked him to work on the sequel, he brushed it off, saying his movie was meant to be a one-off.

But an idea began brewing in his brain and he returned to the director’s chair for “A Quiet Place Part II”

And we are glad he did but it is everything a good sequel should be.

It delivers many of the same thrills and feelings from the previous breakout hit while expanding the movie’s universe and justifying its existence in the first place.

At only 90 minutes long, there’s not much time to linger in quiet moments and there isn’t a wasted scene or moment. There’s not one thing I’d cut. And the abrupt but powerful ending leads audiences to say, “They better start filming the next one!”

(Apparently writer/director Jeff Nichols of “Mud” will lead the third installment, which hasn’t begun filming.)

After a flashback introduction featuring Krasinski, the sequel picks up shortly where the first one left off. Emily Blunt reprises her role as matriarch Evelyn, leading her two children Marcus and Regan, played by Noah Jupe and Millicent Simmonds, out of danger quietly. They have discovered a way to paralyze the blind aliens that can hear long distances by using a hearing aid put up to a microphone. Adding to the tension is the fact that there’s a newborn child along for the ride, one that cries at times.

(Side note: it did throw me off how much older Jupe and Simmonds look in the sequel. The first movie was filmed in 2017 when they were 12 and 14 respectively. The sequel was shot in 2019 and they clearly have grown quite a bit in those two years. Yet in the timeline of the movie maybe only a few days has passed. I got over it quickly, but it did make me do a double take.)

The trio accidentally stumble upon an old family friend Emmett, played by Cillian Murphy. They decide to hole up in his underground shelter, complete with a soundproof safe that shields them from harm. They bring along oxygen tanks so they can still breathe while locked in the airtight metal container.

Marcus discovers a song played on a loop on the radio and Regan deciphers the code and believes there’s a society of people living on an island nearby. She treks out on a journey alone while Emmett tracks her down. Mother and son have their own suspenseful side story while the two are away.

The daughter is the real star of the sequel and most of the biggest developments are driven by her character.

Blunt, who should have been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the first movie, is relegated to a smaller role this time.

I had assumed that Krasinski would have received a rather large bump in his production budget but that wasn’t the case. Apparently he shot this sequel for about $20 million which is impressive given the top-notch special effects. Every penny is up there on the screen (I believe Krasinski and Blunt are earning their payday with a cut of the box office).

Unlike the first movie which took place mostly at night, you are able to see the monsters in intricate detail in bright daylight. The CGI is very well done.

The sequel has tremendous sound design, which was also the case with the first one (which was Oscar nominated). The thumps and crashes reverberate through your seats. I literally felt the vibrations in the movie theater. This is a reason to watch this at home (even if you have an amazing 5.1 surround sound system, many of us don’t want the neighbors or other people in our homes complaining about the volume.)

The first movie was much deeper than the sequel, which a richer storyline that explored themes of being a parent and accepting loss. Krasinski said he was influenced by “No Country For Old Men,” “Alien” and “In The Bedroom.”

The sequel is more about finding a home.

The opening flashback shows families watching their children play Little League baseball on a summer day in a small Appalachian town. It feels like Americana, like the town of Derry in “IT.” The characters in the movie might be longer for a world that no longer exists but audiences too remember what it’s like to have to hide in isolation and missing those lively crowds of people. While we are getting to slowly return to the world we once knew, there’s no option like that for the characters of “A Quiet Place Part II” and even an idyllic oasis turns out to be full of false hope.

Krasinski has solidified himself as a top-notch director, able to mix big budget special effects and action sequences with realistic human emotions. My only real complaint is that I’m not sure he’s found his own voice. I see influences all over in this film, which isn’t a bad thing. The opening attack reminded me of Stephen Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” and the wandering through the desolate woods with wreckage behind reminded me the video game “The Last of Us.” And the mysterious radio signal, the planned community refuge and the bearded band of hostiles along the docks all reminded me of scenes from the TV show “Lost.”

And obviously many will see comparisons to the hit TV show “The Walking Dead” but to be fair that show that failed to display the visual flair to match Krasinski’s since director Frank Darabont left the series. “A Quiet Place Part II” makes you realize the potential “The Walking Dead” has squandered in its later years.

It’s possible I could be rating this movie way too high but my excitement leaving the theater was palpable. COVID-19 has hit all of us really hard and — while it’s not the most important thing — movie lovers have missed have a reason to go to a theater. Yes, theaters have been open for months but even if you didn’t worry about the risk of infection the quality of the movies didn’t justify a trip. Many of the cinematic offerings were also available on streaming and did have the grand spectacle that warranted a big screen.

I saw two movies in theaters myself: “Tenet” and “Nomadland.” The first was a massive disappointment and wasn’t worth seeing on any size screen for me. “Nomadland” was beautiful on a large screen but I think I enjoyed it nearly as much on Hulu shortly after.

This is a movie that demands to be seen on a big screen.

“A Quiet Place Part II” might single-handedly bring back the box office.

The first movie blew audiences away three years ago and it was truly an experience you had to have in a theater. It was strange to be sitting in a movie theater that was so quiet you could hear other patrons breathing. I remember I went to a 10 p.m. screening at Flix Brewhouse, which has a policy of no children after 9 p.m. I was relieved when a manager informed two parents of this rule when they brought along a talkative two-year-old. (I have a talkative two-year-old daughter myself but I haven’t taken her to a movie theater yet, let alone a quiet movie meant for adults late at night).

While it might not feel as fresh as the original, that’s no fault to Krasinski. There’s nothing he should have done different with this sequel and now it’s just time to watch for another installment.

Séance

★★★

I’ve long been a fan of screenwriter Simon Barrett and his work with director Adam Wingard (“You’re Next,” “The Guest”). Barrett steps out from Wingard’s shadow to a degree by writing and making his feature directorial debut with “Séance” (available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Friday, May 21), which Wingard executive produced.

“Séance” opens with the ‘Mean Girls’ of the all-female Edelvine Academy performing the titular ritual in order to commune with a student who killed herself by slitting her wrists in a bathtub all the way back in the “ancient history” that is 1998. (Jesus, I’m old.) These young ladies are Alice (Inanna Sarkis), Bethany (Madisen Beaty, last seen getting her face bashed in on fireplace bricks by Brad Pitt in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), Yvonne (Stephanie Sy), Lenora (Jade Michael) and Rosalind (Djouliet Amara). Hanger-on Kerrie (Megan Best) gets spooked by the divination, hightails it back to her dorm room and promptly falls from a window to her death.

Kerrie’s passing opens a slot for waitlisted student Camille (Suki Waterhouse of “The Bad Batch” and “Assassination Nation”), who’ll have to stay in the deceased girl’s dorm. Kerrie’s gal pals have made peace enough with their friend’s passing that they’re more than open to bullying her replacement. Camille isn’t one to take shit and promptly pops Alice in the kisser, who in turn slugs Camille back. Alice, her posse, Camille and Helina (Ella-Rae Smith), a kindly student who attempted to intercede on Camille’s behalf, are all thrown into detention by their headmistress Mrs. Landry (Marina Stephenson Kerr), which consists of an arduous archiving project in the school’s substantial library. The schoolgirls don’t archive so much as they fight and perform another incantation … this time in hopes of conjuring the recently departed Kerrie.

Following this most recent ritual, the lights in Camille’s room begin flickering randomly and the window won’t stay shut. She calls for the assistance of Trevor (Seamus Patterson), Mrs. Landry’s son and the school’s handyman/groundskeeper. Even more jarring are the sudden one-by-one deaths of the ‘Mean Girls’ themselves.

I’ll be honest and assert that I didn’t care much for and was mostly bored by the first two-thirds of “Séance.” There isn’t much blood and very little coverage of the killings themselves to better obscure the murders’ identities. Then at the beginning of the last third there’s a beautifully shot sequence that’s chock full of lens flares depicting a young woman practicing ballet that culminates with her being graphically slashed to death. From here on out “Séance” is the blast I expected it to be from the onset. Call me old-fashioned, but when I watch a horror movie … I wanna be horrified – or at the very least chilled and/or thrilled. The third act of “Séance” does all of this and then some.

Barrett’s influences appear to be varied here … Dario Argento’s “Suspiria,” “The Craft,” “Scream” and direct-to-video horror sequel “Urban Legends: Bloody Mary” (starring Kate Mara, featuring her sister Rooney’s acting debut and co-written by Wingard’s fellow MonsterVerse filmmaker Michael  Dougherty (“Godzilla: King of the Monsters”)) all spring to mind. “Séance” alternates between being a ghost movie and a slasher movie and back again. Its strongest attributes are Waterhouse’s steely performance, the subtly sensitive romance that develops between Waterhouse’s Camille and Smith’s Helina (this ain’t “Catholic High School Girls in Trouble” à la “Kentucky Fried Movie”) and Sicker Man’s awesomely ‘80s synth score.

“Séance” has an admirable pedigree being distributed by genre shingle RLJE Films and horror streamer Shudder and produced by the revamped Dark Castle Entertainment (Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis’ label that unleashed remakes of “House on Haunted Hill” and “House of Wax” upon unsuspecting audiences in the late ‘90s and early-to-mid aughts. Man, was it dope to see their logo again!). Barrett earns these directorial horror bonafides (he already had the writing ones) with his cool conclusion, which makes “Séance” less “Mona Lisa Smile” and more “Mona Lisa Grimace.”

The Woman in the Window

★★★

“The Woman in the Window” (now streaming on Netflix) has had a long strange trip to our television screens.

Based off the 2018 novel of the same name by Dan Mallory (under the pseudonym A.J. Finn), the movie finished shooting that year, was supposed to be released theatrically by 20th Century Fox in October 2019, was pushed to May 15, 2020 due to poor test screenings by everyone’s favorite producer Scott Rudin (seriously, fuck this guy) and Fox’s new owner Disney before having its release cancelled altogether in the midst of a pandemic and then finally being sold to the aforementioned streamer.

“The Woman in the Window” is the story of an unreliable protagonist (Amy Adams’ Anna Fox) that was initially conceived by an unreliable author (seriously, read The New Yorker’s piece on Mallory here). Mallory’s novel was adapted by acclaimed playwright Tracy Letts (and later rewritten by Tony Gilroy at Rudin’s insistence). Letts does uncredited double duty playing Anna’s in-house shrink, Dr. Landy. Despite Letts’ involvement, the resulting product is less chicken drumstick and more hambone, but that ain’t altogether a bad thing.

Anna is a non-practicing child psychologist and agoraphobic who hasn’t left her home in 10 months. The house in question is a stately Harlem-based brownstone. She’s currently separated from her husband Ed (Anthony Mackie), who has custody of their daughter Olivia (Mariah Bozeman). In spite of this, Anna and Ed speak on the phone every day. When Anna isn’t being therapized to by Landy or logging telephone time with Ed and Olivia she busies herself by mixing anti-anxiety meds with wine and watching Alfred Hitchcock movies.

Speaking of Hitchcock, Anna has also made a habit of spying on her across the street neighbors the Russell’s, newly moved to the area from Boston. The Russell’s are Alistair (Gary Oldman, a whoosh of silver hair and attitude), Jane (a bleached-blonde Julianne Moore) and their son Ethan (Fred Hechinger). Anna connects with Ethan when he drops off a candle gifted by his Mom. She in turn lends the boy some DVDs and asserts that her home is a safe space for him gleaning that he and Alistair have a contentious relationship. Anna also meets Jane when the latter saves the former from some prank-happy hooligans on Halloween. The two proceed to talk and get drunk together.

Shortly thereafter while not minding her own business, Anna witnesses someone stab and kill Jane. Anna does what any concerned citizen would do and calls the cops – here in the form of Detective Little (underrated character actor Brian Tyree Henry) and Detective Norelli (Jeanine Serralles). Detectives Little and Norelli show up to Anna’s brownstone with all three Russell’s – Alistair, Ethan and a new woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) purporting to be Jane. Alistair, understandably upset, refers to Anna as “a boozed-up, pill-popping cat lady,” and tells her to stay the hell away from his family.

Director Joe Wright is undeniably talented and has an aces cast at his disposal – most of whom are treated as disposable save for “High Priestess of Histrionics” Adams, the immensely likable Henry, promising relative newcomer Hechinger (I look forward to seeing more of this kid’s work in Netflix’s upcoming “Fear Street” flick.) and Wyatt Russell as Anna’s probation-skipping rocker of a basement tenant.

I tend to gravitate towards Wright’s more stylistic works, i.e. “Atonement,” “Hanna,” as opposed to his stodgier, stuffier films (“Darkest Hour”). While this is plenty stylish with sharp cinematography and production design by Bruno Delbonnel (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) and Kevin Thompson (“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”), Wright does himself a disservice by dropping all the Hitchcock references – he ain’t Hitch and this ain’t “Rear Window” … this ain’t even Brian De Palma. The picture is too amiable or more specifically Amiel (as in director Jon, whose 1995 effort “Copycat” appropriately enough gets aped here) to be mistaken for the work of a master.

Honestly, this feels like a throwback to the thrillers of the ‘90s. I could totally see somebody like Amiel, Jonathan Kaplan, Joseph Ruben, Gary Fleder, Barbet Schroder or Bruce Beresford directing this thing back in ’96. Had this come out 25 years ago I could also easily see Sandra Bullock or Ashley Judd in Adams’ role, Susan Sarandon or Sigourney Weaver in Moore and Leigh’s roles, Leonardo DiCaprio or Tobey Maguire in Hechinger’s role and Samuel L. Jackson in Henry’s role. Humorously enough, Oldman would be a shoo-in for his role in ’96, 2018 or now – I just wish he had more to do here.

“The Woman in the Window” is better than many would lead you to believe. It feels very much of its time (Hello, being cooped up in our homes!) and not (Falcon and John Walker are both in this and have no scenes together! Wait, this was filmed prior to Disney+ even existing!). It’s not the best recent gaslighting thriller Netflix has to offer (that’d be “Things Heard & Seen”), but if you pretend you rented it on VHS from a Blockbuster Video it just might just have some surprises to spring.

High Ground

★★★

“High Ground” (available on VOD beginning Friday, May 14) works at being a few different things all at once – revenge thriller, Australian Western and a mea culpa for the misdeeds Great Britain perpetrated against Oz’s indigenous people. The movie serviceably takes on all these roles without ever completely excelling at any of them.

The picture opens somewhat shockingly in the early 1900s when a platoon of white soldiers under the command of Moran (Jack Thompson, Cliegg Lars from “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones”) invades an Aboriginal village. Sniper Travis (Simon Baker, “Land of the Dead”) is supposed to be the only one to fire, but the situation quickly goes sideways and Travis’ former spotter Eddy (Callan Mulvey, an actor who was in seemingly every comic book movie in the mid-2010s, i.e. “300: Rise of an Empire,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”) and his men begin murdering many of the village’s men, women and children. Travis, disgusted by his fellow soldiers’ actions, begins taking some of his own people out and promptly quits the unit.

The movie flashes forward 12 years. The massacre left Gutjuk (talented newcomer Jacob Junior Nayinggul) orphaned. He’s since been raised by missionary siblings Claire (Caren Pistorius, “Unhinged”) and Braddock (Ryan Corr).

Moran pulls Travis back into the fold with threats of holding him accountable for past actions going so far as to say, “What were your bullets doing in white men?” He wants him to hunt down and kill Baywara (Sean Mununggurr), Gutjuk’s uncle and an Aboriginal warrior who’s been attacking the invaders’ outposts. Travis, having saved Gutjuk’s life 12 years prior, enlists the young man’s services as a tracker. Travis would prefer to negotiate with the tribe’s chief and Gutjuk’s grandfather Dharrpa (Witiyana Marika) to spare Baywara’s life, but Moran is less amenable to such an idea.

During their time together Travis teaches Gutjuk how to shoot. Between his bond with Travis and having been raised by Claire and Braddock, Gutjuk’s blackness is questioned by Gulwirri (Esmerelda Marimowa), an Aborigine woman to whom he is drawn.

There’s much to admire about “High Ground.” Despite Baker being the biggest name in the cast (and serving as an executive producer), this isn’t Travis’ story so much as it’s Gutjuk’s. The film is largely from Gutjuk’s perspective and Nayinggul is up to the challenge. Baker’s Travis veers dangerously close to white saviorism, but he’s ultimately very likable and played convincingly. Thompson and Mulvey are appropriately hissable, but predominantly one-note.  I wish Pistorius’ Claire and her relationship with Gutjuk were more developed, but she’s good with what little she has to do.

“High Ground” as directed by Stephen Johnson and written by Chris Anastassiades is a story that’s worth telling, but it’s hard to shake the feeling I’ve seen similar work done better elsewhere. Despite this, the beautiful outback scenery, Nayinggul and Baker’s performances and Marika as Dharrpa’s assertion of, “MY country,” will resonate with audiences well after the closing credits have rolled.

Oxygen

★★★

I’ve always considered myself a fan of French horror filmmaker Alexandre Aja despite his filmography being a bit of a mixed bag to me.

“High Tension” has some amazing kills, but its twist didn’t stick the landing. His 2006 remake of “The Hills Have Eyes” held true to the original, but was a touch too brutal for my tastes. “Mirrors” bummed me out by wasting a perfectly good topless Amy Smart by having her rip her own jaw off in a bathtub. I adore the 2010 remake/reimagining “Piranha 3D” what with all its fun sex and violence – the flick’s a blast and my favorite of Aja’s oeuvre. Somehow I missed “Horns” and “The 9th Life of Louis Drax.” “Crawl” is another creature feature from Aja that many (me included) saw as a return to form.

This brings us to “Oxygen” (now streaming on Netflix), Aja’s latest and his first French language film in almost 20 years. He moves away from his horror roots by tackling this thriller that’s little more than a sci-fi-ified reskinning of the 2010 Ryan Reynolds vehicle “Buried.”

Aja further extrapolates on the single location gimmick employed in “Crawl” (it was a flooded basement full of alligators in that flick) by setting the entire enterprise within a cryogenic chamber. The pod’s sole human occupant is a woman referred to as Omicron-267 (Mélanie Laurent). She awakes from cryosleep not knowing who she is or how she got here. Her only source for answers is an artificial intelligence known as Medical Interface Liaison Operator AKA M.I.L.O. (voiced by Mathieu Amalric). M.I.L.O. also informs Omicron that her air supply is at 35% and dropping. Omicron must piece together her past and either escape or get rescued from the capsule before she asphyxiates to death.

“Oxygen” was conceived pre-COVID by first-time screenwriter Christie LeBlanc, but feels fitting for our times as a pandemic placed Omicron in her pod in the first place. (The picture was also shot in France between that country’s first and second lockdowns.) The sense of isolation and the fear of not being able to breathe also seem pertinent to now. Anti-vaxxers will likely relate to a scene in which a mechanized robot arm tries to stick Omicron with sedatives she doesn’t want.

At an hour and 41 minutes “Oxygen” overstays its welcome. I can’t help but think this story would’ve made a better episode of “Black Mirror” or “The Twilight Zone” as opposed to a full-fledged film. Despite running too long on a thin concept, I can’t find fault with Laurent’s performance. She’s a dynamic performer who anchors the movie admirably. She and her flaring nostrils deserve all sorts of credit.

“Oxygen” is capably made, but doesn’t breathe new life into the thriller genre. I’d likely rather listen to Air Supply for an hour and a half than watch Laurent’s Omicron struggle for air supply again.

Mainstream

★1/2

Writer/director Gia Coppola comes from a famous family. Her aunt is Sophia Coppola of “Lost in Translation” fame. Her grandfather, Frances Ford Coppola, is one of the greatest filmmakers the world has ever seen (and he makes a good bottle of wine too).

The now-34-year-old writer/daughter exploded onto the filmmaking scene when she was 27 years old and directed “Palo Alto,” a film starring James Franco based on writings by the actor. It wasn’t a perfect film by any means but for a young filmmaker’s’ debut, it showed real promise and it currently has a 70 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, which isn’t too shabby.

For her sophomore effort, Coppola has created “Mainstream,” a purposely strange film that will possibly resonate with a select few. But for this reviewer here, it was unbearable. It’s an exhausting film full of fortune cookie wisdom and a muddled message that feels about 10 years too late to the party.

The movie is the cinematic equivalent of some overly confident and overly inebriated stranger trapping you in the corner at a party and spouting some half-baked soliloquy about how we are, “All slaves to our phones, man.”

“Mainstream” is a satirical take down of Internet fame headlined by former Oscar-nominee and one-time Spider-Man Andrew Garfield. I’m not sure how I feel about Garfield as an actor. I enjoyed him in “The Social Network,” “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Silence” but he was an awful Peter Parker. Something about him just bugs me. In “Mainstream,” I think he’s supposed to be playing an incredibly annoying and unlikable character, so in that sense he’s succeeded (and the casting was spot on).

To get a sense of Garfield’s character, think YouTube star Jake Paul (who has a cameo has himself) if he was imbued with the soul of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in “Nightcrawler.”

Maya Hawke, the daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman that wowed audiences in season three of the Netflix series “Stranger Things,” plays a lost, broke, twenty-something bartender who hates her job and wishes for something more in life. She stumbles upon Garfield, a goofy jester who pokes fun at mainstream society and everyone’s addiction to their phones, and befriends the enigmatic pontificator. When a video she records of him going on a nonsensical rant in a mall goes viral, she hatches a plan to turn him into an Internet sensation to solve her financial woes.

His “free yourself of your phones” schtick grows bigger and bigger and he eventually gets an agent played by Jason Schwartzman, who is Coppola’s father’s cousin in real life.

As the YouTube show grows, Garfield’s character seems to lose his way (or did he really have it to begin with?) and he becomes more obsessed with being famous rather than having something to say. Nat Wolff plays a co-writer of the YouTube show who warns about ethical concerns and how the channel has become what it once satirized.

The plot is predictable and the characters are so thinly developed that you can see right through them. The soundtrack is filled with ill-fitting music that was likely selected because it sounds young and cool but feels jarring and forced.

The acting? I can’t tell if the actors are just awful or if the screenplay and the director are to blame. Certainly Garfield, Hawke and Wolff do nothing to elevate their roles beyond the dreck written on the pages.

Garfield decides to go insanely big with the role and seems to have a blast chewing the scenery. I suppose an over-the-top performance feels appropriate but that doesn’t mean I can’t hate what he did. Perhaps in an alternate universe, Andrew Garfield’s performance could have ended up something like James Franco’s in “Spring Breakers.” Big and bold and slightly brilliant. Instead, it’s merely big.

The best thing I can say about “Mainstream” is that visually it looks just fine. Coppola has a command of the camera.

I suppose my biggest complaint about “Mainstream” is that it’s so smug and sanctimonious with a “been done before” message about social media and Internet fame.

The TV show “Black Mirror” has tackled all of these topics much more intelligently. And if you want to watch a truly great movie about a media-inspired frenzy following a false messiah then watch the 1970s classic “Network.”

Literally every character in “Mainstream” is so full of shit. And it boggles the mind that Hawke’s character would every be drawn to Garfield’s techno-prophet. Even before his character “changes,” he was unbearable.

I can’t really say I disagree with the message of this movie but it’s never really clear what the movie is trying to say. It throws more things at the wall than an elephant with a paintbrush.

If you ask Coppola what the movie is ultimately trying to say, I’m sure she would spout some pretentious nonsense like, “Well, it’s really open to interpretation from the viewer” which always feels like a cop out answer for disjointed movies that try to say too much.

The central message about people being addicted to their phones? Obvious, overdone, oversimplified and about 15 years too late.

And while I agree with the premise that people evaluate too much of their self worth based on social media, the movie itself feels so out of touch you’d think that a boomer wrote it instead of a 34-year-old. There’s no real insights and the film lacks awareness. It’s like a caveman grunting, “Phone! Bad!”

There’s real irony in the making of this movie. Garfield plays a shallow narcissist who thinks everything he says is genius and the movie itself feels like it was penned by a kindred soul.

The sad thing is I know one day I will run into someone who thinks this movie is brilliant and I’ll just smile and nod because I won’t have the energy to tell them why I hated this movie.

Was this whole movie a joke on the viewers? I think that is giving the filmmaker too much credit.

In the end, I think the main reason I hated this movie is because it feels like a half baked idea that was lazily executed. I can forgive movies that try something ambitious and brave but don’t quite stick the landing perfectly, like last year’s “Promising Young Women.” I can look past the flaws of a movie if it has something interesting to say.

But to be unenjoyable and with an uninteresting message? That’s a mortal sin.

Even at 90 minutes this film is exhausting and feels overly long. That’s not a good thing.

I cannot recommend spending money to rent this movie and when it eventually is available for free on a streaming service, keep your expectations extremely low.

Wrath of Man

★★★★

Some fun factoids about Guy Ritchie’s “Wrath of Man” (now playing in theaters everywhere): 1.) Jason Statham tells Post Malone to suck his own dick in the movie. 2.) Mark Arnold, the dude who played Mick the basketball player bully in 1985’s “Teen Wolf,” plays a cat named Super (could’ve sworn it was ‘Soup’ while watching the movie however). 3.) Josh Hartnett, making his triumphant return to the big screen, can’t be outdone in the name department and thus his character rocks the moniker Boy Sweat Dave (a great Guy Ritchie character name if there ever was one). 4.) There are more headshots in this movie than there are in a busy talent agency’s office.

Statham stars as H (“as in bomb”), a newly hired security guard at Los Angeles-based cash truck company Fortico. On his first day H thwarts an attempted truck robbery saving his co-workers and the $2.5 million contained therein by efficiently dispatching the six would-be thieves.

This comes as a surprise to the folks at Fortico as H’s test scores coming into the gig weren’t exactly glowing. H was initially partnered with Boy Sweat, but the two promptly butted heads and BS is now full-on freaked out by H’s lethality. H is reassigned to Bullet (Holt McCallany), a more ingratiating guard who conducted H’s pre-employment testing and showed him the ropes.

Fortico’s depot is further filled out by its manager Terry (Eddie Marsan), his boss Boss Blake Halls (Rob Delaney), “lady driver” Dana (Niamh Algar) and John (Alex Ferns), who has an axe to grind as H filled his old position when he was demoted to a desk.

Not all thieves are as ineffective as the ones H vanquished. A crew comprised of ex-military hit a Fortico truck a few months back – they made off with all the cash and executed two guards and an innocent bystander named Dougie (Eli Brown) in the process. They are Jackson (Jeffrey Donovan), Jan (Scott Eastwood), Brad (Deobia Oparei), Carlos (Laz Alonso, late of Amazon Prime’s “The Boys”), Sam (Raúl Castillo) and Tom (Chris Reilly). They also have an inside man or woman at Fortico who’s aiding them in pulling off jobs. It’ll be up to H to dig up the rat and take the lot of ‘em out.

Statham could do this steely tough guy shtick in his sleep, but he’s still entertaining. McCallany, an actor I’ve admired since his ill-fated 2011 FX series “Lights Out,” has some fun and interesting notes to play and he does the most with them. The surprise standout of the bunch is Eastwood. I found Clint’s kid pretty milquetoast in stuff like “The Fate of the Furious.” He seems to have turned a corner playing real-life badass SSG Clint Romesha in Rod Lurie’s “The Outpost” from last year. He may look a bit like his Pop’s “the Good,” but he plays Jan more like Lee Van Cleef’s “the Bad.” This kid may have a future in playing heels as he’s a hoot and a half here.  

“WoM” – a remake of Nicolas Boukhrief’s 2004 French film “Le Convoyeur” AKA “Cash Truck” – is the most serious movie Ritchie’s made since 2005’s “Revolver” (the last Ritchie-Statham collaboration prior to this one), but it lacks much of that picture’s pretentiousness. “WoM” as penned by Ritchie and his “The Gentlemen” co-scribes Marn Davies and Ivan Atkinson has its fair share of dark, mordant humor, but it’s certainly lacking in the laughs department by comparison to much of Ritchie’s other output. Ritchie screws around with chronology as he often does to keep his audience on their toes, but doesn’t employ as many stylistic flourishes as he normally would. In spite of this it’s still a sharp-looking flick with a curious camera as lensed by Ritchie’s recent cinematographer Alan Stewart, who also shot “Aladdin” (2019) and “The Gentleman.”

“WoM” has less in common with “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” or “Snatch” and is more akin something like Michael Mann’s “Heat” or the rash of “Heat” imitators, i.e. “The Dark Knight,” “Den of Thieves.” The concluding heist and ensuing shootout at the depot are more than worth the price of admission and should be enjoyed in an auditorium with the biggest screen and loudest sound possible. (I saw “WoM” in IMAX.) Just don’t go in expecting a fun Ritchie romp – this one’s brooding and brutal. It’s a revenge picture at heart – one that’s a good deal better than last week’s “Without Remorse.”

The Paper Tigers

★★★½

As a man on the precipice of middle age who grew up watching flicks such as “The Karate Kid,” “Bloodsport” and “3 Ninjas” it feels as though Seattle-based rookie feature filmmaker Tran Quoc Bao’s “The Paper Tigers” (now available in select theaters and on VOD) was tailor-made for me.

Danny (Alain Uy from “True Detective” Season Two), Hing (Ron Yuan, late of the live action “Mulan”) and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins, “Undisputed III: Redemption”) came of age in Seattle during the 1980s practicing kung fu under the tutelage of Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan, older brother of Ron).

As the young men enter adulthood they cease training with their Sifu and grow apart. We flash forward 30 years. Danny, the most talented of the pupils, has become a cubicle drone who butts heads with his ex-wife Caryn (Jae Suh Park) over visitation of their son Ed (Joziah Lagonoy). Hing worked security guard gigs before falling from scaffolding leaving him with a bum knee. Jim has opened a boxing gym, but let his martial arts skills go by the wayside.

The men are brought back together when their Sifu is murdered. They harbor resentments towards one and another, but must attend the funeral together and more importantly discover who murdered their Master. Was it Danny’s old nemesis Carter (Matthew Page) or perhaps Sifu’s subsequent student Zhen Fan (Ken Quitugua)?

Admittedly, “The Paper Tigers” is cheesier than a fondue party in the great state of Wisconsin, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t get its hooks into me. It feels like a throwback to those action buddy comedies of the ‘80s and a stroll down memory lane for all of us karate kids out there weaned on martial arts cinema.

The fights themselves are simple and stripped-down, but they’re captured and edited clearly without the assistance of wire work or computer-generated imagery. Bao is a protégé of Hong Kong action director Corey Yuen (“No Retreat, No Surrender”) and proof of this is in the action pudding. He spent 10 years bringing his vision to the screen and was only able to do so through Kickstarter (appropriate for a karate movie) assistance. Bao’s low budget and enthusiasm are evident and the final product benefits from both.

As much as I enjoyed the fights, what really made “The Paper Tigers” resonate with me was its abundance of heart. I don’t know if this speaks to me being a sap or a meathead (honestly, it’s probably a bit of both), but a speech Danny gave to Ed late in the picture about the virtue of punching someone else in the face brought a tear to my eye.

Above Suspicion

★★½

“Above Suspicion” (available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Friday, May 7) is an odd duck of a movie.

It was supposed to be released stateside all the way back in 2019 (and actually was in the United Arab Emirates). I remember seeing a behind-the-scenes segment concerning the film on an entertainment news program such as “Access Hollywood” or “Extra” a few years prior, which is strange as this is the sole time I’ve watched one of these shows this century after they were appointment television for me as a tween. I believe I also saw the first episode of the first season of Investigation Discovery’s “Betrayed” (concerning the real-life case that inspired “Above Suspicion”) – the Mrs., my mother-in-law and I often marathon this junk when we visit her. By the time I got around to actually watching the movie it almost felt like a fake flick, something I’d made up or something that I’d altogether forgotten ever existed in the first place.

“Above Suspicion” is based on the true story of Susan Smith (Emilia Clarke) and Mark Putnam (Jack Huston, an actor I’ve always admired for his work as Richard Harrow on “Boardwalk Empire” who’s never totally made good on all that potential) as well as Joe Sharkey’s non-fiction account of the case. It’s the late 1980s. Susan is a Pikeville, Ky.-based druggie who still lives in a trailer home with her drug dealer ex-husband Cash (Johnny Knoxville) and their two children. She also engages in welfare fraud to further fill their coffers.

Susan’s taken aback at first sight by Mark, a rookie FBI agent whom she sees as the personification of perfection. She volunteers to become his informant helping to take down Joe-Bea (Karl Glusman) – a serial bank robber who often bunks at Susan and Cash’s place with his girlfriend Georgia (Brittany O’Grady) – as well as rival pusher Rufus (Brian Lee Franklin).

Despite having his loving wife Kathy (Sophie Lowe) and baby daughter, Mark enters into a series of sordid trysts with Susan. She sees their “relationship” as her opportunity to get clean and escape poverty, but it’s impossible for the affair to turn out any way other than badly.

“Above Suspicion” is directed by journeyman filmmaker Phillip Noyce, scripted by Chris Gerolmo, produced by actress/producer Colleen Camp (best known as Yvette from “Clue”) and Jerry Bruckheimer’s wife Linda, scored by Dickon Hinchliffe and shot by Elliot Davis. I get why all of these folks got involved. The picture employs the bluish hue Davis used in the Detroit segments of “Out of Sight.” Hinchliffe’s sparse, string-plucked score calls to mind his own work on “Winter’s Bone.” Gerolmo is best known for penning “Mississippi Burning,” another period crime piece. Noyce has experience making steamy thrillers (“Dead Calm,” “Sliver”) and historical dramas (“Rabbit-Proof Fence,” “Catch a Fire”), which would seem pertinent here. The movie has moments of artistry, but these artisan’s credentials don’t congeal into a cohesive whole.

I suspect Noyce may not have been the best choice to direct. The Australian’s grasp on Southern culture appears to be on the skids. “Justified” this ain’t. I would love to see what an actual Southerner – say writer/director Jeff Nichols – could do with the material. The writing isn’t always up to snuff either. Clarke, through a so-so drawl, is saddled with voiceover howlers like, “You know what’s the worst thing about being dead? You get too much time to think,” and “I’ve been fornicating like a long-eared bunny and Kathy’s the one who’s pregnant?!!!” Her Susan Smith oscillates between Kentucky Khaleesi and … speaking of rabbits … Glenn Close as Alex Forrest in “Fatal Attraction” replete with pot of boiling water. As for the movie itself? It’s an artier Lifetime Movie that’s past its sell-by date.