Stillwater

★★★★

Tom McCarthy’s a talented filmmaker. “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor,” “Win Win” and “Spotlight” are all great. Hell, I even like “The Cobbler” more than the average bear. Matt Damon’s a talented actor. These two talented cats have collaborated for the first time with “Stillwater” (now playing in theaters). Do their talents mesh well or do they need to return to the drawing board? I’d honestly say it’s a lot of Column A and a little bit of Column B.

Damon stars as Bill Baker, an underemployed Oklahoma roughneck whose daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) has been imprisoned in Marseille, France over the past five years for the murder of her girlfriend which she claims she didn’t commit.

Upon Bill’s most recent visit to Marseille, Allison provides him with a new piece of evidence that could exonerate her. Bill takes this information to Allison’s attorney Leparq (Anne Le Ny), who chooses not to pursue it. Bill then takes it upon himself to chase down these leads and conduct his own investigation despite not speaking French. Aiding Bill in this pursuit is his actress neighbor Virginie (Camille Cottin, soon to be seen in Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci”). Virginie is sympathetic to Bill’s plight and he builds a friendship with both she and her young daughter Maya (the adorable Lilou Siauvaud).

“Stillwater” has been advertised like it’s the latest addition to Damon’s “Bourne” franchise or a riff on “Taken,” which it most assuredly isn’t. This is a long (140 minutes), slow and character-based film which has drawn a bit of controversy due to its parallels to Amanda Knox’s real-life story. It feels more like a movie from the 1970s than it does modern blockbuster filmmaking.

At its heart “Stillwater” is an exploration of the “Ugly Americanism” that got Donald Trump elected President and continues to make COVID-19 a problem. Despite being in Marseille, Bill opts to stay at a Best Western and incessantly eats Subway. (It’s debatable whether this is a matter of economics or preference – probably a bit of both as he’s shown ordering a foot-long Chili Cheese Coney from Sonic back in Oklahoma.) Bill’s asked by Virginie’s friend Nedjma (Naidra Ayadi) if he voted for Trump. (He didn’t as he was ineligible to vote due to his criminal past.) Virginie’s director Renaud (Bastien d’Asnières) asks Bill if he owns a gun. (He doesn’t own one; he owns two – a shotgun and a Glock.)

(I can attest that this is a real phenomenon. When I visited Ireland back in 2016, two Irish farm boys had two questions for this Yank – 1.) What do you think of Trump? and 2.) How many guns do you own? For those of you playing at home the answers are: 1.) He’s an asshole and 2.) None. The lads laughed at my second response as I wasn’t the cowboy they expected me to be. They even gloated that they had more guns than me to help protect their sheep from foxes.)

I didn’t find “Stillwater” in its conception (it’s written by McCarthy alongside Marcus Hinchey and Frenchmen Thomas Bidegain (co-scribe of Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” and “Rust and Bone”) and Noé Debré) nor in Damon’s portrayal of Bill to be a condemnation of the “Ugly American.” If anything it humanizes this archetype. Bill’s a fuckup (Allison tells Virginie as much), but his heart is in the right place even if his head isn’t. Bill’s the helpful sort – he stays in Marseille to help Allison, he helps Maya get a key to her hotel room when she’s locked out, he rewires Virginie’s apartment without prompting. Bill’s ethnocentrism is pared back the longer he stays in Marseille and in spending more time with Virginie and Maya.

There’s a lot to respect and recommend about “Stillwater.” Damon’s Bill stands alongside “Courage Under Fire,” “Good Will Hunting,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “The Informant!,” “Invictus,” “Behind the Candelabra,” “The Martian” and “Ford v Ferrari” as one of the best performances of his storied career. He’s ably supported by the immensely appealing Cottin, the darling Siauvaud and a gritty Breslin. Damon’s scenes with Siauvaud are easily the movie’s best and sweetest. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (who also lensed McCarthy’s “Spotlight”) shoots the port city of Marseille beautifully – a sequence depicting Allison swimming in the Gulf of Lion is especially exquisite.

Where “Stillwater” falls short is in its Turducken or Russian Nesting Doll nature as a film. It can’t seem to decide what kind of movie it wants to be so it attempts to be a few different types. There’s also a decision a character makes two-thirds of the way through the picture that’s excruciatingly idiotic, which totally changes the course of the narrative. This decision takes the story in a darker and arguably more realistic direction. A lot of these choices were brave or at the very least interesting ones for McCarthy and his collaborators to make, but that doesn’t mean I have to dig ‘em. Then again, they weren’t bad enough to derail all the good that came before.

Ride the Eagle

★★★★½

Jake Johnson is an actor I’ve always dug. I never really got into “New Girl,” but he seemed likable and cool on it. Johnson’s mumblecore movies “Drinking Buddies” and “Win It All” are highlights of the subgenre. “Let’s Be Cops” is a dumb yet fun action comedy perfect for a Saturday or Sunday afternoon spent nursing a hangover on the couch. Johnson stole so-so efforts “Jurassic World” and “Tag” IMHO. The Peter B. Parker he voiced in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is insanely charming and easily the Spider-Man to whom I most directly relate. Hell, the dude played Jesus in a “Harold & Kumar” movie. What’s not to love?

“Ride the Eagle” (available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Friday, July 30) is the Jake Johnsonest flick to ever Jake Johnson – he not only stars in but also co-wrote and co-produced the picture. Mileage may vary depending upon your feelings regarding Johnson, but the film played like gangbusters for me. By my estimation it’s currently one of 2021’s best.

Johnson stars as Leif, an aging percussionist (mostly bongos) who’s living in a tiny house with his beloved dog Nora. The house is in the backyard of his band’s manager Gorka (Luis Fernandez-Gil). Leif spends his days and most of the movie smoking dope and hanging with Nora.

His “busy” schedule is interrupted by Missy (killer comedic character actress Cleo King), a woman who lived alongside Leif’s estranged Mom Honey (Susan Sarandon) in a commune some time ago. She’s there to inform him of Honey’s passing from cancer and of his conditional inheritance of her lovely Yosemite-based cabin. In order to take possession of the dwelling, Leif will have to complete Honey’s to-do list. Honey’s bidding brings Leif into contact with his former flame Audrey (D’Arcy Carden of “The Good Place”) as well as Honey’s ex-boyfriend Carl (J.K. Simmons).

“Ride the Eagle” is directed and co-written by Trent O’Donnell, with whom Johnson worked on 28 episodes of “New Girl.” The duo wrote great roles for their cast to inhabit and they make the most of ‘em. Johnson plays a lot of his scenes opposite only Nora and he still manages to be both magnetic and comedic. Phone calls between Leif and Audrey kinda call to mind Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy – they feel real and utterly relatable. Sarandon makes her presence deeply felt despite only appearing on VHS tapes and voiceover letter readings. Simmons’ Carl brings the laughs by calling Leif “fuckboy” and “sugar dick.”

“Ride the Eagle” is funny, but it’s not nearly as humorous as I expected it to be. What it lacks in laughs it more than makes up for with heart and genuine emotion. I cried at this movie … a lot. Hell, I’m crying thinking about it while writing this review. I might’ve connected with the film as deeply as I did as I recently lost a relative with whom I lost touch in the last years of her life. It has a wonderful message of forgiveness and actively encourages its audience to live their best lives. “Ride the Eagle” is what Quentin Tarantino calls a hangout movie. I genuinely loved hanging out with Leif and Nora for 88 minutes. I sincerely think y’all will too.  

No Sudden Move

★★★

Steven Soderbergh was arguably one of our best and most prolific directors prior to his “retirement” in 2013. (During which he made 20 episodes of Cinemax’s “The Knick” – this dude was like Michael Jordan in a White Sox jersey.)  Soderbergh returned to filmmaking in 2017 with the fun and frivolous but ultimately inconsequential “Logan Lucky.” He’s subsequently directed “Unsane,” “High Flying Bird,” “The Laundromat” and “Let Them All Talk” … most of which have debuted on streaming services and only some of which I’ve seen.   

In my humble opinion Soderbergh’s most creatively fertile period was between 1998 (when he released “Out of Sight,” which is my favorite flick of his) and 2001 (which saw the release of his “Ocean’s 11” remake … his most commercially viable work to date). In between Soderbergh made the bitchin’ Terence Stamp/Peter Fonda crime picture “The Limey” (1999), directed Julia Roberts to an Oscar in “Erin Brockovich” (2000) and performed the same service for Benicio Del Toro later that year with “Traffic.”

Soderbergh has often been known as a “one for them, one for me” filmmaker. I’m of the opinion that generally speaking his creative output is actually stronger when he’s making one for them. I incorrectly assumed that his latest effort “No Sudden Move” (now streaming on HBO Max) would be one for them with its starry cast (Don Cheadle, Del Toro, David Harbour, Jon Hamm, Amy Seimetz, Brendan Fraser, Kieran Culkin, Noah Jupe, Julia Fox, Ray Liotta and Bill Duke) and crime caper premise, but this is most assuredly one for him. This feels less like “Out of Sight” and more akin to something like “Bubble.”

It’s 1954 in Detroit. A trio of criminals – Curt Goynes (Cheadle), Ronald Russo (Del Toro) and Charley (Culkin) – are commissioned by middle man Doug Jones (Fraser – it’s kinda funny to see a chubby dude playing a cat with a skinny dude’s name) to hold a family of four (Harbour, Seimetz, Jupe and Lucy Holt) hostage. Harbour’s patriarch Matt Wertz is an accountant for Chrysler who has access to safe-bound plans for the not-yet-employed catalytic converter. If Wertz provides the criminals with the plans he and his family will emerge unscathed.

Complicating matters is the suspicion that this job is a setup. Black crime boss Aldrick Watkins (Duke) is angry at Goynes for botching a previous job. White crime boss Frank Capelli (Liotta) justifiably suspects that Russo is sleeping with his wife Vanessa (Fox). Law enforcement officer Joe Finney (Hamm) is investigating not only the criminals but Wertz himself. Pulling all the strings for his own benefit is an auto industry executive played by an uncredited BIG name Soderbergh regular.

I wanted so very much to dig “No Sudden Move” and to a certain extent I do. It’s handsomely made and well-acted. The script by “Bill & Ted” and “Men in Black” screenwriter Ed Solomon tackles details macro (the treatment of African Americans in 1950s Detroit and America as a whole, the auto industry’s lack of concern for our environment) and micro (naming Cheadle’s character Goynes seems like a cool tip of the cap to late Detroit-based urban fiction author Donald Goines). I just wish Solomon had injected some heart into the proceedings and made more of the characters likable/worth rooting for, but that’s not the story he and Soderbergh chose to tell. Almost all of these folks are underdeveloped or scumbags save for Cheadle’s Goynes and Jupe’s Matthew Wertz Jr. Cheadle is the clear-cut standout acting-wise. A quiet scene between Goynes, a woman from his past named Clarisse (Lauren LaStrada) and her new man Rudy (Wallace Bridges) in which he’s attempting to retrieve a suitcase is easily its best by saying everything and telling nothing.

Soderbergh shot the film under his usual pseudonym Peter Andrews using modern cameras and antique lenses often resulting in an interesting fisheye effect. The camera’s fluid movements occasionally call to mind the works of both Max Ophüls and Douglas Sirk. The movie often moves (it’s somewhat glacially-paced) and feels like it was made in the ‘50s save for some terse language and a few graphic depictions of violence.

I prefer my Soderbergh cool as opposed to cold. “No Sudden Move” is frigid, but I suspect it might warm up on a rewatch.

The Tomorrow War

★★★★½

Chris Pratt is an actor I’ve generally always enjoyed.

I think I first saw him during a recurring guest stint on “The O.C.” (Shut up, the first season is legitimately good!) and was struck by just how funny and weird the dude came across. I followed Pratt through appearances on screens both big (“Wanted,” “Jennifer’s Body,” “Moneyball,” “The Five-Year Engagement,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Her”) and small (“Parks and Recreation”).

The cat’s career was shot into the stratosphere back in 2014 with the one-two punch of “The Lego Movie” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” He followed these successes up with “Jurassic World” and “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” (products where Pratt is more engaging than the movies themselves), Antoine Fuqua’s “The Magnificent Seven” remake (where he was one of the least interesting members of the ensemble cast), the misguided sci-fi gaslighting exercise “Passengers,” less entertaining sequels “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (Why did writer/director James Gunn turn Peter Quill/Star-Lord and Rocket Raccoon into such jerks in the second installment? They were easily the best characters in the first one!) and “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part,” “Avengers: Infinity War” (where Quill single-handedly screwed all of humanity) and doing voice work for “Onward” (Pixar’s best 2020 picture … come at me, dawg!).

I don’t know if general audiences have tired of Pratt or if it’s just me. I still like the dude … just not as much as I once did. I’ll fully admit I prefer Pratt doughy and droll as opposed to studly and stolid. It also seems as though he’s come under fire from critics and industry types (among them Elliot Page) for his Christianity (he’s a member of the controversial Zoe Church) and purported conservatism.

This brings us to Pratt’s latest project “The Tomorrow War,” which will be available to stream on Amazon Prime beginning Friday, July 2. “The Tomorrow War” is the first film of Pratt’s that he’s executive produced. I suspect he had an active hand in the artistic direction the picture took. The movie is earnest and extols the virtues of family and service to one’s country as well as the world at large. Its set pieces involving guns, knives and snowmobiles have the fingerprints of a good ol’ boy such as Pratt all over ‘em.

I’m happy to report that the final product plays like gangbusters. This is easily Pratt’s best starring vehicle and performance since the first “Guardians.” He and the movie itself are both great. Strangely, this is a sci-fi/action flick with serious “It’s a Wonderful Life” vibes and it all lands. I laughed. I cried. I was entertained.

Pratt stars as Dan Forester, a soldier-turned-high school science teacher longing for a private sector research gig that he’s continually passed over for in favor of others with more industry experience. Dan’s dissatisfied with his life despite having the love of his wonderful wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin, doing a lot with a little) and doting daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong).

Dan’s licking his wounds from the latest rejection while watching a televised soccer match at a holiday party. His priorities certainly shift when the game’s interrupted by time-travelling soldiers from 30 years in the future advising of humanity’s impending extinction at the tentacles of the White Spikes, an invading alien force that’s using Earth as an all you can eat buffet.

Dan’s quickly conscripted into service alongside scaredy-cat scientist Charlie (Sam Richardson, even more fun here than he was in last week’s “Werewolves Within”), seasoned veteran Dorian (Edwin Hodge, doing a variation on the stoic black dude shtick he displayed in “The Purge” pictures) and a slew of other average folks (some of whom are entertainingly embodied by sketch comedians Mary Lynn Rajskub and Mike Mitchell). Emmy wants Dan to draft dodge through the assistance of his estranged, government-disdaining father James (J.K. Simmons, looking far more ripped than he did in the DC Snyderverse), but Dan’s unwilling to do so.

Dan, Charlie, Dorian and the rest are sent 30 years into the future for a one-week tour of duty in which they’ll engage in combat with the White Spikes and attempt to retrieve vials that are vital to humankind’s survival. While there they report to the tough, smart and determined Romeo Command (Yvonne Strahovski). If they survive the entire week they’ll be beamed back to the present.

My expectations coming into “The Tomorrow War” were fairly low and they were exceeded at almost every turn. Director Chris McKay (“The Lego Batman Movie”) appears to be one of those filmmakers like Tim Burton, Brad Bird, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, Mike Judge and Travis Knight who successfully made the transition from animation to live action. This is great blockbuster entertainment with a thoughtful script by Zach Dean (writer of the Eric Bana/Olivia Wilde/Charlie Hunnam-starrer “Deadfall”) and moving performances from Pratt and Strahovski. I’d be happy to see action buddy comedies starring Pratt and Richardson in perpetuity – they have real deal chemistry here. The White Spikes are simultaneously familiar and wholly original – most importantly they’re scary as shit. (Serious props to the talented technicians at Weta Digital and Luma Pictures.) My only gripe with “The Tomorrow War” is that I’m unable to see it on the BIG screen with an amped audience. Eat your heart out, “Independence Day.”

The Forever Purge

★1/2

“The Purge is over!!! It’s done!!!”

“This is the Forever Purge! It’s never going to end.”

That’s a direct quote from dialogue 30 minutes into “The Forever Purge,” thefifth entry in the horror/thriller franchise. But it’s also how I feel about these movies now.

What was once entertaining and (at times) clever has now become tiresome and repetitive.

Basically, this movie franchise is an old bottle of hand soap. They’ve squeezed last bit out and then watered it down and shook it up and used it again. Now they’ve added so much water that there are no soap molecules left.

Quick catchup before I explain this film’s plot. The entire concept of these movies is that America has been ravaged by crime and poverty and so an ultra-rich political party takes power and implements one night a year in which all crime, including murder is legal. It’s sold as a way to reduce crime nationwide and “cleanse our souls” but it’s just a way to kill off poor people. With each sequel, the political message becomes less and less subtle, culminating in an election in which an anti-Purge candidate wins and eliminates the barbaric practice.

In the latest entry, Purge proponents have been voted back into office after illegal immigrants fill the United States. The one-night killing spree has been legally reinstated again and nothing seems to have changed.

The movie takes place in Texas near the Mexico border and focuses an unlikely partnership between Mexican-Americans (played by Ana de la Reguera and Tenoch Huerta) and a wealthy, racist man (played by Josh Lucas) who distrusts hispanics but doesn’t support the idea of a Purge. (You can already guess that his racist viewpoints are changed through their experience together…)

After Purge night ends these people find themselves the next day face-to-face with a new cult-like group that’s been causing attacks on brown-skinned people, promising to “make America pure again.” They call themselves the “Ever After Purgers” and they don’t care if the government is sanctioning their actions. They’re filled with swastika-wearing white supremacists and unofficial U.S. border guardians.

Violence in the U.S. gets so bad that Mexico and Canada agree to open their borders for six hours only and our protagonists flee south, trying to avoid murderous bikers wielding machine guns.

It sound fun or insightful to analyze the political message in “The Forever Purge” and compare it today’s current events, but there are two problems. For one: the movie is about as subtle as… well… murderous bikers wielding machine guns. Secondly, the political concepts have been repeated again and again in now five movies and a spinoff TV series. They’ve said what they had to say and they’ve said it again.

This is like your loquacious uncle who wants to tell you his opinion on the president every time you see him. It’s not that his point is incorrect. But he’s told you again and again. You’ve heard it before.

I don’t disagree with the message about racism leading to violence nowadays, but I wish the movie would explore this theme in a more interesting, creative and subtle way.

While this entry focuses more on the immigrant experience and xenophobia rather than the struggles in black communities, this movie borrows the same phrases and lines from the previous films. It’s almost as if they just copy and pasted from the other screenplays and then just changed the word “black” to “Mexican.” Click find and replace.

“The Forever Purge” seems more worried about hammering this political message home than making an entertaining movie. It takes 30 minutes before any scene of action takes place and then another 15 minutes before it really kicks into gear. It’s only an hour and forty minutes long.

When the action does take place it’s serviceable but nothing special. It’s a lot of gun violence and it’s fast paced. It’s a long cry from the creepy masked WASPs knocking on the door in the first installment. The tension is pretty much gone and none of the protagonists are as good as Frank Grillo was in parts two and three.

One positive thing is they do mix up the setting a bit. The first movie focused on the suburbs and the next three moved to urban settings. Now we’re looking at rural. It’s got Western vibes with a dash of “Mad Max” thrown in. It was wise to mix it up.

If you really, really love this franchise you might be able to stomach this one but I think most would agree that it’s the weakest in the series.

My guess is casual fans would be better off barricading themselves in their homes than venturing out to catch “The Forever Purge” in theaters.