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Blue Bayou

★★★★½

Writer/director/star Justin Chon’s “Blue Bayou” (now in theaters) possibly bites off more than it can chew. What it does well it does so exceedingly well. Some may see it as misery porn, but it contains far too much beauty (captured in gorgeous 16 mm no less!) to be minimized in such a fashion.

Chon stars as Antonio LeBlanc, a Korean American man who was adopted by a white American family when he was 3 years old in the late 1980s. Despite making some mistakes as a young man (namely two felonies for stealing motorcycles), Antonio has grown into a respectable member of his New Orleans community. He’s a talented tattoo artist, a loving husband to his pregnant nurse wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and a sweetly supportive stepfather to Jessie (Sydney Kowalske, HBO Max’s “Doom Patrol”).

Trouble enters the lives of the LeBlanc’s in the form of Ace (Mark O’Brien, “Ready or Not”) – a police officer, Kathy’s ex and Jessie’s birth father who abandoned them both. Ace is pissed that he’s not being granted visitation with Jessie, but she has no interest in seeing him. In an unfortunate stroke of bad luck, the LeBlanc’s run into Ace and his partner Denny (Emory Cohen) at the grocery store. Denny, feeling as though he’s acting in Ace’s best interest, accosts Antonio. Tensions escalate resulting in Denny beating Antonio with his baton and subsequently arresting him.

Turns out Antonio’s adoptive parents didn’t fill out his paperwork properly and he’s now being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement under threat of deportation. Antonio and Kathy seek assistance from immigration attorney Barry Boucher (Vondie Curtis-Hall), but lack the funds to pay him prompting Antonio’s return to a life of crime.

“Blue Bayou” goes off on a series of tangents – many of them actually work wonderfully. There’s an incredibly tense and well-executed heist sequence. Antonio quickly develops a deep friendship with Vietnamese immigrant Parker Nguyen (Linh Dan Pham, “Ninja Assassin”), a woman with her own struggles who causes him to examine his own Asian identity.

There’s a lot about “Blue Bayou” that I absolutely admire. Chon, Vikander, Kowalske and Pham are all sensational. O’Brien does interesting work in a role with plenty of gray area. Speaking of gray area, the picture does a lot of interesting things with the representation of police and immigration officers. Antonio actually has a friend and customer called Merk (Toby Vitrano), who’s not only an ICE agent but is also completely sympathetic to Antonio’s plight. On the flip side of this coin is Cohen’s Denny. As likable as Cohen was in “Brooklyn,” he’s equally hissable here. Denny is probably the most despicable onscreen representation of law enforcement since Will Poulter’s Krauss in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit.” Cohen’s a good actor, but his character is frustratingly one-note and serves little purpose beyond being an agent of chaos.

Sadly, prior to “Blue Bayou” I knew Chon best as a sidekick from the “Twilight” series and as the missing drunk buddy in the puerile comedy “21 & Over.” The picture not only shines a light on his immense talents as a writer, director and actor (I have every intention of catching up with Chon’s previous efforts “Gook” and “Ms. Purple”), but on the very real injustices currently being perpetrated against immigrants and adoptees. Thankfully, Congress passed the Child Citizenship Act back in 2000, which protects plenty of younger folks, but often leaves adoptees brought over in the ‘70s and ‘80s out in the cold. “Blue Bayou” is undeniably manipulative (What movie isn’t really?), but its manipulations will hopefully affect real world change that’ll better the lives of innocent victims.  

Prisoners of the Ghostland

★★½

I’m pretty much the President of the Nicolas Cage Fan Club. I outright love the dude and a lot of his work. “Raising Arizona,” “Leaving Las Vegas,” “The Rock,” “Con Air,” “Face/Off,” “Adaptation.,” “Kick-Ass,” “Drive Angry,” “Mandy,” “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and “Pig” are all bangers with top drawer performances from Cage.

I won’t give a Cage picture a pass just because he’s in it. “City of Angels,” “Next,” “Bangkok Dangerous,” “Knowing,” “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage” and “Primal” all unabashedly blow.

The dangerous middle ground for Cage flicks are the ones that rock and suck in equal measure. Neil LaBute’s ill-advised 2006 remake of “The Wicker Man” is a textbook case of this phenomenon. The movie’s undoubtedly no bueno, but it has inspired moments of Cage insanity such as him screaming about the bees and karate kicking women and children whilst donning a bear suit. (Jack Reynor’s character in “Midsommar” should’ve taken notes).

Sion Sono’s “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (now available in select theaters – including Indianapolis’ Landmark Glendale 12 – and on VOD) stands firmly in that rock to suck middle ground. Despite having only seen one of the prolific Sono’s 58 directorial credits (that being 2001’s “Suicide Club) prior to watching “PotG,” I know by reputation that he puts crazy shit out into the world. Cage is crazy. Sono is crazy. “PotG” should be crazy … and it is to a certain extent … I just wish it was crazier. In all honesty, I found the flick surprisingly boring.

“PotG” takes place in Samurai Town, a Japanese settlement outside the fallout area of a nuclear blast. Samurai Town is ruled over by the unscrupulous Governor (Rob Zombie regular Bill Moseley) who maintains his power through the sword of Yasujiro (Tak Sakaguchi of “Versus”), a samurai indebted to him on the unfulfilled promise that’ll release his sister from her life as a geisha.

The Governor conscripts a prisoner named Hero (Cage) to retrieve his “granddaughter” Bernice (Sofia Boutella), who fled Samurai Town with her girlfriends Stella (Lorena Kotô) and Nanci (Canon Nawata). Bernice is stranded in the Ghostland, an area within the blast zone inhabited by outcasts, radiation victims and religious zealot Enoch (Charles Glover, “Shin Godzilla”). To ensure Hero’s success the Governor outfits him in a black leather bodysuit with explosives placed at the neck, arms and testicles. If Hero makes a pass at Bernice, tampers with the suit or doesn’t return with Bernice within five days, the Governor will set the charges off.

“PotG” mixes samurai and Western cultures resulting in an Eastern. As cool as that sounds – and it certainly has its moments – the overall product is sorta lacking. (“The Good, the Bad, the Weird” this is not!) Much of the picture is mostly just characters dropping exposition to Cage’s Hero. Show me! Don’t tell me!

Strangely, “PotG” is on Cage’s nuts more than Elisabeth Shue’s character was in “Leaving Las Vegas.” A female extra tells Hero to show her his balls. Cage screams the word testicle like he’s performing Shakespeare. In the movie’s best moment Hero gets one of his balls blown off (Eat your heart out, Lance Armstrong!), which prompts him to run around in circles while shrieking. Cage comes across like a Looney Tunes cartoon in this mega-acting showcase.

Speaking of mega-acting, Moseley (another stranger to subtlety) outdoes Cage in this department. He’s a hoot and a half here. Boutella, an actress whose work I’ve responded to in “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Star Trek Beyond,” is a bit of a void as Bernice. The performance hews closer qualitatively to her turn in “The Mummy” (2017) as opposed to the previously mentioned titles. Sakaguchi is a cool presence and has many of the better action beats, but the script by actor-turned-first-time screenwriter Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai betrays him. Yasujiro isn’t developed nearly enough and the character’s motivations are hazy at best. He and Hero inexplicably duel to death at the picture’s conclusion despite sharing a common goal/enemy. I did enjoy that “PotG” serves as a “Face/Off” reunion between Cage and Nick Cassavettes, who plays Hero’s crazed criminal partner Psycho.

“PotG” is obsessed with Cage’s balls … I just wish the movie itself was more nuts.

Review Twofer – Censor/The Last Matinee

★★★½

I recently had the privilege of doing a pretty cool foreign horror double bill. The first film was “Censor” (now available on DVD and VOD), a British offering that revels in the Video Nasties witch hunt of the 1980s. The second film was “The Last Matinee” (now available on VOD with a Blu-ray dropping in October), a Uruguayan slasher flick that takes place in an old-fashioned Montevideo-based movie palace back in 1993. Both international offerings should please genre fans as they’re each chockablock with nostalgia and plenty of jolts.

Censor:

Irish actress Niamh Algar (HBO Max’s “Raised by Wolves”) stars as Enid Baines, a woman working for the British Board of Film Classification. She’s built a reputation as a particularly tough censor by almost always recommending that violent content be cut or banned.

An adult Enid is still reeling from her sister Nina’s disappearance when they were children. Enid insists Nina is still alive; her parents (Clare Holman, Andrew Havill) have declared Nina deceased.

Enid is approached by infamous film producer Doug Smart (Ben Wheatley regular Michael Smiley) to screen the latest work of noted schlockmeister Frederick North (Adrian Schiller). She’s shook by the film as it contains parallels to Nina’s disappearance. Enid goes further down the rabbit hole and procures a contraband VHS copy of another one of North’s pictures. This one stars an actress named Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta), who bears a striking resemblance to Nina.

Further complicating matters is the fact that Enid has been under media scrutiny for passing a film that supposedly inspired a real-life murder. Already on edge, Enid is grasping for reality and sanity in the pursuit of her lost sister.

“Censor” is the feature directorial debut of Welsh filmmaker Prano Bailey-Bond, who co-wrote alongside Anthony Fletcher. There’s much to admire about the movie. The fetishization of VHS and ‘80s sleaze was certainly welcome to this horrorhead. It like many genre efforts from then and now sports neon hues and synth tunes. Algar does admirable work as Enid, but her mental deterioration occurs too quickly during the film’s scant 84 minute runtime.

3.5/5 stars

The Last Matinee:

In all honesty “The Last Matinee” isn’t as good a movie as “Censor” is, but it’s more fun and a whole helluva lot gorier.

Luciana Grasso stars as Ana, a college student who’s kindly offered to cover the second shift of her aging/ailing projectionist Dad Hugo (Hugo Blandamuro), so he doesn’t have to pull a double. Unbeknownst to her, the audience will soon be prey to a killer known as Come Ojos (prolific Uruguayan filmmaker Ricardo Islas), who not only snatches his victims’ eyes … he eats them.

The audience is comprised of loud-mouthed teenage trio Ángela (Julieta Spinelli), Esteban (Bruno Salvatti) and Goni (Vladimir Knazevs); Maite (Daiana Carigi), a Brooke Shields lookalike Goni saw on the bus to whom he’s taken an immediate shine; shy film fan Horacio (Emanuel Sobré) and his handsy, chain-smoking date Gabriela (Patricia Porzio) and last but certainly not least, Tomás (Franco Durán), a horror-obsessed lad who snuck into the screening as he’s too young to attend.

Most of these folks serve little purpose beyond being grist for the grinder. Co-writer/director Maximiliano Contenti (alongside fellow scripter Manuel Facal) dream up some damned demented demises. One cigarette-smoking character has his throat slit and fumes billow from the wound. (I actually had a similar kill in a script of mine.) Two characters that are making out get impaled through their heads/mouths by a pole. Another character gets chopped to death with a film splicer and their blood is projected onto the big screen. This viscera all serves as tribute to giallos, slashers and the simple act of going to the movies – something that’s become far less simple in the last year and a half.

A coupla cool details: the movie within a movie is “Frankenstein: Day of the Beast,” an actual film from 2011 directed by Islas … cooler still – a copy of “Frankenstein” will be included with “The Last Matinee” Blu-ray.

3.5/5 stars

Malignant

★★★½

Director James Wan’s latest horror offering “Malignant” (now in theaters and on HBO Max) is absolutely positively bonkers. It begins sorta slowly and weakly, gets more interesting as it reveals more of its insanity and then concludes on a note that’s all too pat for my liking. “Malignant” is overlong at 111 minutes, but it’s a wild ride that’s undoubtedly well worth taking.

Annabelle Wallis (“Annabelle”) stars as Madison, a woman who’s in an abusive marriage to Derek (Jake Abel, he played Mike Love in “Love & Mercy”). She’s currently with child after having had a series of miscarriages. Derek, true to his douchey form, slams Madison’s head into the wall when she turns off the mixed martial arts broadcast he was watching so they could talk. (To add insult to injury he angrily asks her, “How many times do I have to watch my children die inside of you?”)

The collision causes an evil entity to enter the couple’s home/life. This creature can control electricity, is more than happy to wreck anyone who crosses its path and walks hella weirdly (it could very well be called “The Crab Walk Killer”). When Madison awakens the following morning, Derek’s dead (bummer!), she’s lost the pregnancy and is now randomly transported through time and space to witness murders being perpetrated by the monster.

Detectives Shaw (George Young) and Moss (Michole Briana White, who kinda reminded me of comedienne Wanda Sykes, which prompted me to laugh at the thought of Sykes being cast in the role/movie) suspect Madison of killing her husband and committing these subsequent murders. Madison must now team with her adoptive sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson, “We Summon the Darkness”) and mother Jeanne (Susanna Thompson, Moira Queen on The CW’s “Arrow”) to clear her name and discover the connection between she and the creature.

To say anymore of the plot would be a disservice to y’all. Suffice it to say Wan and screenwriter Akela Cooper (a writer and producer on shows such as “American Horror Story,” “Luke Cage” and “Jupiter’s Legacy” and scripter of the 2018 slasher flick “Hell Fest” – working from a story co-credited to Wan and his wife Ingrid Bisu, who co-stars as Crime Scene Technician Winnie) really go for it. “Malignant” feels like a Dario Argento giallo meets a Frank Henenlotter freak out. It dabbles in body horror and women in prison pictures (replete with a bleached blonde mulleted Zoë Bell (“Death Proof”)). There’s a sequence that’ll make Blue Lives Matter folks go blue in the face. Joseph Bishara’s score riffs on the Pixies “Where Is My Mind?” to awesome effect. Cinematographer Michael Burgess’ curious camera employs excellent POV shots through a peephole and inside both a washing machine and a VCR. There’s a whole helluva lot going on here!

My best advice to y’all is this: if you dig fantastical horror flicks do not pass go, do not collect $200 – go directly to a movie theater or your HBO Max account and watch “Malignant” with the quickness. Don’t let idiots on the Internet spoil its surprises for you.

Small Engine Repair

★★★★

Another week; another Shea Whigham movie – this one’s “Small Engine Repair” (available in theaters beginning Friday, Sept. 10).

“SER” sorta feels like a depraved version of “Three Men and Baby” only fast forwarded 18 years and married to Peter Berg’s directorial debut “Very Bad Things.”

Frank (John Pollono), Swaino (Jon Bernthal) and Packie (Whigham) are lifelong friends based out of Manchester, N.H. They’re a trio of blue collar, middle-aged, hard-drinkin’, harder-fightin’, foul-mouthed dudes. Frank has an 18-year-old daughter named Crystal (Ciara Bravo, “Cherry”) who was the result of an ill-fated relationship with party girl Karen (Jordana Spiro, late of Netflix’s “Fear Street” flicks). When Frank went away for a 5 year prison stint, Swaino and Packie looked after Crystal. She’s like the daughter they never had. In spite of this, now that she’s 18 they’ll bum her smokes and they all curse like sailors at one another.

Following a barroom brawl Frank tells Swaino and Packie that he doesn’t wanna see them anymore. The men take Frank at his word and they don’t speak or see each other for 3 months. Frank, out of the blue, reaches out to his pals and invites them over to his small engine repair business for a hang. He tells Swaino there will be strippers. He tells Packie he has cancer. He’s lying to them both and has an ulterior motive.

Frank plies his buddies with grilled steaks, booze, weed and coke. To further the festivities Frank also invites Chad (Spencer House of Netflix’s “Space Force”), an affluent college kid with whom he’s been playing pickup basketball, in order to buy Molly off of him. Events quickly escalate out of control.

Pollono makes his feature directorial debut adapting his play of the same name. Pollono and Bernthal reprise their roles while Whigham stands in for James Ransone (adult Eddie Kaspbrak in “It Chapter Two”). The movie is expectedly stagey while simultaneously being sneakily cinematic. Pollono ratchets up the tension like an old hand. He also deftly directs five outstanding performances from his castmates as Bernthal, Whigham, Bravo, Spiro and House are all uniformly excellent. Pollono does exemplary work on screen too.

Folks offended by bad language need not apply as we’re firmly in F-bomb territory here. This movie has to be giving “The Wolf of Wall Street” (569 F-bombs) and “Uncut Gems” (560 F-bombs) a run for their money. “SER” ultimately has more than F-bombs on its mind however – it’s a funny and disturbing dissection of toxic masculinity. We see how these behaviors were modeled for this trio by their fathers. It’s especially stinging when Swaino asks Chad, “What’s it like having a father you’re not ashamed of?,” to which Chad replies, “Good, I guess.” It’s also ironic to hear these guys’ locker room talk juxtaposed with how protective they are of Crystal.

Sadly, I could relate to these fellas to a certain extent. I’m not advocating their behavior by any means, but I could see my brother and I doing the same shit were someone to mess with one my nieces. “SER” gave me a lot to chew on. Superficially, it reinforced that Bernthal has one of the best heads of hair in Hollywood and made me think I’d like Pollono in reality (he chose Sturgill Simpson’s “All Said and Done” to play over the closing credits and dedicated the picture to his deceased dog). On a deeper level it made me question my actions and trains of thought. “SER” concludes too tidily, but I suspect it’s gonna linger with me for a good long while.

It Takes Three

★½

Admission: I agreed to review the latest spin on “Cyrano de Bergerac” entitled “It Takes Three” (now available on VOD) because I incorrectly thought it was directed by my Letterboxd friend Scott Coffey (an actor professionally credited as Scott Alda Coffey – grandson on Alan Alda – who appeared in 2020’s “The Outpost”).

Turns out the movie was actually made by actor-turned-director Scott Coffey (probably best known for his work with John Hughes (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Some Kind of Wonderful”) and David Lynch (“Lost Highway,” “Mulholland Drive,” “Inland Empire” and Showtime’s 2017 “Twin Peaks” redux)). Coffey previously directed the 2005 Naomi Watts-starrer “Ellie Parker” and the Emma Roberts/Evan Peters/John Cusack vehicle “Adult World” (2013).

As it happens this false assumption wasn’t the only mistake I made because “It Takes Three” sorta sucks.

Due to his work with Hughes, it seems appropriate that Coffey opted to stage his riff on “Cyrano” at a high school. Unlike Hughes, Coffey and his screenwriters Logan Burdick and Blair Mastbaum don’t seem to know jack squat about teenagers, the way they talk or making them convincing characters.

“Moonrise Kingdom” vet Jared Gilman (who kinda resembles fellow Indianapolis critic Sam Watermeier) stars as Cy Berger (Get it?!!!). Cy’s a shy, nerdy kid who’s reeling after having his promposal to Cora (Katie Baker, “Yes Day”) rejected because she can’t imagine him performing cunnilingus on her. (Apparently, this is integral to her prom experience?)

Unfortunately for Cy the rejection was filmed, uploaded to YouTube and goes viral. He’s now not only unpopular but the butt of many of his classmates’ jokes. Cy’s only source of solace is his sole friend Kat Walker (Mikey Madison, “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”). The clip takes clicks away from jock Chris Newton (David Gridley, who previously appeared in the much better high school movie “The DUFF”), who’s gained a following through his faux karate videos and takes none too kindly to having attention (positive or not) diverted away from himself.

Enter Roxy (Aurora Perrineau of Jason Blum productions “Jem and the Holograms” and “Truth or Dare” and daughter of actor Harold, whom y’all might remember as Mercutio from Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” and TV shows “Oz” and “Lost”), the artistic, feminist new student at school. Chris takes an immediate liking to Roxy, but his dunderheaded machismo bullshit in the parlance of Shania Twain don’t impress her much. Desperate, Chris hires Cy to take over his social media accounts to paint the portrait of a more sensitive soul. Cy buddies up to Roxy in the process and develops feelings for her as well.

The young actresses certainly fare better than their young actor counterparts. Admittedly, this probably has more to do with the writing as opposed to the performances. Madison is the clear standout of the bunch as her Kat is the most decent and likable character (despite inexplicably digging Cy), but it’s sorta weird to see her not falling through a glass door and into a pool face full of shards armed with a revolver before getting flamethrowered to death. Perrineau’s Roxy is a sharp cookie until Cy and Chris’ manipulations turn her into a complete and utter dummy. Gilman’s Cy is selfish, delusional and a shoddy friend – I found him hard to root for. Gridley’s Chris is like an unfunny version of Seann William Scott’s Stifler from the “American Pie” pictures.

“It Takes Three” finds its footing in the third act, but it’s too little too late. The collective indie cred of Coffey, Gilman and Madison had me excited to peep the picture, but the result feels stale as this has obviously sat on a shelf for a hot minute. (It has a copyright date of 2017 and there’s a prom banner that reads, “Class of 2018.”) As far as high school reimaginings of classics go, “10 Things I Hate About You” this is not. If you’re looking for a reinvention of “Cyrano” you’d be much better off revisiting the 1987 Fred Schepisi/Steve Martin collaboration “Roxanne.”

Yakuza Princess

★★★

You likely already know if a movie called “Yakuza Princess” (now available in select theaters and on VOD) is your bag or not. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but there’s enough “John Wick”-like neon lit slicings, dicings and decapitations to satisfy fans of the subgenre even if the gore has more computer-generated assistance than I’d prefer.

“Yakuza Princess” is based on the graphic novel “Samurai Shiro” by Brazilian artist Danilo Beyruth. It opens in shocking, attention-grabbing fashion with the Osaka, Japan-based massacre of the Kawa crime clan. Men, women and children are gunned down indiscriminately. The family’s sole survivor is a 1-year-old little girl named Akemi.

We flash forward 20 years to São Paulo where Akemi (singer-turned-actress MASUMI making her feature film debut) works a dead end job at a gift shop owned by Mrs. Tsugahara (Mariko Takai) and trains with her sensei Chiba (Toshiji Takeshima). A title card tells us that São Paulo boasts the largest Japanese community in the world. (I had to laugh at this because wouldn’t Japan be the largest Japanese community in the world?)

Elsewhere in São Paulo, Shiro (Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers – the gaijin’s presence and name are explained in the movie) awakens in a hospital bed. His body and face are covered with scars. He can’t remember how he got here or who he is. He’s essentially a gangland Jason Bourne.

In a sequence that plays like a far more graphic homage to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s introductions in “The Terminator” pictures, Meyers’ Shiro skulks around the hospital naked as a jaybird hanging brain like he’s Michael Fassbender in “Shame” (Irish Curse my foot!) before stealing a visitor’s clothes and retrieving the samurai sword with which he arrived.

The sword, which supposedly contains the souls of those felled by it, serves as a link between Shiro and Akemi. They begrudgingly join forces when ambitious gangster Kojiro (Eijiro Ozaki, “The Man in the High Castle”) discovers that rightful yakuza heiress Akemi is still alive and gets on the first plane from Osaka to São Paulo to bump her off. Also along for the ride is Kojiro’s rival Takeshi (Tsuyoshi Ihara of “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “13 Assassins”), but his intentions are hazy.

Performances vary greatly in “Yakuza Princess.” First-timer MASUMI is convincing in action but a complete void when playing any sort of emotion. Meyers’ character is a cipher by its very construction, but he has enough presence to pull it off. Ihara steals the movie like an unattended 8-year-old might a pack of Pokémon cards at a hobby shop. The dude just oozes effortless cool. No kidding, I’d be happy as a pig in shit simply watching Ihara smoke cigarettes for an hour and a half.

“Yakuza Princess” is co-written (alongside Kimi Lee, Tubaldini Shelling and Fernando Toste) and directed by Vicente Amorim, who’s probably best known for making the 2008 Viggo Mortensen movie “Good.” The flick starts and concludes strongly enough, but hits an unfortunate lull at its midpoint. It’s a cool-looking movie (cinematographer Gustavo Hadba is Co-MVP alongside Ihara) with a bountiful amount of bloody action that leaves itself wide open for a sequel (supposedly this is the first installment of a planned trilogy). If MASUMI gets more acting lessons I’m down to clown.

Candyman

★★★★½

Full Admission: I hadn’t seen Bernard Rose’s “Candyman” in full prior to the other night. Sure, I’d seen bits and pieces of it on cable, but never the whole enchilada. I liked but didn’t love the movie. Tony Todd has a great presence as the titular “villain” powered primarily by his booming voice. (My wife Jamie astutely noted that he sounds like Frank Welker voicing Megatron on “Transformers.”) Virginia Madsen’s good in the movie too. Xander Berkeley is sleazily entertaining. I really liked DeJuan Guy as Jake. Rose is such a terrible actor that he makes Quentin Tarantino look like Laurence Olivier by comparison. Philip Glass’ score is killer. The commentary concerning race in this country is welcome but somewhat limited.

Nia DaCosta’s “Candyman” (now playing exclusively in theaters) is the rare sequel that’s not only better than its predecessor, but elevates its forebear simply by existing. I was genuinely surprised by how directly “Candyman” sequelizes the 1992 original while simultaneously being very much its own thing. DaCosta’s made a movie that has a lot on its mind. It’s equal parts funny, angry and scary. It delves into gentrification, police brutality, the exploitation of black artists by white critics and consumers and a litany of other topics. An awful lot is crammed into the movie’s scant 91 minute runtime. This is one of the rare instances where I feel the picture would’ve benefitted by being longer to further extrapolate on all its themes and subplots.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II of HBO’s “Watchmen” stars as Anthony McCoy, a talented Chicago-based artist who’s been in a bit of a creative rut. He shares a chic apartment in what used to be the Cabrini-Green housing project with his gallery director girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris, late of “WandaVision”), who’s footing the bills and has the means to further his career once inspiration strikes. Anthony receives guff about he and Brianna’s living situation from both her brother Troy (the hilarious Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and his mother.

Inspiration comes in the form of Cabrini OG and laundromat owner William Burke (ace character actor Colman Domingo), who tells Anthony the tragic tale of Candyman. Looking to maintain his artistic relevance, Anthony uses the Candyman mythology as the basis for a series of paintings and an installation. Despite being energized and far more prolific than he’d been of late, Anthony’s works bring about a horrifying wave of violence, drive a wedge between he and Brianna and leave him teetering on the brink of insanity.

It’s insanely impressive that DaCosta made “Candyman” at the tender age of 31 and that it’s only her second feature. I meant to see her debut “Little Woods” at the Heartland International Film Festival a few years back, but didn’t get around to it. I’ll need to track it down on streaming ASAP and I’m hyped as hell for her Marvel Cinematic Universe debut “The Marvels” in 2022. She’s an incredibly exciting and assured new cinematic voice. She eats Dan Gilroy’s lunch in doing art horror by comparison to his stilted Netflix effort “Velvet Buzzsaw” and one ups Rose at every turn in making a “Candyman” movie.

There’s so much to dig here. The movie’s rife with Jeff Goldblum references what with its instances of “The Fly”-esque body horror and an awesome “Jurassic Park” quote. The primary cast is uniformly excellent. It’s rad to see Domingo and Parris reunited after having played father and daughter in Barry Jenkins’ brilliant and underrated “If Beale Street Could Talk.” The script by DaCosta, Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld is sharp and insightful. My only real quibbles are that I could’ve gone for more development of Domingo’s character and his story and a subplot concerning Brianna and Troy’s Dad should’ve been fleshed out further.

“Candyman” ultimately seems to suggest that Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Botham Jean, George Floyd and countless others are all Candymen. I’d love to see DaCosta or another promising young filmmaker of color make “Candymen” … and “Candyman” certainly gives ‘em the leeway to do so. I just sincerely wish this country would stop sequelizing the exploitation, marginalization, incarceration and eradication of its black citizens … a sentiment that the makers of “Candyman” undeniably echo.

No Man of God

★★★★

“No Man of God” (available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Friday, Aug. 27) isn’t necessarily the Elijah Wood/Robert Patrick “The Faculty” reunion I was expecting, but it’s the one we got … and it’s a pretty damned good one at that.

Wood stars as Bill Hagmaier, one of the FBI’s first criminal profilers who’s been tasked by his boss Roger Depue (Patrick) with getting notorious serial killer Ted Bundy (Luke Kirby) to talk. This is no small feat as Bundy hates feds and enjoys toying with them, but the work is important as the intel Hagmaier collects could provide closure to the families of Bundy’s victims and give insight into the minds of other maniacs.

Over the course of many years and innumerable more visits, Hagmaier and Bundy build a rapport and even a friendship of sorts. Bundy goes so far as to refer to Hagmaier as his best friend. The men bond over their roles as fathers and engage in exercises of intellectual one-upmanship. A parallel is drawn between the two where it’s suggested that either man could be sitting on the other side of the table.

As directed by Amber Sealey and written by C. Robert Cargill (who wrote film criticism under the pseudonym Massawyrm at Ain’t It Cool News and scripted the “Sinister” pictures and “Doctor Strange”), “No Man of God” isn’t sensationalistic in its execution nor does it flashback to show graphic depictions of Bundy’s multiple crimes. The movie’s scariest and most impactful moment has Bundy holding hands with Hagmaier and verbally walking him through a particularly memorable murder. This is a simple two-hander that excels through Cargill’s thoughtful words and Wood and Kirby’s deft performances.

Wood is ideal casting as Hagmaier. He brings the same wide-eyed innocence he brought to Frodo Baggins in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” so you believe Hagmaier when he earnestly prays to God that he has the strength to pull the trigger not one second too soon nor one second too late. Much like “LOTR” Wood’s character is strengthened and hardened by the task to which he’s been assigned. This stands alongside “LOTR,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Sin City” as some of the best work of Wood’s career.

As good as Wood is, Kirby’s even better in an admittedly showier role. I’m not nearly as familiar with Kirby’s filmography as I am with Wood’s. I mostly know him as one of Michael Myers’ victims from “Halloween: Resurrection” and as the dude who cucked Seth Rogen’s character in Sarah Polley’s “Take This Waltz.” Kirby’s absolutely magnetic here. Cargill’s words and Kirby’s performance convey Bundy’s intelligence and charm – they even flirt with showing empathy for him – but they don’t for a minute let the audience forget that Bundy’s a monster. Kirby presents us with a searing portrait of toxic masculinity run amok.

Even though this is ultimately a two-hander, Wood and Kirby are ably supported by the likes of Patrick, “Boardwalk Empire” actress Aleksa Palladino as civil rights attorney Carolyn Lieberman (whom many believed engaged in sexual impropriety with Bundy despite no evidence and her actual feelings to the contrary) and aces “There’s Something About Mary” and “Deadwood” character actor W. Earl Brown as Warden Wilkenson, who oversaw Bundy’s time at Florida State Prison.

There’s been a bit of strife between Sealey and director Joe Berlinger, who directed the Netflix-based Bundy double shot of “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” and “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” (in which Zac Efron played Bundy). Berlinger via e-mail accused Sealey of trashing his works in order to promote her own. I don’t believe Sealey did so explicitly and it’s certainly not there in the text itself. I will say this much – I did prefer “No Man of God” to “Extremely Wicked” and also preferred Kirby’s Bundy to Efron’s. I don’t think either film purposefully glamorized Bundy. Additionally, Sealey came at the story from a different enough direction that there was still a surprising amount of meat on these bones.  

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.