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Spree

★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tax Collector

★★

There’s been a good deal of controversy surrounding writer/director David Ayer’s latest Los Angeles-based crime flick, “The Tax Collector,” which is now available on VOD and playing at drive-ins across the country.

The bulk of the dissension has involved whether Shia LaBeouf engaged in “brownface” portraying Creeper, an enforcer for the Mexican mafia. Watching the movie I can understand the hubbub – LaBeouf certainly looks and sounds like a cholo from the barrio and Creeper’s ethnicity is never addressed. Ayer, who came up in South-Central L.A., says LaBeouf (who grew up in the predominantly Hispanic Echo Park neighborhood) is, “a Jewish dude playing a white character.”

Last weekend I talked to my friend and customer, Danny (a Hispanic dude who’s from L.A.), while serving him beers at Traders Brewing Company. (Come see me in Pike Township on Indy’s northwest side!) He thanked me for recommending “The Peanut Butter Falcon” to him. (It’s one of my fave flicks of 2019 with LaBeouf’s performance being one of the best of the year IMHO.) Talk turned to “The Tax Collector” and the “brownface” controversy. Danny has no issues with a white cat playing a Hispanic cat, though he did make cracks about the choloification of Christian Bale in Ayer’s 2005 effort, “Harsh Times.” If Danny doesn’t have beef with LaBeouf being “Eli Wallach 2020 Edition,” I suppose I don’t either.

OK, now that we’ve addressed the elephant in the room, let’s talk about the movie itself … of which LaBeouf isn’t even the lead. That’d be Bobby Soto (he played Demián Bichir’s son in “A Better Life” and recently popped up in “The Quarry”) who stars as David. David’s the titular “Tax Collector.” He was born into a life of crime and works for his Uncle Louis (George Lopez – When did this dude turn into Mexican Paul Sorvino?) collecting protection payments alongside Creeper.

The first half of this flick plays like the gangster flip-side of the Ayer-scripted “Training Day.” It’s essentially a day in the life of these dudes making their collections. An inciting incident comes midway through the film in the form of Conejo (Conejo), a rival criminal who’s looking to elbow his way into the family business. (How would you like to play a violent, Devil-worshipping gangster who’s named after yourself? It’s like, “Hey, Alec Toombs, I wrote you this part as a pedophile that kicks puppies and he’s named Alec Toombs too! Cool, huh?”)

Conejo’s presence threatens the safety of David’s beautiful wife, Alexis (Cinthya Carmona), and their children. David and Creeper prepare for war. David even enlists the services of Bone (Cle Sloan, a former real deal Blood who’s appeared in much of Ayer’s work, i.e. “Street Kings,” “End of Watch” and “Bright”), who’s head of the movie Bloods.

Acting-wise I was most impressed by Sloan. He’s not in the movie much, but he brings a palpable decency to his role and the proceedings as a whole. Soto’s David has an air of respectability to him too. He’s a religious man who grapples with his grievous actions. Soto isn’t entirely convincing as a gangster. He’s a good-looking cat with a high voice … he seems more like the lost member of Menudo.

I don’t know what Ayer has on LaBeouf or if he simply has Rasputin-like mind control over him? LaBeouf felt it necessary to pull one of his teeth for his character in Ayer’s “Fury.” He got a lady tattooed across his full torso (which is only seen on screen for like a second and a half) like he’s Danny Trejo for “The Tax Collector.” This is serious business for what’s very much a supporting role. LaBeouf is OK as Creeper, but it’s nowhere near the level of craft on display in the one-two punch of “The Peanut Butter Falcon” and “Honey Boy” from last year.

I’m no Ayer hater. I love “End of Watch.” I really like “Fury.” I think “Bright” and “Suicide Squad” are better than they get credit for. (Will Smith and Joel Edgerton are really good in the former. Smith, Margot Robbie, Jay Hernandez and Viola Davis are really good in the latter.) Ayer’s pastiche is like t-shirts from Affliction, Ed Hardy and Tapout somehow growing sentient and collaborating to make movies. Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it’s dumb.

With “The Tax Collector” I can say I didn’t hate, but it wasn’t great. I had to stifle laughter during serious scenes. Violence often occurs off-screen or is staged sloppily. This is a meal that’s simultaneously under and overcooked. You can’t always judge a movie by its poster – this one’s fucks BTW – but if LaBeouf is depicted brandishing a machine gun on the advertisement he oughta have one in the movie … budgetary and story restrictions be damned! That’d make us a little more even-stevens. Also, a little trigger discipline, gentlemen … y’all look like a coupla uppity Karens from St. Louis.

I Used to Go Here

★★★1/2

Writer/director Kris Rey’s “I Used to Go Here,” available on VOD as of Friday, Aug. 7 and screening at the Tibbs Drive-In Theater on Thursday, Aug. 13 at 9:20 PM as part of the 2020 Indy Film Fest, made me long for my halcyon college days while simultaneously showing the pettiness, drama and bullshit that’s inherent to higher education.

Kate (Gillian Jacobs) is an alumna of fictional Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill. (subbing for the actual Southern Illinois University – Rey’s undergrad alma mater), who’s just written her first novel, “Seasons Passed.” She’s invited back to the university by David (Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement), a professor she might’ve been too cozy with in her younger years, to do a reading. A faculty position is also being dangled in her direction.

Kate stays in a bed and breakfast across the street from the house she lived in with girlfriends when she was in school. She and the b&b’s proprietor, Mrs. Beeter (Cindy Gold), get off on the wrong foot when Kate returns home after curfew having lost her key. Frustrated and dejected, Kate seeks solace in her old house and its current occupants – Hugo (Josh Wiggins, “Greyhound”), Animal (Forrest Goodluck, late of Shudder’s “Blood Quantum”) and Tall Brandon (Brandon Daley – he’s tall!).

These three young men are studying creative writing like Kate did. She becomes entangled in their lives over the weekend – drinking and doing drugs with them. Hugo has a turbulent relationship with April (Hannah Marks), who’s the most promising student in the creative writing department. Kate also buddies up with Emma (Khloe Janel), who’s got something going with Animal.

“I Used to Go Here” is a hangout movie. It’s fairly light on plot and doesn’t say anything especially new, but it has an ace in the hole with Jacobs. I’ve been a big fan of Jacobs’ since “Community” and she brings considerable neurotic, awkward Britta Perry energy to the proceedings. I wish a 37-year-old writer who looked like Jacobs showed up to make time with me when I was 20. There’s a lot she could’ve taught me and even more I needed to learn. I dig Clement, but he doesn’t come off nearly as well. Then again, his character has a whole lot less to do and is a whole lot less likable.

I know Rey née Swanberg née Williams more as an actress than I do as a writer or director. She does solid work making something that’s entirely amiable. The film is a production of Lonely Island Classics and it’s not nearly as funny as “Hot Rod,” “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” and “Palm Springs,” but its hangout vibe is most assuredly pleasant enough. Lonely Island member Jorma Taccone turns up as Kate’s former classmate, Bradley Cooper (“I go by Brad now.”), and has a scene that’s a scream.

Come for Jacobs, stay for the killer soundtrack of indie, folk and vintage R&B and soul. Simpler still – I got a kick out of watching these folks down brews from Half Acre and Revolution (Shout-out to Juice Beers!) that I’ve enjoyed over countless weekends in Wrigleyville. I felt like I was 20 again watching this flick, which feels pretty damned good when you’re 38.

An American Pickle

★★★★

The new Seth Rogen vehicle, “An American Pickle,” which is now available for streaming on HBO Max, is the Jewiest movie that’s ever Jewed. It makes “Yentl” look like “Triumph of the Will” by comparison. This is exactly the sort of flick that the kid who geeked out over “Munich” in “Knocked Up” would have a hand in making now that he’s grown up a bit … and I found it utterly charming.

The movie opens 100 years ago in an Eastern European shtetl known as Schlupsk. It’s depicted transformatively in 4:3 aspect ratio. Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen) works as a ditch digger in the community. He becomes enamored by a local woman named Sarah (Sarah Snook of “Succession”) and woos her by gifting gefilte fish. They share their dreams – she wants enough money to afford a funeral plot; he wants to try seltzer water. They eventually also share their lives, are married, have a son and move to the United States through Ellis Island to avoid Cossack invaders.

They settle in Brooklyn, NY where Herschel finds work clubbing rats in a pickle factory. One fateful day he falls into a vat of pickles, is accidentally sealed inside and brined for 100 years. The brine preserves him perfectly and he emerges in present-day Brooklyn (and 16:9 aspect ratio) not having aged a day. Herschel’s only surviving relative is his great-grandson, Ben Greenbaum (also Rogen), a loner who works as an app developer. There’s a culture clash between the two men as they navigate having a relationship with one another.

Rogen is very good in the movie pulling double duty. His Herschel sounds a bit like a bassier Borat and is prone to violence and speaking his unfiltered mind. Ben is the most buttoned-down character Rogen has played since playing second fiddle to Barbara Streisand (Yentl herself!) in 2012’s “The Guilt Trip.” Often when an actor plays two separate roles in a film it’s an exercise in ego … action stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme have done it countless times. I don’t believe this is the case with Rogen. Most folks simply see him as the stoner dude with a goofy guffaw, but when given weightier and/or darker material (“Observe and Report,” “Funny People,” “50/50”) he’s proven himself an adept actor. He appears to be stretching heretofore unused performative muscles here.

“An American Pickle” is the solo feature directorial debut of Brandon Trost, a cinematographer who’s shot numerous Rogen comedies including “This Is the End,” “Neighbors,” “The Interview” and “The Night Before” and co-directed “The FP” (a cult comedy my dudes dig and I don’t) with his brother, Jason. It’s scribed by “Saturday Night Live” writer Simon Rich, who adapted his short story, “Sell Out.”

The resulting product has a storybook quality to it. It’s far less rollicking and far more saccharine (but not cloyingly so) than most of Rogen’s output. No one’s smoking dope and there’s very little cursing. It’s PG-13 but could’ve and should’ve been PG.  It honestly feels like a combination between an edgier live action Pixar movie and the high concept comedies you would’ve seen in the ‘80s or early ‘90s … throw a Touchstone Pictures logo at the front of this thing, replace Rogen with Richard Dreyfuss and there you go!

She Dies Tomorrow

★★1/2

I know Amy Seimetz more as an actress than I do as a filmmaker. I also know more of her mainstream and/or genre work (“You’re Next,” “Alien: Covenant,” “Pet Sematary” (2019)) than I do her independent efforts (“The Myth of the American Sleepover,” “Tiny Furniture,” “Upstream Color”). I haven’t seen her feature directorial debut, “Sun Don’t Shine,” despite having heard good things about it. I haven’t seen her television work as an actress (“The Killing”) nor as the creative driving force (“The Girlfriend Experience”).

This brings us to Seimetz’s second feature directorial effort, “She Dies Tomorrow,” available on VOD beginning Friday, July 31. The movie is pretty much what its title tells you it is. Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) is in recovery and has just parted ways with her boyfriend, Craig (Kentucker Audley – pretty much the best/worst name in the world). Upset about their separation, Amy falls off the wagon. She begins drinking heavily and calls her friend, Jane (Jane Adams), to declare that, “I’m going to die tomorrow.” Jane, concerned with her friend’s well-being, goes and checks on her. Upon visiting with Amy, Jane too comes to the conclusion that she herself is going to die tomorrow as well. And so it spreads …

I know the movie was made before COVID-19, but it accidentally plays as a perfect analogy to this particular moment. Simply by being with someone else you could possibly be killing them. Fear is contagious in “She Dies Tomorrow,” much like it is now in our own reality.

“She Dies Tomorrow” plays like a mumblecore version of “Final Destination” with a dash of sexless “It Follows” and a pinch of David Lynch thrown in for good measure. I detested the picture for the first 20 minutes of its 84 minute runtime, but there’s a scene in which Jane visits her brother, Jason (Chris Messina), his wife, Susan (Katie Aselton of “The League”) and their friends, Brian (Tunde Adebimpe, frontman of TV on the Radio) and Tilly (Jennifer Kim) where I fell into the movie’s rhythms. I think much of this is attributable to preferring Adams’ screen presence over Sheil’s.

Adams is an actress I’ve admired for some time. Whether it’s in Todd Solondz’s “Happiness,” doing tiny turns in “Wonder Boys” and “Orange County” or playing Thomas Jane’s pimp on HBO’s “Hung,” Adams has always made an impression. Adams is a slender woman, but her face has grown fuller and hair grayer. In spite of this, her skin is immaculate. Adams’ look is a fascinating one and undoubtedly suited to the subject matter – having someone who’s simultaneously youthful and aged in a picture preoccupied with death is haunting. And the fact that Adams has actors as good as Messina, Aselton and Adebimpe to play off of doesn’t hurt matters either. Late picture joinees Josh Lucas, Michelle Rodriguez and director Adam Wingard also add to the proceedings.

I can’t recommend a movie I hated one-quarter of, but I think certain audiences will really respond to “She Dies Tomorrow.” It’s undeniably cinema of irritation … you probably know if that’s your bag or not and if you’re game for such a thing in these already irritable times.

Legacy of Lies

★★

I had to stifle laughter when I put the disc for “Legacy of Lies” (henceforth known as “LoL” and on DVD as of Tuesday, July 28) into the player and there was no trailers, no menu, no studio logo – just straight into the movie and a title card reading, “Ukranian State Film Agency.” Could this be the Redboxiest movie that ever Redboxed?

“LoL” features my boi Scott Adkins, an English direct-to-video action actor who tends to do at least five flicks a year. I’m on a pretty strict Adkins Diet where I’ll watch whatever the dude drops – good, bad or otherwise. Adkins should be a much bigger star than he is. He probably could’ve and should’ve been James Bond or Batman. He kinda looks like Ben Affleck and could kick the crap outta Daniel Craig.

Adkins stars as Martin Baxter, a disgraced MI-6 agent with a 12-year-old daughter named Lisa (Honor Kneafsey). Martin makes ends meet by working as a nightclub bouncer (lending the film “John Wick”-lite action locales) and cage fighting as a mixed martial artist (lending the film a serious late ‘80s/early ‘90s Jean-Claude Van Damme vibe).

Martin’s life is complicated. He sees the zombified ghost of Lisa’s mother and his late girlfriend, Olga (Tetiana Nosenko), incessantly. He has sex with a prostitute named Suzanne (Andrea Vasiliou) to the same diagetic music Lisa’s listening to on earphones in the next room … creepy!

Martin’s life is further complicated by the appearance of Sacha (Yuliia Sobol, who reads like an Eastern Bloc Hot Topic version of AnnaSophia Robb). She’s a cub reporter whose reporter parents were friends of Martin’s before being killed. They had files or vials (My wife and I couldn’t tell which through all the thick accents – besides they’re either MacGuffins or McMuffins anyways!) that interest agents from the CIA (Martin McDougall, playing a dude named Trevor, so you just know he’s a dick!), MI-6 (Leon Sua as Edwards) and Spetsnaz GRU (Anna Butkevich as Tatyana). Tatyana wants the files/vials badly enough that she kidnaps Lisa and threatens to kill her if she doesn’t get them.

“LoL” is written and directed by Dutch filmmaker Adrian Bol. This is his second feature and his first in 15 years – he made four shorts in between. (Bol’s first flick is something called “Castingx” starring somebody called Ellen Ten Damme.) There’s a lot that works here and a lot that doesn’t.

The opening shootout is awesome with easily discernible geography. There are decent fights choreographed by Adkins’ frequent collaborator Tim Man (Not Tin Man!) peppered throughout. Much of what’s good comes from Adkins, who does the best he can with the material and budget ($4.5 million) given. I actually also really liked Kneafsey, who looks like Little Orphan Annie and brings a lot of smarts and sass to her role.

Things that didn’t work so well – the zombified ghost girlfriend (the movie died on the vine whenever she appeared) and a direct address to camera from Sobol’s Sacha in which she discusses #fakenews in a Russian accent that hits the nail so hard on the head it’s like Jesus hammered it himself.

The disc has a 25-minute making-of featurette that didn’t really grip me and a trailer. I wish “LoL” were titled “Legacy o’ Flies” instead like it’s Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery playing “Jeopardy” or a sequel to “Lord of the Flies.” Regardless, I’ll be here for whatever Adkins does next.

All The King’s Men (1949)

In many older films, there were heroes and there were villains. There wasn’t much room for nuance.

Nowadays, the same can be said for the way politicians are depicted in the news.

One channel portrays Donald Trump as a hero and Joe Biden as a villain. Flip to another news channel and the perspectives are flipped. We’re working in extremes and we’re working in absolutes.

Where do you weigh the good and the bad? Where do the scales tip? Can a bad person can end up doing good things, even if they’re doing them for the wrong reasons?

In the early 1930s, one of the most divisive figures was Huey Long, who served as governor and senator of Louisiana. He was the original populist. He was a brilliant attorney and gifted orator and he became known for fighting against corporate greed. He spoke out against white supremacy and advocated for a wealth tax and wealth redistribution.

Many loved him, but he was also hated. He was impeached for abuses of power, including misusing state funds and corruption. But the most serious charge was conspiracy to commit murder. One of Long’s bodyguards claimed in an affidavit that an intoxicated Long had told him to kill a state representative and “leave him in the ditch where nobody will know how or when he got there.” Long allegedly promised him a full pardon.

Long was acquitted by the Louisiana Senate but the impeachment proceedings were so heated that there was a literal brawl on the floor of the state legislature. Some used brass knuckles and Long’s brother even bit someone.

Long was eventually killed and the assassin was never identified.

OK, that was a lengthy wind-up, but it leads us to the movie I’m featuring: “All the King’s Men,” a 1949 movie that won Best Picture at the Oscars.

Long’s story was the direct inspiration for the Pulitzer Prize winning novel that was turned into this feature film three years later.

Little known character actor Broderick Crawford plays Willy Stark, an honest man running for county treasurer somewhere in the South. The state and political parties are never specified. Stark is uneducated but bright and he takes on the establishment in the form of county commissioners who want to give their cronies the contract to build a new schoolhouse. The schoolhouse collapses with children inside due to cheap construction. Stark is seen as a prophetic hero, a man of the people.

Stark is later recruited to run for governor, but the naive man — now going to night school to become an attorney — is just an unwitting patsy. They only recruited him to split the “redneck vote” and give their preferred candidate an assured win. When he discovers, he vows to run again in four years, “But this time I know how to win,” he says.

He runs a populist campaign for governor, calling himself a “hick” and is elected easily. He vows to build a big hospital and provide people with free healthcare. All seems to be going well until cracks start to form. He begins cheating on his wife and berating his staff. He admits to making deals with corporate interests in order to advance his political agenda.

“I’ll make a deal with the devil if it will help me carry out my program,” Stark says. “But believe me, there are no strings attached to those deals. Do you know what good comes out of?…Out of bad. That’s what good comes out of. Because you can’t make it out of anything else. You didn’t know that, did you?”

Later on, his attorney general, a former judge, refuses to cut a deal for corrupt politicians that Stark needs on his side.

Stark tells him: “You know, Judge, dirt’s a funny thing. Some of it rubs off on everybody.”

When the judge resigns, Stark enlists the help of a bright-eyed journalist Jack Burden who wrote about his campaign. He had previously hired this writer for his staff with promises of changing the world but now he’s got him digging up dirt about the judge.

“Jack, there’s something on everybody,” Stark says. “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption.”

In the end, Stark is impeached but acquitted. As he’s leaving the statehouse to a crowd of cheering supporters, he’s shot and killed. He’s assassinated by Burden, the very man who once looked up to Stark.

In a news reel, a narrator says that, “For those who say that Willie Stark is a man of destiny, there are others who claim that he is a man of evil, a man who cares neither for the people or the state, but only for his own personal power and ambition. Obviously, these ambitions go far beyond the boundaries of the state. Just how far, only time will tell. Meanwhile, he is here, and from the looks of things, he is here to stay. Willie Stark – Messiah or Dictator?”

Viewers will obviously see parallels between Willy Stark and modern day politicians. A good person starts off wanting to do good things but over time starts giving into the system and “playing the game.” At some point personal ambition starts to overshadow their original goals. Even when they push through good legislation, they end up getting their hands dirty, saying “the ends will justify the means.”

Frank Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s character in the Netflix series, “House of Cards,” obviously is one recent example. Neither 100 percent good nor 100 percent evil, but sharp and cunning. And just like any Shakespearean tragic hero, their ego and ambition leads to their downfall.

“All the King’s Men” isn’t the first noir film to win Best Picture. “Casablanca” did that. And it isn’t the first award-nominated feature about an egotistical ambitious magnate who loses his way. “Citizen Kane,” released eight years prior, obviously influenced “All the King’s Men,” both in style and substance.

“All the King’s Men” is applauded for its screenplay, but the cast mostly improvised many scenes. The original running time was four hours and the director and editor trimmed it to a 109-minute movie by taking many scenes and turning into short snippets with transitions and using montages to show the passage of time. These editing tricks — not used much at the time — came out of necessity but made for a more powerful film.

Crawford won Best Actor at the Oscars, beating John Wayne, who originally turned down the role of Stark because he was reluctant to play a morally questionable character.

“All the King’s Men” is not one of the greatest films ever made but it’s worthy of recognition for its place in movie history. It shed some light on political corruption in the 1940s, which many people felt was un-American to to do at the time.

Its dark ending does not present any hope. And unfortunately modern politics often don’t either. If good men end up becoming corrupt over time, maybe that’s an argument for term limits. As Winston Churchill once said: “After a time, civil servants tend to become no longer servants and no longer civil.”

Children of Men (2006)

WARNING THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS

Some films grow in reputation over time. They’re ahead of their time in many ways and directors begin to be influenced by a work and audiences revisit it over the years and an appreciation grows.

And in some cases, the message of the movie becomes even more relevant as current events unfold throughout the years.

In the case of “Children of Men,” a 2006 dystopian thriller written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, it’s now regarded as one of the best movies ever made.

Cuarón is now a two-time Oscar winner for Best Director for “Gravity” in 2013 and “Roma” in 2018. He shares the honor with George Stevens and Ang Lee of being the only directors to have won Best Director twice without ever directing a Best Picture winner. Cuarón also has been nominated in six different Oscar categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay), an honor he shares with Walt Disney and George Clooney.

He’s directed only eight films between 1991 and 2018. Six of them received Oscar nominations (and interesting enough only two are in his native Spanish).

He’s a damn good director and “Children of Men” might be his best movie.

Quick plot summary: It stars Clive Owen as a former political activist who now drinks his days away at a job he hates. The film open with TV news announcing the death of the youngest person alive (18 years old). It’s been that long since humankind has stopped having babies due to unexplained infertility and the lack of children — and the lack of a future — has taken away hope. Society has crumbled in many major cities. Armed militias roam the streets and refugees try to come to London but are criminalized as illegal immigrants and thrown into literal cages. Owen is asked by a former girlfriend (played by the always marvelous Julianne Moore) to help escort a woman on an important trip. Little does he know that she’s pregnant. And terrorist groups want to take her baby.

Owen is an underrated actor. He’s always got this smarminess to him where he’s not 100 percent trustworthy (as seen in the underrated film “Closer”). He was once considered to replace Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, along with Ewan McGregor and Jude Law. Eric Bana was eventually selected but it fell through and his “Munich” co-star Daniel Craig took the role.

Michael Caine has a small but memorable part as a lovable pothead. Caine is always excellent and along with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep he’s the only actor/actress to receive Oscar nominations in five straight decades (all three have won multiple awards).

There are also cameos from the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor and Charlie Hunnam but neither have big parts or are particularly memorable.

Technically, “Children of Men” is a marvel. Some of the shots are nearly impossible to pull off and yet the camera moves in a way that doesn’t bring attention to itself.

The biggest feat is the use of single-shot sequences for many scenes, which sparked concerns for the studio due to the time and cost. The movie doesn’t have a lot of special effects but cost $75 million to make (it broke even at the box office basically when you include domestic and international). One single shot which involves Owen’s character searching a building while under attack took 14 days to prepare for and five hours between takes. During one take, blood spattered onto the lens and the cinematographer convinced Cuarón to leave it in, adding to the documentary feel of parts of the movie.

The car crash scene was also incredibly difficult to shoot because of where the camera moves during the single shot. With today’s drones, it’s possible they could have done it differently.

There’s some splicing together of shots to make multiple shots appear to be one using computer technology but the effects weren’t as advanced as they are today. During “1917,” I didn’t want to give Sam Mendes too much credit for his single-shot movie considering how much of it was edited in post production.

In “Children of Men,” the single shot scenes (it’s only in sequences not the entire movie) makes you feel like you’re there but you almost don’t realize it’s being used. Unlike “Birdman” (a single-shot Best Picture winner from Cuarón’s close friend Alejandro González Iñárritu), the camerawork isn’t showy. It advances the story but never becomes gimmicky.

When Owen was running through the staircase avoiding being killed, it reminded me of “The Raid: Redemption” almost.

“Children of Men” also might be the most hopeless of the dystopian sci-fi movies I’ve seen (a genre I enjoy a lot).

In modern teen films like “Divergent” or “The Hunger Games,” we see action and spectacle front and center instead of drab colors and hopelessness.

In films like “Blade Runner,” “Escape from New York,” “The Warriors,” or “Logan’s Run” (all four I love), the viewer becomes enamored with the futuristic backdrop, the unique production design and the interesting costumes instead of wallowing in the bleak surroundings.

Probably the best comparison to “Children of Men” is “A Clockwork Orange” but that’s a movie that didn’t have the grand scale or cityscape surroundings of “Children of Men.”

In many ways, “Children of Men” is the anti-sci fi film. There are some very, very subtle futuristic elements such as a news stand with newspapers that change on their own using CGI effects, but you don’t see a fascination with technology or future-predicting like in films such as “Minority Report,” “I, Robot” or “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.”

Instead, “Children of Men” focuses on realism and you see long shots of damaged streetscapes that look like the bombarded scenes in “Full Metal Jacket.” There’s a sense of despair looking at the roads unmatched by any other movie. There are other dystopian films like “The Road,” “28 Days Later,” and “I am Legend” (all three have some sort of zombie-ish element) where the streets look barren and hopeless. But the streets of “Children of Men” aren’t empty. They’re bustling full of people and yet every person seems to have dread on their face.

It’s a very religious film. When Clive Owen is surprised by the pregnancy and asks who the father is, she jokes that she’s a virgin and his face almost believes it. Her birth is eventually in a barn, which is pretty obvious. Although much of the other religious symbolism is much more subtle.

The title, according to director/writer Alfonso Cuarón, is based on Psalm 90: “You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’ For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.”

The movie closes with the final line from T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem “The Wasteland”: “Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.” Shanti means peace in sanskrit.

“Shanti” is also a common beginning and ending to all Hindu prayers.

The movie itself is all about hope. When the soldiers and rebels, all fighting with one another, finally see the baby, they all stop and stare. The birth of a child gives them hope and pause. Children give us hope. It’s that simple.

The ending features Owen, the young woman and the baby on a boat fleeing to freedom and safety in the form of a boat called Tomorrow. Owen dies on the boat and the mother and daughter float away and the audience doesn’t know what eventually happens to them as the credits roll, featuring the sounds of children laughing and playing.

Cuarón encourages viewers to come to their own conclusions.

“We wanted the end to be a glimpse of a possibility of hope, for the audience to invest their own sense of hope into that ending,” he said. “So if you’re a hopeful person you’ll see a lot of hope, and if you’re a bleak person you’ll see a complete hopelessness at the end.”

Personally, I interpret the sounds of laughter as a sign that society is rebuilt.

Obviously many have pointed out the political parallels in “Children of Men,” especially the idea of illegal immigrants being kept in chain-link cages.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been this sense of dread and hopelessness among many. There’s an uneasy feeling in today’s society which I saw in “Children of Men.” Terrorist attacks. People dying. Buildings being burned down. Lockdowns. Strict government actions.

The movie isn’t just getting more relevant but it’s growing in appreciation.

In 2016 it was voted 13th among 100 films considered the best of the 21st century by 117 film critics from around the world, according to a feature on BBC.com.

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone ranked it number two on his list of best films of the 2000s, saying: “After repeated viewings, I know Children of Men is indisputably great … No movie this decade was more redolent of sorrowful beauty and exhilarating action.”

It’s a film you have to watch more than once I think. It sticks with you and repeated viewings improve the experience.

In the end, I think it works because it’s a movie that uses symbolism over narrative to evoke feelings in the viewer. Some movies make us think but the best movies make us feel something.

Yes, God, Yes

★★★1/2

It’s not every day you see a movie begin with a title card sporting both the literal and sexual euphemism definitions for “tossed salad.” “Obvious Child” co-screenwriter Karen Maine marks her feature directorial debut by doing just this in adapting her short of the same name, “Yes, God, Yes,” which will be available on VOD beginning Friday, July 24.

“Stranger Things” co-star Natalia Dyer headlines the picture as Alice, a Catholic school girl who’s ostensibly a very good, naïve and kind kid. She has urges as most teens do, but they’re fairly benign and mostly revolve around rewinding the sex scene from “Titanic” for a second or even third look.

Alice’s naiveté serves in stark contrast to the rumor circulating about her in school – that she gave her classmate Wade (Parker Wierling) a rim job at a party. Alice doesn’t even know what any of this means and spends the rest of the runtime seeking a definition all along asserting, “I didn’t dress Wade’s salad!”

Alice’s best girlfriend, Laura (Francesca Reale, another “Stranger Things” alum), seeks to improve their social standing. The best way to do this at their school is by attending a weekend retreat presided over by Father Murphy (Timothy Simons of “Veep”). Laura is looking to impress upperclassman, Nina (Alisha Boe, “13 Reasons Why”). Alice takes an interest in Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz, a veteran of Netflix movies such as “Sierra Burgess Is a Loser” and “The Half of It”). Both Nina and Chris serve in leadership roles at the retreat.

“Yes, God, Yes” reminded me a good deal of 2004’s “Saved!,” in the way that it deals with religion, teenagers and teenagers dealing with religion. I don’t think “Yes, God, Yes” is as good as “Saved!” It’s not as dramatic nor as funny. It’s mostly just dirtier. That said, the movie is humorous and does have worthwhile things to say about being religious without being judgmental or hypocritical. A cheeky connection between the two flicks is the inclusion of “Saved!” co-star Mandy Moore’s song “Candy” over the closing credits.

Dyer is a cute and likable presence here much like she is on “Stranger Things” – she’s the main reason to watch the film aside from the crude albeit amusing central joke and some astute theological commentary. In addition to Dyer other standouts include Simons, who can do this sorta awkward comedy in his sleep, and Novogratz, who kinda reads like a young Chris Pratt … I could see this kid going places.

“Yes, God, Yes” feels exactly like what it is – a short stretched to feature length. The movie is a mere 78 minutes and likely would’ve benefitted from being more fleshed out. What’s here is good – I think Maine shows great promise as both a writer and director … I just wish there were more of it.

The Rental

★★½ 

Actor Dave Franco makes his directorial debut with “The Rental,” available on VOD beginning Friday, July 24, which plays like a ‘90s erotic thriller meets a Tommy Wiseau melodrama meets mumblecore (subgenre pioneer Joe Swanberg co-scripted with Franco) only to transform into a slasher flick in its final 10 minutes.

Charlie (Dan Stevens, late of “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”) and Mina (Sheila Vand of Ana Lily Amirpour’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”) are partners in a tech firm. To mark an unspecified professional milestone the two are looking to rent a swanky, Pacific Northwest-based beachfront property for a celebratory weekend of hiking, hot-tubbing, dining, drinking and recreational drugs.

The partners appear fairly cozy with one another engaging in flirting and touching, which makes it somewhat surprising that they’ll be inviting their significant others along. Charlie’s married to Michelle (Franco’s real-life wife Alison Brie). Mina’s dating Charlie’s younger ne’er do well brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White, Lip from Showtime’s “Shameless”). Josh brings his adorable French bulldog Reggie despite it being against the rules.

The foursome are renting the place from the owner’s brother, Taylor (Toby Huss AKA Artie the Strongest Man in the World from Nickelodeon’s “The Adventures of Pete & Pete”). Mina initially attempted to rent the place on her own only to be refused … she assumes on the basis of her Iranian surname. Charlie attempted an hour later and was accepted. Mina brings this up to Taylor none-too-subtly and he passive-aggressively doubles down on his racist rhetoric. Mina is obviously uncomfortable, but her white companions don’t seem to fully grasp her feelings. They’ll all eventually feel discomfort when a camera is discovered in the shower. Things escalate from there.

Franco has assembled a solid cast and I’d argue they generally elevate the material. Stevens and Vand aren’t especially likable in their roles, but they play the parts well. Curiously, Franco gives his wife the most boring, sexless role. (I thought this was Alison Brie not Alison Pill?!!! Sorry, bad joke!) Brie is inherently charming so the performance still registers. White is easily the most likeable of these folks. Then again, the dog might’ve done the heavy lifting in making this the case. I also tend to gravitate towards fuck-up characters in movies as I’m a bit of one in actuality. Huss is an actor I generally enjoy and I dug his creeptacular turn here, but I could’ve gone for more of him.

I don’t know what Franco’s ultimately trying to say with “The Rental.” At a scant 88 minutes it’s equal parts navel-gazing and indeterminate. Part of me thought he was attempting to grapple with his more famous brother James’ purported misbehavior. I kinda figured the elder Franco might’ve been playing a masked character that appears at the picture’s conclusion in a piece of performance art that’s very on brand for the brothers. He didn’t and it wasn’t. Ultimately, “The Rental” left me with very little other than a slight pause when using Airbnb … something a pandemic had already achieved.