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Happiest Season

★★★

“Happiest Season” promises to “make the yuletide gay” as Hulu’s new streaming Christmas rom-com featuring LGBT themes.

And while it boasts an impressive comedic ensemble, featuring Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen, the movie’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness.

“Happiest Season” is a very traditional, formulaic Christmas movie. Besides featuring lesbian characters as the leads, this movie is one you’ve seen again and again. The zany, manic energy and sometimes broad humor will be comforting to many but tiresome for some who long for a more inventive script.

But I think this was all a calculated decision by actor-turned-director Clea Duvall (you might remember her as Catherine’s Secret Service girlfriend on “Veep” and many teen movies in the 1990s such as “The Faculty”) in her second feature. Duvall is out herself and you can sense a genuine love for Christmas movies in her script, which she co-wrote with Mary Holland, a comedian she previously worked with on “Veep.” In fact, I think it was the right move to put something different and new in a very familiar vehicle.

The movie begins with Davis drunkenly asking her girlfriend Stewart to come meet her parents for Christmas. Yes, she actually says the line, “I know you don’t like Christmas because your parents died around then,” but it’s a formulaic movie and sometimes lines of exposition are needed.

Stewart plans to proposed on Christmas morning but as they’re driving to the house, Davis admits that she never actually came out to her parents and she needs Stewart to just pretend to be her roommate for the next few days.

Davis’s conservative parents (politics are never mentioned but the word traditional is used a lot) don’t make the next few days easy on Stewart. Steenburgen is obsessed with public image as Garber is preparing for a run for mayor. Davis, the favorite among her parents, butts heads with her competitive sister played by Brie, while Holland, who plays the strangely odd sister in addition to co-writing the script, has some of the funniest lines in the movie.

In situations that remind you of “Meet the Parents” or “The Family Stone,” everything seems to wrong for Stewart even as she tries to impress the parents. Some situations become unbelievable, but, again, this is a formulaic Christmas comedy. That will happen.

Stewart begins to feel isolated and jealous as Davis ignores her during the family visit and even spends a lot of time with her high school boyfriend. Viewers begin to wonder why Stewart would even want to be with someone who ignores her when she feels most vulnerable.

Eventually stewart grabs a drink to commiserate with Davis’s ex-girlfriend, played with charm by Audrey Plaza. The chemistry between the two would make some viewers wish that the two leads don’t get together in the end, but unfortunately there are no big surprises in this movie.

Just when it looks like the romantic leads will never get together, Dan Levy gives a speech as the gay best friends to make the movies themes/morals as clear as day. The parents have a change of heart rather quickly and Davis gives a heartfelt apology. It all wraps up the conflict in a few minutes in a all-too-convenient way. I’d actually feel worse about spoiling the plot but you can see it all coming a mile away.

Despite being very by-the-numbers, there are quite a few laugh out loud scenes, mostly due the dedication of the talented supporting cast. Davis and Stewart do a fine job, but they’re the least interesting part of this movie and audiences will find themselves attached to the side characters rather than the leads. Holland and Levy steal almost every scene they are in. We will likely see a Awkafina or Rebel Wilson-style career boost for both of them (yes I know Levy is already a star of the small screen from “Schitt’s Creek” but movie producers will be calling him more frequently). There’s a brief but hilarious scene featuring Timothy Simons (Jonah Ryan on “Veep”) and Lauren Lapkus (“The Wrong Missy”) as overly aggressive mall security guards.

Audiences who are strongly opposed to LGBT relationships will obviously not like this movie. But the movie itself could win over some who are slightly uncomfortable. There’s some kissing but no graphic sex scenes. It’s PG-13 and it’s vulgar. While Garber plays a politician, the words Democrat or Republican are never mentioned and no real-life elected officials are name-dropped. It’s very accessible for a wide audience.

While the LGBT romance drives the story, there are times when you forget that the lead characters are gay and just think of this movie as a traditional romantic comedy. And isn’t that a good thing? A movie can be authentic without being over the top or patronizing. LGBT characters don’t have to “too straight” or “too gay,” they can just be themselves.

Review Twofer – Iron Mask/Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula

★★★

I rented a coupla Asian-themed action flicks and figured I’d review ‘em together. Here’s what I watched!

Iron Mask:

I would have been out-of-my-mind-excited for this were it 1996. Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the same movie! Is it Christmas?!!! “Iron Mask” (now available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) isn’t the first time Arnie and Jackie have appeared on screen together – both were in frequent Adam Sandler collaborator Frank Coraci’s misguided 2004 adaptation of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days” as well as the James Cameron-executive produced dietary documentary “The Game Changers” … not to mention “Entertainment Tonight” coverage anytime a Planet Hollywood opened in the ‘90s.

“Iron Mask” begins terribly, gets entertaining for a while, coasts on crud for a bit and concludes strongly. Chan and Schwarzenegger actually have an awesome fight sequence fairly early on that’s worth the price of admission alone … then they promptly disappear until the finale. The crux of the plot concerns cartographer and scientist Jonathan Green (Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn regular Jason Flemyng) being released from a prison overseen by Arnie’s James Hook. Green’s been dispatched by Peter the Great (Yuri Kolokolnikov of “The Americans” and “Game of Thrones”) to map the Russian Far East.  Green travels to China alongside Cheng Lan (Yao Xingtong), who he thinks is a guy. Turns out he’s not only a she – she’s also a Princess. It also turns out Peter’s a prisoner too (he’s sporting the titular “Iron Mask”) and his celly is Lan’s father Master (Chan). Peter busts out of the clink and teams with Green’s fiancée Miss Dudley (Anna Churina) and a motley crew of pirates fronted by Captain (Martin Klebba, who essayed a similar role in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” pictures) to assist Green and Lan in overthrowing Witch (Ma Li), who’s assumed Lan’s identity and ruled over her people tyrannically.

“Iron Mask” is one weird-ass movie. It has more production companies and producers involved than I even know existed. The late Rutger Hauer pops up for literally 30 seconds. Charles Dance appears for a minute and a half – maybe two? (“Last Action Hero” reunion!) I’m not entirely sure who this picture was made for? It’s too boring for children and too childish for adults. Wait, I know … it was made for foreign audiences! It was obviously shot in or post-converted to 3D as shit kept getting shoved in my face, but the Blu-ray I rented wasn’t presented in that format. I did dig Witch’s minions who give off a combined vibe of Thunder, Rain and Lightning from “Big Trouble in Little China,” Super Shredder from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze” and The Mountain from “Game of Thrones.” The proceedings have a strange “Power Rangers” only historical bent to them. “Iron Mask” AKA “Journey to China: The Mystery of Iron Mask” AKA “Viy 2: Journey to China” is a sequel to the 2014 Russian movie “Viy” AKA “Forbidden Empire” AKA “Forbidden Kingdom” (no, not the Chan/Jet Li joint from 2008), which I didn’t even know existed prior to watching this one. That movie was directed by Oleg Stepchenko, who returns for this installment. “Iron Mask” has more Russian and Chinese money and influence in it than an American presidential election does. Just because I couldn’t totally makes heads or tails out of it doesn’t mean it wasn’t at least mildly enjoyable.

2.5/5

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula:

Many folks have ripped on “Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula” (now available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD and streaming on Shudder in early 2021) for not having the claustrophobic thrills nor emotional heft of its predecessor … guilty on all counts. What “Peninsula” does have however is greater scope and more/better action (car chases and gunfights as opposed to hand-to-hand combat). I loved “Train to Busan.” I like “Peninsula.”

Despite being co-written and directed by the first picture’s helmer Yeon Sang-ho and being touted as a direct sequel – viewers don’t necessarily need to have seen the first film to enjoy the second – but I’d recommend doing so as it’s the better of the two. We’re still in South Korea, it’s four years later and the only returning characters are the zombies themselves.

South Korean expats living as outcasts in Hong Kong are tasked with returning home to retrieve money for a criminal element. They are led by Jung Seok (Gang Dong-won), a soldier who experienced great loss in the initial outbreak. South Korea has changed greatly since their departure – it’s now a fully post-apocalyptic hellscape. The job hits a snag when it’s thwarted by Sergeant Hwang (Kim Min-jae) and his men, who are just as monstrous as the zombies who’ve wiped out humanity. Jung Seok is able to escape with his life when he’s rescued by a pair of sisters Jooni (Lee Re) and Yu Jin (Lee Ye-won) in an SUV. The girls take him home where he meets their mother Min Jung (Lee Jung-hyun) and grandfather Old Man KIM (Kwon Hae-hyo). Jung Seok teams with the family to infiltrate the military base, retrieve the money and gain passage off the titular peninsula, but they’ll have to get through Captain Seo (Koo Gyo-hwan) in order to achieve their goals.

“Peninsula” isn’t as intimate, quiet or emotionally affecting as its predecessor nor does it have performances as strong as Gong Yoo’s or Ma Dong-seok’s, but that’s not to say the new cast don’t acquit themselves fairly well. Gang Dong-won especially excels with the action choreography. The conclusion caused a coupla tears as opposed to the all-out crybaby shit fit the first one’s ending elicited outta me. “Peninsula” is a “Mad Max”-ified reskinning of “Train to Busan” – you’ll be treated to imagery of a 14-year-old girl drifting an SUV through hundreds of zombies and a gauntlet that’s reminiscent of “Apocalypto” and “Rambo” (2008). There’s plenty of movement, which may or may not move you.

3.5/5

Buddy Games

★★1/2

I volunteered to review “Buddy Games” (now available on VOD and DVD and in select theaters) because my wife has a crush on co-writer, producer, director and star Josh Duhamel. (Well, that and since I have the sense of humor of a 12-year-old boy I tend to dig dick and fart joke flicks.) When I pitched the idea of watching it with her she seemed nonplussed. Turns out we both enjoyed it for what it was – a slice of dumb, dirty fun that ain’t good so much as it is entertaining.

The Buddy Games are an annual tradition wherein six friends – Bob AKA “The Bobfather” (Duhamel), Durfy (Dax Shepard), Doc (Kevin Dillon), Zane (James Roday Rodriguez), Shelly (Dan Bakkedahl) and Dixon (Nick Swardson) – get together for a series of physical challenges (paintball, obstacle courses, corndog eating contests, etc.), drinking too much and clowning on one another. Tragedy strikes at one year’s festivities and the pals are separated for five years. They reunite to lift Shelly’s spirits as he’s fallen on hard times. Time’s been kinder to Bob, who sold his company for hundreds of millions of dollars and might soon be settling down with Tiffany (Olivia Munn). Tiffany doesn’t approve of The Buddy Games – Bob doesn’t care and offers a $150,000 kitty to the victor.

There’s a lot to admire about “Buddy Games” and a lot that’s off-putting. The result does sort of seem like a vanity project for Duhamel, whose Bobfather is always the smartest, coolest, wealthiest, best-looking cat in the room. (Granted, Duhamel might be all of these things in actuality?) Then again, Duhamel and his buddies back in North Dakota participate in real-life Buddy Games every year – perhaps the picture is a love letter to them and the tradition itself? I wasn’t especially crazy about the sexist representation of Munn’s Tiffany either – it appears she has no self-worth if she isn’t married to Bob. Munn and women in general deserve better. This is surprising and disappointing as a woman (Jude Weng) co-wrote the screenplay with Duhamel and Bob Schwartz (the real-life “Bobfather”).

In an interstitial on the DVD, Duhamel claims to be a comedy fanatic and said he was shooting to emulate the likes of the Farrelly brothers, Todd Phillips and Judd Apatow. In the picture’s sharpest moments it doesn’t stray too far from the mark. The movie’s undoubtedly dirty (you see a dude’s bare nutsack get punctured by a paintball), but it’s actually understated in other instances. There’s a sequence where the bros go to a bar (classily called The Spread Eagle) to compete in an “Intestinal Fortitude” challenge where they all take ex-lax  and must get a woman to buy ‘em a drink, dance with ‘em and give ‘em a kiss on the lips before the medication kicks in. I was worried we’d see diarrhea trickling out the cuffs of these guys’ pant legs sullying the dance floor. Thankfully, it’s mostly just fart sound effects and it’s actually pretty funny. Real restraint, ladies and gents!

The movie’s MVP is most assuredly Swardson, who’s hilarious here. I’ve been a fan of Swardson’s for a long time, but have always felt he works better as the sizzle as opposed to the steak. Give me Gay Robot (from Adam Sandler’s album Shh…Don’t Tell and Swardson’s Comedy Central series “Pretend Time”) or his turns in “Grandma’s Boy” (his car bed and “Dance Dance Revolution” performance had me rolling) and “The Benchwarmers” (he’s the only good thing about that movie) as opposed to “Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star.” He’s employed just the right amount here. As this is a WWE production, wrestler Sheamus also has a role in the picture. He’s surprisingly funny and does all of his scenes with Swardson – they have solid chemistry.

“Buddy Games” made me long for the halcyon days when my pals and I would party at our friend Okos’ place where we’d zip line off a cliff, jump a motorcycle off shit like we were Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape,” cut couches in half with a chainsaw and one time actually blew up a car. I’m lucky to be alive and these experiences make me the exact audience for “Buddy Games,” and yet I still have some reticence. That said, I kinda wanna watch the movie again and share it with my bros. To use the parlance of “Buddy Games” – I suspect it’s a grower as opposed to a shower.

Review Twofer: Embattled/Jiu Jitsu

★★★

What better way is there to close out a weekend after the Colts bested the Packers than by taking in a martial arts VOD double bill? Here’s what I watched and what I thought of ‘em.

Embattled:

I don’t give a rip about mixed martial arts in reality, but for whatever reason I find the sport fascinating within the context of movies and television shows – “Never Back Down” (guilty pleasure though it is), “Warrior” and “Kingdom” (this Audience Network series is now streaming on Netflix and is very much worth a watch) are all most assuredly my jams. MMA often serves as a metaphor to the strife these characters are experiencing interpersonally. These are stories of fathers, sons and brothers. Due to my curiosity with this subject matter, my interest was certainly piqued when I heard about and later saw the trailer for “Embattled,” which is now available on VOD and playing theatrically (it’s currently showing at Goodrich Quality Theaters locations in Brownsburg, Lebanon, Lafayette and West Lafayette, Ind.).

“Embattled” tells the tale of famed MMA fighter Cash Boykins (Stephen Dorff). Cash is as good in the cage as he is bad outside of it. He’s a crappy husband – currently to Jade (Karrueche Tran); formerly to Susan (Elizabeth Reaser) – and a worse father. He’s taken his eldest son Jett (Darren Mann) under his wing – the kid’s part of his entourage as a cornerman and trains at his gym. Cash cares about Jett as much as he’s capable, but his love is of the tough variety. Cash is frequently physically and verbally abusive to Jett, which is a spot better than the way he treats one of his other sons – the developmentally challenged Quinn (Colin McKenna) – whom he refers to as, “The Tard.”

Memories come to the surface that drive a deeper wedge between father and son. Tensions boil over resulting in Jett striking Cash in the face. The attack is caught on a hanger-on’s cell phone and the video goes viral. Despite only being 18 and a high school senior, Jett is now tasked with stepping into the Octagon and going toe-to-toe with his old man. Jett proceeds to get instruction from the only brawler to have bested his Dad in the cage – Claude (Saïd Taghmaoui).

The premise of “Embattled” is somewhat preposterous with Dorff’s Cash being too old to fight and Mann’s Jett being too young. The material sings however due to David McKenna’s strong script. David is the father of the aforementioned Colin and has written movies good (“American History X,” “Blow,” “Bully”), bad (“Body Shots,” the Sly Stallone “Get Carter”) and somewhere in between (2003’s “S.W.AT.”).  “Embattled” hews closer to the positive side of McKenna’s filmography. He gives his actors weighty emotions to play and they deliver.

This is undoubtedly Dorff and Mann’s show. I’m a fan of Dorff’s despite others making fun of him for doing vape ads. I dug him all the way back to Aerosmith’s “Cryin’” music video through his villainous turn in “Blade” all the way to the last season of HBO’s “True Detective,” where he outacted Mahershala Ali … which is no small feat. Dorff’s Cash is almost entirely contemptable, but he’s also highly watchable. I was unfamiliar with Mann going into the movie and was surprised to read he’s 31 years old. He was completely believable as an 18-year-old and brought considerable sensitivity and likability to the part of Jett. I actively rooted for and cared about this kid, which is a testament to McKenna’s writing and Mann’s performance. These dudes are ably supported by Reaser and “Scrubs” star Donald Faison as Quinn’s teacher/Susan’s romantic interest. Taghmaoui is also good in the film, but I could’ve gone for more of him.

“Embattled” is the American feature debut of 34-year-old Georgian filmmaker Nick Sarkisov and he makes quite the impression. The picture places a greater emphasis on emotion as opposed to grappling. The fights are convincing however and often pack one helluva wallop.

4/5

Jiu Jitsu

Dumb is fun until it ain’t. I was so stoked for “Jiu Jitsu” (now available on VOD) after having seen the trailer. It looked like a combination of “Predator” (a movie I love) and “Mortal Kombat” (a video game series I’ve played and dug since I was a kid) – which it is – but the plot is thin and its logic is thinner. Not even the likes of my favorite mega-actor Nicolas Cage, Tony Jaa (one of today’s best big screen martial artists) or Frank Grillo (a bonafide man crush of mine) could keep me engaged.

Jake (stuntman/actor Alain Moussi) is a Jiu Jitsu expert currently suffering from amnesia. He’s being pursued by Brax (Ryan Tarran), a seemingly invincible alien giving off HUGE “Halo” vibes who wants to fight him with humanity’s fate hanging in the balance. Jake is aided by mysterious cave dweller Wylie (Cage), fellow Jiu Jitsu practitioners (Jaa, Grillo, Marrese Crump, JuJu Chan) and soldiers (Eddie Steeples – Crabman from “My Name is Earl,” Rick Yune, Marie Avgeropoulos) in regaining both his memory and strength so he can battle and best Brax. That’s it. No more. No less. It’s far more fight-y fight-y and far less story story – punch, kick, wash, rinse, repeat. I wasn’t expecting Shakespeare, but I was hoping this cheese would be more Gruyere and less government.

The movie starts off promisingly enough with an awesome action sequence that incorporates first-person perspective featuring Moussi and Jaa. The problem is that Jaa’s mastery of martial arts is so much more impressive and entertaining than Moussi’s that it’s off-putting when Jaa is sidelined in favor of Moussi. It’s like taking a bite of a perfectly-cooked medium rare St. Elmo’s filet only to have your waiter snatch your plate away and replace it with Golden Corral sirloin that’s sat under a heat lamp all day. After having seen Moussi here and in “Kickboxer: Vengeance” (which was co-written and produced by “Jiu Jitsu” director Dimitri Logothetis), I’m uncertain he has what it takes to headline a picture. As an actor he’s a really good stuntman, but even then he’s not the physical specimen that Jaa is.

I sorta figured the acting slack would be taken up by Cage, but his performance is less mega and more mail-in. Who does this dude think he is? Bruce Willis? It’s still entertaining to see him sport a Raiden hat and smoke a spliff however.

2/5

Vanguard

★★1/2

“Vanguard” (now available in theaters and on VOD) is the ninth collaboration between director Stanley Tong and Jackie Chan. The first film that really turned me and most Western audiences on to Chan is another pairing of these two – “Rumble in the Bronx.” This flick is a blast for a litany of reasons including Chan spanking a bare-assed baddie with an antenna he rips off a car, another villain getting mowed down by a hovercraft which shreds his clothes and arguably the best credits outtake reel of Chan’s career (he rocks so many smiles and thumbs up while being incessantly stretchered away to Ash’s propulsive “Kung Fu”). “Vanguard” isn’t nearly as entertaining or grounded as “Rumble” (a movie so stupid it proudly sports Vancouver mountaintops despite taking place in the Bronx), but it’s not without its charms.

Chan is Tang Huating, the head of Vanguard, an “international private security firm.” They’re assigned to protect wealthy accountant Qin (Jackson Lou) and his daughter, Fareeda (Ruohan Xu). Qin has drawn the ire of Omar (Eyad Hourani) and his goon Broto (stuntman/actor Brahim Chab) by narcing on Omar’s brother to authorities who in turn kill him with a drone strike. Assisting Tang with his detail are the experienced Kaixuan (Lun Ai), relative newcomer Lei (Yang Yang), reluctant honeypot Mi Ya (Miya Muqi) and youthful hotshot Shendiao (boy bander Zhengting Zhu).

“Vanguard” is a globe-hopping action/adventure picture with stops in London, Zambia, India and Taiwan. The CG varies from inspired (birds and insects are captured capably) to insipid (These have gotta be the least convincing lions and hyenas I’ve ever seen!). Things go from goofy to goofier when Shendiao sports a hoverboard more reminiscent of Dolph Lundgren’s piece from “Masters of the Universe” as opposed to Michael J. Fox’s ride from the “Back to the Future” sequels. Incredulity is further amplified by a jet ski chase staged on raging rapids that defies every law of physics (and almost killed Chan via drowning in actuality) and a fleet of gold-plated luxury cars rendered so weightlessly it’d flummox Vin Diesel’s Domenic Toretto to the point of spilling his Corona.

Despite what the marketing materials would lead you to believe, this isn’t a Chan starring vehicle. The 66-year-old international superstar is still a special effect in and of himself (Seriously, watch the way this cat gets into an SUV … it’s mind-boggling!), but this is very much an ensemble piece. There isn’t a whole lot of story and even less character development. All that said, it’s big, dumb, action-packed fun despite often stooping to becoming pro-Chinese propaganda (the phrase, “Captain China is way better than Captain America!,” is uttered enthusiastically) or simply a travel advertisement for Dubai.

Dead Reckoning

1/2 ★

I take no great joy in tearing a movie to shreds, but sometimes they have it coming. “Dead Reckoning,” now available on VOD, is one of these movies and this is one of those times.

Shot in 2016 and just now being released, “Dead Reckoning” is loosely and tastelessly based on Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers who perpetrated the Boston Marathon bombing back in 2013. K.J. Apa stars as Niko, an Albanian immigrant working as a cabbie on Nantucket to save up for college. Tillie (India Eisley) is a well-to-do young lady who recently lost her parents (John Shea, Frances Fisher … both totally wasted) in a freak puddle jumper airplane crash. Tillie now lives with her Aunt Jenny (Ellie Cornell, Rachel Carruthers from “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers” and “Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers”!) and her partner, Chris (Devon Diep). She’s also taken to the bottle as means of grieving.

One night there’s a rager at Altar Rock (this movie’s original title) where Niko meets Tillie. She’s in the bag. He’s there to sell a dime bag to Lew (Brooks Bowden, this kid has an immensely punchable face and his character has an affectation where he adopts a horrendous British accent like he’s goddamned Madonna. In a movie chock-full of awful performances, his is undoubtedly the worst.). The two meet cute when she pukes. He gives her a lift home, sparks fly and they’re immediately enamored with one another. Lo and behold, Niko’s long lost brother Marco (Scott Adkins, doing a slight variation on his Yuri Boyka accent) returns to Nantucket. Unbeknownst to Niko, Marco sabotaged Tillie’s parents’ plane as revenge for Tillie’s Dad’s involvement in Niko and Marco’s father’s death. Marco intends to complete his vengeance by vanquishing Tillie. That is unless Tillie’s godfather, FBI Agent Cantrell (James Remar), can hunt Marco down and stop him. Marco also has intentions of bombing Nantucket’s Fourth of July beach party – hence the Tsarnaev connection. Niko must now face the eternal conundrum: Bros before hoes or hoes before bros?

I’ve seen a lot of these folks in other, better works. I don’t watch “Riverdale,” but liked Apa in “The Hate U Give” a coupla years back. Eisley (daughter of Olivia Hussey, who you likely remember from Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Bob Clark’s original “Black Christmas”) was good in the interesting TNT series, “I Am the Night,” where she collaborated with Patty Jenkins and Chris Pine. I’m pretty much the President of Adkins’ fan club, but he doesn’t belong in this movie. He’s one of the best on screen martial artists we have, but he doesn’t spin kick anybody in the face and only has two fight sequences, which are against an aged Remar and a middle-aged woman – they’re both uninspiring. I’ve dug Remar in countless things – “The Warriors,” “48 Hrs.,” “Sex and the City,” “The Girl Next Door,” “Dexter” – he feels uninspired and unengaged like he’s going through the motions to collect a check. They’re all uniformly bad here despite being talented. It doesn’t help that they’re saddled with dialogue that’s reminiscent of the tripe trotted out in “The Room” and “Birdemic: Shock and Terror,” i.e. lines penned by non-native English speakers. The non sequiturs spat by Niko to Tillie (“You’re so pretty. I will fix your bike.”) have BIG time Tommy Wiseau as Johnny energy. As far as I know screenwriters Kristin Alexandre and A. Wayne Carter are native English speakers and have no excuse. They should legitimately be ashamed of themselves.

The direction is no better. This hunk of junk was helmed by cinematographer-turned-director Andrzej Bartkowiak. This dude shot legit shit such as “The Verdict,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Prizzi’s Honor,” “Twins” and “Speed.” I will fully fess up I enjoyed Bartkowiak’s first coupla features – the DMX/Joel Silver collabos “Romeo Must Die,” “Exit Wounds” and “Cradle 2 the Grave” – they’re undoubtedly the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. I was unimpressed by Bartkowiak’s adaptation of “Doom” and his “Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li” is even worse. Chris Klein’s pitiful homage to Nicolas Cage’s mega acting and wigs (seriously, the dude’s hair was reminiscent of Cage’s ‘dos from “Next” and “Bangkok Dangerous”) would be the best performance in “Dead Reckoning” had he been transplanted here. Without hyperbole I can say “Chun-Li” looks like “Citizen Kane” by comparison to “Dead Reckoning.” Much like “The Room” horrific green screen is employed for seemingly no reason. The action has no jolts; the romance no sparks. The film’s most likable attribute is the adorable puppy Niko gifts Tillie. “Dead Reckoning” makes a convincing case that some things are better left buried. If you’re an Adkins fan like I am, you’re better off renting his recent effort “Seized” – that flick actually slaps! Given the movie’s locale, I’ll leave you with a limerick:

                There once was a thriller set in Nantucket,

                The cast and crew said fuck it,

                The action’s bad; the script is worse,

                This picture should be hauled off in a hearse,

                No one showed up to work; there shouldn’t be a junket.

Freaky

★★★★½ 

Co-writer/director Christopher Landon’s “Freaky” (now playing in theaters) is an absolute blast of a movie! I recently better familiarized with Landon’s filmography (I’d previously only seen “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse,” which is only OK.) by catching up with “Happy Death Day” and “Happy Death Day 2 U” – both of which are fun flicks, but they don’t hold a candle to “Freaky” so far as laughs and gore go. Michael Landon’s son has hit a career peak here, folks.

Millie (Kathryn Newton) is a high schooler who lost her Dad. Her Mom, Paula (Katie Finneran), is busying herself by crawling inside countless Chardonnay bottles. Her older sister, Maggie (Dana Drori), is a police officer who still lives at home and is very much of the opinion that Millie needs to get herself a life. Millie isn’t especially well-liked – she’s the school mascot and gets bullied. She’s not friendless – she’s got the “too gay to function” Josh (Misha Osherovich) and Nyla (Celeste O’Connor, who appeared in “Selah and the Spades” earlier this year). She has a crush on sweet jock Booker Hooker (Uriah Shelton, super-likable here), but she lacks the courage to pursue him and firmly believes that he doesn’t even know she exists.

Millie’s luck goes from bad to worse when she’s attacked by the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn). He stabs her in the shoulder with an ancient Aztec dagger he pilfered from his most recent massacre. The Butcher doesn’t kill Millie as the attack is interrupted by Maggie and her sidearm, which sends the murderer fleeing. The following morning Millie and the Butcher awake having switched bodies. Hilarity and horrors ensue.

I expected to dig “Freaky,” but was unprepared for just how funny, sweet, gruesome and woke it was gonna be. This is a high wire act of moviemaking that maintains its balance almost perfectly. Qualitatively this hews a lot closer to “Big” than it does “Like Father Like Son,” “Vice Versa” or “18 Again!” It’s kinda like “The Hot Chick” … only good and you get to see a dude get fed through a table saw.

Much of the movie’s success is attributable to the performances of Newton and Vaughn. I don’t know if Newton is lucky or simply has an innate ability to pick cool projects, but she kills it here after having appeared in worthwhile stuff such as “Lady Bird,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “Blockers.” Her Millie is deeply sympathetic; her Blissfield Butcher is legitimately frightening. Vaughn mixes his finely-honed comedic chops with the justifiably intimidating heavies he’s essayed of late in things such as S. Craig Zahler’s “Brawl in Cell Block 99.” Vaughn’s stature makes his Blissfield Butcher formidable and his Millie a hoot and a half. His performance as Millie kinda calls to mind Jack Black’s hilarious work in “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” from a coupla years back. Vaughn’s absolutely murdering 2020 (Glad someone is!) between this and his inspired turn in Clark Duke’s “Arkansas” (Seriously, see this movie if you haven’t!).

I must give kudos to Landon and Osherovich for gifting us the character of Josh. It’s cool to see a gay filmmaker give a gay actor a gay character that’s this awesome. Josh is a super-cool kid that will likely empower queer teen audience members – he’s funny, smart, a good friend, comfortable with and unafraid of expressing his sexuality. Osherovich is given most of the movie’s funniest lines and he aces ‘em. The kid kinda steals the flick, which is no small feat considering just how good Newton and Vaughn are.

“Freaky” may be the last movie I see in a theater for a while given the recent spike in Covid numbers and a lack of quality titles releasing. I can’t in good faith recommend y’all go see it theatrically considering where we’re at right now, but as always do whatever you’re comfortable with and wear a damned mask! I would wholeheartedly advise y’all to seek it out at some point however. (I suspect it will be on VOD sooner as opposed to later.) When things normalize this would be an awesome option for a night-in with friends, pizza and a bunch of beers. “Freaky” is going to deservedly live on in college dorm rooms and middle and high school sleepovers. It’s a cult classic in the making.

Echo Boomers

★★★

A lot of us are facing financial stressors these days. Most of us wouldn’t resort to crime in order to alleviate such issues nor would we blame wealthier individuals for our plight. (Though maybe we should to some extent on the latter count?) “Echo Boomers,” available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Fri. Nov. 13, concerns a group of young people who aggressively engage in both behaviors by stealing from the rich and giving to themselves.

Patrick Schwarzenegger (Arnie’s eldest son) stars as Lance, a recent college graduate with no job prospects. Lance’s cousin, Jack (Gilles Geary), hails him from Dixie to Chicago with the promise of work. Turns out Jack and his friends – Ellis (Alex Pettyfer, “Magic Mike”), Allie (Hayley Law), Stewart (Oliver Cooper of “Project X” and “Californication”) and Chandler (Jacob Alexander) – are getting addresses of opulent homes from a fence named Mel (incomparable character actor Michael Shannon) and in turn rob and vandalize the joints. The crew members vandalize for various reasons – they grew up in the foster care system, they were abused and/or ignored by their parents, they were bullied as children, they served in combat and now have PTSD. Lance is brought into the fold as he was an Art History major and has insight into what paintings are worth stealing as opposed to destroying and how much they’d fetch on the open market.

There’s a decent amount to like here – much of it stems from the cast. I think this is the best I’ve seen Schwarzenegger from a fairly limited sample size. He’s not as naturally charismatic as his father, but he could prove to be an even better actor in time. He’s given opportunities to emote and he sells them. Geary is a performer I’d never seen before, but he brings a squirrelly energy to his character that should snag him certain sorts of roles moving forward. Pettyfer’s a good-looking cat and has presence, which makes me glad he’s being given another bite at the apple after being labelled as difficult during his stint as an “It Boy” in the early 2010s. He’s sterner and more villainous here than I’m used to seeing him and yet he’s convincingly intimidating. Shannon could do his part in his sleep. He’s entertaining doing what he’s given – I just wish there were more of it. I suspect Shannon’s here as a favor and only did a couple days on set.

“Echo Boomers” is the feature directorial debut of Seth Savoy who co-wrote alongside Kevin Bernhardt and Jason Miller. It’s a competently-made movie and often entertaining enough, but it’s hard to shake the feeling of been there, done that only better elsewhere. It’s also often difficult to empathize with these particular millennials. They’re greedy and all too happy to screw one another over. Had they pulled a Robin Hood and distributed their ill-gotten gains to worthwhile charities their actions still would’ve been wrong, but I would’ve had more respect and sympathy for them. Instead the funds get guzzled down their gullets, snorted up their nostrils or allocated towards luxury vehicles. At the end of the day, they’re worse than the tenets and people they’re flipping the bird to … and the filmmakers don’t seem as concerned about this as they probably could’ve or should’ve been.

Jungleland

★★★★

“Jungleland,”now available on VOD and playing in select theaters (I know for a fact it’s running at Goodrich Quality Theaters’ Brownsburg 8, Lebanon 7 and Eastside 10 in Lafayette, Ind.), feels like a film of yore. It very much gives off the vibes of a 1970s product what with its flawed protagonists, blue collar burnish, slow burn pacing and emphasizing character over plot. The movie it most reminds me of is Walter Hill’s 1975 Charles Bronson/James Coburn-fronted directorial debut “Hard Times.”

Stanley (Charlie Hunnam) and Lion Kaminski (Jack O’Connell, “Godless”) have appropriately enough fallen upon hard times. Their Dad didn’t want ‘em and took off. Their Mom died when they were young leaving the elder Stanley to care for the younger Lion. Lion has preternatural abilities as a boxer. Abilities that could’ve taken he and Stanley out of Falls River, Mass., the house they’re squatting in and their crappy gigs at a sewing factory. That is, had Stanley not been busted attempting to bribe a judge blowing Lion’s shot. Lion has since been relegated to bare-knuckle bouts in smoky back rooms.

Further complicating matters, Stanley owes substantial gambling debts to Pepper (Jonathan Majors, hot off of “Da 5 Bloods” and “Lovecraft Country”) and his associate, Buck Noble (Fran Kranz, best remembered as the stoner in “The Cabin in the Woods”). If he can’t pay, the men will most assuredly kill him. Pepper makes Stanley a deal – he’ll stake Lion in the San Francisco-based Jungleland bare-knuckle boxing tournament if they take Sky (Jessica Barden, “The End of the F***ing World”) along with them and drop her off to Yates (John Cullum) in Reno, Nev. After all, what’s a little human trafficking between friends?

“Jungleland,” co-written by Theodore Bressman (a staff writer on Hulu’s “Future Man”), David Branson Smith (co-writer of “Ingrid Goes West”) and Max Winkler (son of Henry – “Ayyyyyy!”), directed by Winkler and executive produced by Ridley Scott, is deeply sad despite being broadly entertaining. I’ve only seen bits and pieces of Winkler’s 2010 directorial debut “Ceremony” on cable (I enjoyed what I saw) and haven’t seen his 2017 follow-up “Flower,” but he proves to be an assured enough voice here that I’ll backtrack to catch up with his earlier efforts and look forward to whatever he does next. The dude obviously has a deft touch with actors. “Jungleland” is very much a three-hander relying largely on the performances of Hunnam, O’Connell and Barden – all of whom are captivating. Hunnam especially is a revelation. His Stanley is aggravating and sympathetic in equal measure. This is likely the best work of Hunnam’s career revealing dimensions heretofore unseen – besting impressive turns on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” and in Guy Ritchie’s “The Gentlemen” from earlier this year.

As the mouthy older brother of a more athletically-gifted younger brother, I felt “Jungleland” in my bones. (I was grounded when I was 10 for gambling on one of my brother’s little league games.) Sports movies involving father-son and brother-brother relationships are emotional catnip to me. “Field of Dreams” is one of my Top 15 fave flicks of all-time. “Warrior” and “Creed” are two of my favorite films of the last 10 years and are two of my favorite sports pictures of all-time. “Jungleland” doesn’t quite reach this rarefied air and concludes a tad too neatly, but when Bruce Springsteen’s queued up late (it’s not the song you’re thinking, but rather “Dream Baby Dream” off of 2014’s High Hopes) you’ll be hard-pressed to not turn into a sobbing mess. This is cinema of catharsis.

Let Him Go

★★★★

I’m generally a Kevin Costner fan and/or apologist. “Field of Dreams” is one of my top 15 favorite movies of all-time. Many of his flicks transfixed me as a kid – “The Untouchables,” “Bull Durham,” “Dances with Wolves,” “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “JFK” – and still do as an adult. “A Perfect World” is one of Clint Eastwood’s most underrated directorial efforts and Costner does some of the best work of his career playing the personification of cool. I dig “Waterworld” to a degree (Dennis Hopper’s super-fun in it) and even defend “The Postman” (How can you hate a movie that co-stars Tom Petty and features the very talented Larenz Tate as a character named Ford Lincoln Mercury?). As far as I’m concerned Costner’s pretty much three-for-three as a director – “Open Range” is a banger of an old school Western. Hell, I even liked his turn as the villainous illegitimate son of Elvis Presley in the much-maligned “3000 Miles to Graceland.”

One of the only times I’ve ever been terribly turned off by Costner was when my wife and I saw he and his band Modern West at the Indiana State Fair back in 2013. Admittedly, the group was pretty decent, but his stage repartee left much to be desired – “We met in the dark – you in the audience; me on the silver screen.” Kinda douche-y, dude! Costner also referred to the State Fair as a county fair, which seemed to leave some concertgoers incensed – not me – but some folks. (For the record: I also think “The Bodyguard” blows. People often misconstrue this movie as being good because Whitney Houston’s Dolly Parton cover is so stellar.)

I don’t have nearly as much of a connection to Diane Lane as a filmgoer. I’ve always thought she was lovely. She certainly made an impression early in her career with the Francis Ford Coppola/S.E. Hinton one-two punch of “The Outsiders” and “Rumble Fish” and Walter Hill’s action musical “Streets of Fire.” She later appeared in some truly forgettable action flicks in the mid ‘90s, i.e. “Judge Dredd” and “Murder at 1600.” I remember seeing “Unfaithful” at a dollar theater back in 2002 due to prurient interests on screen and off. The movie didn’t do a whole lot for me, but her performance was good. Much of Lane’s oeuvre could be described this way for me – dug her performance; didn’t dig the picture itself.

Costner and Lane have reteamed for “Let Him Go,” now playing in theaters, after having played Ma and Pa Kent in Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (“Martha!!!”). “Let Him Go” casts the actors as George and Margaret Blackledge. It’s the early ‘60s in Montana. He’s a retired sheriff. She breaks horses. They have a son, James (Ryan Bruce), daughter-in-law, Lorna (Kayli Carter, seen earlier this year in “Bad Education”) and grandson, Jimmy (played by twins Bram and Otto Hornung). Tragedy strikes and James is killed under mysterious circumstances in a riding accident.

Flash forward a coupla years and Lorna remarries – the fella’s name is Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain, Beuter Perkins from Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!”). Donnie’s a bad egg and quickly takes to physically abusing Lorna and Jimmy, which Margaret witnesses firsthand. Donnie then absconds with them to his family’s ranch in North Dakota without so much as a word to George and Margaret. The grandparents are quickly in pursuit of Donnie and their kin with every intention of bringing the boy home. They befriend a native boy named Peter Dragswolf (Booboo Stewart) and run into roadblocks in the form of Donnie’s mother, Blanche (Mike Leigh and “Phantom Thread” vet Leslie Manville), and uncle, Bill (Jeffrey Donovan), along the way.

“Let Him Go” is an adaptation of Larry Watson’s novel written and directed by Thomas Bezucha (pronounced like the bubblegum or the oft-brandished weapon of ‘80s action movies). Bezucha seems an odd choice to make a dramatic neo-Western thriller after having made the familial Christmas dramedy “The Family Stone” (2005) and the teen girl comedy “Monte Carlo” (2011), but he acquits himself well with the material. It’s slow-moving, character-based, surprisingly violent and sneakily funny. The mountainous scenery is beautifully shot by cinematographer Guy Godfree. The period and regional details are carefully recreated by production designer Trevor Smith, art director Cathy Cowan, set decorator Amber Humphries and costume designer Carol Case. The picture also boasts a beautiful, simplistic score from the always-reliable Michael Giacchino.

There are various styles of acting on display in “Let Him Go.” Costner and Lane play their roles in a subdued fashion and have wonderful chemistry. Manville and Donovan (doing a complete 180 on his recent, likable turn in “Honest Thief”) are BIG ol’ hams playing the most despicable of the despicable and are highly entertaining doing so.

“Let Him Go” seems like it was tailor-made for my folks and in-laws (all hardcore devotees of Costner’s Paramount Network series “Yellowstone”). It’s a film that hasn’t been made much in this era of Marvel, DC and “Star Wars” in that it likely didn’t cost much and is aimed squarely at adults. With where the movie industry’s at right now, I suspect we’ll see more flicks like this in the months and years to come. That ain’t an entirely bad thing.