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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.

Ride the Eagle

★★★★½

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Sudden Move

★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tomorrow War

★★★★½

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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