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Review Twofer – Skylines/Monster Hunter

★★1/2

I caught a coupla creature features last week, so I figured I’d pair ‘em together for this dual review. Here’s what I peeped.

Skylines:

The “Skyline” franchise got off to an inauspicious start back in 2010. Directed by visual effects artists The Brothers Strause (Colin and Greg), “Skyline” is the only entry to have ever received a wide theatrical release. As directors The Brothers Strause are very talented FX artists. The picture was followed up seven years later with “Beyond Skyline.” The original film’s co-screenwriter Liam O’Donnell was promoted to sole scribe and director this time out. O’Donnell had a game cast featuring my man crush Frank Grillo and “The Raid” veterans Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian – these folks transformed the enterprise from sci-fi to sci-fu. This brings us to “Skylines” (or “Skylin3s” for promotional purposes), which is now available on VOD.

I’ll state this right from the jump: if you haven’t seen “BS,” I wouldn’t bother watching “Skylines.” I’ve seen and enjoyed “BS,” but it’d been a few years and even with the, “Previously on ‘Skyline’ …” segment that opens the picture I was a tad confused. Characters from the previous installment have rapidly grown from children into adults or had their brains transplanted from human bodies to alien ones.

Rose (Lindsey Morgan, co-star of the CW’s upcoming “Walker”) and her brother Trent (James Fitzgerald) must team with an elite unit of mercenaries (played by Daniel Bernhardt, Jonathan Howard, Ieva Andrejevaite,  Giedre Mockeliunaite and Cha-Lee Yoon) led by General Radford (Alexander Siddig) in order to thwart a virus that’s turning friendly, Earth-dwelling human-alien hybrids against humanity. Their adventures lead them to a planet called Cobalt 1. The action cuts between Cobalt 1 and Earth as we see Dr. Mal (Rhona Mitra), Grant (James Cosmo, the Scottish actor who frequently goes Medieval on everyone’s asses), Elaine (Samantha Jean) and Huana (Ruhian) fight for survival.

Honestly, the plot’s a bunch of gobbledygook and the movie’s probably half an hour too long, but I’ll be damned if it ain’t entertaining. O’Donnell – like his predecessors – is also an FX artist, but I’d argue he’s a better filmmaker. These movies generally cost somewhere between $10 and 20 million, look more like 80 to 100 million and it’s all in service of martial artists fighting dudes in alien suits or blowing shit up. Speaking of scrapping, Bernhardt (who you may remember as the guy Bill Hader fights through the better part of a “Barry” episode) and Yoon have a baller brawl and Ruhian performs a throat rip on an alien that’d make Dalton from “Road House” and MacGruber beam with pride. It’s hard to begrudge a movie that has a Jackie Chan-esque blooper reel. It’s even harder to begrudge a director who culminates said reel with his credit accompanied by footage of his leading lady exclaiming, “Fuck you, Liam! What’s the fuck?!!!”

I don’t know why, but suddenly I’m hungry for Cincinnati chili.

3/5

Monster Hunter

I’m no Paul W.S. Anderson hater. I don’t like him as well as Paul Thomas Anderson (Who does?), but he’s made some fun albeit dumb flicks. “Mortal Kombat” isn’t good, but it had a bumpin’ soundtrack and a coupla decent fights (most of which revolved around Scorpion and Sub-Zero). I initially thought his “Resident Evil” movies sucked, but they’ve grown into guilty pleasures over time … especially as he embraced 3D along the way. Anderson’s latest video game adaptation “Monster Hunter” is now playing in theaters.

The picture stars Anderson’s frequent collaborator, muse and wife Milla Jovovich as Lt. Artemis. She and her Army Ranger squadron (made up of rappers T.I. and MC Jin, Meagan Good, Diego Boneta and Josh Helman (Young Stryker from recent “X-Men” outings!)) are sucked through a portal to another world. Upon arrival they’re attacked by a series of different monsters. Luckily for them they encounter The Hunter (Tony Jaa), a sand pirate who’s been living and fighting in isolation.

A decent amount of “Monster Hunter” works; far more of it doesn’t. I actually preferred the militaristic fetishization sponsored by Oakley and calling to mind Michael Bay to the picture’s more fantastical elements, i.e. Ron Perlman in the world’s worst wig and an anthropomorphized pirate cat. I enjoyed the interplay between the soldiers and wish there were more of it. These actors would’ve benefitted from further character development as opposed to almost instantaneously being served up as a colossus’ snack. That said it ain’t really that sort of flick, the monsters are admittedly pretty cool (Toho did co-produce after all!) and one of the deaths is especially gnarly for a PG-13 joint.

Much of “Monster Hunter” is a two-hander between Jovovich and Jaa and it kinda feels akin to something like “Hell in the Pacific” or “Enemy Mine” in that there are language and cultural barriers between the two resulting in strife. This strife does lead to an admittedly entertaining hand-to-hand combat sequence. Jovovich and Jaa are fine, but they and the picture as a whole would’ve benefited from having other cast members around to help break the proceedings up. Don’t get me wrong, I dig training montages as much as the next person, but they grow stale after a bit. “Monster Hunter” is 99 minutes and feels more like 129. This ain’t a T.I. tune – I can’t have whatever I want.

2/5

Hunter Hunter

★★★★

Slow-burn movies tend to work in one of two ways. They’re either A.) All build up with little to no payoff (No thank you!) or B.) Lots of build up with an explosive conclusion that rewards patient viewers (Yes please!). “Hunter Hunter” (now available on VOD) fits firmly in column B and it’s not about the president elect’s son’s laptop –in fact it’s much scarier than any conservative witch hunt.

Joseph Mersault (former Bop cover boy Devon Sawa), his wife Anne (Camille Sullivan) and their daughter Renee (Summer H. Howell) are living a hard life off the grid. They’re fur trappers living off the land and in a cabin passed through three generations of Joseph’s family. They fear a rogue wolf is hunting them when trappings are being absconded from their traps. Joseph leaves Anne and Renee behind to track, hunt and kill the wolf. During Joseph’s absence Anne finds the injured Lou (Nick Stahl) in the woods and invites him into their home in order to nurse him back to health.

I don’t want to say much else about the plot as it’s pretty simple and takes some wild turns in the third act. I expected this to be a Sawa vehicle as he’s arguably the biggest name of the bunch and appeared prominently in much of the marketing materials, but it’s really not. This is inarguably Sullivan’s show and she’s mesmerizing in it. She plays much of her role quietly with steely reserve, but when she’s called upon to emote she really goes there. Sullivan is a Canadian actress and this is a Canadian production, but she hadn’t registered with me prior to now. I’ll certainly remember her from here on out.

Sawa does an admirable job with what he’s given. Worlds away from his Tiger Beat days, he cuts a tough, terse, chain-smoking figure here. It’s also good to see Stahl again. I’ve been a fan of this dude’s since his childhood work in Mel Gibson’s directorial debut “The Man Without a Face,” through playing the titular role in Larry Clark’s “Bully” and all the way up to more mainstream efforts such as his unfairly maligned portrayal of John Connor in “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” and as the dastardly Yellow Bastard in “Sin City.” Stahl doesn’t look great here (he’s gone missing in Los Angeles’ skid row before and has a history of substance abuse), but his appearance suits the role and he plays it well. I genuinely hope this is a comeback of sorts for the talented actor.

“Hunter Hunter” is written and directed by Shawn Linden, features cinematography by first-time feature lenser Greg Nicod and is edited by John Gurdebecke and Chad Tremblay. These craftsmen have collaborated to make a movie I won’t soon shake. The way Nicod shoots something as simple as Anne making a supply run is incredibly visually dynamic. Gurdebecke and Tremblay’s editing of the conclusion ratchets tension to almost intolerable levels. I’d encourage the squeamish, most vegetarians and those who hate to see harm come to animals to skip “Hunter Hunter.” In spite of and perhaps because of this – it’s one of the best and most effecting horror films of 2020.

Wolfwalkers

★★★★★

Irish animator Tomm Moore has already been nominated for an Academy Award two other times for his two other movies 2009’s “The Secret of Kells” and 2014’s “The Song of the Sea.” His newest effort, “Wolfwalkers,” which you can stream for free with an Apple+ subscription, will earn his third nomination.

While I anticipate Pixar’s “Soul” to be quite good, my guess is that the breathtakingly beautiful “Wolfwalkers” will end up being my favorite animated feature in 2020 and likely would end up in the top 10 for all movies made.

This truly is a gorgeous looking movie.

It tells the story of a young girl named Robyn from England who moves with her father, a hunter, to Kilkenny, Ireland. His job is to provide the village, set in 1650, from the wolves that lurk in the forest.

Robyn soon discovers that one of the wolves with green eyes is actually a little girl with a wild bush of red hair. She is a wolfwalker named Mebh, which is kind of like a werewolf, but somewhat different. When she falls asleep at night, her soul leaves her body and turns into a wolf that roams the forest. Her human body remain asleep until the wolf disappears into her body in the morning.

Mebh’s mother is comatose, forever asleep, due to her wolf form being captured in a cave by an evil ruler of the village who plans on burning down the forest to kill all the wolves.

The Celtic music is subtle but moving and the animation is top notch. The characters look like hand drawn ink sketches and the backgrounds look like oil paintings. There are stills from this movie you’d want to frame and put on your wall. It looks that good.

There’s a killer song, “Running with the Wolves” by Norwegian singer Aurora, that should get nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars.

If you enjoyed Moore’s other works, this new film is no exception. Kids will be entertained and so will the parents. Highly recommended.

Songbird

★★★

I initially thought the concept of “Songbird” (now available on VOD) seemed tasteless – a movie about a pandemic that was conceived, written, shot, edited and released during a pandemic – but it was handled with a sensitivity I didn’t see coming (especially with Michael Bay serving as producer). The fact that we’re all going through something similar to the characters made me empathize with them to a greater degree.

“Songbird” takes place a few years in the future. Humanity is grappling with another pandemic – this time it’s COVID-23 (God, no! We don’t need sequels to this shit!). We’re in Los Angeles and it’s on permanent lockdown. Daily health screenings are mandatory with the sick being shipped away to the foreboding Q-Zone by armed sanitation workers in hazmat suits. Word has it if you go to the Q-Zone, you ain’t coming back.

The movie concerns itself primarily with a bicycle courier named Nico (K.J. Apa, this is the second Nico he’s played this year after the dreadful “Dead Reckoning”) who works for Lester (Craig Robinson) under the watchful eye of a drone operated by Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser, excelling playing another lovable weirdo). Nico is immune to the virus. He’s what folks call a “munie.” There aren’t many munies out in the world – another one is Emmett Harland (Peter Stormare), the knife-wielding Director of Sanitation who made his way up the ladder when all of his colleagues died. (You know Emmett’s a paradigm of virtue and goodwill because he’s played by Stormare and smokes cigarettes while saying, “It’s good to know something can still kill you.”) Munies are marked by scannable yellow wristbands that provide their information.

Nico has a girlfriend whom he’s never met face-to-face named Sara (Sofia Carson). They constantly communicate via video chat and Nico often delivers her trinkets. Sara lives with her grandmother Lita (as in la abuelita) played by Elpidia Carrillo – the lady from “Predator”!!! Nico’s working day and night in order to earn money for counterfeit wristbands so he, Sara and Lita can escape to Santa Cruz, Cal. – a safe haven from the virus.

Conveniently enough many of Nico’s deliveries take him to palatial home of sleazy record producer William Griffin (Bradley Whitford, smarming it up with great aplomb) and his wife Piper (Demi Moore – I’ve never been the biggest fan of hers, but it’s nice to see her again after a prolonged absence. She also does good work playing the neutral gray of this flick.), who are now producing the bogus bands (the ones for your wrists; not your ears) in order to maintain their opulent lifestyle and assure medical treatment for their autoimmune compromised daughter Emma (Lia McHugh). William has a wristband of his own and will escape the house for dalliances with May (Alexandra Daddario), a young musician he has holed up in a seedy motel. May is our titular songbird and will perform songs via webcast where she connects with Dozer.

Sure, it was probably opportunistic and somewhat insensitive for writer/director Adam Mason, co-writer Simon Boyes, Bay and the other filmmakers to make this movie, but at its heart “Songbird” is a story about the lengths people will go to for love and in that regard it works. Much of this is because of Apa, who looks and acts great here. I took a crap-a on Apa last month with my review of “Dead Reckoning,” but the dude’s charismatic as hell in this outing. I think the kid’s got a bright future.

The conditions under which the filmmakers made the movie are readily apparent. Many actors perform their scenes by themselves. Much of Apa’s material was filmed outdoors. Thematically the restrictions occasionally pay dividends – William and Piper’s marriage is on the fritz so having Whitford and Moore act out their scenes with one another at a distance makes complete sense.

You likely already know if “Songbird” is for you or not. If your dander is already up because of the pandemic, this may only serve to amplify your anxiety. Mason has made a movie that apes Bay’s style to some extent, but is much less frenetic as a whole. This is a pandemic rendition of the Bay-produced “The Purge” with a dash of Paul Haggis’ “Crash” thrown in for good measure as everyone’s seemingly connected. It’s better than its 10% Rotten Tomatoes score would indicate. It also provides an idea at how Phil Spector might behave in a pandemic via Whitford’s performance and gives viewers a glimpse of Daddario in a more revealing version of Leeloo’s outfit from “The Fifth Element.” I leave you with this: If you’re gonna watch one 2020 movie where K.J. Apa plays a kid named Nico make it “Songbird” and not “Dead Reckoning.”

The Prom

★★★

Lovers of live theater hated 2020.

In New York City, Broadway has been closed since March 12 and the more than 97,000 workers were affected. It’s projected that more than a billion dollars in ticket revenue has been lost (More than $1.8 billion was sold during 2018-2019 season).

And that’s just in New York. Theaters have been closed around the country and besides some streaming options there have been very few opportunities to watch live musicals or plays.

Ryan Murphy, the powerhouse TV producer behind “Glee,” “American Horror Story,” and many, many more, has provided a joyful streaming distraction for hardcore fans of musical theater. His new feature length movie “The Prom” dropped on Netflix on Friday Dec. 11.

It’ll be a crowd pleaser for those that miss the theater. For those that are only so-so on musicals? You won’t be converted by this one.

“The Prom” is a big, bold, glitzy — at times, cheesy — musical. It doesn’t have the crossover appeal of “Hamilton.” You have to like show tunes to digest this one.

Hoosiers might be interested in this movie because of the Indiana connections. Murphy grew up in Indianapolis and attended Warren Central. His mother still lives in the Fishers/Geist area. The movie itself, based on a 2018 Broadway musical, tells the story of a Hoosier high school girl who wants to attend prom with her girlfriend but is opposed by a school board that doesn’t agree with LGBT life styles. It’s very loosely based on a true story that took place in Alabama, but this fictional version takes place in the made-up town of Edgewater, Ind. and there are quite a few shots taken at our state. In the first 20 minutes, there are multiple songs that portray Indiana as a redneck state devoid of culture. The protagonist, played by newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman, sings, “Not to self: don’t be gay in Indiana” in our introduction to her character.

Struggling Broadway actors (played by Meryl Streep, James Corden, Andrew Rannells and Nicole Kidman) decide to descend upon the small town after seeing the girl’s story on Twitter. They plan to help out this lesbian teen in order to get some positive publicity and help their careers. The four of them sing (in one of the first songs) about, “Those fist-pumping, Bible-thumping, Spam-eating, cousin-loving, cow-tipping, shoulder-slumping, finger-wagging, Hoosier-humping losers and their homely wives. They’ll learn compassion, and better fashion, once we at last start changing lives.”

Broadway composer Matthew Sklar said he was not only inspired by the true prom incident in Alabama, but by then-Gov. Mike Pence’s RFRA fiasco in Indiana. Hence, the Hoosier setting.

The message is this movie is about as subtle as a piano falling on someone. It’s clearly preaching acceptance and denouncing homophobia but the movie itself seems to think a big song and dance number can melt hearts, transform minds and change the world. Issues that have existed forever are solved rather quickly. Characters who are cartoonish, hardline bigots are suddenly converted to full acceptance in a matter of minutes.

Far more entertaining is the message about arrogant celebrities who think what they say or do will actually change anyone’s mind. There’s some biting commentary about celebrities wading into the political pool. Personally I feel making fun of celebrities is too easy of a target, like trying to throw a water balloon at a house from five feet away. But it does garner some laughs in this broad comedy.

Much of what I’m criticizing about “The Prom” can been blamed on the original Broadway show rather than Murphy’s adaptation and his direction. Murphy does fill your TV screen with colorful dance sequences and joyful energy. At times it seems to border on excess, similar to later seasons of “Glee,” but it’s hard to hate something so insanely positive.

The one thing I might truly fault Murphy for is the casting. Meryl Streep is one of the world’s greatest actresses, but I’m getting Streep fatigue with this one. She’s great as always but that’s to be expected and she’s raised the bar so hight that I’m not sure she reaches it. She plays an aging Broadway star who has a romantic relationship with the school’s principal played by Keegan-Michael Key. The age difference is a minor issue and the chemistry between these two is really off. I didn’t really believe the romance between the two.

James Corden is definitely acting for the back row of the theater in this one. His effeminately gay Broadway actor is so over the top that you’ll see his performance in “Cats” as subtle. He does garner a few laughs with clever lines but your enjoyment of “The Prom” will rely heavily on how much you can stand Corden. If you find him to be unbearable, then you will cringe every time they put him into yet another scene in this two-hour film.

Nicole Kidman is actually decent but she’s given one of the most lazily written musical numbers with “Give Them Some Zazz,” an cheer-up song in the style of “Chicago” with lots of jazz hands.

Andrew Rannells, the Broadway powerhouse who originated the role of Elder Price in the 2011 Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” is given the least to do in this movie. In one musical number, he convinces popular teenagers to not be homophobic by delivering a not-subtle song about The Bible called “Love thy Neighbor.” It means well, but I rolled my eyes a little. It’s the kind of take that you’ve heard again and again in Internet memes. I guess we can’t hear enough a message of acceptance and love but I was kind of hoping for something more insightful.

While the big name celebrities fall a little flat, the lesser known actors really excel in “The Prom.” Pellman is excellent, as is Ariana DeBose, who will appear in Steven Spielberg’s new film adaptation of “West Side Story.” Not only are both talented singers but the composers give them more modern pop music to sing as opposed to the traditional Broadway show tunes of the four celebrities.

Kerry Washington is also pretty good as the villainous school board president.

All of the songs are well sung. There’s nobody in this movie like Ryan Gosling in “La La Land” or Russell Crowe in “Les Misérables.” Although at times the songs sound a little over produced like “The Greatest Showman” or “Glee.” More than a touch of auto-tune.

Now I know it sounds like I’m dumping all over this movie. It’s true that “The Prom” might not be my personal cup of tea but I think it succeeds in what it set out to accomplish. The movie is what it is and if you love watching Broadway musicals then you’ll have a great time watching this one.

I was one of the movie critics that didn’t really enjoy “The Greatest Showman.” If you loved that movie (or 2007’s “Hairspray” film), you’ll love this one.

“The Prom” is much better than both of those movies, but it’s an enjoyable distraction rather than an all-time great movie.

The clever and funny lyrics really hold this one together and, in the end, “The Prom” isn’t trying to be more than it is.

Archenemy

★★★

I really didn’t care for writer/director Adam Egypt Mortimer’s last feature 2019’s “Daniel Isn’t Real” (review here), but saw in him potential for something better. It’s just one year later and improvement is already here in the form of “Archenemy” (available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Fri. Dec. 11).

Max Fist (Joe Manganiello) is an intergalactic superhero who’s fallen through time and space to Earth where he’s powerless and spends his days going on a continuous bender. Nobody believes Max’s story save for the teenaged Hamster (Skylan Brooks), an aspiring street journalist. Hamster’s sister Indigo (Zolee Griggs) peddles drugs for The Manager (Glenn Howerton of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) to keep a roof over their heads. A collection Indigo is supposed to make on The Manager’s behalf from Krieg (Paul Scheer) goes sideways placing her and Hamster in the crosshairs. Max teams with the teens to protect them and dismantle The Manager’s crime syndicate. Max’s home planet nemesis Cleo (Amy Seimetz) also factors into the action.

The best reasons to see “Archenemy” – aside from Mortimer’s progression as an artist (Seriously, his blend of live action and animation works worlds better here than in “Daniel” given the comic book-inspired content.) – are Manganiello and Howerton. Manganiello despite being a beefcake appears to be a nerd at heart – going so far as to host a star-studded Dungeons & Dragons game in his basement. After getting a taste of the superhero glut as Deathstroke during the closing credits of “Justice League,” Manganiello doubles down as Max Fist. Max is an interesting hero – or more specifically antihero – who’s as likely to discuss quantum physics as he is to barf up a bottle of bourbon. Manganiello convincingly plays both sides of this dichotomy. Howerton undergoes a physical transformation in his portrayal of The Manager adopting bleached blonde hair, sideburns, mustache and earring. The character is kinda like Dennis Reynolds only far more depraved. If Dennis’ moral compass is damaged – The Manager’s is decimated. He feels like an ‘80s action movie villain. Once “It’s Always Sunny” comes to a conclusion or while on breaks from the show, I’d love to see Howerton essay another heel role opposite somebody say like Jason Statham. He does it well enough here that I think he could hang as a heavy elsewhere.

“Archenemy” has a lot on its mind. It longs to show the plights of people on society’s fringes. Manganiello’s Max is a clear-cut metaphor for our soldiers and first responders who often seek solace in the bottle or with drugs following the things they’ve seen and done. His intentions while often altruistic aren’t always heroic and often border on psychotic. Mortimer also addresses racial and class inequality by having Howerton’s The Manager (who exploits a black youth before ultimately trying to snuff her out) don country club tennis whites for the finale. Speaking of the conclusion, it hints at a sequel for what could be a much more interesting movie. For the time being however this edgier incarnation of Peter Berg’s “Hancock” with a splash of James Gunn’s “Super” will suffice.  

Wander Darkly

★★★

As I reviewed “Wander” last week, I felt it was my civic duty to review “Wander Darkly” (available on VOD beginning on Fri. Dec. 11) as well. You know, to see both sides of the spectrum.

Adrienne (Sienna Miller) and Matteo (Diego Luna) are a young couple who are on the cusp of being on the outs despite having had a baby daughter six months earlier. They go to a party one fateful evening attended by Adrienne’s colleague Liam (Tory Kittles), whom she has a flirtatious relationship with. Adrienne’s also jealous of Matteo’s connection to Shea (Aimee Carrero), a woman he worked with on a construction project. While returning home Adrienne and Matteo get into an argument, which distracts him from driving as an oncoming car swerves into their lane and crashes head-on into their vehicle. The accident is devastating.

The remainder of the movie poses all sorts of questions. Are one or both of them dead? Did their daughter die? Was she in the car at all? Adrienne and Matteo relive key moments of their relationship hoping to gain a greater perspective on one another and what exactly their current circumstances are. The proceedings feel like a hodgepodge of “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” but not as horrific as the former nor as romantic as the latter.

This is clearly a very personal project for writer/director Tara Miele, who herself was in a traumatic car accident a few years back – one which she and her husband thankfully survived. There’s a lot to admire and recommend in “Wander Darkly.” Luna and especially Miller give really solid performances. They also share a surprisingly frank, graphic and funny sex scene set to The War on Drugs’ “Suffering” (great band; great song). Kudos to these two big names for having the courage to shoot this sequence as it lends the picture a sense intimacy and honesty it might otherwise lack. I also enjoyed having character actress Beth Grant on hand as Adrienne’s mother. Whether she’s being forced under the wheels of a bus as she was in “Speed,” being told to insert an index card into her anus à la “Donnie Darko” or nagging Luna’s character as she does here, this lady’s always watchable and memorable. Lastly, the editing employed to transition the audience from one scenario to another is especially effective – props to editors Tamara Meem and Alex O’Flinn (he previously edited Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider”) for their masterful work.

Now for the bad: Kittles is an awesome actor who’s essentially wasted here. (Seriously, if you haven’t seen this cat’s excellent work in last year’s “Dragged Across Concrete” and you’re not squeamish you really should.) “Saturday Night Live” veteran Vanessa Bayer and commercial actor Dan Gill (he’s a cute dude with curly hair and a mustache) play Adrienne and Matteo’s friends Maggie and Dane. Neither one of them are bad in their roles and may very well have been cast as comedic relief in what’s otherwise a serious work, but their presence is somewhat distracting. I kept waiting for the picture to transform into a sketch or a State Farm ad whenever they appeared. Lastly, Miele has a history of directing Lifetime movies (2014’s “Starving in Suburbia” and 2015’s “Lost Boy”) and some of that cheesy energy seeps into what’s otherwise an engaging and emotional dramatic thriller.

Mank


★★★★

Hollywood loves watching movies about Hollywood.

Especially when it’s honoring the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Films like “The Artist,” “La La Land,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” or “Hugo,” we see Oscar voters continually giving nominations or wins to movies about movies. And, yes, it gets old sometimes.

But rarely do we see movie about Old Hollywood done with some cynicism and style as “Mank,” the new Netflix exclusive by director David Fincher. Not only is it set in the 1930s, but it looks, sounds and feels like a movie from the 1930s era. Yes, it’s filmed in black and white but the lighting reminds you of films from those days. It reminds you of a great film noir classic but it’s made in 2020.

“Mank” tells the story of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his development of the script for “Citizen Kane,” the classic film directed by Orson Welles in 1941. “Citizen Kane” is often rated as the greatest film ever made, even though it lost Best Picture at the Oscars to “How Green Was My Valley,” an incredibly boring movie I watched for the first time recently. And there’s been debate for years about who actually wrote the screenplay for “Citizen Kane”: was it Mankiewicz or Welles?

Gary Oldman, a recent Oscar winner for “The Darkest Hour,” gives maybe the best performance of his career in the lead role — and that’s saying something. Amanda Seyfried is wonderful in a small role as Marion Davies and Charles Dance (“Game of Thrones” “The Crown”) kills it as William Randolph Hearst.

It’s a movie that’s heavy on dialogue and light on actually plot but that’s OK. The language is beautifully written and it explores interesting ideas about life, legacy, politics, power and more. The conversations about socialism feel very relevant to today’s conversations.

The movie was written in the 1990s by Jack Fincher, the father of David Fincher. He meant to direct the movie after he made “The Game” in 1997 with Kevin Spacey in the lead role but it never came to fruition and his father died in 2003.

Fincher finally produced and directed his late father’s screenplay which will end up being his only work that was made into a movie. And he might have a chance to win a posthumous Oscar. It’s really well written.

Ultimately “Mank” is a love letter to all writers out there the power of the written word. It’s about how writers can change the world.

And it feels especially personal for Fincher considering his father wrote it.

Fincher has not directed a movie sine 2014’s “Gone Girl,” focusing on TV shows instead, such as “Mindhunter.” But Fincher’s record as a director is nearly flawless.

In his nearly 30-year career, he’s directed only 11 films and the only bad one is his first movie ever, “Alien 3” in 1992.

After that he has: “Seven” (1995), “The Game” (1997), “Fight Club” (1999), “Panic Room” (2002), “Zodiac” (2007), “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008), “The Social Network” (2010), “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2011), “Gone Girl” (2014) and now “Mank.”

Two of his movies (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “The Social Network”) earned him Best Picture and Best Director nominations and several of his other movies are considered classics. Personally my favorite is “Zodiac.”

I fully expect Fincher to add another Best Picture and Director nomination to his resume with “Mank.”

Wander

★★

“Wander” (now available at select theaters and on VOD) made me feel like I should’ve worn a tin foil hat while watching it. It’s an Alex Jones fever dream of a movie that throws everything and the kitchen sink at its audience save for gay frogs.

Aaron Eckhart stars as Arthur Bretnick, a private detective (he has a badge stating as much – how official!) who lost his daughter in a car accident that left his wife (Nicole Steinwedell) catatonic and him disturbed. Arthur lives in a trailer out in the New Mexico desert and busies himself between cases by recording “The Thought Junction” conspiracy podcast alongside Jimmy Cleats (Tommy Lee Jones). (Jimmy Cleats is unequivocally an awesome TLJ character name!)

A woman named Elena (Deborah Chavez) calls into the show claiming that her daughter Zoe (Elizabeth Selby) was murdered just outside the fictitious town of Wander, N.M. whereas the authorities have deemed the death car accident-related. Arthur proceeds to Wander to investigate where he’s welcomed unceremoniously by Sheriff Luis Santiago (Raymond Cruz, Tuco from “Breaking Bad”). During Arthur’s investigation he uncovers a government plot touching upon immigration and insidious medical experiments. Or does he? Arthur’s psyche may be so damaged from past trauma that he’s projecting the entire cabal.

I didn’t much care for “Wander,” but the picture has its positive attributes. Eckhart is an actor that I’ve often admired – he was great in “In the Company of Men,” “Any Given Sunday,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Thank You for Smoking” and “The Dark Knight” – and he’s really good here. He plays crazy well and is the primary reason audiences should seek the film out if they’re so inclined. Jones’ character doesn’t only sport a rad moniker he also dons a series of Hawaiian shirts looking like an aged Boogaloo Boi – love the look; hate the movement. Jones isn’t playing a character so much as he is a series of sartorial choices. Speaking of costuming substituting for acting (or writing for that matter) – Katheryn Winnick (best known for the History Channel’s “Vikings”) is on hand rocking sunnies and a black cowboy hat. Gee, I wonder if her intentions are altruistic? Another blonde appearing is Heather Graham as Arthur’s friend and attorney, Shelley Luscomb. Graham’s character is given one note to play (concern for Arthur’s well-being), but she plays it well and looks lovely doing so. It’s been a minute since I’ve seen Graham in anything (probably a 2014 arc on Showtime’s “Californication”) so she was a welcome sight for sore eyes.

“Wander” is directed by April Mullen and written by Tim Doiron. I haven’t seen the partners’ previous collaborations “Dead Before Dawn 3D” (2012) or “88” (2015), but I respect what Mullen (who is Anishinaabe Algonquin) is attempting to do with her latest effort by shining a light on the displacement of indigenous peoples from stolen lands. Unfortunately, I feel this message is muted by the focus on Arthur’s instability. That said the stylistic flourishes accomplished by Mullen and her cinematographers Russ De Jong and Gavin Smith ably place viewers well within Arthur’s mania. Likewise, Doiron’s script does the same thing – I just feel as though there’s a red herring or twelve too many.

Sound of Metal

★★★★1/2

I’ve had a little experience with the deaf community. My family’s restaurant has employed four different deaf employees in the 10 years we’ve been open and so I’ve learned a little quite a bit.

One story that stuck with me comes from an employee with partial hearing. He told me that when he was younger he received a cochlear implant to improve his hearing. He told me he didn’t like it and he would come home and plop down on his bed and remove his external processor and just lay there is silence.

The sound was too much. There was too much noise.

Many people incorrectly assume that anyone who is deaf would like to wave a magic wand and have their hearing back. But many don’t see it as disability. It actually can be a gift.

In Amazon Studios new award season contender, “The Sound of Metal,” Riz Ahmed portrays a heavy metal drummer named Ruben who loses his hearing and has to adjust to a new way of life. It’s a thoughtful and nuanced performance that should earn him an Oscar nomination. If not, it will be a huge snub. Ahmed is best known for his breakthrough role in “Nightcrawler” and his Emmy-winning performance on “The Night Of,” but he’s also shown up in some commercial fare like “Jason Bourne,” “Venom” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” He gives a realistic, subtle, heart-breaking performance. He plays it with empathy and understanding.

It’s multi-layered performance. Ruben is full of anger and fear, all that can be seen on Ahmed’s face. He’s afraid of losing the one thing he loves in life, which is playing heavy metal, but he’s also afraid of continuing to lose his hearing for good. He feels accepted in his new life among the deaf community but he also doesn’t want to give up his old life and friends. He’s confused and feels lost by his new world of silence and the viewers feel it as well. On top of all of that, he’s also a recovering heroin addict who is afraid of going back to using again.

He’s trying to get the money needed for his cochlear implant to restore the life he once had but he soon realizes that there’s no going back to the way things were before.

(Side note: cochlear implants don’t provide the exact crisp audio that you and I hear and the movie beautifully portrays that with experimental sound design that puts you in his head and should win awards).

Ahmed is surrounded by solid supporting performances by Olivia Cooke (“Ready Player One,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) and Mathieu Amalric (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”).

Paul Raci, a veteran, American Sign Language interpreter and the lead singer for the Hands of Doom ASL ROCK band, steals every scene that he’s in as Ruben’s new mentor in a boarding home for deaf people. He delivers some of the weightiest lines of the movie but never makes it seem corny. There’s never a flashing neon light saying, “Here’s the moral! Here are the themes!” It’s done with subtlety.

If you were annoyed by the over-the-top hammy performances in “Hillbilly Elegy,” then you will love “The Sound of Metal.”

This is director Darius Marder’s feature length debut and he will be a name to watch for years. He creates a film about struggle, grief and acceptance that avoids the various feel-good cliches about triumphing over adversity. He makes a film that will spark a conversation after and that’s what great films do.

And while this film has bigger themes and life lesson that can be extracted, it’s ultimately a great character study. Well drawn characters that are expertly played.

Right now I would consider “The Sound of Metal” to be my favorite movie of 2020. I know that’s not saying much since this has been a strange year for movies but it truly is a remarkable movie that stays with you long after it is finished. The pacing is perfect and the acting and directing are superb. The only reason I’m not giving it five stars is personally I reserve five stars for films that are among the greatest ever made. I can’t go that far but it is among the best of the year.

The only downside is if you’re hoping for a movie about music, you will be very disappointed. The concert scenes are a very small part of the movie.

I highly recommend you don’t miss “The Sound of Metal.” You can stream it right now with an Amazon Prime subscription.