Brothers by Blood

★★★

“Brothers by Blood” (now available in select theaters and on VOD) is based off of Pete Dexter’s 1991 novel “Brotherly Love,” but sorta feels like “Baby’s First Mob Movie.” It’s all so rudimentary, there’s so much posturing, there’s so much telling as opposed to showing and it permeates a distinct been there, done that vibe. In spite of all this, the picture does contain some commendable elements and I give it a marginal recommendation.

“Brothers by Blood” bounces back and forth between 1999 (looking more like 1974) and 2016. Cousins Peter (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Michael (Joel Kinnaman) are members of the Irish Mob based out of Philadelphia like their fathers (Peter’s is played by Ryan Phillippe in flashback) before them. Young Peter (Nicholas Crovetti) is scarred when he witnesses his sister (Grace Bilik) get struck and killed by an oncoming car. Their mother has a total mental breakdown. Their father seeks and gets vengeance, which in turn costs him his own life. Peter then goes to live with Michael and his parents.

In the world of “Brothers by Blood” we know it’s 2016 and that Michael’s not a good guy because a Donald Trump campaign speech is playing on a TV in the background and Michael says, “I’d vote for him.” Michael’s most assuredly not a good dude as evidenced by a harrowing sequence wherein he threatens a veterinarian with his own lethal needle. Peter begrudgingly reports to Michael in the mob hierarchy out of familial obligation. You get the impression Peter would rather focus on boxing as he’s especially protective of the gym he works out at, its owner and a promising young fighter who also trains there.

Peter’s care and concern also extends to he and Michael’s mutual friend Jimmy (Paul Schneider) as well as to Jimmy’s younger sister Grace (Maika Monroe), for whom Peter develops romantic feelings.  Peter warns Jimmy against borrowing money from Michael for his restaurant where Grace tends bar. Peter’s advice isn’t heeded and Michael comes to collect aggressively after Jimmy’s place is burnt to the ground as the result of beef between Michael and Italian boss Bono (Antoni Corone). Additionally, Bono offers Peter the opportunity to clip Michael and take his seat at the table.

French writer/director Jérémie Guez (best known for writing and producing the surprisingly assured recent Jean-Claude Van Damme effort “The Bouncer”) does as well with this well-worn material as he likely could. The movie runs a slight 89 minutes. Rumors have suggested the picture was tinkered with and repeated mentions of a character named Constantine who never materializes seem to confirm as much.

To Guez’s credit, he coaxes some solid performances from his cast despite them not being the most natural fit for their roles. Schoenaerts is easily the standout of the bunch. While he doesn’t talk much, he conveys everything the viewer needs to know about Peter via facial expressions and body language. Kinnaman excels as well. The casting of these actors is interesting – I probably wouldn’t have selected a Belgian and a Swede to play Irish-American cousins, but their Philly accents are convincing enough. The fact that Schoenaerts and Kinnaman swap types – Schoenaerts is often the wild card whereas Kinnaman usually plays upright do-gooders – proves an interesting experiment as well.

Schneider is an actor I’ve always liked who seemed to work far more frequently 10 to 15 years ago, which makes his presence here a welcome one. He brings some much needed levity to these dour proceedings. Monroe too is a performer I admire. I’m a fan of hers on the basis of “The Guest” and “It Follows” alone. She’s fine in the movie, but her casting in the picture is curious. Schneider is 44, Schoenaerts is 43, Kinnaman is 41 and Monroe is 27. Monroe reads as more mature than her age, but it’s laughable when you hear these actors exchanging dialogue about growing up together. To that point, it’s also absurd to think that Schoenaerts’ Peter was 9 in 1999 or 26 in 2016.

If you go into “Brothers by Blood” expecting something on the level of Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese’s forays into crime films you’re gonna be profoundly disappointed. This reads more along the lines of a watered-down Diet Dennis Lehane adaptation, but the cast will nudge you across the finish line … they certainly did me. I dug the movie enough that I intend to check out Guez’s feature directorial debut “A Bluebird in My Heart” on Shudder sometime sooner as opposed to later.

PG: Psycho Goreman

★★★★

“PG: Psycho Goreman” (available on VOD beginning Friday, Jan. 22) is an absolute blast! The movie, which most assuredly isn’t for all tastes (but is arguably for all ages), plays like a mixture of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” and Peter Jackson’s early output.

Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) and her older brother Luke (Owen Myre) spend their days playing Crazy Ball, a game of their own creation. Despite being younger and a girl, Mimi mercilessly bullies Luke. After he loses their latest game of Crazy Ball, Mimi forces Luke to dig a deep hole in their backyard where he’ll purportedly have to sleep as punishment. It’s in this hole that the tyke twosome discover the Gem of Praxidike, which unleashes our titular antihero.

Their discovery is a nameless creature from the planet Gigax (a nod to late Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax) so the kiddos dub him Psycho Goreman (played by Matthew Ninabar and voiced by Steven Vlahos) – PG for short. If PG had his druthers he’d skin these scamps alive, but so long as Mimi retains the stone he must do as she says. Unfortunately, Mimi’s a bit of a brat and her biddings have consequences.

PG is simultaneously being hunted by Pandora (played by Kristen MacCulloch and voiced by Anna Tierney) for crimes he’s perpetrated across the galaxy. Also embroiled in the chaos are Mimi and Luke’s friend Alastair (Scout Flint) and their folks – the exasperated Susan (Alexis Kara Hancey) and the profoundly lazy Greg (Adam Brooks, sorta reading like Randy Marsh of “South Park”).

“PG: Psycho Goreman” is written, edited, produced and directed by Steven Kostanski (“The Void,” “Leprechaun Returns”), a member of the Canadian film collective Astron-6 (“Manborg,” “Father’s Day” (the 2011 one – not the Robin Williams/Billy Crystal joint), “The Editor”) of which Brooks is also a member.  If you’re familiar with these dudes’ work, you know they’re utterly demented.

Kostanski really nails the tonal tightrope this time out however. Aside from a few swears early in the picture and an onslaught of violence throughout (PG decapitates numerous folks, vaporizes a child and removes a foe’s spine in order to forge a sword out of it), “PG: Psycho Goreman” could actually be PG. This is a children’s movie at its core. There’s very little sexual content aside from PG liking to look at pics of hunky guys in magazine ads. These kids don’t cuss. They instead say stuff like hecking and frig and actually break into a “Kids Incorporated”-esque musical number at one point. There are also sweet messages concerning forgiveness and the importance of family. I’m not a parent, but I’d have no issue showing “PG: Psycho Goreman” to children who aren’t gore adverse. If I were 11 this would probably be one of my favorite movies and more so it made this 39-year-old man feel 11 again watching it … and that ain’t a bad thing. He’s not as inspiring as Amanda Gorman, but there’s more than enough room in my heart for Psycho Goreman.

Ten Minutes to Midnight

★★1/2

Vampires are undoubtedly my favorite movie monsters. I watched “The Lost Boys” and “From Dusk till Dawn” (which celebrates its 25th anniversary today!) countless times as a teenager. “Let the Right One In” is my second favorite horror film of all-time. My interest is always piqued when another vampire flick comes down the pike. Therefore I leapt at the opportunity to review “Ten Minutes to Midnight” (now available on VOD), the latest entry in the suckhead subgenre.

In a tip of the cap to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Part 2,” Caroline Williams essentially reprises the role of Stretch (only aged 35 years) as late-night radio host Amy Marlowe. Amy arrives to work at WLST on a stormy night after having been bit in the neck by a bat. Unbeknownst to Amy, this will be her last night at WLST as station manager Robert (William Youmans, he played Bartender in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”) plans on replacing her with the younger Sienna (Nicole Kang, a regular on the CW’s “Batwoman”) in exchange for implied sexual favors. Everyone – including Amy’s producer Aaron (Adam Weppler) and the station’s security guard Ernie (the late Nicholas Tucci, best known for “You’re Next”) – knew Amy’s head was on the chopping block, but didn’t have the decency to tell her. As the night continues hostilities rise and a transformation takes place.

“Ten Minutes to Midnight” is yet another modern horror film that embraces the 1980s what with its synth-y score and its stylistic title card. It’s not the best of the bunch by any stretch, but contains several elements worthy of praise. The movie manages to pack interesting commentary concerning time, mortality, sexual harassment, toxic masculinity and severed sisterhood into its scant 73 minute runtime. For a flick with a miniscule budget, the makeup effects are often impressive (Kudos to makeup department head Amanda Pepin!) and there are some cool metal needle drops. The acting can occasionally read as amateurish, but I was impressed by Williams, who I’m reappraising after seeing her in the recent horror doc “In Search of Darkness” (Seriously, this lady gives great talking head.). She runs the whole gamut of emotions.

I almost feel as though “Ten Minutes to Midnight” would’ve been better as a short or lengthened to a longer feature that could further extrapolate on its themes. Writers Erik and Carson Bloomquist make the decision to have all the actors switch roles save for Williams three-quarters of the way through the picture. I can’t entirely say what purpose this served (unlike the aspect ratio changes that convey different times periods), but it’s interesting.

“Ten Minutes to Midnight” isn’t as entertaining as the similarly-titled 1983 Cannon Films joint “10 to Midnight” since Charles Bronson isn’t screaming, “It’s for JACKING OFF!,” at somebody, but it does depict Williams’ Amy eating a used tampon out of a trash receptacle … so there’s that. I don’t regret watching it once, but I’ll likely return to “The Lost Boys,” “From Dusk till Dawn” and “Let the Right One In” to sate my bloodsucker thirst moving forward.

Outside the Wire

★★★

“Outside the Wire” is Netflix’s latest attempt to play in the big budget sandbox traditionally dominated by major studios following “Extraction” and “The Old Guard” last year. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of those efforts, but certainly has commendable attributes of its own.

It’s 2036 in Eastern Europe. Lieutenant Thomas Harp (the likable Damson Idris of “Snowfall”) is a drone pilot who’s almost court-martialed after disobeying a direct order that saves the lives of 38 Marines while killing two others. Harp’s instead assigned to Leo (Anthony Mackie) so he can learn the value of human life and the importance of boots on the ground. Ironically, Leo’s a cyborg. Leo’s convincing enough in conveying humanity that no one knows his secret except for Harp and the base’s commander Eckhart (“House of Cards” vet Michael Kelly).

This pairing of a man who thinks like a robot and a robot who longs to be a man proves interesting. The duo are in pursuit of a terrorist named Viktor Koval (Pilou Asbæk), who’s hell-bent on unleashing Russia’s entire arsenal of nuclear weapons. There’s plenty of extrapersonal and combat-related strife along the way.

Much of what works about “Outside the Wire” is attributable to its action and world-building. Serving alongside humans are robotic soldiers referred to as “Gumps” because they’re stupid-looking. They’re convincingly rendered and lend the proceedings considerable blockbuster heft. Mackie is also a certifiable badass as Leo. He’s allowed to engage in much more practical stunt work here by comparison to his efforts in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A lot of this feels like playing a video game as opposed to watching someone else play a video game, which I mean as both a compliment and an insult. My ultimate preference is that movies feel like movies.

Now for the negative: There’s a twist that takes place a little over halfway through “Outside the Wire,” which really took me out of the picture and almost entirely removed whatever charm it had going for it. Much is made of Asbæk’s Koval character, but he ultimately proves to be little more than a cool intro and a McGuffin. I know this dude can chew scenery as evidenced by 2018’s “Overlord” and his turn as Euron Greyjoy on “Game of Thrones.” I wish the filmmakers had allowed him to eat!

The work of Swedish director Mikael Håfström (“Escape Plan”) is unsurprisingly workmanlike. It’s kind of bland, but better than much of his filmography (i.e. “Derailed,” “1408”) in my estimation. The screenplay by Rowan Athale and Rob Yescombe feels like it could use another draft and ultimately does a major disservice to Leo. (I’m surprised Mackie would let this fly as he’s a producer on the picture. Then again, there could be a substantial differential between the movie Mackie wanted to make and the one I wanted to watch?) Much of the video game feel probably stems from Yescombe’s time spent writing video games such as “Rambo: The Video Game” and “Tom Clancy’s The Division.”

“Outside the Wire” while entertaining seems a tad confused. Like almost all war movies it’s anti-war, but it also seems to be advocating for the retention of the human element in combat. This seems somewhat counterintuitive to its overall message. The enterprise feels like “Training Day” meets “The Terminator” with a dash of drone pics “Eye in the Sky” and “Good Kill” thrown in for good measure. It’s often successful in aping these other projects, but seems to lack a voice of its own.

The Marksman

★★★1/2

Co-writer/director Robert Lorenz should’ve known he was on the right track because his latest film shares a title with a Wesley Snipes direct-to-video offering from 2005. “The Marksman” (now playing in theaters) is the latest in a long string of Liam Neeson action flicks spurred from 2009’s “Taken” … except it’s not.

Don’t let the advertisements and title fool you – “The Marksman” is far more of a drama with action accents as opposed to the other way around. Chicago native Lorenz has spent the majority of his career assistant directing and producing most of Clint Eastwood’s output from the past 25 years. (This after having served as second assistant director on the Vanilla Ice classic “Cool as Ice” – “Drop that zero and get with the hero!”) His sole directorial effort prior to this was the latter day Eastwood baseball vehicle “Trouble with the Curve.” Unsurprisingly, “The Marksman” feels more like an Eastwood entry from 20 to 25 years ago as opposed to a modern day Neeson action epic (Eastwood even cameos via a fuzzy motel TV showing 1968’s “Hang ‘Em High”).

Neeson stars as Jim Hanson, a Marine veteran and rancher on the Arizona/Mexico border who lost his wife to cancer a year prior and is on the precipice of foreclosure. He often encounters illegals crossing the border onto his property. He’ll offer them water if they need it and then promptly call the Immigration and Naturalization Service to report them, which prompts visits from his Border Patrol officer stepdaughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick).

One day Jim runs across Rosa (Teresa Ruiz of “Narcos: Mexico”) and her son Miguel (Jacob Perez) who are frantically trying to escape into the United States through an opening in the fence from an attacking cartel faction fronted by Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba, a veteran of OG “Narcos”). Rosa and Miguel are fleeing since Miguel’s Uncle Carlos (Alfredo Quiroz) stole a substantial amount of money from the cartel and the outfit wants to make an example out of the entire family.

Jim intercedes on Rosa and Miguel’s behalf. Shots are fired by both sides. Jim shoots and kills Mauricio’s brother. Rosa is also struck and ultimately succumbs to her wound, but not before she gives Jim a backpack full of money and pleads with him to transport Miguel to Chicago where they have family. Jim waffles for a bit, but ultimately decides taking Miguel to Chicago is in the boy’s best interest and if he can profit in the process, all the better. The duo hit the road where they’ll have to evade Sarah and other authorities as well as Mauricio and his men.

There’s a lot to like about “The Marksman” despite much of it being pretty pat. Neeson is a pro and could play this role in his sleep, Perez is a cute kid for whom the audience can easily root and they have a natural, easy chemistry. While there isn’t much action, what’s here is serviceable and some of it’s even jolting. The enterprise as a whole is sadder than I expected it to be (there’s that Eastwood influence again!), but the gloom lends the proceedings gravitas. You likely already know if this is for you or not. If you dig Neeson’s action output or Eastwood’s overall oeuvre this will likely be in your wheelhouse. If nothing else, it continues the big screen renaissance of Pop-Tarts after “Wonder Woman 1984.”

Locked Down

★★★1/2

Many of us had enough of the pandemic, quarantine and 2020 in 2020. Producer Michael Bay and his co-conspirators had the first cinematic crack at the pandemic in last month’s “Songbird” (my review here). Whereas Bay opted to filter pandemic anxieties through a dramatic thriller spectrum, director Doug Liman and screenwriter Steven Knight have opted to express the same feelings via the romantic dramedy/heist picture “Locked Down” (now available on HBO Max).

The expediency with which Liman and Knight dreamt “Locked Down” up (July 1, 2020), sold it (September), filmed it (by the end of October) and released it (today) is mind-boggling. The movie itself is less so, but it’s better than many would lead you to believe.

Linda (Anne Hathaway) and Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are a London-based couple on the skids. Their relationship went kaput just as quarantine began, but had been slowly dying for some time. They’re now trapped together in their townhouse with resentments at full boil.

She’s worked her way up the corporate ladder and spends her days begrudgingly firing subordinates. He’s been furloughed from his job as a deliveryman and must sell off his prized Triumph motorcycle in order to kick up some scratch. The bike and the freedom it exemplifies brought the two together initially. Selling it will officially close the door on their relationship.

Further and fatefully complicating matters, Linda is tasked with overseeing a diamond worth three million pounds on display at Harrods department store and Paxton has been commissioned to transport it for sale. The ex-couple conspire to rip off the rock – a million pounds for her, a million pounds for him, a million pounds to the National Health Service. Will the theft bring the former lovers back together or further tear them apart?

A cavalcade of familiar faces turn up to lend support. “Ballers” co-stars Dulé Hill and Jazmyn Simon play Paxton’s half-brother and sister-in-law respectively. Ben Stiller plays Linda’s boss. Ben Kingsley plays Paxton’s boss. Lucy Boynton (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) and Mindy Kaling play Linda’s former co-workers. Stephen Merchant plays the Head of Security at Harrods. Most of these folks appear exclusively via Zoom.

I generally dig Liman’s directorial output. He’s a bit of a chameleon tackling comedies (“Swingers” and “Go”), action-thrillers (“The Bourne Identity”) and action-comedies (“Mr. and Mrs. Smith”) as well as sci-fi (“Looper” and “Edge of Tomorrow”), political (“Fair Game” (2010)), war (“The Wall”) and crime (“American Made”) pictures. “Locked Down” doesn’t feel very akin to Liman’s eclectic oeuvre. It feels more like a play (Granted, “The Wall” could’ve been a play too.) or like a lark Steven Soderbergh might’ve made somewhere along the way. Knight’s script feels like a first draft and it probably was considering the speed with which it was written, but it’s worlds better than Knight’s previous collaboration with Hathaway, 2019’s absolutely fucking bugnuts “Serenity.”

Hathaway and Ejiofor are kinda playing against type here. She chain-smokes cigarettes and is more of a wild child than her perpetual goody two shoes persona would suggest. He’s scruffier, funnier and less a paragon of wisdom and virtue than his characters normally are. Both Linda and Paxton are irritating at times (probably an offshoot of the subject matter), but they’re inherently watchable due to the talented actors portraying them.

Mileage will likely vary with these COVID-19 movies in the months and years to come. I liked “Songbird” more than most and that appears to be the case with “Locked Down” as well. This might have something to do with 2020 having been better to me than it was to most, which doesn’t mean I don’t have sympathy for those who’ve lost their lives, loved ones, jobs and businesses along the way. Sure, I was furloughed and ultimately laid off from my job, but that allowed me to focus my time and energy into pursuits that are far more enjoyable and rewarding. The first few months of quarantine are some of the happiest of my lifetime – I was able to slow down, to pause, to enjoy time with my wife and dog, to reflect and realize how truly fortunate I really am. I think these movies aren’t about dwelling in the past, but are more so hopeful for our collective future.

Redemption Day

★★1/2

Moroccan producer-turned-writer/director Hicham Hajji makes his feature directorial debut with “Redemption Day” (available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Friday, Jan. 8) – an action-thriller that’s somewhat lacking in action and certainly lacking in thrills. It’s attempting to tackle the oil industry’s role in worldwide strife and does so dryly to some extent. It’s not smart enough to be “Syriana” nor is it dumb enough to be “Commando” or “Taken.”

Gary Dourdan of “Alien: Resurrection” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” stars as decorated Marine Brad Paxton. He returns home to his archaeologist wife Kate (Serinda Swan of the ill-fated “Inhumans” and HBO’s “Ballers”), young daughter Clair (Lilia Hajji – I’m guessing she’s Hicham’s little girl?) and boxing trainer father Ed (the always welcome Ernie Hudson) to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Paxton’s also been “gifted” a particularly nasty case of PTSD.

While it’s not a convenient time for her to leave, Kate’s been commissioned to excavate an underground city she’s discovered on the Morocco/Algeria border. Predictably, she and her cohorts are either kidnapped or killed by an upstart Algerian terrorist cell led by Jaafar El Hadi (Samy Naceri from Luc Besson’s “Taxi” flicks and kinda lookin’ like Jeffrey Epstein here). Paxton packs his shit and is on the first plane to Morocco where he teams with secret service agent Younes Laalej (Brice Bexter). By hook or by crook Paxton’s getting his wife back. Also tangled up in this quagmire are Ambassador Williams (Andy Garcia, mostly acting through his cigar), shadowy CIA operative Tom Fitzgerald (Martin Donovan, kinda typecast in this sorta role by this point) and a mysterious oil lobbyist (“Prison Break” ham Robert Knepper adopting white hair, white suit and a Col. Sanders accent).

Dourdan has an interesting presence. I only ever watched the two Quentin Tarantino-directed episodes of “CSI,” so I haven’t seen the bulk of his work. Dourdan’s simultaneously handsome and sort of weird-looking. He looks like a cat who’d play Janet Jackson’s boyfriend in a music video (he did) or sing backup vocals for Macy Gray (he has). He’s arguably a tad old at 54 to be playing this part, but he’s built like a brick shithouse and is convincing enough in action. Swan is a beautiful woman and does well enough servicing what’s ultimately a fairly thankless damsel in distress archetype. Naceri and Bexter are also serviceable in their respective villain and sidekick roles. It’s kind of disappointing that actors of the caliber and notoriety of Hudson, Garcia, Donovan and Knepper (who’s essentially cameoing) are saddled with nothingburger parts.

“Redemption Day” begins and concludes strongly enough, but the middle is made up of tedious driving scenes and obvious exposition dumps. What action there is occasionally impresses (Paxton sniping four terrorists with four rapid, successive headshots; Paxton and Laalej stealthily sneaking around the terrorist base headshotting fools with silenced pistols calls to mind the “Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell” video games), but there’s also an explosion during the finale that’s laughably fake. The door’s left wide open for a sequel – I’m open to it if the filmmakers embrace the dumb, get a bigger budget and give Knepper plenty of scenery to chew … that would redeem ‘em.

American Dream

★★★

“American Dream” (now available on digital, DVD and on demand) is a rote crime drama that very much has the feeling of been there, done that. Much of it’s made artfully; some of it clumsily. My main interest in the film stemmed from it being directed by Steven Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. “American Dream” is not Kaminski’s first film (that’d be the much-maligned 2000 Winona Ryder horror vehicle “Lost Souls”) nor does it feel like it.

Nicky (Michiel Huisman, the second Daario Naharis on “Game of Thrones”) and Scott (Luke Bracey AKA Johnny Utah 2.0) are lifelong friends and business partners. They have all their assets tied up in the construction of a Los Angeles-based apartment complex and their funds are quickly dwindling. Loans are sought from numerous financial institutions, but the men are coming up emptyhanded. Desperate, they turn to Yuri (Nick Stahl), an acquaintance of Scott’s and a member of the Russian mob.

After accepting Yuri’s money a windfall comes via Scott’s Dad, Dimitri (Ed Metzger), who puts his carpet store up as collateral. Nicky and Scott subsequently refuse Yuri’s loan, but he’s unwilling to take no for an answer. Yuri and his goon Sergei (Gregory Lee Kenyon, coming across like a Russian Danny Trejo) demand payment for Yuri’s services with incurred interest for every day it’s not paid. Circumstances escalate from here with Yuri demanding the apartment complex itself and a substantial piece of the carpet store. Yuri and Sergei threaten Nicky and Scott’s lives and go so far as to antagonize and assault their girlfriends Ana and Brooke (Agnieszka Grochowska and Samantha Ressler, respectively). Luckily for Nicky and Scott, Ana has more stones than the both of ‘em combined.

Huisman and Bracey do well enough with their underwritten roles. Nicky’s the responsible one; Scott’s more impetuous. Scott’s supposed to be the brains of the operation, but Bracey doesn’t read super-smart … maybe he’s just too damned pretty? Stahl’s the main attraction here. His Yuri is evil incarnate, but Stahl and screenwriters Duncan Brantley and Mark Wheaton imbue him with enough grace notes (mostly via a daughter character) that he’s minimally sympathetic. Anyone who’s seen “Bully” or “Sin City” knows Stahl gives boffo bastard … yellow or otherwise. It’s nice to see him continue on the comeback trail after last month’s haunting “Hunter Hunter.” It’s also fun to have Elya Baskin (Mr. Ditkovich from Sam Raimi’s second and third “Spider-Man” installments) on hand as Nicky’s father/the personification of Russian vodka stereotypes.

There’s a decent amount of ickiness at play in “American Dream.” Ana’s sexually assaulted and thrown from a moving train at the beginning of the film to firm up her tough girl bonafides. She can’t just have brass on her own? There’s an exploitative sex scene between Huisman and Grochowska that’s graphic but not so graphic that you can decipher whether they’re simulating anal or doggy-style sex. Yuri is seen receiving fellatio from a transvestite. It’s almost like the filmmakers are saying, “Not only is this guy a dick, he’s also a homo! Gross!!!” When the film delves into brutality it’s fairly unflinching – bludgeonings and dismemberment are the norm.

“American Dream” is lean (83 minutes on an estimated $500,000 budget) and mean (see the previous paragraph). There’s enough good here that I’d give the picture a lukewarm recommendation. It’s impressive what Kaminski and his crew have done with limited resources. Weird edits, fluctuating film speed and lingering on random objects like it’s a European art film ultimately doesn’t elevate the material. Having better … or at least more original material … would elevate the material. Yogi Berra out!   

Alec Toombs’ Top 10 of 2020

I watched 268 movies in 2020, 147 of these were 2020 releases and I wrote 96 full-length reviews. I want to thank my friend and colleague Adam Aasen for coming to me with the idea of launching Grade A Movies , which prompted me to return to film criticism after 15 years of not doing it aside from capsule reviews on Letterboxd. Additionally, I’d like to thank Christopher Lloyd for the support and allowing Adam and I to also publish our reviews at The Film Yap. I’d be remiss if I also didn’t thank Larry Lannan with whom Adam and I record the Grade A Movies Podcast – a solid broadcaster and fellow film aficionado. Lastly, I’d like to thank anyone who’s read my material this past year. It’s greatly appreciated.

While I saw plenty of pictures in 2020, there are some movies I missed  – “76 Days,” “Another Round,” “Athlete A,” “Bacurau,” “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” “Dick Johnson is Dead,” “His House,” “Minari,” “Nomadland,” “One Night in Miami,” “On the Rocks,” “Small Axe” “The Twentieth Century” and “Wolfwalkers.” I attempted to watch “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” but fell asleep during it. The same fate befell me when I saw “Synecdoche, New York” theatrically back in 2008. I love Charlie Kaufman as a screenwriter. Perhaps Charlie Kaufman the director ain’t my bag?

As is common for these lists, my Bottom Five of 2020 are “Dead Reckoning,” “Cannibal Corpse Killers,” “John Henry,” “The Wrong Missy” and “Capone.” I watch way more junk than the Average Joe – trust me when I tell you these titles are trash. My honorable mentions include “Sound of Metal,” “Mank,” “The Gentlemen,” “Arkansas,” “Host,” “Freaky,” “Soul,” “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,” “The Hunt” and “Da 5 Bloods.” With no further ado, here’s my Top 10 of 2020.

10.) The Painted Bird – “The Painted Bird” is simultaneously one of the most disturbing and beautiful films I’ve ever seen. This is less a story and more a series of vignettes about a young Jewish boy (Petr Kotlár) in Eastern Europe during World War II seeking refuge from an onslaught of different characters. The boy is the recipient of all sorts physical and sexual abuse.

Despite all the abominations on screen, “The Painted Bird” is undeniably exquisite. This is easily the best-looking movie I’ve seen this year that’s not Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life.” The black and white cinematography by Vladimír Smutný (“Kolya”) provides audiences with a cornucopia of striking contrast shots. The way in which writer/director Václav Marhoul and Smutný shoot fields, streams, trees and buildings is truly awe-inspiring. Any frame of the film – even some depicting depravities – could easily be blown up, framed and displayed in a museum. (Currently available on Hulu.)

9.) Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Holy hell did Chadwick Boseman go out on a high note. His final film performance is undoubtedly one of 2020’s best. It’s so good in fact that he blows national treasure Viola Davis (also doing exemplary work) right off the screen. Boseman’s first lengthy monologue is a masterclass in acting. Expect this cat to get Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor nominations at the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes for this and “Da 5 Bloods” respectively. Props also to Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman for their inspired performances. (Currently available on Netflix.)

8.) Synchronic – “We want to be very clear: at the time of writing this, we personally wouldn’t go to an indoor theater, so we can’t encourage you to.” These are the words written by “Synchronic” co-director Aaron Moorhead via Instagram back on Sept. 11, 2020 on behalf of himself, fellow director and screenwriter Justin Benson and producer David Lawson. As my wife will tell you, I don’t listen worth a damn … so I went and saw the movie theatrically regardless. And I’m very glad I did – it’s one of 2020’s best.

“Synchronic” is obviously a low budget movie, but what these filmmakers lack in money they more than make up for with unbridled imagination and genuine emotion. This is incredibly assured sci-fi. The movie moved me to tears, which is sort of bummer while masked up. (“Synchronic” releases on Blu-ray and DVD Tuesday, Jan. 26.)

7.) Palm Springs – “Palm Springs” is written by Andy Siara and directed by Max Barbakow. It’s the feature debut of both after having toiled away in shorts, documentaries and television for the better part of a decade. These gentlemen really bring their respective experience and creativity to the fore. This is one hell of a calling card. “Palm Springs” truly nails the romance and the comedy of a romantic comedy. The sci-fi elements of the story sing too.

Much of the reason “Palm Springs” works as well as it does rests on the shoulders of Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti. These two have real-deal chemistry. I’ve been a fan of Samberg’s for some time now whether it’s via the albums and videos of the Lonely Island, his longstanding gig as Jake Peralta on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” or in hilariously underrated movies such as “Hot Rod” and “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.” The dude’s damned funny here. I’m not as familiar with Milioti – mostly identifying her with the titular matronly role on “How I Met Your Mother” and as the first wife of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Not only does Milioti hold her own with Samberg comedically, she may arguably exceed him … her character’s the more complex of the two to boot. (Currently available on Hulu.)

6.) The Old Guard – My favorite film-watching day of 2020 was easily July 10 – this is the day my number six and seven selections were released and I luxuriated in making a double-bill of ‘em. “The Old Guard” is a muscular, stylish, progressive and transgressive fantasy-action flick. It’s directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood, best known for relationship dramas such as “Love & Basketball” and “Beyond the Lights.” I love seeing an immensely talented woman of color getting the opportunity to make something this big budget and this genre. It resulted in a product that’s woke AF.

It’s not every day where a mainstream movie’s primary romance is a gay one; it’s not played as a joke and is handled with sensitivity and care. Marwan Kenzari’s Joe has a monologue midway through the movie where he beautifully speaks of his feelings for Luca Marinelli’s Nicky. The speech is impeccably written and performed (Kenzari’s world’s better here than he was in “Aladdin”). It feels as though he’s not only addressing the on-screen antagonist, but also the dude-bros who tend to gravitate towards action flicks. It’s like you don’t have to get onboard, but you do need to be accepting and if you can’t do that you need to get the hell outta the way. (Currently available on Netflix.)

5.) Onward – This is the less-heralded Pixar release of 2020, but it connected with me on a much deeper emotional level. Pixar simply has my number. I’ve seen 17 of the studio’s 23 films – the ones I’ve missed are “Cars 2,” “Cars 3,” “Brave,” “Monsters University,” “Finding Dory” and “Coco” – 12 of the 17 had me blubbering like a little bitch. Without fail if I’m jibing with one of their flicks I’m a goner. The waterworks will hit and they won’t let up. I’ve been known to ugly cry at Pixar movies. I’ve hyperventilation cried at Pixar movies. I did all of the above during “Onward.” If you’re anything like me and A.) Pixar owns your ass or B.) You’ve got daddy or brother issues – I’ve got both! – you’ll be a goner too.

Despite being fantastical, there’s a very real emotional core to “Onward.” Co-writer/director Dan Scanlon, whose father died when he was 1, infuses the movie with deep, genuine feeling. As this is a Pixar joint, it’s the little things that’ll get ya – one character’s foot touching another character’s foot or somebody checking or crossing items off a list for instance left me a crybaby shitshow. It’s in these details that the wizards at Pixar make true movie magic. (Currently available on Disney+.)

4.) The Platform – “The Platform” was released at the absolute best and absolute worst time. It’s very much on the nose, highly indebted to Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 effort “Snowpiercer,” not for the squeamish, not for the socially conservative and subtitled. It’s also a frickin’ masterpiece.

I wouldn’t recommend eating while watching “The Platform” as the food seen on screen is often absolutely revolting to look at and there are graphic depictions of cannibalism. That said, I would wholeheartedly advise adventurous cineastes give it a whirl. Sure, it’s subtitled and violent as all hell, but it’s only 94 minutes and also holds a message that’s important for all of us to heed … especially now. There is no place for greed, overconsumption and hoarding. We’re only as strong as our weakest link. We need to lift one another up. What’s good for one is good for all. Be good to yourselves. Be good to each other. Be the change. Be the message. These are the principles upon which “The Platform” is built. (Currently available on Netflix.)

3.) The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant writing, the wonderful performances of Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Frank Langella and Michael Keaton (this is the best and strongest ensemble of 2020 IMHO) and its sad timeliness easily make “The Trial of the Chicago 7” one of 2020’s best. (Currently available on Netflix.)

2.) Never Rarely Sometimes Always – What an important movie. Writer/director Eliza Hittman and her lead actresses Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder are most assuredly going places. I pretty much wanted to give Flanigan’s Autumn a hug the entire time. I worried about and cared for these young women as I thought, “What if these were my nieces?” It probably didn’t help that Ryder kinda resembles my favorite niece and the character of Skylar acts in a manner that reminded me of her. This movie should be shown in high school health classes across this country to young women AND young men. Kudos to the Motion Picture Association for rating this PG-13 (when it admittedly probably should’ve been rated R) so it’s more accessible to the people who really need to see it. (Currently available on HBO Max.)

1.) Promising Young Woman – Just because a movie deals with serious subject matter doesn’t mean it can’t also be fun. “Promising Young Women” addresses issues of great gravity (rape, toxic masculinity, the “boys will be boys” mentality/permissiveness) while simultaneously being undeniably entertaining and hysterically funny. It’s boldly audacious filmmaking that shouldn’t work, but does thanks to Emerald Fennell’s deft script (most assuredly one of the year’s best) and stylish direction and Carrie Mulligan’s fearless performance – the apex of her storied career thus far. I wouldn’t recommend “Promising Young Woman” for a first date, but it certainly gave my wife and I plenty to chew on, ponder and discuss afterward. (“Promising Young Woman” is currently playing in theaters and will available on VOD as soon as Monday, Jan. 11.)

The Midnight Sky

★★★

I like George Clooney. Always have. Always will. He seems like a cool dude. He’s politically-minded and puts his money and influence behind worthwhile causes. The worst I can say about the guy is that he was a crummy Batman in my least favorite film of all-time – a movie he himself mocks incessantly.  

As a director Clooney’s a bit of a mixed bag – I have real love for “Good Night, and Good Luck.” and “The Ides of March,” I enjoy to varying degrees “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “The Monuments Men” and “Suburbicon” despite their shortcomings and I outright disliked “Leatherheads.”

Clooney’s latest as director and star is “The Midnight Sky” (now available on Netflix), an adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s book “Good Morning, Midnight” scripted by Mark L. Smith (“The Revenant,” “Overlord”). Clooney plays Augustine Lofthouse, a dying scientist who opts to stay at his base in the Arctic when his colleagues flee following a cataclysmic event (Possibly nuclear? Possibly environmental?) that’s wiped out much of humanity. He discovers a young girl (Caoilinn Springall) who’s been left behind at the base. She’s largely silent. He deduces that her name is Iris due to a drawing she does of said flower.

The movie frequently shifts its focus and is ultimately three stories in one. We see Younger Augustine (Ethan Peck, Gregory’s grandson) romance Jean (Sophie Rundle of “Peaky Blinders”) and their relationship eventually crumble under the weight of his workaholism and emotional unavailability. Older Augustine stayed behind so could get in contact with Aether, the only active space mission. The ship is crewed by pregnant astronaut Sully (Felicity Jones), her partner Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo), pilot Tom Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), Sanchez (Demian Bichir) and flight engineer Maya (Tiffany Boone). They’re unaware of what’s occurred back home and Augustine encourages them to change course from Earth to K-23, a habitable moon he discovered earlier in his career.

Clooney seems to have a thing for space between “Solaris” (2002), “Gravity” and this. His enthusiasm is drowned out by the dour nature of the material however. Focusing on the positive, kudos must go out to Clooney and his production designer Jim Bissell (who’s worked on every Clooney-directed picture aside from “The Ides of March”) for matching the pattern on the stock of Augustine’s rifle with the interior walls of the Aether. I don’t know what this was supposed to mean, but it was cool and registered with me. Speaking of cool, I saw something here I’d never seen before – blood droplets floating in the anti-gravity of space. Appropriately enough, they kinda looked like Gushers.

It’s sort of damning that my attention was drawn to gun butts and fruit snacks. This is probably the result of “The Midnight Sky” being both scattershot and slow. (A late movie twist did pay emotional dividends however.) It’s safe to say that Clooney’s latest falls firmly into the category of enjoyable despite its shortcomings much like the majority of his directorial oeuvre. To y’all I say, “Good night.” To Clooney I say, “Good luck” … in recapturing whatever it was that gave earlier efforts verve and personality like the man himself.