The Woman in the Window

★★★

“The Woman in the Window” (now streaming on Netflix) has had a long strange trip to our television screens.

Based off the 2018 novel of the same name by Dan Mallory (under the pseudonym A.J. Finn), the movie finished shooting that year, was supposed to be released theatrically by 20th Century Fox in October 2019, was pushed to May 15, 2020 due to poor test screenings by everyone’s favorite producer Scott Rudin (seriously, fuck this guy) and Fox’s new owner Disney before having its release cancelled altogether in the midst of a pandemic and then finally being sold to the aforementioned streamer.

“The Woman in the Window” is the story of an unreliable protagonist (Amy Adams’ Anna Fox) that was initially conceived by an unreliable author (seriously, read The New Yorker’s piece on Mallory here). Mallory’s novel was adapted by acclaimed playwright Tracy Letts (and later rewritten by Tony Gilroy at Rudin’s insistence). Letts does uncredited double duty playing Anna’s in-house shrink, Dr. Landy. Despite Letts’ involvement, the resulting product is less chicken drumstick and more hambone, but that ain’t altogether a bad thing.

Anna is a non-practicing child psychologist and agoraphobic who hasn’t left her home in 10 months. The house in question is a stately Harlem-based brownstone. She’s currently separated from her husband Ed (Anthony Mackie), who has custody of their daughter Olivia (Mariah Bozeman). In spite of this, Anna and Ed speak on the phone every day. When Anna isn’t being therapized to by Landy or logging telephone time with Ed and Olivia she busies herself by mixing anti-anxiety meds with wine and watching Alfred Hitchcock movies.

Speaking of Hitchcock, Anna has also made a habit of spying on her across the street neighbors the Russell’s, newly moved to the area from Boston. The Russell’s are Alistair (Gary Oldman, a whoosh of silver hair and attitude), Jane (a bleached-blonde Julianne Moore) and their son Ethan (Fred Hechinger). Anna connects with Ethan when he drops off a candle gifted by his Mom. She in turn lends the boy some DVDs and asserts that her home is a safe space for him gleaning that he and Alistair have a contentious relationship. Anna also meets Jane when the latter saves the former from some prank-happy hooligans on Halloween. The two proceed to talk and get drunk together.

Shortly thereafter while not minding her own business, Anna witnesses someone stab and kill Jane. Anna does what any concerned citizen would do and calls the cops – here in the form of Detective Little (underrated character actor Brian Tyree Henry) and Detective Norelli (Jeanine Serralles). Detectives Little and Norelli show up to Anna’s brownstone with all three Russell’s – Alistair, Ethan and a new woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) purporting to be Jane. Alistair, understandably upset, refers to Anna as “a boozed-up, pill-popping cat lady,” and tells her to stay the hell away from his family.

Director Joe Wright is undeniably talented and has an aces cast at his disposal – most of whom are treated as disposable save for “High Priestess of Histrionics” Adams, the immensely likable Henry, promising relative newcomer Hechinger (I look forward to seeing more of this kid’s work in Netflix’s upcoming “Fear Street” flick.) and Wyatt Russell as Anna’s probation-skipping rocker of a basement tenant.

I tend to gravitate towards Wright’s more stylistic works, i.e. “Atonement,” “Hanna,” as opposed to his stodgier, stuffier films (“Darkest Hour”). While this is plenty stylish with sharp cinematography and production design by Bruno Delbonnel (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) and Kevin Thompson (“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”), Wright does himself a disservice by dropping all the Hitchcock references – he ain’t Hitch and this ain’t “Rear Window” … this ain’t even Brian De Palma. The picture is too amiable or more specifically Amiel (as in director Jon, whose 1995 effort “Copycat” appropriately enough gets aped here) to be mistaken for the work of a master.

Honestly, this feels like a throwback to the thrillers of the ‘90s. I could totally see somebody like Amiel, Jonathan Kaplan, Joseph Ruben, Gary Fleder, Barbet Schroder or Bruce Beresford directing this thing back in ’96. Had this come out 25 years ago I could also easily see Sandra Bullock or Ashley Judd in Adams’ role, Susan Sarandon or Sigourney Weaver in Moore and Leigh’s roles, Leonardo DiCaprio or Tobey Maguire in Hechinger’s role and Samuel L. Jackson in Henry’s role. Humorously enough, Oldman would be a shoo-in for his role in ’96, 2018 or now – I just wish he had more to do here.

“The Woman in the Window” is better than many would lead you to believe. It feels very much of its time (Hello, being cooped up in our homes!) and not (Falcon and John Walker are both in this and have no scenes together! Wait, this was filmed prior to Disney+ even existing!). It’s not the best recent gaslighting thriller Netflix has to offer (that’d be “Things Heard & Seen”), but if you pretend you rented it on VHS from a Blockbuster Video it just might just have some surprises to spring.

High Ground

★★★

“High Ground” (available on VOD beginning Friday, May 14) works at being a few different things all at once – revenge thriller, Australian Western and a mea culpa for the misdeeds Great Britain perpetrated against Oz’s indigenous people. The movie serviceably takes on all these roles without ever completely excelling at any of them.

The picture opens somewhat shockingly in the early 1900s when a platoon of white soldiers under the command of Moran (Jack Thompson, Cliegg Lars from “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones”) invades an Aboriginal village. Sniper Travis (Simon Baker, “Land of the Dead”) is supposed to be the only one to fire, but the situation quickly goes sideways and Travis’ former spotter Eddy (Callan Mulvey, an actor who was in seemingly every comic book movie in the mid-2010s, i.e. “300: Rise of an Empire,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”) and his men begin murdering many of the village’s men, women and children. Travis, disgusted by his fellow soldiers’ actions, begins taking some of his own people out and promptly quits the unit.

The movie flashes forward 12 years. The massacre left Gutjuk (talented newcomer Jacob Junior Nayinggul) orphaned. He’s since been raised by missionary siblings Claire (Caren Pistorius, “Unhinged”) and Braddock (Ryan Corr).

Moran pulls Travis back into the fold with threats of holding him accountable for past actions going so far as to say, “What were your bullets doing in white men?” He wants him to hunt down and kill Baywara (Sean Mununggurr), Gutjuk’s uncle and an Aboriginal warrior who’s been attacking the invaders’ outposts. Travis, having saved Gutjuk’s life 12 years prior, enlists the young man’s services as a tracker. Travis would prefer to negotiate with the tribe’s chief and Gutjuk’s grandfather Dharrpa (Witiyana Marika) to spare Baywara’s life, but Moran is less amenable to such an idea.

During their time together Travis teaches Gutjuk how to shoot. Between his bond with Travis and having been raised by Claire and Braddock, Gutjuk’s blackness is questioned by Gulwirri (Esmerelda Marimowa), an Aborigine woman to whom he is drawn.

There’s much to admire about “High Ground.” Despite Baker being the biggest name in the cast (and serving as an executive producer), this isn’t Travis’ story so much as it’s Gutjuk’s. The film is largely from Gutjuk’s perspective and Nayinggul is up to the challenge. Baker’s Travis veers dangerously close to white saviorism, but he’s ultimately very likable and played convincingly. Thompson and Mulvey are appropriately hissable, but predominantly one-note.  I wish Pistorius’ Claire and her relationship with Gutjuk were more developed, but she’s good with what little she has to do.

“High Ground” as directed by Stephen Johnson and written by Chris Anastassiades is a story that’s worth telling, but it’s hard to shake the feeling I’ve seen similar work done better elsewhere. Despite this, the beautiful outback scenery, Nayinggul and Baker’s performances and Marika as Dharrpa’s assertion of, “MY country,” will resonate with audiences well after the closing credits have rolled.

Oxygen

★★★

I’ve always considered myself a fan of French horror filmmaker Alexandre Aja despite his filmography being a bit of a mixed bag to me.

“High Tension” has some amazing kills, but its twist didn’t stick the landing. His 2006 remake of “The Hills Have Eyes” held true to the original, but was a touch too brutal for my tastes. “Mirrors” bummed me out by wasting a perfectly good topless Amy Smart by having her rip her own jaw off in a bathtub. I adore the 2010 remake/reimagining “Piranha 3D” what with all its fun sex and violence – the flick’s a blast and my favorite of Aja’s oeuvre. Somehow I missed “Horns” and “The 9th Life of Louis Drax.” “Crawl” is another creature feature from Aja that many (me included) saw as a return to form.

This brings us to “Oxygen” (now streaming on Netflix), Aja’s latest and his first French language film in almost 20 years. He moves away from his horror roots by tackling this thriller that’s little more than a sci-fi-ified reskinning of the 2010 Ryan Reynolds vehicle “Buried.”

Aja further extrapolates on the single location gimmick employed in “Crawl” (it was a flooded basement full of alligators in that flick) by setting the entire enterprise within a cryogenic chamber. The pod’s sole human occupant is a woman referred to as Omicron-267 (Mélanie Laurent). She awakes from cryosleep not knowing who she is or how she got here. Her only source for answers is an artificial intelligence known as Medical Interface Liaison Operator AKA M.I.L.O. (voiced by Mathieu Amalric). M.I.L.O. also informs Omicron that her air supply is at 35% and dropping. Omicron must piece together her past and either escape or get rescued from the capsule before she asphyxiates to death.

“Oxygen” was conceived pre-COVID by first-time screenwriter Christie LeBlanc, but feels fitting for our times as a pandemic placed Omicron in her pod in the first place. (The picture was also shot in France between that country’s first and second lockdowns.) The sense of isolation and the fear of not being able to breathe also seem pertinent to now. Anti-vaxxers will likely relate to a scene in which a mechanized robot arm tries to stick Omicron with sedatives she doesn’t want.

At an hour and 41 minutes “Oxygen” overstays its welcome. I can’t help but think this story would’ve made a better episode of “Black Mirror” or “The Twilight Zone” as opposed to a full-fledged film. Despite running too long on a thin concept, I can’t find fault with Laurent’s performance. She’s a dynamic performer who anchors the movie admirably. She and her flaring nostrils deserve all sorts of credit.

“Oxygen” is capably made, but doesn’t breathe new life into the thriller genre. I’d likely rather listen to Air Supply for an hour and a half than watch Laurent’s Omicron struggle for air supply again.

Mainstream

★1/2

Writer/director Gia Coppola comes from a famous family. Her aunt is Sophia Coppola of “Lost in Translation” fame. Her grandfather, Frances Ford Coppola, is one of the greatest filmmakers the world has ever seen (and he makes a good bottle of wine too).

The now-34-year-old writer/daughter exploded onto the filmmaking scene when she was 27 years old and directed “Palo Alto,” a film starring James Franco based on writings by the actor. It wasn’t a perfect film by any means but for a young filmmaker’s’ debut, it showed real promise and it currently has a 70 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, which isn’t too shabby.

For her sophomore effort, Coppola has created “Mainstream,” a purposely strange film that will possibly resonate with a select few. But for this reviewer here, it was unbearable. It’s an exhausting film full of fortune cookie wisdom and a muddled message that feels about 10 years too late to the party.

The movie is the cinematic equivalent of some overly confident and overly inebriated stranger trapping you in the corner at a party and spouting some half-baked soliloquy about how we are, “All slaves to our phones, man.”

“Mainstream” is a satirical take down of Internet fame headlined by former Oscar-nominee and one-time Spider-Man Andrew Garfield. I’m not sure how I feel about Garfield as an actor. I enjoyed him in “The Social Network,” “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Silence” but he was an awful Peter Parker. Something about him just bugs me. In “Mainstream,” I think he’s supposed to be playing an incredibly annoying and unlikable character, so in that sense he’s succeeded (and the casting was spot on).

To get a sense of Garfield’s character, think YouTube star Jake Paul (who has a cameo has himself) if he was imbued with the soul of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in “Nightcrawler.”

Maya Hawke, the daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman that wowed audiences in season three of the Netflix series “Stranger Things,” plays a lost, broke, twenty-something bartender who hates her job and wishes for something more in life. She stumbles upon Garfield, a goofy jester who pokes fun at mainstream society and everyone’s addiction to their phones, and befriends the enigmatic pontificator. When a video she records of him going on a nonsensical rant in a mall goes viral, she hatches a plan to turn him into an Internet sensation to solve her financial woes.

His “free yourself of your phones” schtick grows bigger and bigger and he eventually gets an agent played by Jason Schwartzman, who is Coppola’s father’s cousin in real life.

As the YouTube show grows, Garfield’s character seems to lose his way (or did he really have it to begin with?) and he becomes more obsessed with being famous rather than having something to say. Nat Wolff plays a co-writer of the YouTube show who warns about ethical concerns and how the channel has become what it once satirized.

The plot is predictable and the characters are so thinly developed that you can see right through them. The soundtrack is filled with ill-fitting music that was likely selected because it sounds young and cool but feels jarring and forced.

The acting? I can’t tell if the actors are just awful or if the screenplay and the director are to blame. Certainly Garfield, Hawke and Wolff do nothing to elevate their roles beyond the dreck written on the pages.

Garfield decides to go insanely big with the role and seems to have a blast chewing the scenery. I suppose an over-the-top performance feels appropriate but that doesn’t mean I can’t hate what he did. Perhaps in an alternate universe, Andrew Garfield’s performance could have ended up something like James Franco’s in “Spring Breakers.” Big and bold and slightly brilliant. Instead, it’s merely big.

The best thing I can say about “Mainstream” is that visually it looks just fine. Coppola has a command of the camera.

I suppose my biggest complaint about “Mainstream” is that it’s so smug and sanctimonious with a “been done before” message about social media and Internet fame.

The TV show “Black Mirror” has tackled all of these topics much more intelligently. And if you want to watch a truly great movie about a media-inspired frenzy following a false messiah then watch the 1970s classic “Network.”

Literally every character in “Mainstream” is so full of shit. And it boggles the mind that Hawke’s character would every be drawn to Garfield’s techno-prophet. Even before his character “changes,” he was unbearable.

I can’t really say I disagree with the message of this movie but it’s never really clear what the movie is trying to say. It throws more things at the wall than an elephant with a paintbrush.

If you ask Coppola what the movie is ultimately trying to say, I’m sure she would spout some pretentious nonsense like, “Well, it’s really open to interpretation from the viewer” which always feels like a cop out answer for disjointed movies that try to say too much.

The central message about people being addicted to their phones? Obvious, overdone, oversimplified and about 15 years too late.

And while I agree with the premise that people evaluate too much of their self worth based on social media, the movie itself feels so out of touch you’d think that a boomer wrote it instead of a 34-year-old. There’s no real insights and the film lacks awareness. It’s like a caveman grunting, “Phone! Bad!”

There’s real irony in the making of this movie. Garfield plays a shallow narcissist who thinks everything he says is genius and the movie itself feels like it was penned by a kindred soul.

The sad thing is I know one day I will run into someone who thinks this movie is brilliant and I’ll just smile and nod because I won’t have the energy to tell them why I hated this movie.

Was this whole movie a joke on the viewers? I think that is giving the filmmaker too much credit.

In the end, I think the main reason I hated this movie is because it feels like a half baked idea that was lazily executed. I can forgive movies that try something ambitious and brave but don’t quite stick the landing perfectly, like last year’s “Promising Young Women.” I can look past the flaws of a movie if it has something interesting to say.

But to be unenjoyable and with an uninteresting message? That’s a mortal sin.

Even at 90 minutes this film is exhausting and feels overly long. That’s not a good thing.

I cannot recommend spending money to rent this movie and when it eventually is available for free on a streaming service, keep your expectations extremely low.

Wrath of Man

★★★★

Some fun factoids about Guy Ritchie’s “Wrath of Man” (now playing in theaters everywhere): 1.) Jason Statham tells Post Malone to suck his own dick in the movie. 2.) Mark Arnold, the dude who played Mick the basketball player bully in 1985’s “Teen Wolf,” plays a cat named Super (could’ve sworn it was ‘Soup’ while watching the movie however). 3.) Josh Hartnett, making his triumphant return to the big screen, can’t be outdone in the name department and thus his character rocks the moniker Boy Sweat Dave (a great Guy Ritchie character name if there ever was one). 4.) There are more headshots in this movie than there are in a busy talent agency’s office.

Statham stars as H (“as in bomb”), a newly hired security guard at Los Angeles-based cash truck company Fortico. On his first day H thwarts an attempted truck robbery saving his co-workers and the $2.5 million contained therein by efficiently dispatching the six would-be thieves.

This comes as a surprise to the folks at Fortico as H’s test scores coming into the gig weren’t exactly glowing. H was initially partnered with Boy Sweat, but the two promptly butted heads and BS is now full-on freaked out by H’s lethality. H is reassigned to Bullet (Holt McCallany), a more ingratiating guard who conducted H’s pre-employment testing and showed him the ropes.

Fortico’s depot is further filled out by its manager Terry (Eddie Marsan), his boss Boss Blake Halls (Rob Delaney), “lady driver” Dana (Niamh Algar) and John (Alex Ferns), who has an axe to grind as H filled his old position when he was demoted to a desk.

Not all thieves are as ineffective as the ones H vanquished. A crew comprised of ex-military hit a Fortico truck a few months back – they made off with all the cash and executed two guards and an innocent bystander named Dougie (Eli Brown) in the process. They are Jackson (Jeffrey Donovan), Jan (Scott Eastwood), Brad (Deobia Oparei), Carlos (Laz Alonso, late of Amazon Prime’s “The Boys”), Sam (Raúl Castillo) and Tom (Chris Reilly). They also have an inside man or woman at Fortico who’s aiding them in pulling off jobs. It’ll be up to H to dig up the rat and take the lot of ‘em out.

Statham could do this steely tough guy shtick in his sleep, but he’s still entertaining. McCallany, an actor I’ve admired since his ill-fated 2011 FX series “Lights Out,” has some fun and interesting notes to play and he does the most with them. The surprise standout of the bunch is Eastwood. I found Clint’s kid pretty milquetoast in stuff like “The Fate of the Furious.” He seems to have turned a corner playing real-life badass SSG Clint Romesha in Rod Lurie’s “The Outpost” from last year. He may look a bit like his Pop’s “the Good,” but he plays Jan more like Lee Van Cleef’s “the Bad.” This kid may have a future in playing heels as he’s a hoot and a half here.  

“WoM” – a remake of Nicolas Boukhrief’s 2004 French film “Le Convoyeur” AKA “Cash Truck” – is the most serious movie Ritchie’s made since 2005’s “Revolver” (the last Ritchie-Statham collaboration prior to this one), but it lacks much of that picture’s pretentiousness. “WoM” as penned by Ritchie and his “The Gentlemen” co-scribes Marn Davies and Ivan Atkinson has its fair share of dark, mordant humor, but it’s certainly lacking in the laughs department by comparison to much of Ritchie’s other output. Ritchie screws around with chronology as he often does to keep his audience on their toes, but doesn’t employ as many stylistic flourishes as he normally would. In spite of this it’s still a sharp-looking flick with a curious camera as lensed by Ritchie’s recent cinematographer Alan Stewart, who also shot “Aladdin” (2019) and “The Gentleman.”

“WoM” has less in common with “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” or “Snatch” and is more akin something like Michael Mann’s “Heat” or the rash of “Heat” imitators, i.e. “The Dark Knight,” “Den of Thieves.” The concluding heist and ensuing shootout at the depot are more than worth the price of admission and should be enjoyed in an auditorium with the biggest screen and loudest sound possible. (I saw “WoM” in IMAX.) Just don’t go in expecting a fun Ritchie romp – this one’s brooding and brutal. It’s a revenge picture at heart – one that’s a good deal better than last week’s “Without Remorse.”

The Paper Tigers

★★★½

As a man on the precipice of middle age who grew up watching flicks such as “The Karate Kid,” “Bloodsport” and “3 Ninjas” it feels as though Seattle-based rookie feature filmmaker Tran Quoc Bao’s “The Paper Tigers” (now available in select theaters and on VOD) was tailor-made for me.

Danny (Alain Uy from “True Detective” Season Two), Hing (Ron Yuan, late of the live action “Mulan”) and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins, “Undisputed III: Redemption”) came of age in Seattle during the 1980s practicing kung fu under the tutelage of Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan, older brother of Ron).

As the young men enter adulthood they cease training with their Sifu and grow apart. We flash forward 30 years. Danny, the most talented of the pupils, has become a cubicle drone who butts heads with his ex-wife Caryn (Jae Suh Park) over visitation of their son Ed (Joziah Lagonoy). Hing worked security guard gigs before falling from scaffolding leaving him with a bum knee. Jim has opened a boxing gym, but let his martial arts skills go by the wayside.

The men are brought back together when their Sifu is murdered. They harbor resentments towards one and another, but must attend the funeral together and more importantly discover who murdered their Master. Was it Danny’s old nemesis Carter (Matthew Page) or perhaps Sifu’s subsequent student Zhen Fan (Ken Quitugua)?

Admittedly, “The Paper Tigers” is cheesier than a fondue party in the great state of Wisconsin, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t get its hooks into me. It feels like a throwback to those action buddy comedies of the ‘80s and a stroll down memory lane for all of us karate kids out there weaned on martial arts cinema.

The fights themselves are simple and stripped-down, but they’re captured and edited clearly without the assistance of wire work or computer-generated imagery. Bao is a protégé of Hong Kong action director Corey Yuen (“No Retreat, No Surrender”) and proof of this is in the action pudding. He spent 10 years bringing his vision to the screen and was only able to do so through Kickstarter (appropriate for a karate movie) assistance. Bao’s low budget and enthusiasm are evident and the final product benefits from both.

As much as I enjoyed the fights, what really made “The Paper Tigers” resonate with me was its abundance of heart. I don’t know if this speaks to me being a sap or a meathead (honestly, it’s probably a bit of both), but a speech Danny gave to Ed late in the picture about the virtue of punching someone else in the face brought a tear to my eye.

Above Suspicion

★★½

“Above Suspicion” (available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Friday, May 7) is an odd duck of a movie.

It was supposed to be released stateside all the way back in 2019 (and actually was in the United Arab Emirates). I remember seeing a behind-the-scenes segment concerning the film on an entertainment news program such as “Access Hollywood” or “Extra” a few years prior, which is strange as this is the sole time I’ve watched one of these shows this century after they were appointment television for me as a tween. I believe I also saw the first episode of the first season of Investigation Discovery’s “Betrayed” (concerning the real-life case that inspired “Above Suspicion”) – the Mrs., my mother-in-law and I often marathon this junk when we visit her. By the time I got around to actually watching the movie it almost felt like a fake flick, something I’d made up or something that I’d altogether forgotten ever existed in the first place.

“Above Suspicion” is based on the true story of Susan Smith (Emilia Clarke) and Mark Putnam (Jack Huston, an actor I’ve always admired for his work as Richard Harrow on “Boardwalk Empire” who’s never totally made good on all that potential) as well as Joe Sharkey’s non-fiction account of the case. It’s the late 1980s. Susan is a Pikeville, Ky.-based druggie who still lives in a trailer home with her drug dealer ex-husband Cash (Johnny Knoxville) and their two children. She also engages in welfare fraud to further fill their coffers.

Susan’s taken aback at first sight by Mark, a rookie FBI agent whom she sees as the personification of perfection. She volunteers to become his informant helping to take down Joe-Bea (Karl Glusman) – a serial bank robber who often bunks at Susan and Cash’s place with his girlfriend Georgia (Brittany O’Grady) – as well as rival pusher Rufus (Brian Lee Franklin).

Despite having his loving wife Kathy (Sophie Lowe) and baby daughter, Mark enters into a series of sordid trysts with Susan. She sees their “relationship” as her opportunity to get clean and escape poverty, but it’s impossible for the affair to turn out any way other than badly.

“Above Suspicion” is directed by journeyman filmmaker Phillip Noyce, scripted by Chris Gerolmo, produced by actress/producer Colleen Camp (best known as Yvette from “Clue”) and Jerry Bruckheimer’s wife Linda, scored by Dickon Hinchliffe and shot by Elliot Davis. I get why all of these folks got involved. The picture employs the bluish hue Davis used in the Detroit segments of “Out of Sight.” Hinchliffe’s sparse, string-plucked score calls to mind his own work on “Winter’s Bone.” Gerolmo is best known for penning “Mississippi Burning,” another period crime piece. Noyce has experience making steamy thrillers (“Dead Calm,” “Sliver”) and historical dramas (“Rabbit-Proof Fence,” “Catch a Fire”), which would seem pertinent here. The movie has moments of artistry, but these artisan’s credentials don’t congeal into a cohesive whole.

I suspect Noyce may not have been the best choice to direct. The Australian’s grasp on Southern culture appears to be on the skids. “Justified” this ain’t. I would love to see what an actual Southerner – say writer/director Jeff Nichols – could do with the material. The writing isn’t always up to snuff either. Clarke, through a so-so drawl, is saddled with voiceover howlers like, “You know what’s the worst thing about being dead? You get too much time to think,” and “I’ve been fornicating like a long-eared bunny and Kathy’s the one who’s pregnant?!!!” Her Susan Smith oscillates between Kentucky Khaleesi and … speaking of rabbits … Glenn Close as Alex Forrest in “Fatal Attraction” replete with pot of boiling water. As for the movie itself? It’s an artier Lifetime Movie that’s past its sell-by date.

Golden Arm

★★★

Sometimes you can take a comedic formula that’s been done a million times and make it feel fresh again by simply casting actors and actresses who aren’t generally known to the public.

“Golden Arm” is the kind of movie we’ve seen again and again.

It’s a silly comedy about two former college roommates who travel across the country to compete in an arm wrestling competition. One wants to get revenge against the cheating champion who broke her wrist in a previous bout. The other, an inexperienced arm wrestler with the lucky gift of a “golden arm,” wants to earn money to save her struggling bakery. And, of course, along they way they find themselves and rekindle their friendships.

Cynical critics might describe the two leads as Great Value versions of Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy. One is frail and timid and nervous. The other is unapologetically brash and vulgar with mannerism that resemble Chris Farley.

But it’s easy to look beyond the cliches and the formula in “Golden Arm” and appreciate its charm, mainly because of the enthusiastic performances from leads Mary Holland and Betsy Sodoro.

Both are veterans in the improv comedy community and you might have seen them in sketches on the Web site Funny or Die or heard them play characters on the podcast Comedy Bang! Bang!

Holland played Jonah Ryan’s cousin/wife in the final seasons of the HBO comedy “Veep” and she just had a breakthrough performance as the strange sister in the LGBT Christmas comedy “Happiest Season” on Hulu, a movie she also co-wrote.

This time Holland mostly plays the straight man to Sodero’s wacky character. Again, Sodero is playing the kind of role we’ve seen Melissa McCarthy do again and again but Sodero is her own person and her unique vocalizations and throwaway improvisations help make the character her own.

Dot-Marie Jones, a veteran actress and weightlifter, lend her talents as a coach who teaches Holland how to be an arm wrestling champion. Interesting enough, Jones was a world champion arm wrestler in real life at age 19 and her coaching advice in the film sounds like what she would normally tell people. Jones, who was thrice-nominated for an Emmy for her performance as Coach Biest on the hit Fox show “Glee,” throws herself into her performance and the audience is a little sad that her appearance is so brief.

The biggest problem with “Golden Arm” isn’t that it’s plot is cliche and formulaic. It’s that it takes its storyline far too seriously. It tries a little too hard to make us care about the characters, their struggles and their friendship. It might have been better off just being a complete spoof of an arm wrestling movie and not take character development seriously at all.

But in the end, this is a breezy 90-minute comedy that will likely give you at least two or three audible laughs in its run time. If you’re expecting laugh-a-minute hilarity or get turned off by vulgar language, then save the $7 and don’t rent this on-demand option.

Without Remorse

★★★

I’m an unabashed fan of actor Michael B. Jordan. “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights” are two of my favorite television shows of all-time. “Creed” and “Just Mercy” are two of my favorite films of the past 10 years. I’m also an action movie devotee and a casual fan of Tom Clancy. I haven’t read a single one of his books, but I’ve seen every filmic adaptation, religiously played “Splinter Cell” in the early aughts and am current on the Amazon Prime series “Jack Ryan.”

Given all of this I should’ve been in the bag for Italian director Stefano Sollima’s adaptation of Clancy’s 1993 novel “Without Remorse” (now streaming on Prime), but I can assure you it hews much closer in quality to “The Sum of All Fears” and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” than it does “The Hunt for Red October” or “Clear and Present Danger.”

Jordan stars as John Kelly, a Navy SEAL who’s returned home with the promise of private security work offering higher pay and better hours that’ll allow him to spend more time with his pregnant wife Pam (Lauren London). This dream is cut short when John and his fellow SEALs (among them “Never Back Down” baddie Cam Gigandet) are targeted and largely terminated by Russian operatives as retribution for their roles in a recent mission ran on bad intel from CIA spook Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell).

The hit on John isn’t successful, but it tragically leaves Pam and the baby deceased. John receives sympathy from compassionate SEAL colleague Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith of “Queen & Slim”) and Defense Secretary Clay (Guy Pearce). They give John intel on Pam’s killer – a man named Viktor Rykov (comedic actor Brett Gelman) – so he can better and sooner exact revenge.

Much of what makes “Without Remorse” work is Jordan. He isn’t given anything nearly as emotionally meaty as “Creed” or “Just Mercy” to sink his teeth into, but he throws himself into this physically-taxing part with gusto. (I saw Jordan on last night’s episode of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” where he charmingly relayed that he took on the role due to his childhood love of the “Rainbow Six” video games.) Jordan is ably backed up by the talented Turner-Smith (it should be fun to see where her character’s familial bond to Wendell Pierce’s Jim Greer from “Jack Ryan” leads) and a mercurial but ultimately likable Bell.

Not all of the performances register however. Anyone who’s seen Pearce in a movie within the last 10 years knows exactly how his character’s going to play out. This man’s a good actor who deserves different and better material … perhaps a different and better agent too? Gelman isn’t bad in the picture, but his presence is amusingly distracting.

I wanted so much to like “Without Remorse” … and to a degree I do, but a lot of it reads as cheap. This feels less like a movie and more like an extended pilot episode for a new television series. The script by Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario,” “Hell or High Water”) and Will Staples (“Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3”) doesn’t  bear the complexity that much of Sheridan’s work has and more so calls to mind the world of video games from which Staples hails.

I wasn’t nearly as impressed by Sollima’s “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” as I was by its predecessor, but overall I ever-so-slightly preferred that flick (fucked-up politics and all) to “Without Remorse.” What Sollima brought from that movie to this one is a mixed bag of action sequences. When this shit clicks (such as in a prison-based fight where John takes on a gaggle of prison guards in riot gear or during a lengthy shootout in a Russian apartment building that seems to account for a quarter of the film’s runtime) it fires on all cylinders. When the action goes astray (John setting a car ablaze and promptly sitting inside it – stupid!, an unconvincing airplane crash) it misses the mark altogether.

“Without Remorse” kinda calls to mind last week’s “Mortal Kombat” in that it feels like a tease to something better in the future.

Things Heard & Seen

★★★★

Actress Amanda Seyfried (or Amanda Seafood as my former podcast co-host calls her) seems to have a thing for movies in which she plays a character who moves to a haunted country home with her husband and daughter of late between last year’s “You Should Have Left” and “Things Heard & Seen” (now streaming on Netflix).

“TH&S” has been referred to as a horror film, but I’d call it more of a supernatural thriller. Either way, it’s an improvement over writer/director David Koepp’s “YSHL” – a movie I also enjoyed well enough. What’s so commendable about “American Splendor” filmmaking duo (and married couple) Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s adaptation of Elizabeth Brundage’s novel “All Things Cease to Appear” is that not only is it an artfully-made genre picture, but it explores just how terrifying marriage can be. Art as therapy, folks!

It’s 1980. New York City artists and academicians Catherine (Seyfried) and George Claire (James Norton) move with their daughter Franny (Ana Sophia Heger) to the Hudson Valley in order for George to take a teaching position at the fictional Saginaw College.

Their new home is situated on an old dairy farm. Catherine and George hire two of the house’s former occupants, youthful brothers Eddie (Alex Neustaedter) and Cole Vayle (Jack Gore), to be their groundskeepers.

George adjusts well to the move and his new vocation – he’s popular with his students, has drawn the attention of Eddie’s attractive gal pal Willis (Natalia Dyer) and made fast friends with his mentor Floyd DeBeers (F. Murray Abraham). The relocation hasn’t sat so swimmingly with Catherine and Franny – who hear and see apparitions that George cannot … though all parties can smell some sort of phantom car exhaust as they’re trying to sleep. George diminishes Catherine’s curiosity and fears – luckily she receives support from Floyd and Justine (Rhea Seehorn), another educator at Saginaw.

Springer Berman and Pulcini direct their game cast – which is further filled out by Karen Allen as Catherine and George’s realtor and Michael O’Keefe (Noonan!) as her husband and the local police presence – to some truly accomplished performances. I’m a fan of Seyfried’s – she’s the main character, the biggest name in the cast and turns in reliably good work, but the performance I responded to most was that of Norton. I’m not especially familiar with Norton having only seen him in 2017’s “Flatliners” remake and Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of “Little Women,” but the dude undeniably has a presence about him. Norton’s George is like a Russian nesting doll of crappiness or an onion that’s revealed to be rotten with each layer peeled. His exaggerated handsomeness only serves to exacerbate the character’s terribleness.

“TH&S” is smarter and classier than your average genre exercise. It embraces its collegial atmosphere and is chockablock with art and literary references while simultaneously being a deconstruction of gaslighting and toxic masculinity. It’s not especially violent save for a scene late in the film and mostly earns its TV-MA rating via language, sexual content and drug use. There’s an East Coast upper crustiness to the proceedings that’s attractive and yet keeps the audience at a distance. It’d make great fodder for a Friday night date over pizza and a bottle of wine.