REVIEW: “Blow the Man Down” (2020)

blowposter

Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s black comedy/thriller “Blow the Man Down” debuted a year ago at the Tribeca Film Festival. It took a while but this slyly biting and ever so slightly offbeat neo-noir has finally received its proper debut (thanks to Amazon Studios). It’s a movie full of surprises and made by a fresh filmmaking duo with a deft handling of both style and story.

In the seaside fishing village of East Cove, Maine sisters Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) and Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) mourn the recent death of their mother. After the funeral Priscilla plans on running the family fish market and living in the house where they grew up. Mary Beth, bitter about having to leave college to help care for her mother, is already planning her way out of the town she despises.

null

Photo Courtesy Amazon Studios

The siblings learn their mother left them with a lot of debt meaning they could potentially lose the house. It leads to a heated argument that sends Mary Beth storming off to the local tavern. Once there she starts tossing back drinks with an unsavory type named Gorski (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). The two get drunk and she not-so-wisely agrees to drive him to his house just outside of town. An attempted assault, a harpoon to the neck, and a brick bash to the head leaves Gorski dead and Mary Beth in a panic.

You could say that what follows is a shining example of how not to cover up a crime. Mary Beth rushes home to Priscilla and tells her what happened. Uncertain whether she acted in haste or in self-defense, the sisters decide not to call the police and go back to Gorski’s place to clean up the mess. As for disposing of the body, let’s just say Cole and Krudy give us a grisly yet darkly funny sequence that had me thinking “Fargo” but with a stout feminine kick.

But there is another layer to the story altogether. Gorski’s disappearance cracks the door to East Cove’s deep dark past. It turns out Priscilla and Mary Beth’s mother was the linchpin holding the town’s matriarchal rule together. So with her gone, old wounds fester between a brothel owner named Enid (played with a devilish wit by Margo Martindale) and three busybody widows (June Squibb, Annette O’Toole, Marceline Hugot). All are connected by the sordid town secrets and each has their own self-interests and motivations.

Eventually the two story threads weave together to form a prickly, suspenseful mystery told through a myriad of fun and fleshed-out characters. The best may be Martindale’s Enid who operates like an organized crime boss, running her operation in plain sight but with enough clout to get away with it. Packing more snarl than smile, Enid defends her enterprise while at the same time showing the emotional toll it has taken on her. She’s a complex character and far more than some one-note villain.

Blow2

Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

I can’t talk about this film without spending a few lines on its style and setting. Cole and Krudy had me onboard from the very start. The movie opens to the sound of a shanty being sung by a grizzled fisherman and his salty-dog chorus. It’s amusing, subtly haunting, and adds to the New England coastal flavor. They pop up a few more times in brief smile-inducing musical interludes. And then you have the atmosphere and vivid sense of place the directing duo and their DP Todd Banhazl are able to create. You can almost smell the scent of raw fish or feel the chill of the icy sea breeze.

Cole and Krudy don’t stop there. They add more to their mystery by throwing several other ingredients into the pot: a missing knife, a second body, a young by-the-book police officer (Will Brittain) and a disgruntled call girl (Gayle Rankin). It doesn’t all flesh out perfectly but the twists keep you guessing and the film really sticks its finish. Ultimately it feels heavily inspired by the Coen brothers especially in its melding of crime and humor. But its flipping of genre roles and the female-driven story gives it its own welcomed identity. It also introduces us to two exciting new filmmakers who already show a tremendous understanding of their craft. “Blow the Man Down” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Becky” (2020)

BECKYposter

If co-directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion had the goal of making an unorthodox action-thriller full of crazy B-movie gore and with an undeniable “Die Hard” vibe that sees a 13-year-old girl as their John McClane, well…mission accomplished. “Becky” checks all of those boxes, sometimes repeatedly just for good measure. It may sound wacky (and it kinda is) but it’s really well made and sports one particularly surprising performance.

The film begins with a young girl named Becky Hooper (Lulu Wilson) answering questions from a sheriff and a social worker. Clearly something bad has happened and Becky is at its center. Hop back two weeks earlier where the film craftily intercuts two storylines happening simultaneously. One sets up Becky’s story while the other introduces the film’s main antagonist, a vile neo-Nazi named Dominick (Kevin James).

BECKY1

Photo Courtesy of Quiver Digital

Obviously the casting choice that sticks out is James. His transformation from funny man to cold-blooded white supremacist is astonishingly good. James is a menacing presence, giving us a character tattooed with swastikas and Nazi SS bolts, and with a chilling disregard for human life. He and four of his acolytes break out of a prison transport and within seconds cement themselves as dangerous and deadly killers.

At the same time Becky is struggling. Her pent-up anger over her mother’s death to cancer has led to her lashing out at school and at her father Jeff. He’s played by a sorely miscast Joel McHale whose seemingly perpetual grin has you waiting for punch line at the end of his every line of dialogue. Daddy and daughter set out for the family lake house to spend the weekend. Once there Jeff informs Becky that he is planning to marry his new girlfriend Kayla (Amanda Brugel). It’s hard to tell whether he is incredibly naive or incredibly stupid, but his news (predictably) goes over with his daughter like a lead balloon.

As you can probably guess, the two stories intersect when Dominick and his crew show up at the lake house. Turns out there is a key buried in a crawlspace under the house marked by a symbol matching one of Dom’s tattoos. The key becomes a cleverly utilized McGuffin that does a lot of essential tablesetting. Jeff doesn’t know anything about it. Becky ends up with it. Dominick will do anything to get it.

BECKY2

Photo Courtesy of Quiver Digital

Family drama and home invasion thriller is just a part of the genre blend we get. “Becky” is just as much a revenge-fueled splatter film as the 13-year-old protagonist unleashes her sorrow and rage in a number of grisly, blood-soaked ways. Some of the violence is shocking, some of it is uncomfortable, some of it is laced with humor. But it works both metaphorically and as an old-school action gore-fest.

Milott and Murnion do some really interesting things with their camera while at the same time steadily building tension. While James may be the show stealer, Lulu Wilson is vital and makes for a strong, sympathetic rooting interest. She’s intense, troubled, and seemingly on her own (in more ways than one). While a bit outlandish at times, both she and the script (penned by Nick Morris, Lane and Ruckus Skye) handle things smartly and make the story surprisingly believable. And their little John McClane makes Bruce Willis looks like a choir boy. So be prepared.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Bull” (2020)

BullPOSTERThere are some actors I will watch in just about anything they do. Rob Morgan is one of them. He’s a natural performer known for the raw humanity and absolute truth he brings to every supporting character he plays. The 53-year-old North Carolina native is finally given a meaty leading role in Annie Silverstein’s new indie drama “Bull”. As expected, Morgan delivers on every level, burrowing deep into his character to give us something profoundly authentic.

After seeing the trailer for “Bull” you may be tempted to dismiss the film as a soft, predictable heartwarmer. Don’t be fooled. There is nothing soft about the approach Silverstein (who directed and co-wrote) takes in telling the story of 14-year-old Kris (Amber Havard) and her search for stability – any kind of stability. She thinks she finds it in the most unexpected of places – a broken down former bull rider named Abe (Morgan).

Kris’ world is relentless bleak. She and her little sister live with their grandmother because their mother is in prison. There’s no mention of their dad but the assumption is he’s a deadbeat and nowhere to be found. Frustrated and lashing out, Kris breaks into Abe’s house while he’s off working a rodeo in San Antonio. After finding his liquor cabinet, Kris calls over a group of bad seeds she’s been trying to impress. They lap up all the booze and trash the house. Of course when Abe comes home it’s Kris who gets caught and made to pay the price.

Instead of pressing charges Abe is persuaded to let Kris work off her sentence. But this doesn’t suddenly become some cute and bubbly buddy story. Abe is hard on Kris, bitter about what she did to his place, but far more bitter about his life itself. His bull riding days are long gone and now he scrapes by as a rodeo clown at small town venues. He pops pain pills just to be able to work but even those opportunities are drying up for him. Abe is a tragic figure – alone, dispirited and rudderless.

Bull1

Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

“Bull” is in large part about the intersection of two distinctly different communities through two lost souls who are very much victims of circumstance. While their choices have brought them to their own individual crossroads, the heartbreaking reality is they are both trapped within a harsh poverty-stricken rural setting with no visible way out. Silverstein pulls from her experiences as a social worker and sets us down in a world that will be as foreign to some as a far off ancient land. It’s visceral, cruel, and unforgiving.

While the movie does a good job fleshing out Kris, it’s not quite as thorough when it comes to Abe. I wanted to know more about him, especially his past. We learn a little from Abe himself, but then we get things like an utterly pointless love scene with a woman from his past (played by Yolonda Ross). She seems to be there for that scene alone and then she’s dismissed as quickly as she was introduced. It feels like there is some interesting story there but it’s left unexplored.

Bull2

Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Apart from the superb Rob Morgan, “Bull” fills a lot of roles with first-time actors. Havard’s debut takes some getting used to, but ultimately her sad, low-key performance feels just right. Some of the other non-professionals have a rougher go. The great French filmmaker Robert Bresson preferred to work with no-professional actors, calling them his “models”. He demanded that their performances be free of any theatrics or dramatic expression. But where Bresson insisted on a blank canvas, here you can’t help but notice the non-professionals really working. They do their best, but some of them have a hard time selling their lines. It can be a distraction.

None of that takes away from the potency of this slice-of-life drama about finding your place in the world regardless of your circumstances and the human bonds that help you get there. Annie Silverstein’s passion for the material is seen in every detail and the dense, textured setting is brought to light in striking reality. You won’t find any sugarcoating in “Bull”. It’s all about real-life complexity and struggle and the movie cuts no corners in depicting it.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

RETRO REVIEW: “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989)

BILLPOSTER

Imagine pitching this idea to studio heads – two air-headed slackers use a time-hopping telephone booth to gather great historical figures for their end-of-the-year history project. I wouldn’t call that the easiest sell. But what originated as a college stand-up routine ended up turning a nice profit, spawned a sequel, an animated TV series, even a breakfast cereal. I wonder who ever saw that coming?

“Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” came from the writing duo of Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon. The two college friends conceived the idea, winning over director Stephen Herek who told The Hollywood Reporter that he knew the film was “either going to be a huge hit or a huge flop“. After a roller-coaster production including hundreds of auditions, budget constraints, and a rewritten ending, “Bill & Ted” released in February of 1989 to mediocre reviews. But over time it has been reevaluated and the two lovable goofballs have found themselves a following.

Bill1

Photo Courtesy of Orion Pictures

Set in San Dimas, California 1988, best buddies Bill S. Preston Esquire (Alex Winter) and Ted Theodore Logan (Keanu Reeves) are more interested in their not-so-good rock band Wyld Stallyns than something silly like passing their history class. But they get a rude awakening when their teacher (the always fun Bernie Casey) informs them that if they don’t get an A+ on their history project they will flunk his class. Even worse, Ted’s draconian father threatens to send his son with military school in Alaska if he doesn’t pass the course.

While studying outside of their local Circle K, a time machine phone booth suddenly appears and out of it walks George Carlin (of all people). He plays Rufus, a time traveler from 2688 who has come back to help Bill and Ted ace their history project. Why you ask? Turns out that future humanity now live in utopian bliss thanks to the music of Wyld Stallyns. If the boys fail, Ted gets sent to Alaska, Wyld Stallyns never happens, you get the picture.

So Rufus gives Bill and Ted the keys to the phone booth. Things start a little rocky after they inadvertently bring Napoleon Bonaparte back to modern day. But it ends up inspiring the duo (not exactly known for their genius). They begin making other stops in the past, scooping up some of history’s greatest (and in same cases most notorious) celebrities including Socrates (affectionately mispronounced “so -crates”), Billy the Kid, Beethoven, Genghis Khan, Sigmund Freud, Joan of Arc (played by Jane Wiedlin from The Go-Go’s), and of course Abraham Lincoln.

Bill2

Photo Courtesy of Orion Pictures

Obviously such a ridiculous plan will have its share of kinks and the filmmakers have fun working them out. But what really makes the movie click is the playful buddy chemistry between Reeves and Winter. Charmingly dimwitted from start to finish, their silly banter and “most triumphant” air guitar rewards those who come at the story with a lighthearted approach. If the duo doesn’t work for you, neither will the movie. Everything else is pretty much dressing and/or part of the joke. It’s Bill and Ted’s movie from start to finish.

“Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” is every bit as absurd as it sounds, and that’s a compliment. Rewatching it, I was quickly reminded why it didn’t win any awards. Its skin-deep storytelling doesn’t have an ounce of nuance and the special effects definitely reflect the budget. But I was also reminded of why the movie still has a vocal, fun-loving following. It’s such a happy, good-natured escape that couldn’t take anything serious if it tried. Is that enough to make it worth your time? Totally!

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Bloodshot” (2020)

BloodshotPOSTER

I’m betting that there are a lot of moviegoers unfamiliar with the name Bloodshot. And I bet there are just as many who have never heard of Valiant Comics. It’s understandable. After all, getting noticed among such heavyweights as Marvel and DC Comics has to be a challenge for any small publisher. But Valiant has stuck around, bouncing between four different parent companies since being founded in 1989 and winning several awards along the way.

Historically, Bloodshot is one of Valiant’s most popular superheroes. He debuted in 1992 and like most comic book characters he has evolved over time. But his story has generally remained the same. Bloodshot is a former soldier who had his memory wiped and body injected with state-of-the-art nanotechnology as part of yet another super soldier program. It granted him superhuman strength, speed, and reflexes, a Wolverine-like healing factor, and the ability to hack into other tech. I’ve always liked the character but was a little surprised to see him getting the big screen treatment.

“Bloodshot” was to be the first in a five-movie deal set in the Valiant universe. It marks the feature film debut for director David S. F. Wilson from a script co-written by Jeff Wadlow and Eric Heisserer (the latter best known for penning “Arrival”). Despite my reservations and minuscule expectations, I ended up having fun with “Bloodshot”. Too bad it’s hampered by one nagging issue that shows itself early into the film and never really goes away.

Blood1

Photo: Sony Pictures

Vin Diesel plays Marine Ray Garrison who would make Rambo proud on the battlefield but always looks forward to coming back to his wife Gina (Talulah Riley). But when a mission in Mombasa follows him home, both Ray and Gina are kidnapped by a mysterious psychopath and his henchmen. Ray watches as his wife is murdered then he too is killed.

He’s resurrected by Dr. Emil Harting (the always welcomed Guy Pearce), a genius techno-scientist working to create the ultimate super soldier (heard that one before). To bring Ray back the good doctor injects him with millions of nanites replacing what was once his bloodstream. And just like that Ray is imbued with superhuman strength, the power to heal within seconds, and a knack for tapping into anything electronic. The one problem – he has no past memories whatsoever.

As Ray tries to adjust he is helped by KT (Eiza González), one of several augmented soldiers working for Dr. Harting. But things get dicey once he starts having memory flashes of Gina and her murder. Obviously in a movie like this Ray wants to track down the guy who killed the woman he loved. But that’s not why he was brought back from the dead and we quickly learn Harting has more control than Ray was led to believe.

The story moves along at a fairly snappy pace and features a few pretty impressive action scenes. There are a ton of digital effects, some glaringly obvious and other times really well done. But some of the action is chopped up and made indecipherable due to furious quick cutting. It’s not constant but enough to be an annoyance. It’s maddening that filmmakers are still using this approach.

Blood2

PHOTO: Sony Pictures

As for Diesel, he isn’t an actor known for having a ton of depth. You know what you’re going to get. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There is a gravelly two-dimensional charm that he brings to his roles. Here he is basically Dom Torreto with nanotechnology instead of a 1970 Dodge Charger. Most of the human layers come from González who does a nice job with a good chunk of screen time. And Pearce brings gravitas but also believability to a role that could have went bad a number of different ways. And Lamorne Morris does a nice job bringing levity while not being annoying. Oh and there’s Tobey Kebbell in shorts, gym socks, and a pair of slides dancing to “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads. It’s the nuttiest scene in the movie and I kinda loved it.

But then we get back to the one crippling issue I mentioned above. Ultimately “Bloodshot” is hurt the most by predictability. The story and where it ends is never in doubt. There is an interesting reveal around the halfway mark, but otherwise the course is obvious. Even the characters are pretty much drawn out from the very start. Most fit very familiar types and never venture off of those well-worn paths. It unfortunately robs the movie of any real suspense despite the best efforts of the cast.

From a strict critical perspective it would be hard not to pick “Bloodshot” apart. It trips over itself too often and outside of one good reveal the script has nothing especially new to offer. But I’m not going to lie, I had a good time with it. It’s intermittently clever, some of the action is cool, and I enjoyed most of the performances. “Bloodshot” is the picture of pure Hollywood escapism. And in these days of anxiety over a global pandemic, we could all use an escape.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Blood on Her Name” (2020)

Bloodposter

The new indie crime thriller “Blood on Her Name” opens at the scene of a crime. The first shot is a closeup of a woman in distress, fresh cuts on her face and breathing heavily. Next to her is a dead man lying on the floor in a pool of blood. In what turns out to be the first of several bad choices, she decides not to call the police. It’s a decision that suggests something else is at play while setting in motion the taut 83 minutes that follow.

First-time feature film director Matthew Pope (who co-wrote the screenplay with Don M. Thompson) puts us in the position of reconstructing the crime, figuring out motive, and then watching how it all plays out. Pope uncoils the mystery through a slow drip of information that seeps naturally from his tense propulsive story. The concept is really simple, but it’s the proficient and confident execution that makes this slick southern noir sizzle.

Blood1

PHOTO: Yellow Veil Pictures

The woman at the center is Leigh Tiller (Bethany Anne Lind) who runs a struggling auto garage owned by her incarcerated bad egg ex-husband. She desperately fights to keep her troubled son Ryan (Jared Ivers) from following in his father’s criminal footsteps. But a corpse with a cracked skull on the garage floor makes that difficult. To make matters worse, not only does she not call the cops, but her conscience won’t let her dump the body which leads to bad decision #2.

Lind gives a visceral portrayal of a woman wrestling with the consequences of her actions while trying to hold it together for the sake of her son. It’s a compelling lead performance rich with pathos that keenly projects Leigh’s inner-turmoil and frayed nerves. But there is more to the character than fear and anxiety. She is resolved to clean up her mess and hold together what is left of her family. We are instantly in her corner even without knowing all the facts. Her emotions are raw and genuine. Her trauma is real. But her judgments are suspect which ultimately brings an air of tragedy to the entire story.

A grizzled Will Patton is terrific playing Leigh’s father Richard. He’s a dirty cop with a violent side which has driven a wedge between him and his daughter (their past is unwrapped through some cleverly constructed flashbacks). He would love to get back in his daughter’s good graces, but she wants nothing to do with him. Elisabeth Röhm is also great playing the dead man’s girlfriend. They’re all caught up in a rural working class world where violence begets violence, actions lead to reactions, and bad choices can snowball in an instant.

Blood2

PHOTO: Yellow Veil Pictures

Interestingly, no one fits the mold of the classic antagonist. Despite some truly terrible actions, everyone does what they do in the interest of protecting someone they love. Congruently, none of the characters want to be in this tangled, thorny mess. But from their individual perspectives there is no other way. It helps ground the movie by making everything about personal, real-world stakes.

The atmospheric cinematography, a tense minimalist score, crisp white-knuckled pacing. They each do their part to keep you in the movie’s grip. And of course there is the riveting, eye-opening lead performance from Bethany Anne Lind. It makes for an exciting debut from Matthew Pope whose sure-fire instincts and confident storytelling puts sets him firmly among the fresh new filmmakers to watch.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars