REVIEW: “Black Crab” (2022)

The new Netflix film “Black Crab” opens with a harrowing jolt. In a flashback we see a mother named Edh (Noomi Rapace) and her daughter Vanja (Stella Marcimain Klintberg) are stuck in a traffic jam; voices on the radio tell of mass casualties, violence and unrest from a growing civil war. Suddenly people start running by as gunshots ring out. The two lay down in the back seat, but within seconds soldiers shatter the side window, grab Vanja , and take her away.

That opening sets up the film’s key emotional tension as director Adam Berg whisks us back to the war-torn present. Here a shattered Edh (a soldier in the barely defined civil war) still has hopes of finding her daughter. But she’s stopped at a train station by Lieutenant Nyland (Jakob Offebro) who informs her she is needed for a special mission. Edh is taken to Colonel Raad (David Dencik) and briefed on the severity of the situation. The enemy is bearing down, but he says there is one final option – a dangerous one that could potentially put an end to the war.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

We learn that for the first time in 37 years the nearby archipelago is covered in ice, from the mainland to the open sea. But the ice is too thin to support a vehicle and too thick for a boat to push through it. “But it could support a soldier of ice skates.” And there you have Operation: Black Crab. The team’s job is to transport two mysterious capsules 100 nautical miles across the ice to a research facility behind enemy lines. “If you succeed, we win the war.”

Edh knows it’s a suicide mission. But when Raad shows her a picture of Vanja taken at a refugee camp near their target, she joins Nyland and fellow soldiers Malik (Dar Salim), Granvik (Erik Enge), Karimi (Ardalan Esmaili), and Forsberg (Aliette Opheim) as they head across the treacherous ice.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

I admit, ice skating soldiers sounds pretty silly. But to my surprise Berg (who co-wrote the screenplay with Pelle Rådström) keep things moving at a fast enough pace that you never really have time to dwell on it. And the story plays out like an old-school ‘who will make it to the end’ kind of action thriller which I’ve always had a soft spot for. On top of that, “Black Crab” is a visual stunner with cinematographer Jonas Alarik delivering one eye-popping image after another.

While the world-building leaves too much to the imagination and some of the characters lack much needed depth, “Black Grab” still manages to get its hooks in you. It’s yet another entertaining international grab for Netflix, and it’s another interesting vehicle for the versatile and always reliable Noomi Rapace. If sci-fi dystopian action is your thing, give it a look. “Black Crab” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Book of Love” (2022)

If I’m honest, there was an almost natural pushback within me to the trailer for Amazon Studio’s romantic comedy “Book of Love”. The biggest reason was its remarkably hokey concept. Also, the film stars Sam Claflin. Now don’t get me wrong, I actually like Claflin quite a bit. But I’m not sure rom-coms are his cup of tea. The last time he tried one was 2020’s “Love Wedding Repeat”. Talk about an abysmal watch.

First and foremost, “Book of Love” isn’t “Love Wedding Repeat” level bad. Nowhere close really. But it is another movie that leans heavily on Claflin’s awkward charm which works well until the story spirals into full-blown Hallmark Channel schmaltz. By the end it’s just too ridiculous and glaringly conventional. It becomes hard to see it as anything other than a tired old rehash of countless other films.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Claflin plays a British author named Henry Copper. He just published his new book “The Sensible Heart”, but sales have been abysmal and he can’t even fill a few chairs at his free bookstore publicity readings. And it’s never good when your book winds up on a “Buy 1 Take 3” clearance only a few weeks after its release.

One day his London-based publisher, Jen Spencer (Lucy Punch) stuns Henry with news that “The Sensible Heart” is a #1 best seller……in Mexico. A bewildered and reluctant Henry is sent to Mexico to promote the book. There he meets the book’s translator Maria Rodríguez (Verónica Echegui). She’s a hardworking single mother with a deadbeat ex-husband (Horacio Garcia Rojas) who offers little to help take care of their young son Diego (Ruy Gaytan) and her 80-year-old grandfather (Fernando Becerril). Maria is an aspiring author, but neither her busy life or the patriarchal structure gives her much of a chance.

When Henry arrives, he shocked by the starstruck public who flock to see him. He meets Maria who agrees to translate for him during interviews. But over time he learns that Maria did more than just translate his book to Spanish. She rewrote it, turning “The Sensible Heart” into a steamy telenovela. For obvious reasons this sets off the more chaste-minded Henry. But his Mexican publisher (Horacio Villalobos) convinces him and Maria to carry on with the ruse. That way everyone can make some money rather than start a controversy that would see the book die a slow and unprofitable death.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

And so begins their whistlestop tour across scenic Mexico. Henry and Maria start off at odds but with each stop grow a little closer (didn’t see that coming, did you?). There are obvious reasons for the two to part ways, but the story (written by David Quantick and Analeine Cal y Mayor) always finds ways to keep them together. Some you can buy; some are just too silly. And of course as the inevitable romance blooms, the deadbeat husband finds a way into the story leading to a big ending so incredibly dumb that it makes the early stuff seem smart and savvy by comparison.

There are hints of a more clever cross-culture rom-com in “Book of Love”, but they’re only hints. The movie starts with a goofy concept, sputters to make it interesting, stalls in building a good romance, and flies off the rails in its attempts at putting together a big ending. And while it’s not a particularly hard movie to sit through, it’s hard to imagine ever having the urge to sit through it again. “Book of Love” is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “The Bubble” (2022)

Despite putting in the effort, I’ve never been all that high on the comedies of producer, director, and screenwriter Judd Apatow. I know several of his movies have legions of loyal followers, and I can certainly respect that. But for some reason his brand hasn’t always clicked for me. But comedy is arguably the most subjective genre in cinema which is a good reason why talents like Apatow have enjoyed successful careers.

Then you have “The Bubble”, Apatow’s new comedy for Netflix that could very well stretch that above-mentioned subjectivity to its limits. This COVID-era clunker attempts to riff on everything from the pandemic to Hollywood celebrity status. But it ends up being a scattershot mess that’s so full itself that it’s completely unaware of how unfunny it is. And that’s a shame because there are some fun names attached to the cast.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Written by Apatow and Pam Brady, “The Bubble” chronicles the making of a movie during the COVID-19 pandemic. It attempts to find humor in nearly every pandemic mandate and protocol that so many of us endured as much of the world basically went into shutdown. It pokes fun at masks, social distancing, quarantines, COVID tests, etc. In the process it inadvertently manages to make light of many of the mental health consequences many people (especially those in less privileged circumstances) suffered through – isolation, loneliness, depression, etc.

The story is about the making of “Cliff Beasts 6”, the latest installment of the 23rd most popular franchise of all-time. With its hefty $100 million budget, the corny creature-feature is set to be the first major production shot during the pandemic. The producer Gavin (Peter Serafinowicz) gathers his movie’s motley cast together at a ritzy English countryside hotel where they will all stay together for the duration of the shoot. It’s within this supposedly safe production bubble that we spend the bulk of the film’s grueling two hour-plus running time.

Among the “Cliff Beasts 6” cast is Carol (Karen Gillan), a struggling actress coming off a controversial flop. She agrees to come back to the franchise in hopes of rejuvenating her career. Dieter (Pedro Pascal) is a hedonistic veteran actor. Dustin (David Duchovny) is the film’s self-absorbed lead. There’s Lauren (Leslie Mann) who has a kid with Dustin. Sean (Keegan-Michael Key) is a wellness guru and cult leader wannabe. Howie (Guz Khan) is the film’s not too funny comic relief. And Krystal (Iris Apatow) is a newcomer and a TikTok sensation who’s mainly cast because of her massive social media following. Fred Armisen plays Darren, the lucky director who has to make a movie out of all of this nonsense.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

From there Apatow throws in a parade of cameos that includes James McAvoy, John Cena, Daisy Ridley, and a handful of others. None of them add much other than a few familiar faces. But the movie ends up needing A LOT more than that to cover its flaws. The seemingly endless parade of bad jokes and dumb dialogue equals a movie desperately flailing for any laugh it can get.

Calling “The Bubble” uneven seems too kind. It’s actually a haphazard mishmash of bad gags, bad characters, and bad energy. And at over two hours, this insufferable slog will test even the most devoted Apatow fan’s patience. There’s probably a good idea for a movie lost somewhere in “The Bubble”, but I’m not willing to endure a second sitting to see if I can find it. “The Bubble” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 1 STAR

REVIEW: “The Bombardment” (2022)

The new Netflix film “The Bombardment” isn’t for the faint of heart. Danish filmmaker Ole Borndahl’s World War II historical drama tells the heart-wrenching true story of Operation Carthage, the 1945 British air raid on Nazi-occupied Copenhagen that went horribly wrong. Borndahl is very well aware of the weight of the material he’s covering, and he doesn’t hold back in telling this crushing true story. It makes “The Bombardment” tough to watch, but it treats the actual account honestly and the many lives it impacted with reverence.

In 1945 the Nazis had occupied Denmark. With their numbers dwindling, the Danish Resistance repeatedly sent requests to Britain’s Royal Air Force to carry out an air raid on the Gestapo headquarters located in the heart of Copenhagen. The Brits initially turned down the request but later accepted. On March 21st British aircraft left RAF Fersfield to carry out their surprise attack. But during the raid the unthinkable happened. While the Gestapo HQ was hit, several bombers mistook the Institut Jeanne d’Arc school for girls as their target. By the end, 19 adults and 86 children were killed when the school was mistakenly hit.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

“The Bombardment” opens with a young boy named Henry (Bertram Bisgaard) witnessing a horrible tragedy. In a possible bit of foreshadowing, a taxi carrying three young women to a wedding party is shot to pieces by a fighter plane on a country road. Henry is the first to see the carnage and is left traumatized – unable to speak and constantly looking at the sky in sheer terror.

Henry is sent to spend the month with his aunt in Copenhagen with the thought that the less wide-opened sky may help him overcome his fear. He’s quickly taken under the wing of his compassionate and outgoing younger cousin Rigmor (Ester Birch Beck) and her best friend Eva (played by the effortlessly expressive Ella Josephine Lund Nilsson). The two precocious girls show him around town, treat him to the local children’s legends, and get him comfortable in their school.

Meanwhile Borndahl (who writes and directs) introduces us to a number of other characters, all of whom will have roles to play as his story unfolds. There’s the troubled Sister Teresa (Fanny Leander Bornedal) who helps at the local Catholic school. There’s a conflicted member of the Gestapo-sanctioned auxiliary police named Frederik (Alex Høgh Anderson). There’s a British pilot burdened by conscience. And a Danish resistance fighter who is our eyes inside the Gestapo HQ.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Early on the movie may seem a bit scattered is it hops back-and-forth between these seemingly unconnected people. But their connection becomes crystal clear as the movie moves towards the violent and deadly tragedy marked by the film’s title. It becomes a case where you know where things are heading, and no matter how you brace yourself for the impact, the wrenching horror of the event as it unfolds on screen still shakes you to your core.

Thankfully Borndahl is smart about it. He doesn’t exploit or manipulate the story for a dramatic effect. He lets it speak for itself both through his script and his camera. It’s never gratuitous, yet it is honest. It makes for a story that’s as eye-opening as it is heartbreaking. And for those of us unfamiliar with the disaster that was Operation Carthage, the film follows the tracks of other insightful international features. Those that shed lights on lesser known or untold stories which give us a deeper and fuller picture of World War II. “The Bombardment” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Batman” (2022)

While the lucrative Marvel Cinematic Universe gets most of the attention when it comes to the popular superhero genre, it’s hard to find a more anticipated movie than “The Batman”. The Caped Crusader certainly isn’t new to the big screen. First there was the Burton/Schumacher films that began in 1989. Then there was Christopher Nolan’s brilliant bar-setting trilogy starting in 2005. And most recently we had Zack Snyder’s Batman in his “Justice League” series of movies.

Now director Matt Reeves brings a new flavor to the character with “The Batman”, a film originally set for release in June 2021 but pushed back twice during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some may roll their eyes at yet another Batman big screen iteration. But I’ve always found the character, his world, and his rouge gallery to be among the most rich and interesting of its genre. And I love how the Bat-related movies are often willing to step outside the confines of the superhero genre. Such is the case here.

Without question, “The Batman” (co-written by Reeves and Peter Craig) is much more of a detective story than a superhero movie. And rather than following the stock comic book blueprints of movies like “Spider-Man” and “Eternals”, “The Batman” falls more in line with edgy crime thrillers like Fincher’s “Se7en” and “Zodiac”. In some ways it’s a love letter to classic noir. Other times it plays like a hard-boiled procedural with as many bold cerebral choices as eye-popping visual ones.

Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

Robert Pattinson is the latest actor to don the cape and the cowl in what is the first solo non-animated Batman movie since Nolan’s 2012 “The Dark Knight Rises”. Pattinson was an interesting choice, and he slides right into the dueling roles of brooding billionaire Bruce Wayne and the vigilante Dark Knight. What’s fascinating is how Reeves braids the two personas together in ways we haven’t seen before. And while the Batman film’s are notorious for being dark, here the grim and grimy dystopian tone surrounds you in what feels like a three-hour visceral nightmare.

As with most Batman stories, Gotham plays an essential role. Mixing old gothic architecture with a dull glow of LED and neon, the dour rain-soaked design is a perfect reflection of the city’s deterioration. This is a diseased Gotham with striking similarities to our modern day society – the bitter division, the rise in crime, the corrupt leadership willing to let the city burn if it means holding onto power. It’s as if Reeves is holding up a mirror and asking, “Do you see this America? This is where you’re heading. Is this what you want?”

Reeves wisely bypasses the whole Batman origin story which most people (die-hards and casual fans alike) know by heart. Instead he cuts right to the chase. In his film there’s already a bat-suit, a batmobile, a bat-signal, and the bat-cave. And Batman and Gotham PD detective Jim Gordon (a terrific Jeffrey Wright) are already two years into their off-the-record crime-busting partnership. Of course there are references to Thomas and Martha Wayne and how their death has shaped Bruce and given birth to the Batman. It’s an essential piece to any Batman story. But Reeves is crafty in how he uses it and adds some fresh and interesting twists of his own.

Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

Fitting for a movie this bleak, the story begins with the brutal murder of Gotham City’s mayor at the hands of a masked serial killer who goes by Riddler (Paul Dano). Aside from his affection for handmade greeting cards and duct tape, Riddler has a special interest in the Batman. With each new high profile victim, the killer leaves a new riddle specifically for him. This twisted game of cat-and-mouse eats up much of the film’s first half as Gordon works with Batman (much to the chagrin of many of his fellow officers) to piece together the clues before Riddler kills again. Not only is this where the film really ratchets down on the detective angle, but it’s also where Batman and Gordon’s relationship takes form.

But there are several other players with key roles to play. There’s Zoë Kravitz’s seductive and mysterious Selina Kyle, a fresh spin on the Catwoman character with personal stakes in the game. She works at a nightclub ran by Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), a powerful mob boss and drug trafficker who has most of the city’s leaders on his payroll. Falcone’s right-hand man is Oswald Cobblepot, aka Penguin. He’s played by an unrecognizable Colin Farrell in heavy makeup and prosthetics. It’s an astonishing transformation and Farrell is an absolute scene-stealer.

Also in the mix is Andy Serkis playing Bruce Wayne’s butler and mentor Alfred. It’s a small role, but Serkis is a nice fit. The always good Peter Sarsgaard pops up as a crooked district attorney while Jayme Lawson plays a young idealistic mayoral candidate thrust into the center of Gotham’s growing chaos.

Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

And of course there’s Dano who gives an effectively creepy take on Riddler. There are no green spandex with question marks or shrill persistent cackling. Dano’s Riddler is a meticulous and calculated killer; a sociopath with brains and a very clear agenda in mind. His murders are detailed and with purpose, and his cold calloused pathology makes him a terrifying threat. I was concerned about Dano’s boyish appearance, but it works to make Riddler even more unsettling. And much like Nolan’s treatment of the Joker, Reeves doesn’t overuse his chief villain. He’s in there just the right amount of time.

The more you watch “The Batman” the more you recognize and appreciate the differences in Reeves’ vision. For example, there isn’t a glimpse of ‘billionaire playboy’ Bruce Wayne. There’s a fleeting reference to that expectation, but in this Gotham it’s hard to visualize big lavish galas and hobnobbing with the elite. Much like Bruce, the people of Gotham seem beaten down by a city that’s eating itself alive. Also, while this is a superhero movie per se, Reeves’ Batman is far more grounded in reality. Much of it is inherent to the story, but just as much of its identity comes through Greig Fraser’s moody cinematography and Michael Giacchino’s epic score – both Oscar-worthy.

“The Batman” gives you a lot to process, but when fully considered this is a truly great addition to the character’s big screen legacy. What I like best is that Matt Reeves has delivered something strikingly unique – not only as a Batman movie, but within the superhero genre as a whole. And while I wasn’t initially sold on its length, the movie earns its three hour running time. Sure, you could pick apart some of Reeves’ choices and find things to trim down. But doing so would cut out what makes his movie unique. And with so much potential on the horizon, I want Reeves to use his creative freedom to the fullest. “The Batman” is out now in theaters.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

REVIEW: “Blacklight” (2022)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

It’s February which means it’s the time of the year for yet another Liam Neeson movie. February seems to be the month of choice for these cookie-cutter action thrillers starring the gruff Irish-born screen veteran. Since taking off as an unlikely action hero with 2008’s “Taken”, Neeson (who turns 70 this June) has carved out his own niche and these movies have almost become a genre all their own.

Most of these films follow a fairly familiar blueprint and it’s often hard to differentiate one from the other (their aggressively generic titles don’t help). The similarities between these movies often comes down to the ingredients. For example, Neeson’s characters almost always have some kind of military or special forces background. There’s often some kind of connective family tissue that’s intended to raise the stakes (although if you’ve watched enough of these you pretty much know how they turn out). And there is always a call for Neeson to unleash his “very particular set of skills”.

His latest venture “Blacklight” comes packaged with the hilariously bad tagline “They’re Gonna Need More Men” and it’s the first of two Neeson flicks set to release during the first half of 2022 (the other being the Martin Campbell directed “Memory” in April). His character, Travis Block fits the above archetype to a tee. He’s ex-military who now works “off the books” for the FBI. His strict dedication to his work made him a rotten husband and father, yet he’s determined to make up for it by being a better grandfather. But to no surprise, those dreams of domestic bliss are abruptly (and predictably) interrupted.

Travis is the long-time friend and right-hand man to FBI Director Gabriel Robinson (Aidan Quinn). The two served in Vietnam together and now Travis runs covert missions for Robinson, pulling compromised agents from deep cover assignments. Travis is loyal, dependable and never questions orders which makes him invaluable to Robinson. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Robinson is a little shady. His fanboy affection for J. Edgar Hoover is concerning enough, but there are plenty of other red flags that pop up along the way.

When not secretly rescuing agents from white supremacist militias or underground terrorist groups, Travis works hard to make amends for his past failings as a father. But the OCD that makes him so good at his job has festered into paranoia which drives his daughter Amanda (Claire van der Boom) up the wall. From putting up security cameras at her house without her permission to teaching his granddaughter Natalie (Gabriella Sengos) to memorize all the exits in every building she enters. These scenes add a lighthearted touch, but it’s hard to tell if they’re meant to be played straight or as comedy.

Travis’ work and family inevitably collide after he’s tasked with bringing in a disillusioned young agent named Dusty Crane (Taylor John Smith). Dusty claims to possess damning information related to the recent murder of a fiery congressional candidate (who’s shamelessly modeled after AOC). Travis tries to get to Crane before he can turn his evidence over to a tenacious reporter named Mira Jones (Emmy Raver-Lampman). Robinson turns out to be involved and he’s determined to erase anyone connected, Travis and his family included.

Director Mark Williams keeps things going at a reasonably good pace, but he has a hard time generating much suspense. That’s because there are no big twists or surprises to be found anywhere. All of the story pieces are laid out early, and they eventually fit together exactly the way you expect them to. And while I like the idea of fearless journalists exposing government cover-ups and Travis reckoning with his government-sanctioned past, none of those angles take the story in any unexpected direction.

And the movie isn’t helped by its unsatisfying ending. Perhaps its another casualty of predictability, but it’s almost as if Williams wasn’t quite sure how to end his story. We end up with something overly tidy, remarkably shallow, and just generally hard to swallow. It more or less just wraps things up, filling the final five minutes with corny dialogue and one of the worst final confrontations you’ll find in a movie.

“Blacklight” may have enough to win over the most ardent fans of these Neeson thrillers. For everyone else, this is more of the same but with even less energy and grit. Also (and I hate to say this), this is a case where Neeson’s age really shows itself in the action scenes. It’s certainly not his fault, but in movies like this where buying into the action is crucial, it becomes a pretty big issue. “Blacklight” opens today in theaters.

VERDICT – 2 STARS