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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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

REVIEW: “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

BIRDSposterThere wasn’t much good that came out of 2016’s “Suicide Squad”. The lone shining light was Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. She was a fun, energetic show-stealer and people instantly wanted more. But as “Suicide Squad” (thankfully) vanished from most of our memories, so did thoughts of a sequel. But apparently Robbie (who co-produces this film as well as stars) never gave up on her character and now we get the product of her labors.

“Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” is every bit as loud, brash and chaotic as its trailers teased. It’s clearly an attempt by DC Films/Warner Bros. to tap into the “Deadpool” audience. Much like its Marvel counterpart, “Birds of Prey” is an R-rated romp mixing action with comedy while dropping loads of violent potty-mouthed mayhem. Frankly that seems to be all you need to get some people onboard.

“Birds of Prey” is considered the eighth film in the seemingly rudderless DC Extended Universe. The thought of rewatching “Suicide Squad” to prepare for this film was too depressing (thankfully there’s Wikipedia). Turns out I didn’t need to. Smartly, director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson steer clear of the previous film aside from tossing in an Easter egg or two. The only carryover is the Joker who is never seen but mentioned numerous times.

Storywise, all you need to know is this: Harley Quinn (Robbie) has been kicked to the curb by her once beloved Joker. It gets out that she is no longer under Mr. J’s protection so all of the criminals she has wronged in the past make her a target. High on the list of those who want her dead is manic nightclub owner and mob boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). He’s also known as Black Mask, a great Batman rogue who the movie turns into a ham rather than a menacing villain.

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The one thing Roman wants more than Harley’s head is a priceless diamond snatched by a young pickpocket named Cassandra Crain (Ella Jay Basco). Harley agrees to retrieve the diamond in exchange for Roman sparing her life. But there are other characters in the mix including Montoya (Rosie Perez), an underappreciated Gotham police detective, a vigilante named Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who targets mobsters with her crossbow, and a nightclub singer called Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) who possesses an untapped superpower.

And that’s really all there is to the surprisingly bare-bones story. We do get a lot of Tarantino-inspired time jumps and backstory flashbacks coated in non-stop narration. They’re more style than substance and do more to mask the paper-thin plot than add meaningful depth. With her “Bumblebee” script Hodson showed that she can jump into the franchise space and energize it with a smart, fresh perspective. With “Birds of Prey” she seems to be mimicking a formula rather than offering an original take. And the characters suffer as well. Huntress is uneven, Montoya is bland, Cassandra is forgettable, Sionis is one-note. The one I enjoyed most was Canary.

Most disappointing is Harley who is a shell of a main character. She’s still a hellion. She has the attitude. She has the quirky, off-kilter personality. But what is her aim? What does she want? The movie’s title tells us “Emancipation“, but it’s so vaguely portrayed in the movie itself. So that leaves Robbie clinging to the showy external things (which she does really well), doing everything she can to make the character something other than one-dimensional. It’s a valiant effort but she can only do so much when given so little.

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But at least we have the action, right? Well sort of. Occasionally it’s simply too much to swallow. Take the scene where Harley tears through what must be the most inept police station in cinema history with a beanbag glitter gun. It’s pretty ridiculous. The scene ends on a better note with Harley showing off her skills with a baseball bat and Yan showing off her eye for stylish, intensely choreographed fight scenes. There is also a terrific sequence near the end when all of the film’s moving parts finally come together.

As a general defender of the DCEU I really wish “Birds of Prey” wasn’t such a mess. In many ways it should be commended as progress. It’s a female-led action-comedy directed by a woman, written by a woman, and essentially about getting on in life without a man. Together those things are an overdue breath of fresh air, but they don’t automatically make for a good movie. Here too much time is spent chasing a hard R rating and too much effort is put into channeling its anarchic style. It’s good for short attention spans and those just there for the bombast. But for the rest of us, Robbie’s hard work can’t save the film or make it the statement of empowerment that it could have been.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

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REVIEW: “Bad Boys for Life” (2020)

BBlifePOSTERFull disclaimer: I’ve never been all that high on the “Bad Boys” films (something followers of my site probably already know). I say that just so you understand, I wasn’t coming at this sequel with any kind of deep appreciation or nostalgia for the series. So maybe it’s no surprise that the third and probably not final installment “Bad Boys for Life” didn’t exactly knock my socks off.

Going in I was most curious about whether this new film would simply beat the same deafening drum as the painfully bad “Bad Boys II” or would it actually try to inject something fresh into the series? You certainly wouldn’t expect them to just throw aside the big action and comedy shtick that is such a key part of the series. But toning it down for the sake of better storytelling would be a welcomed treat. “Bad Boys for Life” is definitely toned down from part two and it to its credit it does attempt to add needed depth to its characters.

This time around the one noticeable absence (sort of) is Michael Bay. Replacing him is the Belgian directing duo of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah who must be into reviving old franchises (they are also set to bring back Beverly Hills Cop complete with Eddie Murphy). Some things haven’tchanged in the near 17 years since the last film. Mike Lowery (the now top-billed Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) are still partners with the Miami PD. They still yell at each other constantly. And they still don’t know the words to their Bad Boys theme song.

But not everything is the same. Marcus is a new grandfather. Mike has broken up with Syd (see “Bad Boys II”. Better yet, don’t). And the police department have a new young state-of-the-art unit called AMMO led by one of Mike’s old flames Rita (Paola Núñez). Marcus is ready to retire and let the new generation take over. But Mike is still “ride or die” and doesn’t care for his partner’s desire to quit. But come on, who thought this would be a movie about retirement? When Mike is targeted by a violent someone from his past, the best friends get together “one last time“.

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© 2020 Sony Pictures All Rights Reserved

Things start off on a strong note showing more heart than the previous two movies combined. And overall the movie avoids the nastiness of the last film even finding a way to apologize for one of BB2’s uglier scenes. But it doesn’t take long for the cracks in the central story to start showing. And despite Smith and Lawrence’s efforts, the movie loses steam as it limps towards a rather ludicrous story twist that could only come from the pages of a so-so movie script.

The action is pretty kill-by-the-numbers but it does bail the story out a times. And while Arbi and Fallah may not have Bay’s visual flair, they do create some high-energy (and controlled) sequences that the audience I watched with really enjoyed. Yes, you could call them silly and over-the-top, but that’s a target these movies have always aimed for and for the most part BB3’s action scenes hits their target.

“Bad Boys for Life” teases itself as the final chapter, the end of the trilogy, “one last time“. Don’t believe it, especially in today’s franchised obsessed movie culture. In fact the film’s title suddenly sounds like a studio promise more than the mantra of its two lead characters. And with sequel and spin-off rumors already running wild, this film comes across as a franchise building cash grab rather than a fitting send-off to a series that I may not like but that certainly has its fans.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars