REVIEW: “Boss Level” (2021)

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Joe Carnahan first shared his “if Groundhog Day was an action movie” vision back in 2012, but in no time the project seemed dead in the water. Yet only a few short years later it was revived as “Boss Level”. Casting began in 2017, filming started in 2018. Since then Hulu dropped eight-figures to acquire distribution rights and now it is finally set for its proper release. Anchored by a strong cast but constricted by its relentless silliness, “Boss Level” turns out to be a bombastic and self-aware romp that marinates in hyper-violent absurdity. There is the occasional quiet interlude, but this is mostly wall-to-wall action excess.

It seems like just a few days ago that I was reviewing another time-loop movie yet here we are again. To Carnahan’s credit, with “Boss Level” he’s going for something a little different. In it Frank Grillo plays Roy, a potty-mouthed former Delta Force Captain with a penchant for heavy narration. He spends a lot of time explaining to us his weird predicament. In a nutshell Roy relives the same day over and over again, dying each time in a variety of gruesome ways – shot with a mini-gun, ran over by an 18-wheeler, blown up with a grenade launcher, beheaded by katana blade, and so on. After being killed he wakes up and repeats.

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Image Courtesy of Hulu

But Roy fights back, learning more details with each reset and then putting that knowledge to use against the eclectic gaggle of assassins out to kill him. He still ends up gruesomely killed each time, but he slowly finds a way to not only live longer but to begin piecing together clues to discover who wants him dead and why. One of the players is Naomi Watts as Roy’s ex-wife Jemma. I’d love to hear what drew her to this movie considering she’s handed a thankless role that sees her as more of a plot device to move Roy’s story forward than a layered character. Jemma is a scientist working for a shady businessman named Colonel Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson). Again not much depth to him either, but he’s made fun by the devilishly good Gibson.

I won’t say much more about the story because frankly there really isn’t a lot more to tell. We do get a side venture where Roy tries to reconnect with his 11-year-old son Joe (played by Grillo’s real-life son Rio). Otherwise it’s all about Roy putting enough pieces together to find who’s trying to knock him off while shooting, chopping, burning, and impaling anyone who gets in his way. And since this is a time-loop movie, we see most of these action scenes over and over and over again. So much so that the repetition gets a little grating. But it helps fill out the 100-minute runtime which would be a heckuva lot shorter without it.

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Image Courtesy of Hulu

There are some fun and well-shot action sequences (at least for the first couple of times you see them) and the movie has a pretty good sense of humor. I particularly liked Selina Lo who plays a sword-wielding assassin enamored with her own goofy post-kill catchphrase “I am Guan-Yin, and Guan-Yin has done this!” And Grillo makes for a great action movie lead. Aside from the incessant narration and the steady stream of juvenile profanity (the script’s fault, not his), the chiseled 55-year-old has both the physicality and the snarky humor that nicely fits his character and the film’s wacky tone. And the cigar-chomping, mustache-twirling Gibson makes a paper-thin antagonist entertaining.

With “Boss Level”, Joe Carnahan takes an idea of what video games are, slaps on a hard R-rating, and stomps the accelerator, rarely taking his foot off the gas. But much like a frustrating video game, he forces us to constantly replay the movie’s levels (aka scenes), sometimes to the point of tedium. There is good talent involved, some high-energy action, and a few giggles mashed in with the nagging storytelling issues, ludicrous premise, and half-baked ‘science’ (even the filmmakers give up on making sense out of it). Ultimately your endurance level will probably define your experience. If you can turn off the annoyances and hone in on the strengths, you just might have a good time. But it’s kinda hard in a time-loop movie when those same annoyances continually reset just like Roy’s day. “Boss Level” premieres March 5th on Hulu.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Blithe Spirit” (2021)

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The new period British comedy “Blithe Spirit” has both the concept and the cast for a fun and hearty romp. The film stars Dan Stevens, Leslie Mann, Isla Fisher, and Judy Dench. It’s built on a delightfully wacky premise that would fit right in with the screwball comedies of old. Director Edward Hall along with the writing trio of Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard, and Piers Ashworth deliver bursts of farcical mayhem and maintain a subtly deranged comic energy. Yet throughout I kept thinking something was missing.

“Blithe Spirit” is based on Noël Coward’s 1941 play of the same name. It was first adapted for the big screen in a 1945 film starring Rex Harrison. This brisk and lightly entertaining version rides on the backs of its charismatic cast who bring out the best in material that isn’t always certain of the kind of movie it wants to be. It leaves us with a film that has its funny moments and is easy to digest, but lacks the flavor to stick with you once the end credits have rolled.

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Image Courtesy of IFC Films

The story is set in 1937 England and opens with an exasperated Charles Condomine (Stevens) staring at a blank page in his typewriter. Charles is an acclaimed crime novelist who has been hired to write the screenplay for an upcoming adaptation of one of his books. But a severe case of writer’s block has set in, something that his supportive yet quietly frustrated wife Ruth (Fisher) patiently puts up with. She gives him plenty of space in their lavish Art Deco estate to hammer out his words. She even tolerates him gazing at an old photo of his late wife Elvira in hopes that it might provide some kind of inspiration.

Finally Charles is struck with a new idea for a story, one inspired by a disastrous stage show he attends (and probably the amphetamines he’s been popping). He hires a medium and clairvoyant named Madame Arcati (Dench) to come to his home and conduct a private séance for the purpose of gathering material for his new story. Charles and Ruth along with their snobby upper-class chums George (Julian Rhind-Tutt) and Violet (Emilia Fox) snicker their way through Madame Arcati’s conjuring, brushing off the flickering lights and blown-open doors to a passing storm.

But once everyone is gone Charles finds out Madame Arcati has inadvertently summoned the spirit of Elvira (Leslie Mann) who we learn died seven years earlier in an equestrian accident. It turns out that only Charles can see and hear Elvira and she doesn’t take kindly to Ruth being in their house. It sets up a series of comic mischief and slapstick gags as two women on opposite sides of the astral plane battle for their husband’s affections. As for Charles, he wants to find a way to send Elvira back to wherever she came from. But he has second thoughts once his screenplay starts coming together with her help. The complications go without saying.

Hall keeps things pretty light, only teasing us with the devious black comedy that this could have been. There’s definitely the material for something equally wacky but more darkly funny. But those things are left for the what-could-have-been. Instead “Blithe Spirit” is content with a more playful approach, sneaking in some occasional innuendo and leaving the darker potential buried under the surface. It’s a shame really because even though what we get is breezy and easy to watch, the movie lacks an edge that it hints at but doesn’t embrace.

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Image Courtesy of IFC Films

It’s the performances that end up carrying the audience through. Stevens has a real knack for playing offbeat and slightly neurotic men. Here he once again shows off his comic chops, skittishly fluttering about in various states of distress. Some of the film’s funniest moments lean on his wild-eyed physicality. Fisher brings a needed charm to an otherwise constrained character. Mann is entertaining and does the best she can with Elvira who is in desperate need of more depth. Together the trio have a fun chemistry and play off each other well. Dench ends up being the odd person out. She gives a terrific performance but unfortunately her character seems disconnected at times and operating at a completely different temperature. It’s not Dench’s fault. It’s simply how the Madame Arcati is written. It’s as if she belongs in a much different movie.

“Blithe Spirit” isn’t without its charms and their are some laugh-out-loud moments of sly dialogue and slapstick humor that really work. But there’s still the feeling that the movie misses an opportunity to be more. The characters need more work which leaves the story in a weird place. On one hand it’s a knowingly silly and diverting comedy. On the other it lacks the vigor and go-for-it spirit to make it something memorable. “Blithe Spirit” opens today in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT- 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Bliss” (2021)

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Talk about an unexpected yet intriguing pairing. In the new film “Bliss” Owen Wilson and Selma Hayek are two people traveling back and forth between vastly different realities. But soon perceptions of what’s real and what’s a simulation begin to blur. This catchy concept comes from the mind of writer-director Mike Cahill whose indie sci-fi credentials include 2011’s “Another Earth” and 2014’s “I Origins”. He’s been doing television since but returns to features with “Bliss”, a sci-fi drama with a splash of old-fashioned mystery.

It seems 2021 will see a bit of a resurgence for Wilson who is also set to star in the upcoming MCU streaming series “Loki” and has been shooting a new romantic comedy with Jennifer Lopez. Here he plays Greg Wittle, recently divorced and trapped in a go-nowhere white-collar job with an agency called Technical Difficulties (I kinda love that name). He lives in a broken world full of poverty and pollution and bathed in a depressing blue-gray hue. Disconnected from his daily duties of working the phones, Greg sits in his office sketching images that seem pulled from his memories – images of a much better world and of a beautiful woman indelibly linked to it.

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Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Greg’s spacey lackadaisical efforts cost him his job and soon he’s in a bar – lost, depressed and knocking back a double whiskey. That’s when he notices a mysterious woman (Hayek) sitting in a booth and paying him an unusual amount of attention. Her name is Isabel, a vagabond with some rather peculiar powers that can manipulate physical objects, even people. When her powers fail to work on Greg she realizes that he too must be ‘real’. So she tells him a wild story of how the damaged world they’re living in is actually a computer simulation and that he too has powers of his own.

Early on Cahill keep things pretty close to the chest, dropping a few breadcrumbs to make sure we’re going in the right direction. Before long he’s hitting us with oddities such as yellow and blue crystals, FGP’s (Fake Generated Persons), Bill Nye the Science Guy, and a strange contraption called the Brain Box. Even Isabel proves to be a riddle, throwing out ambiguous lines like “You’re my guy” and “Let’s just say it’s kind of my fault this world exists.” And she seems to have a vested interest in convincing Greg to leave behind every attachment he has to this murky troubled world, namely his daughter Emily (Nesta Cooper).

When Greg and Isabel enter the second of the two realities, a lavish and vibrantly colored upper-class world, she reveals herself to be a renowned yet slightly controversial scientist. She contends that she created the simulation as a means to make people appreciate ‘the good life’. Greg realizes this is ‘the better world’ from his earlier sketches – the world of wealth and comfort he has dreamed of. But no matter how hard he tries, he can’t shake the emotional connections from the other reality, especially Emily who makes figuring out what’s real even more challenging.

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Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Right out of the gate we get some good table-setting and it quickly becomes clear that this is movie with big ideas and plenty that it wants to say. Sadly not all of the puzzle pieces come together to fit as tightly as they should. So we inevitably get some exposition-heavy scenes that attempt to fill in the gaps. Much of the explaining ends up on the shoulders of Hayek who ranges from fascinating and enigmatic to frustratingly flighty. And though not her fault, some of her musings simply aren’t that engaging which ends up hurting the film’s bigger themes. Meanwhile Wilson gives a solid performance but is hitched to a character who spends far more time confused and pondering than actually revealing anything significant.

“Bliss” feels like something that sounds really good as a concept but that doesn’t quite pan out on screen. It’s telling that some of the film’s visual touches such as occasional blips on the screen and the neat but slightly overused lens flares are more alluring than the story itself. And it’s unfortunate that the quirky but compelling pairing of Owen Wilson and Selma Hayek can’t quite breathe enough life into this ambitious but wobbly futuristic story. “Bliss” premieres February 5th on Amazon Prime streaming.

VERDICT- 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Bee Gees: How Do You Mend A Broken Heart” (2020)

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I would never qualify myself as a fan of 1970’s disco music, but I’ve always had an appreciation for The Bee Gees. I was just a young kid when the British-Australian trio of Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb were topping the charts and earning their unwanted tag as the “Kings of Disco”. But I knew their music thanks to my parents and the 8-track tape player in their white Chevrolet Malibu. My parents listened almost exclusively to 1960’s “oldies”, so I knew The Bee Gees were a thing well before the disco era. But like everyone else, even my folks were drawn to the group’s infectious 70’s sound.

The Bee Gees became global sensations and sold well over $120 million records throughout their career. But there was a sad side to their largely successful story. The new documentary “The Bee Gees: How Do You Mend A Broken Heart” chronicles their first taste of fame during the 60’s British Invasion, their breakup, and their eventual reunion which brought not only a brand new sound but also their rise to superstardom. They unwittingly became synonymous with the 70’s disco scene and despite their best efforts to keep themselves and their music from being pigeonholed, the label eventually became too much for them to shake.

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Image Courtesy of HBO Max

Director Frank Marshall doesn’t break the mold with his new film. It very much plays like a traditional documentary, nothing flashy or innovative. But man is it a compelling and eye-opening biography of the talented Gibbs brothers and their inspired careers. Marshall puts together segments of a recent conversation with Barry Gibb with archived interview footage of his late brothers to give the film its smoothly edited personal touch. Old managers, studio engineers, and bandmates add some insider perspective while celebrities from the music world like Justin Timberlake, Chris Martin of Coldplay, and Noel Gallagher of Oasis testify to the trio’s influence and talent.

Marshall immediately pushes back on the reductive notion that The Bee Gees were nothing more than a simple “disco band”, a label they never embraced. He starts with their inseparable childhood days with older brother Barry and twins Maurice and Robin aspiring to be musicians. He documents their success in the 1960’s including two #1 hits and an early sound that drew comparisons to The Beatles. Marshall also explores their unexpected breakup brought on due to the burden of fame.

During their split all three got married and matured leading to their eventual reunion. The vocal harmony was instantaneous as if they had never been apart, but the world had changed and the interest in The Bee Gees had dried up. That was 1974, two straight albums had tanked and the group had to start playing clubs to make ends meet. It all led to Miami, 1975 where their new sound was born with the release of “Jive Talkin”. Marshall highlights the process behind the group’s musical evolution – the brothers’ desire to be a band rather than a trio, the influence of soul and R&B on their new sound, and the surprise discovery of what would become Barry’s signature falsetto.

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Image Courtesy of HBO Max

The movie spends a lot of time on the group’s highs including the pinnacle of their popularity following their work on the chart-topping “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack. But it also hits on the lows, including the sudden and sometimes threatening backlash the group faced after disco was put in the crosshairs of a few rabid haters with platforms. This is best realized in 1979’s infamous Disco Demolition Night riot at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Due to their popularity The Bee Gees, who resented being branded a ‘disco band’, became easy targets. Soon radio stations quit playing their songs and they found themselves on the outs.

While the brothers would go on to write hit songs for major stars such as Barbara Streisand, Celine Dion, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Pardon, their singing careers were never the same. It’s a sad reality especially considering there was nothing the trio could do to avoid it. Much more sobering is how the deaths of Maurice in 2003, Robin in 2012 and their younger brother Andy in 1988 looms over the entire film. Marshall doesn’t dwell on their passings, only mentioning it briefly. Still it’s knowledge that adds an emotional layer to their stories. “I can’t honestly come to terms with the fact that they’re not here anymore,” Barry laments in the movie’s closing moments. It’s a heartfelt reminder that Marshall’s movie is about a lot more than great careers and great music. “The Bee Gees: How Do You Mend A Broken Heart” is now streaming on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Black Bear” (2020)

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In “Black Bear” three people with truckloads of emotional baggage spend a weekend at a remote rustic lakeside lodge. At least that’s how it starts. But then with practically no notice whatsoever the story shifts, rearranging its characters and using the lodge as the location for a movie shoot. The two halves are threaded together by some light narrative trickery and your ultimate enjoyment of the film may hinge on how well the film’s final five minutes work for you.

“Black Bear” is branded as part drama, part dark comedy but mining the humor out of this biting indie is quite the task. The film starts as a searing “Virginia Woolf”-lite story, turns into an merciless deconstruction of the creative process, and then ends with a twist that left me impressed by its craftiness but unsure of how I was supposed to feel. In one sense I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen in large part thanks to the superb acting from the film’s central trio. At the same time it left me cold and emotionally detached from its characters especially after its mid-point switcheroo.

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Photo Courtesy of Momentum Pictures

In the film Aubrey Plaza plays Allison, an actress turned director with a deep disdain for compliments. She’s made a handful of “small unpopular films” and is currently writing the script for her next feature. But writer’s block has set in causing her to take some time off to hopefully find her inspiration. She arrives at the lodge-like country home that’s owned by Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his rightfully insecure (and pregnant) girlfriend Blair (Sarah Gadon).

We quickly discover that both Gabe and Blair have hit their own set of roadblocks. He’s a struggling musician and her dancing career has sputtered. Even worse their relationship has hit a wall and neither can say a word without irritating the other. Allison not only gets caught up in the friction but sprinkles gas on the fire. Fueled by fiercely combustible back-and-forths, the dialogue-thick first half is simple in concept but really lets the characters uncoil and the three performances are in top form.

Then writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine hits reset. The second half starts with the same opening scene, Allison sitting on a dock blankly staring across the foggy water. But this time she’s filming a scene for a movie directed by a stressed out Gabe. This time Allison and Gabe are husband and wife while Blair is the intrusive third wheel. And instead of the first half’s more intimate three-person setting, now the house is filled with film crew members. None of them are particularly interesting and they nibble away at screen time that could have been better spent on the three main characters.

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Courtesy of Momentum Pictures

To be fair the second half is going for something different. It still revolves around a strained relationship and the same trio of characters are the centerpiece. But it also pays a lot of attention to the movie set and the filmmaking process. Admittedly some of it is interesting but it doesn’t have the same draw as the first half. There are also some wild swings at humor that don’t connect, such as a weird running gag where everyone keeps spilling coffee. Seems like it belongs in a different movie.

Ultimately too much of the film’s second half feels like something made for those who are ‘in the know’ when it comes to moviemaking. The performances remain top-notch throughout with Plaza doing some career best work. But the two halves, though cleverly explained in the final frames, clash more than connect. Both have similar toxic underpinning, but only one grabbed my attention and left me feeling something. “Black Bear” opened December 4th in select theaters and is now available on VOD.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Black Box” (2020)

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It was roughly one year ago that we first learned Amazon Studios was partnering with Blumhouse to bring eight original movies to their Prime Video streaming platform. “Welcome to Blumhouse” would offer the (mostly) horror-centered production company the opportunity to highlight a fresh group of talented filmmakers. Founder Jason Blum assured that the eight interconnected films would feature the company’s signature chills and all will explore “family and love as a redemptive or destructive force” in their own unique way.

One of first films from the partnership is “Black Box” from director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr. The story follows a young father named Nolan (played by the immensely talented Mamoudou Athie) who loses his wife and memory in a tragic car accident. In the few years that have followed he has regained a sense of the man he was in large part thanks to his mature-beyond-her-years daughter Ava (Amanda Christine). But despite his and his daughter’s best efforts, Nolan can’t seem to get back on track.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Ava has essentially taken on the parent role – running her father through memory exercises, prepping him for a meeting with his boss, chiding him when he pulls out a pack of cigarettes. “You don’t smoke!” But when Nolan forgets to pick Ava up from school for the umpteenth time, the threat of child services pushes him to seek professional help. His pal Gary (Tosin Morohunfola) recommends Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad), a well-respected neuroscientist who urges Nolan to take part in her Cognitive Research Study. Skeptical but desperate, Nolan agrees to an experimental therapy which Dr. Brooks assures will reconnect him to his lost memories.

Dr. Brooks connects Nolan to what she calls her Black Box, a virtual reality-like experience that transports her patients deep into their subconscious to find and relive old memories. Once inside Nolan begins seeing fragments of memories of his wedding and of when Ava was a baby. But not everything is as it should be, most notably all of the people’s faces are blurred. Even worst, every time he enters the Black Box he is terrorized by a ghastly human-like creature with popping joints and crackling limbs. Certainly all of it means something, but Nolan can’t figure it out and Dr. Brooks dismisses it as part of the treatment. Ultimately he begins seeing things that leaves him questioning whether he’s really the man everyone says he is.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Light on gore and free of tired and overused jump scares, “Black Box” leans more into psychological thriller territory, underpinning its story with elements of science-fiction and horror. The script (co-written by Osei-Kuffour Jr. and Stephen Herman) takes a ‘just go with it’ approach to the science, explaining it but sweeping most of the details under the rug. And while it doesn’t telegraph it’s big twist, it all but draws a big bright circle around its antagonist. And by setting our eyes on the baddie early, it can’t help but undercut the suspense.

The story makes up for it in its handling of Nolan. Osei-Kuffour Jr. and Herman write a character that Mamoudou Athie can really sink his teeth into – someone with emotional depth and personal stakes worth investing in. And I don’t want to shortchange the film’s heady ideas and clever twist which adds a fun and unexpected layer. Also two thumbs-up to the eerie score from Brandon Roberts and Osei-Kuffour Jr.’s imagination and resourcefulness in navigating budget constraints while still maintaining a visually compelling style. It’s a solid effort from a first-time feature film director with a promising career ahead of him. “Black Box” is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT- 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars