REVIEW: “Cry Macho” (2021)

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

One thing about Clint Eastwood, even at 91-years-old the seasoned and often surly actor, director and producer still plays by his own rules. His notorious and staunch independence is what led him to turn down an offer to play James Bond and pass on the lead role in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”.

Yet that same self-reliance also drove many of the choices that led to his screen-legend status. And when it’s all said and done, few will be able to claim a more impressive or prolific career than the man with the steely squint and gravelly snarl.

For over six decades Eastwood has been a poster boy for stoic masculinity in movies. From his iconic Man with No Name role in Sergio Leone’s trio of spaghetti westerns to his gnarly San Francisco police officer “Dirty” Harry Callahan to his crusty intolerant curmudgeon in “Gran Torino”. I mention that because his latest film “Cry Macho” offers Eastwood a chance to look back on a long career often defined by its tough machismo-soaked roles.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

“Cry Macho” won’t go down as one of Eastwood’s best films nor is it the kind of movie that will change any minds about his work. Yet it’s the type of stripped-down and straightforward story that’s perfect for this stage in Clint’s career. It’s an endearing reflection wrapped in an overly simplified story that gets by, not because of the character on the screen, but because of the legend who fills his shoes. Then again, so much of Eastwood is packed into the character that you could call them inseparable.

Set in 1979, Clint plays Mike Milo, a worn-down former rodeo champion working as a horse trainer for a wealthy rancher named Howard Polk (Dwight Yoakam). We first meet the unapologetically gruff Mike as he shuffles in late for work (again) prompting a fed up Howard to fire his crusty ranch hand. But before doing so Howard unloads with an exposition-heavy rebuke that only exists to lay out Mike’s troubled backstory – his crippling rodeo accident, the addiction to pills and booze, the crushing family tragedy.

This hurried and awkward opening continues “one year later” when Howard shows up needing help. He wants Mike to go to Mexico City and bring back his estranged 13-year-old son, Rafo (Eduardo Minett) who lives with his wild and neglectful mother, Leta (Fernanda Urrejola). “You owe me Mike,” he reminds the old cowboy. “Yeah, I owe ya,” Mike replies honoring an old-fashioned code that believes a man’s word means something.

The story then heads south of the border where Mike finds young Rafo at a back-alley cockfight. The two don’t exactly hit it off, but predictably over time a bond develops between the old man, the young boy, and a rooster named Macho. Their road-trip has its hazards – car thieves, the federales, Leta’s goons. At the same time, the absurdity of it all isn’t lost on Eastwood who never misses a chance to squeeze out some pretty good laughs.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Despite all of its neo-western dressing, “Cry Macho” is actually pretty mellow and is much more interested in the two lost wandering souls than its low-key thriller elements. This becomes clearer when the movie takes a sudden detour eventually settling down in a small Mexican village. There Rafo gets his first feel of stability while Mike’s leathery exterior begins to soften thanks to the kindness of a local cantina owner (Natalia Traven). This is where the movie really hits its free and easy stride.

The aggressively simple story has its obvious conveniences and missing details which Eastwood has no interest in exploring. But that’s consistent with Clint’s signature efficiency and clear-minded classicism. It’s the emotional and even spiritual undercurrent that ends up driving the movie. It’s Eastwood’s critical self-analysis and reflection mixed with a healthy dose of irony. It’s the unexpected sweetness, warmth, and compassion.

Ultimately the mileage you get out out of “Cry Macho” may hinge on your connection with its legendary star and director. If you’ve been with him for decades, this film will be a graceful extension of that journey. And while the his latest won’t be for everyone, it reminds me of how glad I am that Clint Eastwood is still making movies.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Copshop” (2021)

CLICK HERE for my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

“Copshop” is the latest abrasive crime thriller comes from director Joe Carnahan, a filmmaker known for exploring society’s gritty criminal underbelly. This particular outing may have you checking the end credits to see if Quentin Tarantino’s name is attached. That should give you a good idea of the kind of movie Carnahan is shooting for.

In reality, “Copshop” more closely resembles the B-movie schlock that often inspired Tarantino rather than an actual Tarantino movie. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Co-written by Carnahan and Kurt McLeod, the story feels like something pulled from a 1970’s pulp magazine and the evocation of John Carpenter’s “Assault On Precinct 13” is hard to miss.

But as movies have shown us countless times, aiming for something and hitting it are two different things. And marrying both style and substance can be tricky. At first glance “Copshop” has all the ingredients for a fun and grimy throwback exploitation flick. The cast is certainly up to the task and DP Juan Miguel Azpiroz shoots the film with a nostalgic verve that energizes the action and the setting. If only the writing was as sturdy.

Image Courtesy of Open Road Films

Carnahan’s modestly entertaining actioner is built around a nifty premise that sets us up for a number of second-half revelations. There’s also an infusion of kooky black comedy that may not always work, but it keeps things lively. And of course there’s the inevitable violent final act blow-out that packs enough carnage and mayhem to make genre fans smile.

Yet despite all of that, “Copshop” is never quite as suspenseful or engaging as it needs to be. And while the cast does a good job selling their characters, too many are your standard issue variety and all of them speak in the exact same foul-tongued pseudo tough guy vernacular found in many of Carnahan’s movies. And while the majority of the performances are on point, everyone ends up constricted by their character types.

It doesn’t take long for the story to kick into gear with most of it playing out over the course of one night at Gun Creek Police Department, a strangely remote yet noticeably modern police station (why it sits literally in the middle of nowhere is one of those glaringly obvious questions you’re not supposed to ask in a movie like this).

The first of the key players we meet is con-man and seasoned mob fixer Teddy Murretto (Frank Grillo sporting an anchor beard, a man-bun and one gaudy pair of snakeskin boots). He’s a slippery rogue who has frequently eluded death and prison. We’re introduced to him as he’s barreling down a Nevada highway in a bullet-riddled Ford Crown Victoria, the windows busted out, smoke billowing out from under the hood.

Turns out there’s a bounty on Teddy’s head and he’s running from several interested parties who are eager to cash in, among them the ruthless and notorious hitman Bob Viddick (Gerard Butler), a career killer known for his no-nonsense efficiency and penchant for violence. Viddick’s not someone you want hot on your heels so Teddy does something desperate- he punches a young deputy named Valerie (Alexis Louder) to get himself arrested. What safer place to hide out than in a jail cell at a local copshop?

Image Courtesy of Open Road Films

What Teddy didn’t count on was Viddick doing the same thing. Soon the assassin and the target are sitting in cells across from each other with Valerie trying to put together the pieces. Things get even crazier with the introduction of a second hitman, a psychopathic wildcard named Anthony “Tony” Lamb (Toby Huss), a wildly uneven swirl of disturbing menace and cartoonish silliness. Let the psychological chess matches between the sleazeball, the hired gun, the hero and the maniac begin.

The rest of the running time is filled with snarky interplay, chest-pounding masculinity, clichés galore, more trite cop banter than you can shake a police baton, and a slew of stereotypes. Then we get back to the humor which highlights Carnahan’s self-awareness but does more to undermine the suspense than make us laugh.

The real saving grace is the cast, especially the central trio. Butler is a nice fit and while it’s true the Scotsman has starred in his share of stinkers, it’s nice to be reminded of his legitimate acting chops. Grillo is a Carnahan regular and is right at home in the director’s grimy underworld. But the real standout is actress Alexis Louder who matches her two burly veteran co-stars barb-for-barb and bullet-for-bullet. If only the rest of the movie had her spark. “Copshop” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Card Counter” (2021)

Following in the footsteps of the stellar “First Reformed” was never going to be easy. But filmmaker Paul Schrader’s latest “The Card Counter” is a noble effort. In fact in some ways Schrader’s new film makes for a compelling companion piece to that highly acclaimed 2018 character study.

In “First Reformed” Ethan Hawke played a tortured pastor of a small upstate New York church suffering a crisis of faith. In “The Card Counter” it’s Oscar Isaac playing a gambler haunted by his past time as an ex-military interrogator. Both characters struggle with a similar inner tension just in a different setting and with different details.

The 75-year-old Schrader writes and directs the straightforward titled “The Card Counter” which centers on a poker-faced card-sharp who goes by William Tell (Isaac). We first meet him as he’s finishing up an eight-and-a-half year prison sentence at Fort Leavenworth. He liked prison. He liked the order, the routine. It’s where he honed his skills at blackjack and card counting. In some tantalizing early narration William explains how the technique works and how a good card counter can take away the house’s advantage and use it against them.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

William has carved out a life for himself, making a good living by traveling to small casinos across the Midwest using his skills to make a modest profit at each stop. He hasn’t just figured out the trick to winning at blackjack, he’s also figured out how to stay under the radar. He’s learned that casinos don’t pay attention if you win by counting cards. They take notice if you win too much by counting cards. So William bounces from one gaming house to another, always quitting while he’s ahead, and then moving to the next town.

Not only does William enjoy this life, but it helps him suppress and conceal the emotional turmoil inside of him. It’s what holds him together. Isaac’s performance is top-notch and it’s hard to see through his steely solemnity. But it’s obvious there so much behind William’s eyes, namely deep-rooted PTSD from his time at Abu Ghraib and his participation in the state-sanctioned ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ under the command of the callous military contractor Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). A series of potent flashbacks put us into William’s head and they’re shot with an unsettling visceral style.

Things take a turn when William meets Cirk (that’s “Kirk with a C” he constantly reminds everyone), a wayward young man played by Tye Sheridan with a troubling connection to a figure from William’s military past. Sympathetic and concerned, William takes Cirk under his wing. In one sense he hopes to help the boy and steer him in a better direction. But William also discovers a new sense of purpose – something other than the blackjack table that drives him. There’s also this idea of guilt and expiation, both individually and symbolically. It’s a crucial piece to William and Cirk’s odd relationship, and it’s a theme woven throughout Schrader’s picture.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

Then you have Tiffany Haddish’s La Linda, the third member of this ungainly traveling trio. She’s a go-between who connects gamblers with wealthy backers who then bankroll the players. Normally William wouldn’t be interested. But with Cirk in debt and needing a new start, maybe a few tournaments backed by some big investors could bring in the money the kid needs.

While Haddish doesn’t always seem in-tune with Schrader’s tone, this is one of her better performances. More subdued and bringing a welcomed warmth, this is nice reprieve from the louder and more in-your-face Haddish. It’s the same with Sheridan who sometimes feels a bit out of place. Still, his low-key character is a central piece of the story and it’s easy to overlook a few sluggish points especially considering how everything plays out.

In the end it’s Oscar Isaac who drives the movie and he’s just the right fit for Schrader’s stern Bresson-like minimalism (just like Hawke in “First Reformed”). As his character is slowly unpacked, Isaac maintains an icy and cryptic stoicism. But we do see cracks in his exterior which ends up taking the movie in an unexpected direction. At the same time, it plays out in the only way that seems fitting for a story that has a lot more on its mind than blackjack and poker tournaments. “The Card Counter” is now showing in select theaters.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Colony” (2021)

Throughout the grand history of cinema there have been countless science-fiction stories about humanity seeking a new home in space. Some have been sprawling odysseys of discovery while others have been about settling and surviving in exotic and sometimes dangerous new worlds. The new Swiss-German sci-fi thriller “The Colony” does something a little different. It tackles the idea of going back to Earth after two generations away.

Tim Fehlbaum directs “The Colony” which does what most good sci-fi does – it focuses on humanity as much (if not more) than aliens, deep space or futuristic tech. There are several subtle themes woven into the film’s story. But at its core the movie explores the notion of losing our humanity in our efforts to save it. How far is too far? At what point do we cross the line and lose the very thing we’re so desperately trying to preserve?

To set up the story (co-written by Fehlbaum and Mariko Minoguchi), a deteriorating climate, global pandemics and endless wars rendered the Earth uninhabitable. As a result, the ruling elites used their means to leave the planet, eventually settling on a space colony they called Kepler 209. Two generations pass and the colonists discover that something on their new home has made them infertile. Shades of “Children of Men”?

Image Courtesy of Saban Films

Reasonably fearing that their inability to reproduce will lead to their extinction, scientists put together The Ulysses Project, an exploratory mission to find out whether a return to Earth is possible. The first crew to attempt a landing on the blue dot was assumed lost and never heard from. Not a good sign.

“The Colony” begins with Ulysses 2 bursting through Earth’s atmosphere. It’s a jolt of an opening that’s one of the film’s few “action” moments (if you can even call it that). The pod carrying the three-person crew malfunctions during its entry and crash-lands. One crew member is dead on arrival, the mission commander (Sope Dirisu) is seriously wounded and astronaut Louise Blake (Nora Arnezeder) survives the crash unscathed.

One of the first things you’ll notice happens to be one of the movie’s biggest strengths, and that’s the harsh and barren world Fehlbaum imagines. Our once thriving planet is shown as nothing more than a dank and desolate wasteland of tidal waters and mud flats. It’s visualized through mostly practical effects that emphasize the unwelcoming bleakness and dystopian dread. To capture these early outdoor scenes, Fehlbaum took his cast and crew to the German Tidelands rather than use green screen. The shoots proved challenging, but the benefits on screen are obvious.

Arnezeder (who earlier this year shined in Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead”) makes for a compelling protagonist. As Blake, she’s essentially the lens through which we see this world unfold. After landing she immediately begins taking samples and readings. But just minutes into the movie she’s attacked and taken prison by a band of scavengers – human survivors who were left behind when the wealthy and powerful made their exodus. And there’s also this – they have children.

From there Fehlbaum tosses aside outer space and plants us in his apocalyptic hellscape where the survivors are already repeating mistakes from humanity’s past. Most notably, something akin to a class structure has taken form. The scavengers live in rickety huts able to float whenever the tide roles in. They’re frequently invaded by a more advanced and overtly oppressive colony who dwell in the belly of a massive grounded freighter fortified by walls of metal. The two factions create an interesting dynamic that has some startling parallels to our modern society.

Image Courtesy of Saban Films

Driven by Kepler 209’s cult-like mantra “for the many” (which Blake chants repeatedly, more to convince herself than out of some deep conviction), Blake is determined to complete her mission and get word back to her home colony. But soon she finds herself drawn into the conflict between the emerging haves and have nots. Soon she’s forced to question herself and her own motivations. It’s an intriguing angle especially with children involved. The scavengers have them; the other community wants them.

While Fehlbaum’s exploration gets points for its thoughtful human-centered interests, there’s a frustrating vagueness to both the story and the characters. With the exception of Blake, none of the people we meet are given much depth and some are little more than devices. Meanwhile the deeper we get into the story the more conventional it gets. There’s also an undercooked mystery surrounding Blake’s father (the leader of the first Ulysses mission) that could’ve used more attention.

Thankfully “The Colony” never completely derails in large part because of the stellar production design. The stark dismal environments brings thoughts of “Waterworld” and “Mad Max” but without the big studio shine. Instead Fehlbaum’s world is ugly, gritty and palpable. And while his story may lose a little of its focus, the underlying themes form a thought-provoking message that’s pretty timely for our current day. “The Colony” is now showing in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Cinderella” (2021)

Sometimes you go into a movie with a sinking feeling in your stomach. You aren’t at all excited for what you’re about to see. Or at best you’re completely indifferent. Maybe the trailer left a bad impression. Maybe you just know the movie isn’t for you. Yet you see it anyway, clinging to a thin thread of hope that you’ll be surprised. Taking the chance that you may have misjudged it. Saying with all the optimism you can muster, “Maybe this isn’t the movie I thought it would be.”

“Cinderella” is exactly the movie I thought it would be.

“Pitch Perfect” scribe Kay Cannon writes and directs yet another version of the Charles Perrault classic, this one originally under the Sony umbrella but sold to Amazon to be released this weekend on Prime streaming. While they share the same name, “Cinderella” 2021 has little in common with the other versions outside of the basic details. Instead what we get here is an aggressively modernized reimagining with what seems like a poorly veiled distaste for the fairytale that inspired it.

While I’m not sure anyone was clamoring for a new “Cinderella” movie, Cannon’s musical version had some promise. But it’s too preoccupied with highlighting its own forward-thinking and wedging in every policy from the progressive playbook. There’s no nuance, subtlety or cleverness to be found anywhere in this laughably heavy-handed reinvention. We see the politics everywhere, but where’s the magic?

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

To clarify, Cannon has a tale that’s ready-made for a fun and enlightened update. The story of female empowerment and following one’s dreams should inspire any young girl. And its critique of a backwards male-dominated society speaks to issues that still have relevance today. But do we really go to a “Cinderella” movie for what it has to say about the coal industry or military spending?

Some of this would be easier to digest if the story itself wasn’t so flat. We get a few flashes of originality, but the movie ends up backing itself into a corner and routinely falls into traps that it itself set. Meanwhile characters are nothing but a swirl of bland caricatures. In fairness, some of this is due to classic story which most of us know by heart. But it’s still reasonable to expect the characters to be interesting, especially in a movie that makes such a big deal out of distancing itself from the other adaptations. They aren’t.

And the music isn’t much better. Weird covers of songs by Janet Jackson, Queen, Madonna, Salt-N-Pepa, Ed Sheeran and others too often sounds like group karaoke rather than movie musical numbers. And even the songs by pop-star Camil Cabello (the film’s lone burst of genuine energy) quickly begin sounding exactly the same.

The film’s on-the-nose introduction gives you a good sense of where its head is at – “Once upon a time there was an old-fashioned kingdom bound by tradition.” From there we’re introduced to Ella (Cabello), an aspiring fashion designer who’s far more interested in owning her own dress shop than finding her Prince Charming. Unfortunately she’s stuck under the same roof as her wicked stepmother Vivian (Idina Menzel in a thankless role). While Ella is full of her own dreams, Vivian submits whole-heartedly to the kingdom’s patriarchy. And she’s determined to make sure her girls do too.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Meanwhile in the lavish castle on the hill lives the cartoonishly thickheaded King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan), his remarkably dull wife Queen Beatrice (Minnie Driver), his hyper-leftist daughter Gwen (Tallulah Greive) and of course his son Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine), who is (reluctantly) next in line for the crown. The King, who’s more worried about his power and perception than his son’s wishes, insists that Robert find him a wife. So what does any good house of royalty do? You throw a ball!

You know where it goes from there. With the help of a little magic (and I mean very little) Ella goes to the ball where the nobleman and the commoner fall for each other. But Ella is no stay-at-castle kind of girl. She has her own aspirations and enough girl-power to see them come true. It’s the only real twist to the classic story that’s remotely interesting. Unfortunately it too is glaringly predictable and ends with a rather underwhelming thud.

The film takes several big swings at comedy and pretty much misses every time. The biggest whiff comes with Billy Porter’s loud and garish performance as the Fabulous Fairy Godmother. It’s essentially Billy Porter playing Billy Porter and mercifully it’s only one (albeit long) scene. Speaking of distractions, producer James Corden sticks himself into the movie playing a talking mouse turned human footman. If you thought the viral video of him dancing in a mouse costume was bad, wait till you see this.

“Cinderella” ends up being a movie that’s so enamored with giving the classic fairytale a makeover that it forgets everything else. It’s a musical without good songs. It’s a comedy that isn’t funny. It’s a romance that lacks spark. The biggest casualty is Cabello who has some noticeable charm and even a little swagger which I liked. But material like this doesn’t highlight any of her acting or musical strengths. In fact it doesn’t highlight much of anything other than the fact that we really didn’t need another Cinderella movie. “Cinderella” premieres tomorrow (September 3rd) in theaters and on Amazon Prime streaming.

VERDICT – 1 STAR

REVIEW: “Candyman” (2021)

The original 1992 “Candyman” came out as the VHS era was booming. DVDs were still four years away so VHS cassettes were the way millions of people consumed their movies. When “Candyman” came out it wasn’t some genre-changing masterpiece, yet critics recognized not only its gory violence but its surprisingly rich social commentary. But for many, “Candyman” was just another VHS tape stuck in the horror section at their local video store.

As prep for my review of the new “Candyman” sequel, I rewatched Bernard Rose’s ‘92 original for the first time in decades. It turns out the critics’ favorable appraisal still holds up. I only wish I felt as strong about Nia DaCosta’s fascinating yet frustrating 2021 follow-up.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

“Candyman” the 2021 edition is an entertaining mess; a film that grabs your attention and keeps it till the very end. At the same it’s a movie that teases far more than it delivers. It’s one that alludes to thought-provoking issues rather than exploring them in a challenging way. Even worse, its shaky storytelling skips over too many details leaving us with too many questions. Oh, and it wraps up with a hilariously on-the-nose ending that undercuts any suspense the film had mustered so far.

Written by DaCosta, Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld, the film follows Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a hot-shot visual artist who’s struggling to find inspiration. He lives rent-free with his girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris) in her swanky new Chicago apartment. She’s a well-connected art gallery director who has always encouraged Anthony. But he’s in a funk and needs something to spark his creativity.

Anthony finds that elusive inspiration while researching the local urban legend of Candyman. See the 1992 movie for more details, but Candyman is said to be a supernatural killer in a trench-coat and with a meat-hook for a hand. Legend has it if you say his name five times in the mirror Candyman will appear in the reflection and kill whoever summoned him. (I’ve never fully understood those rules, but that’s fine).

Anthony visits the abandoned Cabrini Green projects which was terrorized by Candyman decades earlier. He runs into a neighborhood old-timer named William (the always good Colman Domingo) who shares his first-hand account with Candyman. Before you know it an obsessed Anthony is chanting Candyman’s name in the mirror, a fresh bee sting on his hand is festering, and gruesome deaths start popping up across the city.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

From the film’s earliest scenes DaCosta shows off her knack for framing shots. She does some unique and clever things with the camera that does more to add tension than anything written into the story itself. At the same time, she seems to have an aversion to blood and gore. I mean we do get a chopped hand, there’s a particularly gnarly slit throat, and Anthony’s infected hand gets pretty nasty. But far too often DaCosta cuts away or zooms out from the action, even relying solely on sound in a couple of scenes. It will be a welcomed choice for weak stomachs and a disappointment for some genre fans.

Meanwhile the mostly fright-free story zips along, infusing the lore of first film with its own current-day perspective. It’s a great idea on the surface, but the story ends up needlessly convoluted and with gaping holes in its logic. And while it seems interested in meaningful topics such as race and gentrification, just referencing them isn’t the same as dealing with them. It’s one of several areas where “Candyman” shows promise but fails to deliver. “Candyman” opens in theaters Friday, August 27th.

VERDICT – 2 STARS