REVIEW: “Cherry” (2021)

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Tom Holland once again separates himself from his friendly neighborhood superhero persona in the new Apple Original “Cherry”. Last year he did it with “The Devil All the Time”, a dark and violent Southern Gothic drama. Next to “Cherry” that flick plays like an afternoon special on the Disney Channel. This time Holland throws aside any hint of his boyish humor and Peter Park charm to wade into the heavy topics of drug abuse, dependency, PTSD, and more.

“Cherry” is directed by Marvel Studios favorites Anthony and Joe Russo. But make no mistake, there is nothing here that remotely resembles their rousing work in the MCU. Instead “Cherry” soaks its audience in unpleasantness from its dour and (mostly) hopeless point-of-view to the grating f-bomb laden dialogue from writers Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg. The Russos do try to inject a little dark humor here and there, but next to the story’s dark and depressing subject matter those brief moments are smothered out and forgotten. That’s all fine, but when the movie struggles to relay its bigger message or any real meaning those things become a liability and are harder to endure.

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Image Courtesy of Apple

“Cherry” is based on Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical 2018 novel of the same name. It’s a very real story for Walker who actually wrote his book from prison where he was serving 11 years for robbing banks to support his heroin habit. The movie breaks itself up into chapters that cover a young Ohio man’s troubled odyssey through college, army basic training, deployment, then back home where he gets hooked on drugs and begins robbing banks to support his addiction. And let me just say, in “Cherry” robbing banks is easier than shoplifting a piece of gum from a convenient store. No mask required, no police chase afterwards. Just be cordial, tell them you have a gun and they’ll hand over stacks of cash. Easy-peasy. It’s one of several things the movie serves up that strains any sense of believability.

Holland immerses himself in this character who starts down his tragic path by swapping Xanax for Ecstasy at college parties. But his life turns around when he meets the girl of his dreams Emily (Ciara Bravo), that is until she breaks his heart which leads to a spur-of-the-moment decision to enlist in the army. Then in the worst stroke of movie luck, Emily comes back to him but not before he’s set for basic training and then shipped to the Middle East in the latter days of the Iraq War. A large chunk of the movie (too large) follows his time as a barely trained medic and the horrors of the battlefield which lead to his PTSD.

From there it’s back home to Cleveland where Emily awaits and yet another lengthy chapter of the young man’s life begins. It’s here that the Russos vividly capture PTSD and the psychological damage it brings as well as the crushing effects of drug addiction. But no matter how hard he tries, or how much pale makeup they put on him, or how many f-bombs he screams, Holland never feels right for the part. It’s not for lack of commitment and it’s not that his performance is empty or feels untrue. He simple struggles to sell the grit and numbness the role demands. Same with Bravo. As with Holland, her performance isn’t “bad”. But (through no fault of her own) she looks 10 years too young and Bravo is handcuffed to Emily’s woefully shallow and hard-to-buy descent into addiction.

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Image Courtesy of Apple

“Cherry” is also hampered by some weird creative choices such as its tone-jarring breaking of the fourth wall. In these scenes characters yank the movie out of the reality-based setting it so desperately wants to depict. It’s a style and storytelling choice that offers nothing and even the movie itself seems unconvinced of its effectiveness. Maybe that’s why it all but disappears in the film’s second half. And the decision to go with a chapter-based structure only highlights one of the movie’s bigger issues – its overwrought and overstuffed story. And speaking of style choices, did I mention there’s a shot from inside Holland’s rectum looking out? Cutting edge stuff, right?

There’s something undeniably disturbing about watching two young people who look like kids (even though both stars are in their twenties) losing themselves in a drug-addled mire of misery and self-destruction. But those aren’t the optics “Cherry” is going for. The Russos have bigger ambitions and shoot for the stars in what amounts to their attempt at a prestige movie. It’s them saying “See, we can make more than big-budget, crowd-pleasing, superhero extravaganzas“. The problem is “Cherry” is a mess. It’s story is overcooked, its storytelling hampered by bad decisions. Even worse, after watching it for 140 long minutes, I was completely indifferent to the characters, their story, and the film as a whole. That’s pretty damning, especially for a movie so sure of itself yet so emotionally hollow. “Cherry” opens February 26th in select theaters before streaming March 12th on Apple TV+.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

SUNDANCE REVIEW: “Censor” (2021)

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For many Americans like me the term ‘Video Nasty’ is a new one. Basically it’s exactly what it sounds like – a label in the UK typically designated for low-budget horror and exploitation films. During the VHS boom these flicks were distributed on video cassette and met with harsh criticism by various organizations for their graphic and excessive violence. In “Censor”, the exciting feature film debut for writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond, ‘Video Nasties’ play a central role in this fresh and unconventional slice of horror.

The film is anchored by a strong and layered lead performance from Irish actress Niamh Algar. She plays Enid, a film censor in 1980’s London who spends her days watching VHS movies with her colleagues. I’m talking about hilariously titled flicks such as “Cannibal Carnage”, “Driller Killer”, and “Beast Man”. The censors are tasked with assessing the content of the films and then determining what must be cut before it’s allowed into the public. Enid takes her job seriously, considering it her duty to “protect people“. When asked if the steady diet of blood-soaked violence rattles her she replies “I’m focused on getting it right. Don’t really think about anything else.”

Enid’s life outside of work is practically nonexistent in large part due to the disappearance of her sister Nina some twenty years earlier. Enid is still haunted by dreams of the two of them playing together in the woods shortly before she vanished. But that’s all she can recall and she blames herself for not remembering more. Her parents (Andrew Havil and Clare Holman) have seen the effect it’s having on Enid and they’re ready to declare Nina legally dead and move on. But Enid’s not giving up and holds out hope despite the grim prognosis.

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But the truth is Enid’s job combined with the disappearance of her sister is wearing her down. It comes a head when she’s asked to screen a film called “Don’t Go Into the Church” from a notorious filmmaker and provocateur named Frederick North (Adrian Schiller). She’s instantly shaken a scene depicting two young girls in the forest. It triggers flashbacks and soon an unraveling Enid ventures down a twisted rabbit hole of suspicion driven by her past trauma and deep-rooted guilt.

Along the way we get an interesting but shortchanged side-story that nibbles at but never takes a bite of the ‘art versus literalism’ debate. It’s introduced when a maniac gruesomely murders his wife and claims to have been inspired by a violent scene from a film Enid screened. Soon the morally outraged “Save the Children” crowd are camping outside of her apartment and hounding her with nasty phone calls. There’s a lot of soil to plow especially considering Enid considered herself among the morality defenders. But that’s as far as the arc goes and it’s mainly there just to throw gas on Enid’s emotional decline.

“Censor” moves along with a dark psychological pulse, slowly building towards a bloody finish that blurs the line between what’s real and what isn’t. Bailey-Bond clearly loves horror and her open-armed embrace of the genre leads to some eerie yet delightfully nostalgic touches. Add to it a perfectly tuned lead performance, moody claustrophobic cinematography from Annika Summerson, and layers of terrific 1980’s detail. You end up with a fascinating stew, uneven in spots but never dull, and with plenty to say about censorship, media violence, self-blame, and denial. And all with a few coats of blood for good measure.

VERDICT- 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

RETRO REVIEW: “Children of the Corn” (1984)

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For the past few months I’ve dedicated several Wednesdays to doing Retro Reviews. The way it works is I put up three options on my Twitter feed (you can follow me @KeithandMovies). Followers vote, I rewatch the movie, and then post the review the following Wednesday. Whatever film finishes second comes back the next week against two new choices. So basically you pick what I watch and review.

When you hear “Children of the Corn” you almost can’t help but be amused. Not at the concept (the idea is actually quite chilling), but at the title itself. And after watching it for the first time in years the title isn’t the only thing that made me giggle. Yet despite very much being a movie of its time, there is something about director Fritz Kiersch’s folk horror feature from 1984 that I still find enjoyable.

The film is based on Stephen King’s 1977 short story of the same name. King was originally set to handle the screenplay, but the filmmakers felt his draft was too “internal” much like a novel and lacked the required cinematic quality. Much to King’s chagrin, his script was tossed and George Goldsmith was brought in for rewrites. Goldsmith invented two child characters and used their perspectives to tell much of the story.

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Photo Courtesy of New World Pictures

The film opens with scene-setting shots of dry, crisp corn stalks blowing in the wind, the cracked sun-baked ground, and a dilapidated old shed looking centuries old. The images are interrupted by the ringing church bells Grace Baptist Church of Gatlin, Nebraska. The sign out front advertises the Sunday sermon – “Corn drought and the Lord”. After church many of the congregation, including a young boy named Job (Robby Kiger) and his father, gather at the small town’s diner as they do every Sunday. But instead of a cozy hometown meal, the adults are poisoned and butchered by entranced blade-wielding teens. All of Gatlin’s adults were murdered that day in a series of brutal ritual killings.

That was three years earlier. Jump ahead to present day where the brainwashed kids live out in the cornfield following a creepy pre-teen cult leader named Isaac (John Franklin). He allegedly speaks for a demonic entity referred to only as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” (catchy name). Isaac’s right-hand enforcer Malachi (Courtney Gains) handles the cult’s field work. Namely carving up nosy adults passing through, organizing the human sacrifices, and yellow cult-like things super loudly.

Enter Vicky (Linda Hamilton) and her boyfriend Burt (Peter Horton), a recent medical school graduate. The couple are driving across the Midwest on their way to Seattle where Burt is set to begin his first internship. While traveling through rural Nebraska a jolting accident diverts them through the deserted town of (you guessed it) Gatlin. Soon they find themselves knee-deep in killer kid cultists and the only help comes from Job and his little sister Sarah (Anne Marie McEvoy).

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Photo Courtesy of New World Pictures

“Children of the Corn” may have more lows than highs, but it does some things really well. Kiersch makes good use of the isolated farmland setting. Whether its the never-ending cornfields or the dried-up town (a possible analogy for dying small town Americana). Also I wouldn’t go as far as to call the film a slow burn, but it uncoils at a very deliberate pace which actually serves the story well and shields it from some pretty obvious limitations.

But not everything works as well. When approached with the needed suspension of disbelief, Goldsmith’s story itself is fine. But some of his dialogue is glaringly wooden and can be downright corny (sorry, I couldn’t resist). And while you never want to come down hard on child actors, some of their performances here are excruciating. Wobbly dialogue mixed with even worse acting equals some pretty bad scenes. And I feel guilty for even mentioning the special effects. Clearly the movie had budget restrictions and it wisely avoids big effects shots. But when they do come near the end of the film….ouch.

Still despite its obvious shortcomings, “Children of the Corn” remains entertaining which is a big reason it has earned a pretty loyal cult following in the 36 years since its original release. It’s hard to praise it too much, but it’s still an easy-to-digest horror picture build on some cool ideas. It’s also fun watching an early pre-Terminator Linda Hamilton performance. It hasn’t aged particularly well, but the fun hint of nostalgia I felt during the rewatch in undeniable.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” Season 7

ClonePOSTER1It goes without saying that K&M is predominately a movie site. But on rare occasions a television series or season resonates so profoundly with a particular fanbase or the culture in general that I feel compelled to write about it. The long-awaited final season of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” recently wrapped up on Disney Plus, and a Star Wars die-hard like me couldn’t help but spend some time on it.

When Disney bought the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas in 2012 it brought with it some real highs and a few lows. One real travesty to come from the acquisition was the immediate cancellation of the hugely popular animated series “The Clone Wars”. It caught many people by surprise and it left several lose ends, never giving the series a proper finish.

It took years but Disney finally green-lit a 12-episode final season which brought back most of the talent and creative team who had made the series so great. To no surprise the announcement was met with unbridled enthusiasm and the reactions to the finished product have been just as exciting.

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Photo Courtesy Disney Plus

The first four episodes are back to business and do a great job reoriented us with the series, its tone, and its characters. The episodes introduce the Bad Batch, a special-ops team of four clones enhanced with “desirable” mutations. They’re called in to help Rex and Cody on a mission to discover how the separatists are predicting every strategic military move the Republic makes. Again, it’s a great way to get us back in tune with the series.

The next four episodes bring back crowd-favorite Ahsoka Tano (voiced by the terrific Ashley Eckstein), really digging into her character and showing her first steps back on her destiny’s path. We see Ahsoka lost and rudderless after leaving the Jedi Order in season 5. She keeps to herself in the lower levels of Coruscant, hiding her identity and her past. After crashing her speeder bike she meets two sisters, hitting it off with one, not so much the other. Ahsoka ends up accompanying them on a mission that quickly turns dangerous. Does she reveal her true self and face the danger or stay hidden and hope for the best? It’s a great setup for what’s to come.

That seamlessly leads into the final four episodes chronicling the long talked about Siege of Mandalore. These are without question the best of the entire series and some of the best Star Wars storytelling we’ve ever seen. With breathtaking precision these episodes don’t just lead up to “Revenge of the Sith”, but they cross over into it. And they do so while wrapping up long unfinished storylines of their own which include Ahsoka, Darth Maul, and others. Surprising connections, startling revelations, and exhilarating showdowns fuel what is a proper finale to a tremendous series.

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Photo Courtesy Disney Plus

Quick tip: If you’re only following the animated series you may remember Darth Maul was last seen in season 5 in a rather precarious position with the soon-to-be emperor. In season 7 he’s already on the throne in Mandalore. Wondering what happened in between? Check out the graphic novel “Darth Maul: Son of Dathomir”. It’s a great story that nicely fills in that gap. It’s a brisk, entertaining precursor to season 7.

I can say without hesitation that “The Clone Wars” Season 7 is essential viewing for any Star Wars fan. It’s also one of the best television finales I have every watched. The animation was always good, but it has taken a step up. The direction of each episode still gives each a big screen cinematic feel. Tonally the writing fits the series beat-for-beat while masterfully wrapping up the story’s many moving parts: Maul’s arc gets the attention it needed, Ahsoka gets her well-deserved time to shine, the clones themselves get their moments as well.

Everything comes together in the best way imaginable, brilliantly connecting to “Revenge of the Sith” while setting up what’s to come in the next animated series “Rebels” and elsewhere. Supervising director Dave Filoni deserves a ton of credit for not only recapturing the spirit of the series but also giving it a spectacular send-off (if this is truly the final season). It’s infinitely rewatchable and deserving of every ounce of praise it has received.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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5star

REVIEW: “Capone” (2020)

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Josh Trank burst onto the scene in 2012 with “Chronicle”, his own spin on the superhero genre. While I wasn’t as smitten with it as most, the film earned high marks and seemed to put Trank on the fast-track to bigger projects. That came in 2015 with “Fantastic Four”, an unmitigated disaster that was widely panned and hampered by rumors of production discord between Trank and the studio.

“Capone” is Trank’s first film since the “Fantastic Four” debacle and he couldn’t have picked a more intriguing subject or a more captivating lead actor. Exploring the final days of arguably the most notorious mobster in American gangland history is fascinating in itself. Casting Tom Hardy to play the titular character just added to the excitement. Unfortunately “Capone” is a lethargic mess that never fully gets its feet under itself. On the other hand, the angle it takes in exploring one man’s madness couldn’t be done in a neat and tidy way.

The movie takes a look at the final months of Capone’s life as he lives in exile on his Palm Island, Florida estate. He’s no longer deemed a threat by the government, but they still keep him under constant surveillance. By this time Capone was a physically and mentally deteriorated shell of his former self, his body and mind eroded by neurosyphilis. So he spends his time confined to his mansion, battling ghosts from his past and haunting hallucinations that may or may not be rooted in reality.

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Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

“Capone” is a one-man show, resting squarely on the shoulders of the intensely committed Tom Hardy. There are other characters though including Linda Cardellini playing his wife Mae, a woman trapped in their relationship but content to let it play out. Kyle MacLachlan plays the family doctor who is coerced by the feds into being their earpiece. Matt Dillon pops up as an old friend and enforcer who pays Al a visit. And we get Gino Cafarelli as a loyal-till-the-end lieutenant who watches over his dying boss’ place.

But it’s all about Big Al and Hardy’s ‘method’ deep-dive which leaves no detail unexplored. His performance fits well with Trank’s self-aware treatment which is partly based on fact and just as much on fiction. Hardy digs down into the cigar-chomping Capone’s fractured psyche, portraying a dementia-riddled 47-year-old in a doddering old man’s body.  It’s a surreal portrait, slightly absurd and even more grotesque, masked by raspy growls, bloodshot eyes, and a sickly pale complexion. It shows a man consumed by guilt, paranoia, and indignation but held captive by his pitiful, steadily weakening frame.

Trank (who wrote, edited, and directed) teases Capone’s violent past, but he never gives it space to be glamorized. From his blood-drenched nightmares to his urine-soaked pajamas, the Capone seen here isn’t afforded a single scene of celebration. Instead Trank focuses on the ugliness of a man stripped bare of his former glory and living with the rotten fruits of his brutal, violent labors. Every frame of this film is intent on shattering the Al Capone mythos. On that level Trank accomplishes exactly what he sets out to do.

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Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

“Capone” is an ugly, uncomfortable movie, but so is its subject matter. Neither Josh Trank’s filmmaking nor Tom Hardy’s performance allow a second for nostalgia or romanticizing. There are no warm flashbacks or reminiscing of the glory days. The movie isn’t interested in what got Capone to this point. It is interested in bringing him face-to-face with the futility of his opulence, power and past pleasures.

“Capone” has already proven to be a polarizing film and in many ways it was destined to be. This is not your standard biopic nor does is feature a conventional narrative. It’s a movie full of blurred lines and disorienting visions. There is no steady dramatic throughline except for a fun macguffin involving the hidden $10 million Geraldo Rivera thought he found back in 1986. Everyone wants to get their hands on it, but its location is lost in Capone’s addled mind. Trank throws out clues to where the money is hidden and I had fun figuring out where I thought it might be.

But that’s about all the “story” you’re going to get. The rest is a grim foray into a disease-ravaged mind anchored by Hardy’s grab-it-by-the-throat performance. Is that enough to warrant sitting through so much unpleasantness? You’ll have to make that call. Me, I’m kinda on the fence. I really want more in terms of character depth and story. At the same time I can’t help but appreciate Trank’s audacity and unflinching commitment to his vision. And the sheer craft on display shows a side of Trank we haven’t seen before.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “The Call of the Wild” (2020)

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When prepping to watch “The Call of the Wild” I couldn’t help but wonder which is the greater American classic: Jack London’s timeless 1903 novel or Harrison Ford? If I was honest I’d have to admit that I find Ford to be the bigger draw. But personal bias aside, London’s beloved novel is a significant blind spot for me so I was anxious to see what it was all about.

This latest adaption had its share of pluses and minuses. I’ve already mentioned Ford and the source material as strengths. Add to it a really good supporting cast. On the negative side, a movie with a $150 million budget getting a February release usually isn’t a good sign. And you never know what you’re going to get when there’s such a hefty dependence animal CGI.

Long-time animator, screenwriter, and director Chris Sanders makes his live-action directorial debut, working from a script written by Michael Green (“Logan”, “Blade Runner 2049”). Their lead character is a congenial and rambunctious St. Bernard-Scotch Collie dog named Buck. Here’s the catch, he isn’t played by a real dog at all. He’s an elaborate coat of CGI on top of a fine motion capture performance from the talented Terry Notary. The problem is you never fully forget he is a digital creation despite how impressive he looks.

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Photo: 20th Century Studios

In fairness I’m not sure London’s story could have been told any other way. Buck’s harrowing adventure across the Yukon is filled will action and peril and I simply can’t see a real pup pulling it off. The good thing is there is enough personality in Buck to make him feel like a full-on character. He works best when he is simply being a dog and doing doggie things. It’s when the filmmakers add human expressions that Buck suddenly comes across as fake.

Buck’s overall story is heart-tugging but it’s the human actors who sell it best. Set in the 1890’s during the Gold Rush, the story begins in Santa Clara, California where the clumsy but lovable Buck lives happily with a well-to-do local judge (Bradley Whitford). Gold Fever has driven people to pay top dollar for able dogs to pull sleds in the Yukon where “there’s gold in them thar hills“. Buck is snatched by scoundrels, sold to an abusive trader, and stuck on a freighter bound for the Klondike.

Buck is purchased by Perrault, a kind man who delivers mail across the frozen Yukon. He’s played by the delightful French actor Omar Sy who brings a lot of warmth to the screen. Perrault needs an extra sled dog for his arduous route and sees something special in Buck. But once again not everyone Buck encounters represents the best side of humanity. Dan Stevens is a hoot playing a dastardly business man who only cares about the glittering fortune hidden in the mountains. Stevens’ scene-chewing is fun to watch even though his cruelty towards Buck isn’t.

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Photo: 20th Century Studios

As Buck moves from master to master, he keeps crossing paths with John Thornton (Ford), a tortured lost soul trying to cope with a family tragedy. He also serves as the movie’s narrator. From their first meeting the two seem destined to come together. Both are far from home and both are looking for something more valuable than gold. The grizzled Ford gives an earnest and understated performance, quietly lending pathos to Thornton while doing all he can to help us believe in Buck.

The story plays out through picturesque locations set across the gorgeous Canadian wilderness. Surprisingly, the bulk of it was shot in and around Los Angeles. Most of the stunning backdrops are CGI but so well done that you would never know it otherwise. That makes it easy to get lost in the beautiful, lush scenery.

In “The Call of the Wild” we get a story of a dog who witnesses the best and worst of humanity. Think of it as a Disney-fied “Au Hasard Balthazar” which is still giving it way too much credit. I hear it has been tamed down from the novel which might not sit well with purists, but that’s why I never pit movie against book. When taken on its own merits, it’s a satisfying crowdpleaser. A quick note: be careful with its PG rating. If you have young children go in thinking PG-13 instead.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars