REVIEW: “Concrete Cowboy” (2021)

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Idris Elba is an actor I’ve always admired. Whether he’s speaking with power and passion as Nelson Mandela or declaring himself Black Superman in “Hobbs & Shaw”. He has always possessed both leading man charisma and supporting role restraint. He uses a little of both in the new Netflix drama “Concrete Cowboy”, directed by Ricky Staub from a screenplay by Staub and Dan Walser. The film is based on the 2011 young adult novel “Ghetto Cowboy” by Greg Neri. Elba plays the estranged father of a troubled teen and brings just the right amount of gravitas and sincerity.

“Concrete Cowboy” tells a story set within the free-spirited horseriding subculture of Philadelphia’s inner-city. These modern-day urban cowboys from predominantly African-American communities (such as the Fletcher Street Riding Club) mentor youth and offer them an alternative to the dangerous street life. Staub’s film shines eye-opening light on this compelling pocket of humanity and the performances fill his film with character and heart. Yet this is a very by-the-numbers coming-of-age story and within 10 minutes you’ll have a good idea of where it’s going and how it will end.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

Elba is a key player but the film’s lead is Caleb McLaughlin (“Stranger Things”). He plays 15-year-old Cole, a wayward teen living in Detroit with his working single mother Amahle (Liz Priestley). After Cole is expelled from school following yet another fight, a helpless and heartbroken Amahle picks him up from school and drives him straight to Philadelphia. There she drops him off with two garbage bags full of clothes at his father’s place downtown and then drives away in tears. Staub wastes no time introducing us to this low-income yet richly cultured neighborhood where the rest of the movie is set. In fact, one of the real strengths is the film’s ability to capture a strong sense of place and community.

Cole and his father Harp (Elba) don’t exactly hit it off. Harp is a no-nonsense guy with strict take-it-or-leave-it house rules. Cole pushes back and ends up reconnecting with a shady childhood friend named Smush (a very good Jharrel Jerome). But Cole is also introduced to his father’s passion – horses and the small group of neighborhood riders who make up their club. And this forms the dichotomy Cole will wrestle with for most of the movie – two vastly different lifestyles with significantly different outlooks pulling him in opposite directions.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

The movie is at its best when it’s sitting us down with the riders and letting us listen to their playful banter and personal stories. Or when it allows us to tag along and watch Cole’s challenging initiation into Harp’s group. We get to meet some interesting characters in these scenes, none better than Lorraine Toussaint’s Nessie, a wise and tough-loving mother figure with her finger on the neighborhood’s pulse. Her stables are a safe haven from the allure of street-life and the balm that help heal the film’s central father/son relationship. Staub also casts some real-life Fletcher Street riders who add a noticeable layer of authenticity to the stable scenes.

The film’s predictability turns out to be its biggest weakness. Not a single plot point, story beat, or character angle will surprise you. Instead it’s the vibrant community setting that feels fresh and unexplored. There’s something to watching Idris Elba and his fellow urban cowboys stoically riding their horses, not across an open rolling plain, but through cramped inner-city streets. And you never doubt it for a second. This is just one of many segments of Black America with stories waiting to be told. And as surreal as it sometimes looks and sounds, this horseback riding culture has for decades fought for its very existence. Staub captures that unique essence even though the particulars of the story he’s telling are nothing new. “Concrete Cowboy” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “The Courier” (2021)

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Dominic Cooke’s Cold War drama “The Courier” tells the incredible true story of businessman turned British spy Greville Wynne. An electrical engineer by trade, the unassuming Wynne became a key MI6 asset who played a vital part in securing intelligence from the Soviet Union including secret documents which helped bring an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Similar to 2015’s “Bridge of Spies”, this is a story of a non-combatant willing to put his life on the line for the greater good. And like that Steven Spielberg picture, “The Courier” works thanks to its immersive storytelling, strong supporting work, and a terrific lead performance.

Written by Tom O’Connor, “The Courier” sets itself in the early 1960’s where nuclear tensions between Russia and the United States were at a boil. It was a time when many people feared the world was on the brink of destruction. In the movie we hear radio broadcasts relaying instructions on what to do in case of a nuclear attack. We see newspaper headlines telling of new fallout shelters being built by the U.S. government. These are just some of the period touches that help immerse us in the uneasiness and uncertainty of the setting.

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Image Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a knockout lead performance playing Greville, a simple salesman who is recruited by a British MI6 agent (Angus Wright) and an operative with the CIA (Rachel Brosnahan). They want the reluctant Greville to establish business dealings in the Soviet Union while connecting with Col. Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a senior Soviet intelligence officer with top-secret information he desperately wants to get to the West. Much of the film highlights the unexpected bond that forms between Greville and Oleg – a genuine friendship built on the shaky foundation of trust and mutual respect.

Greville’s ‘mission‘ seems simple enough at first – set up sales meetings, wine and dine potential business partners, and make the occasional stop at the Russian ballet. But when the agents and Oleg want Greville to be their go-between and smuggle secret Soviet documents and weapons plans out of country, the danger level of his work skyrockets. Meanwhile at home his wife Sheila (a wonderful Jessie Buckley) grows suspicious of her husband’s frequent trips to the USSR. It doesn’t help that he’s had an “indiscretion” in the past. Now she notices him suddenly into exercise and scurrying off on business trips with little explanation. So naturally it’s easier to believe her husband is having an affair than working as a secret agent for the Crown.

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Image Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Cumberbatch has the perfect makeup for these types of roles. He effortlessly captures the timid self-effacing everyman type while also seamlessly blending into whatever period setting he’s playing in. Here he brings all of that but with some extra intensity that especially shows up in the final 30 minutes. But in many ways Penkovsky is the heart of the movie. Ninidze’s performance reveals a man of deep conviction who loves his family, mourns for his country, and understands both are in jeopardy. Therefore he feels obligated to act in order to save what is dearest to him. Buckley never gives a bad performance and here she provides us a deceptively potent emotional attachment to the story. I also really enjoyed Brosnahan. I wish she had more to do but she’s great with what she is given.

If I have any gripes it’s that in some ways “The Courier” feels like a standard issue spy thriller and it comes with the tropes to prove it. The film employs several stock techniques from the spy genre both narratively and visually. And while the cinematography from Sean Bobbitt is superb in terms of compositions, camera movements and framing, the drab desaturated colors are a bit overdone. Those things aside, “The Courier” is helped by its compelling ‘based on true events‘ element and by its deep respect for its characters who effectively pull us into this remarkable story of valor, sacrifice, and friendship. “The Courier” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Coming 2 America” (2021)

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It’s hard to believe it has been 33 years since Eddie Murphy’s hysterical culture clash comedy “Coming to America” was released, becoming one of the biggest box office hits of 1988. It’s even harder to believe that after 33 years we actually have a sequel that brings back Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall along with the colorful and eclectic band of side characters who were essential to the original film’s success.

“Coming 2 America” (as it’s cleverly titled) taps into some of the same charm and comic energy that earned its predecessor such a loyal following. But this time around things feel much more studio packaged. Also, it’s not nearly as daring or anarchic especially in the movie’s second half where director Craig Brewer and the trio of screenwriters are content to play it safe. The laughs more-or-less dry up and the film slides into cruise control, staying that way for the remainder of its running time.

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Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The story begins in bright sunny Zamunda on the morning of Prince Akeem (Murphy) and Princess Lisa’s (Shari Headley) 30th wedding anniversary. Much is still the same in the African monarchy with the Akeem and his family still living the palace life in all of its absurd royal excess. What has changed are the couple’s three daughters and the spark they bring to the palace. Their oldest is Princess Meeka (Kiki Layne), a lover of Zamunda who has worked and trained her entire life to be a worthy heir to her father’s throne. The problem is Zamunda is still ruled under an archaic stale patriarchy that states the throne can only be occupied by a male. Akeem had sworn to overturn such a dated tradition but instead of ushering in a new Zamunda he has become more like his ailing father King Jaffe (James Earl Jones).

Akeem’s lack of a male heir doesn’t escape the notice of General Izzi (a wonderfully campy Wesley Snipes), military leader of Nextdooria (that’s Next-Door-ia). He demands that Meeka marry his air-headed son in order for there to be peace between their two nations. Everything about Snipes is heightened and preposterous (in a really funny way) from his wacky speech tone to his hilariously pompous entrances. General Izzi is as close as we get to an antagonist, but it’s mainly a chance for Snipes to ham it up which I kinda loved.

Through circumstances I won’t spoil Akeem learns that he has an illegitimate son named Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) in Queens, New York. Fans of the first movie had to be scratching their heads after this plotline was revealed in the trailer. After all, the reason Akeem went to America in the first movie was to find a wife who would love him for who he was. He had no interest in “sowing his royal oats“. This story maneuvers around that in a ludicrous but weirdly fitting way. So Akeem and his best friend/royal troublemaker Semmi (Arsenio Hall) head back to America to find his son and bring him back to Zamunda. Akeem does so not to connect with his true first-born and be a father to him. But so that he will finally have a not-so-rightful male heir to his throne.

“Coming 2 America” is at its best during its first 30 minutes or so where it feels very much in tune with the first movie. Whether it’s John Amos returning as Lisa’s father Cleo who has opened up a McDowell’s burger joint in Zamunda while still denying he stole his inspiration from McDonald’s. Or back in Queens where Akeem and Semmi revisit the savagely politically-incorrect Clarence and his barbershop buddies. And of course the movie features Murphy and Hall back in makeup and costumes reprising their numerous supporting roles including the aforementioned Clarence, the ever-awful soul singer Randy Watson, the womanizing Reverend Brown, and a new character Baba, a Zamundan witch doctor. This is where the movie shines.

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Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The second half softens up considerably, tossing aside most things risqué or suggestive enabling the film to secure that PG-13 rating. It becomes this appealing but at times bland family comedy-lite with Lavelle and his Queens momma (Leslie Jones) clashing with the royal lifestyle while Akeem slowly wakes up to the silliness of a male-dominated society. As for Hall, he’s mostly left on the sidelines, popping up for a line of dialogue or a quick gag then *poof* he’s gone again. Aside from that there’s nothing glaringly bad about the back half. It just feels plain and ordinary. With the exception of its setting and a few fun nostalgic nods, there’s nothing about the last 45 minutes that will stick with you past the closing credits.

Looking back, it was the irreverence and satirical bite that made the ’88 film so funny and memorable. That movie wasn’t afraid to be silly or edgy and it never took itself seriously. It was infinitely quotable and there is a good reason why some of its scenes have over 3 million views on YouTube. The sequel opens with the same infectious cheeky vibe before settling in as a tame and rather conventional comedy. It ends up being an entertaining enough nostalgia trip that revisits some great comic characters from the past. Even if they aren’t as roundly funny as before, simply seeing them 30 years later is a joy in itself. “Coming 2 America” premieres tomorrow (March 5th) on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “Chaos Walking” (2021)

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Signature pieces in Disney’s two biggest properties team up in the new sci-fi adventure “Chaos Walking” from director Doug Liman. Tom Holland (the MCU’s Spider-Man) and Daisy Ridley (a now prominent Jedi in the Star Wars universe) star in this adaptation of the first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy from author Patrick Ness. The film has been in the works for some time with principal photography wrapping up way back in 2017. Poor screen tests led to a number of reshoots which had to be delayed due to the other franchise commitments of its two stars.

With its rocky production behind it, “Chaos Walking” is finally set for its proper release. In addition to Holland and Ridley, the film packs a solid supporting cast including Mads Mikkelsen, Cynthia Erivo, David Oyelowo, Demián Bichir, and Nick Jonas. Ness writes the screenplay along with Christopher Ford. What we get is a movie built on a compelling and imaginative premise that realizes much of its potential. At the same time it leaves way too many loose ends, making it feel like a frustrating first installment rather than its own well-rounded movie.

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Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Holland plays Todd Hewitt, a boy who is part of an all-male colony on a distant planet called New World. As a mysterious side-effect of living on the planet, each male is afflicted with something they call “the Noise”. It puts every thought in their head on display, allowing others to hear (and in some cases see) what they are thinking. It’s a torturous condition that lays everything bare and only a few have learned how to suppress and control it. Liman visualizes the Noise as a milky haze that swirls around a person’s head like smoke whenever they have a thought. It then dissipates as quickly as it comes. It’s a crafty and effective visual.

Things are shaken up when Todd discovers a space capsule that has crash-landed on the planet. Among the wreckage is Viola (Ridley), the lone survivor and the first girl Todd has ever seen. Immediately his mind kicks into overdrive and his Noise gives away his curiosity and attraction. But it’s quickly noticed that Viola has no Noise. Amazed, Todd takes her to David Prentiss, the colony’s fur coat-clad Mayor who informs her that only men are afflicted with the Noise. He goes on to tell her about a war against a native species that overtook their colony and slaughtered all the women. Viola reveals that she is part of a scouting mission sent from a bigger ship in the planet’s orbit. If the Mayor can help her contact her ship they can send down a rescue team.

But after overhearing the Mayor’s nefarious intentions, Viola flees. In the meantime Todd learns some unsettling truths about the colony’s past that have been hidden from the people by those in power. After his adopted father Ben (Bichir) reveals the long held secret of a second colony, Todd tracks down Viola and the two head off to find the settlement hoping the people there can help her contact her ship. Like any good antagonist, the Mayor and his band of loyalists including his son Davy (Jonas) pursue them setting up the movie’s central conflict.

Along the way we’re fed morsels of much-needed backstory yet so many details are missing. The extent of the Mayor’s deception, his greater ambitions aside from being a standard-issue megalomaniac, anything about the native inhabitants known as the Spackle, a better understanding of the Noise. So much is passed over and unaddressed. Characters suffer as much as the story. Take Oyelowo’s Aaron who everyone refers to as Preacher. He’s a mysteriously wicked presence; a violent and tormented man ravaged by his Noise. He’s also woefully underwritten and left to skulk around with little for us latch onto. Erivo and the people of the second colony don’t fare much better. You get the sense they have an entire story worth telling, but like so many other things they are skimmed over and more-or-less forgotten.

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Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

On the positive side, the film and the two lead characters are aided by some good chemistry between Holland and Ridley. Todd’s tell-all mind adds a fun twist to their relationship which the movie frequently plays around with. Hearing his thoughts constantly sell him out can be terrifying around enemies but also pretty funny when he’s with Viola and leads to him constantly chirping at himself “hide your Noise, hide your Noise“. And as you would expect, Mikkelsen makes for a menacing baddie even though so much about his character is glossed over leaving him feeling less of a threat than he could have been. But Mikkelsen is always reliable, even when the material isn’t.

“Chaos Walking” ends up being a weird experience. It’s a movie I enjoyed on a surface level, but the slightest look deeper leaves you with far more questions than answers. Even the ending fails to give any satisfying conclusion, wrapping up like a television episode that expects you to tune in next week. Maybe there are franchise aspirations and that’s why so much is left unexplained. But this feels different – like a movie that has all the pieces (a good cast, nice visuals, interesting premise) but is missing the narrative glue that holds them all together. Frankly, I’d be really surprised if a second installment ever sees the light of day. “Chaos Walking” opens in theaters this Friday.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

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