REVIEW: “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”

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Just so you know where I’m coming from, Captain America has always been my favorite Marvel superhero and not just during his run in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Long before Marvel Studios started raking in billions of dollars at the box office, I was enthusiastically following Captain America’s comic book adventures, both as the head of the Avengers and out on his own. So naturally a series set in his world and featuring characters inextricably linked to him is going to appeal to me and a number of other enthusiastic fans.

The recently wrapped Disney+ series “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is another solid MCU entry but one (much like “WandaVision”) with its own unique set of issues. On the plus side, the series pulls both characters and storylines from Cap’s lengthy comics history and brings back some familiar faces from his three movies (among the best of the MCU). And with a hefty $150 million budget and the full backing of Marvel Studios, the series has a legitimate big screen look and feel to it. On the negative side, there are kinks in the storytelling due to its episodic constraints and some erratic pacing that showrunner Malcolm Spellman never quite irons out.

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Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

One of the biggest strengths of the six-episode series is that it finally brings some much-needed depth to two of Captain America’s most essential characters. James “Bucky” Barnes, aka the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), did have a big part in the Cap films but wasn’t much of a factor in “Infinity War” of “Endgame”. Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon, (Anthony Mackie) got even less screen time and was a character in desperate need of some attention. This series not only opens Sam up, but (much like Wanda in “WandaVision”) moves him to a pretty prominent position within the greater MCU.

The series opens with an interesting mix of blockbuster quality action scenes and intimate character building. Both are welcomed features even if they don’t exactly gel together that well. The first episode dives into Sam’s backstory while highlighting his struggle with self-assurance. It ends with the introduction of John Walker (Wyatt Russell), the new government sanctioned Captain America and a character most Cap comic fans will recognize. Then we get the puzzling second episode, a messy blend of action, character introductions, some heavy-handed social commentary, and attempts at humor that seem out of place. It does end with a bang with Daniel Brühl’s return as Baron Helmut Zemo.

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Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

This launches the series into the type of show most of us were waiting for. Zemo forced to help Bucky and Sam; the reemergence (yea!!!) of Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp); a mysterious crime lord known as the Power Broker; John Walker slowly losing his grip. There’s also a terrorist group called the Flag Smashers led by Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman). You get the sense that we’re supposed to have some level of sympathy for them, but it’s hard when they’re willfully bombing buildings and killing civilians. There are several other unexpected surprises, but through it all the story stays focused on Sam and his journey towards believing in himself and accepting the path in front of him.

There are quieter moments where the series steps away from terrorist attacks, infighting, and globetrotting. Such as when we meet Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly). His introduction is botched in episode two, but we see him later in a complicated yet powerful scene. In it, the reasonably embittered Isaiah shares his dark past with Sam, lamenting that there will never be a black Captain America while also declaring that no self-respecting black man would ever want to carry the shield. Inspired by the 2003 seven-issue limited series “Truth: Red, White & Black”, it’s a heartbreaking picture of someone so pained by the wounds of injustice that he can’t see the possibility of a better tomorrow.

Despite its structural and tonal issues, there is still a myriad of cool and compelling moving parts. So many that you start to wonder if Spellman can bring it all to a fitting conclusion. Well yes and no. The final episode is best defined as serviceable, one with some genuine high points but also some head-scratching missteps which in a way epitomizes the series as a whole. This is clearly Sam’s episode and he is given plenty of moments to shine. It’s really nice to see. Mackie has reached the point where he is in-tune with every facet of his character, but even he can’t save every scene. A glaring example is Sam’s well-intended yet painfully contrived monologue that runs nearly five minutes. It’s so overwritten and woefully on-the-nose.

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Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

It’s also a bummer that Bucky eventually falls by the wayside and becomes much more of a supporting character by the last episode. I get this is ultimately Sam’s show, but with his name literally stamped in the title you would expect there to be a little more to Bucky’s story. Yet it’s almost as if Spellman either lost interest or lost ideas. In fact Sam and Bucky barely have any meaningful scenes together in the finale. Back on the positive side, the final episode does give key players like Sharon, John Walker, and even Zemo chances to leave some important marks on the MCU

“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” may not have the most seamless story or the smoothest storytelling. It may be a tad too ambitious for its small six-episode frame. It may lack nuance with a lot of its messaging. At the same time it’s hard not to appreciate most of what it’s going for – the buddy movie vibe, the eye-popping action, the wonderful array of supporting characters, its deep social conscience, its darker edge, and a beguiling Daniel Brühl. I still don’t think Marvel Studios has fully figured out episodic television, but you wouldn’t know it by the numbers. And despite its list of problems, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” does Steve Rogers proud and the Captain America name is in really good hands. All six episodes are now streaming on Disney+.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “French Exit” (2021)

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Gazing over her forty-plus year career and considering the fifty movies to her credit, I’m not sure Michelle Pfeiffer has ever been handed a role this juicy. In the new dark comedy “French Exit” director Azazel Jacobs and screenwriter Patrick deWitt give Pfeiffer a deliciously surly lead character and a script that allows her plenty of room to unearth the character’s well hidden layers. It’s an odd and snarky concoction with a stabbing sense of humor and that ultimately stays afloat thanks to Pfeiffer’s fun performance.

For the unrefined (apparently such as myself), a ‘French exit‘ is when someone up and leaves an event or gathering without formally saying goodbye. The film’s title alludes to several things, all of which come into focus as the story moves forward. It’s something Frances Price (Pfeiffer) would know all about. The Manhattan heiress has soaked herself in New York City’s high society, blowing through her late husband’s fortune against the warnings of the family accountant. Now he hits her with the news that the money’s gone. “What did you think was going to happen? What was your plan?” the exasperated accountant asks. “My plan was to die before the money ran out. But I kept and keep not dying and here I am.” It’s a very Frances-like response.

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Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

As most of us do, Frances has a friend with an spare apartment in Paris. The friend named Joan (Susan Coyne) offers it to Frances so she can get away, clear her head, and have a place to stay until she can get back on her feet. Frances breaks the news to her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) that the well has run dry and they’re moving to France. Malcolm is inexplicably hitched to his mother’s side despite being secretly engaged to a young woman named Susan (Imogen Poots). Frances doesn’t care for Susan and Malcolm doesn’t have the guts to tell his mother they’re getting married.

All of that sets up a story full of unusual turns, wacky encounters, and a final act that’s both head-scratching and slyly funny. Frances and Malcolm cross paths with a motley crew of side characters including a shady fortune teller (Danielle Macdonald), a neurotic neighbor in Paris (Valerie Mahaffey), and a private detective (Isaach de Bankolé) who’s hired but ends up sticking around. Oh, and a black cat named Small Frank who adds an ever stranger layer to the story. In some ways all of these characters give Frances a crash-course on how people live outside of her former social circles. They’re people she would have never spent a moment with in her former life, but now finds them enlightening in an unusual way. Or does she? It’s hard to tell.

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Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

It’s all a bit of a farce that doesn’t always work but it’s held together by Pfeiffer. Fashionably dressed to the hilt with her strawberry blonde locks sitting on the shoulders of her slender elegant frame, Pfeiffer embodies the defiant fading socialite. She’s brutally honest to a fault, impulsive, and also a bit twisted. Case in point, we learn that she’s the one who discovered her husband’s body after he died. But instead of immediately reporting it to the authorities she took a weekend shopping trip and called them when she returned. It’s a wacky little character detail that somehow fits Frances even though it doesn’t make much sense. And that emphasizes one of the film’s weaknesses. Several things in the movie’s back-end doesn’t make a lot of sense.

But back to Pfeiffer, what keeps her performance so compelling is the underlying sadness that she finds in Frances. Despite her icy could-care-less exterior, Frances is carrying more emotional baggage than she lets on. Jacobs and deWitt smartly latches onto their leading lady who is the film’s one constant. Both Pfeiffer and Frances fit right into the movie’s chief goal of addressing privilege and upper-class entitlement with a wry satirical bite. I just wish the rest of the movie fit as nicely. “French Exit” is set for a limited release February 12th before opening wide on April 2nd.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “The Father” (2021)

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Those who have watched someone close to them suffer from dementia know exactly how cruel and crushing the disease can be both for the person afflicted and for their family. Those who have watched movies dealing with mental deterioration among the elderly know that it is delicate subject matter and not the easiest to get right. “The Father” not only gets it right, but it wrestles with dementia in a strikingly unique and thoughtful way. And it features an Anthony Hopkins performance that should be near the top of every ‘Best of the Year‘ discussion.

“The Father” is the exciting feature film debut from French novelist and playwright Florian Zeller. Here he directs and co-writes an adaptation of his own 2014 award-winning play about an elderly man in the throes of dementia. But where so many well-meaning films only manage to grasp the subject from an external perspective, Zeller attempts something truly audacious. He sets out to put us inside the sufferer’s head. Not in some artfully surreal or metaphorical sense. But a sincere effort to authentically represent how his mind processes what he sees and hears; how things can go from vivid to clouded and convoluted in a manner of seconds.

The film revolves around 80-year-old Anthony (played by Hopkins) who is already past the early stages of dementia as the story begins. We first meet him in his swanky London flat after he has just ran off his third home health nurse. “I can manage very well on my own“, he grumbles. But the truth is he can’t. Throughout the film Zeller and his co-writer Christopher Hampton task us with piecing together Anthony’s life from the shards we get from his fragmenting mind. We learn he was a man of art and culture by his love for opera and classical music; by the way he admires a Peirrot painting on his wall (that may or may not be there). We see where he can be sweet and charming but also wily and cantankerous.

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Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classic

But those details of his character seem lost in the swirl of confusion and frustration that is Anthony’s mind. The disease has cruelly chipped away at his memory causing him to forget faces, places, and conversations from only moments earlier. He’s misplacing things spurring accusations that the latest nurse was a thief. And all of this as his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) informs him that she has a new boyfriend and is moving to Paris. “What’s going to become of me?” Anthony asks in one of several quietly devastating moments.

But remember, the bulk of the story is seen through Anthony’s eyes meaning things often change from scene to scene. Sometimes it’s a little detail like a missing picture on the wall. Other times its far more dramatic (and traumatic) such a new face on someone claiming to be your daughter. Before long we too are questioning what’s real and what’s not. Is this really Anthony’s flat? Is Anne really going to Paris? Who is Lucy, a name mentioned several times and always followed by a sobering hush? The film challenges us to pay attention and parse all of the information we’re given. But it isn’t nearly as daunting as it sounds because Zeller always feeds us just enough reliable truth to keep our bearings and to reach certain conclusions.

One of the most remarkable things about “The Father” is how effectively it blends what is reality with what is in Anthony’s head. It’s a tricky and sensitive balance that if mishandled could go wrong in a variety of ways. Here it’s masterfully done and full of empathy. Take a scene where Anthony hears a noise and follows it to his living room. Their he finds a man (Mark Gatiss) sitting in a chair reading a newspaper. “Who are you? What are you doing in my flat?” a puzzled Anthony asks. The man says his name is Paul, Anne’s husband and that Anthony is actually living with them. It’s a scene sprinkled with bits of truth for us to gather, but from the perspective we share with Anthony they’re scattered and out of place. Ultimately we’re left to determine what’s reliable and what isn’t.

The scene intensifies when Anne returns, this time not played by Colman but briefly by fellow British actress Olivia Williams. And we see it again later when Paul is abruptly played by actor Rufus Sewell and when Imogen Poots arrives as a potential new caretaker with a striking resemblance to the aforementioned Lucy. Suddenly Anthony is questioning everything, uncertain of where he is or who he’s with. These are heart-shattering sequences that evocatively capture Anthony’s mental struggle to make sense of things. How do you put pieces together that simply don’t fit? Much more, how to you communicate something so out of sorts? How do you speak about things that make no sense whatsoever?

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Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classic

I sat in awe-struck silence watching Hopkins convey these torturous internal conflicts – nearly every expression underlined with cognitive strain; his voice often quivering with uncertainty. I was overwhelmed by how deftly he handled the bursts of rage as well as the tender moments of lucidity; the sudden mood swings, the worsening bouts of forgetfulness, the misguided suspicions, and especially the moments where a subtle terror takes hold of him. It’s a ‘best of career’ caliber performance from Hopkins and anything short of an Oscar nomination would be an insult.

It would be easy for Anne to get lost in a movie with such an intense focus. But Zeller gives Colman some much needed time to convey the anguish felt by family caregivers who can only watch helplessly as their loved ones come apart. My grandfather had Alzheimer’s. My wife’s grandmother lived for years in a healthy physical body but with a mind erased by dementia. So many personally know this story and how it ends which will make Colman’s character resonate with many people in a profound way.

It probably goes without saying that “The Father” is a tough watch. But the bold choices, the emotional honesty, the crisp detailed storytelling, and the tour de force performance from Anthony Hopkins (among other things) make every second worthwhile. Not since Michael Haneke’s brilliant “Amour” has there been a more brutally honest film about terminal disease/failing health. But what sets “The Father” apart is its unyielding yet compassionate ambition to realistically portray a dementia victim’s point-of-view. And it does so while humanizing them in a way I’ve never seen done before. Don’t let its bleak and uncomfortable subject matter scare you away. This truly is essential viewing. “The Father” is scheduled to be released February 26th.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5-starss

REVIEW: “Fatale” (2020)

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If you’re itching for a sleazy 80’s-styled thriller full of terrible unlikable people, boy do I have the movie for you. “Fatale” fits that description to the T and it makes no apologies about it. Directed by Deon Taylor from a script by David Loughery, “Fatale” at first brings thoughts of “Fatal Attraction” to mind. You know the story, a supposed “good guy” makes a “mistake” with a crazy unhinged woman who then terrorizes him and threatens the life he’s forced to protect. I never really bought the idea in that 1987 film and I don’t buy it here either.

“Fatale” deserves credit for eventually cutting the cord with “Fatal Attraction” and going its own way. That doesn’t suddenly make it a great movie or make some of the character’s decision-making any smarter. But it does make it come across as something more than a knock-off. Unfortunately the movie doesn’t really have a gauge to tell it when to slow down. So we get an overheated story with more twists than a pack of Twizzlers. There is some ‘giggle to yourself’ entertainment to be had and enough narrative propulsion to have you wondering how things will turn out. But that’s about it.

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Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Michael Ealy (who teamed with Taylor earlier this year in the flawed but considerably better “The Intruder”) plays Derrick Tyler, a former basketball star turned successful Los Angeles sports agent. If you need proof of his success look no further than his lavish ultra-modern home, his shiny imported sports car, and his posh GQ-ready attire. He lives the good life with his super-model caliber wife Tracie (nicely played by real-life model Damaris Lewis) who has a thriving real estate business of her own. If the old saying went “money DOES buy happiness” then this would be one incredibly happy couple. Instead there’s an obvious disconnect between them which is obvious from the start.

While in Las Vegas for a friend’s bachelor party Derrick meets, flirts, and eventually has a one-night-stand with a woman named Val (a noticeably miscast Hillary Swank). Apparently in the world of “Fatale” adultery has magical properties because suddenly Derrick is all about being a better husband to Tracie (Actually it’s probably his guilt which in reality can dramatically change a person’s perspectives). While wrapping up a night of wining, dining and rekindling the fire with Tracie an intruder breaks into their home. Derrick fights the masked man off who then runs away into the night.

The police arrive and their investigation is led by none other than Detective Valerie Quinlan. Yep “Val” from Las Vegas. And just like the movie shoots down the myth that “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas”. Poorly veiled swerves and misdirections abound as Derrick finds himself in neck-deep trying to save his marriage and his fortune from a sociopath with a badge. But as is often the case, things aren’t always as they appear. Still, no number of plot twists solve what really is the movie’s biggest problem – woefully shallow characters.

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Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

The movie does try to bring some depth to Quinlan by introducing some backstory involving an ugly custody battle. But Swank plays her so dryly that it’s hard to invest in her either as a victim or a villain. It’s not a bad performance, she’s just working at the wrong temperature. Meanwhile Ealy just moves from scene to scene in various states of shock and the script hits him with one twist after another. The closest we get to depth with him are scenes involving his family and that’s not much.

“Fatale” may work as throwaway entertainment for those with some time to kill on a Saturday night. And what can I say, it kept my attention. But other than pulling the rug out from under us in every other scene, it doesn’t have much up its sleeve. Even casting a two-time Academy Award winner can’t bring the movie the oomph it needs. “Fatale” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Freaky” (2020)

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Writer-director Christopher Landon grabbed a lot of attention with his surprisingly fun horror-comedy “Happy Death Day” and its not-as-good but still entertaining sequel. Of course those weren’t Landon’s first forays into genre. He wrote the crafty 2007 thriller “Disturbia” and several sequels in the “Paranormal Activity” franchise. But “Happy Death Day” showed his knack for blending horror, humor and a healthy helping of nostalgia.

Landon’s latest film “Freaky” attempts to strike that same chord but with mixed results. Produced by Blumhouse (isn’t everything these days?), “Freaky” borrows from countless slasher movies and its basic concept is inspired by Mary Rodgers’ popular children’s novel “Freaky Friday”. But this is certainly no kids movie. On one hand it pours on the blood and gore often to a hilariously gruesome degree. On the other hand it can be needlessly crude with dialogue that’s nothing short of cringe-worthy.

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Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The film is set in the not-so-appropriately-named town of Blissfield. It opens with the brutal murder of four insufferable teens who could have been plucked from any number of 80’s slasher flicks. One by one they are slaughtered in absurdly graphic fashion by a deranged serial killer known as the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn). The sequence is intentionally packed with every trick, every trope, and every stupid character decision from the genre’s history. It’s a pretty fun tone-setter with several cool nods to horror fans.

From there the movie introduces us to Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton), a shy and unassuming high school senior still hurting from the recent death of her father. At home her clingy mother Paula (Katie Finneran) uses booze to cope with the loss while her older sister Charlotte (Dana Drori), a police officer, has shut herself off emotionally. It’s not much better at Blissfield Valley High where Millie is constantly bullied by an endless parade of unlikable dimwits and snotty preppies.

Like Halloween in Haddonfield, high school homecoming means death in Blissfield. After the big game Millie finds herself stranded at the football field with no ride home. Fresh off killing the teen fodder in the film’s opening, the Butcher spots Millie, chases her onto the field and stabs her with a mystical knife he stole from an earlier scene that somehow causes them to swap bodies. Yes, it’s utterly ridiculous and the film never even attempts to explain it. But I’m kinda glad. The movie knows it’s silly so why waste time trying to make sense of it?

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Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Instead the movie leans into its two biggest strengths – Vaughn and Newton. Vaughn is especially funny channeling the personality and sensibilities of a terrified teenage girl. Newton actually gets the tougher assignment and pulls it off remarkably well. Unfortunately the two are surrounded by a slew of supporting characters ranging from bland and shallow to woefully obnoxious. Of course many are intentionally written as specific character types, but that doesn’t make them or their sometimes dreadful dialogue any easier to digest.

Eventually the film’s premise begins to run out of gas, only making it to the finish on the backs of Vaughn and Newton. As a whole the horror elements work pretty well from the hysterically over-the-top kills to the rare moments when the film quiets down and builds tension. The humor is far more uneven. It’s at its best when it’s spoofing the horror genre. Unfortunately it insists on going down the path of other uninspired teen comedies which undermines its potential. So I was left in the frustrating position of admiring certain parts of “Freaky” and wishing I could toss out the rest. “Freaky” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Fatman” (2020)

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‘Tis the season for Christmas movies galore and I guarantee you won’t find one quite like “Fatman”. Think about it, Mel Gibson playing a down-on-his-luck, liquor-swilling Santa who has to resort to taking military contracts in the off-season just to keep his workshop open. Obviously that’s just a sliver of the movie’s plot, but you have to admit there hasn’t been a Christmas movie in the same wacky vein as this one.

“Fatman” comes from the writing-directing duo of Eshom and Ian Nelms. The two brothers have crafted a movie that’s part dark comedy, part action flick and with an ever so slight Western vibe tossed in for good measure. It even finds time to fire a couple of shots at out-of-control consumerism and commercialism. But social commentary isn’t the main thing on its mind. “Fatman” is more of a fun and playful genre-mashup with some enjoyable performances and a goofy enough story that’s both funny and entertaining.

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Photo Courtesy of Saban Films

A well-cast Gibson has a ball playing a grizzled Chris Cringle. Times are hard for the not-so-jolly old elf who feels tossed aside by the cold and selfish world. “I’ve lost my influence,” he laments to his devoted wife Ruth (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). She’s an encourager by nature but also level-headed and not afraid to speak the truth when he needs to hear it. I couldn’t help but love the simple yet sweet chemistry between Gibson and Jean-Baptiste. They make for a convincing couple.

On the business side of things, kids are naughtier than ever which means fewer toy deliveries. This displeases the US Government who sees Chris as an economic asset. “We want your holiday spirit. It generates holiday spending.” With their yearly subsidy set to be well below his current budget, Chris agrees to take on a military contract to make ends meet. The sheer absurdity of it had me laughing out loud – subsidies, bottom lines, the elves in Santa’s workshop manufacturing jet fighter parts for the military. It’s funny stuff made even funnier by the film’s straight-faced approach.

But soon Santa has more to worry about than finances. After a rich and insufferable little snot named Billy (Chance Hurstfield) gets a lump of coal for Christmas, he secretly uses his family’s wealth to hire a hitman (Walter Goggins) to kill Santa Claus. Goggins hams it up playing a cold-blooded sociopath with his own bone to pick with Chris over a Christmas present he never received as a kid. Perfectly reasonable reaction, right? But hunting down the Fatman won’t be easy. It’s not like Santa’s workshop is marked on a map or can be found on a GPS.

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Photo Courtesy of Saban Films

So Chris tries to find his lost Christmas spirit while keeping his elves employed and his business afloat. Meanwhile there’s a contract on his head and an eager assassin is ready to cash in. It leads to the inevitable bullet-riddled final act that is far more satisfying than it has any right to be. The Nelms brothers show off a knack for shooting action but don’t expect a lot of it. Most is contained in the final 15 minutes or so.

About a month ago “Fatman” introduced itself with an unexpectedly diverting trailer. The finished product is equally surprising and just as fun as I had hoped. There is a stretch where not much happens; where the movie is content with simply goofing around within its wacky premise. But I admit, I even got a kick out of that. More importantly the whole thing works as waggish escapist entertainment which is exactly what the filmmakers were shooting for. “Fatman” opens November 13th in select theaters and November 24th on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars