REVIEW: “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” (2021)

Though I’m a proud kid from the 1980s, would it surprise you to know that I have no real affection for “Ghostbusters”? No deep love for the characters. No vested interest in their story. No warm and fuzzy feeling at the thought of a new film. I thought the 1984 original was fine and I don’t remember anything about its 1989 sequel. I thoroughly disliked the 2016 reboot and not because I agreed with shallow-minded meatheads who hated the idea of an all female cast (frankly, it just wasn’t very good).

So it should go without saying that “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” wasn’t one I was dying to see. I was more curious than excited and for a number of reasons. First, it’s considered a sequel to the original two films (sorry Paul Feig). Second, it’s directed by Jason Reitman, the son of Ivan Reitman who directed “Ghostbusters” 1 and 2. Third, I was curious to see how well the new film connected with its predecessors considering the 30+ year gap? And fourth, would they bring back that killer Ray Parker Jr. theme song (happily, the answer to that one is YES).

Image Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Basically, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is a well-made movie. It’s mostly well written (more on that in a second) and it’s the kind of entertainment that will probably appeal most to the already established fan base. Reitman clearly has an affection for the material and often that affection dictates much of what we get. The list of callbacks is long and some things seem stuck in solely for nostalgia. Again, that should excite the franchise faithful. Personally, “Afterlife” isn’t a movie that will stick with me past the weekend, despite the moderately fun time I had with it.

The way Reitman (who also co-writes with Gil Kenan) connects this film with the previous movies is pretty crafty. We learn that Egon Spengler (previously played by the late Harold Ramis), a founding member of the Ghostbusters, left New York and relocated to the dried-up town of Summerville, Oklahoma. He severed ties with his three parapsychological partners and his family to move out on an isolated dirt farm where he recently died. Why Summerville? What was he doing there? Both are questions the movie answers later with varying degrees of success.

Meanwhile back in the city, Egon’s estranged daughter Callie (Carrie Coon) is a single mother to two kids, the energetic Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and the nerdy science-loving Phoebe (a show-stealing Mckenna Grace). Callie gets word that her father has died around the same time she gets evicted from her apartment. Out of options, the three move to the farm Egon left her in Summerville. While there, Phoebe and Trevor begin learning the truth about their grandfather and what he was really up to. And as you’ve probably guessed, it has something to do with ghosts.

Image Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

While Reitman eventually gets around to doing some ghostbusting, a big chunk of the movie plays like a mystery. In truth, the movie is at its best when Phoebe, Trevor, and their collection of disposable Summerville friends are following a trail of clues linking Egon to a series of mysterious tremors that has been shaking the town. These scenes give us time to get to know the main characters especially Phoebe. Mckenna Grace is hands-down the star of the movie while Coon gets some good scenes as the embittered mom and daughter. Wolfhard gets stuck with your run-of-the-mill teen boy character while Paul Rudd brings some name recognition to an otherwise throwaway role.

But then the movie gets into the considerably less interesting supernatural stuff – ancient temples, gatekeepers, keymasters, etc. It’s all pretty silly and haphazardly thrown together in a way that gets away from all the things the movie did so well early on. It does end on a predictable yet undeniably warm note and a couple of end credits scenes hint at more Ghostbusters to come. That’s more good news for fans. But I’m not sure “Afterlife” did enough to excite the rest of us for what’s to come. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Good on Paper” (2021)

It’s amazing how well the title “Good on Paper” fits this new Netflix comedy from first time director Kimmy Gatewood. The film is written by and stars stand-up comic Iliza Shlesinger who has the big personality and snappy wit you often look for in good comedies. But “Good on Paper” is exactly that – an idea for a movie that probably sounded great during conception but that falls apart on screen. It’s a shame because it begins with a fair amount of promise.

Shlesinger plays Andrea Singer, a fairly successful stand-up comic trying to break into acting but getting nothing but rejection from her countless auditions. On a flight back to Los Angeles she meets Dennis (a hunky Ryan Hansen sporting nerdy glasses and a bad comb-over in an effort to make him look homely). He comes packaged with some pretty attractive qualities. He’s a Yale graduate, has a high-paying job as a hedge fund manager, and owns a big house in Beverly Hills. The two instantly hit it off and begin spending a lot of time together in LA.

Image Courtesy of NETFLIX

It doesn’t take long for us to notice that Dennis is clearly smitten, but to Andrea their relationship is purely platonic. Of course the more they’re together the closer they become and the awkward yet inevitable romance blossoms. But to the film’s credit this isn’t a prototypical romantic comedy. And as the two friends slowly morph into a couple, Andrea begins noticing cracks in Dennis’ story. Is he really who he says he is? Did he really go to Yale? Does his mother have cancer? Did he ever really have a supermodel girlfriend?

Then the movie starts to fall apart. Andrea’s state of oblivion is mind-boggling which does no favors to the character. We can certainly see enough to figure things out. Even the suspicions of her best friend Margot, a brash stock character of a sidekick played by Margaret Cho, falls on deaf ears. By the time it all finally comes to a head the story has completely unraveled into a weirdly out-of-tune mess that doesn’t seem sure of what it wants to be. And the final act is painful to sit through, taking several wacky turns, throwing out some jarringly unnatural dialogue, and giving us some cringe-soaked scenes that resemble really bad sketch routines.

By the end it’s really hard to buy into anything “Good on Paper” is selling. Outside of the first 30 minutes, nothing about the film feels remotely authentic from its flaky characters to the unconvincing relationships. And while it tries, the movie has nothing especially meaningful to say about single life or dating. I ended up unsure of what the movie was other than a showcase for Shlesinger who certainly has the comedic chops. She just may want someone else to write the material next time around. “Good on Paper” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Guilty” (2021)

New on Netflix this weekend is Antoine Fuqua’s “The Guilty”, an American remake of a terrific 2018 Danish film from director Gustav Möller. “The Guilty” is an interesting choice for Fuqua and dramatically different than the more action-oriented movies the filmmaker is known for. To his credit, Fuqua captures much of the taut tension of the original film and he manages the single-setting challenges well enough.

The entire film takes place in a 911 dispatch center where Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) works as an operator. I won’t say too much about him considering a healthy chunk of the movie is spent unwrapping his troubled character over the course of one eventful night. Suffice it to say, he’s been taken off the streets pending an upcoming trial for [REDACTED]. The stress from his looming court date along with his recent split with his wife has Joe on edge.

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Joe’s evening takes a dramatic turn when he receives a call from a little girl named Abby (voiced by Christiana Montoya) who tells him her mother Emily (Riley Keough) has been kidnapped. Joe makes a promise to Abby that she will see her mother again. He then spends the rest of the night trying to keep his promise. Meanwhile Joe’s personal story gets messier as his own problems begin to fester. He’s in a mess as evident by the pesky Los Angeles Times reporter (Edi Patterson) who keeps calling. “I just want you to be able to tell your side of the story,” she claims.

The vast majority of the running time plays out over telephones and police radios. Fuqua does a sufficient job building suspenseful but has a hard time keeping the tension ratcheted up throughout the tight 90 minutes. The story (from screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto) unfolds at a pretty good pace, and we get some good voice work from Keough, Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano, Peter Saarsgard, and Eli Goree.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Unfortunately the last 20 minutes sees the film’s central conceit begin to fizzle. It’s not helped by Gyllenhaal’s character who is relentlessly volatile, unlikable, and ever stressed to the point of almost snapping. The performance is solid, but Gyllenhaal is asked to portray Joe with such aggression that it’s almost impossible to connect with him.

Fuqua does add some interesting touches, such as setting his movie to the backdrop of the California wildfires. But no matter how hard the film tries, it’s never able to muster the same intensity or humanity as its Danish inspiration. Perhaps seeing the 2018 film set my expectations at a certain level. Fuqua’s version, though entertaining to a point, simply doesn’t have the same spark and ends up being a pretty pale comparison. “The Guilty” premieres Friday (September 24th) on Netflix.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Green Knight” (2021)

Few movies on the 2021 docket have captured the anticipation and curiosity of a segment of film fans quite like “The Green Knight”. This fresh retelling pulled from the rich and complex Arthurian mythology comes from writer-director David Lowery, an indie visionary who proves himself to be just the right person for the material. Surrounded by an almost deafening buzz from certain circles, “The Green Knight” is a savory feast sure to tantalize the taste buds of arthouse crowds while leaving some casual moviegoers frustrated and hungry.

“The Green Knight” is a dark and sometimes twisted medieval fantasy based on the 14th century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. Or as the film itself states it, “the chivalric romance by anonymous”. Lowery puts his own unconventional spin on the material, focusing more on imagery, mood and atmosphere than dialogue, character building and traditional storytelling. It results in an eye-popping puzzle box of a movie with much to say about humanity, self-discovery, honor and what it means to be a legend. But gleaning its meaning through Lowery’s artful yet sometimes muddy lens can be a chore.

Who better to lead this beguiling dark fantasy twist than Dev Patel who has excelled at playing conflicted characters who often carry heavy burdens. The 31-year-old possesses a wide-eyed openness that makes him the perfect conduit between the audience and the material. Here he’s the key piece that keeps us connected both narratively and on a human level. Most of the other players we meet, though captivating, are shallow hulls who work more as representations than genuine characters. That may sound like a criticism and in a wishful way I suppose it is. But it’s an approach that fits well with the journey Lowery takes us on.

Image Courtesy of A24

Patel plays the impetuous Gawain, nephew to the sickly King Arthur (Sean Harris) and his equally unwell looking queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie). Gawain is next in line for the crown but shirks his royal duties, choosing to hide his insecurities by drinking and cavorting with the waifish Esel (Alicia Vikander). But his life turns on Christmas morning when the king’s round table festivities are interrupted by an unexpected visitor. He’s a menacing yet entrancing creature surrounded by a dull forest green glow. He has the head of a Tolkien Ent sitting upon a giant’s body that creaks like thick bending tree limbs whenever he moves. His face is covered in tree bark, his eyes unexpectedly soulful, and his voice reverberating with the deep booming tones of Ralph Ineson.

With the full attention of the room, the creature issues a challenge. He offers anyone in the King’s court a free strike with their blade but it comes with one ominous condition – he’ll return the same blow exactly one year later at his chapel deep within a faraway forest. The impulsive Gawain jumps at the opportunity and with one swift slice of a sword decapitates the creature and begins his own legend. The still-living body of the hulking knight picks up his detached head and rides off, leaving a ‘see you in a year’ laugh echoing through the chamber.

The bulk of the film follows Gawain’s journey to keep his end of the agreement. Will Gawain remain a selfish entitled slacker or will he become a poem-worthy Arthurian legend? To answer that, Lowery takes his protagonist across a plethora of breathtaking landscapes, each using nature (a strength of Lowery’s) and the individual uniquenesses of the Irish locations to create this absorbing visual language. That may sound like nonsensical critic-speak, but it’s exactly what Lowery and his DP Andrew Droz Palermo do. Their camera (with a little help from Daniel Hart’s gnawing score – one of the year’s best) communicate a lingering feeling of dread that bleeds through every doom-soaked composition.

Image Courtesy of A24

Equally effective are the countless visual touches scattered throughout Lowery’s moody epic. Tracking shots of Gawain riding across the dreary cloud-covered countryside. Holding certain shots slightly longer than we’re accustomed to. Exquisite camera pans including a particularly brilliant one (you’ll know it when you see it). The incredible use of darkness and shadows. There’s always something grabbing your eye and it says something that the film’s most indelible moments come through the camera.

As for Gawain himself, his path is marked by a string of encounters that challenge him in a variety of ways. On a dank and muddy battlefield littered with corpses he runs into a chatty scavenger played by Barry Keoghan. Later he crosses paths with a transfixing spirit (Erin Kellyman) in need of his help to retrieve something of immense value to her. One that doesn’t quite land as it should comes later when an exhausted Gawain happens upon the remote estate of a Lord (Joel Edgerton) and his lecherous wife (also Alicia Vikander). There’s a subtext of temptation versus a knight’s honor, but the sequence drags and gets caught up it’s own cryptic weirdness. But the movie quickly gets back on track and ends strong.

“The Green Knight” is a movie destined to be exalted by some and loathed by others. It’s utter indifference to mainstream acceptance will hurt it at the box office, but it’s part of what makes it special. David Lowery uses every ounce of his creative freedom to make something audacious, challenging, and unlike any Arthurian adaptation we’ve seen to date. It can be confounding and a touch too captivated by its own enigma. But you’ll be entranced from the very first frame, and once you fall under it’s hypnotic spell, it’s impossible to take your eyes off the screen.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Gunpowder Milkshake” (2021)

A killer cast (bad pun absolutely intended) leads the way in the upcoming Netflix film “Gunpowder Milkshake”, an action/black comedy packing plenty of girl power and one of the best titles of the year. It comes from director and co-writer Navot Papushado who puts together a stylish shoot-em-up that borrows from an assortment of action movies that came before it. That proves to be both part of the fun as well as the film’s biggest weakness.

It’s impossible to watch “Gunpowder Milkshake” without thinking about “John Wick”. The similarities are just too pronounced to miss. The key difference is this is a female-driven version of that world. Here Karen Gillan plays the John Wick character, a lethal assassin named Sam. She had no choice but to grow up in the killing-for-hire business after her mother Scarlet (Lena Headey), also an assassin, left her 15 years earlier. Now she takes contracts from a shadowy underworld outfit called The Firm (you gotta love the comically vague names these organizations come up with).

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The movie kicks off with Sam finishing up her most recent contract. She takes out her target but is quickly confronted by a horde of armed thugs on her way out. She kills them all but leaves a pretty big mess behind. The Firm’s not too happy with the results even though they’re the ones who sent her in with bad intel. And little do they know, among the dead is the son of an Irish gangster named Jim McAlester (Ralph Ineson). And as these mob bosses are prone to do, McAlester wants revenge. “Now bring me the heads of the men who killed my boy”, he snarls.

Sam’s mentor Nathan (Paul Giamatti) is able to smooth things over with The Firm, even securing her a new contract. It sounds like an easy enough job – an accountant has stolen a satchel full of cash from the Firm. They want her to kill him and get their money back. But once again the job gets messy after Sam learns an innocent 8-year-old girl named Emily (Chloe Coleman) is caught in the middle. Refusing to leave her behind, Sam saves Emily but loses the Firm’s money in the process. You can probably see where this is going. Soon she finds herself on the run from both the Firm and a revenge-fueled McAlester. And as you might expect, lots of bullets, blood, and dead bodies follow.

Sam and her self-anointed “apprentice” Emily seek help from a sisterhood of assassins consisting of the bitter and brash Anna May (Angela Bassett), the soft-spoken but deadly Florence (Michelle Yeoh), and the hilariously genteel Madeleine (Carla Gugino). It’s a bummer, but this lethal sisterhood isn’t given much of a backstory. We learn there’s some bad blood between them and Sam’s mom. We see they operate out of a beautiful bygone-era library. Oh, and they’re extremely efficient killers. But thats about it. Thankfully the actresses inject the group with enough personality to get by.

Rather than focusing on story Papushado goes heavy into style both visually and in his choreography. We get a lot of sequences bathed in neon especially early on. He also does some clever things with his camera, specifically with different angles, perspectives, and movements. When it comes to the action the fight sequences and shoot-outs can be a little too tightly scripted but for the most part are still fun. And some are completely absurd (which I say as a compliment). My favorite may be a bloody hospital sequence between a partially paralyzed Sam and three hitmen who are high on laughing gas. It’s so ridiculous you can’t help but love it.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Yet there are moments of indulgence that seem utterly pointless. Take the occasional slow motion shot that seems to be there just to have a slow motion shot. Do we really need to see some enter a diner and then suddenly start walking to their booth in slo-mo? Also the frequent nods to movies like “John Wick”, “Kill Bill”, and even “Sin City” keep this movie from having an firm identity of its own. Sure, there is the all-female protagonists and the mother/daughter dynamic. But story-wise there isn’t much to set it apart and you get the sense that you’ve seen it all before.

Thankfully the action and the cast carry most of the load. Gillan pours herself into the role and really shines in the fight sequences. She’s a bit stiff and cold in the handful of dramatic scenes (partially by design), but she makes up for it with her grit and physicality. Headey is tough as nails and the sisterhood have some good moments despite seriously lacking depth. And that’s ultimately the movie itself. There just isn’t enough story to sink your teeth into. Instead it puts all its money on its eye-catching action and some fun performances. Thankfully that’s enough to keep the film afloat. “Gunpowder Milkshake” premieres on Netflix tomorrow (July 14th).

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Gaia” (2021)

There’s something sinister in the woods.” It’s not a direct line of dialogue from NEON’s upcoming eco-horror film “Gaia” but it could have been. This eerie new chiller from director Jaco Bouwer utilizes the tried-and-true creepy forest setting to great effect, sucking us into another bizarre and unsettling deep-woods scenario that melds mystery with the macabre. And while not as good as Ben Wheatley’s “In the Earth” from early this year, “Gaia” has a skin-crawling sense of dread that reverberates through the entire film.

I had to do a little research to learn Gaia refers to a deity known as the ancestral mother of all life. In Greek mythology she’s the personification of earth which makes her name a fitting title for this film. Written by Tertius Kapp, this South African feature begins with two forest rangers canoeing down a river that snakes through a dense forest. As Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) does the paddling Gabi (Monique Rockman) mans her drone as it descends from high overhead into the trees. She maneuvers it down a trail and gets a glimpse of man who promptly knocks the craft out of the air. Determined to get her drone back, Gabi hops out of the canoe to retrieve it while Winston goes ahead to check their game cameras.

Image Courtesy of NEON

Now anyone who knows horror movies understands that splitting up is never a good idea. That definitely proves to be the case here. After a nasty foot injury, a hobbled and frightened Gabi encounters a father and son, both thin as tails, covered in grime and wearing nothing more than tattered rags. They nurse her back to health beginning this unconventional journey where uncoiling the film’s mystery is more central than a focused plot.

From there the chilling tension sets in as Bouwer and Kapp slowly and methodically let us in on the secret of the woods. Much of it is channeled through the father Barend (Carel Nel) who clearly knows more than he’s telling. He has a zealous connection to the forest, even penning his own mysterious manifesto on what looks like ancient parchment. His son Stefan (Alex Van Dyk) is mostly silent and reserved; impressionable despite being raised under his father’s rigid fanaticism.

“Gaia” pours a lot into its uneasy atmosphere which burrows deeper under your skin the further we get into the story. That anxious feeling is helped by Pierre-Henri Wicomb’s ominous score and the rich sound design which fills the forest with spooky sounds of creaking wood, slithering roots and unidentifiable screeches. Meanwhile the special effects and makeup are spectacular, suggesting nature is to be both admired and feared; that it is simultaneously a thing of beauty and a terrifying force.

Image Courtesy of NEON

While the setup and much of the execution is intensely effective, the movie doesn’t hit all of its marks. It’s underlying message about both nature and modern civilization is obvious on the surface but gets murkier as it plays out. The film clearly presents a meddling humanity and a ticked off Mother Nature, but as characters go in certain directions it’s easy to lose sight of the deeper meanings. There’s also a relationship between Gabi and young Stefan that’s really hard to figure out. It’s not helped by a trippy hallucinogenic dream sequence, the kind where the director gets to do all sorts of weird things with the camera and to his characters. It’s something we’re seeing more and more in horror flicks these days and I’m kind of over them.

While it has its issues, “Gaia” is still a quality slice of modern horror. This modestly budgeted import uses its single location and four-person cast to tell a story of a vengeful planet taking back what has been stolen from it. The visuals, the sound, the score, and the performances all suck us into this foreboding location where nature has began its revolt. It’s the storytelling and messaging that gets a little clunky, keeping the film from fully delivering the punch it hopes to. Still, as a pure horror experience, Bouwer knows how to make his audience squirm. “Gaia” opens in theaters June 18th and on VOD June 25th.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS