REVIEW: “Jolt” (2021)

You can make a convincing case that Kate Beckinsale is an underrated actress who too often flies under audience’s radars. She also has a remarkable range. One minute she’s starring in a period comedy based on a 1794 Jane Austen novel and the next she’s leading a vampire coven as they shoot through packs of ravenous enemy werewolves. She brings her sharp wit and knack for action to her new film “Jolt”, a kinetic jaunt from Amazon Studios with some clear franchise ambitions.

The film is directed by Tanya Wexler (“Buffaloed”) from a script written by Scott Wascha. Both approach the story from just the right angle and never try to make “Jolt” more than what it’s meant to be – a crazy and at times deliciously over-the-top action flick with attitude and humor to spare. And while this first film doesn’t exactly scream “franchise”, I had a good enough time with “Jolt” that I would happily jump back into this world again.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Beckinsale is in cracking form playing Lindy, a woman with serious anger management issues. A brief narrated prologue gives us a little backstory. From an early age she had a “condition” that would hurl her into a violent uncontrollable rage whenever people do bad things. Over the years it grew harder to control these impulses, and the lack of love at home made her angrier and more volatile. Lindy was eventually diagnosed with Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED). Her teen years were spent as a lab rat until she was old enough for the military, but that too proved to be a disaster. So just when she thought she would end up in a cell for the rest of her life, a harsh but surprisingly successful treatment came her way.

Now an adult, Lindy gets by thanks to Dr. Ivan Munchin (Stanley Tucci), a psychiatrist whose “cutting-edge avant-garde treatment” helps her keep her condition under control (sorta). She wears a vest of sorts that jolts her body with electricity whenever she pushes a button that she keeps in her hand. Whenever she feels that fiery impulse…bzzzz…impulse gone. But as her body grows more tolerant, Dr. Munchin remains nervous about upping the voltage. He’s certain that the only real way to overcome her condition is by mentally facing her demons. And finally engaging in some normal social functions would hurt.

Lindy decides to give social interaction a try by going on a blind date with a genteel accountant named Justin (Jai Courtney). She tries to run away at first but is ultimately taken in by his nerdy charm. He seems like the perfect guy and a chance for Lindy to get a taste of a normal life. But remember, this isn’t a romcom or a Hallmark Channel original. Lindy’s dream of normalcy is shattered when she learns that Justin has been murdered. Understandably fearing the worse, Dr. Munchin tells her to let it go, but she’ll have none of that. So against her doctor’s recommendations, Lindy sets out to find who killed Justin and make them pay. “I hurt people. Might as well put it to good use.”

As Lindy sets out on her quest for revenge she crosses paths with a number of baddies and one particularly powerful businessman/crime boss played by a surly David Bradley. She also has the police hot on her trail led by a sympathetic and slightly smitten Detective Vicars (Bobby Cannavale) and his cranky yet dogged partner Detective Nevin (Laverne Cox). Through it all Wexler shows off her eye for action, letting loose with several high-energy fight scenes and one especially cool car chase. And while the movie gets a little action-heavy in the second half, it never loses its self-awareness and sharp sense of humor.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

There are so many ways that “Jolt” could have flown off the rails, but Wexler’s smart and confident direction keeps it on track. It turns out to be a delightfully weird and consistently entertaining romp. That’s not to say there aren’t a few hiccups. While Bradley has the cold smugness of a good villain, his character doesn’t have much depth. I never had a good grasp of who he was or the outfit he ran. And there are parts of the story just don’t click. Take when Lindy enters a police department full of detectives, hidden only by a pair of sunglasses, and marches right into the evidence room without an ounce of resistance. And there’s a final act twist that leads to a fun moment yet isn’t the least bit plausible.

But you can’t really get caught up in plausibility with a movie about a woman running around in an electrified vest shocking herself to keep her anger in check. You just go with it and have a good time. There’s just so much here to like starting with Beckinsale’s magnetic presence. Full of attitude, snark, and a snappy comedic timing, the 47-year-old actress gives the movie a charge and carries it through. I’m not sure where the series goes from here, but I’m certainly onboard for another ride. “Jolt” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Jungle Cruise” (2021)

When it comes to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson the only thing bigger than his beefy biceps may be his larger-than-life personality. The convivial main event wrestler turned box office movie star has an enormous presence and an infectious charm that has made him the highest paid actor in Hollywood. It just so happens that one of the few people who can match those qualities on screen is also his co-star in the upcoming big-budget blockbuster “Jungle Cruise”.

Emily Blunt doesn’t self-promote quite like Johnson (few do), but she has the same sparkling charisma and effervescent allure as her brawny screenmate. And while she’s easily the better dramatic actor of the two, Blunt also has a sharp wit and a playful energy that easily matches the high-profile Johnson. That’s part of what makes “Jungle Cruise” such an exciting summer movie experience. It features two inherently lovable talents bouncing off each other like an old-school screwball duo. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to have Disney bankrolling it to the tune of $200 million.

Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

I doubt this will be the only place you read this, but this newest theme park ride inspired movie from the House of Mouse plays very much like “Pirates of the Caribbean” meets “The African Queen”. And if you look closer you can even see traces of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “Romancing the Stone” and “Tomb Raider”. From the very start it’s clear what “Jungle Cruise” aspires to be and a ton of money has been poured into the big action set pieces and digital effects. But what keeps it alive is the cracking chemistry between its two wonderful leads.

Blunt plays the adventurous and slightly neurotic Dr. Lily Houghton, a botanist and all-around go-getter. In the film’s frisky opening few minutes we get a good dose of her resourcefulness and resolve as she butts heads with the backwards patriarchy of 1916 England. Lily believes she has discovered the location of the mystical Tree of Life, a find that could potentially revolutionize modern medicine. But it’s dismissed as nothing more than myth and superstition by the stuffy all-male science society in London who refuse to back her expedition. Undeterred, Lily ‘borrows’ a certain artifact from the society’s archives and heads to South America with her cowardly but ever-loyal brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall).

Lily’s map points to the heart of the Amazon jungle as the location of the Tree of Life. But there’s one pretty big problem – she doesn’t have a boat. Enter Johnson who plays Frank Wolff, the captain of a beat-up riverboat he affectionately calls La Quila. Frank’s gig of taking gullible tourists on shoddy jungle cruises isn’t enough to pay off his debt to a crotchety port manager played by Paul Giamatti. So he jumps at the chance to take Lily and MacGregor up the river for a handsome fee.

As you can probably guess, their journey is filled with plenty of danger – wild animals, violent rapids, unwelcoming natives. What you probably wouldn’t guess is that the biggest danger they face is a hilariously deranged German blu-blood in a submarine named Prince Joachim (a scene-stealing Jesse Plemons). He too believes in the Tree of Life and will do anything to find it before Lily, even if it means resurrecting a pack of creepy cursed conquistadors led by the always enjoyable but woefully underused Édgar Ramírez.

Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

“Jungle Cruise” is directed by frequent Liam Neeson collaborator Jaume Collet-Serra who sets out to create a fun old-fashioned adventure with an equal amount of swashbuckling and slapstick. The script (from the trio of Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa) is silly and light-hearted, reminiscent of the late-1960’s pulp you would find at a Saturday afternoon matinee. You see it most in the film’s first (and best) half, and that throwback vibe kept a smile on my face. In the second half the story commits to unpacking its mythology which frankly isn’t all that interesting. And there are a couple of weirdly out-of-tune scenes that feel like they belong in an entirely different movie. But those things turn out to be small issues because the filmmakers never lose sight of their biggest strengths – Johnson and Blunt.

Of course this is a major Disney blockbuster meaning that we also get action and visual effects aplenty. There is a ton of CGI; a bit too much in a few scenes. But the bulk of the film looks tremendous and the jungle settings are both beautiful and foreboding. But regardless of the high-dollar paint and polish, it always comes back to Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt. Of course they nail the comedy just as you would expect (I laughed a lot). But the surprise comes in the amount of warmth and sincerity they generate between them. They somehow manage to make this boisterous over-the-top adventure feel unexpectedly intimate. “Jungle Cruise opens this Friday (July 30th) in theaters and streaming on Disney+ Premier Access.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox” (2013)

FLASHposter

The DC Animated Movie Universe kicked of with “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox”, a precursor of sorts to the sixteen-film shared world series that ran from 2013 to 2020. The movie is an adaptation of the 2011 comic book crossover event “Flashpoint” from writer Geoff Johns and artist Andy Kubert. “Flashpoint” dramatically altered the DC Comics landscape leading to an aggressive reboot of the entire DC Universe. This film (directed by Jay Oliva) doesn’t feel as weighty as Johns and Kubert’s work, but it is faithful to the source material which is both a strength and a weakness.

“Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox” is refreshing in the sense that it isn’t another Superman or Batman story. Don’t get me wrong, I love those superheroes and both have roles to play in this film (more so with Batman). But as the title suggests, Barry Allen aka The Flash (voiced by Justin Chambers) takes center stage. I’ve always liked The flash and I remember how much I enjoyed reading the 2011 “Flashpoint” event with him as the central character. Similarly it’s nice see Barry Allen leading a DC animated film, especially one this ambitious.

FLASH1

Image Courtesy of Warner Home Video

“The Flashpoint Paradox” opens with a fairly inconsequential prologue. Barry Allen is at the Central City Cemetery visiting his mother’s grave when he is alerted to a break-in at the Flash Museum. He arrives to find a host of familiar rogues led by none other than his archenemy Eobard Thawne aka Professor Zoom aka Reverse-Flash (he’s voiced by C. Thomas Howell). With the help of his fellow Justice Leaguers, Flash intervenes and thwarts their plan to blow up the city.

The next day Barry wakes up at his work desk to find the entire world has been turned upside down. It starts with the discovery that his mother is alive and his wife is married to someone else. There is no Justice League and a bloody feud between the Atlanteans led by Aquaman (Cary Elwes) and the Amazons led by Wonder Woman (Vanessa Marshall) has the world teetering on the brink of war. To find out what has happened Barry seeks out Batman. But in this world young Bruce Wayne died in Crime Alley and a boozing grief-stricken Thomas Wayne (Kevin McKidd) dons the cape and the cowl.

FLASH2

Image Courtesy of Warner Home Video

“Flashpoint Paradox” is filled with these types of character variations – Cyborg (voiced by Michael B. Jordan) is a government liaison working directly with the president of the United States, Lois Lane is an embedded reporter turned resistance fighter deep behind the New Themyscira border, and so on. In keeping with the comic series Oliva and writer Jim Krieg pour on the characters, but in the movie’s cramped 80-minute running time there are simply too many to adequately cover. Several amount to nothing more than cameos while others only seem to be there to be killed off in some shocking fashion. Those familiar with the source material know this isn’t the filmmaker’s intent, yet it’s an unfortunate result of the movie’s hurried effort to cover all its ground.

It’s a little unfair to compare “The Flashpoint Paradox” to the comic series considering they’re two completely different forms of media with their owns sets of strengths and limitations. But it’s hard to avoid doing so when the movie sticks this close to its inspiration. The animation is solid and the voice acting is even better. And as someone who read and followed  “Flashpoint”, I can’t help but appreciate the film’s loyalty. It’s the kind of thing that will certainly win over ardent DC fans, but as a standalone movie it feels rushed and it can’t quite capture the significance and importance that made the 2011 event such a game-changer.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

SUNDANCE REVIEW: “John and the Hole” (2021)

JOHNposter

The unusual and hard-to-categorize “John and the Hole” marks the feature film debut for Spanish director Pascual Sisto. It’s penned by Nicolás Giacobone (“Birdman”) who is adapting his own short story titled “The Well”. Built around a startling premise, the film takes an unconventional look at adolescence versus adulthood. At the same time it often plays like the origin story for soon-to-be psychopath. Is a coming-of-age story, a family drama, a psychological thriller? It’s a little of all three.

The film centers around 13-year-old John (Charlie Shotwell). He has all the markings of a normal kid, a little quiet and shy but normal nonetheless. He has a comfortable life with an affluent family. His parents (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) seem to care for him and there’s no sign of abuse or neglect. He butts heads with his older sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga) but nothing out of the ordinary. He’s on his school’s tennis team and enjoys video games online with his friend and classmate Peter (Ben O’Brien). There are those weird questions he begins asking about adulthood, but other than that he’s a regular kid.

Well, not exactly. A few scattered indicators later and we know something is a little off.

While flying his new drone over a nearby patch of forest John discovers a deep hole in the ground. When he brings it up at dinner his parents tell him it’s an old bunker started by the landowners but abandoned five years ago. Later that night John drugs his family and hauls them out to the hole. In an odd omission we never see how he gets them to the bottom. Does he lower them down? Does he drop them? The fall would be enough to severely hurt or kill them. Instead they all wake up laying side-by-side as if they had been carefully placed. The little details.

JOHN1

Soon he’s living out his warped fantasy of independence – taking his dad’s SUV for a spin, withdrawing hundreds of dollars at the ATM, buying chicken nuggets and a new 4K television. He has his buddy over for pizza and video games, fending off any suspicions by saying his parents are away visiting a sick relative. We do get occasional hints of normalcy, but the chilling emotionless pathology that drives John’s thinking keeps things always uncertain.

Meanwhile his family languishes in the muck of the pit, swinging from panicked to angry to physically and emotionally worn down. John visits just enough to keep them alive, occasionally dropping food and blankets while giving them no explanation for his actions. It’s basically the same for us. Sisto soaks his film in ambiguity much to his film’s benefit and to its detriment. In one sense mining the story’s deeper themes and framing outcomes for ourselves is rewarding. But Sisto leaves some things so murky that it’s hard to come up with a satisfying conclusion. And then there is this seemingly random side-story about a little girl named Lily. Obviously there is some connection with the filmmaker and the story but I never found it.

“John and the Hole” is one of several festival films that went with a 4:3 aspect ratio. Here it contributes in a couple of interesting ways. Most obvious is the sense of confinement it brings to the scenes in the hole. It highlights the tightness of the space making it feel even more claustrophobic and suffocating. In John’s scenes the 4:3 emphasizes the smallness of the world he has created for himself. He thinks it’s freedom – an open and limitation-free existence where he’s the adult. He sets the rules and makes the decisions. Of course we know better.

Despite its hiccups and frustrations “John and the Hole” never loses its suspense and it keeps the audience interested and guessing. But with that comes a certain level of expectation which the ambiguous finish doesn’t quite satisfy. It leaves things too up in the air and the ‘little girl’ arc simply doesn’t land. Still there’s a lot to like about Sisto’s debut and I applaud not only the audacity of his vision but also his willingness to stick to it. I’m anxious to see what he does next, especially with a more fully realized script.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars 

SUNDANCE REVIEW: “Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021)

SDjudas

Shaka King’s upcoming biographical drama “Judas and the Black Messiah” sets out to tell the story of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. In the late 1960’s Hampton rose to prominence as the chairman of Chicago’s branch of the Black Panthers. Known for his fiery and persuasive speeches, Hampton helped grow the leftist group’s influence and numbers. All of this was being watched and documented by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI along with local officials who deemed Hampton a radical threat to their morally corrupt ideals.

On the night of December 4, 1969 Fred Hampton was murdered in his Chicago apartment by members of a Cook County tactical unit during a pre-dawn raid. He was only 21-years-old. Other Black Panther Party members were killed or wounded in what was a coordinated effort between city, state, and federal organizations. FBI informant William “Bill” O’Neal provided detailed layouts of the apartment including where Hampton slept. By the end of the raid law enforcement had fired a total of ninety-nine shots. The lone gunshot from the Panthers was into the ceiling. Hampton was still in his bed, executed at point-blank range.

As the film’s title implies, “Judas and the Black Messiah” focuses on the relationship between Fred Hampton and Bill O’Neal and the betrayal that led to the bloody raid. The film is directed by Shaka King who produces and co-writes the screenplay with Will Berson. Ryan Coogler also gets a producing credit. The film made its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and brings with it quite a bit of awards season buzz.

JUDAS1

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The film stars Daniel Kaluuya who plays Hampton in a way that highlights his strengths as an actor while still showing his limitations. The hushed stoicism Kaluuya brings to his characters has almost become a staple. But it often comes at the cost of emotional warmth and complexity. As Hampton, Kaluuya’s quiet intensity comes in handy. He’s really good in the attention-getting scenes where he gives spirited speeches to hungry and frustrated audiences. But Kaluuya really shines when the movie stills and he speaks as much through his eyes as he does with his voice. That’s when we get the greatest sense of who Fred Hampton was.

Unfortunately there is still a coldness to Kaluuya’s performance that undercuts certain elements of the story, particularly his romantic relationship with a young disciple named Deborah (a sweet, delightful, and moving Dominique Fishback). The two meet after a Chicago rally and her admiration for Fred’s activism blossoms into something more intimate. But so much of their relationship is left on the sidelines, and what we do get is emotionally energized by Fishback far more than Kaluuya.

In fairness, Hampton’s romance with Deborah isn’t the film’s main interest. It adds some extra weight to the story but the movie is mostly focused on Hampton and William O’Neal. ‘Wild Bill‘ as he’s occasionally called is played by Lakeith Stanfield, an actor who may not have the steely super-seriousness of Kaluuya, but who brings a wider emotional range. When we first meet Bill he’s attempting to hustle some gang members by brandishing a fake badge and posing as a federal agent. They get wise pretty quick forcing him to escape in a stolen car. But he’s picked up by police and booked for impersonating an officer and grand theft auto.

Enter Jessie Plemons playing FBI Special Agent Mitchell. With consent from a laughably creepy looking Martin Sheen playing J. Edgar Hoover, Agent Mitchell pressures Bill into becoming an informant in exchange for no jail time. Over the course of the film Bill O’Neal joins the Black Panthers, rises through their ranks, and eventually becomes head of security and Hampton’s personal bodyguard. All while reporting back to Mitchell and getting paid by the government. It all inches towards the combustible finale full of heartbreak and anger.

JUDAS2

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

It goes without saying King and company have some meaty material to work with. That’s why it’s frustrating to see so much of it slip through the cracks. In the film’s defense there is a lot of ground to cover in a little over two hours, especially when you’re splitting your story and screen time between two main characters. But a few resonating moments aside, we mostly get a surface-level summation of Fred Hampton’s relationship with Bill O’Neal and neither character ends up getting the attention they deserve.

And despite their clear relevance to the story and heavy presence throughout the film, the feds and the police are mostly blank faces – more plot pieces than anything else. Only a dry and predictable Plemons and a wacky Martin Sheen (who mercifully only gets two scenes) give any voice to the animosity and rancor driving their disdain for Hampton and the Black Panthers. And barely a word about how the FBI and Chicago authorities secretly undermined Hampton’s social work and stoked violence between black street gangs. Again, not necessary to the story, but it’s yet another thing that would bring weight and insight.

Though partly true, it would be reductive and overall inaccurate to lump “Judas and the Black Messiah” in with other by-the-books biopics. Shaka King has good intentions and is trying to open eyes not just to history but also to the present day. The performances are generally good and both the cinematography (Sean Bobbitt) and the score (Mark Islam, Craig Harris) capture the right mood and the setting. But sadly the film skirts character depth in order to hit key moments on Hampton’s timeline while at the same time leaving too much out from the textbook version. It leaves the film in a weird place – bold and unflinching yet too broad and missing depth where it needs it most. “Judas and the Black Messiah” opens February 12th in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Jacinta” (2020)

JACINTAposter

There have been countless movies, both documentaries and feature fiction, that have spoke to the issue of drug addiction. Few have packed the same raw and visceral punch as Jessica Earnshaw’s “Jacinta”, the winner for Best U.S. Feature at this year’s Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. With its crushingly intimate and unflinching perspective, “Jacinta” spares nothing in its depiction of dependency, capturing a painful reality that’s all too familiar for many Americans.

From the very start you can’t help but recognize the unprecedented access Earnshaw was given. Her film starts inside the walls of the Maine Correctional Center. There we meet 26-year-old Jacinta who’s serving the final days of a nine month sentence. We learn a lot about this young woman through her own words. She has been in and out of prison since she was 15. At 16 she had her darling daughter Caylynn. Jacinta is bright, spirited, and engaging. She’s also a heroin addict, the result of a deeply troubled upbringing.

During the early prison scenes we’re introduced to Jacinta’s mother Rosemary who’s serving a much longer sentence in the same facility. She has lived a hard life and many of her daughter’s problems can be traced back to her. Yet the two remain intensely close. We learn that Rosemary was pregnant at 14 and had three children by the time she was 18. An addict herself, she too has been in and out of prison, but it’s her vices within her family that are the most unsettling.

Jacinta and Rosemary at Maine Correctional Center, 2016. Photo © Jessica Earnshaw.

Photo Courtesy of Jessica Earnshaw.

Over the course of the film revelations come to light concerning Rosemary’s relationships with her children. Earnshaw doesn’t set out to paint her as the villain. Everything we learn comes from the people on screen and we are allowed to come to our own conclusions. One thing is certain, Rosemary loves her daughter in her own unhealthy way. But their codependent mother/daughter dynamic proves to have devastating effects especially for Jacinta, a young mother herself who is already at a dangerous crossroads.

After an emotional good-bye to her mother, an anxious Jacinta is released from prison. Earnshaw’s camera follows her as she’s greeted by her compassionate father Rick who helps her get settled in a sober house. There is an air of hope throughout these scenes especially when Jacinta reunites with 10-year-old Caylynn. The two spend a wonderful day together, connecting as if they had never been apart. All the pieces seem to be in place for an uplifting redemption story.

But we quickly learn that happiness is a brittle thing for an addict, and the lure of old hometown acquaintances is palpable. In one of the film’s most devastating scenes Jacinta tells her daughter she’s leaving the halfway home. Caylynn earnestly replies, “What if the sober house is the only thing that’s keeping you going where you’re supposed to?” Sometimes it’s kids who see things the clearest.

JACINTA1

Photo Courtesy of Jessica Earnshaw

Within 90 minutes of dropping off Caylynn (who lives with her paternal grandparents in New Hampshire) Jacinta is high and the feelings of hope evaporate right on our screen. It’s one of several uneasy situations for Earnshaw who also serves as the film’s cinematographer. No stranger to a camera, Earnshaw shoots each of these moments up close and with brutal honesty. Take when Jacinta is picked up by her friend at a shopping mall immediately after shoplifting a laptop. Earnshaw sits in the backseat filming as the two young women up front discuss the crime. Before they’re out of the parking lot Jacinta pulls out a syringe and shoots heroin. It’s harrowing and heartbreaking.

But nothing is as shattering as pre-teen Caylynn, mature beyond her years and acutely aware of her mother’s condition. Seeing her wrestling with her feelings and trying to understand her mom is hard to watch. Seeing her later resign to the belief that she has lost her mother for good is even harder. Like the bond between Jacinta and Rosemary (but in a much different light) it again highlights the intense bond between a mother and daughter. It also leaves us praying for the cycle of addiction to be broken and for Caylynn to have the life she’s longing for.

Despite all of her faults, there is never a moment we don’t root for Jacinta. The film never condones her actions, but it does offer perspective by plowing deep into her family history. Ultimately what the film provides is a raw, real-world observation of a young mother in the throes of addiction, her face often overtaken with sadness and defeat, yet yearning to be the mother she never had. It’s far from easy viewing, but it’s sure to open a lot of eyes. And many will be left thinking about Jacinta and her family for days afterwards. “Jacinta” is appearing in several film festivals across the country.

VERDICT- 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars