REVIEW: “Kimi” (2022)

In “Kimi”, the new pandemic-era tech thriller from Steven Soderbergh, Zoë Kravitz plays Angela Childs, an employee of a Seattle tech company called Amygdala. She works from home as a voice stream interpreter, monitoring data streams recorded by the company’s premiere device Kimi. Kimi is a smart speaker similar to Amazon’s Alexa. But this one uses human monitoring to better tune the devices with their owners. It’s an understandably controversial practice that has put the company’s CEO Bradley Hasling (Derek DelGaudio) on the defensive.

Angela suffers from agoraphobia and anxiety which was only made worse by the COVID-19 lockdown. Now she stays holed up in her apartment listening to her streams and watching the people in the apartment building across the street. She’s fond of a neighbor named Terry (Byron Bowers), but she can’t even bring herself to step outside and meet him at a nearby food truck much less go out on a date.

Image Courtesy of HBO Max

All of that sets the table for Soderbergh’s latest, his third consecutive movie to release straight to streaming on HBO Max. The script is by screenwriter David Koepp whose career is littered with some big hits and some big misses. Here Koepp keeps a tight focus, putting together a clever and engaging story that’s driven by a terrific lead performance from Kravitz. Meanwhile Soderbergh brings his usual technique and sense of style that fans of his have come to expect.

The story really kicks into gear after Angela overhears a potential violent crime on one of her data streams. She goes through the proper channels and tries to report it to her bosses. But with the company set to hold an initial public offering, a huge scandal could cost Hasling millions of dollars. So upper management is in no rush to draw unwanted attention. But Angela digs deeper, and with the help of her Romanian tech colleague Darius (Alex Dobrenko), she uncovers something that Amygdala will go to any length to keep hidden.

The movie has two very different halves, but they come together seamlessly under Soderbergh’s direction. The first half is very much a character drama, and it puts a heavy focus on Angela and her struggles. Soderbergh and Kravitz do a good job in these early scenes of defining Angela for us. Soderbergh also does a great job making it feel very much like a film of our current time. Face masks, hand sanitizer, references to quarantine, etc. all will be looked at in years to come as a reminder of the challenges to normalcy all of us have faced.

Image Courtesy of HBO Max

The second half is when the film’s thriller element amps up. It’s also where we see most of Soderbergh’s creativity both with sound and the camera. There are certain tricks that really stand out and work well. Such as running certain scenes at a slightly higher speed or slyly tilting the camera an unusual angle. Both add a tense and disorienting feeling to specific moments in the story.

While its ending nearly comes unglued, Soderbergh keeps it together in large part due to the rooting interest we have in Angela. The film’s commitment to fully developing her into a character we care about pays dividends in the final 15 minutes as the movie goes full genre nuts. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to liking how this thing ends. It’s a fitting finish to a movie that immersed, entertained, and surprised me throughout. “Kimi” is now streaming on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “King Richard” (2021)

(CLICK HERE for my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Will Smith makes his bid for an Oscar nomination in “King Richard”, a sports biopic about Richard Williams , the father and coach of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. For some folks (including myself), the description ‘sports biopic’ comes with its own baked-in expectations. Both sports movies and big screen biographies have a history of following all too familiar formulas and relying on the tried-and-true rather than offering something new. I’m not sure “King Richard” offers anything new, but it does tell its story well. And when you have such captivating subjects, sometimes that’s all you need to do.

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green and screenwriter Zach Baylin present Richard Williams as a man driven by the scars from his own painful past. It’s what motivates him to push his daughters harder than most; to raise them in their home and off the streets; to encourage them to pursue their dreams and overcome adversity. He preaches conviction, humility, and hard work. He’s determined that his girls will succeed where he didn’t and that they’ll have the father he never had. It’s an obsession born out of love, but an obsession nonetheless.

Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers.

With the girls in school, Richard hits country clubs around Los Angeles trying to convince local tennis pros to coach his daughters. After class, he practices with Venus and Serena on a rundown city court in a gang-infested part of town. He then ends his day working nights as a security guard. Lost in Richard’s aggressively up-front bravado is his wife Oracene (wonderfully played by Aunjanue Ellis), a stabilizing behind the scenes force who was crucial to the Williams sisters’ success.

Green and Baylin do a good job moving the story forward, and even at 138 minutes, the film never drags. It tracks Venus’ path to tennis stardom that takes the family out of Compton and to West Palm Beach, Florida. It covers their close relationship with renowned tennis coach Rick Macci (a terrific Jon Bernthal). It shows Venus’ decision to turn pro at only 14-years-old. And the movie doesn’t shy away from the inescapable racial component that simmers under the surface. It’s deftly handled by Green whose calculated restraint lets us sense it and feel it ourselves.

I don’t mean this as a knock, but I wasn’t prepared for how good Will Smith is in this. Grizzled and hunched, the star vanishes into the title role, delivering one of the very best performances of his career. Smith thoughtfully channels Richard’s confidence, his eccentricities, and his deeply buried bitterness in ways that never resemble mimicry. He’s helped by the warm and organic chemistry he has with Sydney and Singleton (both great). Meanwhile the film’s secret ingredient is Ellis who (much like her character) often sits in the background but speaks with strength whenever something needs to be said.

Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

“King Richard” doesn’t quite avoid all of the sports movie trappings. Take the final 20 minutes or so which are spent on one long, overdramatized tennis match. It’s something sports movies love to end with – the big match, the big game, the big race, the big fight. Yet this film still maintains enough nuance to separate it from other feel-good crowdpleasers of its kind.

In the end, it’s hard to watch “King Richard” without being inspired, not by the money and fame, but by the fact that Richard Williams’ preposterous plan actually worked. It shows that any family, who’s full of love and deeply committed, can overcome their circumstances and do something great. Of course having two of the greatest athletes of all-time in your family probably doesn’t hurt. “King Richard” is now showing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

VERDICT 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Kate” (2021)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

It seems like only a few days ago that I was reviewing a movie about a female assassin who dreams of a normal life but is bound to her violent (and apparently popular with moviegoers) profession. Of course it came packaged with a traumatic backstory, a mentor / father figure, and a mission of vengeance ending in a bloodstained showdown where the assassin’s occupational artistry is on full display.

The latest to join the crowded field is “Kate”, a new Netflix Original and the second movie helmed by French filmmaker Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, an Oscar-nominated visual effects artist who turned to directing in 2016 with the shaky “The Huntsman: Winter’s War”. To his credit, Nicolas-Troyan brings splashes of style and plenty of grit to “Kate”. But in the end it’s nothing we haven’t seen several times before.

You could say that the sometimes vicious and often ultra-violent “Kate” has a late 1970s grindhouse appeal (for those who find grindhouse films appealing). I admit to having a nostalgic soft spot for a select few of those movies although only in measured doses. Looked at a certain way, “Kate” could have melded right into a quadruple feature at the old Cameo Theater in Los Angeles or had its four-letter name wedged onto a cramped 42nd Street marquee in New York City.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

But to be fair, ”Kate” isn’t a trashy film and it certainly doesn’t look cheap (well, there is that one car chase sequence). Yet with bursts of gnarly brutality and an almost primitive in-your-face energy, the movie could rightfully bear the grindhouse label. In fact, that propulsive energy and a fun leading turn by Mary Elizabeth Winstead is what keeps “Kate” afloat. Unfortunately the repetitive nature of this sudden wave of assassin movies has caught up to them, and “Kate” simply doesn’t have enough ideas of its own.

The story opens in Osaka, Japan with a eponymous killer-for-hire (Winstead) all set to take out a powerful Yakuza clan leader. But just as Kate is about to pull the trigger, out walks the target’s young daughter. Kate hesitates but is instructed by the voice in her earpiece to take the shot. She reluctantly does, killing the gangster and leaving the distraught and blood-splattered little girl clinging to her father’s corpse.

Ten months pass and Kate is still tormented by what happened in Osaka. So much so that she’s ready to hang up her 9mms and call it a career. “I want a life,” she tells her long-time handler Varrick (Woody Harrelson), “a real regular life.” But Varrick is skeptical. “Two trips to Wal-Mart and you’ll be back”, he quips in that unmistakable Harrelson Southern drawl. Still Kate is determined to move on, but only after finishing that proverbial ‘one final mission’.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

But if there is anything these movies have taught us it’s that life as an assassin isn’t something you can just get up and walk away from. And like so many of the other predictable and trope-filled films, “Kate” follows a well-worn formula with only a couple of original touches. Here her last job leads to her being poisoned and only given 24 hours to live. Instead of giving up, she sets out to even the score before her clock runs out. And wouldn’t you know it, she finds an unlikely ally in a potty-mouthed young girl named Ani (Miku Patricia Martineau) – the same little girl who watched her father gunned down in the opening scene.

The rest of the movie runs us from one action scene to the next, sprinkling in a little character development along the way. The stylishly made fight sequences can be exhilarating with Winstead showing off some impressive action star chops. But the copious amount of bloodletting via face punches, throat-slices and point-blank headshots can only carry so much of the load and even they begin to feel old hat.

While I loved seeing Mary Elizabeth Winstead handed a well-deserved starring role, it’s not a particularly weighty one. Yet she gives it everything she’s got, even adding texture to a fairly conventional character type. Harrelson is solidly Harrelson, Kunimura brings welcomed gravitas and Martineau adds a spirited kick. But the all-too-familiar story leaves nothing for the imagination. Sure it’s serviceable one-and-done entertainment. But those hoping for a fresh and meatier diversion might want to add something else to their Netflix queue.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Karen” (2021)

Ever have one of those occasions where you do something that makes you immediately question your own judgement? I’m talking about something so ill-advised; so glaringly unwise. Something that you should know better than to do, yet you do it anyway. I recently had one of those occasions. What did I do you may ask? I watched “Karen”.

In my paper-thin defense, I didn’t really go into “Karen” expecting something great. I honestly thought it might be one of those “so bad it’s good” kind of experiences. Nope. It’s a full-blown “so bad it’s just bad” movie that left me speechless more than once. Not because of some bold, audacious filmmaking or a shocking unexpected plot twist. No, I was left dumbstruck by the sheer amount of awfulness that somehow made its way from the script through the editing process and onto the screen.

Image Courtesy of Quiver Distribution

Written and directed by Coke Daniels, “Karen” never conceals its intentions for one minute. You can’t miss its bludgeoning message which is nailed into every scene. You also can’t miss the complete lack of inspired storytelling, the astonishingly bad dialogue, or characters so poorly conceived that it’s impossible to connect with them in any meaningful way.

The story is as simple as a young African-American couple moving into an uppity all-white Atlanta suburb where they’re terrorized by their whack-job racist neighbor. That’s the movie in a nutshell. The neighbor’s name is Karen, which is not only the name of the movie but also a play on the goofy pejorative term for an entitled and privileged white woman. But if you missed that connection don’t worry. There’s a character who spells it out for us at least three times throughout the movie. “She’s a Karen whose name is Karen,” he says again and again and again. Yes, we get it.

The couple is Malik (Cory Hardrict) who runs an area community center and his wife Imani (Jasmine Burke) who is a stay-at-home blogger. They’re a weirdly out-of-tune pair whose naïveté is only outdone by their lack of awareness. They meet their new next door neighbor Karen (Taryn Manning) in the opening scene and it’s obvious that she’s a little nuts. It only takes a few more scenes to see that she’s completely deranged. Yet Malik and Imani are continually shocked and caught off-guard by Karen’s creepy and offensive antics.

The character of Karen doesn’t fare much better. Daniels leaves nothing to the imagination, fully revealing her to be a hyper-bigoted lunatic from the start. Within fifteen minutes there is nothing left for us to learn about her – no mystery, no surprises. Karen is a cartoonishly unhinged and irredeemable racist from start to finish. Daniels tries to amp up her nastiness, but it’s kinda hard when she has already done so many horrible things. I mean is the confederate flag on her bathroom soap dispenser supposed to reveal anything that we didn’t learn earlier when she had two men kicked out of a restaurant simply because they were black?

Image Courtesy of Quiver Distribution

The movie only gets worse the longer it goes, even throwing in a numbingly awful police brutality angle that’s as poorly handled as anything I’ve seen on screen in a long time. It’s one of several instances where the movie takes a sensitive hot topic and butchers it rather than giving its audience something to chew on. It doesn’t help that no one in the movie feels like, acts like or talks like a real person. So any theme the film might want to explore is lost in messiness and absurdity.

I’ll be honest, “Karen” is so bad that I started trying to redefine it as a satire or even a parody of some kind. But no, this thing really takes itself seriously. The performances are terrible, in large part because the cast is working with one of the worse scripts of the year. The dialogue is quite literally cringe-worthy, and it will have you sitting in stunned amazement (not a good thing). And the story pours everything it has into its lone gimmick, one that never deviates from its bland one-note track. So that leaves us with a ham-fisted social justice thriller minus the thrills and with nothing engaging to say about either society or justice. “Karen” is now available on VOD.

VERDICT – 0.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Kindred” (2020)

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It goes without saying that 2020 has been a rollercoaster year for the movie industry. But hats off to distributors like IFC Films who throughout the year has steadily released an incredibly diverse selection of high quality movies across streaming platforms. Family dramas, psychological thrillers, war–time period films, unconventional biopics, a hysterical road trip comedy, and that just scratches the surface. IFC has made a tough year a little bit better for movie fans.

Their latest film is yet another solidly entertaining entry into their catalog. “Kindred” is a mature, slow-boiling drama with a baked-in tinge of psychological thriller. It comes from first-time feature film director Joe Marcantonio who uses a very unobtrusive touch to tell a story rich with meaty subtext. The script (co-written by Marcantonio and Jason McColgan) takes its time unfolding, putting the bulk of its focus on the characters and their tense relationships. It’s sure to play too slow for some, but I found myself caught in the film’s devilish web.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance) and her boyfriend Ben (Edward Holcroft) have made the decision to finally move from the UK to Australia. What should be an exciting time is dampened when the couple go to inform Ben’s mother Margaret (Fiona Shaw). The bitter matriarch lives in a deteriorating family estate which Ben, the lone blood heir, is in line to inherit. The problem is he doesn’t want it which is something his mother can’t accept. “Nine generations!” she screams as temperatures reach their boiling point.

Then things are complicated even more when Charlotte finds out she’s pregnant. With a baby due Margaret expects them to stay, but after hearing they still plan on moving she loses it. “You’re not stealing my own flesh and blood to the other side of the planet.” Meanwhile Ben’s measly and frustratingly cordial stepbrother Thomas (Jack Lowden) slickly tries to play peacemaker. But when Ben is killed in a tragic stable accident the film takes a sneakily sinister turn.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

After an altercation with Margaret at the hospital, Charlotte blacks out and later wakes up at the family estate. Margaret and Thomas pledge to take care of her until she’s well, but it doesn’t take long for Charlotte to start questioning their motives. As Charlotte pushes back, Margaret tightens her grip because in her words it’s “what’s best for the baby“. This ends up being the film’s central conflict. The gaslighting story angle is certainly nothing new, but Marcantonio infuses a familiar idea with grounded character-centric twists. And the performances from Lawrance and Shaw create and develop a palpable tension between their characters.

There are plenty of other ingredients that help enrich the movie. There are the brief appearances of crows scattered throughout the film hinting at something psychological or possibly supernatural. There’s the crumbling manor itself, a fitting metaphor for what’s left of the family who lives there. There’s Carlos Catalán’s evocative cinematography and one of the best mood-setting scores of the year from Jack Halama and Natalie Holt. It all culminates in a chilling final act that is remarkably restrained (like the bulk of the film) and perfectly fitting.

VERDICT- 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Knives Out”

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Rian Johnson’s fresh take on the whodunit genre comes in the form of “Knives Out”, a murder mystery/dysfunctional family comedy mashup anchored by one heck of a star-studded cast. Johnson’s first film since his, shall we say “controversial”, venture into the Star Wars universe sees him easing right back into his comfort zone.

First and foremost “Knives Out” is a lot of fun. Not only is Johnson enjoying himself, but the entire cast is clearly having a blast. And how could they not? Johnson creates for them a narrative playground full of whip-smart dialogue, genre nostalgia and with a biting sense of humor. It’s also very confidently made. From the film’s earliest moments it’s obvious Johnson firmly believes in his script, his characters, and the wickedly good ensemble who portrays them.

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© 2019 Lionsgate Studios. All rights reserved

 

As with all good whodunits you’ve got to have a murder, a colorful list of suspects, and a sly detective who always seems to know more than he’s letting on. Here the murder victim is wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). He’s found in his study with his throat slit the morning after his big 85th birthday party. The police initially rule it a suicide but c’mon, we know it must be….“murder”!

Which leads us to the suspects. Namely the entire Thrombey clan – a mash of rich dysfunctional miscreants who are far more interested in their inheritance than their daddy’s death. Among them is the sharp-tongued eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her Trumpian blowhard husband Richard (Don Johnson). There is the strategically meek and overly-ambitious youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) who runs his father’s publishing company. Joni (Toni Collette), the widow of Harlan’s oldest son, is a left-wing scam artist who has her own line of “lifestyle” products.

Oh, I can’t forget the grandchildren. Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is a creepy internet troll (perhaps a little thin-skinned jab by Johnson at those who gave him the business over Star Wars). Meg (Katherine Langford) is a pot-smoking liberal arts student. And then the real scene-stealer, Ransom (Chris Evans), a spoiled playboy and the bonafide black sheep of the family. This is about as far removed from Captain America as Evans could get and boy does he nail it.

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© 2019 Lionsgate Studios. All rights reserved

And that leaves the detective. Daniel Craig lets loose playing Detective Benoit Blanc (gotta love the name), a renowned private-eye from a dying breed recently featured in a New Yorker article “The Last of the Gentlemen Sleuths“. Fitting. Anonymously hired and dripping with Deep South vernacular, Blanc immediately smells something fishy and from the very beginning suspects foul play. A local police detective (Lakeith Stanfield) doesn’t buy Blanc’s suspicions but he’s willing to watch and listen as the Poirotian gumshoe works his magic.

Caught in the middle of all the pomposity, posturing, and pretense is Marta (an absolutely brilliant Ana de Armas). She was Harlan’s personal nurse and now a lamb among a pack of ravenous wolves. “You’re part of the family” she’s repeatedly told yet not one of the Thrombey bunch can even get her nationality right. Marta is the film’s one spark of virtue but even she has her own secrets (and a weird but funny digestive disorder that I’ll let you discover for yourself).

This densely plotted medley of twists and turns, mystery and motives is simply intoxicating to watch. The toxic back-and-forths between these entitled elites and trust fund brats has plenty of satirical bite but it can also be laugh-out-loud hysterical. Even funnier is watching Craig’s Detective Blanc steadily poking the Thrombeys with a stick while never losing his distinctly southern charm. Thankfully there’s Marta, our refuge from the upper-crust madness and the movie’s clear moral high ground.

I can’t go any further without mentioning David Crank’s killer production design. You simply have to see Thrombey manor. It’s stuffed to the gills with period decor, bookshelves galore, weird dioramas and a bizarre assortment of odds-and-ends. There is something to turn your eyes towards in nearly every shot. And I know this is incredibly cliché but I’m going to say it regardless: the house is truly a character in itself.

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While Johnson’s script is full of savory dialogue and razor-sharp wit, there’s nothing particularly engaging about the mystery. The clues aren’t substantial enough for even the keenest eye to put together. Instead the real fun is in simply watching the many moving parts run their course. There is a point in the final third where much of the family disappears for a pretty long period of time. It makes sense within the story, but I did find myself missing several of the big personalities.

Quibbles aside, “Knives Out” slaps a fresh coat of paint on the Agatha Christie murder-mystery in a way that could (and should) attract a new kind of audience. It’s a blast of a throwback film that embraces the basic tenets of the whodunit genre and then turns them on their heads. Bull-headed conservatives and self-important liberals who tend to be oversensitive may have their feathers ruffled, but for everyone else “Knives Out” is an electric burst of feisty and high-spirited fun.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars