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 in 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

REVIEW: “The King” (2019)

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It would be really hard for David Michôd’s “The King” to be misconstrued as a thorough treatment of William Shakespeare’s “Henriad”. Some of the earliest scenes tell us otherwise. Instead his new film is a much more concentrated adaptation that puts its focus primarily on young Henry V and his rise from dissolute prince to the reluctant King of England.

“The King” is more than a condensed version of the Bard’s renowned series of plays. It’s still a medieval yarn about early 15th century power and the men who wield it. But it’s a uniquely contemporary retelling that takes plenty of liberties while sporting a slyly modern philosophical edge. It marks the third feature film collaboration between Michôd (director and co-writer) and fellow Aussie Joel Edgerton (co-writer and supporting actor).

Whether it’s earned or not, Timothée Chalamet has been the hottest thing in Hollywood since, I don’t know, Jennifer Lawrence. And much like her, he is immensely talented and has been showered with an almost unfair level of adulation. Here he shines, first as young Prince Hal, the rebellious son of the ailing King Henry IV (the always good Ben Mendelsohn). Hal is content with swilling ale with his boozy friend and mentor Falstaff (Edgerton), once a proficient knight on the battlefield but now the Prince’s portly protector and confidante.

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Hal’s defiance prompts his father to name his more devoted and by-the-royal-book son Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman) as the heir to his throne. There’s an interesting family dynamic here, but one of the few weaknesses of Michôd and Edgerton’s script is in how little they explore it. Instead we breeze through the demise of the petulant and overly-ambitious Thomas, their father’s inevitable death, and Prince Hal’s coronation as King of England.

Hal, now King Henry V, is a pacifist at heart and determined not to follow in the footsteps of his warmongering father. But he quickly realizes the urgings towards war aren’t easy to quell especially when so many around him seem to want it. And finding a trustworthy voice among the politicians and clergy proves to be difficult. Re-enter Falstaff who is brought in out of the rabble and into the King’s court as a military adviser. Needless to say, his presence irks many of those already in the King’s ear.

It’s here that Chalamet’s performance really grabs your attention. With maturity and gravitas, he brings a deep, troubled solemnity to his character. At the same time his internalized portrayal shrewdly conveys the deep psychological conflict of a young king aspiring for peace while burdened under his father’s shadow. Chalamet’s chemistry with his co-stars is a real strength particularly Edgerton who gives us a much different take on Falstaff.

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We also get a stellar supporting turn from Sean Harris who plays the hissing Chief Justice William Gascoigne. Lily-Rose Depp gets a small but meaty moment playing Catherine of Valois. Thomasin McKenzie briefly but effectively offers some gentle wisdom as Hal’s sister and the Queen and Denmark. But the real scene-stealer (and sure to be off-putting for some) could be Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin, the pompous heir to the French crown and perpetual thorn in Henry’s side. Pattinson swans around with a healthy dose of camp and enough absurdity to lighten up the otherwise dark and gloomy proceedings.

Michôd and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw bathe the first half of their film in the washed out blues and grays often seen with these types of period pieces. Yet despite its familiarity, the color palette fits and works well within the early setting. But the visuals truly pop once Hal and his army leave the dark castle for the shores of France. Specifically, it’s the fierce, mud-splattered Battle of Agincourt that stands out the most. It’s exquisitely shot from its tense buildup to the brutal, claustrophobic hand-to-hand combat.

“The King” does a good job reinventing Shakespeare’s characters and using them to offer up a meaningful critique of imperialism and the politics of war. It’s also a compelling character study of a son who wants no part of his father’s royal legacy but struggles to forge his own path as king. Shakespeare purists are sure to grit their teeth at Michôd’s dramatic license and willingness to take the popular story in new directions. But I loved the gritty fresh take and the strong, sturdy performances that drives the film from start to finish.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Kill Bill: Vol. 2”

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I doubt Quentin Tarantino would seriously object to his Kill Bill films being reviewed as two separate movies, but apparently there is a fairly long-running debate among a handful fans. Is Kill Bill one single movie or two? In a recent interview with CinemaBlend the acclaimed yet always controversial filmmaker threw in his two cents – “I made it as one movie and I wrote it as one movie.” Fair enough, but it still feels like a film that justifies its two parts.

Rewatching the first movie I was reminded of why Kill Bill is easily among my favorite Tarantino pictures. I’m so often at odds with his obsessions and excesses to the point of seeing some of his films as exercises in unbridled self-indulgence. Sure, “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” could also be considered very excessive and self-indulgent. In many ways it is. But for the most part it feels much more compact and focused. It’s fully committed to its influences and the excesses are very much a part of the genre he’s most interested in celebrating.

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Volume 2 begins at Chapter Six with what may be the movie’s best sequence. It’s a flashback dripping in Sergio Leone influence that digs into the events which sparked the Bride’s quest for revenge. She and a handful of others have gathered for a wedding rehearsal in a little chapel outside of El Paso, Texas. Volume 1 tells us how things turn out and Tarantino uses that knowledge to add a very effective layer of tension to the scene. The opening 15 minutes mixes together some of the film’s sharpest dialogue and savviest camerawork.

In his signature non-linear fashion, Tarantino bounces forward to the Bride (Uma Thurman) and her continued bloodlust for those who killed her unborn baby and left her for dead. Her top target is Bill (David Carradine), the head of the disbanded Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. But first she must hunt down and cut through each of his four former assassins. Two were handled in Volume 1. That leaves Bud (Michael Madsen) and Elle (Darryl Hannah).

Once again this is very much a direct continuation of the first film and both were shot at the same time. Yet despite the clear cohesion, Volume 2 uniquely stands out as its own thing. It surprisingly digs deeper into its characters, something the first film mostly skimmed over but for good table-setting reasons. And you could say Volume 2 comes across as less spectacular and more driven by Tarantino’s signature savory dialogue.

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It also stands apart in how much ground it explores. Volume 1 saw Tarantino exquisitely and violently indulging his adoration for the grindhouse martial arts movies of his childhood. This time around his cinematic focus is considerably broader, pulling influence from a wider catalog and experimenting with a number of different techniques and style choices. And all through storytelling that moves to a much different rhythm than the first film.

Tarantino is also known for reintroducing forgotten actors/actresses who have (for one reason or another) fallen off the map. Just think about it, Pam Grier (“Jackie Brown”), Kurt Russell (“Death Proof”, “The Hateful Eight”), Don Johnson (“Django Unchained“), and of course John Travolta (“Pulp Fiction”). This time it’s Carradine and Hannah who get the treatment. Both are great. Tarantino makes perfect use of Carradine’s gravelly, mellow deliveries and Hannah’s sultry ferocity.

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“Kill Bill: Vol. 1″ set some lofty expectations and Volume 2 meets them while taking a dramatically different approach to storytelling. But the marvel of it all is in how well both films gel together. It makes sense that Tarantino would consider them one movie despite each having their own uniqueness.

And as with most of his films, Kill Bill is a celebration of cinema. But with Volume 2 he adds layers of humanity and pathos that makes this more than a filmmaker indulging his inner cinephile. There’s actual heart among the grit and the violence along with a dynamic Uma Thurman who fully commits to every line, every emotion, and every swing of her lethal Hattori Hanzō blade.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars