REVIEW: “Project Power” (2020)

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In a crazy year that has been essentially devoid of big action-packed tentpole movies, it’s kinda nice to see something like “Project Power” come along. This stylish Netflix banger from the directing duo of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman has the look and feel of a big screen summer blockbuster. And it has two catchy names as top draws – Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Both have fun bringing their signature charisma while successfully jumping a few narrative hurdles along the way.

“Project Power” is written by Mattson Tomlin who is also busy co-writing Matt Reeves’ new Batman film. It took winning a bidding war with several big studios for Netflix to snag the rights to Tomlin’s script. It’s a dark-sided superhero tale of sorts, not without moments of levity, and with some social commentary sprinkled in for good measure. The concept is undeniably silly on the surface, but Tomlin does some interesting things with it and says some meaningful things along the way.

A new drug is introduced onto the streets of New Orleans by Teleos – a shady defense contractor secretly operating with government sanction. Once taken the pill triggers a single unique superpower that lies dormant in every person. But they only have it for five minutes. And while many powers are good, some can be instantly fatal to the user. As a slimy broker tells a potential investor during a sales pitch, “Results may vary“.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Needing a test run before mass production, Teleos hires a handful of local pushers to get their drug into the bloodstream of urban New Orleans. Among them is a well-meaning teen named Robin (Dominique Fishback), an aspiring rapper who sells the power pill as a means of taking care of her sick mother. One of her buyers is a New Orleans police detective named Frank (Gordon-Levitt). He secretly uses the pill as a way of combating the recent wave of super-powered crime across the city.

Enter Art (Foxx), an ex-Army Ranger who rolls into town intent on tracking down the supplier of the new drug. His trail leads to Robin who he kidnaps and forces to help him. But the two form an unexpected bond after Art reveals to her his intensely personal reasons for being there. Meanwhile the police have been informed that Art is a powerful drug dealer who is setting up shop in the city. Frank is sent to apprehend him while Art continues his hunt for Teleos.

As you can expect, paths cross, truths are revealed, and alliances are formed. There’s also plenty of action, much of it easily exceeding the gore limit of the normal superhero movie. In one scene alone a thug is impaled through the neck with an ice sculpture. Another has his hand shot off. And one goon simply explodes after popping a power pill (I warned you about those side effects). And that’s not counting what is ‘chillingly’ going on in the background of the scene (I’ll leave it for you to discover). There are a couple of instances where they shaky cam and frantic editing are too much. But for the most part DP Michael Simmonds puts together some thrilling compositions and some of his camera tricks really pay off.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Joost and Schulman move from scene to scene with a propulsive energy, but they still make room for their characters to develop. There isn’t a lot of time wasted on backstory, most of which comes through haunting flashbacks inside of Art’s head. Instead it’s the interactions between the characters that inform us the most. To be clear, this isn’t a movie of complex relationships or deep dives in psychology. Still, the three main characters are well-served by Tomlin’s script and the good all-around performances from Foxx, Gordon-Levitt, and Fishback.

And while “Project Power” is far from a deep contemplative think piece, it does place itself in a setting rich with issues to speak on. Inner-city drug use, poverty, corruption, government neglect – its all addressed in some form or another. And perhaps more than anything, the movie explores the notion of the haves and the have-nots specifically in the area of power. As Art succinctly puts it, “In the real world power goes to where it always goes – to the people who already have it.”

“Project Power” comes along during a time when we all could use a little escapism. It ends up being a fun, high-energy offering of big screen caliber action, timely dashes of humor, and a lively chemistry between its three stars. I also admire it for being a superhero(ish) movie that doesn’t adhere to any genre formula nor does it waste our time with yet another origin story. The film doesn’t quite cover all of its story angles, but it’s still solid ‘kick back and enjoy’ entertainment and a nice getaway for those looking for one. “Project Power” premieres today on Netflix.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Palm Springs” (2020)

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For the sake of honesty I have to admit that I’ve never quite connected with Andy Samberg’s brand of comedy. To be fair I’ve only seen glimpses of his television work (none of it stuck with me), but when it comes to his movies I’ve struggled to lock onto what others consider to be funny. That may have put me behind the eight ball when it came to seeing his new film “Palm Springs”.

Directed by Max Barbakow and written by Andy Siara, “Palm Springs” is a movie with a bit of an identity crisis. Obviously it’s a comedy first, one that can be mildly amusing but that insists on vainly going the low-hanging, low-brow route. It’s also a romance that takes too long getting going and then cuts it short just as the characters are taking shape and their relationship is becoming interesting. And it’s a half-baked science-fiction flick with a time loop, some kind of magic cave, and one character who becomes an quantum physicist after an online class and a few Google searches.

Samburg plays a wisecracking downer named Nyles who is in Palm Springs for a wedding with his spacey girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner). Meanwhile the sister of the bride and maid of honor Sarah (Cristin Milioti) earns her reputation as the troubled black sheep of the family. Both Nyles and Sarah are essentially outcasts but for much different reasons. Sarah is fed up with herself and the life she lives. And witnessing the bliss of her highly accomplished younger sister (Camila Mendes) doesn’t help. Nyles, well he’s stuck in a time-loop where he relives the same day over and over again. Whenever he falls asleep he wakes up on the day of the wedding. If he dies, same thing.

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Photo Courtesy of Hulu

That may sound like a spoiler but it’s actually revealed within the first 15 minutes or so. Nyles has watched the wedding play out countless times. He knows all the players and all the scenarios. It’s no wonder he comes across as bored and disaffected. He lives in a world of no consequences and no repercussions. That’s why he can show up to the wedding in a Hawaiian shirt, cargo shorts, and chugging a can of beer. For him it’s all meaningless and no matter what he does (good or bad) it’ll all be erased once he wakes up again.

Then something unexpected happens. Nyles saves Sarah’s bacon at the reception leading to a walk under the stars and eventually the two of them making out. Then out of the blue Nyles is shot with an arrow by a lunatic commando wannabe named Roy (the always sturdy J.K. Simmons). A wounded Nyles gets away from his assailant and crawls into the glowing light beaming out of a mysterious nearby cave. But Sarah finds him and against his warnings enters the cave too. Poof! Guess who else is now caught in the time loop?

Throw aside the obvious questions like ‘What’s up with this cave?’ and ‘Why would Nyles take Sarah a few yards from said cave to make out?’ The movie isn’t interested in those things. Instead it slowly attempts to develop a believable relationship as Sarah comes to grips with her predicament while Nyles attempts to teach her the rules. We end up in a rom-com purgatory of sorts full of carefree hijinks leading to an eventual (and utterly predictable) romance.

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Photo Courtesy of Hulu

Yes Sarah falls for Nyles (something you can see coming a mile away) but I’m still not sure why. Her optimism does start to soften his nihilism which makes him slightly less obnoxious. But while Samberg and Milioti have a playful chemistry, there isn’t an ounce of romantic sizzle. It’s not the fault of the actors. Instead it’s Siara’s script which spends more time goofing around rather than digging into his characters. They say things that sound like depth and dimension, but it rarely gets below surface-level.

It’s a shame because you see the ingredients for something better especially when it comes to Sarah. There is a sadness and melancholy with the character that’s never fully explored. Yet it’s sold through Milioti’s strong conviction and go-for-it performance. Meanwhile Samberg is basically playing the same kind of goof he has many times before. I’m sure fans will love him here, but I didn’t find him (or the movie itself) all that funny. I will say Samberg has a dance number that initially doesn’t make sense at all, but it’s actually quite funny once you get your footing and see where it’s coming from. Otherwise the laughs are pretty sparse.

“Palm Springs” is essentially a less attractive and less nuanced “Groundhog Day”. It tries to differentiate itself by throwing out some new ideas but it doesn’t do enough with them. Instead it’s so beholden to its raunchy comedy ambitions that we end up with more cheap sex gags than meaningful character moments. And when we do finally get some of those moments they’ve had such little time to germinate that they end up feeling hollow. That’s how I felt about the movie as a whole and not even a wild-eyed, coked-up J.K. Simmons could change my mind. “Palm Springs” is now playing on Hulu.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “The Painted Bird” (2020)

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In a key scene from “The Painted Bird” a young boy, not even 10-years-old, holds a small blackbird while a grizzled old man brushes white paint across its feathers. The man then releases it to a flock of blackbirds flying overhead. Immediately the swarming flock savagely attack the painted bird and within a few violent seconds it’s plummeting back to earth, pecked to death by its own kind.

The analogy is a grim and potent one. Humanity is like the flock of birds, willing to attack, destroy and devour their own, even the weak and especially those who dare to look different. For a young Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe that was a vivid and painful reality. For this particular boy the ugliness of humanity extends far beyond the German invaders. Wickedness is found in every village and farmhouse he crosses; iniquity in most of the peasants and soldiers he meets.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

“The Painted Bird” is a horrifying and intense 169-minute epic from Czech writer-director-producer Václav Marhoul. His film is based on Jerzy Kosiński’s 1965 controversial novel which was first published as a fictional work, marketed to appear autobiographical, and now widely considered fictional once again. Marhoul’s adaptation debuted at last year’s Venice International Film Festival and was marked by several walkouts in response to the movie’s graphic subject matter and unrelenting bleakness. But as Marhoul told the Venice press when defending his film, “Only in darkness can we see light.”

Make no mistake, “The Painted Bird” is not for the faint of heart. It can be shocking, at times savage, and for some it will be unbearable to watch. It’s a story told through the eyes of a young Jewish boy trying to survive in a war-ravaged land where shells of the living, drained of every drop of love and compassion, do nothing more than exist in a swell of unfettered human depravity. It’s a land full of people desensitized to their own indecency and reverting back to their most primitive instincts. As a result the boy both witnesses and experiences acts of unbridled brutality and unspeakable abuse.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

We first meet the boy (played with heartbreaking innocence by Petr Kotlár) as World War II nears its end. He’s living with an old maid on a dusty isolated farm, left there by his Jewish parents after the Nazi roundups began. When the woman suddenly dies the boy loses his caregiver and safety net. So he sets out into the wild hoping to find his way home and into the arms of his mother and father. Instead he finds a cold, rotting world gutted by the war and where ‘the kindness of strangers‘ is as foreign as the ruthless invading forces.

The film is broken into nine chapters, each named after people the boy meets on his hellish odyssey. Among them Stellan Skarsgård as a disillusioned German soldier, Udo Kier as a jealous and obsessed miller, Harvey Keitel as a sympathetic priest, and Barry Pepper as a hardened Russian sniper. Most of the encounters end horrifically with barely a shimmer of light. And in heartbreaking fashion each chisel away at the boy’s innocence and humanity. Christian symbols speak to the idea of grace, but it’s smothered out by a society handed over to their own lusts and violence.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

Marhoul communicates mostly through the camera and what little dialogue there is is spoken in an invented Slavic-like language in order to avoid indicting any one single nation. Cinematographer Vladimír Smutný shoots in stunning 35mm black-and-white with a CinemaScope ratio providing us with the film’s lone bits of beauty. The brilliant use of light and shadows, his searing and evocative close-ups, the meticulous compositions and eye-catching backdrops. Whether Smutný’s camera is gazing up at the gentle sway of birch treetops or peering around a corner at some unthinkable horror, the film’s most profound voice comes from its visual language.

“The Painted Bird” is an unorthodox Holocaust drama that puts its audience face-to-face with the inhumanity of humanity. It’s pitiless and unyielding conviction forces us to endure scene after scene of appalling cruelty, daring us to grow numb to it and therefore proving its bigger point. By the end you genuinely feel like you’ve been on a traumatic near three-hour journey, one I’m not sure when I’ll want to take again. But that doesn’t negate the sting of the film’s thought-provoking message. Nor does it nullify Vladimír Smutný’s unforgettable and award-worthy imagery. It simply makes it a hard movie to recommend to all audiences. Some will be absorbed, others will be repulsed. I’ll let you decide which you’re likely to be. “The Painted Bird” opens July 17th on VOD.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

RETRO REVIEW: “Panic Room” (2002)

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By the time David Fincher made “Panic Room” he had already earned a name for himself as an audacious filmmaker. He had “Se7en” and “Fight Club” under his belt, both bucking the mainstream in their own grimly unique ways. “Panic Room” saw him working in more conventional thriller territory. But as you would expect from any Fincher project, he gives you more to chew on than you would first expect.

The film opens with a snooty real estate agent (a hilariously snide Ian Buchanan) showing off an swanky upper west side property to recently divorced Meg (Jodie Foster) and her eleven-year-old daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart). The four-story brownstone is fresh on the market following the death of its previous owner – an elderly millionaire hermit who happened to install an impenetrable bunker upstairs. The panic room is made of reinforced concrete and steel, features a state-of-the-art security system with closed-circuit television, and comes with its own private phone line.

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PHOTO: Columbia Pictures

Despite being a little creeped out by the panic room, Meg takes the house. But wouldn’t you know it, their first night at their new place turns into a nightmare. Three men begin skulking around eventually finding their way into the house. A corn-rowed Jared Leto, a blue collar thief with a conscience Forest Whitaker, and a mysterious masked Dwight Yoakam form the inept trio who are surprised to find the new owners at home.

Meg hears the intruders prompting her to grab Sarah and escape into the panic room just in the nick of time. Turns out the burglars are there for $3 million the previous owner has stashed away in his house. And guess where the cash is hidden…yep, the panic room. What follows is an entertaining game of cat-and-mouse between a mother protecting her child and a pack of dysfunctional hooligans.

David Koepp’s screenplay is pretty basic on the surface but thematically he does some intriguing things. Most of them have to do with the Meg character. Nicole Kidman was initially cast but forced to leave due to a knee injury she suffered while filming “Moulin Rouge”. Kidman’s portrayal was set to be more powerless and vulnerable. After casting Foster the character was rewritten to be stronger, quick-thinking, and more resourceful. The new combination of feminine grit and maternal instincts allowed for a fresh female representation and Foster was fully committed.

Hayden Panettiere was originally set to play Sarah but dropped out and was replaced by a 12 year-old Kristen Stewart. It was only Stewart’s second film role and she leaves quite a mark. Not only does she have a great mother/daughter chemistry with Foster, but she brings spirit and personality to what could have been another stock kid character. It’s a deeply grounded performance and she’s a real attention-getter especially in some of her later scenes.

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PHOTO: Columbia Pictures

But it’s also true that Fincher isn’t trying to do anything too profound. He’s still very much making a genre film and you can see him enjoying the familiar structures that come with it. He seems to have the most fun with his camera. Playing within the confines of a single setting, Fincher’s camera (with the help of the occasional digital effect) seemingly utilizes every inch of the mammoth sized house. We know the layout pretty well thanks to the sly early scene with the real estate guy. Next is watching the director use the place in a variety of cool and crazy ways.

“Panic Room” ends up being a genuinely thrilling nailbiter, skillfully laid out both visually and plot-wise. Led by strong performances top to bottom and a clear-eyed understanding of what it aims to be, “Panic Room” is a straight genre movie but with enough Fincher flourishes to give it an extra kick. It will never be considered among the filmmaker’s most beloved pictures, but it’s great seeing it on his resume. And personally speaking, I actually like it better than “Fight Club”, but that’s a fight for another day.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars 

RETRO REVIEW: “Predator” (1987)

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I grew up in the heyday of the beefcake action genre and I’m not going to lie – I loved it. Throughout the 1980’s to the mid 1990’s names like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Norris, Van Damme, and Seagal had a constant presence in movie houses across the country. Granted, when looked at through a more discerning eye, lots of their films were much of the same. But even some of the bad ones were undeniably entertaining.

And then you had the really good ones. These movies were not only fun during their day, but they have stood the critical and evaluative test of time. Tops on that list may be Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Predator” from 1987. This energetic mix of military action and creature science-fiction still stands as a genre classic.

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© 2019 20th Century Fox All Rights Reserved

Schwarzenegger plays Dutch, the leader of an elite special forces rescue unit. He and his team are summoned to Central America after a helicopter carrying a cabinet minister crashes in the guerrilla-occupied jungle. Dutch is tasked with finding the wreckage and bringing back the survivors. He reluctantly allows CIA Agent and old military pal Dillon (Carl Weathers) to tag along.

The six-man unit plus Dillon find the wreckage and discover the bodies of its passengers skinned and hanging in a tree. The team’s tracker (Sonny Landham) picks up a trail that leads them to a guerrilla camp (and to one of my favorite pure action sequences of the decade). Dutch and his team takes out the camp, learn why they were really sent in, and then venture deeper into the hostile jungle towards an extraction point.

But then things take a turn. Since the beginning director John McTiernan drops hints that there is something else in the jungle; something perhaps not so human. When this otherworldly creature takes out a couple of Dutch’s men it becomes clear that the humans have now become the prey.

Brothers Jim and John Thomas wrote what would become their signature screenplay. Their cohesive blend of straight action, survival elements, and sci-fi thrills inject “Predator” with a cool and unique identity. It all leads to an unexpectedly primal final act that pits brawn versus beast. Is it silly? You betcha. But it’s also a ton of fun.

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© 2019 20th Century Fox All Rights Reserved

Obviously this is Schwarzenegger in his prime, but “Predator” is one of the first movies where he begins to show a better understanding of the acting process. Clearly he has a dominating physical screen presence, but this performance sees him as more human than robotic. A game supporting cast including Weathers, Jesse Ventura, Bill Duke and Sonny Landham brings even more muscle and personality.

There have been several attempts to recapture the magic formula of McTiernan’s original “Predator” but none have really come close. Sure, some may find it easy to dismiss the film as more 80’s meat-headed action. But “Predator” not only stands out in what was a crowded action genre, but it has held up extremely well for over thirty years. And I’ll confidently herald it as being among Schwarzenegger’s very best films.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

 

REVIEW: “The Photograph” (2020)

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Making a good movie doesn’t have to be difficult (as if I would know). Sometimes all you need are two convincing leads and a good script. Ok, obviously there’s more to it than that, but you get what I mean. A good story told through captivating, relatable performances can often carry a movie to unexpected heights. “The Photograph” is a prime example. Or at least that’s how I felt early into the film.

But I quickly came to see I couldn’t brush off Stella Meghie’s stellar direction. It’s her screenplay and ultimate trust in her leads than really shine. But at the same time, believing in the material and giving your performers space are often signs of a good director. So is patience in letting relationships develop naturally and capturing genuine humanity in a genre not always known for it. Writer-director Meghie shows all of these strengths which separates her film from the soupy fluff normally thrown out on Valentines Day.

“The Photograph” tells an intergenerational story that oscillates between two intimately connected timelines. In the present day Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) is an ambitious but unfulfilled writer for an New York based online magazine called The Republic. He arrives in Louisiana to interview Isaac (the ever terrific Rob Morgan) for an oil spill story he’s working on, but is instead captivated by a 30 year-old photo on Isaac’s mantle. It’s of a young woman, Christina Eames who Isaac shared a relationship with before she moved off to New York.

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PHOTO: Universal Pictures

Back home, Michael discovers Christina was a successful photographer who just recently passed away. Feeling there is a story to be told, he reaches out to her estranged daughter Mae (Issa Rae) who is a curator at the Queens Art Museum. The two meet and instantly the proverbial sparks fly but not in the sappy, shallow sense. From their first meeting Meghie creates a truly palpable attraction built upon Rae and Stanfield’s simmering chemistry. I say ‘simmering’ because that’s the temperature Meghie is going for. She’s into giving us real people full of uncertainty and hesitations. So the low-key, slow romantic buildup makes sense.

A second narrative, shown through a series of flashbacks set in the 1980’s, tells Christina and Isaac’s story. Based in Louisiana, these scenes offer an invigorating Deep South contrast to New York City. Chante Adams is sublime as Christina, young and driven yet torn between her desire to pursue a dream and being with the man she deeply loves. Younger Isaac (played by Y’lan Noel) is a third generation crab fisherman who loves Christina with all his heart. He would do anything for her save uprooting from the only place he has ever known.

These older scenes are great companions to the current day stuff. And while both story strands have very different flavors, much of the storytelling technique is the same. We learn the most through simple conversations. Whether Mae and Michael are debating Drake versus Kendrick Lamar or talking about a recent ex who we never lay eyes on. Meghie let’s her characters tell their stories, not through contrived and stilted exposition but from their personal interactions. They determine what is important for us to know. And neither story is dependent upon trauma or betrayal to add depth. It’s all about delicate emotion and the human complexities that make us who we are.

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PHOTO: Universal Pictures

As the dual love stories play out to Robert Glasper’s elegant jazz-influenced score, we can only wonder if the daughter is destined to follow the mother. The looks into Christina’s past with Isaac reveal her strength and grit but also pain and longing. With Mae vivacity comes with a not-so-thinly-veiled vulnerability while the charming Michael isn’t quite as confident as he would have Mae believe. In other words, nothing seems for certain.

Some surprisingly welcomed levity comes from Lil Rel Howery playing Michael’s domesticated brother Kyle. His mix of dialogue and improvisation is funny and (thankfully) more grounded than in some of his other movie appearances. Teyonah Parris is a great match as Kyle’s wife Asia. Both have relatively small roles but are good fits and come across as more than just throwaway comic relief.

There’s a throwback romantic quality in Meghie’s use of the gaze that calls back to Bogart and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn, MacMurray and Stanwyck. The eye contact is meaningful and the warmth is genuine. It’s also nice to see a movie push back on the hackneyed formulas of a cliche-soaked genre. Sure it sprinkles in a few familiar ingredients (maybe too many), but “The Photograph” maintains its tenderness and sophistication by simply latching onto the one thing all great romances embrace – the human element.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars