REVIEW: “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” (2021)

Morgan Neville takes a revealing look into the fascinating yet complicated life of chef, travel guru, television host, and author Anthony Bourdain with his new documentary “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain”. Neville doesn’t set out to do an exhaustive dive into the man’s life story. Instead he hones in on Bourdain’s rise from discouraged executive chef at Manhattan’s Brasserie Les Halles to full-blown cultural celebrity. But through it all Neville’s focus remains intently on the man underneath the brash and snarky exterior; the man who sadly took his own life on June 8, 2018. He was 61.

Neville unpacks the enigma that is Anthony Bourdain through his subject’s own words and those of friends, creative partners, his brother, and his second wife among others. Bourdain had an unmistakable physical presence – a tall and slender frame, a thick curly crop of hair, a big toothy smile. Outspoken and often unfiltered, he was more than happy to share his opinions and he didn’t shy away from talking about his drug-riddled past. Throw in his love for punk rock and his two-pack-a-day smoking habit and you have a bad-boy image that would stick with him, whether it was deserved or not.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

But as we quickly learn, Bourdain’s larger-than-life persona was hiding the troubled and brittle psyche of a man who never felt comfortable in his own skin. Neville’s film reveals a man struggling in his ill-fated pursuit of true happiness. He gets tastes along the way – meeting and marrying his second wife Ottavia Busia; becoming a father for the first time at age 50. But as one of Bourdain’s long-time television collaborators puts it, reality could never live up to his romanticized view of it.

“Roadrunner” pulls from an assortment of never-before-seen video including private recordings, behind the scenes television footage, etc. They allow us to see the man friends called “Tony” both flourish and struggle in the various stages of his professional life. We get old video showing his love/hate relationship with the kitchen. We see him overwhelmed by the success of his lawless memoir “Kitchen Confidential”. And of course there are countless clips from his wildly popular television shows where he would travel the globe exploring culture and cuisine; introducing American audiences to exotic places and exotic foods.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

And of course the film chronicles his final years which Neville handles with a thoughtful yet unflinchingly honest touch. Leading up to his second divorce, it almost seems as if Bourdain had given up on the prospect of a normal life. “I want to be normal. I want to be like everyone else,” he laments only to later admit “I don’t even know what (normal) is anymore.” Then Neville leans on the words of Bourdain’s colleagues and friends to unwrap his unhealthy infatuation with girlfriend Asia Argento. Filming his show became a chore especially for his long-time crew who were finding him harder and harder to work with. And of course it only got darker from there.

Anthony Bourdain was a fascinating figure with a robust and sometimes in-your-face personality that made him easy to love or hate. “Roadrunner” doesn’t try to rewrite the man or soften his jagged edges. In many ways it attempts to make sense of his mystique while also shedding light on the person himself who inspired millions to live their lives to the fullest even as he struggled to find contentment in his own. There’s a bleakness to the film that Neville doesn’t hide from, but that comes with the honesty he brings. It’s what ultimately sets the movie apart from so many other by-the-book celebrity retrospectives. “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” opens in theaters this Friday (July 16th).

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Rogue Hostage” (2021)

“Fast and Furious” wisecracker Tyrese Gibson is handed a much more serious role leading the upcoming action-thriller “Rogue Hostage”. Jon Keyes directs from a story by screenwriter Mickey Solis. Their movie, set mostly in a Wal-Mart styled department store, starts out with glimmers of promise. But as the tropes start to pile up and the flimsiness of both the characters and the story is exposed, it quickly becomes evident that the film’s title isn’t the only thing that’s generic.

Gibson plays Kyle Snowden, a former Marine suffering from severe PTSD following a traumatic tour of duty in Afghanistan. Now he works for child protective services with his fellow caseworker and friend Clove (Brandi Bravo). Through a couple of vague information drops we learn that Kyle’s wife up and left him and their young daughter Angel (Zani Jones Mbayise). We never learn why, only that her departure has left Kyle in a tough spot.

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Kyle’s stepfather, a wealthy local business owner named Sam Nelson (John Malkovich), doesn’t help much. He barely notices Kyle’s struggles, instead offering such unhelpful advice as “You need to find your purpose again.” The hard-to-read Nelson is much more interested in his bid for Congress, and with the election right around the corner optics are everything.

Of course in a movie like this you have to have a baddie and here we get it in the form of Eagan Raize, an angry militant type holding a pretty big grudge. He’s played by Christopher Backus who has both the look and demeanor that the role demands. His introduction is foreboding and frightening. It teases a ruthless and unstable antagonist, driven by something unseen and determined to see his personal mission through. Unfortunately like so much else in “Rogue Hostage”, he too becomes a shallow caricature and the kind of cookie-cutter villain you could plug into almost any movie of this type.

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

The story is kickstarted when Kyle and Clove rescue a young Mexican boy and stop by Sam’s store to get him something to eat. Inside Sam is prepping to shoot a new campaign ad making it the perfect time for Eagan and his two heavily armed cousins to barge in and take over the place. From there the movie turns into your prototypical hostage flick with Kyle trapped inside with an assortment of surface-level characters – the resourceful store manager Sunshine (Luna Lauren VĂ©lez), a young shoplifter (Holly Taylor), Nelson’s self-absorbed press secretary (Susannah Hoffman) to name a few.

From there nothing about how “Rogue Hostage” plays out will surprise you. Despite hitting some pretty conventional beats, it sets itself up to be a fairly entertaining genre film. But soon all hints at originality start to unravel and it becomes your garden-variety hostage thriller with most of the clichĂ©s yet none of the thrills. And it tosses in so many themes yanked from today’s newspaper headlines. Income inequality, white supremacy, guns, the southern border, crony capitalism and more, all handled superficially and with no punch whatsoever. Just more frustration from this unfortunate misfire. “Rogue Hostage” opens tomorrow (June 11th) in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “The Resort” (2021)

When reading reviews of the new horror film “The Resort” I doubt you’ll hear many critics praising it as original, fresh, or innovative. That’s because this watchable yet unremarkable indie is nothing horror fans haven’t seen many times before. Even worse, it’s hamstrung by a tiny budget and hampered by a script that doesn’t have enough ideas of its own to fill the movie’s light 70-minute running time. It does eventually find its footing but only in the final fifteen minutes or so. By that time I’m guessing a lot of people will have already checked out.

“The Resort” is written and directed by Taylor Chien. It’s simple horror premise goes like this: four friends venture to an abandoned Hawaiian resort that locals believe is haunted by a malevolent spirit. Right out of the gate a story like this comes with a certain degree of baked-in predictably. We know going to the resort is a bad idea. We know the cheerful chums are in for a terrifying surprise. And we have a good idea that not all will make it out alive. So it’s up to the filmmaker and his cast to make this fairly routine horror concept interesting. It can be done, but sadly Chien and company miss their mark.

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

As you might expect, “The Resort” gives us four of the horror genre’s most overused character types: the serious girl Lex (Bianca Haase), the hot blonde Bree (Michelle Randolph), the hunk Chris (Brock O’Hurn), and obnoxious loudmouth Sam (Michael Vlamis). To be fair the film does offer a couple of welcomed variations to them. For example, Chris is pretty humble and level-headed despite looking like a cover model for a Harlequin novel. And while the occasional ogling from the camera might say different, Bree isn’t the prototypical lustful hottie.

But don’t mistake those slight deviations as equalling good characters. To the film’s credit it tries to give them some depth, mainly during its draggy first 45 minutes when the group arrives at the island and then makes the hike to the resort. Along the way we learn Lex is doing research for a horror novel. Chris has the hots for her. Bree has a deep affection for selfies. And in addition to being annoying, Sam has an endless supply of booze. They all take time to share their thoughts on the paranormal and supernatural, but there’s really nothing to them for us to cling to. The characters are shallow, the performances are rough, and at times their dialogue can be hopelessly cringy.

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

It takes a while, but the group FINALLY arrives at the once luxurious resort. After some ill-advised exploring and some obligatory carelessness, the four encounter the spirit known as the Half-Faced Girl. Outside of one brief exposition dump, we never learn much about the ghastly apparition and we don’t spend enough time with her to understand how or why she does what she does. There is one really cool and creepy horror bit nestled in that final act. But it’s swallowed up by the film’s murky and uninspired ending that left me with even more questions than before.

The positive side of me likes to think there is a good movie trapped somewhere inside of “The Resort”. Yet I’m having a hard time convincing myself. It’s basically a well-worn idea without an ounce of new flavor. Everything in it has been done before and done better. And when you mix in bland characters, a shallow script, and practically no scares whatsoever it’s hard to find much to recommend. “The Resort” is now available on VOD.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Riders of Justice” (2021)

A soldier returns home early from deployment after receiving the tragic news that his wife was killed in a train accident. That doesn’t sound like the kind of premise you would go into expecting a laugh. Yet there is a wild black comedy edge to the Danish film “Riders of Justice” that’s sure to catch a lot of viewers off-guard. But there’s a lot more to writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen’s surprisingly dense and thematically rich story.

From his earliest scenes we get a sense that there is much more to Jensen’s film and his characters. The ever-watchable Mads Mikkelson plays Markus Hansen who returns from active duty in Afghanistan to be with his daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) following the death of his wife Emma (Anne Birgitte Lind). She and ten other people were killed during a city train accident that officials attribute to a collision with an oncoming train.

Image Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

We begin to learn more about Markus once he’s home with Mathilde. Both father and daughter are in their own personal states of shock. Mathilde feels the need to express her pain. She wants them to see a family grief counselor and ponders God’s reasons for tragedy. Markus keeps everything pent up. He balks at the idea of therapy or a supernatural purpose. So he withdraws into his own anger, bitterness, denial, and remorse. He grows cold and detached, content to bury his pain rather than cope with it. It makes him appear harsh and indifferent which fractures his relationship with Mathilde even more. Soon her biggest fear is becoming like her father.

A few days later a man named Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) shows up at Markus’ door with information about Emma’s death. Otto, a recently fired data analyst, was on the train and claims the incident was no accident; that it was actually an orchestrated hit meant to kill a key witness set to testify against the leader of a violent biker gang known as the Riders of Justice. Otto along with his batty yet brilliant associate Lennart (Lars Brygmann) lay out their highly detailed discovery built on calculations, probabilities, and quite a few illegally hacked documents and surveillance footage. The cops were quick to dismiss Otto’s suspicions, but for Markus it’s an opportunity to release his pain through vengeance.

The movie’s wacky balance of dark comedy and darker human drama is mostly seen in the relationships between Markus and the trio of Otto, Lennart, and facial recognition specialist named Emmenther (Nicolas Bro). Together the three tech-buddies bring back memories of Byers, Langly and Frohike aka The Lone Gunmen of X-Files fame. But they are more than comic relief and each are imbued with certain layers of humanity. This is especially true for Otto who, in addition to his own personal baggage, is burdened with survivor’s guilt over Emma’s death. In an act of courtesy he gave her his seat on the side of the train that took the brunt of the impact. And being a man obsessed with details, data and calculations, he can’t get over feeling that he should have seen it coming.

Image Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The group’s dogged hunt for answers combined with Markus’ revenge-driven bloodlust takes them down a dark and violent path. But through it all Jensen never loses focus of his central themes or his characters. They always stay front and center. And as you would expect, Mikkelsen’s brilliance as an actor is on full display. He delivers a strikingly multifaceted performance that sees him play a ruthless vigilante, a classic comedy straight man, a broken and emotionally fragile father and more.

While the black comedy element is one of the film’s strengths, it’s also one of its weaknesses. There are a few times where Jensen pushes the humor a little too far leading to some unfortunate clashes in tone. Even worse, there were a couple of instances where the film’s desire for laughs undercuts a would-be emotionally powerful moment. Yet Jensen always manages to get back on track with his deep and textured story and its myriad of interests. Yes, the movie has good action, good laughs and a steely, grizzled Mikkelsen. But it’s the attention it gives to its themes (coping with death and loss, making sense of tragedy, coincidence versus fate) that really sets the movie apart. “Riders of Justice” releases in theaters in NY and LA on May 14th and everywhere on May 21st.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021)

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It seems like every year I make a pledge to invest more time and energy into animated movies. And it seems like every year I fail to honor that pledge. For reasons I can’t fully put into words, animated features rarely resonate with me in the same way they do for so many others. The ones I like I REALLY like. But so many have the same basic story structure and the same hyperactive approach to humor. Yes I know, they’re animated films and they’re made to also appeal to children. I’m not knocking them for that. But for me, the very things that give animated films their broad appeal are what often push me away.

Well, I can honestly say “Raya and the Last Dragon” is an animated movie I like. In fact I REALLY like this new adventure-fantasy from Walt Disney Animated Studios. This magical and touching feature from co-directors Don Hall and Carlos LĂłpez Estrada taps into a lot of things people are looking for today – a strong female lead, representation, etc. But above all, “Raya” has a story pulsating with urgency. It uses its fantastical setting, cultural inspirations, and enormous heart to encourage us to keep our faith in humanity, to trust one another, and to come together as a people. At a time when left-wing and right-wing tribalism is running rampant, I can’t think of a more timely message.

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Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

The film tells the story of Raya (brilliantly voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), a warrior princess who you could say is a little bit Samurai and a little bit Indiana Jones. She’s a descendent of a family sworn to protect a sacred relic called the Dragon Gem. A prologue describes the river nation of Kumandra as a place where dragons and humans once lived in harmony until their land was invaded by creatures known as Druun who kill the world and turn people to stone. These swirling balls of purple gas were vanquished when the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Before doing so they transported their magic into the Dragon Gem which Raya’s people has protected for generations.

But the other four lands within Kamandra believe the Dragon Gem brings prosperity and they resent not having it for themselves. Raya’s optimistic father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) believes he can quell the friction and bring the five lands together. But mankind’s penchant for selfishness and distrust lead to fighting. The Dragon Gem is shattered, the Druun are let loose, and Kamandra plunges into chaos as many people are turned to stone including Raya’s father.

That all happens in the first 15 minutes. The bulk of the story takes place six years later as an angry and bitter Raya searches for a dragon named Sisu, believed to be the last of her kind. Raya believes if she can find Sisu and then reclaim the pieces of the Dragon Gem she will be able to rid the land of the Druun and save her father. But it’s easier said than done. When the Gem shattered it broke into five pieces with the leaders of the five lands of Kamandra each taking a shard for themselves. Raya has one piece, but she’ll need to travel to the other four lands Tail, Talon, Spine, and the most sinister Fang in order to reforge the Gem.

As you would expect Raya meets an assortment of interesting characters, some who join her on her journey. It starts off rocky once she finds Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina). Their meeting begins with a scene reminding me of why I often groan at animated humor. Sisu bursts into the movie with a loud, silly, high-energy entrance. “Look, it’s a dragon full of goofy gag lines and speaking cringy modern-day slang!” My cynical side immediately kicked in expecting Sisu to be the film’s blaring non-stop comic relief. But to my surprise the filmmakers pull back and show incredible restraint. Sisu does shoot for some laughs along the way, but she’s hardly the one-note constant jokester I feared she would be.

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Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

This actually highlights one of the biggest strengths of “Raya” – the confidence it has in its story which shows most in the film’s willingness to be serious. It doesn’t feel the need for incessant gags, big musical numbers, or many other things animated movies will often lean on too heavily. It simply tells its story with sincerity and heart and without crutches. It also helps to have a wonderful array of supporting characters to fill out the world. Gemma Chan’s Namaari is the most compelling, a fellow warrior princess and Raya’s arch rival from the land of Fang. Izaac Wang is terrific voicing 10-year-old Boun, the charismatic captain of a boat/restaurant called the “Shrimporium”. Benedict Wong plays a brutish yet tender warrior named Tong. And of course we get a con-artist toddler and an armored roly-poly (I know how the last two sound. Just trust me.) They all fit nicely and have roles to play in Raya’s adventure.

And then there is the animation itself, some of the most visually striking work Disney has ever created. From the marvelous character designs to the richly textured world, the film’s visual presentation stuns on countless levels and transports us to a place of eye-popping wonder. The look of the dragons are the one weak point, but who cares when everything else is so vivid and detailed. It’s such a treat. And when considered alongside the smart direction, the thoughtful and affecting script from Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, and some great voice talent led by Kelly Marie Tran, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where this isn’t an Oscar contender. And it’s only March! “Raya and the Last Dragon” premieres today (March 5th) in theaters and streaming on Disney+ Premier Access for $29.99.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Red Dot” (2021)

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There’s more than frigid weather and armed stalkers threatening a young couple in the tight and tense Swedish film “Red Dot” from director and co-writer Alain Darborg. Despite its familiar framing, “Red Dot” mixes ingredients from several genres to come up with its own unique flavor. It’s a run-for-your-life horror movie one minute and a gritty survival thriller the next. But when blended together the story has some heavy things to say about humanity and the world we live in.

The film is driven by two terrific lead performances. Nadja (Nanna Blondell) and David (Anastasios Soulis) are so in love when we first meet them. He has just graduated from engineering school and they’re about to move to Stockholm where she will finish medical school. But before they go David pops the big question and asks Nadja to marry him. She enthusiastically accepts and the two are ready to spend the rest of their lives together. “It all begins here“, David lovingly pledges.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

Jump ahead eighteen months and things have changed. Now married in Stockholm, David has a great job but works long hours and does nothing but lounge when he’s home. A frustrated Nadja resents that she’s left with all the housework on top of her studies. She’s also hiding a secret from her husband that adds to her stress. After five tests to be certain Nadja has learned she is pregnant. Normally that’s exciting news, but considering the state of their marriage she’s terrified.

Realizing they desperately need to rekindle their fire, David surprises Nadja with a romantic weekend getaway to snowy Northern Sweden. There they can focus on each other, do a little skiing, and camp out under the beautiful Northern Lights. The trip starts by hitting a lot of familiar notes. For example this isn’t the first time we’ve seen city folks venturing into wilderness and having a run-in with some backwoods locals. For David and Nadja it begins with two creepy-acting brothers at a gas station. Then an uncomfortable encounter with oddballs at a lodge. But everything gets on track and after a fun day outdoors they retire to their tent underneath the famed aurora borealis.

Then their night is interrupted when a bright red laser dot (hence the title) appears on the canvas of their tent, moving around like a laser pointer. But as you can probably guess, it’s no laser pointer. Within minutes the two are indeed running for their lives into the ice-cold darkness with bullets zipping by their heads from a shooter they can’t see. At the same time this is where the movie’s survival elements really kick in with Darborg utilizing his snowy environment extremely well. There are a couple of times where the sensation of freezing from the cold is vivid and palpable.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

As things play out the movie does struggle with an issue that many of these films do – questionable and head-scratching decisions. Yes, you can chalk some of it up to the anxiety of the moment and not thinking clearly. But more than once I caught myself asking things like “Why didn’t you grab the gun?” or yelling “Go back and get the snowmobile!”. But the story makes up for it with a twist-filled and slightly subversive final act that does some spirited things with the themes of making shallow judgements and running from your past.

By the end of “Red Dot” I found myself surprised by what it had become. What started as a familiar concept with a routine setup turned into something with a lot more meat on its bones. It fully embraces elements of its genre influences, but the film is built on some heady ideas that are brought together well in a visceral second half that completely throws out any notion of black and white; good or bad. It looks at an ugly side of humanity and what we as people are capable of doing. And of course it looks at the consequences for those actions which we too often fail to consider. “Red Dot” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT- 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars