REVIEW: “Restless” (2022)

Régis Blondeau directs Netflix’s new French thriller “Restless”, a remake of a 2014 South Korean film. In it Franck Gastambide plays Thomas, a crooked lieutenant with the local police’s crime division who finds himself neck-deep after an attempted cover up. The movie is a strange one that often feels at odds with itself. One minute it seems to be going for a grittier crime thriller vibe, but then you wonder if it’s really a dark comedy. I’m still not sure.

Gastambide’s Thomas is already trouble the moment we meet him. Word is out that several in the precinct are taking bribes from criminals to look the other way. Now Internal Affairs has opened up an investigation and are on their way for a surprise visit. Thomas’ captain (Serge Hazanavicius) gets wind of it and scrambles to make sure there’s no trail for the investigators to follow. Thomas’ friend and fellow officer Marc (Michaël Abiteboul) and an idealistic rookie Naomi (Tracy Gotoas) also work (although begrudgingly) to get rid of any incriminating evidence around the station.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Meanwhile Thomas is out trying to tie up some shady loose ends. But he also has a personal crisis. His mother has died and his sister Agathe (Jemima West) is waiting for him at the hospital for final arrangements. Thomas also has a little girl named Louise (Victoire Zenner) who stays with Agathe and wonders why her father is never home.

After getting word the IA is on their way, Thomas rushes to the station. But on the way he doesn’t see a man step out of the night and in front of his car. He hits the man killing him. But rather than reporting the death, Thomas throws the body in his trunk, apparently feeling the attention would draw unwanted attention to his list of dirty vices. It leads to a snowball effect of problems as Thomas spends the rest of the movie trying to cover his tracks.

Despite its best efforts, “Restless” never quite hits the marks it seems to be shooting for. Nearly the entire first half of the movie is filled with these borderline wacky moments as Thomas tries to dispose of the body. Some of the scenes are so absurd that you swear the movie is meant to be a straight comedy. Yet they’re not convincing enough for us to say whether the humor is intentional or not. The movie seems to take them seriously, but I was never sure whether I was supposed to.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Then you get to the second half where any hint of humor evaporates, and the movie ratchets down on the grittier crime element. We get a couple of fight scenes and a twist or two, neither of which are as gnarly or interesting as they need to be. The insertion of a shady mystery man (a palpably threatening Simon Abkarian) adds a little suspense, but he comes along a little too late to make much of a difference.

“Restless” bounces around, seemingly unsure of what kind of movie it wants to be. Or maybe it does know, but it can’t quite bring those elements together in a satisfying way. It’s competently made and it’s shot with a good understanding of how to frame a scene. The performances are solid and the cast does what it can with the material. But it’s hard to stay connected with the story which never gets a firm footing and lacks the originality to make it stand out. “Restless” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

Sundance Review: “Resurrection” (2022)

In “Resurrection”, the new film from writer-director Andrew Semans, Rebecca Hall plays a seemingly all-together single mother named Margaret. She’s a confident, poised, and successful businesswoman who is all about control. Whether its in the advice she gives to a struggling young intern or in the affair she’s having with a married co-worker. It’s most evident at home which drives her brash and headstrong 17-year-old daughter Abbie (Grace Kaufman) crazy.

But when a terrifying face from her past comes back to haunt her, this self-assured working mom begins to unravel. It starts at a seminar where she gets a glimpse of a man that sends her running out of the building in a panic, sprinting all the way home to check on her daughter. A couple days later she sees him again, this time in a department store while shopping with Abbie. And then again while sitting in the park. Her dread-filled panic attacks and horrific nightmares intensify with each new sighting.

We learn the man’s name is David (Tim Roth). Margaret hasn’t seen him in 22 years, but the wounds from their past relationship are still painfully fresh. While the details of that relationship are better left unshared, just know that its sinister underpinning leads to some downright disturbing revelations.

Image Courtesy of Sundance

Semans does a great job growing the tension between each encounter Margaret has with David. While Roth is disgustingly great, everything in the film rides on the back of Hall who is next-level good. Every facet of her performance works, from her early scenes of seemingly shatterproof confidence to the later scenes where she desperately tries to hold it together. And we get even another side of her once she shifts from prey to predator.

Rebecca Hall playing solitary women on the brink of breakdown is nothing new. Think back to movies like the criminally underseen “Christine” and last year’s terrific “The Night House”. But she’s such a good actress that none of these performances feel one and the same. Here it’s no different. The Margaret she portrays is a complex and layered woman. Strong and determined yet carrying so much buried guilt and self-blame. The best scene in the movie captures all of these traits. It’s a seven-minute-long uncut take where the camera sits on her as she explains her unsettling history with David to a friend. It’s riveting stuff and an absolute acting masterclass.

The one place where “Resurrection” slips is in its finish. Or does it? I’m genuinely conflicted. In one sense the grisly and ghoulish final 15 minutes is devilishly unexpected, and I found myself relishing the gruesome and gory depths Semans was willing to go. On the other hand, the ambiguity-tinged final moments lead to some shaky interpretations. I’m still not certain whether I’m satisfied with the ending or frustrated by its vagueness.

Adapted from a short story by Alexander Weinstein, “Resurrection” is a bold and mostly gripping psychological thriller with an anxiety-inducing allure and a deliciously weird (yet kinda funky) finish. Andrew Semans’ expert handling of tension and pacing keeps the unnerving energy steadily growing, right up to its gonzo finish. The film also gives us yet another stellar Rebecca Hall performance, one that (once again) cements her as one the best actresses working today.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Red Rocket” (2021)

In “Red Rocket”, if Sean Baker’s goal was to create the worst person ever to be put on screen, he didn’t miss by much. For the sake of clarity, there’s nothing wrong with telling stories about bad people. I’ve never subscribed to the notion that all the main characters in movies need to be likable. If they were, we would never have Daniel Day Lewis’ heartless oilman Daniel Plainview from 2007’s “There Will Be Blood” – one of the greatest characters and greatest performances in cinema history (yep, I said it).

The problem with Mikey, Simon Rex’s “Red Rocket” lead character, isn’t just that he’s a reprehensible and morally bankrupt human being. He’s also a rambling, unpleasant and insufferable presence, and no amount of good acting from Rex can make him the slightest bit appealing. Perhaps most off-putting is Baker’s approach to Mikey as the character’s behavior grows more and more repugnant.

Image Courtesy of A24

Sean Baker (who serves as director, co-writer, co-producer, and editor) certainly doesn’t put his stamp of approval on Mikey’s behavior. But he doesn’t exactly wrestle with it either. Instead you can see him working hard to make Mikey come across as charming. It doesn’t work. I’m guessing Baker was trying to strike some kind of balance in our reactions to the character. But I could never muster anything other than utter disdain for the guy, and the longer he stayed on screen the more I wanted the movie to be over.

We first meet Mikey as he’s hopping off a bus in Texas City. His body is bruised from head to toe and he has nothing with him except the clothes on his back. He walks to a low income neighborhood, stopping at the house of his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) who lives with her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss). Mikey desperately needs a place to crash for a couple of days, but neither Lexi or her mother want anything to do with him (lots of old baggage comes to light later). But we quickly see his snake oil salesman side and soon he’s convinced his ex to let him stay until he’s up on his feet.

The problem with Mikey is that he’ll never be up on his feet. He’s a walking train wreck. We learn he’s back in Texas City after being ran out of Los Angeles where he worked in the porn industry. He wants to go back, but it’ll take some cash. To his credit, he tries to get a legitimate job. But he’s turned down whenever his work history comes up. So he turns to selling weed for a old acquaintance and local drug dealer named Leondria (Judy Hill).

Image Courtesy of A24

A big chunk of the movie follows this disgraced slug of a man as he cons nearly everyone he meets for his own selfish gain. Whether it’s his wife(ish) and her mother, or an easily impressed neighbor named Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), or 17-year-old Strawberry (Suzanna Son) who works part time at a donut shop. It’s when Mikey meets the latter that the film descends to the deepest depths of the gutter. It would be different if the film had something meaningful to say or to tackle. Instead it burrows deeper into the muck, seemingly enjoying itself, hiding behind the veil of “art”, and giving us nothing of value to chew on.

That may sound like a prickly and abrasive take-down of the movie but don’t worry, “Red Rocket” lives down to that impression. There’s really nothing to take away from Baker’s film. It’s tempting to commend the movie’s representation of Southern poverty, but even that’s handled with a sliver of condescension. So we’re left a movie that’s biggest goal seems to be to push the envelope. And while doing so, it may let us in on the lead character’s repulsive mindset. But it could leave some questioning the filmmaker’s. “Red Rocket” is out in limited release.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Red Notice” (2021)

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

With over 50 Academy Award nominations (including five for Best Picture)and a total of 15 Oscar wins, it goes without saying that Netflix has become a major player in the world of movies. But in addition to awards season features, Netflix has also poured millions of dollars into developing their own line of big-budgeted blockbusters. The new poster child for that initiative is “Red Notice”, a $200 million action comedy featuring three of the biggest names in Hollywood entertainment.

Written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, “Red Notice” stars Dwayne Johnson, the highest paid actor in Hollywood, Gal Gadot, one of the highest paid women in Hollywood, and Ryan Reynolds, a likable schtick-driven actor with an enthusiastic following of his own. That’s a lot of box office star power and also a sizable investment in itself.

Just based on the talent alone, you have a good idea of what you’re going to get from “Red Notice” – plenty of action scenes, just as many laughs, lots of charisma, and an open door for a sequel if this one proves profitable. In other words your standard blockbuster blueprint. But I don’t mean that as a knock. I’ve always had an affection for popcorn movies when they’re done well. Even when they stick close to the familiar formula.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

To the movie’s credit, “Red Notice” knows exactly the kind of movie it wants to be, and it sticks to that vision which proves to be both a strength and weakness. Thurber and company stay with what works and have a great time doing it. And you never have to worry about the movie taking itself seriously. At the same time, the relentless gags and overall silliness can get a little exhausting. And those looking for even the smallest amount of dramatic tension won’t find it here.

This fun smorgasbord of genres goes as heavy into comedy as it does action. But it also throws in some heist thriller elements and a bit of swashbuckling adventure. Johnson gets top billing playing FBI beefcake John Hartley, a seasoned profiler with the Bureau who specializes in art crime. The film opens as Hartley and Inspector Das (Ritu Arya) from Interpol arrive at Rome’s renowned Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo. Inside the museum is one of three bejeweled eggs given to Cleopatra from Mark Antony. The second egg is in a private collection in Spain and the location of the third remains a mystery.

So why is all this egg talk important? An Egyptian billionaire is offering $300 million to whoever delivers him all three eggs by his daughter’s wedding day. Hartley is in Rome after receiving a tip that renowned con artist Nolan Booth (Reynolds) is in town to swipe egg number one. But there’s a third player who factors into the equation – the sphinxlike “most wanted art thief in the world” (Gadot) who watches from afar with a ton of resources at her disposal.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

This fast-moving caper launches with a wild chase sequence in Rome where Booth and the egg slips through Hartley’s fingers. There’s a brief stop in Bali where Hartley tracks down and apprehends Booth. Then its back to Rome where Hartley discovers the egg he has retrieved is fake and he has in fact been framed for the theft by a mysterious shadowy character known as Bishop. Hartley and Booth get shipped to a frigid Siberian prison (don’t ask) where they learn the true identity of Bishop (Gadot).

It may sound like I’m spoiling a lot of the plot but I’m really not. All of that is mostly setup for this around-the-world jaunt that also makes stops in London, Egypt, and Argentina among other scenic locales. Along the way, Thurber puts together a number of high-energy set pieces including a crazy prison escape, a gag-filled fight sequence in Valencia, and a wild car chase through a mineshaft. Not every action scene works (there’s an especially dumb sequence inside a Spanish bullring), but most are entertaining and clearly a huge chunk of the budget went into them.

As for the three stars, each deliver exactly what you expect from them. The magnetic Johnson flexes his big biceps and his bigger personality. The playfully seductive Gadot seems to be having a blast. And the quick-witted Reynolds plays straight to type, with a joke-a-second cadence that offers up plenty of laughs while testing your endurance. Together the trio have good chemistry, riffing on a number of well-worn action movie tropes and checking all the boxes most of us look for in our breezy popcorn escapism. “Red Notice” is out today in select theaters and premieres on Netflix November 12th.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Reminiscence” (2021)

In one respect the new film “Reminiscence” shines on its star power wattage alone. Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson are a handsome pair and each possess their own uniquely magnetic acting styles. “Reminiscence” also sports an intriguing premise that melds together science-fiction, classic romance and hard-boiled 1940s film noir. If only all of those tantalizing pieces came together as they should.

“Reminiscence” is written and directed by Lisa Joy, the sister-in-law of filmmaker Christopher Nolan. In her ambitious first feature, Joy shows off some of the same imagination as her famous brother-in-law. Her high concept story has all the ingredients of a cool vintage noir – the gloomy narration, the sultry femme fatale, a tortured detective-like protagonist. Also its not-to-distant sci-fi dystopia makes for an interesting setting.

But despite its promise, “Reminiscence” is more of a sampler platter of numerous other films. There’s a touch of “Inception”, a pinch of “The Maltese Falcon”, a dash of “Blade Runner”, and a smidgen of “Minority Report”. It’s also a movie rich with intriguing concepts that are never explored in a satisfying way. That’s because too much time is put into an undercooked romance that has the spark but not the sizzle it needs.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Jackman and Ferguson appeared together in 2017’s “The Greatest Showman” but this is a MUCH different movie. It takes place mostly in Miami where rising water levels have left it (and presumably every other major city) standing in water. In fact, rather than cars, boats are now the most efficient means of transportation. Also, the city is mostly nocturnal with businesses opening up at night so people can avoid the unbearable heat of the day.

Jackman plays Nick Bannister, who has a rather peculiar business that he runs out of an old abandoned bank. With the world so bleak people with nothing to look forward to have started looking back and Nick helps them. In one of many bits of narration he explains his work like this: “Memory is the boat that sails against its current. And I’m the oarsman.” Clear as mud, right?

Basically people come in for sessions in a casket-shaped device Nick calls “the tank”. It was once an interrogation tool during a fairly ambiguous “war” that’s mentioned often but never really explained. Now the machine is used to reconnect people to their favorite memories. And as they do, Nick and his hard-drinking assistant Watts (Thandiwe Newton) watch a three-dimensional holographic projection of what’s going on in their clients’ minds.

One day right at closing time, in walks Mae (Ferguson), a beautiful yet mysterious nightclub singer. Literally within seconds, without much buildup or explanation, Nick is infatuated with her. The two begin a brief love affair until Mae suddenly vanishes. Obsessed with finding her, Nick becomes what the press notes describe as a “private investigator of the mind”, tossing aside his work and even his friendship with Watts to find Mae.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

As you can probably guess, his lovesick search for answers steers him down some dangerous paths, and it takes the story in all sorts of directions. And unfortunately the more it branches out the more convoluted it all gets. Both Jackman and Ferguson do their best to keep things interesting while a really good performance from Newton is wasted. Her character’s biggest contributions are nagging Nick to stay out of the tank, downing whiskey, and providing the spark in her one action scene. After that she essentially disappears.

Also the movie teases a captivating world full of corruption, oppression and suffering that’s just begging to be explored. There’s all of this stuff about ruthless land barons buying up all the dry land and the above-mentioned war that left society in shambles. But most of what we learn about it comes through passing mentions in conversations or vague references during some narration. It’s a shame because in many ways the world is more compelling than the story’s central mystery.

In the end, “Reminiscence” ends up being a movie with lots on its mind but no sure way of unpacking it all. Its attractive cast and cool genre blending definitely works in the movie’s favor. But Joy is never able to rev up the kind of excitement a movie like this needs. It just hums along at one temperature, teasing us with a better movie and never quite delivering on what it promises. “Reminiscence” is now showing in theaters and on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

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