REVIEW: “Rise” (2022)

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

There was a time when I was quite the basketball fan. It was back when college teams could keep players for more than a year and the NBA was brimming with personalities who went by such names as Magic, The Mailman, Clyde the Glide and Hakeem the Dream. I loved booing the Bad Boys from Detroit, cheering for the Seattle Supersonics (who always came up short), and watching Michael Jordan in his prime cement himself as the greatest of all-time.

But for me the NBA lost a lot of its grit and college basketball started to feel watered down as players began (understandably) jumping ship for pro ball. Still, the sport has never had a shortage of extraordinary and inspirational stories. And while I may no longer be an avid basketball fan, I’m still very much a movie guy who loves good stories. For decades movies have used basketball to tell some really good ones. Movies such as perennial favorite “Hoosiers”, William Friedkin’s underrated “Blue Chips”, or more recently 2020’s surprisingly great “The Way Back.”

Whether you’re a basketball fan or not, the story of NBA Champion and two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is about as inspiring as they come and it comes to light in Disney’s new film “Rise”. Directed by Akin Omotoso, written by Arash Amel, and with Giannis serving as executive producer, “Rise” is a biographical sports drama that dodges most of the snares that come packed with the genre. “Rise” does what most of the best ones do – it focuses as much (if not more) on character than basketball. In this case, it’s about a tight-knit family and their remarkable yet trying journey towards a better life.

Image Courtesy of Disney Studios

From the start, “Rise” puts the bulk of its attention to Giannis’ family and the hardships they endured before basketball. It opens in 1990 with a heartbreaking scene as Charles and Veronica Antetokounmpo (wonderfully played by Nigerian-American actors Dayo Okeniyi and Yetide Badaki) leave their infant son Francis with his grandparents in Lagos, Nigeria. They then make the arduous journey to Greece, dodging immigration roundups and finally landing in the north Athens neighborhood of Sepolia. Their plan was to quickly bring Francis over as soon as they’re settled, but they soon find themselves stymied by an impossible citizenship process.

“Rise” offers a surprisingly candid look at immigration, from the broken systems themselves to the suffering they can cause. The Antetokounmpo’s story is a prime example. In order to get legal residency in Greece, Charles or Veronica needed to have a payroll job. But they can’t get a payroll job without legal residency. This left them working low-paying jobs just to make ends meet. Meanwhile the looming threat of deportation made living a normal life next to impossible.

As the movie streaks forward, Charles and Veronica have four sons in Greece. Most of our time is spent with the oldest, Thanasis (Ral Agada) and of course Giannis (newcomer Uche Agada). Early on we see the boys hawking cheap souvenirs to tourists just to help their family get by. Later we see them stumble upon the game of basketball. Both Giannis and Thanasis are instantly hooked and begin sneaking across town just to play at a free youth club.

Image Courtesy of Disney+

Their parents eventually find out leading to some inevitable family tension. Veronica wants to let the boys play and have some semblance of a normal youth. Charles is a protector and is worried about his family’s status being exposed. It’s a dilemma that only intensifies as Thanasis and especially Giannis begin to excel at the game. Do they push towards the dream of playing professional basketball at the risk of revealing themselves to more and more people? It’s a question the movie tackles with a lot of heart.

Omotoso’s heavy focus on building this family’s dynamic is the biggest reason “Rise” works so well. We genuinely feel we know these characters from where they start to where the movie ends. We see the four brothers sleeping in the same twin bed. We see Giannis and Thanasis sharing the only pair of basketball shoes they can afford. We watch the hard-working Charles and Veronica do everything they can to shield their children from the precariousness of the family’s situation.

But we also see moments of love and happiness. And by the time the 2013 NBA Draft rolls around, we have such a rooting interest that we really don’t mind when the predictable feel-good elements kick in. That’s because “Rise” earns our emotional investment. And even though we ultimately know the outcome, the film’s payoff is just the kind heartwarming satisfaction we’re looking for. Sure, it’s a bit syrupy. But sometimes a little syrup hits the spot. “Rise” premieres today on Disney+.


REVIEW: “RRR” (2022)

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

Perhaps you’ve heard of the phenomenon that is “RRR”. In addition to being the most expensive Indian movie to date and setting several worldwide box office records, the Telugu-language action-drama has won the praise of critics and audiences from around the globe. A three-hour epic set in 1920 pre-independent India may not sound like the kind of blockbuster today’s crowds are groomed to enjoy. But this is no ordinary blockbuster. “RRR” may anchor itself in rich history, but its very much a work of wild, unbridled fiction. And the sheer audacity of what we see on screen is cinema excess at its very best.

Directed and co-written by S.S. Rajamouli, the rollicking “RRR” is nearly impossible to define. It starts ferocious, turns lighthearted, plays like a comedy one minute and hits you with a musical number the next. The style-heavy action can be as brutal as it is proudly over-the-top. Yet there are also moments of silliness, heartbreak, and romance. It’s a buddy movie, a celebration of culture, a searing critique of colonialism, an ode to big screen spectacle. You could even call it a superhero movie of the most unconventional kind.

Image Courtesy of DVV Entertainment

That all may sound a little overwhelming, but don’t let it scare you away. Yes, there are numerous moving parts and even more genre influences. But Rajamouli harnesses it all into one mind-blowing stew that may defy definition, but that also reminds us of how movies can sweep us away in ways we never expect. This one certainly did me.

“RRR” (which we later learn stands for “Rise. Roar. Revolt.”) centers on two men who start as enemies, become friends, turn back to enemies, etc. The characters are based on two real-life revolutionaries, Komaram Bheem (played N. T. Rama Rao Jr.) and Alluri Sitarama Raju (played by Ram Charan). There’s no evidence the two leaders ever met in real life. But Rajamouli tosses aside any notion of historical restraints and imagines a fascinating “what-if” scenario.

The movie wastes no time setting up its villain(s) and its oppressive setting. The opening ventures deep into in the Adilabad forest where the cruel British Governor Scott Buxton (Ray Stevenson) and his equally vile wife Catherine (Alison Doody) claim for themselves a young girl named Malli (Twinkle Sharma) belonging to a quiet off-the-grid Gond tribe. The reverberations of their abhorrent act are felt through the entirety of the movie’s hefty running time.

Image Courtesy of DVV Entertainment

From there we get introductions to the two main characters and they give us a good sense of the kind of movie Rajamouli is shooting for. On the outskirts of Delhi, Raju (Ram Charan), a loyal soldier in the British army, single-handedly quells an massive uprising of angry locals with nothing more than wooden baton. Back in the forest, Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.), from the above-mentioned Gond tribe, displays his own superhuman prowess in a one-on-one with a man-eating tiger.

The paths of both men inevitably merge after Bheem is sent by his tribe to rescue Malli. But first he’ll need to find her. He begins his hunt in Delhi, masquerading as a local mechanic named Akhtar. The Governor gets word that a warrior is coming from the village, but they have no idea of his identity. Raju accepts the task of identifying and apprehending Bheem. If he brings him in alive, he’ll receive his much coveted promotion to special officer.

The first big twist follows a chance meeting where Bheem and Raju join up to save a young boy’s life. The two end up developing a close friendship, with neither realizing the other’s true identity. Their male bonding takes the story in some comical directions while a budding romance between Bheem and a kind-hearted Brit named Jenny (Olivia Morris) leads to a gloriously absurd and completely out-of-the-blue song-and-dance number (welcome to Tollywood).

Image Courtesy of DVV Entertainment

But secretly both Bheem and Raju continue their individual missions, leading to an inevitable clash once their identities are fully revealed. And all of that happens in the first half of the film. The second half isn’t as playful. It’s darker and bloodier, yet still maintains its bombast and over-the-top verve. The action scenes (shot by DP K.K. Senthil Kumar) only get wilder and are infused with mind-blowing choreography and top-notch CGI. And while the movie (to its credit) never loses sight of its two main characters, most people will leave the film talking about its outrageously fun set-pieces.

When taken all together, “RRR” plays like a rich and often pointed fable. It has an infectious charm in large part thanks to the bigger-than-life performances from Charan and Rao Jr., two of Tollywood’s biggest stars. Themes of fate, friendship, loyalty, and betrayal are intertwined with a sharp-edged dissection of colonialism and the oppression that follows in its wake. But what amazes most is the movie’s ability to be both heavy and light, funny and serious, utterly ridiculous and surprisingly thought-provoking. And Rajamouli’s ability to make it all gel is as superhuman as anything his two lead characters pull. “RRR” is now streaming on Netflix.


REVIEW: “Row 19” (2022)

The new Russian thriller “Row 19” opens with a jolt. At 30,000 feet, a passenger plane mysteriously loses power and plunges to the earth, crashing near Novosibirsk. Miraculously there is a lone survivor – a seven-year-old girl named Katarina who unwittingly becomes a national celebrity. It’s a tragic event that would be hard for anyone to put behind them. But it’s made impossible for Katarina, who is hounded by an obsessed media who are constantly retelling her story.

Bounce ahead 20 years. Katarina (Svetlana Ivanova) is a now a psychologist with a daughter named Diana (Marta Timofeeva). Despite her past trauma, Katarina seems to have conquered her fears and she puts on a good show for her daughter and the press. But when she and Diana board a late-night flight bound for Pontianak, we immediately feel her tension. And before the plane has even reached cruising altitude, Katarina’s terror begins manifesting itself in ways meant to shape the movie’s suspense.

Directed by Alexander Baba and written by James Rabb, “Row 19” has a good setup and it instantly has us studying its characters and scrounging for clues. Is what we are seeing real or is it all in Katarina’s head? Unfortunately, despite a good hook, the film stalls and has a hard time propelling itself forward. Even with a lean 70-minute runtime, the movie has a hard time keeping a good pace. Before long there’s only 15 minutes left and we still haven’t moved very far from where we started.

Again, I do like how Baba and Rabb place us in their confined space and make us a part of the mostly empty seven-passenger flight. Aside from Katarina and Diana, there’s a hunky ex-reporter, an elderly couple, a sour businessman, and an antsy hipster. Add the two flight attendants and you have all the human pieces for what unfolds. The performances are solid and fit nicely with the variety of personalities. But understandably, as the story begins to sputter so do the characters and their arcs.

There are a few injections of horror – bloody hands on the plane’s windows, a creepy milky-eyed crone, a particularly brutal use of fire. And there is nifty final act twist that adds a much needed kick. But it’s the slow-moving path to the finale that brings the film down. There’s simply not enough to bridge the movie’s strong start and surprise ending. It’s a good effort and the movie is easy to digest. But there’s a good chance you’ll leave it wishing it had more to offer. “Row 19” is now out on Blu-ray and VOD.


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.


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.


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.