REVIEW: “Swallow” (2020)

SWALLOWposter“Swallow” is a frustrating movie that by the end will be seen as a battle cry for some and completely off-putting to others. It’s listed as a psychological thriller but I’m not sure the movie does enough to earn that title. It certainly has some of those elements, but it could just as easily be called a domestic drama, body horror, a twisted black comedy, or an on-the-nose political allegory. This identity crisis ends up making the film as a whole a little too hard to (wait for it…) swallow.

“Swallow” is most effective when it focuses on the main character’s Stepford existence and its…unhealthy consequences. Haley Bennett plays Hunter, a young woman who seems to be living the good life. She’s married to Richie (Austin Stowell), the hunky son of a gazillionaire and heir to his father’s fortune. They live in a posh modernist home in upstate New York. To top it off, she finds out the two are having a baby. It’s a far cry from the working class world she grew up in.

I’m so lucky” she says to an inattentive Richie, trying harder to convince herself than her husband. Hunter is a testament to the idea that money can’t buy happiness, especially when the cost is your independence and agency. Her facade of bliss begins to breakdown and her loneliness becomes more pronounced. It becomes clear that she’s trapped in a world dictated by others, ensnared by their expectations and serving their needs.

The downside is that Richie is more of a one-note caricature than a flesh-and-blood human being. First-time director Carlo Mirabella-Davis (who also wrote the screenplay) isn’t much for subtlety or nuance. There is never an ounce of suspense when it comes to the paper-thin Richie or his motivations. His dastardly parents (David Rasche and Elizabeth Marvel) are even more glaringly villainous, checking off every predictable box. It would be fine if this were a straightforward satirical black comedy. But that’s not the movie’s aim so we are left with characters bordering on cartoonish.

As the patronizing and neglect start to take its toll, Hunter finds inspiration in these lines from a book: “Every day, try to do something unexpected. Push yourself to try new things.” She does. She begins swallowing things around the house starting with a marble and then a thumbtack. It gets worse from there. She may be mentally coming apart, but for the first time in her life she feels in control.

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At times it’s hard to know how Mirabella-Davis wants us to feel. One minute he’s treating Hunter’s troubling new addiction as macabre and unsettling. Then we’ll get a scene or two where he plays it for laughs. Conversely it’s very clear how he wants us to feel about the pregnancy which is always portrayed negatively or forgotten altogether. It becomes more of a shameful plot device than a meaningful story thread.

It all culminates in a rushed final act where Hunter faces her current situation and past traumas. It leads to an iffy final shot that leaves a lot of questions but gives the movie an easy out. No spoilers here, but depending on where you land on certain things I can see the ending being interpreted as hopeful, tragic, or even repulsive. If you’re in with Mirabella-Davis’ convictions you’ll probably find it bold and liberating. If not you may see it as callous and appalling.

Almost lost in the film’s wobbly focus and dubious virtue is Katelin Arizmendi’s fabulous pastel-soaked cinematography and Haley Bennett’s quiet but forceful lead performance. “I just want to make sure I’m not doing anything wrong.” It may be the saddest line in the entire film and Bennett delivers it with such heartbreaking sincerity. It comes from a young woman so attuned to meeting the needs of others that she can’t even notice her own. If only “Swallow” had stuck with more of that.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

 

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REVIEW: “Spenser Confidential” (2020)

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The latest Netflix Original is “Spenser Confidential”, a Boston set crime thriller that starts with some promise but quickly turns into a derivative exercise in formula. Practically everything about it is familiar, and despite Mark Wahlberg’s tough New England charm, it can never shake that ‘been there, done that‘ feeling.

The film is taken from two separate works of fiction. The story is loosely based on the novel “Wonderland” by Ace Atkins. The Spenser character was inspired by Robert B. Parker’s private detective series which spanned a total of forty novels. I’m not familiar with any of the books, but “Spenser Confidential” doesn’t bear the marks of anything unique. It does bounce around the city of Boston, warmly shooting in a number of local areas including the Jones Hill neighborhood where Wahlberg grew up.

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PHOTO: Netflix

Peter Berg directs making this his fifth consecutive movie with Wahlberg who plays Spenser, a disgraced Boston police officer doing time for beating the wax out of his crooked police captain (Michael Gaston). After his five-year sentence is up he’s given a place to stay by an old friend Henry (Alan Arkin). Henry has also taken in another ex-con named Hawk (Winston Duke). Spenser and Hawk clash at first but soon reluctantly learn how to get along.

Spenser has his sights set on moving to Arizona and becoming a truck driver, but when the police captain is brutally murdered and a former friend is framed for it he sticks around Boston determined to find out the truth. As you can probably guess, Hawk lends a hand which has led to some people considering this a buddy comedy movie. But to be honest the two ‘buddies’ don’t fully come together until later in the film. And even then there doesn’t seem to be a very strong connection or camaraderie. This is Wahlberg’s movie and Duke just fills in the gaps.

Perhaps the weirdest thing about “Spenser Confidential” is the ‘comedy’ which the movie never seems fully committed to. First off there is very little of it. And when it does come it’s usually out-of-the-blue and out of sync with the flow of the movie. It’s as if there was some odd compulsion to meet some kind of genre requirement. The humor doesn’t work on any level.

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PHOTO: Netflix

The movie doesn’t do much to help the supporting cast. I’ve mentioned the woefully underused Duke. Bokeem Woodbine has a few good lines but needed more. Stand-up comedian Eliza Shlesinger does her best as Spenser’s shrill, abrasive ex. She has the charisma but her character turns out to be nothing more than a caricature. Post Malone (who I just learned is a rapper/singer) seems to be there strictly for his tattooed face and definitely not for his acting chops.

“Spenser Confidential” will probably fall into the ‘big dumb fun’ category for many people and I can see that. It has a throwback vibe to it that makes it all pretty easy to digest. But it’s even easier to forget. The movie’s sheer lack of originality and injections of unfunny humor keep it from leaving any kind of lasting impression.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

 

REVIEW: “Standing Up, Falling Down” (2020)

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It’s been four years since Scott (Ben Schwartz) left home in Long Island to pursue his dream of becoming a stand-up comedian. Now, after striking out in Los Angeles, the out-of-work 34-year-old drives cross-country to move back in with his parents. It’s hardly how he envisioned his life when he took off for the west coast.

Back home we meet Scott’s not-so-supportive father (Kevin Dunn), his “he’s still my baby” mother (Debra Monk), and his equally unsuccessful sister Megan (Grace Gummer – one of the film’s biggest assets). She too lives at home and works at a pretzel shop in the local mall. Megan is also Scott’s biggest critic and frequent verbal sparring partner. None of his family expected him to make it as a comic and judging by the few slices we get of his routine it’s easy to see why.

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PHOTO: Shout! Studios

Scott tries reconnecting around town but comes face-to-face with a bruising reality. His friends have grown up and are living adult lives – you know, married with jobs and kids. That includes Becky (Eloise Mumford), his ex-girlfriend and the proverbial one that got away. She’s now married to the successful and all-around nice guy Owen (John Behlmann). But as all of Scott’s regrets come to the surface, he meets dermatologist and hard-drinking sad sack Marty (Billy Crystal), someone actually going through a rougher patch than he is.

First-time feature film director Matt Ratner along with screenwriter Peter Hoare make Scott and Marty’s friendship their centerpiece, cultivating it through a series of chance meetings – in the bathroom at a bar, a doctor’s office, or at a funeral. A strange camaraderie blooms between the two kindred spirits who find catharsis in collectively wallowing in their own self-pities while drowning their woes in booze, pot, and loads of jokey conversations. It’s all a diversion – a way for them to keep from taking responsibility and finally growing up.

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PHOTO: Shout! Studios

Crystal makes for a charming drunk but it’s his quieter moments that resonate the most. It’s then that we not only see Marty’s poorly-veiled sadness, but understand why he would want to be a father figure and the kick-in-the-butt Scott needs. Crystal is such a natural when it comes to snappy sarcasm and self-deprecating humor that it’s easy to forget about his dramatic chops. Schwartz, who is currently enjoying box office success voicing “Sonic the Hedgehog”, holds his own with Crystal. But isn’t it ironic that the dermatologist turns out to be funnier than the stand-up comic?

“Standing Up” is an often whimsical look at second chances and new beginnings. On the flipside it’s about remorse, loss, and self-destruction. Altogether it’s really nothing we haven’t seen before. It just happens to be sparked by some good lead chemistry and a solid group of supporting characters. And it’s nice to see Billy Crystal back on screen hitting many of the same notes that made him a household name.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Sonic the Hedgehog”

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I remember buying Sonic the Hedgehog in 1991 for the Sega Genesis video game system. The idea behind the blue anthropomorphic hedgehog with lightning fast speed came from Sega desperately wanting their own mascot to go up against rival Nintendo’s universally beloved Mario. The game was a big success and spawned many sequels and spin-off titles. But did anyone think we would be a talking about a feature length live-action movie thirty years after Sonic’s conception?

Well, we have one and it comes from first-time feature film director Jeff Fowler. It goes without saying its path to the big screen has been rocky. It was original scheduled for release on November 8, 2019, but sweeping criticisms of the first trailer led to a delay and a complete overhaul of Sonic’s looks. This tacked on an addition $5 million to the budget but the money seems to have been well spent. Fans applauded the redesign and the movie set an opening weekend record for a video game inspired film.

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PHOTO: Paramount Pictures

I’ll admit, the responses to “Sonic the Hedgehog” have been surprising. It had the scent of box office disaster all over it. But Fowler along with co-writers Pat Casey and Josh Miller have tapped into something that has pleased old fans and drawn in a few new ones as well. Their action-comedy/buddy movie hybrid has its share of dopey storytelling and cornball humor, yet it still works as good-hearted kids entertainment and a fun little nostalgia trip.

The film opens with Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) being sent away from his home planet by his mentor and guardian Longclaw after an attack by some bow-wielding baddies. Longclaw gives Sonic a bag of rings that can transport him to new planets if he is ever discovered. Ten years pass and Sonic has found a home secretly living in a cave outside of Green Hills, Montana. It’s quiet and peaceful but the one thing our protagonist longs for is the friendship he stealthily observes from the local townsfolk.

One night Sonic’s loneliness gets the best of him and in frustration he runs so fast that he inadvertently emits a pulse that causes a brief blackout across the Pacific Northwest. In a ridiculous bit of government overreaction, the Department of Defense sends the military to Green Hills and gives control of the entire investigation to the brilliant yet raving mad Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey). It’s such a preposterous move that you would think it was satire. Unfortunately it’s not.

Enter Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), the Green Hills sheriff with aspirations of leaving the small town and joining the San Francisco Police Department. But then he discovers Sonic hiding out at his house leading to a lot of yelling, a tranquilizer gun, and a portal to San Francisco accidentally opened and then shut. Sonic’s bag of rings ends up atop the Transamerica Pyramid and Tom agrees to help him retrieve them. The two set out on a road trip to San Fran with the tenacious Dr. Robotnik hot on their heals.

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PHOTO: Paramount Pictures

The film’s nimble plotting doesn’t allow it to stay in any one place for very long. That’s probably a good thing considering how silly the whole movie is. Fowler would rather breeze through the story than have it make much sense. For youngsters that shouldn’t pose a problem. But parents of children should be aware that Fowler lazily throws in a few near curses, a pinch of sexual innuendo, and yet another tired fart joke. Not sure why any of those things are still considered funny in a kids movie.

When “Sonic the Hedgehog” keeps its focus on the light-hearted charm of its titular lead character and on exploring the theme of friendship it makes for a pretty good time. Also it’s great seeing Jim Carrey once again tapping into some of his signature wackiness. He chews up scenery like a starving man at a buffet, but it’s fun watching him do so. It all makes for a weird and unexpectedly entertaining stew that may challenge your tolerance for silliness but is fleet-footed enough not to overstay its welcome.

VERDICT- 3 STARS

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REVIEW: “The (Silent) War” (2020)

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In October of 1944, after German forces had been driven out of Southern France, “Operation Reconquest” was set to begin. It’s main objective was to send several thousand exiled Spanish Maquis resistance fighters to liberate border territory and spark an uprising against the Francisco Franco dictatorship. To prepare for the operation, guerrilla commandos crossed the border to sabotage key strategic targets.

“The (Silent) War” (or “Sordo” if you go by its Spanish title) is an unabashedly pulpy manhunt thriller that begins with one of those guerrilla missions that goes terribly wrong. A group of revolutionaries led by old friends Anselmo (Asier Etxeandia) and Vicente (Hugo Silva) rig a bridge with dynamite. But the rebels unwittingly detonate it, killing most of their lot and drawing the attention of a nearby Spanish army patrol. A wounded Vicente is captured while Anselmo, now deaf from the blast, escapes into the forest.

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Photo: Netflix

The film comes from co-writer and director Alfonso Cortés-Cavanillas. It’s an adaptation of a Spanish graphic novel from David Muñoz and Rayco Pulido Rodríguez. The story begins as a harrowing wartime tale but it doesn’t take long for its graphic novel roots to seep through. Cortés-Cavanillas infuses his movie with an unmistakable Sergio Leone western vibe complete with horses, a long brown duster, and a lot of spitting. Top it off with scattered bursts of Tarantino-like graphic violence and you have an idea of what the movie is going for.

The story unfurls over a one-month period as Anselmo hides out in the mountains while a dogged Captain Bosch (Aitor Luna) stays hot on his trail. Fortunately for Anselmo, Bosch isn’t much of a strategist and his troops are a nondescript band of dimwits. This is one of the places where the script lets the film down. You have to ignore and overlook quite a bit of head-scratching incompetence. I’ll admit the buffoonery is kinda funny, but clearly not what the filmmakers intended.

Later Anselmo sneaks into a nearby village, the very one occupied by Bosch and his soldiers. There he seeks the help of Vicente’s wife Rosa (a very good Marian Alvarez) who joins us in thinking Anselmo is crazy for sticking around instead of heading for France. This also leads to a half-baked love angle that frankly feels yanked completely out of the blue.

It gets a little more cartoonish (and strangely that’s meant as a compliment) with the appearance of Soviet Lieutenant Darya Sergéevich Volkov (Olimpia Melinte). She’s the menacing cold-blooded sort with an eye-patch and a scar running from forehead to jaw just to emphasize that she’s REALLY bad news. She’s a dead-eye sniper who escaped Bolshevik Russia and now is a mercenary for the Spanish Army. Darya is actually quite fun with the exception of one brutally tasteless and off-putting scene.

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Photo: Netflix

The movie really shines in the style department. The western aesthetic gives it a needed kick and leads to several fun, high-energy action scenes. And the cinematography from Adolpho Cañadas grabs your eye from the film’s earliest moments. His camera captures the particulars of both genre and setting in a thrilling and often visceral way. And I have to mention the fantastic sound design. The clever use of sound as well as silence adds a ton to the movie.

While several story beats make no sense whatsoever (I didn’t even mention the goofy coyote synergy stuff), “The (Silent) War” still has enough verve and genre appeal to make for an entertaining two hours. And the good performances, gritty (and sometimes brutal) action, and technical savvy make it fairly easy to overlook some of the sillier story stuff.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”

RISEposterWhat a roller-coaster adventure the last two years have been for Star Wars fans. Fair or not, Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” sparked all sorts of fan backlash, enough to prompt some to even blame it for the 2018 “Solo” movie’s disappointing box office numbers. Without question much of the outrage was over-the-top which caused many of the legitimate criticisms to be lost in the noise. But equally over-the-top was the critical praise, some of which heralded it as “the best Star Wars movie ever made”. Much of that was rooted in a needless lust for subversion and rabid contempt for fandom.

In reality “The Last Jedi” had problems but it wasn’t the franchise killing disaster some have painted it as. Actually, outside of about 30 minutes of wildly uneven (and arguably bad) storytelling, it’s a movie with an assortment of big thrills and exciting moments. More importantly it left the story in a promising place and gave the characters plenty to reckon with. It ultimately set the table for “Rise of Skywalker” and the return of director and co-writer J.J. Abrams.

STARWARS1Abrams clearly listened to the criticisms which has already triggered the predictable whines of “fan service” from certain critic circles. But Star Wars has always been about continuity and connection. Even the “stand-alone” movies are inherently connected to the films that came before them. So it makes sense that Abrams would try to rein in some of Johnson’s care-free creative choices. And as a movie tasked with wrapping up an entire four decade-plus saga, you almost have to expect some level of “fan service”.

Here’s the important thing, the “fan service” we get in Episode IX isn’t half-baked or intrusive. Most of it is entertaining, nostalgic, and ultimately satisfying. Cool callbacks of all kinds pop up throughout the movie, lots of it genuinely in service to the story while other bits are simply there for the fun of it. Do they go a little overboard? Perhaps. But whether or not it is a dealbreaker for you probably depends on how you’re approaching this film as a whole.

“Skywalker” gets off to a shaky (and frankly concerning) start. The first twenty minutes or so sees Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio bouncing us from one location to another while never letting us plant our feet. There is some snazzy scenery and a couple of decent action sequences, but they’re kinda lost in the film’s manic rush to get the story and the characters to where they need to be. But once the narrative pieces are put in place, the movie slows down a bit and gets into a more manageable rhythm.

STARWARS3The movie’s most captivating storyline remains the mysterious connection between young and raw Jedi extraordinaire Rey (Daisy Ridley) and tortured dark sider Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Rey works hard to hone her skills but is still haunted by questions of her identity. Kylo (who steals the movie) uses every ounce of rage he can muster to smother out the glimmer of light within him. Both Ridley and Driver approach most of their scenes with a steely intensity befitting of their characters and their inevitable collision course.

As for another big plus, “Skywalker” finally gives the trilogy’s heroes some meaningful screentime together. Rey, Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and of course BB-8 go off on a Sinbad-like quest (look that reference up kids) to find an artifact once sought by Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). It’s believed to contain the location of a Wayfinder that will lead them to a Sith planet where a new dark force has emerged.

It turns out Kylo Ren has a Wayfinder of his own and has ventured to the sinister planet. While there he discovers a way to turn his terrorizing First Order into a bigger and truly unstoppable force. But it requires that he kill his one biggest threat – Rey. So as the rag-tag band of heroes look for a way to the Sith planet, the First Order scours the entire galaxy in pursuit of them.

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Despite the seriousness of their mission, there are always moments of levity especially between playful best bros Poe and Finn. But it’s C-3PO who turns out to be the biggest ham. He’s the perfect punchline for several jokes but he also has some cracking comedic lines of his own. It’s just a shame R2-D2 was left back at the Rebel base with practically nothing to do. The same could be said for Lando (Billy Dee Williams). Who wasn’t thrilled to see the good-hearted gambler returning to the franchise? But he just conveniently pops up with little explanation and then quickly fades into the background.

And as you might expect, we get several new characters entering the galaxy far, far away for the first time. Among the best, Keri Russell’s Zori Bliss, a shady old acquaintance of Poe’s. It’s not a big role, but Zori has a background fans will love to explore. Richard E. Grant is a hoot playing the sour and ever-serious Allegiant General Pryde of the First Order. Grant chews up his lines in classic imperial officer fashion. We don’t quite get enough of his story, but he’s a fun and interesting presence. And Star Wars knows how to do droids. New here is D-O, affectionately called “conehead” by Poe. Again, small role but tender and quite funny.

STARWARS4Abrams does do some patchwork to several of Rian Johnson’s more controversial choices: Rey’s parents, Supreme Leader Snoke, etc. The movie addresses them in a way that should please many of the fans while infuriating those who couldn’t care less about Star Wars continuity or lore. But let’s be serious, “The Rise of Skywalker” had no chance of pleasing everyone. It was a hopeless proposition. So, do you follow Johnson’s lead and kick more sand in the eyes of long-time fans? Or do you make a movie for the devoted fanbase and face the ire of scorned critics?

Sadly, an unnecessary chasm between critics and fans is all but certain and is already blazing across social media. The film will probably be held to a ridiculously high standard (by fans AND critics) and unhelpful comparisons to the original trilogy are all but inevitable. It’s a shame because “Rise of Skywalker” is pure entertainment – fun, at times thrilling, with a steady tinge of franchise nostalgia and an emotional punch at the end. It’s far from perfect. The story is messy, there’s enough plot to fill two movies, and some of its characters need more attention. But this is still very much a Star Wars film and will evoke many of those same old feelings of kid-like joy and excitement for those who will allow it.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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