REVIEW: “Sweet Girl” (2021)

Netflix’s “Sweet Girl” starts with a bang. The very first scene sees none other than Aquaman himself Jason Momoa standing on the roof of PNC Park in Pittsburgh. The blinding spotlight from a police helicopter beams down on him while FBI agents quickly converge. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this”, he painfully utters before leaping off the ledge and plunging deep into the Allegheny River.

That harrowing opening will be revisited later in “Sweet Girl”, a fast-moving propulsive thriller from first time feature film director Brian Andrew Mendoza. The movie has a lot on its mind and is full of ambition which is something I always respect. But (of course) it’s possible to bite off more than you can chew and sometimes things look better on paper than they do on screen.

The story (co-written by Philip Eisner and Greg Hurwitz) follows its energetic opening by taking us back several years where a loving family of three unravels after the matriarch dies of cancer. To make matters worse, we learn that a generic version of a drug that could have extended her life was squashed by a wealthier and more powerful pharmaceutical company called BIOPRIME. These early scenes are some of the film’s best and they do a good job conveying the pain that drives her widow Ray (Momoa) and their daughter Rachel (Isabela Merced) through the rest of the movie.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Six months pass and Ray is still mourning and hanging on by a string. He’s contacted by a spooked journalist with damning evidence linking the soulless and smarmy BIOPRIME CEO (Justin Bartha) to all sorts of nefarious shenanigans. Ray wants to hear more, but soon he finds himself and Rachel neck-deep in a conspiracy that very powerful people will do anything to keep quiet.

A dead body or two later and the daddy-daughter duo are on the run from the FBI, armed corporate goons, and one particularly psychopathic hitman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). Meanwhile big pharma and Congress buddy up and Ray learns the corruption goes a lot deep than one greedy company.

It goes without saying that “Sweet Girl” delves into a lot of relevant material worthy of exposure and critique. And does an admirable job pointing a finger at some very real issues. But that’s about all it does, and it’s surface treatment doesn’t really get to the heart of the problem much less how to fix it.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

But in the movie’s defense it’s not really going for anything like that. Instead Mendoza crafts what amounts to a throwback action thriller that allows the beefy Momoa to let loose in a number of intense and well-shot fight scenes. It’s a pretty solid performance from Momoa who’s only outdone by Merced who has a youthful innocence but also a grit and tenacity that really amps in the final act.

Aaaaand about that final act. It would be a dereliction of duty if I didn’t mention the ‘big twist’ that turns the entire movie on its head. In one sense I love the audacity and to be honest, I worked hard to try and make it work. But it’s such a wild and outrageous turn and making it fit with everything we’ve seen before is too much of a chore. A second viewing does make sense of a few things, but not enough to fully buy what the movie is trying to sell.

The film does have its share of good scenes (there’s a terrific diner scene yanked straight from Michael Mann’s “Heat”) and the action is exciting more often than not. There’s also a good father/daughter chemistry between Momoa and Merced that drives most of the story and legitimately makes us care. At least until the movie pulls the rug out from under us with a plot twist that’s far more gutsy than effective. Still, Mendoza kept me locked into his story, confused and frustrated at times, but entertained throughout. And sometimes that’s all I really need. “Sweet Girl” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (2021)

And so begins a new era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, I know some rebranding and retooling has already been underway via their Disney+ streaming shows. But this is the MCU’s first big screen endeavor that is untethered from the brand’s most iconic characters – the ones who launched the lucrative multi-pronged franchise into the cinema stratosphere. Gone is Iron Man, Steve Rogers, Black Widow and Hulk. Now enter a new wave of money-making superheroes.

To be totally honest, I find I’m not nearly as jazzed for the MCU now as I was during its previous twenty-some-odd movies. Much of it has to do with the absence of those iconic characters mentioned above. Then you have other factors such as the heart-wrenching loss of Chadwick Boseman, Thor being turned into a comedy act, the up-and-down quality of the streaming shows. And frankly, I’m just not sold that this new, freshly-picked band of superheroes can carry the same weight as their predecessors. Then again, everything Marvel Studios touches turns to gold and its loyal fan base will pretty much follow them wherever they go.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is the 25th big screen installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the first to feature a predominately Asian cast. The film is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and is a huge departure from his previous work that includes smaller and more intimate dramas like “Short Term 12”, “The Glass Castle” and “Just Mercy”. Here Cretton gets full access to Marvel/Disney’s wallet and puts it to good use.

Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

“Shang-Chi” wasn’t the easiest sell even with the MCU’s enormous clout. But Kevin Feige and his team of wizards once again show that good casting and a good story will often sell itself. That’s not to say there aren’t flaws. A few issues with the writing and the direction keep “Shang-Chi” from being top-tier MCU. But you’ll find that there is enough scattered throughout the film’s 132 minutes to keep you entertained.

The titular character is played by Simu Liu, a relative newcomer to the big screen who quickly acclimates himself to blockbuster leading man status. His Shang-Chi character is someone who has done everything he could to bury his complicated past. At 7-years-old he was trained by his father Wenwu (Tony Leung) to be an assassin. At 14 he was assigned his first hit. But rather than carrying it out, Shang-Chi fled.

That was 10 years ago. Now Shang-Chi, hiding under the name of Shaun, is in San Francisco working as a hotel valet with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). But you can only run from your past for so long, especially when your dad is the leader of the ruthless Ten Rings organization. Before long Shang-Chi is fighting off assassins, reconnecting with his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) and of course coming face-to-face with his father who is empowered by ten magical rings. It’s funny, we never get much of an explanation for the rings – their power, their origin, how they’re wielded, etc. It’s one of several places where the Cretton skimps on the details.

Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Simu Liu does well in the lead role, a little stiff at times, but surprisingly witty and lights-out during the fight sequences. The film’s two best action scenes come in the first thirty minutes, one on a bus ride and other along scaffolding attached to a skyscraper. Liu’s physicality is impressive and often breathtaking. Awkwafina gets the short end of the stick. She does the best she can with a script that pins her down as the overly chatty comic relief. The rare dramatic moments we get from her are really good. But far too often she’s reserved to being the jokey sidekick.

The great Tony Leung brings several layers of emotional complexity to the reworked Wenwu. He’s not just some nefarious powermonger who’s really mean to his children. We learn he is a man driven mad by grief. He and his family fell apart following the death of his wife and Shang-Chi’s mother Jiang Li (played by Fala Chen who gives what may be the movie’s best performance). Now he’s on a misguided quest that’s driven by a relatable pain but carried out with a sociopathic edge.

Several other great faces pop up along the way. The always terrific Michelle Yeoh plays Shang-Chi’s aunt and the guardian of a hidden mystical land called Ta Lo. There are a couple more appearances that I’ll let you discover for yourself, but both are fantastic for much different reasons. On the more frustrating side, the movie introduces us to Death-Dealer (Andy Le), a lethal assassin for the Ten Rings who has an interesting history in the comics. Here he is a captivating and menacing presence through most of the film only to end up wasted. It’s similar to the Taskmaster botch in “Black Widow”.

Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

“Shang-Chi” starts strong and sets itself up well. But then we get to the much slower middle that gets bogged down sifting through all of the old family baggage. What makes it drag is the strange choice to explain the family history through exposition only to then show it visually through flashbacks (with a few extra details). It’s actually interesting and I applaud the writing team for taking the time to flesh out these relationships. But the pacing is too slow and it leaves us hungry for the next action bit.

Later on things move to the fantastical as we’re introduced to flying soul-suckers, water dragons and the mysterious Dark Gate. As before, none of them are explained particularly well. You’re supposed to just go with it. And in keeping with the standard MCU formula, it all leads to a big, loud, CGI-soaked finale – quite possibly the most CGI-heavy finish they’ve done yet (and that’s saying something). For the most part it looks good, but the visuals can get a little murky and it reaches a point where some of Cretton’s shots start to feel repetitive.

Still, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is a nice new installment into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The awesome fight choreography hearkens back to the heyday of classic Kung Fu cinema which goes nicely with the cool nods to everything from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” to “Jurassic Park”. The deeper story of a young man wrestling with his past and eventually finding himself is a good one and the wonderful cast help bring that story to life. Unfortunately the nagging issues do bring it down a bit. But the movie still feels fresh and it ultimately delivers where it counts most. “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” opens in theaters today.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Suicide Squad” (2021)

James Gunn’s road to “The Suicide Squad” was a bumpy one starting with his temporary firing by Disney in 2018 after some pretty vile and bone-headed tweets from years earlier resurfaced. Within three months after his dismissal from the House of Mouse he was hired by Warner Bros. to makes a DCEU movie. For some reason the studio wanted him to do a Superman movie, but he (thankfully) turned it down. When asked what DC property he would like to adapt, his choice was (obviously) Suicide Squad.

Warner Bros. had already taken a shot at a Suicide Squad film with their 2016 David Ayer and Will Smith debacle. The universally panned disaster really only got high marks for one thing – Margot Robbie’s delightfully psychotic portrayal of Harley Quinn. But now we get Gunn’s film, a brazenly R-rated big-budget do-over that seeks to set itself apart by going the “Deadpool” route. And if there’s one thing those oddly beloved Ryan Reynolds flicks have shown us, it’s that sometimes all you need is blood, boobs and a boatload of f-bombs to get an audience.

But there’s a little something more to James Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad” that the “Deadpool” movies didn’t have. Yes, it fully embraces the same delusion that soaking a superhero movie in profanity somehow makes it cooler and edgier. And yes, sometimes it uses its graphic violence as an attention-getting crutch. And Gunn (who serves as writer and director) turns too many of his characters into nothing more than walking punchlines. Yet among all the violence and laughs (and there are many) is and actual heart. It’s often dark and twisted and sometimes hard to find, but it’s heart nonetheless.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Gunn straddles a fine line with “The Suicide Squad”, not always perfectly but well enough to get by. Too often you can see him actively working for his R-rating. Other times he gets too caught up in the whole “from the horribly beautiful mind of James Gunn” persona. On the other hand, Gunn’s love for his large batch of characters is evident from the start and even the smallest villain-turned-antihero gets a cool action beat or funny gag all to themselves. And while the violence is graphic (heads blow up, limbs are sliced off, throats are slit, torsos are ripped in half), so much of it is over-the-top and played for laughs. And in a weird (but undeniably entertaining) way, the blood-n-gore helps define this wacky little pocket of the DCEU where a movie like this can exist.

The story is pretty basic – assemble a team of imprisoned supervillains and send them on an extremely dangerous yet critically important mission for the US government. It’s unlikely that the violent cons will survive, but if they do they get ten years knocked off their sentence. That’s the gist of it. There’s some international conspiracy mumbo-jumbo with some base-level foreign policy critique that pops up later. But mostly it’s Gunn letting his ragtag band of homicidal screw-ups off their leashes and then running them through the meat grinder.

Under the stone-faced supervision of the ever-grumpy government liaison Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), Task Force X (because the murderous yet sensitive team considers the name Suicide Squad “degrading”) is sent to the South American island nation of Corto Maltese. There, a violent military coup has overthrown one hostile government and replaced it with a more subtly megalomaniacal one led by President Silvio Luna (Juan Diego Botto). But the American government’s real target is the island’s scientific research facility named Jotunheim. It houses something known only as Project Starfish, a potentially cataclysmic weapon believed to be extraterrestrial in origin. The squad’s mission is to land undetected on the island, infiltrate the facility and destroy every trace of Project Starfish.

The movie opens with a jolt and instantly lets us know that no one in Gunn’s world is sacred. Colonel Rick Flagg (a returning Joel Kinnaman) is the poor sap assigned to lead Team One while Bloodsport (Idris Elba) heads Team Two. Filling out this unsavory lot is Harley Quinn (an also returning Margot Robbie), the freedom loving buffoon Peacemaker (John Cena), King Shark – a hulking talking shark in swim trunks wonderfully voiced by Sylvester Stallone, Ratcatcher II (an endearing Daniela Melchior) who can summon an army of rats (where they all come from and how they get there so fast are questions better left unasked), and the somber forlorn Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian).

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Numerous other recognizable faces liven up the squad including Jai Courtney returning as Boomerang, Nathan Fillion, Michael Rooker, Pete Davidson, Sean Gunn, and Flula Borg. It’s ultimately this collage of characters mixed with Gunn’s free-wheeling irreverence that drives the movie. The performances are top-to-bottom terrific with Elba, Robbie, Stallone, and Dastmalchian as the standouts. Kinnaman plays a good straight man while Gunn gives Cena a role that perfectly utilizes his limitations. Everyone seems to be in on the joke and (more importantly) onboard with Gunn’s gleefully scuzzy vision.

The movie also looks amazing and you can see every bit of the film’s $185 million budget on screen. This is especially true in the rousing final act that takes the genre’s traditional CGI blowout ending and goes nuts with it. Gunn, his DP Henry Braham, and an insanely talented digital effects team make sure the film finishes on a wildly absurd and visually glorious note. It’s a gonzo finale that will leave audiences laughing and in utter awe.

“The Suicide Squad”, warts and all, is one crazy concoction. In one sense it’s an overly indulgent exercise in style-over-substance. It’s hardly the most seamless story and some of its character bits are too flimsy to resonate (a prime example is a woefully undercooked side-story about Bloodsport and his teenage daughter). But even with its flaws, the film has this uniquely raucous and chaotic pulse and once you get in sync with it you can’t help but have a good time. It had me constantly thinking back to “The Dirty Dozen”, “The Wild Bunch”, “The Expendables” and even the Borg Cubes from “Star Trek”. And that’s the kind of movie James Gunn has made. Not some superhero reheat, but an original spin on the genre that calls back to numerous works while still being unlike anything we’ve seen before.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Stillwater” (2021)

Tom McCarthy’s new drama “Stillwater” turned several heads and caught many by surprise during its recent premiere at Cannes. On the surface the film looked and sounded like an action thriller about a father leaving his home and going abroad to save his daughter. But that tissue-thin reading misses what the movie is after. “Stillwater” is much more of a character piece and human study built around one of the best performances of Matt Damon’s career.

As an actor, Matt Damon‘s versatility is too often overlooked. From “Good Will Hunting” to the Bourne films; from “Oceans” to “The Martian”; from the grimy underworld of Scorsese’s “The Departed” to the offbeat zaniness of Soderbergh’s “The Informant!”. Damon has been in westerns, war movies, and biopics. And in just a couple of months we’ll see him as a medieval knight in Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel”. That’s the kind of résumé he brings to “Stillwater” where he takes on the role of stoic Oklahoma roughneck Bill Baker.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

Damon and McCarthy spent weeks imbedded with real Oklahoma oil drillers both at home and on the job in an effort to get Damon’s character right. Their research paid off and Bill Baker comes off as a real person rather than some bad Red State caricature. That’s crucial because the movie needs for us to believe in Bill but more importantly connect with him on a human level. It’s absolutely necessary.

McCarthy opens his story by giving the audience a snapshot not only of Bill‘s life, but of blue-collar living that will resonate with some and feel completely foreign to others. A shut-down oil rig leaves Bill unemployed and forced to take low paying construction jobs. In the opening scene he’s helping clean up debris in a tornado-ravaged trailer park. After getting paid he stops at a Sonic drive-in and orders a foot-long cheese coney with a large cherry limeade. He takes it home to his small wood-framed house, asks a blessing over his simple dinner and then eats. The evening ends with him sound asleep on the couch with nothing but the flickering glow of the television lighting the room.

That short but detail-rich opening gives us a good sense of the attention McCarthy and Damon give the character. And we get even more when Bill boards a plane and flies to Marseilles, France to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) who’s in prison for a murder she says she didn’t commit. Allison has been behind bars for five years and her repeated claims of innocence falls on deaf ears. The local government has no interest in reopening or relitigating her case which is a position Bill just can’t accept. He gets nothing from Allison’s lawyers and he can’t afford the private detectives. So he sets out on his own following a trail that may or may not provide the answers he’s looking for.

There’s a fish-out-of-water element to “Stillwater” that’s essential to the story and rarely played for laughs. Back home Bill would effortlessly blend in, with the kind of average Joe appearance that people would pass and never take notice. But in Marseilles he sticks out like a sore thumb. His thick bushy goatee, a camo cap, his Carhartt button-up shirt tightly tucked into his dark blue Wrangler blue-jeans. And that’s just the physical barrier. There are also language and cultural walls that Bill runs into face-first. In many instances he tries to ram through them rather than look for a door. It’s a compelling part of the story, but it’s also where McCarthy’s scolding touch can get a little heavy.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

Some of Bill’s enlightenment is predictable – an unsophisticated Okie goes to a foreign country and has his eyes opened – you know the story. And we get some good scenes involving both Bill’s stateside smugness and the local condescension he faces. But much more interesting than Bill’s culture clash or his quest to exonerate his daughter is the deeper and more personal journey Bill takes. Much of this comes after he meets a sympathetic single mother named Virginie (a terrific Camille Cottin) and her precocious young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). The relationship Bill develops with them brings out a side he didn’t know he had while offering him a chance at personal redemption.

Much like he did with his 2015 film “Spotlight”, Tom McCarthy gives his story all the time it needs to play out. At a hefty 140 minutes, “Stillwater” may stick around a little too long for some audiences. You could probably prune several scenes and the movie would still be fine. But I prefer McCarthy’s approach which keeps the characters front-and-center, giving them and their relationships room to grow even if it means running a little long. “Stillwater” is now showing in theaters everywhere.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” (2021)

As an die-hard reader and fan of Marvel’s G.I. Joe comic series through most of 1980’s, it still blows my mind that the “Real American Hero” hasn’t had its own successful movie franchise. It’s not for lack of trying. The first attempt came with 2009’s tolerable but not great “The Rise of Cobra”. They tried again in 2013 with the hammy and utterly forgettable “Retaliation”. Considering the wealth of great material in Larry Hama’s terrific comic book run, it was a shame that they couldn’t get a film series off the ground.

It’s been eight years and they’ve decided to give it another go, this time by focusing on the franchise’s popular and most recognized characters. “Snake-Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a full-on Snake-Eyes origin story that clearly intends to kickoff a new and rebooted franchise. But as I watched, I couldn’t get past how dated it felt. It looks like a modern movie; the action scenes and the production design all look current day. But I kept wondering if G.I. Joe’s heyday had come and gone? Are there still enough people attached to the brand to be excited for a new franchise? Have they missed their window?

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Longtime fans of the character will instantly notice that this a modernized Snake-Eyes’ origin. It takes some bare basics from his backstory and puts together its own version. It makes sense to write out certain details such as his military service in Vietnam. I’m just not convinced that what we get as a replacement is that much better. Even more, for a movie hoping to launch a G.I. Joe cinematic universe, it’s shocking how inconsequential G.I. Joe ends up being to the story.

“Snake-Eyes” comes from German director Robert Schwentke working from a script by Evan Spiliotopoulos, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. The hunky Henry Golding plays the titular lead character who we first meet well before he becomes a butt-kicking ninja commando for the Joes. Here he’s an angry vengeful drifter fighting in warehouses for small change and searching the globe for the thug who killed his father when he was just a child (see the short prologue for all the details).

Snake ends up going to work for Kenta (Takehiro Kira), a gangster with Yakuza ties who claims to have resources to track down Snake’s father’s killer. When Snake’s best friend Tommy (Andrew Koji) is caught betraying the Yakuza, Kenta orders Snake to execute him – a show of loyalty if you will. Instead Snake turns on Kenta and helps Tommy escape. As a show of gratitude, Tommy takes Snake to his family’s Clan Arashikage in Tokyo where the two men’s friendship make up the backbone of the movie.

Golding (who blew up in “Crazy Rich Asians”) puts a good face on the Snake-Eyes character and for the first 30 minutes of so he gives us a reason to care about Snake’s journey. But then the movie gets bogged down by several missteps in the writing room. First there is Snake’s drawn-out initiation into Tommy’s clan that gets sillier with each “test” he takes. Then there’s the decision to make the long-standing feud between the Arashikage and Kenta’s gang the film’s central focus. It makes for a good standalone story but it’s a weird choice for a movie meant to jump-start a completely unrelated franchise.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

And that leads to the biggest issue, one that will probably sour and bewilder a big chunk of the fanbase. It’s mind-blowing how insignificant G.I. Joe and Cobra are to the story. Both come across as afterthoughts, wedged in out of obligation and lacking any depth or detail. Their paper-thin connections to the narrative come completely out-of-the blue and are far too contrived to be meaningful. We do get two fan-favorites Scarlett (Samara Weaving) and Baroness (Úrsula Corberó). Both actresses fit their parts and do the best they can. But neither can make their characters seem relevant or necessary.

“Snake-Eyes” isn’t necessarily a ‘bad’ movie. It has all the polish of a big studio action picture and a cast who does a good job bringing these characters to life (keep your eye on Koji who has great intensity and a remarkable presence). With the exception of a couple of fight scenes marred by headache-inducing shaky cam and chopped to pieces in the editing room, the choreography and set pieces are impressive. But it’s brought down by the story’s slow patches, the weird mystical goofiness, and the odd choice to leave G.I. Joe on the backburner. Snake-Eyes doesn’t even put on his signature mask and visor until the final scene. How does that happen? “Snake-Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” opens today in theaters.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Settlers” (2021)

Fans of minimalist yet immersive science-fiction need to keep their eyes out for “Settlers”, a beguiling British thriller written and directed by Wyatt Rockefeller. The movie tinkers with some of the genre’s most recognizable tropes, using them to create a somber and melancholic examination of human nature. And while it’s true that this type of moody contemplative sci-fi doesn’t draw the same crowds as the showier action-packed epics, it’s still a warm reminder of how rich and diverse the genre remains.

Set (mostly) in the confines of a single location, “Settlers” does a great job of utilizing its setting. But it’s the story’s strong human focus that stands out most. A first time feature film director, Rockefeller shows a keen understanding of the kind of movie he wants to make. And he has the discipline to stick with his vision rather than go down some easier and more conventional paths that would have made this a different and much less-effective movie.

The story uses a three-chapter structure which at first seems like a needless device but ends up making sense considering the film’s use of perspective. Everything unfolds through the eyes of a young girl named Remmy (played in the first two chapters by a sublime Brooklynn Prince). She lives with her parents Ilsa (Sofia Boutella) and Reza (Jonny Lee Miller) on a remote run-down settlement on Mars, nestled in a valley surrounded by stark craggy ridges. Her parents insist they’re alone, but there’s an unshakable sense that they known more than they’re letting on.

Image Courtesy of IFC Midnight

Remmy only knows life with her parents. She’s never seen another human and earth is nothing more to her than a glowing speck in the star-filled sky. Her father Reza fills in the blanks with hazy answers to her questions: “Earth isn’t what it once was,” and “We left because we wanted something more.” But other than that it’s mostly left to her imagination. Reza tries to encourage Remmy with unconvincing promises that things will one day be “just like earth.” But Remmy is suspect and so are we.

The “we are alone” ruse is shattered when the family wakes up to find the word “LEAVE” smeared across their window. Soon after, in a tense and skillfully framed encounter, three armed intruders in dusty tactical gear enter the settlement. Both Reza and Ilsa fend them off, but in a flash the facade of domesticity and security is shattered. Even worse, Remmy is faced with the painful realization that much of what her parents have been telling her is a lie. There lives are upended even further when Reza leaves to secure the perimeter and doesn’t return. Instead a mysterious stranger named Jerry (Ismael Cruz Córdova) arrives.

From there the film evolves into a slow-simmering chamber piece with Jerry moving in and staking a claim to the settlement and Ilsa protecting Remmy with a mother bear ferocity. Jerry and his intentions are shrouded in mystery and Córdova’s steely restraint ensures that we never get a firm read on him. Meanwhile Boutella is a revelation, portraying Ilsa as quiet but tenacious and full of grit. Her maternal instinct mixed with her will to survive makes her a fascinating yet formidable presence.

Image Courtesy of IFC Midnight

But from the very start the story revolves around Remmy. Prince’s sparkling breakthrough performance in 2017’s “The Florida Project” was overflowing with youthful energy. It’s amazing to see her dial it back to such a degree. Through her we watch a young girl’s dreamy optimism slowly dissolve as she gets a better grasp of her bitter reality. Prince gives us our emotional center and does a terrific job setting up a final chapter that jumps ahead several years. Nell Tiger Free plays the older Remmy and does a good job adding new layers to the character.

As mentioned, “Settlers” is deliberately paced which is just the right speed for this type of intimate and contemplative outer space drama. But the story does take a significant leap in the last act that could have used more buildup. It’s a dramatic and weighty turn yet it feels as if we missed something important that gets us to that point. The actual ‘thing’ that happens is incredible effective, but this is easily a case where less isn’t more.

As “Settlers” eases from a simmer to a boil the story’s bleakness becomes more evident. It feeds into the film’s idea that no matter where we go, we can never escape the ugly side of human nature. Yet there are moments of sympathy and compassion, such as younger Remmy befriending a robot she names Steve. It’s considered nothing more than “a tool” by the others, but she treats it with kindness and empathy which proves helpful later on. These are the interests that lie at the heart of “Settlers”. And as we work our way through them you can’t help but be pulled in by Rockefeller’s savvy direction and his evocative setting. The curious side of me wishes his approach wasn’t so subdued and that he hadn’t left so many blanks unfilled. But it’s hard to be frustrated when the end results are this good. “Settlers” releases July 23rd.

VERDICT – 4 STARS