RETRO REVIEW: “Straw Dogs” (1971)

Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” was a provocative and (as a result) controversial movie of its time. Yet after watching it just a few days ago (some 52 years after its original release), I was surprised by how startlingly contemporary (and urgent) its themes happen to be. Take something like “toxic masculinity”, an issue which is routinely examined today and almost always through the same lens. Peckinpah approaches it much differently. He not only explores a warped vision of masculinity, but also what can happen when masculinity is lost.

“Straw Dogs” is an undeniably hard watch and was censored in some places and outright banned in others. The pushback came from the film’s disturbing violence, in particularly a challenging rape scene that upset people for a variety of reasons. Peckinpah scoffed at the criticisms in his notoriously abrasive, no-nonsense style. Yet many of the film’s more vocal critics accused Peckinpah of things like endorsing violence and glamorizing rape. Of course neither are accurate, but it was enough to earn the movie quite a reputation.

Written for the screen by Peckinpah and David Goodman, “Straw Dogs” is an adaptation of the 1969 Gordon M. Williams novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm. Peckinpah infamously disliked the book. But following an ugly falling out with Warner Bros. he was left with limited opportunities. So he took off for England to create his galvanizing version of Williams’ story. It would end up leaving some critics and audiences shocked despite coming from a filmmaker not exactly known for his delicacy.

Dustin Hoffman delivers one of his very best performances playing David Sumner, an American mathematician who has received a grant to research and study stellar bodies. He and his attractive wife Amy (an indelible Susan George) leave the States for her small hometown village in Cornwall where they move into a rustic two-story cottage once owned by Amy’s father. David hopes the quiet rural setting will be a perfect place to study. But things sour pretty quick.

We quickly notice that the village folks aren’t high on outsiders, especially a milquetoast intellectual from America. First David and Amy run into her ex-boyfriend Charlie Venner (Del Henney) and his four ruffian friends. They’re lifelong locals whose eyes are filled with an unnerving mix of resentment and lust. They lock onto Amy with an uncomfortable gaze, setting the table for a cat-and-mouse game that quickly gets out of control.

Charlie and his friends work under a brutish drunk named Tom (Peter Vaughan) who barely attempts to veil his animosity towards David. Tom send his guys to finish putting a roof on David and Amy’s garage. But they spend more time yucking it up and catching glimpses of Amy than actually working. Rather than call them out, David let’s their behavior go, revealing a side of his character that has serious implications on how the story unfolds.

As we spend more time with David and Amy, the cracks in their relationship begin to show. Amy resents her milksop of a husband, calling him a coward for running away from an America amid the chaos of campus war protests, the civil rights movement, and violent riots across the country. David rejects the label even though he proves her right time and time again. For example, she pleads with him to confront Charlie and the other workers; to say something about their lewd catcalling; to threaten to fire them if they don’t finish their work. But David, as self-absorbed as he is spineless, refuses. From there things only escalate, eventually giving way to a combustible third act.

While David’s contempt and cowardice ensures he’s no hero, Amy is far more complex. She rightly calls him out for his haughtiness and condescension. She’s right for expecting him to stand up and defend her and their home. But she’s not above rubbing his insecurities in his face. She’s alluring and vivacious and her provocations range from mocking to suggestive (I’ll leave you to discover what I mean).

Nothing about what happens next is remotely pleasant or cathartic. First is the film’s notorious rape scene – a fixture of controversy as much today as it was in 1971. It’s a fittingly troubling but surprisingly layered sequence that has prompted numerous interpretations over the years. Then there’s the film’s final 30 minutes – a violent siege on the couple’s home where the pacifistic David finally takes a stand. But not out of some noble concern for his wife’s well being. It’s more out of ego and rage which unleashes his own primitive inner violence.

Amy may show bad judgement and sometimes act petulant and juvenile, but make no mistake, she’s the victim of the film. Despite some claims, the film doesn’t cast the blame on her and the complexity of her character doesn’t equal guilt. There’s never a sense that ‘she got what was coming to her’. Peckinpah’s vision isn’t that shallow or misogynistic. Well before the physical and psychological violence Amy is treated with little regard by her husband. She yearns for his attention but David keeps her at a distance, leaving her to feel alone and disconnected. David’s negligence and self-absorption sets into motion much of what follows.

“Straw Dogs” is ugly, disturbing, and hard to take in, just like a story of this nature should be. It’s also hard to turn away from thanks to Peckinpah’s direction, John Coquillon’s fiercely hypnotic cinematography, and great performances especially from Hoffman and George. The film’s ambiguity may be a stumbling block for some, but it has long been a key part of the film’s allure. It opens up the movie to a number of thoughtful (and frankly discomforting) considerations which only intensify as things move from a slow simmer to a scalding boil.


REVIEW: “Sisu” (2023)

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

“Sisu” is every bit as violent and gory as its red band trailer teased. Gleefully so which turns out to be a big part of its twisted charm. Writer-director Jalmari Helander goes all out with a movie that can be defined a number of different ways. It’s a Finnish World War II film. It’s a grindhouse genre flick with a slick coat of studio paint. And it’s a rousing crowdpleaser full of over the top action aimed at getting visceral responses from its audience. It’s pure genre spectacle, and I had a blast with it.

In case you’re wondering about the title, we get an opening card that reads “Sisu is a Finnish word that cannot be translated. It means a white-knuckled form of courage and unimaginable determination. Sisu manifests itself when all hope is lost.” There’s certainly gravitas in those words. But the movie itself is much more straightforward. It’s about Nazis getting their comeuppance through a delightful assortment of gruesome means. It’s lean, it’s brash, and it has a crystal clear vision of what it wants to be. And boy does it realize that vision.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Broken down into chapters with straight-to-the-point titles like “The Gold”, “The Nazis”, and “The Minefield”, the story unfolds during the late months of 1944 in Finland’s Lapland region. Historically, Finland had recently signed the Moscow Armistice. Among the agreement’s stipulations was that Finland must drive out all remaining German troops from their country. It led to a four-month conflict called the Lapland War. And that’s the setting for Helander’s simple yet invigorating story.

Far away in the sparse Lapland wilds we’re introduced to an old man who we later learn is named Aatami. He’s played with a hushed ferocity by Jorma Tommila in what is a mostly dialogue-free role. Aatami has tried to distance himself from the war, choosing to spend his time prospecting for gold in the quiet company of his loyal dog and horse. While Aatami enjoys his solitude, remnants of the war still lingers, from the roars of aircraft flying overhead to the occasional echo of gunfire to the ominous glow of artillery on the horizon.

While digging deep into the earth Aatami happens upon a huge deposit of sparkling yellow gold. After chiseling out his new found fortune he washes up, hops onto his horse, and heads off with his pup following along. His idea is to cash in at the nearest town, but along the way he encounters a company of Nazis led by a ruthless SS Obersturmführer named Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie). They’re essentially a brutal death squad carrying out Hitler’s ‘scorched earth’ tactics, burning and killing everything in their path on their way out of Finland. They’ve even taken some local women as souvenirs – something that’ll come back to haunt them.

At first it looks as if their encounter with Aatami will only consist of a little ridicule and mockery. But you know movie Nazis – they just can’t help themselves. In their arrogance they pick a fight with what they perceive to be easy prey. Of course they learn the hard way that Aatami isn’t some frail old relic. In fact, they’ve crossed paths with a lethal killing machine who quickly begins dispatching his Third Reich adversaries through a grisly array of methods. Rifles, pistols, a pickaxe, a landmine, a knife the length of your forearm – they all come into play.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

“Sisu” quickly settles into its gritty one-man-army mode. It’s as straightforward as a movie can be and its lack of pretension is actually one of its biggest strengths. Simply put, it’s a movie about a grizzled old man impaling, beheaded, eviscerating, and blowing up Nazis. We root for him every step of the way because…well…they’re Nazis. And Helander paints them with as broad of a brush as possible. Secrets are revealed about Aatami’s violent past, but that doesn’t sidetrack the movie’s bigger interest – righteous carnage.

“Sisu” is superbly shot and teeming with bravado and style. It resembles what you might expect if Sergio Leone and Quentin Tarantino had co-directed a John Wick movie set in the waning days of World War II. It’s a hardcore genre flick through and through and it’s great seeing something like it getting a wider release. How it will do at the box office is anyone’s guess. But it’s a bloody good time that begs to be seen with an energized audience who know exactly what to expect. “Sisu” opens in theaters today.


REVIEW: “Sweetwater” (2023)

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

“Sweetwater” from writer-director Martin Guigui tells the powerful true story of Nathaniel ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton, a naturally gifted and talented basketball player who was among the first African Americans to play in the National Basketball Association. Born October 13th, 1922 in England, Arkansas, Nate Clifton earned his nickname “Sweetwater” from his unquenchable love for sugar water and his kindhearted and easygoing demeanor. He and his family would eventually move to Chicago where he excelled in high school basketball and football.

Clifton would go on to attend college at Xavier University of Louisiana before serving three years in the Army during World War II. After playing for the Harlem Globetrotters, he would sign a contract with the New York Knicks. He played his first game in the NBA on November 4, 1950, helping to break the color barrier and open the door for countless other players.

Image Courtesy of Open Road Films / Briarcliff Entertainment

In many ways “Sweetwater” fits right into that familiar sports drama mold. It has a moving true story as its inspiration. There’s plenty of drama added in for effect. It has that uplifting crowd-pleasing ending that we’ve come to expect from these kinds of movies. Yet there’s something truly endearing about Guigui’s storytelling (minus a small hiccup or two).

The story takes us back to New York City, 1949. The Harlem Globetrotters and their star Nate “Sweetwater” Clifton (well played by Everett Osborne) are taking on the NBA Champ Minneapolis Lakers in front of a packed house at Madison Square Garden. In attendance is Ned Irish (Carl Elwes), the owner and president of the NBA’s New York Knicks, and Joe Lapchick (Jeremy Piven), a former player and the Knicks’ head coach.

The Globetrotters were a traveling basketball team founded and owned by businessman Abe Saperstein (Kevin Pollak). Despite being considered by many to be the best team in the world, the Globetrotters were denied entry into the all-white NBA simply because their players were Black and they played a “razzle-dazzle” style of basketball. So Abe took them on the road where they played in everything from big city arenas to small barns in the boondocks.

While basketball plays a big part of the story, Guigui often looks beyond the sport, putting a lot of effort into portraying the various shades of racism these young men faced. While people loved to watch the Globetrotters play for their entertainment, the team still couldn’t get a hotel room or buy gas at a country gas station. They were turned away from certain clubs and were denied tables at restaurants. Even their payouts for performing were far less than the predominantly white teams they were playing against.

Image Courtesy of Open Road Films / Briarcliff Entertainment

After watching Sweetwater play, Ned and Joe immediately realize he’s something special. Joe wants him to play for the Knicks, but Ned is a bit hesitant, unsure of the kind of heat he’ll receive from the league’s other team owners. He does seem to have one ally – Maurice Podoloff (Richard Dreyfuss), the president of the National Basketball Association. A chunk of the film sheds light on the behind the scenes efforts to get Sweetwater into a Knick’s uniform, from the internal debates between Ned and Joe to the boardroom squabbles with other ownership. It’s not the most dramatic parts of the story, but I was glued to it.

While the movie does a good job capturing the essence of Nate Clifton’s journey, it dramatically changes many of the true-life details. This comes out most in the last 15 minutes when Sweetwater steps onto an NBA court for the first time. Guigui puts a lot of his own spin on the story, changing the team the Knicks played against and even the outcome of the game itself. There’s also some cheesy announcing thrown in and the final-act sentiment is knee-deep. Still it’s the ending we’re rooting for, especially after being given such a clear-eyed depiction of the racism, belittlement, and threats of violence Sweetwater faced. And all because he wanted to play the game of basketball. “Sweetwater” is in theaters now”.


REVIEW: “Supercell” (2023)

Director Herbert James Winterstern takes a swing at the disaster genre (sort of) in his feature film directorial debut “Supercell”. As you can probably tell by the not-so-cryptic title, it’s a killer storm movie set in North Texas and the Midwest. That’s prime territory for a movie like this. Unfortunately the storm-chasing in this modestly budgeted feature never amps up the excitement the way it needs to. And the human drama (though well-intended) isn’t strong enough carry us through.

Winterstern knows his way around filmmaking, having worked as a producer, writer, editor, cinematographer, and in a number of other behind the scenes technical roles. Here he directs from a script he co-wrote with Anna Elizabeth James. Their story attempts to meld straight-up genre thrills with a rather tepid family drama. There’s certainly some heart behind certain characters and you can almost sense a Spielbergian influence in how Winterstern and James handle one teenage boy’s journey. If only the performances had the same voltage as the massive CGI storm cells looming over the plains.

“Supercell” features an interesting supporting cast. First is Skeet Ulrich (“Scream”) who has been popping up in several films lately. It’s good to see. Then you have Alec Baldwin who is currently embroiled in a legal battle following a fatal on-set accident while shooting the movie “Rust”. And there’s Anne Heche, appearing in one of the late actress’ final roles.

Image Courtesy of Saban Films

The lead is Canadian actor Daniel Diemer who plays Will Brody, the son of renowned storm-chaser Bill Brody. Ten years ago his father was killed chasing a massive tornado near Wichita Falls, Texas. Since then, Will has been raised by his struggling mother Quinn (Heche). She once worked side-by-side with her late husband studying storms. After moving to Florida and filing bankruptcy, she now works cleaning houses to provide for her son.

Lately Will has taken an interest in his father’s work, but Quinn is quick to discourage him. She wants Will to go to college. “It’s your way out, ” she reasons, fearing he’ll meet the same fate as his father. But one day Will receives an old journal in the mail that belonged to his dad. Ignoring his mother’s wishes, Will sneaks off and follows the return address to the Texas home of his uncle Roy (Ulrich).

Once a studier of storms himself, the embittered Roy now drives for a storm-chasing tour line (are those really a thing???) owned by the surly Zane Rogers (Baldwin). An angry Quinn gets word that her son is with Roy and heads to Texas with Will’s soon-to-be girlfriend (Jordan Kristine Seamón) in tow. But wouldn’t you know it, the mother of all storms is brewing which manages to bring all the parties together in its dangerous path for a predictable and rather hammy climax.

Image Courtesy of Saban Films

It’s hard to watch the movie and not see it as a low-budget take on “Twister” (there’s actually a terrific nod to that 1996 film and Bill Paxton that’s easy to miss). But to Winterstern’s credit he does a lot with the resources he has. There are some stunning wide angle shots showing off the ominous clouds building up across the horizons. And we get a couple of nail-biting moments of pure intensity, the best taking place during a brutal hail storm. Winterstern puts us inside Roy’s van as three-inch hail beats it to a pulp. His shooting and cutting of the scene is top-notch.

But too much of the story is handcuffed by predictability, contrivances, and some shaky character work. Ulrich is a nice fit for Roy, although the character could use more depth. Much the same, Baldwin gives a solid performance. But his character was all over the map and (especially in the final third) never made sense to me. Heche struggles and it’s hard to put a finger on why. Quinn in pretty straightforward, but Heche often feels out-of-sync. And poor Seamón is reserved to being a tag-along with no real story of her own.

There are a few other issues that bring the movie down a bit (getting off to a slow start, composer Corey Wallace’s dramatic yet overbearing score, etc.). But I do appreciate the movie’s attempt at making something other that digitalized disaster porn. While they aren’t quite realized the way they need to be, the characters are the centerpiece. Diemer is a sturdy enough lead and gives the movie a good anchor. But there’s only so much weight he can carry. Ultimately we’re left wanting more, both from the human drama and the computer enhanced storms. “Supercell” is now showing in select theaters and on VOD.


REVIEW: “65” (2023)

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

How does this sound to you: Adam Driver playing a space traveler who crash-lands on prehistoric planet earth and fights dinosaurs? There’s enough wackiness in that basic description to get me onboard with “65”, a lean, unambiguous, and all-around fun genre mash-up from the filmmaking team of Scott Beck and Bryan Woods. They’re the duo behind the tension-soaked 2018 horror-thriller “The Quiet Place”. Here they pluck genre ingredients of all kinds and mixes them together into an old-fashioned and surprisingly low-key stew. It’s a bit of science-fiction and a bit of horror. It’s a creature feature. It has a touch of character drama. There’s even a little B-movie schlock.

Some may be surprised to see Driver lend his sizable star wattage to a modest small-scale genre flick like this. And I can see where fans of his might go into it with bigger expectations than they should. But again, “65” delivers exactly what it advertises – nothing more and nothing less. It tells a linear story with no big surprises or unexpected twists. That may sound like a knock, but I actually like its simplicity and straightforwardness. I like its indifference to being something revolutionary or groundbreaking. And I like its taut 93-minute frame, which turns out to be all a movie like this needs.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

If you haven’t already guessed, the “65” in the title is a reference to 65 million years ago “prior to the advent of mankind”. Driver plays a pilot named Mills. In a brief prologue we see him with his wife (Nika King) and their young daughter Nevine (Chloe Coleman) enjoying some family time at the beach on a faraway planet called Somaris. We learn Nevine is seriously ill, and Mills has accepted a job at triple his normal salary to help pay for his daughter’s treatment. The problem is, the job will keep him away from his family for two years.

We then jump ahead one year. While his passengers and crew sleep in cryo-stasis, Mills pilots their long-range exploratory mission. Things are going smoothly until their ship flies into an asteroid field where they take catastrophic damage which sends them careening towards a nearby uncharted planet – our earth some 65 million years ago. The ship breaks apart while entering the planet’s atmosphere and violently crash-lands on the forest surface. Mills manages to survive but his human cargo aren’t so lucky.

Marooned on a mysterious unknown planet, all alone, and with no means of communication, Mills is content to resign all hope (we later see why he’s so quick to give up). But while exploring his strange new surroundings, he comes across a cryo-pod in some wreckage. Inside is a little girl close to his daughter’s age – her vital signs stable. From the ship’s manifest Mills learns her name is Koa (played wonderfully by Ariana Greenblatt) and she was traveling with her parents, both of whom were killed in the crash.

At first a reluctant Mills has no interest in taking on a father figure role. He finds communicating with Koa to be difficult (she speaks a language he doesn’t understand) and her presence sparks some painful feelings. Yet over time a bond forms between the two wounded souls. Even more, Mills feels a connection to his own daughter through Koa. So he determines to get Koa off the planet. But to do so will require them to journey nearly ten miles to the top of a mountain where a escape vessel from their ship has landed.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Of course they quickly learn that the planet they’re on is full of dangers and threats, many of the prehistoric kind. Soon they’re dodging scalding geysers, swatting massive bugs, and frantically running from carnivorous CGI dinosaurs of all shapes and sizes. Mills turns into the fatherly protector, blasting away at Raptors and T-Rexes with his space rifle and ushering Koa to safety. But Koa shows herself to be brave and resourceful. Together, Driver and Greenblatt have a warm chemistry, and they’re an easy pair to root for.

Filming took place in the pine-covered hills and hardwood bottoms of Louisiana’s Kisatchie National Forest which gives the 65 million-year-old landscapes both an alluring beauty and a forbidding sense of peril. DP Salvatore Totino bathes too many of his images in cold blues and grays, but the overall look is striking. And there’s a fun and ferocious variety of dinosaurs thanks to the teams at Framestore and Ghost VFX. It all adds a visual quality to a story that may be pretty light, but that is also very honest about what it is. And frankly, that was enough for me. “65” is out now in theaters.


REVIEW: “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” (2023)

The unfortunate demise of Zack Snyder’s DC superhero universe has made it hard to know what to expect from upcoming hold-over movies such as “The Flash”, “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom”, and the just released “Shazam! Fury of the Gods”. New DC head-honcho James Gunn has spoken highly of all three films and has indicated that they each have roles to play in what he has planned going forward. Whether that’s true or just studio speak remains to be seen.

I was a big fan of Zack Snyder’s vision. Where Kevin Feige’s MCU sought to stress the humanity of its heroes, Snyder looked at humanity through the prism of his god-like characters. It may sound like a small detail, but it gave the two universes a much-needed contrast. Interestingly, 2019’s “Shazam!” was the most MCU-like DC movie to come during Zack Snyder’s tenure. It made money and received good reviews. But it was a little too silly and lighthearted for my taste.

Regardless of my thoughts of its tone, “Shazam!” was well directed by David F. Sandberg and it had the pitch-perfect star in Zachary Levi. Both return in the inevitable sequel “Shazam! Fury of the Gods”, a movie that began production before the COVID-19 pandemic and prior to the dissolution of the Snyder-led DCEU. Now several delays later and with a cloud of uncertainty over the character’s future under James Gunn looming, the film is finally getting its release.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Screenwriter Henry Gayden also returns from the first film, this time helped with the script by Chris Morgan of “Fast & Furious” fame. As before, their story is infused with the same whimsical brand of humor although this time it’s dialed back just a bit. I’m guessing that’ll disappoint some, but for me it was a plus. Interestingly, their two big antagonists, the Daughters of Atlas, are plucked straight from Greek mythology and don’t actually appear in DC Comics. But Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu) turn out to be a fun and menacing (enough) duo.

Once again the movie follows the spirited teen Billy Batson (Asher Angel) who is transformed into a super-powered adult (played by Levi) whenever he yells the magically charged word “SHAZAM”! That’s when he’s instantly imbued with “the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury”.

Despite getting more comfortable with his powers, Billy still finds it difficult juggling life as a 17-year-old living with his foster parents (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans) and being a superhero to his hometown Philadelphia. Even more challenging for a kid in an adult’s body is his well-meaning yet sometimes overbearing impulse to lead and protect his super empowered foster siblings. It’s especially frustrating to his foster brother Freddy (a delightful Jack Dylan Grazer) and his foster sister Mary (Grace Currey).

Sandberg kicks things off with two terrific scenes that serve as introductions. The first takes place at a museum in Athens, Greece. Two people decked in Ancient Greek armor enter the crowded museum like cosplayers at a convention. But they quickly reveal themselves to be the Daughters of Atlas, and they’ve come to reclaim a broken staff that’s said to be crafted from the mystical Tree of Life. They believe it to be rightfully theirs, and once they seize the two pieces, they let out some of their anger on the museum-going innocents. It’s a grim sign of things to come.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Over in Philadelphia, Billy and his super-family race to help the many citizens trapped on the collapsing Ben Franklin Bridge. They get everyone to safety but don’t exactly save the bridge, prompting the local newspapers to label them the Philly Fiascos. Back at home, Billy is worried about aging out of the foster system and losing another family. Meanwhile Freddy hits it off with a new girl at school named Ann (Rachel Zegler). These are just some of the human elements that play a big part in the movie, much as they did in the first film.

Of course everything leads to the Daughters of Atlas coming to Philly to duke it out with Billy and his fam. The buildup to the big climax is filled with giddy talk of magic and mythology, but Sandberg is smart enough not to take things too seriously. Much of it comes from Djimon Hounsou who returns as the master wizard still regretting choosing Billy as his champion. His story here doesn’t make much sense, but he’s sure having a great time. Same with Mirren and Liu who are given the bare minimum to get by in terms of backstory. But they’re a lot of fun in their roles.

With the exception of a few underwritten characters, some occasional convolution, and a little late movie cringe, “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” was an unexpected treat and a surprising step up from the first film. It’s unashamedly silly, but it has the heart and humor fans will be looking for. There’s some cool creature designs, big action, and several fun set pieces. Oh, and there’s a dragon. Yet underneath the layers of expensive digital effects is a story of friendship, family, and sacrifice. And it’s all once again carried by Zachary Levi, who may never suit up as Shazam again, but he’s sure been good when he has. “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” hits theaters today.