REVIEW: “The Tunnel” (2021)

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The new (at least in the States) Norwegian disaster movie “The Tunnel” opens by dropping a few interesting facts that adds some perspective to what we are about to see. We learn that there are 1100 tunnels throughout Norway, most without emergency exits or safety rooms. The title cards go on to say that since 2011 there have been eight major tunnel fires and it was the heroic acts of survivors and first responders that ultimately saved countless lives. Those events and those acts are the inspiration for director Pål Øie’s film.

I call the film “new”, but it actually opened in Norway back in 2019. Now it has made its way further west and American audiences can take in a movie that has many of the usual disaster movie ingredients. We get the large cast full of characters with different roles to play. Some are victims fighting to survive; others are rescue workers trying to save them. You get the devastating event, the dramatic close calls, children in peril, a heroic sacrifice, etc. You get the one jerk everyone wants to punch in the mouth, the troubled family that needs a good disaster to bring them back together, and even the ominous tried-and-true warning “There’s a storm coming.”

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Image Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Yet “The Tunnel” still works in large part because of its tight focus and kinetic pacing. It also helps to have solid performances from a cast who never overplays it (with one small exception). First time feature screenwriter Kjersti Helen Rasmussen doesn’t fully avoid the genre trappings which leads to a predictability the movie never can quite shake. But she does infuse her story with humanity (which should be at the core of every film like this) while also delivering enough thrills to keep things exciting.

It’s the Christmas season and Elise (Ylva Fuglerud) is having a rough time. It has been three years since her mother died, and as anyone who has lost someone close will tell you, the holidays are tough when you’re still mourning. Elise’s father Stein (a stoic Thorbjørn Harr) plows icy roads and leads convoys for Emergency Services. He also has a new girlfriend Ingrid (Lisa Carlehed) and he would like her to spend Christmas with them. As you might expect, this goes over like a lead balloon. Elise storms off and in a moment of frustration hops on a bus bound for Oslo.

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Image Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Further up in the snow-covered mountains (some 3117 feet above sea level), as travelers hurry home for the holidays, a tanker truck crashes deep within the 5.6 mile-long Storfjell tunnel. At first it looks to be nothing more than an annoying and inconvenient traffic jam, but we know better. A fuel leak and a spark from an electrical box causes a fiery explosion which fills the tunnel with blinding black smoke and toxic fumes. As those trapped struggle amid the chaos, emergency teams mobilize outside including Stein who is called in to help coordinate the rescue effort. But little does he know the bus carrying his daughter is among the many vehicles packed inside. Didn’t see that coming, did you?

A few other pieces are placed on the board including a family of four returning from a Christmas party, a hot-headed young fireman named Ivar (Mikkel Bratt Silset), and the best – a Road Traffic Control operator named Andrea (Ingvild Holthe Bygdnes). All have parts to play as Øie deftly maneuvers around an assortment of clichés and easy-to-read outcomes. But by highlighting the heroism and keeping things focused on the people rather than the spectacle, “The Tunnel” gives its audience something authentic to latch onto and root for. “The Tunnel” is now streaming on VOD.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Thunder Force” (2021)

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Melissa McCarthy’s collaborations with writer-director and husband Ben Falcone have been pretty brutal. Falcone has directed McCarthy in four previous movies. Of those, 2018’s abysmal “Life of the Party” has the highest Rotten Tomatoes score at 38%. Yes I know, review aggregators aren’t infallible and they don’t always represent the quality of a movie. I hate to say it, but in this case they’re pretty spot-on.

The duo give it another shot with “Thunder Force”, a wacky superhero comedy once again written and directed by Falcone and starring McCarthy. This time they’re joined by co-star Octavia Spencer who never seems completely comfortable with her character. Neither of the actresses can bring any sizzle to this fairly one-note comedy that languishes at one speed and struggles to deliver anything more than a couple of passing giggles.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

In terms of setup (not that it matters much), a massive pulse of interstellar cosmic rays struck the earth in 1983 triggering a genetic transformation in a select few of the planet’s population, imbuing them with a range of superpowers. As (bad) luck would have it and for reasons not even remotely explained, these abilities only unlocked for budding sociopaths who became known as Miscreants. So basically it’s a world with villains but no superheroes.

Enter Lydia (McCarthy) and Emily (Spencer), childhood best friends who grew apart after a spat way back in high school. Lydia is an odd one – socially awkward, klutzy, and aggressively unrefined. Basically she’s a typical Melissa McCarthy character. These days she’s a machine operator at a Chicago shipping yard. Emily is given a little more depth. She’s the bookish and brilliant daughter of two geneticists who were working on a formula that would give regular people superpowers to fight back against the Miscreants. Her parents were killed during some Miscreant mayhem while Emily was still a child and she vowed to one day finish their work. Now she’s a scientist who owns her own lab in Chicago and works tirelessly to perfect her parents’ formula.

Lydia attempts to reconnect with Emily by paying a visit to her lab. Hijinks ensue resulting in Lydia being inadvertently injected with Emily’s super-strength formula. But the effects aren’t instantaneous which leads to a series of silly training scenes as Lydia learns how to control her new super-human power. Meanwhile Emily begins treatment of her own which grants her the ability to turn invisible. And just like that Thunder Force is born, the world’s first superhero team. They immediately run afoul of a shady mayoral candidate played by Bobby Cannavale and his goons, a gnarly Miscreant named Laser (Pom Klementieff) and Jason Bateman with crab pincers for arms (yep, you read that right).

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

Considering the absurdity of all you just read, you would think the movie would at least have some energy. But neither the story or McCarthy’s act ever gets above room temperature and both eventually run out of gas. The actress does give us an occasional amusing line or a physical gag that semi-lands, but essentially she’s stuck in the same gear for the entire film. Even Bateman, whose signature dry humor is a perfect fit for such an oddball character, is hampered by dull and uninspired material. Character-wise the one saving grace is Taylor Mosby who plays Emily’s daughter Tracy. She isn’t given tons to do, but at least she provides someone the audience can relate to.

As I mine for something positive to say I’ll leave you with this – if McCarthy and Falcone’s other movies have worked for you in the past you might find some entertainment here as well. But if not, don’t expect “Thunder Force” to change that trend. And other than die-hard McCarthy fans, it’s hard to figure out who this movie is aimed at. It’s a little too crass to be a kids movie, too puerile for adults. The one thing I’m sure of is that it wasn’t for me. “Thunder Force” premieres today (April 9th) on Netflix.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

1-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Toll” (2021)

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Those itching for a new horror movie might find some relief with “The Toll”, a Canadian horror flick written and directed by Michael Nader (his feature film debut). “The Toll” is an exercise in unadulterated love for horror, pulling inspiration from every end of the genre. Nader will have you thinking of everything from “Poltergeist” to “The Slender Man”; from “The Shining” to “The Blair Witch Project”. Seeing those influences on screen is fun in itself. The problems come with the movie’s shaky execution of its own ideas.

Despite some logic-defying cracks the movie’s opening 30 minutes are easily its best. It begins with a rideshare driver named Spencer (Max Topplin) swiping through his Uber-like phone app looking for his next passenger. He passes over a hipster and a middle-aged guy to choose Cami (Jordan Hayes), a young woman at the Detroit airport just off of a delayed late night flight. She’s in town to visit her divorced father and instead of bothering him to pick her up she hops in the car with a strange guy in the wee hours of the morning. Maybe not the best example of decision-making but delayed flight, frustration, exhaustion, all that stuff so we’ll give her a pass.

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Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Spencer swings into the airport, picks up Cami, and then sets out for a long drive to her father’s house well outside of the city. During the drive Nader does a good job making us as uncomfortable as Cami. That’s because Spencer comes off as a creep, making awkward small talk, asking prying questions, and attempting jokes that no socially cognitive person would ever try. At the same time Spencer is never overtly aggressive or threatening. So the question becomes is he really dangerous or is the movie intentionally trying to throw us off.

*Note to all horror movie characters: If you use a GPS expect bad things to happen. That’s definitely the case here. Spencer follows his GPS down a gravel road that winds through a dense forest. Suddenly his phone zaps out and his car dies. An apprehensive Cami thinks it’s all an act while Spencer swears to the contrary. Aside from the eerie things that begin happening in the woods around them, Nader keeps the suspicion and mistrust between his two stranded characters his focal point. At least until a creepy old lady on a tractor pulls up and tells them they have been marked by a schlocky terror called the Toll Man. And the only way off his road is to pay him…in blood.

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Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

You would think this would lead to some meaty horror mythology where we learn of the Toll Man, his background, his motivations, etc. But actually we get none of that. Instead we just see the tall, slender, pointy-fingered being with a bag over his head terrorizing Cami and Spencer, mostly through life-like visions that poke at past traumas. Heavy references to suicide, child abuse, rape, and victim-shaming all come up but not in a way that adds much weight to either character. Just as a way to prod Cami and Spencer and drive them to do the Toll Man’s bidding. Meanwhile the poorly defined Toll Man himself is left as this ambiguous nothing. He and his minions have the horror movie look, but I never understood them or their existence.

One thing “The Toll” does really well is create atmosphere. The genre has already established that ‘nighttime in the woods’ is a great horror setting. Nader knows this and utilizes it to great effect. His camera choices and especially his strategic use of lighting give the film an uneasy kick. Unfortunately it’s the story that runs out of gas right when it should be picking up. The intro is tense and suspenseful, but by the end it’s inability to sell or even explain its big baddie left me questioning the point of the entire second half. “The Toll” is now streaming on VOD.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Tom & Jerry” (2021)

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You can count me among the many who grew up watching “Tom and Jerry”. Not the countless straight to DVD feature films, but the classic Hanna and Barbera shorts that have played and replayed for decades. And as a testament to their timelessness, my two kids (both in their upper teens now) latched onto the cat and mouse rivals when they were children, cackling at their wacky hijinks and watching them whenever they were on television.

This latest iteration of the titular slapstick duo has been in the works since 2009. Created as a live-action/computer-animated mash-up, “Tom & Jerry” is helmed by director Tom Story. The story takes place in New York City where all animals (and only animals) are animated. Don’t ask me why. I really have no idea. Weird singing pigeons, elephants, peacocks, a bengal tiger, and of course Thomas D. Cat and Jerome A. Mouse, all vividly animated and melded into the real-world setting. Right off the bat you notice the animation as one of the film’s strengths (except for the annoying pigeons but that’s enough about them).

You might think Tom and Jerry would be the stars of their own movie but that’s not the case. In fact they often play second fiddle to the human characters, namely Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz). She’s a down-on-her-luck twenty-something who has lost her job but fibs her way into a temporary position at New York City’s Royal Gate Hotel. She wins the trust of the hotel’s manager Rob Delaney but catches the ire of Terrance (Michael Peña), the event manager and the film’s human antagonist. What’s funny is that he’s also the only person smart enough to recognize how ridiculous things become.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

It turns out the Royal Gate is set to host the proverbial ‘Wedding of the Century‘ between high society socialites Ben (Colin Jost) and Preeta (Pallavi Sharda). Preparations are underway but are instantly threatened when both Tom and Jerry arrive. Unfortunately we only get their signature chaotic mayhem in a few small bursts and in ways that only seems to serve the human characters and their stories. The film is mostly focused on Kayla who’s tasked with removing the mouse problem once Jerry moves into the hotel. And what better way to impress management and secure full-time employment than getting rid of the rodent and saving the big wedding? So she hires Tom to discreetly help. Guess how that goes.

So basically Tom and Jerry end up relegated to supporting duty for the trite and shallow human stories. In fairness asking two non-speaking animated characters who were at their best doing six-minute shorts to carry a movie like this is a tall order. But this movie needs more of them. Still “Tom & Jerry” does have a playful spirit which young kids will enjoy and it scatters a few giggles along the way which keep it from being too dry. And while this is no “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, the classic 2-D animation is a warm and nostalgic touch. If only those pesky (and boring) human characters would have stayed out of the way. “Tom & Jerry” is now showing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” (2020)

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I can honestly say I had no idea what to expect from “The True Adventures of Wolfboy”. I mean let’s be honest, its title alone lends itself to a wide range of expectations and conjecture. But the emotionally rich opening ten minutes let me know I had misjudged this coming-of-age indie. I’m not saying it’s without flaws, but don’t let it’s curious title fool you. “Wolfboy” has a heart and a message that will resonate with many. I just wish the second half was a little more sure-footed and the finish as impacting as the beginning.

The opening scene hints that “Wolfboy” is more than your standard fare. A 13-year-old boy named Paul (Jaeden Martell of “It” fame) looks into a mirror desperately trying but failing to convince himself that he’s “a normal boy”. Paul has “a condition” that causes thick hair to grow all over his body including his face. As a result he’s considered an outcast and subjected to constant ridicule and bullying. It’s so bad Paul wears a ski mask to hide his face. It’s a heartbreaking scenario especially when it becomes clear the cruelty is taking a toll.

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Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Paul’s mother ran away after he was born leaving his father Denny (Chris Messina) to raise him. Denny clearly loves his son, but his well-meaning yet misguided “help” clearly isn’t working. Things like asking Paul to take off his mask at a crowded carnival so he can stand up for himself against the inevitable reactions he will get. Or offering to send him off to a private school for ‘special’ kids. It’s one of those cases of a father who never seems able to say the right thing. Meanwhile Denny is growing more and more frustrated at his inability to make things better for his son.

On his birthday a mysterious package arrives for Paul. Inside is a note from his mother claiming that answers await him at a Pennsylvania address whenever he’s ready. A flustered Paul grabs a map and sneaks away from home, heading to the Keystone State in hopes of finding his mother and the happiness that has long escaped him. But he quickly learns that it’s the journey itself which opens up the world to him and sets him on his path of true self-discovery.

It’s here that director Martin Krejčí and screenwriter Olivia Dufault shift to a road trip movie of sorts, introducing several unique characters for Paul to encounter along the way. First he has a run-in with a slimy, opportunistic carnival owner named Mr. Silk (John Turturro). After that he’s befriended and joined by the enigmatic Aristiana (Sophie Giannamore), a hard to figure out character who sometimes seems more fantasy than real. And later he meets a hellion named Rose (Eve Hewson) who sports a killer eye-patch and has a penchant for robbing convenient stores. For Paul it ends up being an adventure full of firsts.

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Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

The ragtag group of new friends bounce from place to place on the road to Pennsylvania. It’s here that the movie hits a few snags. While the group’s antics convey a sense of liberation for Paul, the scattershot storytelling causes the film to lose some of its intimacy. Characters have some worthwhile moments together, but they’re often bookended by more playful yet far less compelling scenes. As a result the tone of the story ends up all over the place. It takes Paul reaching his destination for us to once again feel the same deep emotional draw as in the film’s earliest scenes.

Great talents like Chloe Sevigny and Stephen McKinley Henderson show up later in the film and are given pivotal roles but little screen time. Still both bring a needed gravitas to their characters and the story which ultimately plays out as part reality, part fairytale. The two don’t always meld together as smoothly as the filmmakers would like, but I admire its willingness to try new things even if they don’t always land. “The True Adventures of “Wolfboy” premieres October 30th on VOD.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (2020)

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In one way Aaron Sorkin is the perfect person to make a meaty courtroom drama about the notorious Chicago Seven. The accomplished wordsmith is more than capable of covering such a dense story and its numerous players. On the other hand Sorkin has never been shy about his firm political leanings, and this particular subject (especially in our current hyper-partisan climate) could offer temptations too tempting for him to pass up.

Sorkin’s new film “The Trial of the Chicago 7” proves to be a bit of both. It’s an enthralling, fast-moving and at times unexpectedly funny courtroom drama. At the same time you never doubt where Sorkin’s sympathies lie and history occasionally takes a backseat to the film’s obvious relevance-seeking predilections.

First slated as a Paramount Pictures big screen release before being sold to Netflix, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” follows a group (originally made up of eight and then eventually seven) of anti-Vietnam War and counterculture protesters who were arrested and charged with conspiracy and inciting riots (among other things) at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. They were considered leaders of various anti-establishment groups with diverse backgrounds and motivations – political activists, flower children, anarchists, and revolutionary socialists. Their reputations put them in the sites of the authorities and made them quick targets for the already defensive state and local governments.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Sorkin tells the story completely from the points-of-view of the eight men charged and their supporters. Outside of a brief table-setting opening montage and a handful of flashbacks, the entire film is set in and around the courtroom. Sorkin puts a strong spotlight on the gross mishandling of the proceedings by a biased Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) even throwing in some fictional demonizing as if history needed it. He also shows the sheer circus the trial became in large part due to Judge Hoffman’s unconstitutional antics, but equally due to the showmanship of the defendants, specifically from yippie leader Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen).

The story proper begins with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Richard Schultz, a young, idealistic federal prosecutor handpicked by the Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) to get a conviction in the trial against the activists. Schultz is one of the only people outside the protesters circle with the slightest bit of nuance. He’s essentially a government pawn but he’s also the only one who sees the potential risks of prosecuting this particular case. “We are giving them exactly what they want” he warns his boss, “a stage and an audience.”

Across from him is defense attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), a radical lawyer and activist who knows the law and quickly begins to realize the deck is stacked against him. He has the toughest job of any – defending in a trial ripe with corruption while trying to keep his motley band of clients on the same page. The wild card is Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). He’s the eighth man with no real attachment to the other seven but connected by the government solely so the feds can target the Panthers. Stripped of his constitutional rights and dehumanized in the very courtroom that should stand for justice, Seale’s plight is the most tragic.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Rounding out the film’s plump star-studded cast: Eddie Redmayne is shaky in places but mostly solid playing disaffected leftist cage-rattler Tom Hayden. John Carroll Lynch is a nice fit playing non-violent socialist activist and family guy David Dellinger. Michael Keaton gets a small but welcomed role playing former Attorney General Ramsey Clark. The one flatline performance comes from the usually solid Jeremy Strong. He seems out of sync playing hippie counterculture radical Jerry Rubin. He both underplays and overplays several scenes and never quite feels comfortable with his approach to his character. Still, the biggest head-turners are Cohen and Langella. Oscar nominations wouldn’t be undeserved.

Sorkin’s snappy pacing and signature rapid-fire dialogue zips us through the story, giving us a good sense of the legal turmoil while providing plenty of memorable character moments. As you would expect from a Sorkin film, most of the dialogue is whip-smart and flows with an energetic rhythm that keeps you honed in on every exchange. But surprisingly there are instances where it can come across as stilted and self-conscious. Characters will drop lines that feel custom written for a movie scene rather than natural to the story. And then there’s the ending, a rushed “notice me Oscar” finish that lays on the melodrama complete with swelling orchestration. Considering everything the film does well, the ending resembles something packaged from an awards-conscious studio.

Unfortunately in an effort to venerate his protagonists Sorkin ends up robbing his film of its true-story complexities. The Chicago Seven weren’t without blemishes – Rubin’s affection for Charles Manson, Hoffman’s cocaine dealing, Kunstler’s rogues gallery of clients. And while Sorkin tosses in a ten-second clip of Rubin and Hoffman teaching followers how to make Molotov cocktails, there’s really nothing morally complex about them. Sorkin writes a very white hat/black hat tale that leaves practically nothing for us to wrestle with. Still, he’s a good enough writer to energize the many characters and tell a mesmerizing story even if it’s only a subjective CliffsNotes version.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars