REVIEW: “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” (2022)

A clear front-runner for the most self-aware movie of 2022 has to be the ridiculously (yet hilariously) titled “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent”. Perhaps best described as a Nicolas Cage satire starring Nicolas Cage, this unashamedly gonzo cocktail sees the 58-year-old Hollywood enigma having a field day poking fun at his own strange and impossible-to-define movie career. At least for the first half of the movie where it milks all it can out of its central conceit. After that we’re left with a pretty by-the-numbers second half. And ‘by-the-numbers’ was the last thing I expected from this movie.

You could say “Unbearable Weight” is the ultimate cash-in for an actor often cited for his many cash-in performances. But in many ways Nicolas Cage has transcended any and all labels. Sure he has starred in a ton of low budget, straight to VOD schlock. But then he’ll surprise us with an out-of-the-blue performance that reminds us that he’s an Academy Award winning actor. But what endears him most to audiences is how openly he embraces the mythos surrounding his four decade-long career. Nothing shows that clearer than this movie.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

The problem is “Unbearable Weight” expends all of its wacky creative energy in its first half. This is when the movie is at its funniest, lampooning Nicholas Cage’s peculiar claim to stardom. And Cage is 110% in on the joke which is what makes is so fun. But it reaches a point where the humor dries up and the semi-serious turn it takes in the second half just doesn’t have the pull or the allure of the earlier nuttiness.

Directed by Tom Gormican, the movie opens with Cage riding through Los Angeles in his classic black Ferrari with Credence blasting through his speakers. He looks on top of the world, but the truth is quite different. His obsession with his work has driven a wedge between him and his daughter Addy (Lily Sheen) and his ex-wife Olivia (Sharon Horgan) has had enough. To make matters worse, he’s lost out on the “role of a lifetime” and the only gig his agent (Neil Patrick Harris) can muster is an appearance at a birthday party for a billionaire superfan named Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal).

Despite its $1 million payout, Nic turns down the party to wait for more serious offers befitting a thespian of his ‘massive talent’. But he ends up accepting the gig after he’s locked out of his hotel suite for racking up a $600,000. Disgruntled and dejected, Nic vows to retire from acting once he’s back home.

He arrives at Javi’s mediterranean island villa and meets his host who is charming, a bit starstruck, and even a little creepy. It turns out he wants to make a movie with the legendary Nicolas Cage. Nic finds the whole thing a little weird, but he and Javi form a creative bond that neither was expecting. Before long Nic is second guessing his decision to quit acting. But those good vibes start to sour after Nic is secretly approached by two generic and consistently unfunny CIA operatives played by Ike Barinholtz and Tiffany Haddish. They claim Javi is the head of a global arms cartel and is responsible for kidnapping a Catalonian president’s daughter.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Suddenly Nic Cage is caught in-between a dangerous crime family and the US government. It sounds like pure craziness, and to the film’s credit it starts that way. We get scenes playing off of that signature Cage madness. And the absurdity of Nic and Javi’s friendship (culminating in a pretty hilarious acid trip sequence) is just what is advertises. But then the movie becomes something I was never expecting – conventional. The last 30 minutes or so turns into a fairly flat buddy action movie with a little family drama thrown in on the side. It’s such a jarring departure from what made the first half entertaining.

So “Unbearable Weight” truly is a tale of two movies with one being significantly better than the other. There are good moments of unhinged zaniness, cool throwback mentions of past Cage movies like “Face/Off”, “Gone in 60 Seconds”, “National Treasure” and even “Guarding Tess”, and a really good meta performance of Cage playing Cage. But sadly it’s shortcomings even things out. The dialogue can be hysterical one minute and pointlessly crass the next. The entire CIA angle feels like a wasted opportunity. And in the final act things turn surprisingly dull. It’s unfortunate but also kinda fitting for a fascinating career that has quite literally been all over the map. “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Success” is out now in theaters.


REVIEW: “Uncharted” (2022)

There’s really no need to rehash the long and painful history of video game movies. For various reasons, video games just haven’t translated well to the big screen. At first, there wasn’t enough to the games to warrant a film version (movies like “Super Mario Bros” and “Street Fighter” are prime examples). These days video games offer more than enough content to fill a movie yet filmmakers still struggle to get them right. Now there’s a stigma attached and many critics are quick to dismiss any movie that carries the ‘video game adaptation’ tag.

Yet these adaptations still keep coming. One reason is because video game developers have become incredible storytellers. Countless video games thrust their players into immersive narrative-driven experiences on par with all other story-based entertainment. These worlds, characters, relationships, and adventures offer plenty of big screen inspiration. It’s the execution part that trips filmmakers up.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

The latest game-to-movie adaptation is “Uncharted”, a sprawling action-adventure based on the Sony PlayStation franchise of the same name from game developer Naughty Dog. It’s helmed by Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”, “Venom”) who was handed a whopping $120 million budget from Sony Pictures to finally make a movie that’s been in various stages of development for 15 years.

The game and now the movie’s chief protagonist is Nathan Drake, an ambitious treasure hunter and descendant of famed 16th century explorer Sir Francis Drake. Here, Nathan is played by Tom Holland who gives us a noticeably younger version of the character. He fits the story (penned by Rafe Lee Judkins, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway) even if not everything about his character makes sense. That’s because the movie rushes through his backstory, confining it to a brief prologue and a couple of exposition drops. That helps get right to the action, but it also leaves Nathan feeling a bit shallow.

Getting by as a part-time bartender and a part-time pickpocket, Nathan’s true love is history. He learned it from his older brother Sam who took off 15 years earlier. Sam swore to come back and get Nathan but never did. I believe that’s meant to be a point of conflict within Nathan, but (as with so much of the movie) there’s very little time given to the emotions of the characters. I think Holland gets to shed a tear in one scene, but otherwise none of the characters ever get to convey any deeper feelings.

One evening Nathan is approached by seasoned treasure hunter, Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg) who tells him about the lost gold of explorer Ferdinand Magellan. Sully thinks he has found the key to discovering the gold’s location, but he needs Nathan’s help. Despite his love for history and his dreams of adventure, Nathan is reluctant to sign on. But when Sully mentions his past connections with Sam (who was also after Magellan’s loot) Nathan agrees to come, thinking if he finds the gold he may find his brother.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Of course with such noteworthy treasure still undiscovered there are sure to be other parties on the hunt. Enter Santiago Moncada, a wealthy and quite ruthless Spaniard who has long had his sights on Magellan’s gold. He’s played by the always good but (here) woefully underutilized Antonio Banderas, who gets to do a little mustache twirling but never gets to fully extend himself as the antagonist. And there are other people in the mix including Moncada’s hired mercenary Braddock (Tati Gabrielle) and Sully’s untrusting colleague Chloe (Sophia Ali).

As the movie hops from New York to Barcelona to the Philippines, we get a couple of big set pieces, a few fight scenes, and lots of parkour. We get questions of loyalty as the old ‘honor among thieves’ mantra pops up again and again. And of course there are a handful of Easter eggs that people who haven’t played the game will never get – a naughty dog decal stuck on a trunk, Nolan North (the voice actor who plays Nathan in the games) lounging on the beach, etc.

“Uncharted” really leans on its star power, especially Holland who plays a very Holland-like character – charismatic, boyishly charming, a bit daffy, and with an unshakable innocence (even when he tries to talk tough). Wahlberg is a sturdy fit for an otherwise one-dimensional role and Gabrielle has quite the screen presence. Unfortunately the story keeps them all tightly confined in their genre roles as the movie checks off the typical boxes. No one is allowed to really dig deeper into these characters. Still there’s enough entertainment packaged into this otherwise conventional action flick to offer a nice two-hour escape.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Sadly, many critics will automatically lump “Uncharted” in with all the other video game movies. And they’ll examine it first and foremost through that particularly sour and jaded lens. So right out of the gate the movie is forced to tote baggage it shouldn’t have to. In reality, there’s nothing about “Uncharted” that screams “video game adaptation”. It’s an action-adventure movie that borrows more from Bond and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” than some video game movie formula.

So with that said, how does “Uncharted” play as a MOVIE – no qualifiers or categories. In a nutshell, it does what it sets out to do. It’s entertaining enough with a couple of set pieces that really pop on the big screen. The banter between Holland and Wahlberg is fun although it does run its course. It’s all far-fetched and silly and relies on a lot of conveniences to propel its story forward. But whatever, “Uncharted” gets by and is worth a watch for genre fans and fans of the characters. It’s not a movie you’ll revisit over and over again, but it’s also not the train wreck some will be quick to label it as. “Uncharted” is now showing in theaters.


REVIEW: “The Unforgivable” (2021)

Sandra Bullock transforms in the new Netflix film “The Unforgivable”, a drama based on a 2009 British miniseries penned by Sally Wainwright. The story centers around a woman trying to get her life back together after serving 20 years in prison for murdering a local sheriff. This is a showcase for Bullock who gets a nice meaty role to sink her teeth into. And while the story may unravel a bit in the end, Bullock’s performance is rock solid from start to finish.

The film marks the English language feature film debut for director Nora Fingscheidt. First announced back in 2010, “The Unforgivable” originally had Angelina Jolie attached to star and Christopher McQuarrie from the “Mission: Impossible” franchise set to write the script. But much changed in the nine years that followed with Fingscheidt and Bullock eventually coming onboard. They prove to be a good pair.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Bullock plays Ruth Slater who we first meet as she’s being released from prison. She’s met by her parole officer Vince Cross (the always great Rob Morgan) who goes over the conditions of her release and then drives her to an uninviting halfway house in Seattle’s Chinatown district. She learned carpentry while in prison, but she can’t escape the “cop killer” label and every construction job she applies for turns her down. So she ends up hacking up fish at a fish factory.

It doesn’t take much to see that Ruth is a complicated individual. Fingscheidt gives a lot of attention to her struggle to plug back into society. Her hardened exterior leads us to believe she’s tough enough to handle whatever she’s forced to face. But underneath the lack of connection begins to take its toll. Bullock does a great job conveying her character’s grit and her vulnerability.

But it’s Ruth’s past that tells us the most about her. Fingscheidt sprinkles in brief flashbacks that are like puzzle pieces, revealing the details of the event to sent Ruth to prison. We learn she had a five-year-old sister named Katherine who was present when she killed the sheriff. Now a young woman in her early twenties, Katherine (Aisling Franciosi) lives with her loving foster parents Michael and Rachel Malcolm (Richard Thomas and Linda Emond). She remembers nothing about her old life, but she does have these fragments of memory that she’s unable to decipher.

Despite a very firm “no contact” order from the court, Ruth immediately sets out to reconnect with Katherine or at least to find out if she’s okay. On her journey she encounters a number of people including Liz and John Ingram (Viola Davis and Vincent D’Onofrio), the couple who now own Ruth’s old house. She also meets Blake (Jon Bernthal), her super chatty co-worker at the fish plant who immediately takes a liking to her.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

But there’s also Steve (Will Pullen) and Keith (Tom Guiry), the two embittered sons of the man Ruth killed. A flat and hard to buy side-story about the two brothers slowly unfolds, doing more to distract than add compelling layers to the story. Their angle is a misfire that never feels in tune with the rest of the movie.

Most of story (written by the trio of Peter Craig, Hillary Seitz, and Courtenay Miles) does a good job weaving in the numerous supporting characters. Some play bigger parts in Ruth’s journey while others only have bit parts (I would have loved more of Viola Davis). But it all comes back to Bullock who pours herself into her role, physically and emotionally embodying a character full of complexities. And while the ending undermines much of the gritty authenticity from earlier in the film, Bullock’s performance keeps us centered while reminding us of how good she can be with the right material. “The Unforgivable” premieres on Netflix December 10th.


REVIEW: “Undine” (2021)

Needless to say my expectations for the new Christian Petzold film were through the roof. The German filmmaker’s last two movies, 2014’s “Phoenix” and 2018’s “Transit”, are both snugly among my favorites from the last decade. His latest “Undine” has finally come to the States courtesy of IFC Films. And while it might not pack the punch of his meatier predecessors, there’s still a lot to like about this beguiling romantic fantasy.

“Undine” is as enigmatic as it’s titular character; a movie that moves to the rhythms of a love story but that has much more simmering under its surface. It’s a fairytale of sorts that keeps one foot firmly planted in the real world while routinely blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. What story we get is built around a captivating yet elusive mystery that hints at the mythological and supernatural. But Petzold is a crafty filmmaker who blends an assortment of ideas underneath his film’s rather simple facade.

Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

The movie opens on a woman named Undine (as played by new Petzold favorite Paula Beer), her very name hearkening back to an old European myth and offering us our first hint of what the movie may be going for. We see her sitting at a café getting the news from her boyfriend Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) that he has been unfaithful. He’s ready to end their relationship but she hits him with a inauspicious warning, “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you. You know that.” It’s a startling caveat that could be born out of either heartbreak or obligation. Petzold takes his time revealing which.

Undine orders Johannes to wait at the café as she goes across the street to the city museum where she works as a historian and guide. There she gives talks to out-of-towners on the history of Berlin’s urban development, something that Petzold slyly sews into the fabric of his story. You can tell Undine has given her presentation countless times before, but this time her mind is clearly back at the café with Johannes. By the time she gets back Johannes is gone but she does meet Christoph (Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver and underwater welder who attended and was taken by Undine’s talk.

After what turns out to be a soggy first meeting, a spark is ignited that quickly puts thoughts of Johannes out of Undine’s mind. Beer and Rogowski have a sparkling chemistry and their warm and simple romance, though clouded with a tinge of doom, takes Petzold’s story in a unique direction. When we first meet Undine she can barely hold back tears. With Christoph she gets to re-experience something akin to happiness as their romance unfolds through a series sweet and tender meetings.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

But this is a Christian Petzold film meaning there is an underside to the story waiting to be unearthed. Several other of the filmmaker’s interests can be found throughout the movie such as his affection for history and having the past and present rub shoulders in a number of compelling ways. All of it together defies any traditional reading of the film which all but ensures this won’t be a commercial success. But fans of Petzold’s distinctive oeuvre will find plenty to admire even if his latest doesn’t reach the heights of his previous films.

“Undine” challenges its audience to wonder while allowing us plenty of room to make our own conclusions. The film’s restraint is both remarkable and curious. In one sense you can’t help but appreciate the quiet subtleties of Petzold’s storytelling and the trust he places in his audience. In another sense you can’t help but wish he had went deeper and pushed us even more. The emotional closeups, the beautifully framed shots of the city, the haunting blue-green underwater scenes – they all immerse us into a world as romantic as it is mystifying. And with Beer and Rogowski so perfectly rooted at the movie’s core, it’s hard not to get lost in Petzold’s wonderfully murky fantasy. “Undine” opens June 4th in theaters and on VOD.


REVIEW: “The Unholy” (2021)


While this year’s movie releases have clearly been affected by the pandemic, there has been no shortage of horror movies in early 2021. One of the latest is the new Sam Raimi produced supernatural horror flick “The Unholy”. The film marks the directorial debut for Evan Spiliotopoulos who also wrote and co-produced this adaptation of James Herbert’s 1983 best-selling novel “Shrine”.

“The Unholy” sees Jeffrey Dean Morgan playing a very Jeffrey Dean Morgan character. He stars as Gerry Fenn, a disgraced Boston journalist and overall slimeball who lost his job and credibility fudging facts to spice up a news story. Now he’s forced to take any small freelance assignment he can get just to make ends meet. And that’s what leads him to Banfield, a small and cozy central Massachusetts town with a warm welcome sign that reads “A little piece of God’s country”. He’s there to report on claims of mutilated livestock by area farmers. When one is quick to attribute it to Satanists having “unholy orgies”, Gerry realizes his trip was a bust.

But before he leaves town something potentially newsworthy happens. An 18-year-old hearing-impaired girl named Alice (Cricket Brown) who has never uttered a word in her life shocks the small town when she suddenly speaks. Not only that, but she can now hear and she seems to possess the gift of divine healing. Alice claims to have been touched by the Virgin Mary and begins relaying messages from “the Lady” to the local Catholic congregation. Gerry smells a story and more importantly for him a chance to reignite his career.


Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

But remember, this is a horror movie so of course things aren’t quite what they seem. Alice’s “miracles” soon gets national attention and believers flock to Banfield. Even the Vatican takes notice and begin their own investigation to either confirm or debunk the miracle. During it all Gerry is given exclusive access to Alice, something that starts as an opportunist’s dream but soon opens his eyes to his own self-absorption.

The movie’s slow-burning buildup turns out to be considerably better than its iffy ending which for several reasons doesn’t quite pass the smell test. Along the way Spiliotopoulos manages to capture some chilling imagery and pretty good horror movie atmosphere. But too often the tension feels manufactured and it’s pretty easy to see how some of the scenes are going to play out. And if jump scares aren’t your thing, beware. There aren’t a ton of them but enough to cheapen what could have been some of the movie’s spookier scenes.

Some fun faces pop up in supporting roles including William Sadler as the haggard town priest and Alice’s uncle. And Carl Ewes plays a church-sanctioned investigator sent by the Vatican to comb over and evaluate Alice’s miracle. Small treats aside, “The Unholy” ends up being a pretty vanilla horror movie. It starts with promise but hits too many familiar beats and can’t fully stick its landing. It’s far from terrible, but it’s an example of a movie built around some good ideas but not really sure how to bring them all together. “The Unholy” opens tomorrow (April 2nd) in theaters.



REVIEW: “Unhinged” (2020)


Movie theaters all around the country are welcoming back audiences with “Unhinged”, long advertised as the first major new release to come out on the big screen in five months. After several delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, the movie is finally set to open exclusively in theaters this weekend. “Unhinged” is a road-rage thriller from director Derrick Borte and writer Carl Ellsworth that starts off with a pulpy bang, foregoing all niceties and getting right to the dirty work of putting a face to its title.

In its terrific tone-setting opening, we see a man played by Russell Crowe sitting in his pickup truck as rain pours down from the night sky. He looks haggard and empty – his nerves clearly shot. He pops some pills, pulls off his wedding band and flicks it over his shoulder. With a sudden glance of calm resolution, he steps out into the downpour, pulls a long claw hammer and a gas can from his backseat and walks to the front door of a two-story suburban home. The violence that follows firmly sets him as the film’s antagonist and all before the title hits the screen.


Photo Courtesy of Solstice Studios

That shocking prologue puts “Unhinged” in an interesting place. It’s a rousing, savage introduction that sets high expectations which the rest of the movie works hard trying to reach (it never quite does). One thing is for sure, Borte’s shrewd table-setting gets its hooks in the audience and Crowe’s grim manifestation of modern society’s festering angst, fury, and incivility leaves you glued to the screen.

Not wanting to overplay its ‘crazy man’ hand, the movie pivots to its main story. Recently divorced Rachel (Caren Pistorius) has hit rock-bottom, struggling financially while trying to take care of her young son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman). After oversleeping she speeds through the dense traffic of an unnamed city (filmed in and around New Orleans) to get her frustrated son to school on time. “Three tardies is an automatic detention” Kyle grumbles, used to his mother’s perpetual lateness.

Rachel pulls up behind a pickup at a traffic light. The light turns green but the truck doesn’t budge. A stressed Rachel lays on her horn and swerves around followed by an angry flip of her hand. At the next light the truck pulls beside her, the man from the prologue in the driver’s seat. He rolls down his window and explains that he’s been having a rough go and apologizes demanding Rachel do the same. When he doesn’t get the response he’s looking for his poorly veiled indignation boils over. “I don’t think you even know what a bad day is.” he seethes. “But you’re gonna find out.”

The encounter sets the single-minded story in motion as the deranged madman terrorizes Rachel for the duration of the movie’s running time. The man (who calls himself Tom Cooper in one scene but is hardly convincing) follows Rachel around the city, actually getting her phone at one point and threatening to kill her loved ones. “Who’s going to die? Or do you want me to play Russian roulette with your contact list?” Borte squeezes out everything he can from the simple story, cranking the tension level to 10 and not shying away from amping up the gruesome nature of the violence.


Photo Courtesy of Solstice Studios

Pistorius makes for a solid protagonist, ably portraying a single mother down on her luck but not without her own shortcomings. She’s steadily convincing whether conveying abject terror or mama bear grit when protecting her son. But it’s Crowe who takes no time reminding us of his A-list acting chops. We know from the chilling opening that his character has more going on than a simple case of the Mondays. But Crowe goes all-in, bulling through scenes with sadistic blunt force. He’s the one people will be talking about.

“Unhinged” is a simple yet satisfying thriller that by the end turns into full-on maniacal horror. Its simplicity is its biggest flaw. While the film aggressively barrels forward, it sticks to its one single lane and never taking a detour. You know where it’s going to end. Still the trip there is worthwhile in large part thanks to Crowe and the unsettling menace he brings to the screen. You never doubt his character’s burning hatred towards everything living including himself. It’s great to see Crowe in top form once again. “Unhinged” opens Friday only in theaters.