REVIEW: “Vanquish” (2021)

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A cool idea can go a long way in making a good movie. But rarely is a movie good solely because of a cool idea. That speaks to the biggest problem with “Vanquish”, the new crime thriller directed and co-written by George Gallo. The movie’s snappy premise is action movie junk food, the perfect scenario for wild car chases, shoot-outs, and all sorts of cinematic mayhem. It’s the pieces around it that ends up dragging the whole thing down.

Although he’s been working pretty steady for over three decades, George Gallo is probably still known best as the screenwriter for “Midnight Run” and the first “Bad Boys” movie. With “Vanquish” he takes budding action star Ruby Rose and teams her with screen veteran Morgan Freeman. Both prove to be more than capable of pulling their weight and selling their roles. It’s the unconvincing supporting characters around them and the wafer-thin story that squashes any potential. It ends up being a movie all about the action beats and not much else.

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Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

A lengthy opening credits scene introduces us to Freeman’s character. He plays Damon Hickey, a highly decorated former police detective who later became known as “America’s Police Commissioner”. But then he was gunned down on the front steps of his home by a drug cartel seeking retribution. He survived the attempted hit but was left paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Now he lives in a posh ultra-modern home where he’s visited daily by his caregiver, a young single mom named Vicky (Rose).

It doesn’t take long for us to learn that “America’s Police Commissioner” has a dark side. It turns out he runs a shady crew of dirty cops and they have their hands in some ugly underworld business. But good luck making much sense of it. Unfortunately it’s all pretty muddled and woefully underwritten. Basically you have dirty cops and dirtier cops, a crooked federal agent and an angry German drug-runner with a vendetta. More importantly, Damon has five bags of money at different locations around the city and he needs someone he can trust to make the pickups. So he asks Vicky to dust off some lethal skills from her past that she has tried to bury and retrieve his cash. And just to make sure she falls in line, Damon has Vicky’s daughter kidnapped until all five pickups are complete.

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Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

For the sake of her daughter, Vicky reluctantly agrees. The movie then becomes a series of five action-laced encounters as she picks up a bag of money, has it out with some double-crossing baddies, and takes the cash back to Damon who then gives her the address for the next pickup. In between we get snippets of a broader story about police corruption but it’s so insubstantial you won’t even care. You’ll want more of Ruby Rose cutting through thugs with her pistols as Freeman keeps tabs through her body-cam. The two have a good chemistry and do what they can to keep the film afloat.

But ultimately “Vanquish” needs more than a fun action loop and two well-tuned stars. Gallo tries to spruce things up with the few stylish flourishes, such as bathing several scenes in fluorescent greens and blues, or by occasionally shifting to first-person view when Vicky is zipping through the night on her motorcycle. But the bland band of supporting players and the even more forgettable story (complete with a preposterous ending) are liabilities too big to overcome. “Vanquish” opens April 16th on VOD.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Voyagers” (2021)

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Some science-fiction junkies like me might be tempted to approach the new film “Voyagers” with a touch of caution. The movie’s first trailer showed off a fairly interesting premise and a cast rich with sparkling young talent. And then you have the description going around calling it “Lord of the Flies in space” which only added to the intrigue. Yet there was one nagging concern – an inescapable YA novel vibe that made it hard to get a handle on what kind of movie it was going to be.

“Voyagers” is written and directed by Neil Burger whose last movie was 2017’s “The Upside”, an American remake of the far superior French buddy drama “The Intouchables”. Originally slated for last year, “Voyagers” was bounced from its November 2020 release date by COVID-19 but finally opens in theaters this weekend. His latest has no shortage of big ideas and it asks some thought-provoking questions. At the same time you can’t help but think a deeper and slightly darker version of this movie would give some of its themes even more bite.

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Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

The movie is built upon the tried-and-true sci-fi premise of earth in peril and humanity needing to find a new home. In 2063 scientists find one, a planet believed to be suitable for colonization. But first they’ll need to send out a scouting mission to verify its habitability. It’s calculated to take 86 years to reach the new planet meaning the crew would never live to see the fruit of the labors. So earth’s scientists breed their own crew, bio-engineered with enhanced intelligence and pumped full of emotion suppressors. The idea is that once they are of age, the capable yet emotionally detached crew would reproduce during the voyage so that their grandchildren can one day set foot on the new world (not convinced of the math but that’s how the movie explains it). What could go wrong?

A reserved Colin Farrell plays Richard, the saturnine father figure, schoolmaster and chaperone for the thirty or so children as they go through education, training, and are eventually launched into space. Burger wastes no time bumping us up ten years into the mission which is where most of the story plays out. The young kids are now young adults coldly going about their work duties. Then two inquisitive crew members Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead) discover the blue drink they consume as part of their daily routine contains a drug used for “impulse control”. It keeps the crew docile and focused; suppressing emotions, sexual urges, and so on.

From there it becomes pretty easy to see where Burger’s metaphor-heavy story is going. It quickly morphs into a compelling although sanitized case study on human nature, ugly warts and all. Christopher and Zac secretly stop taking the drug and are slowly introduced to a plethora of new emotions. The two friends handle these fresh feelings differently as seen clearest in their mutual attraction to young medical officer Sela (an effectively understated Lily-Rose Depp). As more crew members come off “the Blue”, previously untapped feelings of passion, jealousy, and aggression arise. Some handle it with restraint while others revert to the most primal of instincts. Soon factions form pitting rule versus anarchy and just like that humanity’s hope for a new society starts to crumble.

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Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

It’s hard to dismiss the profusion of cool ideas and the sheer potential teases something magnificent. Watching the emergence of one young person’s leadership and another’s sociopathy says interesting things about the human condition and chemical stabilizers. Watching the crew splinter as they discover their inner selves poses thoughtful questions about morality and depravity. Yet as engaging as it is, “Voyagers” remains remarkably subdued, easily fitting within its PG-13 rating but leaving so much unexplored. The movie makes its points and the symbolism is easy to decrypt. But far too much is left under the surface.

The film’s second half essentially tosses aside the cerebral suspense for a more action-thriller vibe (no doubt in hopes of grabbing a broader appeal). It ends up putting the cast in a tough spot, but committed performances from Sheridan, Depp, and Whitehead make it effortlessly watchable. The production design gives the ship a familiar yet elegant look with long sharply-lit halls and sterile suffocating spaces. But some visuals fall flat including a bland and uninspired spacewalk sequence and some of the most hilariously fake looking guns I’ve ever seen in a movie. It only reinforces the notion that “Voyagers” would have been better sticking to its semi-Kubrickian concepts. “Voyagers” opens tomorrow (April 9th) in theaters.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “The Vigil” (2021)

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In the upcoming indie chiller “The Vigil” a troubled young man encounters a malevolent spirit while watching over the body of deceased man from his Jewish community in Brooklyn. It’s a religious ritual where the person watching (called a shomer if male, a shomeret if female) both protects and comforts the deceased’s soul until time for burial. First time director Keith Thomas uses this Jewish practice as a catalyst in his small-scale supernatural horror film about the psychological ravages of oppressive guilt.

“The Vigil” premiered way back at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and has since released in a handful of markets. Now it has finally found its way to the States thanks to IFC Films. The troubled young man is Yakov (Dave Davis) who we first meet at a support group for struggling Jewish twenty-somethings who have left their Orthodox roots. He shares with the group his bad news of losing a job opportunity and of how his financial woes “having to choose between medication and meals“.

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Image Courtesy of IFC Films

As Yakov leaves the meeting he’s greeted by his former rabbi Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig) who’s in a pickle. He needs Yakov to fill in as a shomer for the recently deceased Mr. Litvak, a Holocaust survivor who lost his entire family in the concentration camps. After the war Mr. Litvak started a new family but the scars from his last drove him to become a recluse, estranged from his children and grandchildren. For the last several years he had stayed shut-up inside his home with his frail dementia-addled wife. The shomer who was there left in a panic. Reb Shulem needs Yakov to cover the final five hours until morning when Mr. Litvak is set to be buried.

Cash-strapped and a bit desperate, Yakov works his payment up to $400 and heads to the Litvak home. Most of the film takes place in this shadowy townhouse which Thomas uses to great effect. Within moments of settling in, Yakov begins hearing noises upstairs where Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen) is sleeping. The bumps, creaks and flickering lights are nothing compared to the horrifying visions that follow and intensify as the night goes on. Meanwhile Mr. Litvak’s body ominously lays in the living room covered in a sheet and bathed in an eerie off-white glow.

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Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Some of the film’s biggest strengths lies in Thomas’ ability to manage his unsettling tone while developing and sustaining a spooky atmosphere despite the constrictions of such a small setting. There is a time or two where he gives in and goes for some unneeded jump scares. They’re made worse by an uneven sound design that had me constantly adjusting the volume on my television. It’s as if in those few moments Thomas lost faith in his vision and went the cheap route. But thankfully those moments are few and the film’s deeper meaning quickly comes to the surface.

Over the course of the film we learn more about what drove Yakov to leave his Orthodox roots – a particular tragedy that has not only left him disillusioned but also burdened by guilt. The evil spirit in the house hones in on that weakness turning “The Vigil” into an unexpectedly compelling supernatural and psychological blend. And it’s all realized through a smart visual technique that centers on building its foreboding mood rather than leaning on blood-soaked special effects. So we end up with a crafty theme-conscious horror film with an interesting cultural perspective and mostly good instincts when it comes keeping its audience squirming. “The Vigil” premieres February 26th.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Valley Girl” (2020)

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For those hoping 2016’s “La La Land” was going to usher in a new era of Hollywood musicals, it hasn’t really panned out. The critically acclaimed, feel-good Oscar-winner was a fresh breeze from a bygone era, but there haven’t been a slew of movies following its lead. The new film “Valley Girl” does, but not in a way that will change the movie landscape. Still, it’s a light and breezy musical with a fun nostalgic tinge. I kinda liked it.

“Valley Girl” comes from director Rachel Lee Goldenberg working from a screenplay by Amy Talkington. Their film sits down in the heart of the 1980’s, the time of Guess jeans, leg warmers, and MTV (when it actually played music). It takes place in Southern California where a San Fernando Valley girl and a Hollywood punker cross zip codes to be together despite the steady objections from their vastly different sets of friends.

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Photo Courtesy of Orion Classics

The film stars 32-year-old Jessica Rothe who is still convincing playing a high school senior. Rothe is the real strength of the picture, delightful and full of charm and energy. She plays Julie, every bit a valley girl who loves shopping, fashion, and is fluent in all forms of Valleyspeak. She lives a comfortable, pampered life with her wealthy friends who are seemingly impervious to life outside of the Valley. Yet there are signs that Julie isn’t the snobby elitist some of her pals tend to be.

Just over the hills in Hollywood lies an entirely different world. That’s where Randy (Josh Whitehouse) lives, an aspiring punk rocker who is the antithesis of everything from the Valley. He fits the movie stereotype of every parent’s nightmare – he’s loud, rowdy, and has tons of family baggage. Oh, and there’s that whole punk rock thing which you know must mean he’s bad news.

The two opposites cross paths and there is an instant spark. Julie’s friends (Chloe Bennet, Mae Whitman, and Ashleigh Murray respectively) warn her that Randy is trouble and she should stick with her obnoxious bro-boyfriend Mickey (fittingly played by Logan Paul) who happens to be the toast of their high school. How someone so glaringly repellent and insufferable can be adored by students, teachers and parents is beyond me. Meanwhile Randy’s punk band members tell him he doesn’t belong with a rich, well-to-do valley girl and she’s sure to break his heart.

As it all plays out we get an assortment of 80’s pop inspired musical numbers. Almost inevitably we get the girlfriends singing Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. And there’s a sweet duet of A-Ha’s “Take on Me”. We also get some punk versions of “You Might Think” by The Cars, and Madonna’s “Crazy For You”. Strangely, the music numbers are more fun than actually good. They’ll have you singing along with a smile on your face, but you won’t be rushing out to buy the soundtrack.

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Photo Courtesy of Orion Classics

As a culture-clashing romance, “Valley Girl” is pretty predictable. None of the characters step out of their molds to offer much we haven’t seen before. But the cast is game, especially Rothe who had a small role in “La La Land” singing in one of the film’s best numbers. Here she shows the same charisma, while adding a dash of innocence and naïveté, which brings empathy to a character you can’t help but like.

The film opens with the line “Life was like a pop song, and we knew all the words.” It then goes on to show that no one really knows all the words and we should be learning new verses everyday. It’s one of the movie’s several themes splashed in aquas and pinks. I haven’t seen the movie it’s based on, a 1983 cult hit perhaps known best as Nicolas Cage’s first big screen role (sorta). But this one provides a nice little diversion in a time when a lot of us are looking for one.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “Vivarium” (2020)

VIVposterI can’t remember a movie that more closely resembles a feature-length Twilight Zone episode than Lorcan Finnegan’s new film “Vivarium”. For 97 minutes I could almost hear the faint voice of Rod Serling communicating his approval. Now if you’re unsure about the definition of vivarium, a quick Google search defines it as “an enclosure, container, or structure adapted or prepared for keeping animals under seminatural conditions for observation or study or as pets“. Fitting.

“Vivarium” is directed by Finnegan and based on a story he conceived with his screenwriter Garret Shanley. It’s basically science-fiction with a subtle horror bend, not to mention an unintended current day relevance. In a time where “self-quarantining” and “social distancing” has become a part of our everyday vernacular, a movie about being trapped at home takes on a whole new meaning.

Gemma (Imogene Poots) is an elementary school teacher and her boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) a gardener/handyman. The two make for an fairly ordinary young couple. They have a good playful chemistry and both seem to be ready for the next phase of their lives together. Little did they know a suburban nightmare was right around the corner.

They visit the offices of a creepy real estate agent named Martin (a deliciously bizarre Jonathan Aris). He tells them of a brand new subdivision called Yonder and offers to lead them out to the development. Personally speaking, those few moments with Martin would be enough for me to take off running, but that wouldn’t be much of a movie. So Gemma and Tom hop into their Toyota hatchback and follow Martin outside of town to the sprawling gated community.

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Photo Courtesy of Saban Films

Immediately Yonder gives the impression of dull, stale uniformity. Every house is identical. Each has matching puke green exteriors. Each has the exact same well-manicured yard. Even every cloud in the sky are bright, cotton-puffed perfection. You would think that, along with the complete absence of any other living being, would be another reason for Gemma and Tom to turn around and speed off. Instead they arrive at house #9 and Martin begins giving them the tour.

Within minutes the couple realize Yonder is not the place for them, but before they can tell Martin he up and disappears. They hop in their car and head out but never find an exit. Just rows of the identical homes on identical streets that always end up at house #9. Trapped, out of gas, and out of options, Gemma and Tom have no choice but to stay at Yonder. They get by on mysterious boxes of bland, tasteless food left in front of their house. But one morning something else comes in a box – a baby boy with “Raise the child and be released” printed on the flap.

As it gets older the child brings new meaning to the term “creepy kid“. He ages much like a dog which makes judging time a challenge. He speaks in freaky off-key tones, often mimicking what he hears from his quasi-parents and lets out shrill screeches whenever he wants something. He adds a freaky presence to their prefab domesticity which becomes more suffocating with each passing day. From there “Vivarium” takes a slow-burn approach before eventually sticking its landing.

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Photo Courtesy of Saban Films

As critics we often gripe about movies telling us too much and not trusting us to figure things out for ourselves. But sometimes the opposite can be true. Sometimes you need more dialogue or conversations. “Vivarium” shows us little but tells us less. We’re left to gather for ourselves what the two main characters are feeling without being truly convinced. That may sound like criticism mumbo-jumbo but it gets to the heart of my lone yet significant gripe. You never get more than a surface level understanding of Gemma and Tom.

None of this is due to Poots and Eisenberg who worked together in last year’s “The Art of Self-Defense” and earlier in 2009’s “Solitary Man”. Both are good fits, especially Poots as her character is given a broader range of emotions to explore. Even as the film bangs on some familiar thematic drums (Suburbia is terrible. Marriage is hard. Raising a kid is even harder), the performances remain strong. I just wish the characters weren’t such hard nuts to crack. If more of the slow-burn had been spent cutting them open this good sci-fi thriller could have been something even better.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Vast of Night” (2019)

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For me the smile-inducing opening to Andrew Patterson’s “The Vast of Night” is just rippling with nostalgia. I wasn’t around during the original Twilight Zone run, but thanks to VHS, syndication, and a father who loved the show, it’s a slice of television history I know pretty well. I didn’t need an introduction to The X-Files. I was there when the series debuted in 1993 and have seen every episode and movie, most of them more than once. Those influences are all over this film.

So when Patterson opens his movie focused on a 1950’s era Philco television, and a show begins playing on it with a host saying in his best Rod Serling voice “You are entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten. A slipstream caught between channels. You are entering Paradox Theater. Tonight’s episode: The Vast of Night.”, needless to say I was hooked.

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After the cool introduction the camera blends into the television screen and just like that we’re in the latest episode penned by co-writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger. The duo’s story is built around a pretty familiar B-movie science-fiction idea. But what sets their script apart is the dense, character-enriching dialogue and the way they steadily build suspense especially in its second half.

The story takes place on the back-end of the 1950’s in Cayuga, New Mexico, a small town where everybody knows everybody. Sierra McCormick (so good here) plays 16-year-old Faye, an unashamed technology nerd who works part-time as a switchboard operator. She grabs her brand new Westinghouse tape recorder and heads to the gym where the entire town is gathering for the first high school basketball game of the season. There she meets her friend Everett (Jake Horowitz), a DJ at the local one-room radio station.

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This central friendship is essential to the story and Patterson gives it plenty of room to breathe. Take one especially long rapid-fire conversation we get early in the film. Faye and Everett walk and talk from the gym across town to the telephone office where she works. The camera follows like a silent third party, strolling along and listening to their every word. It shows the incredible amount of confidence the first time director has in his material and more importantly his two stars.

As she settles down for a slow evening on the switchboard, Faye picks up a mysterious frequency she’s never heard before. She calls Everett in the middle of his radio show and he too is intrigued. Always looking for “good radio“, Everett play the sounds on air which leads to a mysterious caller, a secret tape reel, and other hints that something isn’t right. And like a mini Mulder and Scully the two friends follow the growing trail of clues because (as Chris Carter so frequently reminded us) “The Truth is Out There“.

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Don’t misunderstand me, this isn’t some knockoff or copycat flick. Patterson, who cut his teeth shooting commercials, surprises with several bold visual choices and interesting aesthetic concepts that give his film its own identity. Some of it may come across as showy to some, but I loved the long, meticulously arranged tracking shots, the audacious fades to black which force us to focus on every word in the background, and the handful on instances where we’re pulled out of the television just for a few seconds, almost like a commercial break, and then put right back in. There is rarely a moment when Patterson and cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz aren’t doing something interesting with their camera.

“The Vast of Night” may not sport an entirely original concept, but it’s everything that goes into presenting it that makes this movie special. The 1950’s rural Americana setting is full of detail from period costumes to Cold War anxieties. The fun and absorbing dialogue keeps us in the heads of the characters and always in tune with their personalities. And there’s the chemistry between McCormick and Horowitz – so lively and natural. It all makes for a fabulous debut from Andrew Patterson and a fresh reminder of why I love movies.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars