REVIEW: “Werewolves Within” (2021)

How can you not be drawn to a movie that’s best described as a ‘small town werewolf horror-comedy’? It’s a fitting description on “Werewolves Within”, a wacky new film directed by Jack Ruben that’s actually based on a 2016 virtual reality game of the same name. The movie isn’t all that interested in the well-worn werewolf mythologies that have been handed down through generations. Instead it’s about communities and the wild potpourri of people that often make them up.

“Werewolves Within” sounds like a horror movie and certainly borrows from the genre. But it’s just as much an uneven yet crafty whodunit with a satirical bite. It stars a terrific Sam Richardson who plays Finn, a forest ranger and all-around nice guy who arrives at the sleepy Vermont town of Beaverfield. He’s been assigned there after some mishaps at his old post. The first person he runs into is a peppy mail carrier named Cecily (TV’s infectiously charming AT&T sales rep Milana Vayntrub) who gives him an introduction to community with consists of a veritable collage of colorful zany characters.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

The movie really is all about this wild assortment of characters and Ruben along with screenwriter Mishna Wolff unload most of the town’s drama through them, a lot of it revolving around a proposed pipeline. Comprising the small eccentric population is the town’s innkeeper Jeanine (Catherine Curtin) who mutters about her absent husband and makes a mean sandwich. There’s the aggressively weird Trish (Michaela Watkins) and her creepy husband Pete (Michael Chernus). You have the corporate pipeline pusher Parker (Wayne Duvall) and the bone-dry environmentalist Dr. Ellis (Rebecca Henderson). Add in a cartoonish gay couple (Cheyenne Jackson and Harvey Guillén) and the dimwitted redneck husband and wife (George Basil and Sarah Burns). Meanwhile the town hermit Flint (Glenn Fleshler) lives in the woods and pretty much hates them all.

This peculiar bunch is brought together when a snowstorm knocks out the power and closes the roads leading in and out of town. To make matters worse, signs suggest a razor-clawed beast of some kind is roaming around the area. Of course the film’s title lets us know that it’s not a possum as one of the oddballs hilariously suggest. The group gathers in the Beaverfield Inn to wait out the storm. But when people start dying inside suspicion and paranoia sets in. The panicking neighbors begin accusing each other while never passing on the chance to air out some old local baggage.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Through it all the movie never loses its sense of humor. In fact this is very much a straight comedy built upon some familiar horror movie framework. Some of the funniest bits come with watching Finn’s bewildered face as he watches and listens to this motley group of townsfolk. Wolff fills their mouths with some of the most outlandish stuff and the performances relay it with hilarious conviction. The dialogue is full of laughs that range from subtle to wildly absurd.

Unfortunately the movie doesn’t quite hold together in the final act. While attempting to bring everything to a close it loses some of its charm and originality. And as the story locks into a more predictable movie formula, some of the characters fare considerably better than others. It all culminates in an ending that doesn’t exactly satisfy. With that said, the film’s comedy element carries it through. Wolf’s script along with a cast full of game performances had me laughing more than I ever expected. “Werewolves Within” opens June 25th in theaters and July 2nd on VOD.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “The Woman in the Window” (2021)

“The Woman in the Window” is yet another movie planned for a big screen release, pulled after the COVID-19 theater closings, and then nabbed by a big spending streaming company. Netflix, Amazon, and Apple have all dropped loads of cash to bring high profile movies to their platforms. It’s a practice that has worked out great for both the companies and those of us who have been stuck inside of our homes for over a year. Will it be a long term thing? Who knows?

This Joe Wright directed psychological thriller was originally a 20th Century production. But after early delays following some concerning test screenings and later delays due to the pandemic, the Disney-owned 20th Century Studios sold the film to Netflix. Based on a 2018 New York Times best-selling novel and packing a star-studded cast, “The Woman in the Window” seemed like a good catch. But Wright’s Hitchcockian aspirations are never fully realized and his movie slowly begins to resemble one hampered by re-writes and re-shoots.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

A very game Amy Adams stars as Anna Fox, a child psychologist who struggles with agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder that has left her fearful of going outside. She’s spent the last ten months isolated inside of her Manhattan townhouse, slowly losing herself to prescription medication and alcohol. Her deteriorating condition has led to a separation from her husband Ed (Anthony Mackie) who still calls to check on her from time to time. So she’s left watching old movies, fussing at her tenant David (Wyatt Russell) who rents out her basement, and observing her neighbors from her window “Rear Window” style.

Anna takes a special interest in the Russells, a family of three who just moved into the house across the street from Boston. She first meets their lone child Ethan (Fred Hechinger), a simple and inquisitive 15-year-old who takes a liking to Anna and doesn’t mind stopping by unannounced. But she really hits it off with Ethan’s mother, the brash and outspoken Jane (Julianne Moore) who brings a little energy and spirit into Anna’s home.

But the more she spies on the Russells (who are firm believers in leaving every curtain in the house open) the more she begins noticing signs of an abusive household. It culminates in Anna witnessing a particularly violent argument ending with Jane being stabbed to death. She immediately calls the police who investigate but find no evidence of foul play. Adding to the confusion, two detectives (Brian Tyree Henry and Jeanine Serralles) come to visit Anna with an agitated Alistair Russell (Gary Oldman) from across the street and an entirely different Jane Russell (now played by Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Image Courtesy of Netflix

With all of its pieces nicely in place, the gnarly story (written by Tracy Letts) begins to uncoil in an uneven mix of interesting imagery and on-the-nose exposition. Nearly all of the story’s twists, turns, and revelations are told to us rather than shown. Characters spell out practically everything to the point where we’re left with little to figure out for ourselves. It’s frustrating considering the film’s first half weaves together a fairly compelling mystery. But it’s undone by a second half that relies too heavily on a series of surprisingly pointed conversations accompanied by an ending that offers no believable payoff.

It’s also amazing to see this many big names given so little to do. I’m not sure if they owed the filmmakers a favor but Oldman, Moore, Leigh, and Mackie each pop up in a scene or two and then they’re gone. It’s not a dealbreaker, but in a movie that’s struggles to reveal its mystery in a unique and interesting way, a few more scenes with some key players might have helped. Instead everything falls on Adams who is both committed and convincing. If only the same were true for the material. “The Woman in the Window” premieres today (May 14th) on Netflix.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Wrath of Man” (2021)

When it comes to action stars Jason Statham just has “it”. I can’t clearly define what “it” is, but you know it when you see it. It’s a healthy mix of charisma, grit, and physicality. Since Statham’s leading man breakthrough in 2002’s “The Transporter”, he has shown over and over that his anti-hero brand is more than enough to carry an action flick. Even more, he often brings a sharp wit and a surprisingly disarming charm to his usually hard-nosed characters.

That being said, you won’t see a glimmer of that sly humor or charm in his new film “Wrath of Man”. This action thriller directed, co-written, and co-produced by Guy Ritchie is darker and edgier than any of Statham’s lighter, albeit violent affairs. The film (a remake of 2004 French film “Le Convoyeur”) marks the fourth collaboration between Statham and Ritchie, their first since 2005’s “Revolver”. And it seems they already have another movie in the can that we’ll probably see sometimes in 2022.

If you break it down “Wrath of Man” is part revenge film, part heist flick, part hard-boiled crime thriller. Its time-hopping narrative is built around two interwoven stories with Statham’s character being the connecting tissue. He plays the cold, stone-faced Harry “H” Hill who we first meet as he’s interviewing for a position with Fortico Securities, an armored truck company who transports money for banks and businesses all across Los Angeles. It’s a dangerous line of work as evident by a recent robbery that resulted in two company drivers and one civilian being gunned down. Here’s the catch, the dead civilian was H’s son and now the vengeful father is determined to find out who pulled the trigger.

H gets the job and is immediately put under the wing of Bullet (Holt McCallany), a chatty seasoned driver who shows him the ropes. Later H is paired with the big-talking Boy Sweat Dave (Josh Hartnett) and immediately proves his value by single-handedly thwarting an armed robbery, killing all six of the thieves. Just like that, the other drivers learn H can carry his own weight and he’s not somebody you mess with. At the same time he’s still a mystery both to them and to us. So Ritchie jumps back in time, dedicating a chapter to unpacking H’s backstory. And then you get more time-jumping as Ritchie tells a second story about a group of disgruntled military vets (led by Jeffrey Donovan and a very good Scott Eastwood). Andy Garcia even pops up as a crime boss fittingly named The King.

All of this could have turned into an indulgent convoluted mess, but to Ritchie‘s credit he along with co-writers Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies keeps everything coherent and engaging. He still packs the movie with many of his favorite ingredients – a meaty ensemble cast, snarky dialogue, offbeat nicknames, non-linear storytelling. And to add a little extra flair Ritchie tosses in some fun and fitting chapter titles like “dark spirit” and “scorched earth”. At the same time, the macho wisecracking does wear a little thin (particularly in the first half) and there are a handful of plot holes that left me shaking my head.

Still “Wrath of Man” is an all-around solid effort from Guy Ritchie and a return (of sorts) to his earlier form. It’s also a lot different than your standard Statham beat-em-up. It trucks along with a relentlessly grim tone, never winking at the camera, and leaving none of its characters with completely clean hands. And it’s centered by Statham, whose stoic, hard-as-granite exterior fits perfectly in Ritchie’s bloody world where crime thrives and violence begets violence. “Wrath of Mine” arrives in theaters on May 7th.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Without Remorse” (2021)

Over the last few years we’ve seen an emergence of new young action stars. And while many of them cut their teeth playing Marvel superheroes, they’ve also ventured out to make more grounded old-school action flicks. Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Mackie, and now Michael B. Jordan are (thankfully) too talented to be confined to one category. Yet they’ve shown themselves to have the physicality and steely presence to carry these kinds of movies and they are helping to breathe new life into the action genre.

Jordan’s latest film “Without Remorse” lands on Amazon Prime this weekend and it packs a formulaic old-school feel. It’s based on a 1993 Tom Clancy novel and is co-written for the screen by Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples. It’s helmed by Italian director Stefano Sollima who (along with Sheridan) also made the underrated “Sicario: Day of the Soldado”. Original slated for a theatrical release by Paramount, the distribution rights were sold to Amazon after multiple COVID-19 delays.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Jordan plays Senior Chief John Kelly, a member of an elite Navy SEAL team who we first meet in war-torn Aleppo, Syria. Their team is called in to carry out a cut-and-dry hostage rescue, but during the mission John’s unit are surprised by Russian military forces protecting a secret arms depot. An exchange of fire results in Russian casualties which sets in motion a series of events that will forever change John’s life.

Back home in Washington DC some three months later, John is contemplating leaving the military for a new job in private security. He and his pregnant wife Pam (Lauren London) are only a few weeks away from welcoming their first child and John is ready for life as a family man. Sadly that’s a pipe dream for lead characters in these types of movies. The past comes back to haunt John when armed Russian assassins, in retaliation for the Aleppo encounter, murder his wife and leave him for dead. John’s life is saved but all that he loved is gone.

After a lengthy and painful rehab, a tortured and revenge-thirsty John is determined to find the people responsible for the death of his wife and unborn child. “They crossed the line. They brought their war to my house” But he finds himself caught in the gears of bureaucracy as the CIA and Department of Defense hash out a ‘proper’ response. Guy Pearce plays a frustrated Secretary of Defense Thomas Clay who is willing to slightly step outside the lines to get answers. Jamie Bell plays the perpetual fly in the ointment Robert Ritter, a weaselly CIA agent who always knows more than he’s letting on and is constantly handcuffing any progress in the name of government protocol.

John’s quest for vengeance thrusts him head-first into a world of shady geopolitics, where heads of power secretly move their pawns around the global stage with impunity. At first John takes matters into his own hands, but that comes with consequences and proves to be too big for him to handle alone. So despite the concerns of his commander and close friend Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith), Jack is put on her team to go behind Russian lines to extract an ex-Spetznaz agent linked to the killing of his wife and others on American soil. But for him it quickly becomes a battle of personal payback versus mission integrity.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

“Without Remorse” has a broader and more sprawling story than you might expect. Not just in terms of global scale, but in its telling of John’s story. It covers a lot of ground with the character and Jordan’s gritty determined performance carries us through. The political side of the story can get a little muddy and at times is too thinly written for us to be invested. But the meat and potatoes of the story is Jordan embodying a character driven by anger and pain yet trapped within a dubious yet powerful system that calls the shots.

And of course there is the action, consisting of several fiercely kinetic gun fights and a couple of exhilarating set pieces (my favorite being a superbly shot plane crash in the Barents Sea). Jordan sells it all with intensity and ferocity to spare. He leaves us wanting more which is a good thing considering the mid-credits scene we get. It not only hints at a franchise but teases a specific something that will leave a certain segment of entertainment fandom chomping at the bit. “Without Remorse” premieres Friday (April 30th) on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Watchmen” (2009)

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“Watchmen”, the critically acclaimed comic book limited series from the creative duo of writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, was always something I admired more than I loved. But there’s no denying the mark it left on the industry. Told through twelve issues that were published from September 1986 through October 1987, “Watchmen” was a complex sociopolitical story that director Terry Gilliam once called “unfilmable”. Yet 20th Century Fox, Universal, Paramount, and finally DC Comics sister-company Warner Brothers all took their shot at a big screen adaptation.

“Watchmen” eventually went to Zack Snyder whose bold style made him both perfect for the material and a question mark. There was no doubt he could create a visually immersive world fitting of Moore’s vision. But could he wrangle together Moore’s fascinating yet complicated narrative? For the most part yes, but much like the highly esteemed comic series, that too is complicated.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

The film is a dystopian neo-noir that skips along an alternate reality timeline. The bulk of the film takes place in 1985 at the height of the Cold War. Nuclear paranoia hangs over the globe as the United States and the Soviets wave their sizable nuclear arsenals at one another while a doomsday clock ticks down to the projected Armageddon. Meanwhile costumed heroes, who for years impacted world events from the Vietnam War to Watergate, have been forced into retirement by the government. So the hero-less world sits and waits for what seems like its inevitable doomsday.

That’s a really broad summary of the backstory and setting which actually plays a significant role in the film. Numerous references to the past and meaningful flashbacks take us as far back as 1939 to introduce us to a superhero team called the Minutemen. A montage tells us of their glory days and their tragic demise. At one point we stop in 1959 to witness a lab accident that transforms nuclear physicist Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup) into the glowing blue matter-bending Doctor Manhattan. We learn of the formation of the next wave of crimefighters called the Watchmen who are forced to disband in 1977 after “costume adventuring” is ruled illegal. This is just some of the table-setting and world-building that packs weight on this densely plotted story.

Back to 1985, reverberations from the past are constantly being felt and some old wounds are opened up when a former Watchmen named The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is beat to a pulp and thrown to his death from his top floor apartment. His murder barely leaves a mark with his former teammates save for Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a part masked vigilante and part sociopath who operates like a hard-boiled 1940’s private detective. Rorschach’s investigation leads him to believe that someone from their past is targeting the Watchmen. So he sets out to warn his ex-partners, Silk Spectre (Malin Åkerman) whose mother was an original member of the Minutemen, Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) who still struggles to find his place in a post-Watchmen society, Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), a billionaire entrepreneur and the world’s smartest man, and the unintentionally cold apathetic Doctor Manhattan who is preoccupied with something a tad more….global.

The film’s central story quickly turns into a murder mystery with a handful of interesting twists and a few conspiracies to unearth along the way. But there’s much more going on which Snyder along with screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse manage to fit it with varying degrees of success. The movie shines brightest as a gritty and cerebral deconstruction of the now lucrative superhero genre. It also questions our real-life concept of “heroes” and challenges several societal constructs. And while there is no overtly political message, it does examine political power and how quickly it can be swayed in one direction or another. All of these things were fundamental to Moore’s series and Snyder makes sure they’re present in his film as well.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

But while Snyder has brought this “unfilmable” story to the screen in the best way imaginable, he still can’t entirely keep it from feeling a bit cramped even at 160 minutes. Part of it is due to his faithfulness to the source material. While a couple of changes were made to the story and some action scenes extended, Snyder generally sticks to the look, themes, and tone of the comic. But this means pouring a lot in and covering a ton of ground some of which is inevitably shortchanged. And that same allegiance to the material means he covers some things the movie could have done without. For instance a certain romance springs up between two key characters that is a big part of the story. They aren’t the most convincing pairing mainly because the movie wastes time on sex scenes that could have been better used elsewhere in their relationship. But these scenes were in the comic so…..

Still I can’t overstate the challenge of bringing “Watchmen” to the screen which makes what Snyder has done here all the more impressive. His filmmaking strengths are vividly on display as “Watchmen” looks incredible and the world he visualizes is compelling and immersive. The characters are given a surprising amount of attention and the performances are strong (maybe a quibble of two with Matthew Goode but that’s it). Still, this is a jam-packed movie that gives you lots of plot often with little time to process what you’re given. There is a 215-minute “Ultimate Cut” out there that may solve some of these problems, but I’ll let you find that out for yourselves.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “WandaVision” (2021)

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I think it’s safe to say that we have reached a point to where everything Marvel Studios touches turns to gold. You could say one reason is because the mastermind behind the MCU Kevin Feige and his team of creators have defined the superhero movie genre for an entire generation. For better or for worse, Marvel has set a standard so high that many audiences reject (almost out of compulsion) any other unique vision or approach to the genre. Don’t believe me? Ask the DCEU. Movies like the groundbreaking “Wonder Woman” and “Shazam!” (which you could argue is the most MCU movie of their entire catalog) aside, much of the DCEU has been met with at least some resistance (and in many cases tons).

But not so for Marvel. Part of it is due to the allegiance of dedicated fans (and in some cases critics) who heartily embrace anything (and I do mean anything) the studio does. But it’s also because Marvel has been synonymous with quality and they’ve truly done something incredible with the MCU. While they aren’t always scrutinized the way they could be, MCU films are routinely good and always entertaining. They’ve done well casting their characters and picking the big screen stories they want to tell.

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Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

After all they have done to change the superhero blockbuster landscape, now they look to do the same to episodic streaming. “WandaVision” marks the first of several limited streaming series coming to Disney+. Its story is told over nine episodes and the series was advertised as something we’ve never seen before from the MCU. We were also told it would have major repercussions for Phase Four (or whatever Marvel is calling this) and future storylines. The series brings together two second-tier characters from the Marvel films (and two of my favorites from the comics) and in a snap moved them higher up on the MCU food chain. But that doesn’t mean “WandaVision” is without flaws.

The series was presented in a half-hour television sitcom format with Matt Shakman directing each. It was given a hefty budget which becomes more obvious the deeper we get into the story. But most importantly, the series brings back the two stars from the MCU movies, Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff and Paul Bettany as Vision. Obviously seeing them both together in a post-“Endgame” story raises a TON of questions and adds even more appeal. Olsen and Bettany had good chemistry in the movies but here they really shine, even as the show’s sitcom gimmick starts to wear thin.

“WandaVision” is built on a big central mystery so getting too far into the plot could potentially spoil its effect. Essentially the setup is this: mere weeks after the events of “Avengers: Endgame” Wanda and Vision are living a happy suburban life in the small idyllic town of Westview, New Jersey. In an effort to fit in, both hide their identities from their neighbors and townsfolk. But here’s the catch, their life plays out like a TV sitcom complete with opening credits and laugh tracks. Each episode (minus the final two) is set in a new decade which the sitcom framework conveys. For example, episode 1 is presented in 4:3 black-and-white and is riffing on 1950’s television, specifically “The Dick Van Dyke Show” with a dash of “Leave it to Beaver”. Episode 2 moves to the 1960’s evoking “I Love Lucy”. Episode 3 shifts to color and has a “The Brady Bunch” vibe. And so on…

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Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

At first this comical conceit is a lot of fun, but it slowly and steadily runs out of gas especially when Wanda and Vision begin noticing something is off in their seemingly television-perfect life together. Whether it’s the behavior from the reoccurring characters who pop back up in every decade (none better than Kathryn Hahn’s quintessential nosy neighbor Agnes), Wanda’s instant pregnancy, or creepy unexplainable visions. The mystery of what’s going on in Westview quickly becomes the most interesting component of the show. Yet “WandaVision” sticks with the nostalgic sitcom gag all the way through episode 7. And when over half of these roughly 30 minute episodes is spent laughing and nodding at decades of sitcom history it leaves little time to dig into the much more compelling elements of the story.

In fairness, the sitcom bits aren’t arbitrary. The show does eventually connect them and add context to their existence. In other words they make sense. But on a week-by-week basis they do account for a lot of the running time. The scraps are given to agents of S.W.O.R.D. who set up a base outside of Westview to monitor what’s going on there. They’re led by the blandly antagonistic Director Hayward (Josh Stamberg). These scenes also feature three returning MCU side characters: the equally bland FBI Agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), a returning but inconsequential Darcy Lewis (Kay Dennings), and one of the show’s most intriguing pieces Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Paris). Monica was the adorable little girl from “Captain Marvel”. Now she’s grown up and clearly has a big future ahead in the MCU.

The last two episodes are the longest and finally give us some needed answers while revealing who has been pulling all of the strings. This is the series at its best, wrapping up some story angles, leaving others wide open, and introducing some ‘magical’ new elements into the MCU that is sure to have some long-lasting impact. It also features an eye-popping final showdown that truly is unlike anything the MCU has done before. It’s where the show’s bigger budget can be seen the most.

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Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Not everything wraps up quite so nicely. A couple of characters just up and vanish in the final episode (at least one has an excuse we can halfway buy). There’s also the unavoidable question of where are Wanda’s friends from the Avengers? Yes Thor is in space, Cap is old, etc. But no one saw what was going on or felt the need to check on Wanda? Also the finale exposes a certain mid-series surprise appearance to be nothing more than a shameless attention-grab. It earned Marvel plenty of headlines and online chatter but weakly ended as a lame anatomy joke reminiscent of something you would see on Beavis and Butthead.

Hiccups aside, “WandaVision” still accomplishes what it sets out to do: 1) Show that streaming episodic television is an exciting an effective means of telling fresh MCU stories and filling out their large sprawling universe. 2)  It fleshes out Wanda and Vision, not so much their backstories but their relationship which is the true centerpiece of the series. “WandaVision” adds a much-needed layer of humanity between them that earns our empathy and makes them big players moving forward. 3) It moves the MCU forward in a meaningful way and with potentially far-reaching implications. All together “WandaVision” may not be the most seamless television series experience. But it does expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe in an exciting way while setting the table for the slew of other Marvel streaming shows on the horizon. “WandaVision” is streaming now on Disney+.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars