REVIEW: “Wasp Network” (2020)

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“Wasp Network” was going to be a tough movie to make for any filmmaker wanting to stick reasonably close to the facts. That’s because the actual true story is a tangled web of characters, organizations, and allegiances. For that reason French writer-director Olivier Assayas deserves a ton of credit for sticking close to the true account even though it makes his movie a little difficult to keep up with.

Without question “Wasp Network” will resonate more with those who either remember or read up on the real events that inspired it. In its own way it tells the story of the Cuban Five, a group of men sent to Miami by the Cuban government to infiltrate anti-Castro exile factions in the 1990s. Some of these groups sought simply to inspire the Cuban people to stand up against Castro’s regime. But others were terrorist outfits funded by drug money and targeting Cuba’s tourist industry. The Cuban Five were to spy on the various groups and report the findings to the Cuban government.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Taking from a 2011 Fernando Morais book “The Last Soldiers of the Cold War”, Assayas attempts to cover a lot of ground. His structure feels episodic, focusing big chunks of his film on individual players and then weaving the numerous narrative threads together in a tangled yet fascinating final act. Sometimes his storytelling seems more didactic than dramatic as it straightforwardly lays out the facts. Yet it has a palpable emotional center, putting as much emphasis on the personal sacrifices and consequences as the politics of his story.

A terrific Édgar Ramírez provides our entry point, reminding us of how good an actor he is when given quality material. He plays René González, a pilot in Havana who swipes a plane and defects to Miami leaving behind his wife Olga (Penélope Cruz) and their young daughter Irma (Carolina Peraza Matamoros). René begins a new life in the States, joining a covert anti-Castro group to help other defectors boating over from Cuba. Meanwhile Olga is left alone and struggling to put food on the table. This moral haze hangs over much of the film’s first half.

The next person we meet is Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), a pilot himself and high-profile Cuban celebrity. He too defects, actually swimming from Cuba to Guantanamo Bay. Once granted asylum he moves to Miami and joins the exile group. Unlike René, Juan Pablo lives a lavish lifestyle winning over and marrying a young beauty named Ana Margarita (Ana de Armas). But she (and we) soon learn that Juan Pablo is a man of many secrets.

The third key player is Gerardo Hernandez (Gael Garcia Bernal) who works directly with the Cuban government. He’s sent to Miami to oversee the Wasp Network’s infiltration of the militant groups. Of the three he’s the one we learn the least about. Bernal’s performance is solid, but his character could have used more attention. Ultimately it’s René who resonates most. His story packs the most personal stakes in large part thanks to Cruz’s Olga who ends up being our emotional anchor. De Armas doesn’t fare as well. Her performance is excellent, but its hard to tell if Assayas is most interested in her as a character or as eye candy.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Things ramp up when the exile group’s goals fully come into focus. We get tense scenes revealing drug smuggling from Columbia. Assayas even covers the 1997 Havana hotel bombings. Even more layers are added when the CIA gets involved and we get defectors among the defectors. It certainly makes things harder to follow and keeping a running tab on who’s who is a challenge. At the same time the craft behind the camera is evident and there are several visual choices to admire.

I can’t deny the film’s faults especially for those with no familiarity with the true events whatsoever. So take my advice – do some quick reading on the backstory before watching. It will lessen the confusion and open up a lot of what Assayas is going for. With “Wasp Network” it’s fair to say he may have bitten off more than he can chew. But I appreciate the ambition and I’m glad he took the route he did rather than playing it safe.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Wendy” (2020)

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Benh Zeitlin blew me away with his tender, fantastical 2012 debut “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. The film was critically acclaimed and was nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture. It has taken eight years but we finally have his follow-up feature, a slightly modernized reimagining of J. M. Barrie’s century old Peter Pan. The catch is he tells the story from Wendy’s point of view.

“Wendy” sees Zeitlin once again exploring childhood in the rural south. As with “Beasts”, we spend the vast majority of the time seeing things through a young girl’s eyes. That’s the headspace Zeitlin is most interested in and it leads to some indulgences that several fellow critics had a hard time digesting. There are moments where the story seems to drift, but when the visuals and the story come together, the film exudes a magical quality that quite frankly swept me away.

We first meet Wendy (played by delightful newcomer Devin France) as a young child, her head draped in brown curls, watching the world through her inquisitive blue eyes. Her single mom (Shay Walker) waits tables at a train station diner to support Wendy and her rambunctious twin brothers James (Gavin Naquin) and Douglas (Gage Naquin). It’s hard work but she’s a mom doing what she can for her kids.

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Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Bop ahead a few years where 10-year-old Wendy worries about a depressing future stripped of joy and adventure. She sees the melancholy in every adult face that comes through the diner. She listens to her mother talk about forsaking her own childhood dream of being a rodeo queen. It’s too much for Wendy who swears off getting old and sets out with her two brothers to escape the bittersweet reality of growing up.

Late one night the three hop out of their bedroom windows and onto a passing train where they meet a mysterious boy named Peter (Yashua Mack). He whisks them away to a remote volcanic island where he leads the Lost Boys, a band of children who run free and never grow old. The one prerequisite is that they believe in Peter and his close connection to the island’s mystical spirit which he calls Mother.

But they aren’t the only ones on the island. On the far side of Neverland live those who have lost faith in Mother. And much like the patrons at the train station diner, they’re old, worn down, and without hope. Their presence sets up the inevitable clash with the Lost Boys, with Wendy and her brothers as key players.

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Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Written by Zeitlin and his sister Eliza, “Wendy” tells a story where reality and fantasy co-exist. Their movie is a fascinating puzzle filled with metaphors and symbolism, where images are the Zeitlins’ greatest method of storytelling. They lean heavily on Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s stunning cinematography which wrings feeling out every closeup and captures childlike wonder in every sweeping pan of the island (shot mostly in Montserrat).

It’s the harmonious gelling of image and music that stands out the most. Dan Romer’s breathtaking score is crucial, never manipulative, and pulsating with heart and adventure. It and the camera do as much as the dialogue to explore the film’s many themes. Motherhood, rural poverty, fear of growing old, yearning for lost youth – just some of the things Zeitlin has on his mind.

“Wendy” won’t please purists who are intent on comparing it with other Peter Pan adaptations. It’s built around Barrie’s general framework but it puts its own contemporary spin on things. Sometimes Zeitlin is too literal, sometimes he’s too vague. The occasional salty dialogue from the kids feels forced and not all of the non-professional performances click. But those things never rob the movie of its imagination, emotion, and grit. Sure, you could pick it apart. Or you could put your guard down, fall under its spell, and let it sweep you away. I chose the latter and I’m so glad I did.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Wrong Missy” (2020)

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I still remember the good ol’ days of David Spade. I liked his run on Saturday Night Live and his movies with the late Chris Farley. I remember laughing at his dry, sardonic wit and razor-sharp sarcasm. He was good as the dweeby straight-man foil to Farley’s unbridled, hyperactive goofball. Those days seem so long ago and Spade’s latest movie “The Wrong Missy” does nothing to indicate they’re coming back any time soon.

These days Spade is content with making appearances in a bunch of low-brow flicks with his buddies (Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, etc.) and occasionally starring in Sandler-produced Netflix features. “The Wrong Missy” is an amalgamation of everything I dislike about their brand of comedy. They basically recycle the same garbage over and over again – story elements, character types, gags. If you’re looking for something fresh and original, you won’t find it here. And if you want something funny, you should look somewhere else.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

“The Wrong Missy” is built on an absurd misunderstanding that defies any hint of logic. Then to make sure it holds up for 90 minutes, the writers (Kevin Barnett and Chris Pappas) reinforce it with even dopier plot details. The idea is that Tim (Spade) inadvertently invites the wrong woman to a luxurious work retreat in Hawaii. He meant to invite the gorgeous supermodel Melissa he met at the airport (Molly Sims) but he accidentally invites the loud, obnoxiously vulgar madwoman Melissa (Lauren Lapkus) from his past. How you may wonder? Trust me, it’s best not to ask.

Of course once they arrive at the posh island resort mind-numbing hijinks ensue. Tim, who is a finalist for a big promotion, wants to impress his boss (Geoff Pierson) and his co-workers by showing off his stunner new girlfriend. Instead he shows up with an insufferable, dim-witted ball of chaos. Director Tyler Spindel spends at least 95% of the movie laughing at the ‘wrong’ Melissa and emphasizing her maniacal (borderline psychotic) behavior. Only a few lines of dialogue near the end even try to humanize her. It’s a vain attempt.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Meanwhile Spade goes about his business rehashing the same old act. He’s mainly a walking conduit for the slew of juvenile ‘humor’, off-putting raunch, and lazy punchlines all of which land with a thud. The real victim is Lapkus who I’m guessing can be pretty funny, but here is weighted down by truly awful material. Her character is shallow, unlikable, and as annoying as the persistent sounds of nails on a chalkboard.

About the only good thing I can say about “The Wrong Missy” is that it clocks in at a lean 90 minutes. That’s a blessing because enduring much more would truly be testing my limits. It’s that bad. I guess these movies have a following and Netflix is somehow finding them profitable. I find many of them to be appallingly bad and “The Wrong Missy” is no exception. It’s a low-rung comedy with nothing to say and that doesn’t even try to do anything fresh or new. Manual labor, oral surgery, or even an insurance lecture would be a more entertaining way to spend your time.

VERDICT – 1 STAR

1-star

REVIEW: “The Wretched” (2020)

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In “The Wretched” teenager Ben (John-Paul Howard) is still adjusting to his parents’ recent divorce. It hasn’t gone well. After getting into some legal trouble while living with his mother (resulting in a broken arm), Ben is sent to spend the summer with his father who lives in a lakeside tourist town. While there he will work for his dad (played by Jamison Jones) at the local marina and hopefully get a fresh start.

But this is a supernatural horror movie so there are no easy paths to happiness and contentment. Aside from the evil terror brewing in a nearby forest, things get off to a rough start for Ben. For starters, his father already has a new girlfriend,  Sara (Azie Tesfai). And it doesn’t help that all of the local teens are rich, obnoxious brats. The lone exception is his co-worker Mallory (Piper Curda), a free-wheeling breath of fresh air who instantly takes a liking to Ben.

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Photo Courtesy IFC Films

Now about that malevolent presence in the woods. Ben begins to suspect something sinister is going on in the two-story rent house next door. After a hipster couple and their two children move in, Ben notices some bizarre behavior. The wife (Zarah Mahler) disappears into the forest with her infant baby. The husband suddenly denies they even have children. The couple makes constant trips into their padlocked basement. In this angle plucked straight out of 1985’s “Fright Night”, Ben spies on his neighbors, pokes around their house at night, even calls the police but to no avail. Of course Ben is right. A wicked entity has been let lose, preying on children and using their parents as hosts.

The film is written and directed by Brett and Drew T. Pierce who employ several well-worn horror movie tropes. But their movie doesn’t rely on them, instead working more in suspense than abject terror. And they aren’t afraid to let their influences show. There are little hints of everything from “Jaws” to “Close Encounters” and the Pierce Brothers’ keen mixture of score and cinematography would make Spielberg smile.

The creature/demon/witch thing is pretty frightening with its pale veiny skin, jagged claws, and wicked body contortions. It’s not terrible original, but it gets the job done. The brothers smartly embrace the idea that less is more, only giving us a few glimpses of the full being. Instead we mostly see it through the person it is possessing along with the sometimes grotesque effects it has on them. Overall the entity manages to be effectively chilling even though keeping up with its host-hopping became a chore especially in the final act.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

From the very start “The Wretched” commits a surprising amount of time to its characters. They come across as authentic and fleshed-out even though their stories are nothing especially new. Yet their stories are important especially once the movie positions itself as a metaphor for forgotten children in the wake of divorce. And generally speaking the performances are okay, shaky at times, but serviceable. You won’t find a big name anywhere in the cast, but for the most part the fresh faces manage (some better than others).

What ends up standing out most is the movie’s crisp pacing and tone management. The Pierce brothers keep things moving at just the right speed, deftly balancing character and tension-building while working within a familiar genre space. Yet “The Wretched” is a movie that can’t fully hide its limitations despite its ability to rise above them. It’s still very much worth a watch, and if you’re looking for a horror movie you could do a lot worse.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “The Way Back” (2020)

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So to be clear, this isn’t 2010’s “The Way Back”, Peter Weir’s terrific survival adventure starring Saoirse Ronan, Colin Farrell, and Ed Harris. And this isn’t “The Way Way Back”, the 2013 coming-of-age indie and Sam Rockwell showcase. This is in fact 2020’s “The Way Back”, a deeply personal and emotionally intense character study disguised as an uplifting sports drama.

Most sports movies follow a pretty familiar blueprint and in some ways this film is no different. But the best sports movies work because they capture the human element. In “The Way Back”, the sports stuff follows the usual formula and it’s the human element that indeed stands out. In fact you could say that basketball is simply a meaningful plot mechanism helping to tell the story of a broken man on the precipice of self-destruction.

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Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Ben Affleck gives one of the best performances of his career playing Jack Cunningham, a construction worker who recently separated from his wife Angela (a terrific Janina Gavankar). Early in the movie we learn Jack is a raging alcoholic and the film puts a lot of effort into effectively emphasizing how far he has spiraled. Disconnected and out of sorts, Jack’s dependency on alcohol as a means to quell his suffering only intensifies as we learn more about him.

But a ray of light comes in the form of a phone call from his Catholic high school alma mater. Jack was a star player back in the day. Now they want him to come back and take over the team after their head coach suffers a heart attack. He reluctantly agrees and soon finds himself once again enjoying the game he had left behind.

But director Gavin O’Connor (who worked with Affleck on “The Accountant”) and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby keep their film from succumbing to formula. Yes, much of the sports angle rings familiar. But one of the best things about the story is how it blows by the expected ending, skipping the easy out and staying true to its character-driven convictions. Basketball doesn’t miraculously heal Jack. It points him in the right direction, but his demons don’t magically disappear. The filmmakers wisely avoid the sentimental cop out.

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Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

You can’t help but sense an almost autobiographical vibe with Affleck’s performance. Considering his own real-life battles you could see this role as being therapeutic. Affleck fully commits himself and the honesty he brings lets you know he’s pulling from an intensely personal place. Gavankar is a great counterbalance. In their few scenes together her restrained, emotionally delicate approach adds a special layer to their relationship. It’s clear Angela is hurting too and Gavankar does a great job of conveying it.

As O’Conner showed with 2011’s “Warrior”, he’s no stranger to subverting the traditional sports drama. He does it again here on the back of a powerful, unflinching Ben Affleck performance. The sports stuff bops along in predictable fashion and some of the lightheartedness that comes with it doesn’t always land. But when focused on Affleck (which it mostly is) the movie shines and it smartly leans into the actor’s own experiences. It doesn’t offer clean and simple answers, but it does believe in second chances. Regardless of whether you’re a down-and-out construction worker/basketball coach or an immensely talented middle-aged actor.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Waiting for Anya” (2020)

ANYAposterThe World War 2 drama “Waiting for Anya” comes from a 1990 British children’s novel written by Michael Morpurgo (who also penned “War Horse”). It follows a happy young shepherd boy who is forced to grow up too soon after the ripple effect of the war makes its way to his quiet village. Directed and co-written by Ben Cookson, this film adaptation has young people in mind, so those expecting an visceral and detailed study on the horrors of the Holocaust could be disappointed.

The story is set in the mountain village of Lescun in the southern most region of France. It’s 1942 and as the Nazis occupy Paris and began rounding up Jews throughout the north, the more isolated south go about their daily routines, unaffected by the war or its atrocities. Cookson’s camera relishes in the beauty of the Pyrenees, painting an idyllic portrait of country living. But as many of the villagers carry on life-as-usual, little do they know the war has already touched their community.

Our point-of-view comes through the tender observations of Jo (played by Noah Schnapp of “Stranger Things”). He has been given the responsibility of tending his family’s sheep after his father (Gilles Marini), a French soldier, is captured by the Germans and thrown into a POW camp. After a scary brush with a black bear, Jo runs into a kind but mysterious stranger named Benjamin (Frederick Schmidt).

Jo learns that Benjamin is a Jew who escaped from a train bound for a concentration camp with his young daughter Anya. The two were separated and Benjamin now hides out on a remote farm helping his widowed mother-in-law Horcada (Anjelica Huston) smuggle Jewish children across the border into Spain. His hopes are that one day his daughter will be among the children sent their way.

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Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

As Germany gets wind of Jews being moved across the border, they dispatch a small platoon of soldiers who occupy the village and begin patrolling the nearby mountain paths. Obviously this threatens Benjamin and the children he is tasked with leading to safety. It also brings the realities of war to Jo’s front door in a way that changes his life forever.

In addition to Oscar-winner Huston several other familiar faces show up adding to the collection of good performances. The always reliable Jean Reno plays Jo’s percipient and seasoned grandfather while Thomas Kretschmann plays a German officer with some semblance of a conscience following his own personal family tragedy. But it comes down to Schnapp and his ability to sell us on his character. While there are times where he could inject more emotion, as a whole he provides us a solid anchor.

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Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

On its surface “Waiting for Anya” is an heartfelt and well-meaning wartime drama. At its core it is a study of humanity as seen through a pair of young eyes. It’s about growing up, finding courage, and doing the right thing in the face of unspeakable evil. The story begins with a terrified shepherd boy running from a bear and leaving his helpless sheep behind. It’s a rather obvious but earnest metaphor for what he becomes – a courageous young man who risks his life to help the helpless.

When it comes to the Holocaust there have been few age-appropriate film examinations for young viewers. “Waiting for Anya” helps fill that void. Some are sure to see the film as too sanitized and not harsh enough in its depictions. But Cookson tells a very specific story that doesn’t need to visually emphasize the horrors. Instead their effects are felt through a story which may sag a little in the middle but ultimately pays off.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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