REVIEW: “White Men Can’t Jump” (2023)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Ron Shelton’s 1992 basketball comedy “White Men Can’t Jump” lived and breathed off of the electric personalities and hilarious chemistry between its two leads, Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes. When hearing a remake was on the way I immediately wondered if there was any way it could recapture that kind of energy? In a word, no. And in many ways not even close. In fact, it’s accurate to say this “update” barely resembles its inspiration.

This bland and frankly needless remake comes from director Charles Kidd II aka Calmatic. In it Sinqua Walls plays Kamal Allen a former high school basketball phenom who was projected as a “can’t miss” player. He was heavily recruited by colleges and NBA teams alike. But an arrest for assault during his senior year tarnished his reputation and scared away every interested party. So now he’s stuck in a minimum wage job driving a deliver truck, barely scraping by and trying to support his wife Imani (Teyana Taylor) and their young son. He can still hoop, but he’s given up on ever playing professional basketball.

(L-R): Jack Harlow as Jeremy and Sinqua Walls as Kamal in 20th Century Studios’ WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP. Photo by Parrish Lewis. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Jeremy (played by rapper Jack Harlow in his acting debut) once had a promising basketball future of his own and was a standout player at Gonzaga University. But two blown ACLs sidetracked his dreams. So now he’s selling cheap bottled health drinks and hustling streetball games for cash. He desperately wants to play basketball again and he has the wild idea that “regenerative medicine” is his ticket to the NBA G League. But his girlfriend Tatiana (Laura Harrier) wants him to focus more on their future together.

The two former ballers cross paths at a neighborhood gym where Jeremy promptly hustles Kamal out of $300. It understandably leaves a sour taste in Kamal’s mouth. But with both of them in desperate need of money, they end up teaming together to play in a two-on-two streetball tournament with a massive payout going to the winners. First, they’ll have to hustle a few neighborhood games to pay for their entry fee. Second, they’ll have to do it without killing each other. That proves to be a tough ask.

From the very start, the story just doesn’t have the energy or the spirit of the 1992 original. And at times it doesn’t even seem try. The script occasionally attempts (but falls terribly short) at recreating the playful banter, the culturally tinged back-and-forths, and the hilarious insults that Snipes and Harrelson fired off so naturally. A lot of it has to do with the lukewarm chemistry between Walls and Harlow. Individually their performances are fine, but neither have the charisma of a Snipes or a Harrelson. And together there simply isn’t much of a spark between them.

To compensate, the movie ventures off into some more dramatic directions, none of which work particularly well. Co-writers Kenya Barris and Doug Hall attempt to cook up some interest in Kamal and Jeremy’s home life. But these side dishes consist of little more than Imani and Tatiana understandably losing patience with their bone-headed beaus.

(L-R): Jack Harlow as Jeremy and Sinqua Walls as Kamal in 20th Century Studios’ WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP, exclusively on Hulu. Photo by Parrish Lewis. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

We find some hope in these family scenes in the form of the late Lance Reddick who plays Kamal’s father, Benji Allen. At first he comes across as an overbearing LaVar Ball type. But over time we get a sense that there’s actually more to his character. Unfortunately we’re left to wonder because Reddick doesn’t get much screen time and the father-son relationship is left painfully underserved.

So we’re left with everything else, nothing of which will stick with you past the closing credits. The humdrum humor certainly won’t as it rarely registers. And there’s definitely not enough personality or charm to leave any kind of mark. Even the basketball scenes fall flat. And I’m still trying to figure out why they even bothered calling it “White Men Can’t Jump” considering how little it has in common with the considerably better original. Maybe the idea looked better on paper. Maybe it’s a cash grab. Either way, it doesn’t make for a good movie. “White Men Can’t Jump” is now streaming on Hulu.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “War” (2019)

The third installment in the now expanding TRF Spy Universe is the aptly titled “War”, a brawny Bollywood blockbuster that rivals any big-budget tentpole movie Hollywood puts out today. It’s a bit like “Mission: Impossible” meets “Fast and Furious” but with its own special sauce that fans of Indian action cinema will immediately recognize. It makes for a movie that’s exhilarating from start to finish and one with enough pizzazz to keep its audience glued to every eye-popping frame.

“War” is directed with style and verve by Siddharth Anand who more recently has directed the universe’s fourth film, 2023’s “Pathaan”. In “War”, Anand went BIG with his action scenes and clearly spared no expense. Taking place in stunningly shot locations all around the world, his set pieces are second to none and include a wild shootout in Tikrit, a killer pursuit across the rooftops of Marrakesh, a jaw-dropping motorcycle chase through Lisbon (that must be seen to be believed), and a sports car showdown in the Arctic Circle.

Adding to film’s list of strengths are the terrific lead performances from its two leads, Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff. Both have leading man charisma as well as the gritty physicality their roles demands. But they also have the ability and the smarts to dial their performances down whenever a scene needs them to. Ultimately it adds a level of believability to their characters, even in the instances when the delightfully over-the-top action sticks them in some pretty wild and crazy situations.

The story moves at a propulsive pace and is full of twists and unexpected turns. Shroff plays Captain Khalid Rahmani, a RAW agent desperate to regain his family’s honor after his disgraced father betrayed his country and was killed as a result. Khalid was trained by one of RAW’s best agents, Major Kabir Dhaliwal (Roshan). Kabir was hesitant to take Khalid into his special unit, because of his father’s bad name. But Khalid proves himself in the field and earns Kabir’s trust. Kabir agrees to train Khalid, and the two develop a friendship.

But when Kabir suddenly assassinates a high ranking RAW official, it’s left to a shocked and hurt Khalid to hunt down and eliminate his former mentor. But that proves to be easier said than down as Kabir always seems to be one step ahead of Khalid and his team (much like the movie is with its audience). Every time we feel we have a grasp of where things are going, Anand throws us a curveball. Admittedly, a couple of the twists are utterly preposterous. But they’re also wildly entertaining.

While its story (written by a team of four that includes Anand) earns its spy thriller stripes, there’s so much more that makes “War” click. I mentioned Roshan and Shroff who are in perfect tune with their characters and each other. And again, there’s the incredible vistas that are exquisitely shot by DP Benjamin Jasper. There’s also the remarkable fight sequences put together by South Korean martial arts choreographer Se-yeong Oh. The extraordinary production design, the (mostly) incredible digital effects, the energetic but not overbearing score – all key ingredients that Anand uses to the fullest.

“War” is a thrilling ride built on a big vision and even bigger ambition. There’s not a dull moment to be found in the film’s hefty 154-minute runtime, and it does a great job leaving its audience hungry for more. As for its standing in the growing TRF Spy Universe, it’s hard to tell right now. A sequel to “War” is said to be in the works, and its connection to “Tiger 3”, the fifth film in the universe due out later this year, remains to be seen. But even on its own, “War” delivers everything action fans will want, plus some. “War” is available on VOD and streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey” (2023)

Following its announcement, I’m guessing “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey” prompted a slew of different reactions from belly-laughs to eye-rolls. I can see some immediately hopping onboard while others instantly checked out. And I bet there were just as many (myself included) left scratching their heads. Well, I can honestly say that after watching this baffling concoction I’m still scratching my head.

So how did this movie come about? On January 1, 2022, A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard’s 1926 Winnie-the-Pooh book entered the public domain. Previously the rights had been owned by Disney since 1966. Disney was able to retain the character likenesses they created, but the actual characters themselves (Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Owl, Rabbit, etc.) went into the public domain. So what was the first thing someone immediately did? Why turn the beloved children’s characters into deranged homicidal maniacs of course.

Now at first glance “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey” resembled the kind of self-aware grindhouse schlock I could get behind. It opens with some promise both in its embrace of its patently silly premise and its willingness to poke fun at the slasher genre. But it quickly runs its central conceit into the ground, and it gets increasingly harder to separate the jokes from more serious scenes that happen to be really bad. And it doesn’t help that the movie is such a technical mess.

Image Courtesy of Altitude Film Distribution

That’s hard for me to say, especially as someone who loves watching talented filmmakers, old and new, do incredible things with minuscule budgets. But here, everything is sub-par. The cinematography is bad. The editing is bad. The sound is bad. The lighting is bad. Again, budget constraints should always be considered. But when the characters speak so low we can’t hear them, or the lighting is so dim we can’t make out what’s going on, or the camera is shaking so much we can’t follow the action, or the cuts either come too quick or leave us stuck on a scene way too long, it makes for an exploitation film of the lowest order.

If anything, director, writer, and producer Rhys Frake-Waterfield certainly seized an opportunity when he saw it. I mean countless filmmakers with original ideas struggle to find a screen for their work, especially in the horror genre. But Frake-Waterfield takes anthropomorphic animals from countless childhoods and turns them into Leatherface knock-offs and is able to nab a big screen “event”. That’s more impressive than anything in the actual movie.

As for the story, the amusing setup goes something like this: Years ago a young boy named Christopher Robin met and befriended the walking and talking Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Owl, and Rabbit inside the Hundred Acre Wood. Christopher fed them, played with them, and essentially grew up with them. They were his closest friends.

As he got older, the time came for Christopher Robin to head off to college. But with CR no longer there to feed and care for them, his animal friends began to starve. Desperate for food, they killed and ate Eeyore which pushed them over the edge. Enraged, Pooh, Piglet, Owl, and Rabbit formed a pact. They renounced their human side and swore never to talk again. Instead they went back to their animalistic roots. After five years away Christopher Robin (Nikolai Leon) returns, anxious to introduce his new fiancée Mary (Paula Coiz) to his old friends. But rather than a warm reunion, they are savagely attacked by a feral Pooh (Craig David Dowsett) and Piglet (Chris Cordell).

Image Courtesy of Altitude Film Distribution

Jump ahead a couple of years and we meet Maria (Maria Taylor) a young woman dealing with a trauma that the movie never seems all that interested in. Her therapist recommends she takes some time away to “disconnect”. So she and four girlfriends from college rent a two-story cabin deep in the Hundred Acre Wood, apparently within shouting distance of the vengeful, murderous Pooh and Piglet’s place (there are so many obvious questions about this scenario, but don’t expect any answers).

I shouldn’t have to tell you where things go from there. Yes Pooh, with his overalls and beer-gut, and Piglet, with his bad leg and sadistic love for chains, terrorize the young women, picking them off one by one in a number of grisly ways. And it isn’t that hard. Their victims are way too stupid to stand a chance, leading to a handful of laughs – some intentional but more that aren’t. Even calling them characters seems a stretch. They’re thinly sketched and the movie clearly doesn’t care about them so why should we?

To the film’s credit, the audience I watched it with seemed to have a good time (although I’m pretty sure they were laughing more AT the movie than WITH it). Clearly a big chunk of the budget went into the over-the-top gory kills which can be fun (when we’re able to make them out). But it’s one thing to spoof dumb and chintzy slasher movies. It’s another thing to become one. And it’s one thing to revisit your one big gag. It’s another thing to milk it dry before your movie is half over. Just more things to add to a laundry list of problems that make this potential romp feel like a dirt-cheap cash grab.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Wonder” (2022)

Florence Pugh continues to deliver strong performances through a fun and eclectic variety of well chosen roles spanning numerous genres. Her latest is “The Wonder”, a period drama with a tinge of psychological thriller from Chilean director Sebastián Lelio. The film is set in 1862 where Ireland has been stricken by a great and devastating famine. But in a rural Irish village a young girl has inexplicably been able to survive without eating. Some including her family insist it is a miracle from God. Skeptics believe the attention is unwarranted and that it’s all a ruse.

Lelio, who co-wrote the screenplay with Emma Donoghue and Alice Birch, spends a lot of time exploring the tensions between faith and science, more specifically those who prescribe to one side with no regard for the other. Pugh plays an English nurse named Mrs. Elizabeth Wright who is summoned to the remote village by a committee of local dignitaries (Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, and Brían F. O’Byrne). She’s joined there by a nun, Sister Michael (Josie Walker). The committee wants the two to observe a 9-year-old girl named Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy). After 14 days, they are to report back to the committee with their findings, Elizabeth from a medical perspective; Sister Michael through the eyes of faith.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

It’s said to have been four months since the seemingly healthy young Anna last ate and the townsfolk are baffled. How can she still be alive? “I don’t need to eat,” she tells Elizabeth in one of their first meetings, “I live on manna from Heaven.” Elizabeth and Sister Michael begin their observation in shifts and are instructed not to confer with each other before reporting back to the committee. Tom Burke pops up playing William Byrne, a reporter from London’s The Daily Telegraph with a special interest in the girl (and later in Elizabeth). He’s there to sniff out a story – is it something scientific that they don’t yet understand or is it something spiritual and supernatural?

The truth slowly comes into focus as Lelio patiently begins putting his pieces together. Many of them come from Anna’s family which includes her mother Rosaleen (Elaine Cassidy), her father Malachy (Caolán Byrne), and her older sister Kitty (a terrific Niamh Algar who’s also the story’s unconventional narrator). Through them we learn the O’Donnell’s are deeply religious and a certain family tragedy still looms over their household. Much the same, Elizabeth has a deeply buried grief of her own which drives her desire to get to the truth.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

“The Wonder” provokes some intriguing questions as it moves along, answering them from what seems like a fairly cynical point of view. The final act is a little shaky, but Lelio holds it together, ultimately ending in a place of hope while still making his overarching message abundantly clear. Interestingly, the movie is book-ended by scenes from a warehouse movie set where our narrator speaks to the value and persuasive power of stories while encouraging the audience to engage with them. It’s an interesting idea that doesn’t quiet land the way it intends.

It may have a few shortcomings, but they don’t outshine the many things “The Wonder” does well. Lelio shows an exceptional management of tone and the way he captures and uses his period setting enhances the story in a number of ways. He also knows what he has in Florence Pugh whose standout performance is both thoughtful and haunting. She keeps the movie centered and engaging, even in the few instances where its sputters. “The Wonder” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Women Talking” (2022)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Forming the very marrow of Sarah Polley’s quietly lacerating new drama “Women Talking” are the bold and timely themes of female survival and solidarity. That alone is enough for an engrossing story. But part of what makes Polley’s film adaptation of Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel so potent are the many other thematic threads that run throughout the movie. Threads that speak to the female experience in a variety of other ways. Altogether it’s an intense, insightful and sobering experience packed with more than a few surprises.

Among the key reasons “Women Talking” works so well is Polley’s ability to take this dialogue-heavy, mostly single-setting story and make it feel bigger. The vast majority of the movie is indeed a group of women talking in a hayloft. But it never feels restricted to just that. It’s partially because Polley gives us several moments to step outside the loft and catch our breath. Some of these scenes have a sumptuous Malickian delicacy, as if showing us the wishful side of colony life. Other scenes are understandably harsher. They’re often in the form of brief stabbing flashes, like a painful haunting memory that suddenly come to a character’s mind. Collectively, they make this feel like more than a simple chamber piece.

Another reason is Polley’s crafty screenplay which digs deep into the subject matter and does a great job defining the different voices we hear. But she also broadsides us with subtle slivers of dark humor. You rarely see them coming, and they offer a few welcomed respites from the heavier material. There are a few small kinks. Some exchanges can come across as stiff, and the dialogue is occasionally too writerly. But Polley’s sharp pacing, balance of tone, and great character treatment makes those quibbles easy to get past.

Image Courtesy of Orion Pictures

The story is introduced through a traumatic and revealing overhead shot. A young woman named Ona (a sublime Rooney Mara) sluggishly wakes up in her bed with bruises and dried blood on her thighs. We recognize the marks and know what they mean. But just to be certain Polley makes it crystal clear a few seconds later. Dazed by something other than pure shock, Ona calls out to her mother. We quickly learn this isn’t the first case of sexual assault in their Mennonite colony. “It went on for years. To all of us,” says our affecting young narrator, Autje (newcomer Kate Hallett).

As it turns out, women of all ages, even young girls, have repeatedly been drugged and raped by men in the colony. At first the women are told that it’s evil spirits visiting them in the night – a punishment for their own transgressions. But that lie is exposed when a young girl witnesses her attacker fleeing through a field. After another girl is assaulted, her enraged mother takes a sickle to the culprit – an act that finally prompts the elders to call the police. They take the rapists into custody, but not in an effort of enact some long overdue justice. In fact, we never get the sense that these men are going to be held accountable for their sins.

Before the colony’s religious leaders leave to bring the men back home, they give the women two days to either forgive their attackers or leave the colony. If they chose to leave, they would forfeit their chance to enter the kingdom of heaven. It’s one of several instances where the film takes a scalpel to the distortion of religion. Here the men twist scripture and wield their warped view of faith as a means to reinforce their oppressive rule. The colony’s women aren’t taught to read or write, a move designed to further their dependency on the men. And with their patriarchal control, the men feed the women all sorts of lies, especially regarding their religion.

Image Courtesy of Orion Pictures

But these aren’t weak women, and upon learning the truth, they decide to act. With the men gone, they gather in a barn and hold a vote to determine their course of action. The women give themselves three options: Do Nothing, Stay and Fight, or Leave. But reaching a unified decision proves difficult. It eventually comes down to ‘Stay and Fight’ or ‘Leave’ the colony. This frustrates the stern and cynical Janz (Frances McDormand who also produces), the loudest voice among the ‘Do Nothing’ contingent who promptly recuses herself (a bummer because we hardly see McDormand again).

In order to hash out a final decision, a chosen group of women convene in a hayloft led by two wise and knowledgeable matriarchs, Greta (Sheila McCarthy), and Agata (Judith Ivey). They’re joined by younger women including Mara’s Ona, Salome (Claire Foy), Mariche (Jessie Buckley), and Mejal (Michelle McLeod). They summon a colony outcast but university educated August (a heartbreaking Ben Whishaw) to record the minutes of their meetings. The discussions that follow are strikingly candid and the different viewpoints are compelling. For example, one considers pacifism while another is enraged; one is a defeatist while another is optimistic to a fault. It leads to some passionate clashes that are fascinating to watch.

Toews’ book was inspired by a true account, and knowing that makes Polley’s film register on an even more visceral level. Yet it’s also self-described as “an act of female imagination” which lets her blend more of her own perspective into the story. The results are gut-wrenching. And it’s even more profound once Polley kicks in the period-piece facade to reveal something far more prescient and of our time. It won’t be for everyone. But it’s hard to deny the timeliness of its themes and the boldness with which Polley takes them on. “Woman Talking” is now available in select theaters.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Waltair Veerayya” (2023)

There’s a lot to like about the new Teluga-language action-comedy “Waltair Veerayya”. Directed by Bobby Kolli, the movie takes some big swings and has an even bigger vision. There are bursts of good action, several compelling characters, and a spare laugh or two. And it leans heavy on its big star, Chiranjeevi, giving plenty of screen time to the popular actor, producer, and former politician. For die-hard Chiranjeevi fans, that’s probably enough to have a good time. But it doesn’t cloak the film’s flaws which unfortunately are too big to overlook.

For starters, “Waltair Veerayya” is a little too ambitious. I like the idea behind it and I certainly don’t knock its scope. But Kolli (who co-wrote the script with Kona Venkat and L. Chakravarthy Reddy) can’t bring it all together in a cohesive way. It’s especially evident in the messy and scattershot second half that gets bogged down in seemingly endless backstory that zaps the movie of its energy. The story structure is clever, but connecting the dots becomes more of a chore that enjoyable.

But its biggest issue comes in the awkward and jarring shifts in tone. The movie really struggles nailing down an identity, haphazardly hopping back-and-forth between blood-splattering violence, playfully romantic dance numbers, grim tragedies, and stretches of silly slapstick. It’s a pretty bold and challenging move to try and incorporate all of those things into your movie. But if they don’t come together well, you end up with a film constantly at odds with itself. Sadly, that’s often the case with “Waltair Veerayya”.

Those are issues I never could shake, but that doesn’t mean the movie is a dud. In fact, there were several moments where Kolli had me fully onboard with what he was doing. And while the second half is messy, the way Kolli brings it together in the final act gives you a better appreciation of what he was going for. Minus a few slow patches (mostly with the attempts at comedy), the first half is especially good at setting up the story and introducing key characters. It definitely sets things on the right track.

When a Malaysian drug lord named Michael Caesar (Prakash Raj) sends his henchmen to Vizag to bust his younger brother Solomon (Bobby Simha) out of jail, it ends in a gruesome police station massacre. The inspector in charge, Seethapathi (Rajendra Prasad) is relieved of his duty, but remains determined that justice be served. So he hires a notorious smuggler Waltair Veerayya (Chiranjeevi) to travel to Malaysia and extradite Caesar back to India to pay for his crimes.

It’s a good setup, but it’s not without its hiccups. Every so often, the movie gets sidetracked with these wacky scenes that almost play like sketch comedy. The feel so detached from the crime story at the movie’s center. Worst of all, they make it hard to get a grasp on who Waltair Veerayya is supposed to be. One minute he’s a gritty, intimidating, violent force; the next he’s a bumbling oaf. Not only do these scenes clash with the story, but they almost play like a showcase for Chiranjeevi rather than a tale of Waltair Veerayya.

Still, Chiranjeevi has plenty of charisma, and whenever the movie is focused, he makes for a good protagonist. The film is also helped by some good and sturdy supporting work. Seasoned actor Prakash Raj is no stranger to ‘bad guy’ roles, and he’s a perfect fit here. Shruti Haasan is terrific as a hotel guest relations manager who may not be who she claims to be. And Ravi Teja brings a needed swagger to the second half playing Police Commissioner Vikram Sagar who we learn has a special connection with Veerayya.

Aside from some rocky storytelling and a wildly inconsistent tone, “Waltair Veerayya” can still be entertaining. There are plenty of twists, turns, and double-crosses. There’s enough stylishly choreographed action to keep things lively, and the dance numbers (on their own) are enjoyable. If only it all gelled. If only the grim and violent didn’t clash with the silly and whimsical. If only it did as well telling its story as it did showcasing its star. “Waltair Veerayya” is now showing in select theaters.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS