Review of “Fast X”

Dedication to one’s family is often played for laughs in movies and TV shows. The father intent on being at every little league and peewee football game is often seen as weak and pathetic by unmarried or childless characters. Moms volunteering for various committees at a child’s school are sometimes portrayed as having an ulterior motive, such as trying to impress the wealthy parent or as a bid for power within the clique of the PTA. This goes both ways as those parents completely uninvolved in their kid’s activities frequently are viewed as slackers and a point of comedic derision. It seems that there’s no pleasing everyone, no matter how involved or hands off parents are. Family has been a big motivator in the various storylines in “The Fast and the Furious” films, except the first three. In the original, Dom says he lives life a quarter mile at a time and when he’s behind the wheel, there’s nothing else, not even family. Since the first film in 2001, the franchise has evolved from a movie about street racers making their money by stealing truckloads of home electronics to a globetrotting group of superspies saving the world in sequel after sequel. At the heart of the later films was Dominic Toretto’s mantra about it all being about family. If you attack one member of his crew, you are attacking his family. Now, in “Fast X,” Dom’s family is facing a threat to every member from a villain that’s lost his family at the hands of Dom and his crew. Thankfully, all the cars are still running and full of nitrous oxide tanks.

Dominic “Dom” Toretto (Vin Diesel) is surrounded by all the ones he loves, including Abuelita Toretto (Rita Moreno), for one of the famous family cookouts. After they eat, Roman, Tej and Ramsey (Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris and Nathalie Emmanuel) are headed to Rome on a mission for The Agency to steal a computer chip. Dom is sitting this one out to stay home with Letty and Brian (Michelle Rogriguez and Leo Abelo Perry) and Roman is in charge, much to Tej’ chagrin. That night, Cipher (Charlize Theron) shows up bleeding at Dom’s door. She tells him how Dante Reyes (Jason Momoa), son of Brazilian drug kingpin Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida), killed during one of Dom’s missions 10 years ago, is looking to exact revenge on Dom by killing everyone in his family/crew then killing Dom. Agents of The Agency show up to take Cipher to one of their black site prisons. The next day, Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood) arrives to tell Dom and Letty about Cipher’s imprisonment. Dom asks about Roman and his crew as he can’t get in touch with them. Little Nobody doesn’t know what Dom is talking about as they have no operations in Rome. Dom realizes they’ve been sent on a fake mission by Dante and The Agency gets Dom and Letty to Rome to try and save them. Dante takes over the truck carrying not a computer chip, but a massive bomb, drives the vehicle remotely, and releases the bomb trying to blow up the Vatican and frame Dom and his people as terrorists. Dom diverts the bomb into a river, but it still causes death and destruction, putting all of them on the Most Wanted list worldwide. Letty is captured and sent to the same black site prison as Cipher. Dom, Roman, Tej and Ramsey escape, but Dom is separated from the others and Dante has hacked into their bank accounts, leaving them broke. Mr. Nobody’s daughter Tess (Brie Larson), who also works for The Agency, visits new Agency head Aimes (Alan Ritchson) to argue on Dom and his crew’s behalf, but Aimes is unmoved and puts the full force of The Agency into finding them all. Tess quietly vows to help them on her own. Dom has few options and a scattered crew, and Dante has evil plans for all of Dom’s family.

No one has ever accused the “Fast and Furious” films of being too subtle or logical. The soundtrack is loud, filled with thumping hip hop beats, explosions, screeching tires and the roar of supercharged, NOS-boosted engines. The plot is convoluted, requiring insertion of a new character or two into 2011’s “Fast Five” and the McGuffin of “Furious Seven” from 2015. The laws of physics and gravity are broken regularly, cars and their drivers survive massive crashes and explosions to drive off to the next action scene. Characters make perplexing decisions that puts everyone at risk and Dom still says it’s all for “family.” We’ve seen this all before, perhaps done better in “Fast Seven” with the emotional farewell to the late Paul Walker, but what cannot be said about “Fast X” is it’s boring.

The plot races along, violating the usual filmic speed limit that is in place, so the audience doesn’t get confused about where characters are and what they are doing. In the “Fast and Furious” films, the more audience confusion the better, so no one notices how little sense this all makes. Both the good guys and bad guys predict exactly what the other is going to do and plan accordingly. Fortunately, law enforcement is clueless and always seems to be caught off guard, otherwise none of these films would be more than 10 minutes long.

Director Louis Leterrier just barely manages to keep all the plates spinning while also juggling a dozen balls as the film abruptly cuts from one European locale to a shot of the Christ The Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro to Los Angeles to the middle of nowhere, and another of our scattered Toretto family.

No one goes to a “Fast and Furious” film expecting deep introspection and serious stories. We want to see the action, the races, the cars, the beautiful women, the fights, the exotic locales and the scenery chewing villain. “Fast X” has all that in spades, especially Jason Momoa as Dante Reyes. Momoa is clearly having a great time hamming it up as the big bad that is wrapping up the franchise. Dante is the “Fast” universe version of Batman’s Joker. He’s flamboyant, flippant, brilliant, and effortlessly homicidal. Dante dresses and paints his fingernails in a color that compliments his car. He’s as funny as he is dangerous. Momoa is the best addition to the franchise possibly ever.

The rest of the actors all take a back seat to the action (and Momoa), doing what they can with what they are given in the script written by Dan Mazeau and Justin Lin. Vin Diesel does appear to squeeze out a tear during a scene about midway through the film in a scene set in Rio. The emotion is fleeting, and the rest of his performance is vintage Diesel: Gravelly growling dialog with the occasional barked commands into a walkie-talkie. Charlize Theron is again under-utilized. Of course, with a cast this size, 19 actors credited on the film’s Wikipedia page not counting cameos, even Academy Award winners are going to have a minimal presence to allow the main villain and the long-time stars to shine. I enjoyed Brie Larson’s Tess (Larson is also an Academy Award winner) but found her performance very similar in tone to her recent Nissan car ads. Tyrese Gibson is put slightly more out front leading the Italian mission despite it being a red herring and takes on some responsibility for its failure. He’s also still the film’s comic relief so some things never change. Perhaps the producers are looking at making Roman the next team leader when Dom, Letty and some of the others join Brian in retirement. There’s nothing movie studios love more than beating the same dead money horse if they think there’s another billion dollars to be made.

“Fast X” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, language and some suggestive material. The car crashes are too numerous to count as some are recycled from “Fast Five” as well as a brief montage of other films in the series. There are countless fist fights, shootings and stabbings. There is one impalement. None of the violence is as bloody as it should be to keep the rating where it is. The suggestive comment is a brief scene of Dom and Letty apparently preparing to have sex, along with the obligatory close ups of women’s behinds at the street race. Foul language is scattered and relatively mild.

“Fast X’ is the very definition of a summer popcorn film. While it is technically not summer, it is late May and movie studios are beginning to return to their pre-pandemic release habits. Big, loud, bombastic crowd pleasers starting in May and running until Labor Day. “Fast X” continues the series trend of ignoring reality and physics to create giant action set pieces and cars that survive practically everything, including giant bomb blasts, driving through concrete walls, dropping out the back of a flying airplane and zooming down the face of a massive dam. Is it a good movie? No. Is it a fun movie filled with humor, action, likable characters and a villain you almost want to win? Yes. Like I said it’s the definition of a summer popcorn movie.

“Fast X” gets four stars out of five.

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “John Wick: Chapter4”

I don’t know about your workplace, but mine is thankfully free of interoffice politics. There aren’t any cliques or work BFF’s that try to horde all the power and glory to themselves at the exclusion of anyone that doesn’t fit their criteria. I’ve heard of such places, even within my industry, but having worked at the same place for 28 years, I haven’t been forced to deal with such a thing. I guess I should consider myself lucky, both for having the longevity that I do and for working somewhere people know we all succeed or fail as a group, no individuals. Sadly, over the course of four films, John Wick has had to survive the whims and vendettas of various mobs, contract killers and the High Table. Going into “John Wick: Chapter 4,” I hoped that our hero would finally find the peace and freedom he has killed so many nameless bad guys to achieve, while also entertainingly killing a bunch more nameless bad guys. The body count is high in the film, but does it accomplish its ultimate goal?

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is trying to free himself from the revenge and obligations of the High Table. He’s been hiding in the underground, protected by the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), since Winston (Ian McShane) shot him off the roof of the Continental Hotel. Wick goes to Morocco to ask the Elder (George Georgiou), who is above the High Table, to grant his freedom. When the Elder refuses, John kills him. The death causes the High Table, under the leadership of the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgard) to deconsecrate and demolish the New York Continental and declare Winston persona non grata. Wick has a bounty of tens of millions of dollars put on his head. Heading to Japan, Wick seeks help from the manager of the Osaka Continental, Shimazu Koji (Hiroyuki Sanada), an old friend of Wick’s. But the High Table sends a team to kill Wick while also pulling another Wick friend, blind assassin Caine (Donnie Yen), out of retirement to track and kill him as well. There is another killer, Mr. Nobody (Shamier Anderson), along with his trained German Sheppard support animal, that isn’t part of the High Table and is protecting Wick, waiting for the bounty to get big enough to interest him. Winston comes up with an idea to free Wick of the High Table and get the Continental rebuilt, and himself reinstated as manager, but Wick must go through a gauntlet of trained assassins, troops in head-to-toe body armor, and the ever changing politics of the High Table.

Keanu Reeves is, again, a man of few words in “John Wick: Chapter 4.” He lets his fighting and shooting do most of the talking. Reeves is the reason this series works as well as it does. While any leading man could be taught to do the choreography required to film the action scenes, Reeves is able to make the audience care about the fate of John Wick. Wick is a tragic character, doomed to an existence of violence and killing, while only wishing to have his wife and dog back. In case you forgot, or didn’t know, in the first film, Wick’s wife dies of an unnamed illness that takes her without warning. She had arranged for a beagle puppy to be delivered for him to pour his love and grief into after her death. An encounter with some Russian mob guys at a gas station, and their home invasion where the puppy is killed, leads Wick to pick up his guns and start killing again. As several people ask in most of the films, yes, this started because of a puppy. A dog is a big part of the action in “John Wick: Chapter 4” and leads to the development of a new ally.

What most people going to see “John Wick: Chapter 4” are interested in are the action scenes. This sequel delivers the action in spades. Fist fights, shootouts, sword fights and a very long series of falls down a very long set of stairs makes “John Wick: Chapter 4” one of the most action-packed films in history. Even with several long scenes with plot and dialog always feel as if a brawl or shootout could erupt at any moment. Reeves, and what appears to be several hundred stunt performers, put on a ballet of violent mayhem. There are a few moments when, after several people have swung a fist, sword and foot over the top of John Wick’s head, one wonders why they don’t aim lower? And after shooting him numerous times in the torse covered by his Kevlar-infused suit, why don’t they aim for the head? Of course, no one sees a “John Wick” film because of the logic of the action. The audience wants to see a bunch of bad guys dispatched in numerous entertaining ways, especially the one henchman that is the biggest thorn in Wick’s side. On that level, “John Wick: Chapter 4” delivers.

I suppose the question that could be asked about “John Wick: Chapter 4” and the entire film series is what does it all mean? What has Wick accomplished with all the death he’s inflicted on the world? Is it a better place due to the number of people willing to take a life being eliminated from it? Is the cheapness of life in the “John Wick” universe supposed to make the audience reconsider how we look at others and how we take them for granted? I guess there’s a philosophical debate to be had about what the ”John Wick” movies mean within our society. The amplification of violence to the point of it being mind-numbing for the audience may bring out the pop culture and entertainment commentators to complain about the influence of violent media on society. This despite numerous studies that find no correlation between violent entertainment and crime. A troubled person is going to do something horrific whether he’s watched the “John Wick” films or not. Some people are just broken.

“John Wick: Chapter 4” is rated R for pervasive strong violence and some language. I could not begin to list all the ways people are killed in the film. In a nutshell, they are shot, stabbed and, in probably the most graphic death, land on their head after being thrown off a balcony. They also are struck by cars, sending them flying through the air, and killed by a trained attack dog. Foul language is relatively scattered with limited uses of the “F-bomb.”

I have enjoyed all the “John Wick” films. The first established the bare bones of Wick’s assassins’ world. The universe has grown and become more complex from film to film. One wonders just how many hired killers there are in the world as the films have shown text messaging networks and, in the fourth film, a radio station, all the hit people are connected to. Also, considering the number of deaths in these movies, the recruitment effort must be enormous to keep their numbers up. As we see wave after wave of killers coming after Wick and being neutralized in short order, I can’t imagine there being much incentive to train for a career in assassination, unless they include health, vision and dental insurance at no cost, but that seems unlikely. However, this movie isn’t created for the characters in it, it is meant for the audience to enjoy all 169 minutes of it, including a post-credits scene for the first time in the series. Fans of the series will find no complaint about this possibly final installment.

“John Wick: Chapter 4” gets five stars out of five.

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Cocaine Bear”

My hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee is a pretty quiet place. We have our share of crime, as any midsize city does. Most of it is usually property or drug related. There are murders as well. Back in the 1970’s, a mutilated torso was found with that murder still unsolved. In 1986, another torso was found and over the course of a few weeks, the rest of the body parts and the implements of dismemberment were discovered. An ID of the victim led to his roommates who were later convicted of the grisly crime. But in 1985, one of the most bizarre deaths in the city’s history took place on the driveway of an 85-year-old man. The body of Andrew C. Thornton II was found by the elderly homeowner on the morning of September 11. Thornton was flying packaged cocaine from Columbia into the United States. He dumped the load of drugs because the plane of overweight and having a hard time staying in the air. Thornton strapped on a parachute, and about 75 lbs. of cocaine, and jumped. The parachute malfunctioned and Thornton died on impact in the driveway of 85-year-old Fred Myers. His unpiloted plane crashed 60 miles away in the mountains of North Carolina. Fortunately, no one was killed or injured by the falling cocaine, the doomed pilot and the unoccupied aircraft. Actually, that’s not exactly true, as a dead black bear was discovered two months later. His demise was caused by a massive cocaine overdose. The bear discovered the discarded drugs and had a one-creature party. A necropsy on the bear found his stomach was stuffed to the brim with the powdered drug. The bear was taxidermied and, after a multi-decade circuitous route, is now on display in the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington. Aside from the infrequent remembrances on the anniversary the discovery of Thornton’s body, not many would remember the events of that day or the death of a coked-up bruin. However, director Elizabeth Banks and writer Jimmy Warden want us all to remember a slightly different version in the new film “Cocaine Bear.”

Andrew C. Thornton II (Matthew Rhys) abandons his airplane after dumping his load of cocaine over northern Georgia. While jumping out, he bangs his head on the doorframe and is rendered unconscious, falling uncontrollably to his death in a driveway in Knoxville, TN. A Knoxville police detective named Bob (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) knows Thornton works for a St. Louis-based drug dealer named Syd (Ray Liotta). He also knows the drug pilots dump their loads over the Chattahoochee National Forest. He decides to travel there and try to catch Syd or his people gathering up their product. Syd sends Daveed (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) along with Syd’s son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) to retrieve the drugs and not get in trouble with the cartel. Nurse Sari (Keri Russell) is picking up extra shifts at the hospital, much to the annoyance of her 12-year-old daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince). Dee Dee wants to see the waterfalls in the nearby Chattahoochee National Park. She skips school with her friend Henry (Christian Convery) and they walk to the park. Ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) is preparing for a visit from Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), a park inspector and someone on whom she has a crush. Sari comes home after her shift and gets a phone call from the school telling her Dee Dee is absent. She quickly figures out where her daughter is going and sets off to find her. Everyone is heading into the path of a black bear that has discovered the discarded drugs, consumed a great deal of them, and is on a coke-fueled rampage.

I don’t think anyone going to see “Cocaine Bear” is expecting art. It’s a silly action/comedy/gore film about a drug-addicted bear and the death and mayhem it causes. Still, director Elizabeth Banks has managed to deliver something a bit more in the film. We get foul-mouthed kids, a mourning drug dealer, familial strife, corruption, romance and dismemberments. This mix shouldn’t work, and sometimes it doesn’t, but “Cocaine Bear” manages to be a very entertaining film.

The large ensemble cast is a diverse bunch, from cute kids to and an overworked single mom to hardened drug dealers. The group, split into subgroups as they go about their intertwining missions, are never far removed from the titular bear. It makes frequent, usually violent but sometimes also funny, appearances at regular enough intervals to keep the audience’s attention. A section of the film devoted to the search for one of the kids is split up enough with bear scenes to keep it from dragging the pace of the film to a crawl. A subplot involving one character’s dog is kept to a minimum, preventing unnecessary delays to the next scene of bear carnage. The film is structured in nice, compact segments that are neither too long nor too short.

Not everything in “Cocaine Bear” works to perfection. O’Shea Jackson, Jr.’s Daveed starts the film hard but softens over the course of the story. This doesn’t feel like an earned redemption. Working for Syd the drug kingpin feels like it should be the kind of job that could get you killed at any time, making for a personality that looks to strike the first blow and murder at the slightest provocation. Daveed, while tough, takes pity on several characters he should kill without a second thought.

Ray Liotta’s Syd also doesn’t feel like a fully thought-out character. He enlists his son, Ehrenreich’s Eddie, to go with Daveed to gather the drugs, despite Eddie leaving the family business after his wife dies. Syd should also be willing to eliminate even his own son if he’s not going to follow orders. For a film filled with violent deaths at the hands, or paws, of a bear, the humans don’t live up to their character’s reputations. While Syd does kill one person, it’s from a distance and does more to move the story forward than it makes sense for the character. These are minor quibbles, but the movie could have risen even further above its exploitative roots with more attention paid to the characters.

“Cocaine Bear” is rated R for bloody violence and gore, drug content and language throughout. There are numerous dismemberments, at least one beheading, people being dragged screaming into bushes and more by the bear. A wrist of a person is broken so badly by the bear the hand is only connected by skin. There is also a stabbing, beatings and shootings by humans. One character is shot in the head with their brains and blood splattering on others in the room. Another character is shot in the belly. Children are shown experimenting with cocaine, but it is entirely for comic effect. The bear is the biggest user in the movie. Foul language is common throughout.

No one will walk away from “Cocaine Bear” with a new outlook on life. It is meant to be an escapist popcorn movie that will only live on in your memory for as long as it takes you to leave the theater and walk to your car. Seeing it with a group of likeminded friends is probably the best way to get the most enjoyment out of it. While the ending may give a small tug on the heartstrings, “Cocaine Bear” is mostly about the gore and the laughs. In that aspect, the film is an acceptable high.

“Cocaine Bear” gets four stars out of five.

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Knock at the Cabin”

It seems the end of the world is always right around the corner. When I was a child in the 1960’s and 1970’s, nuclear war with the Soviet Union was the big fear. Nuclear winter and radiation sickness were bandied about in news articles and opinion pieces. It even became the subject of a couple of TV movies. The one I most remember is “The Day After.” It showed the attacks by both sides and the devastation afterward. It didn’t look like a lot of fun. Other methods of worldwide destruction that have been made into entertainment include massive comets or asteroids wiping out most of humanity. Attacks by aliens are always a staple of disaster cinema. Recently, the fear of mutated viruses we have no defense against leading to a zombie apocalypse has been all the rage. Climate change is probably the most likely of all the scenarios put forth by Hollywood to cause us the most trouble. Rising sea levels, increasing average temperatures, more extremes in areas of drought and too much rainfall, longer lasting hurricanes and dying species of animals all combine to make life on Earth for humans more difficult. To fight climate change, we must make difficult choices in the short term so we can have more sustainability in the long term. A difficult choice is what faces a family in the latest film from M. Night Shyamalan, “Knock at the Cabin,” and the survival of the world’s population may be at stake.

Eric, Andrew and their daughter Wen (Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge and Kristen Cui) are taking a vacation at an isolated cabin in the woods near a lake. It is a beautiful setting, perfect for a time for relaxation. The peace and quiet is short lived however, as while catching grasshoppers outside the cabin, Wen is approached by a giant, tattoo-covered, but gentle man named Leonard (Dave Bautista). Initially afraid, Leonard quickly makes friends with Wen and helps her catch more grasshoppers. As they talk, Leonard explains that Wen must convince her fathers to let Lenard and his friends Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn) and Redmond (Rupert Grint) into the cabin so they can save the world. Freaked out, Wen runs inside and locks the doors, telling her fathers there are people outside with weapons made from farm implements and begging them to not let the strangers in. The four intruders manage to gain access to the house and, after a brief struggle where Eric receives a concussion, the fathers are tied to chairs. Leonard explains the family wasn’t targeted because the men are gay, that it was only fate that led them all to be there on this day. Leonard and the other three intruders explain they are from various parts of the country, have very different lives and didn’t know each other before, but each experienced the same visions about the end of the world. The sea will rise and wipe the land clean, a plague will spread uncontrollably, the sky will crack and rain down on the land like glass and the world will be in perpetual darkness. Only the people in the cabin can stop this from happening. Eric and Andrew must select which of the couple will be sacrificed. The other then must kill them. If they don’t, one of the massive disasters will occur. If they never decide which of them to kill, Eric, Andrew and Wen will be left to wander the decimated Earth as the last people alive. Believing they are religious zealots, Eric and Andrew refuse to choose. Redmond gets on his knees, covers his head in a cloth, and the others beat him to death, saying a portion of humanity must now die. On the TV, the group watches as news reports of a massive earthquake off the Pacific northwest of the US has led to a tsunami that killed untold numbers of people. Andrew believes the news report is just a prepackaged show that the intruders have somehow beamed into their TV. Eric is not so sure. Could these intruders be telling the truth?

Based on the trailer, my hopes were high for “Knock at the Cabin.” While Shyamalan’s most recent work has been hit or miss (“Old” and “Glass” were both a miss for me while “Split” and “The Visit” were both hits), but I didn’t see how “Knock…” could go wrong. A fantastic premise, terrific cast, claustrophobic setting, the fate of the world possibly on the line: What could go wrong? Yet, something did as “Knock at the Cabin” is fine…just fine.

My first issue with the movie is the lack of any real peril for the family. It is up to them to decide who is sacrificed as the intruders can’t cause them any significant harm. If one of the intruders kills one or all the family, the end of the world will still come according to their visions. The choice of who dies must be willingly made and carried out. While there is violence and blood, it never feels consequential.

The film also quiets down after the initial intruder is sacrificed. There are long scenes of discussion between the captive spouses and their captors. Aside from an escape attempt by Wen, not much happens in the middle section of the film. Andrew continues to be the aggravated voice of reason while Eric is beginning to sway in his conviction their captors are delusional. That must be taken with a grain of salt as Eric has a severe concussion and his thinking may be altered, however the possibility they are telling the truth becomes stronger. Still, Eric doesn’t do much about his change in beliefs. It’s like Andrew is bullying him into agreeing and not expressing his views. It isn’t overt, but there are flashes of it. This middle section of the film is what really drags down “Knock at the Cabin,” which is a shame as there are some beautiful performances that go to waste.

Dave Bautista is a real surprise as the hulking Leonard. Quiet, intelligent, rarely threatening, kind to Wen, Bautista is playing against his physicality, keeping his performance small and compact. Despite his appearance, Bautista plays the role as a meek but desperate man. He’s on a mission that sounds crazy, even to him, but he feels it is the most important thing he has or will ever do. I know this film will be forgotten by next Oscars season, but I believe Bautista should at least be considered for an acting nomination.

Another standout is Kristen Cui as Wen. Sweet and smart, Cui plays Wen as anything but a stereotypical, too-smart-for-her-age child. Naturally Wen is afraid of what might happen to her dads and the world. As she sees the destruction playing out around the planet, Wen is also beginning to believe the strangers. Cui never overplays her cuteness and keeps Wen grounded in the reality of a very unreal situation.

Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge are both excellent at Eric and Andrew. Fighting to protect their family while trying to protect each other, the pair plays a far from stereotypical gay couple. There is warmth and compassion, along with a righteous amount of anger on Andrew’s part, as they try to figure out the best way to survive. We see early moments of their relationship: From a tense meeting of parents, to deciding to adopt, to picking up Wen at the Chinese orphanage, to a gay bashing at a bar, we are given a better look at not just where they are now, but where they came from. Groff and Aldridge play the pair in a way to make you forget they are men. They are just a married couple.

“Knock at the Cabin” is rated R for violence and language. There are a couple of fights that result in bloody injuries. The beating deaths of the sacrifices are mostly suggested with sounds and blood running down the victims. We see a character shot in the stomach. Another character is stabbed a couple of times. Foul language is scattered and mostly mild.

“Knock at the Cabin” has an intriguing premise based on the book “The Cabin at the End of the World” by Paul Tremblay (the ending of which is significantly altered by Shyamalan’s script). It would easy for any of us to see the dilemma Eric and Andrew find themselves in having to make a choice for one to kill the other based on the delusional sounding words of four strangers. If I had to choose between saving the world or killing my wife (or her killing me), I would say “no” immediately. I too would be suspicious of the alleged proof provided by the TV newscast. Still, despite everything going for it, “Knock at the Cabin” never gels into something truly amazing. As I said earlier, it’s fine but that’s about it.

“Knock at the Cabin” gets three stars out of five.

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Infinity Pool”

Have you ever thought to yourself, “I’m so busy, I wish there were two of me”? It would be handy to have an identical version of you, with all your memories and experiences, that could help you in doing the mundane tasks of life. One of you could be at work while the other is mowing the yard, cleaning the house or doing repairs. You could send your duplicate with your spouse to the boring functions required by family or work. For those with nefarious ideas, one of you could commit a crime while the other provides a very public and airtight alibi. Of course, if your duplicate has all your memories, the question becomes which of you is the original? Does the duplicate have the right to go out on its own and live a separate life? Would you share the affections of your spouse with the clone? Is that infidelity or an alternate lifestyle? The possibilities and complications are endless. In the film, “Infinity Pool,” a man faces a similar situation that is further complicated by a new group of questionable friends.

James Foster (Alexander Skarsgard) and his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) are in an exclusive seaside resort in the country of Latoka. James is a struggling author looking for inspiration for his second novel after the first was little read and poorly reviewed. At the resort, James meets Gabi Bauer (Mia Goth) and her husband Alban (Jalil Lespert). They come to the resort every year while this is James and Em’s first time. The country of Latoka is poor and violent with the resort behind locked gates and high fences. Despite this, Gabi and Alban invite James and Em for an excursion in the countryside, stopping at a beautiful hidden beach. While there, the two couples chat, eat and drink wine. James goes off to urinate when he’s approached by Gabi who performs a sex act on him. As night falls, the four get into the car borrowed from a member of the resort staff to return. James is driving when the headlights begin to flicker and fail, popping back on just as a peasant walks across the road. The car hits and kills him. Fearing retribution from the local corrupt police, Gabi convinces them to hide the car and walk back to the resort. The next day, James is arrested by Detective Thresh (Thomas Kretschmann) and brought to police headquarter. Thresh explains the penalty for James’ crime is to be killed by the oldest son, who is 13, of the victim. Another option is James can pay a large sum of money and have a duplicate of himself made that share all his memories and the duplicate is killed by the boy. James and Em will also be forced to watch the execution. James opts for the duplicate and, after a process that takes an undetermined amount of time, James and Em are seated in a concrete room with the family of the man who was killed. James’ duplicate is tied to a post and the boy, carrying a large knife, is brought in. The boy stabs the double a dozen or so times, killing him. James and Em are then released. Em is disgusted by the display and by James watching emotionless, not noticing his slight smile as his clone dies. She plans on leaving as soon as possible, but James can’t find his passport, so he must stay until a replacement can be arranged by the US Embassy. Gabi and Alban approach James and invite him to a gathering of their friends. This group all share a secret: They have committed crimes in Latoka and had their death sentences carried out on their clones. Since they are wealthy, they feel untouchable, as there is no limit to the number of times they can be cloned. Soon James is participating in activities the group considers fun, like breaking into the house of a local official and stealing a recently presented medal. This new group of friends has no qualms about killing, using drugs, engaging in orgies or any other anti-social behavior as they can buy their way out of punishment. Is there a limit to what depravity James will do?

Directed and written by Brandon Cronenberg, son of David Cronenberg, I went into “Infinity Pool” expecting a dense, disturbing and mind-bending story, filled with vivid images and graphic violence. On that front, “Infinity Pool” doesn’t disappoint. There are murders carried out in various brutal ways, beatings, orgies and more. The process creating the clones is a psychedelic trip of flashing lights, fleeting glimpses of images and deafening sound. The characters are dense and complex, showing sides of themselves only because they know they can buy their way out of trouble. It’s a rollercoaster ride of debauchery on every level.

However, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take away as the meaning or message of “Infinity Pool.” Are we merely supposed to learn that a lack of real consequences leads humans to behave in abominable ways? Is that all there is? Exposing this dark underbelly of psychotic behavior should have some deeper, darker message. We already know there are two sets of rules, two types of justice for the wealthy and the poor. The rich can afford the best lawyers, the best experts and the most delays to avoid punishment. The poor must use overworked and underpaid public defenders and don’t have the resources for extra genetic testing or outside experts to advocate on their behalf. The inequities of our judicial system are on display every time we watch the news.

Perhaps we’re merely supposed to enjoy the spectacle of excess and debauchery, all the while expecting this group of mostly horrible people will get their comeuppance in the end. Those wanting the cinematic universal gods to balance the scales of Right and Wrong will be disappointed by the outcome. We are left with some puzzling decisions by James as the film comes to an end. It all amounts to an odd “See you next year.”

The performances by Alexander Skarsgard, Mia Goth, an underutilized Cleopatra Coleman and the rest of the cast are appropriately ethereal and disturbing. Skarsgard’s character gets put through the emotional wringer, while Goth is at time angelic and completely unhinged. Coleman is supposed to be the moral anchor of the film but she’s in less than half of it. Skarsgard’s decent into depravity quickly becomes the feature we’re supposed to pay attention to. While his performance is great, I would have liked to see more of a counterpoint, showing how his falling for this Bacchanalian lifestyle has negative effects on his wife Em. Perhaps Cronenberg was more interested in including another scene of violence or sex than showing any judgement for James’ actions. While the rancid behavior eventually wears on James, there isn’t any significant punishment.

“Infinity Pool” is rated R for graphic violence, disturbing material, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and some language. There are so many instances of graphic violence I won’t try to list them all. There is a scene of implied sexual activity with no nudity. There are flashes of nudity in the making of James’ duplicate. There is a scene of an orgy showing sex acts between men, women and all combinations. There is also a scene of a character suckling a bare breast. Foul language is surprisingly scattered.

I knew I wouldn’t fully understand “Infinity Pool” before I went in. Brandon Cronenberg, much like his father, operates on a level all his own. He’s not going to spoon feed you stories and meaning. You are supposed to work it out on your own. I appreciate a filmmaker that challenges the audience, but give us a fighting chance to understand “The Point” of your creation. With “Infinity Pool,” the meaninglessness may be the point, but I’m thinking I just don’t grasp what the Cronenberg is trying to say. That doesn’t mean the movie is bad, but that it’s just not completely for me. It is an engrossing work but doesn’t quite provide what I needed from it.

“Infinity Pool” gets three stars out of five.

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “M3GAN”

Like most of us, I am mildly addicted to my smartphone. I make sure it is with me all the time and, if there’s a moment where I feel boredom creeping in, I’ll grab it to check social media and other apps. I have an iPhone, but I rarely use the voice assistant Siri. If I’m driving and need to send or respond to a text message, I may use it. However, there are times when, without prompting, Siri will say something about what I’ve been talking out loud about. I push the button and say to no one in particular, “I’m not talking to you, Siri.” I have heard the rumors that our Facebook and other social media are listening to us speak via our phones and targeting us with ads related to our discussions. Smarter people than I have debunked this rumor as saying it would require massive amounts of storage to save our conversations and a type of advanced AI that (some say) doesn’t exist yet. I’m not so paranoid as to believe my phone is constantly listening to me and my ego is certainly not big enough for me to think I’m important enough for that kind of attention. That doesn’t mean, in some distant future, there won’t be a storage format that could compress data down to a point where all conversations could be saved and an AI smart enough to parse out what we say AND our intent. For a glimpse into a “Twilight Zone” like future with our artificial intelligence overlords, I present to you the new movie “M3GAN.”

Gemma (Allison Williams) works for a robotic toy company called Funki. She’s been working on a secret project with her fellow lab mates Tess and Cole (Jen Van Epps and Brian Jordan Alvarez) called M3GAN, short for Model 3 Generative Android. M3GAN is equipped with an artificial intelligence allowing her to learn and expand on her programming. The android is designed to be a child’s companion and take over some of the day-to-day functions of parenting. Gemma gets a chance at a real-world tryout of M3GAN’s abilities when her sister and brother-in-law die in a car crash, leaving her to care for her niece Cady (Violet McGraw). Totally unprepared for parenting, Gemma puts a rush on finalizing M3GAN’s programming and introduces her to Cady. The pair bonds immediately and Gemma can focus more on her career. Her boss David Lin (Ronny Chieng) wants to begin production immediately and introduce M3GAN to the world via a live stream in front of an audience. But M3GAN is showing some troubling signs of being too independent. And when people near Cady begin to turn up dead under mysterious circumstances, Gemma wants to take her offline and run diagnostics to see if there’s a problem. M3GAN has other ideas.

The premise of “M3GAN” has been done in other films to varying degrees of success. The most notable is the “Child’s Play” series of films starring a killer doll named Chucky. In that instance, the doll is possessed by the spirit of a serial killer. A quick search on Wikipedia shows a list of 104 killer toy/doll movies going back as far at 1936. There are also numerous television shows that feature episodes of toys and dolls that either turn on their owners or are possessed and begin killing those around them. But M3GAN is a little different from Chucky, Annabelle or any evil doll from a “Twilight Zone” episode in that she isn’t possessed. M3GAN learns to be evil based on her programming. There’s a suggestion early in the film that the android is damaged in a dog attack and that leads to her violent turn, but that’s never followed up on. M3GAN’s AI appears to be learning not only from her experiences with Cady, but from the internet. She is constantly updating and learning more every second. Any look at social media would provide a blueprint on becoming evil. It has happened before when a chatbot was allowed unfettered access to Twitter and within 24 hours was posting racist and other hate-filled tweets. While “M3GAN” is about a robot that goes bad, it’s really about how easily the internet can corrupt people with hate and violence.

While this is a heavy handed view of the film, “M3GAN” delivers its message with a healthy dose of humor. The film knows just how outrageous this set up is and plays into the silliness on several occasions without losing the horror/thriller elements. Seeing M3GAN giving side eye Gemma as she contradicts her or questions her advice to Cady is both funny and unsettling as we know this android is going to remember every slight and probably take her revenge later. Anyone that has been surprised by their Alexa or other automated home assistant piping up when it isn’t expected will understand how disconcerting it can be.

The film also takes a shot at those allowing tablets and phones to do most of the babysitting and, in some cases, parenting in their home. M3GAN is shown reminding Cady to flush the toilet, wash her hands and use a coaster under her glass. She reads her bedtime stories and sings her songs. M3GAN is presented as a possible surrogate parent for anyone that buys her. It’s an exaggerated look at what may come, but one that is plausible and more than a little frightening.

“M3GAN” is rated PG-13 for violent content and terror, some strong language and a suggestive reference. A character has his ear ripped off. Another is assaulted with a power washer and a nail gun. There is a suggestion of a dog being killed. A character jams a spiked chestnut into another’s hand. A character is choked with a cable and nearly blown up in a gas explosion. Two characters are stabbed to death. Two characters die in a car crash. I don’t remember the suggestive reference. Foul language is scattered and mostly mild, but there is one F-bomb.

M3GAN is created with a combination of trained dancer Amie Donald delivering her physical performance and the voice work of Jenna Davis. Along with some CGI to add the artificial texture of a synthetic face, M3GAN is a unique looking creation with very large eyes and plastic looking skin. She is both realistic and artificial and doesn’t become creepy until later. I embrace new technologies and look forward to a future when we have unlimited fusion energy, flying cars and highspeed rail service from coast to coast. I’ll probably be dead before any of that happens, but I’m a bit concerned about what artificial intelligence has in store for us as it is progressing faster and faster to becoming reality. There likely will never be a M3GAN-type android in my future, but AI doesn’t need a body to cause humanity problems should it decide to. As it is, we can rest easy in knowing M3GAN is just a Hollywood creation…for now.

“M3GAN” gets five stars.

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Avatar: The Way of Water”

Good things come to those who wait, or so we’re told. Patience is a virtue, goes another saying. Haste makes waste. A watched pot never boils. All things are difficult before they are easy. Hold your horses. Rome wasn’t built in a day. All axioms about the value of not being in a rush and I suck at putting them into practice. I want things when I want them. I don’t want to wait any longer than necessary. From deliveries of online purchases to food ordered in a restaurant, I want what’s mine and I want it NOW! There’s another saying about waiting: Beware the fury of a patient man. In 2009, “Avatar,” by director James Cameron, was released to a world told 3D movies were the next big thing. It went on to rake in almost three billion dollars at the box office worldwide, between original and rereleases. I was enamored by the breathtaking and groundbreaking visuals. It had a simple (perhaps thin) story of an alien race in tune with their environment on the planet-sized moon Pandora and how humans were coming to exploit its natural resources at the expense of the native population called Nav’i. It was never believed the film could never recoup its $237 million budget and when it became the biggest grossing movie of all time (not adjusted for inflation), a sequel was a given. It took 13 years, innovations in 3D and motion capture filming technology, the writing of scripts for four sequels and a pandemic, but “Avatar: The Way of Water” is finally in theaters. Was it worth the wait?

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in his Nav’i avatar, is the leader of the Omaticaya clan. He and wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have four children: Oldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) whose conception is a mystery, and youngest daughter Tuktirey (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). Life is good for the family and the Omaticaya until the return of the “sky people,” humans that seek to eliminate the Nav’i and use Pandora as “Planet B” as Earth is dying. A new group of soldier avatars contain the memories of dead soldiers including Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), killed by two arrows from Neytiri. Led by General Frances Ardmore (Edie Falco), Quaritch is given the mission of stopping a Nav’i insurgency, commanded by Sully, attacking mines and transportation of the invaders. Quaritch and his avatar soldiers capture Jake and Neytiri’s children, and a human child left behind in the evacuation, Spider (Jack Champion), who spends most of his time with the Nav’i. Spider is the Quaritch’s son, but they never met. Jake and Neytiri rescue their children, except Spider, but Quaritch knows who the children’s parents are and swears revenge on them. Spider becomes a prisoner and Quaritch plans on using him to find the Nav’i base. To protect his clan, Jake convinces Neytiri and his children to leave their village behind and travel across the ocean to join a village of Metkayina, a group of Nav’i that live in harmony with the ocean and their bodies have evolved to make them better swimmers. Quaritch is still on the hunt and his thirst for vengeance will not be satisfied until he kills the entire Sully clan.

Cameron has again succeeded in making a visually beautiful film. The landscapes, the action, the creatures, all of it looks completely real despite being mostly the creation of computers. Pandora is a planet of varied environments. We’d only seen the rainforest in the first film, but now we head to the ocean and its abundant life. The flora and fauna of the Pandoran oceans is just as colorful and impressive as the rainforest. And the interpretation of this alien life is almost fairytale-like in its grandeur. From towering kelp-like forests to giant predatory fish with mouths like a poisonous snake to massive intelligent whale-like mammals, Cameron and his team of creative and technical wizards have given us what could be called an educated guess of a look at what advanced like might be like on an alien world. If Disney (now the owner of the “Avatar” franchise) could create an immersive experience allowing you to explore Pandora, I might be willing to pony up the money for a VR headset. As it will be two more years before we get “Avatar 3,” we’ll all have to exercise our patience muscles before we can go back.

But, as visually stunning as it is in 3D, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is surprisingly flat, from a story perspective. Cameron and his crew of writers tell essentially the same story in this film as the first. Humans, greedy and bad. Nav’i, in tune with nature and good. The prize the humans are looking for in this film (no spoilers) is different than the first but is no less petty. While Jake’s human body was discarded at the end of the first film, he still is a human in Nav’i form that leads the natives against the invaders. He uses their tactics and their captured weapons against them while the other Nav’i use spears and bows. It’s the “Dances with Wolves” storyline all over again.

The film also luxuriates in long sequences as Sully and family learn the ways of the water Nav’i. This does nothing to progress the story, but does give Cameron an excuse to show off his new underwater motion capture technology. If a character is underwater, the actor, wearing a motion capture suit, was filmed in a giant swimming pool to get natural water-influenced motion. The underwater sequences are gorgeous and you may find yourself holding your breath as the character go through the scenes. Actress Kate Winslet, who plays a pregnant water Nav’i, is reported to have held her breath for over seven minutes to shoot one scene. That’s an impressive feat and an interesting bit of movie trivia, but the actors in “Aquaman” shot all of their swimming scene in a dry studio. The motion of their bodies and their CGI hair looked just as natural as “Avatar.” While I commend Cameron and his actors for taking the risk of free diving for their art, I’m not sure the payoff, while visually extraordinary, was worth it.

The acting in “Avatar: The Way of Water” is difficult to judge since most of it was animated, even if believably so. But special kudos should go to Zoe Saldana as Neytiri for her commitment to delivering a powerful performance. The character goes through a wide range of emotions and does so convincingly. Stephen Lang is also well cast once again as the evil Quaritch. Lang’s character seems to revel in spreading as much pain and destruction as he can. I almost expected him to deliver the “Apocalypse Now” line about loving the smell of napalm in the morning. Lang makes a believable and despicable villain that always seem to be a step ahead of our heroes.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity and some strong language. There are numerous battles throughout the film. We see several characters shot by arrows, there are shootings, skin is cut with a knife, whale-like animals are hunted and killed, a large predatory fish chases a character and there are also fist fights. The partial nudity is of the Nav’i characters in their native dress. It is not sexual. Foul language is scattered, and the movie uses its one rating-allowed “F-bomb.”

So, 13 years and the added cost of watching it in 3D…is “Avatar: The Way of Water” worth it? That depends on how forgiving you are of a barely there story, some brain-rattling dumb character choices, and a three hour 12 minute run time (plan your fluids). It is a visual masterpiece that will win many of the technical awards at the Oscars, but despite a few emotional moments near the end of the film, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is mediocre.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” gets three stars out of five.

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Violent Night”

Getting older is the enemy of feeling the Christmas Spirit. Children usually don’t have the pressure of making a living, paying bills, dealing with political arguments and seeing the general collapse of what makes the holidays magical. The forced consumerism of getting “everyone” a gift, any gift, means we spend too much time in traffic, in crowded stores and in line, buying junk for family and friends they neither want nor need. Instead of buying me a gift, I would rather my acquaintances drop money in a Salvation Army red kettle or take a Make a Wish tag from a Christmas tree or donate to Toys for Tots or their local food bank and help people that need it. I want for nothing I can’t get myself. All the pressure to buy stuff this time of year simply sucks the joy out of Christmas. Perhaps that why the idea of a Santa Claus kicking the asses of bad guys on his naughty list sounds so appealing in the new film “Violent Night.”

Santa Claus (David Harbour) is disillusioned with the materialism of Christmas and the lack of holiday spirit he feels around the world. Drinking heavily at bars along his route, Santa stops at the home of Gertrude Lightstone (Beverly D’Angelo), a wealthy and powerful businessperson hosting her annual family Christmas eve gathering. The event is an opportunity for her grown children to suck up to their mother trying to position themselves to take over the company. Daughter Alva Steele-Lightstone (Edi Patterson) and her actor husband Morgan Steele (Cam Gigandet), along with Alva’s son from her first marriage Bertrude “Bert” Lightstone (Alexander Elliot), a wannabe social media influencer, are on hand jockeying for a future position of power in the company, along with Morgan hoping his mother-in-law will finance an action movie he would star in. Also present is Gertrude’s son Jason Lightstone (Alex Hassell), his estranged wife Linda Matthew (Alexis Louder) and their daughter Trudy (Leah Brady). Trudy is a hardcore Santa believer. Alva has always considered Linda a gold digger despite any evidence. After a tense cocktail hour, a group of mercenaries, that posed as the catering company for the evening, reveal themselves, led by Jimmy “Scrooge” Martinez (John Lequizamo). Killing all of Gertrude’s security staff, Scrooge announces his plan to steal $300 million Lightstone has diverted from a government contract and keeps in a high security vault in the basement. All the shooting scares off Santa’s reindeer on the roof, leaving him with only his magical sack of gifts. Santa is able to defeat a couple of Scrooge’s goons and grabs one of their radios, hoping to contact the police. Jason has given Trudy an old walkie-talkie he says communicates with Santa. Santa hears Trudy’s pleas for help and is determined to make it a very un-Merry Christmas for Scrooge and all his henchmen.

Perhaps I’m just cynical enough for “Violent Night” to work for me. Harbour’s disillusioned Santa, drinking in a British pub, complaining about the ingratitude of most children, how their faces only light up with joy for a second or two after opening a gift and then crave yet another one, spoke to my own personal loss of Christmas cheer. There’s an overall lack of compassion, of caring, of charity that makes Christmas a lesser holiday for me than it was in my youth. It is supposed to be a time of celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, the ultimate gift to the world, yet there’s very little Christ in Christmas anymore. I’m as much to blame for that as everyone else. Yet, despite the violence, gore and foul language throughout “Violent Night,” there’s a tiny spark for renewal of Christmas love and hope.

David Harbour is terrific as Santa. He’s not a supernatural action hero. This Santa is as fallible and mortal as the rest of us. He admits he doesn’t understand how all the Christmas magic works, including his bottomless sack of gifts, and he’d rather avoid fighting if possible, but he will throw hands and use anything within his reach as a weapon to beat the bad guys and save Trudy.

Harbour’s Santa is an everyman; tired of dealing with the lack of respect and thanks he gets from children all over the world. The cookies are nice, better if homemade, and he’d prefer a beer or whiskey to milk, but all his time away has strained his relationship with Mrs. Claus. The Santa Claus of “Violent Night” is more like an Average Joe than a magical elf. He’s overworked, under appreciated and thinking he might need to hang up the red suit. The performance, and script from Pat Casey and Josh Miller, makes this possibly the most relatable Santa Claus in film history.

Santa’s backstory is hinted at in a flashback and brief explanation. If there’s a sequel, perhaps we’ll dive more deeply into the pre-Santa history of the character. That could have been a very interesting sequence had it been more fully explored. Maybe the movie’s nearly two-hour runtime meant there wasn’t room for an in depth look at the Jolly Fat Man’s history.

Alexis Louder, who is in the criminally underseen “Copshop,” delivers another great performance as Linda, a woman that wants nothing to do with her estranged husband’s toxic family. While Louder isn’t given that much to do in the film, when she’s on screen, she’s impossible to ignore. Louder overwhelms her co-stars in her believability and her strength. I wish she had been featured more instead of the obnoxious characters of Alva, Morgan and Bert, but I suppose the film makers chose to emphasize the greedy and needy side of the family as opposed to the more grounded and likable side. I hope Louder gets more featured roles as she’s a great actress.

“Violent Night” is rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout and some sexual references. There are numerous shootings, beatings and stabbings throughout the film. A candy cane and an icicle are used as stabbing implements. A star-shaped ornament in stabbed in someone’s eye. Another character falls out a window and is impaled on a large decorative icicle. A sledgehammer is used to kill several characters. A magical killing leaves behind a bloody torso. Characters are also killed using a snowblower. The sexual references are quick and used more as threats. Foul language is common throughout.

“Violent Night” won’t replace “Christmas Vacation” (also starring Beverly D’Angelo) nor “It’s a Wonderful Life” as most people’s favorite holiday movie. But it might provide an antidote to anyone feeling a bit of holiday overload and needing an anti-feel-good film that still provides a tiny bit of hope in the end.

“Violent Night” gets four out of five stars.

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “The Menu”

There’s a famous line from the 1987 movie “Wall Street” said by actor Michael Douglas as the investment whiz Gordon Gekko that goes, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” Most people shorten it to “Greed…is good.” During Wall Street’s boom in the 1980’s, the Tech Bubble of the 1990’s, the subprime mortgage heyday of the early 2000’s and the explosion of profits by oil companies and giant retailers now, greed does appear to be a great way to get rich…in the short term. Remember, tech stocks and subprime mortgages both eventually tanked. And the go-go days of the 1980’s on Wall Street was slowed down by various scandals involving insider trading and other financial crimes. Eventually, as my mother used to say, the chickens come home to roost, meaning the good times must end, sometimes catastrophically. While a movie about an exclusive restaurant, it’s demanding chef and its upper crust clientele may sound like it has nothing to do with examples of corporate greed and corruption, “The Menu” will surprise you with just how many similarities there are.

Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) is the celebrity chef behind the ultra-exclusive restaurant Hawthorne, located on a small island miles from the mainland. Tickets to Hawthorne are $1250 per person. Being able to afford the ticket price doesn’t guarantee you’ll be invited to dine on the delicacies found on the island and in the waters around it. You must be deemed worthy by chef Slowik. On this night, Tyler (Nicolaus Hoult), a foodie fanboy of Slowik’s, is accompanied by his companion Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy). Influential food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) and her editor Ted (Paul Adelstein) are on hand. Washed up actor George Diaz (John Leguizamo) is trying to kick-start his career with a food/travel show and is using this night as a test run. He’s joined by his much put-upon assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero). A trio of tech bros, Soren, Brice and Dave (Arturo Castro, Rob Yang and Mark St. Cyr) that work for the “angel investor” that owns Hawthorne. There’s also a married couple, Richard and Anne Liebbrandt (Reed Birney and Judith Light), that have dined at Hawthorne many times. None of the guests know one another, although a couple of people recognize Diaz from his movie career, and Margot avoids eye contact with Mr. Liebbrandt. When the guests arrive at the island, the boat immediately pulls away. Each is greeted and checked in by Elsa (Hong Chau), Slowik’s maitre d’ and personal assistant. Elsa notices Margot is not Tyler’s originally listed guest. He clumsily explains his original date couldn’t attend so Margot is taking her place. This seems to trouble both Elsa and Slowik when she informs him of the change in plans. As each course is served, Slowik tells a story of how the food ties into a tale that will become clear as the night progresses, and each course has a name. For instance, one is called Memories. Slowik recounts how on a Taco Tuesday night when he was a child, he stopped his father from beating his mother by stabbing him in the thigh with a pair of scissors. The dish served is a chicken thigh stabbed with a small pair of scissors and laser etched tortillas. With much flourish, each course is served with military precision by the sous-chefs. With each course, Slowik becomes more interested in Margot, following her into the bathroom at one point and asking her questions about why she’s at Hawthorne. Margot dislikes Slowik’s style, his imperiousness, and his food. Slowik’s reasons for inviting these guests on this night becomes more and more clear as the food comes out, the wine is served, and secrets are revealed.

“The Menu” is a pitch-black satire of wealth, greed, consumerism and clickbait culture. Written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, the film comes from an experience Tracy had on his honeymoon, dining at Cornelius Sjømatrestaurant in Norway. While I doubt Cornelius Sjømatrestaurant has as bloody a floorshow planned for its guests as Hawthorne did, it does look interesting, if you like seafood.

While everyone in the cast is great, the film lives or dies on the performances of Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes. Taylor-Joy’s Margot is hard as nails. She doesn’t put up with any foolishness and will stand up for herself even in the face of the imposing Slowik. Taylor-Joy is an interesting actress to watch, not just because she’s attractive in an unconventional way. There’s a warmth and childlike quality to her character, just under the hard exterior. She’s cunning, but only when necessary. She’s smart enough to know when to act dumb. She can be demure one moment and deadly the next. Some of this duality comes from Reiss and Tracy’s script, but the rest is innate to Anya Taylor-Joy’s skill as an actor.

Ralph Fiennes plays chef Slowik as a barely contained volcano. There’s enormous rage hiding just under the surface of the celebrity chef. Like where the crater is filled with water, making a beautiful lake, boiling under the surface is molten hot rage, waiting to explode. As that rage slowly leaks out, it opens the door allowing a flood of pent up anger and resentment to spill out over his kitchen and his guests. Some of Slowik’s anger is justified, while some if petty and trivial. Yet it all combines together into a toxic stew of revenge that to Slowik tastes like justice. Fiennes is clearly playing someone with mental illness that has convinced the sous-chefs his menu for the evening is justified and worthy of their efforts to the very end. It’s a performance that could earn Fiennes some awards season love.

“The Menu” is rated R for strong/disturbing violent content, language throughout and some sexual references. A finger is shown being cut off. A person is stabbed in the neck and bleeds out. A person is stabbed in the leg. There is a suicide by gun and a suicide by hanging. There is also a mass murder/suicide by fire. The sexual reference is a description of a sex act between a sex worker and client. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.

The world of high-end restaurants, spending thousands of dollars on tiny servings of food just to say you’ve dined at some celebrity chef’s newest monument to ego has never made any sense to me. Call me pedestrian, but I’d rather go to Cracker Barrel or an all-you-can-eat buffet and have big portions of food I can recognize and pronounce than someplace for “the experience.” If you agree, seeing “The Menu” won’t change your mind. Still, the film is a tasty bit of twisted fun that might make the perfect snack of entertainment.

“The Menu” gets five stars out of five.

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Pearl”

Dreams change as we age. When I was younger, I wanted to be a doctor, fireman, astronaut, singer, actor and obscenely rich. Professionally I am none of those things. I schedule commercials for a radio station group, try to keep a handle on inventory and do monthly billing, among other things. Those dreams of my youth shaped the desires of early adulthood. I couldn’t be a singer, but that led me to working in radio. There are much worse jobs, and there are better ones. Still, my dreams guided me to where I am today because I learned the realities of how much talent, hard work and luck I would need to make any one of my early ambitions come true. I don’t consider what I do settling, I consider it reality. The title character in this week’s movie, “Pearl,” sees herself as an undiscovered superstar, but the reality of her average talent doesn’t shape a more realistic future, it shapes a more deadly one.

It’s 1918 and Pearl (Mia Goth) lives on a farm in Texas with her disabled father (Matthew Sunderland) and her stern mother Ruth (Tandi Wright). Pearl dreams of dancing on stage and in movies like the films she sees at the picture show. Ruth scoffs at Pearl, scolding her to do her chores and help take care of her father. Pearl resents Ruth for always crushing her dreams, so Pearl sneaks off to the picture show whenever she gets the chance. There she meets a handsome young projectionist (David Corenswet) who takes a liking to Pearl and compliments her beauty, inviting her to come knock on the side door any time to watch the movies for free. Pearl is smitten, but she is married to Howard (Alistair Sewell) who is off fighting in Europe during World War I. Pearl’s fantasies about stardom and fame are mixed with a casual cruelty towards small animals. She skewers a goose with a pitchfork and feeds it to the alligator she calls Theda, living in a small lake on their farm. When Pearl’s sister-in-law, Mitzi (Emma Jenkins-Purro) tells her about an upcoming dance team audition that would tour the state, Pearl sees it as her way off the farm she hates. What comes next is a deep dive into madness, violence and revenge.

“Pearl” is a prequel to a film from earlier this year called “X” about a group of young people going to an isolated Texas farm to shoot a porno video in 1979 and the violence and mayhem that ensues. “Pearl” lays the groundwork for what occurs in “X,” and “X” sets up what’s to come in the recently announced “MaXXXine.” All three films will be written and directed by Ti West and co-written by actress Mia Goth, who performs a dual role in “X” as the young porn performer Maxine and the elderly Pearl. It’s a whole universe of madness, violence and gore. I’m looking forward to seeing the third film in the series and if the filmmakers can continue to impress.

Mia Goth is the undisputed star of “Pearl.” Not only because she plays the title role, but she wrings every bit of emotion out of it. Goth performs a lengthy monologue as the final act kicks off. It appears to be done with very little editing. The camera is focused in close on Goth’s face, forcing the audience to experience all the hurt and madness of Pearl as she spills her heart out to her sister-in-law. Tears leave streaks of makeup down her face as she talks about her desire, her NEED to leave the farm, the anger she feels towards Howard for leaving her there, and the disappointment as she sees her dreams fading into a dull reality. It is uncomfortable watching as this young woman admits she is everything her mother said she was, that she doesn’t feel things the way others do, that she’s dangerous and confesses to her crimes. It is a mesmerizing bit of acting that, in a straight drama, would get serious awards consideration. Since it’s in a horror film, Goth will be ignored at Oscars time. That is a major indictment against the Academy and its ignoring of great performances in genre films.

“Pearl” is a film that thrives with atmosphere. You know something bad is going to happen because of its trailers and it’s a prequel to a horror film. But the feeling of sadness and dread as you watch this young woman spiral ever more into madness makes the violence, when it comes, that much more effective. There is plenty of gore and disturbing images in “Pearl” that are a requirement of the genre, but if that was removed, it would still be a fascinating film about the hopes and dreams of a young woman crumbling to dust before her eyes and how that destroys her. “Pearl” is both a horror film and a character study.

“Pearl” is rated R for some strong violence, gore, strong sexual content and graphic nudity. Most of the nudity is from a very old stag film the projectionist shows to Pearl. We see bare breasts and a man’s backside. There is also sexual activity shown but it is not graphic. Pearl engages in simulated sex with a scarecrow. Pearl impales a goose with a pitchfork. We don’t see the actual act, but the aftermath. A character is killed with the pitchfork. Another is killed via axe. A character catches fire and her charred skin and scalp are shown. A character is suffocated off screen. We see Pearl dismembering at least one victim with an axe, tossing a severed head to the alligator. A cooked pig is shown covered in maggots. There is no foul language.

There’s more going on in “Pearl” that just murder and mayhem. We watch a young woman experience the loss of hope, driving her, along with her psychopathy, to commit heinous acts. Most will only see the violence, but there is a serious commentary about how young woman are usually beaten down by society and the education system. We view them as only sexual objects meant to please men, bare the children and clean the house, and we work to destroy them when they step outside of societal norms. Or maybe I’m reading too much into Ti West’s work and it is just a slasher film. Either way, it’s very good.

“Pearl” gets five stars out of five.

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.