Archive for August 2022


August 28, 2022

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Once upon a time, two superpowered brothers lived in rainy, poverty-stricken Granite City. Samaritan, the good one, fought for peace and justice. Nemesis, the bad one, was full of hatred — for the normal humans who’d called them freaks, and for his brother. One night, the brothers fought each other, and there was a big kaboom, and everyone thought they were both dead. But a little boy named Sam (Javon Walton) thinks Samaritan might still be alive, in the form of Joe Smith (Sylvester Stallone), a recluse who just so happens to live in the building next door.

Samaritan is a simple-minded superhero flick that offers no solution or reason for the grinding poverty it shows us. Someone on the news is literally cut off before she explains why unemployment and evictions are high. It’s just something that happens in the big city, where a lot of those, y’know, urban types dwell. To cover its ass, Samaritan gives us a blonde, Viking-looking gang leader, Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk), who stokes working-class resentment (for his own ends, of course) and wants to follow in Nemesis’ footsteps. Still, a lot of those, y’know, urban types work for Cyrus — including little Sam, at first. But Joe stands tall and points the way that others should go — to redemption or to Hell, their choice.

Stallone keeps his end of the bargain. He’s playing the ancient trope of the still-powerful old-timer drawn back into the fray against his better judgment, but he plays it simply and well. Joe just wants to be left alone in his apartment to tinker with things he finds on his trash-collecting route. Stallone makes us feel Joe’s weariness alongside his growing impulse to do for the city what he does for watches and toasters. One’s focus shifts immediately and gratefully to him whenever he’s around, and he even sells a flashback moment with him de-aged to look like, say, Nighthawks-era Sly. He’s the reason most people will bother with this and stick with it (though the other actors, particularly Dascha Polanco as Sam’s harried mom, aren’t bad).

It’s the nihilistically grungy backdrop, like Hobo with a Shotgun or RoboCop without the satire, that sticks in the craw. Granite City is full of misery, and full of mobs of people easily swayed to chant Nemesis’ name and then Samaritan’s. Such soil is fertile for the seeds of fascism, as is the soil of a lot of superhero power fantasies. I wouldn’t be — don’t want to be — going here if Samaritan were any fun, but largely it isn’t. The action is PG-13 brutal but dumb; half the shots we see bad guys take from Joe look like they’d be fatal. After too many macho things like this, in comics or in movies, I can see why old issues of Wonder Woman are so gratifying to me. My favorite version of Wonder Woman (there are many) is so powerful she can afford to be kind, even to her enemies. I’ve read stories where she says of that month’s baddie, “I know what in this person’s life turned them towards mistakes. I’m going to see that they get help.” 

But that sort of thing probably lies beyond a movie produced by as well as starring Sylvester Stallone, whose presence sometimes makes Samaritan seem like Cobra for teenagers (actually, Cobra was always for teenagers). There are honest, hard-working moms harassed by their landlords, and there are low scum who kill without a thought; there’s no middle ground, even though Joe’s whole arc rests on the possibility of redemption and the war, as Joe says, between good and bad in the same heart. I guess that depth of understanding only applies to white male heroes and the little boys who idolize them. There’s a female character who runs with Cyrus’ gang, having been “rescued” by him from living in a car at age eight. Joe kills her with a bomb. Apparently her crisis wasn’t as valid as Sam’s or Joe’s.


August 21, 2022

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Gene Siskel once said about Who Framed Roger Rabbit, “I don’t know how they did it, and I don’t want to know.” I feel the same about Fall, a taut, excruciatingly tense thriller about two climbers stuck at the top of a 2,000-foot-tall TV tower with no way to get down. The perilous situation has been faked so well that I almost want to believe the two actors, Grace Caroline Currey and Virginia Gardner, were actually up that high and doing all those crazy climbing stunts. But only almost. It was still most likely a nightmare to plan and shoot, and depending on how squeamish you are about heights, it may be a nightmare to watch. 

The “human element” is set up without fuss. Becky (Currey), Hunter (Gardner), and Becky’s husband Dan (Mason Gooding) are mountain climbing when Dan falls to his death. Almost a year later, Becky is existing in grief, and Hunter pops in to talk Becky into another adventure. The TV tower beckons, out in the middle of nowhere, and the plan is to climb it, scatter Dan’s ashes from the top, and face down any demons of fear Becky has. Becky eventually says yes, because it would be a short movie if she didn’t, and the two friends take off for the tower, which turns out to be much rustier and more structurally iffy than it looks from the ground.

Fall was directed by Scott Mann, who wrote it with Jonathan Frank, and it helps that he makes the leads smart and resourceful. Becky and Hunter make the most of the little supplies they have, using out-of-signal phones, a drone, and a “life hack” that I hope doesn’t get impressionable viewers electrocuted. The physical challenges of the women’s ordeal are sobering and convincing, their responses to those challenges often ingenious. We feel we’re in good company, and we come to care about the impetuous Hunter and the heartsick Becky. There are a few twists in store, too, one of them not actually connected to the situation at hand. Some may consider it unnecessary, but it allows us to breathe a little and it adds some shading to Becky and Hunter’s friendship.

I was a fan of the lost-at-open-sea thriller Open Water, to which Fall has been compared. But that film was somewhat limited by its setting, the relentless sameness of the ocean. Here, cinematographer Miguel “MacGregor” Olaso, shooting with an IMAX camera, brings out the beauty as well as the threat of the surroundings (the Mojave Desert) — the sky, the sun, the clouds, the occasional passing storm (more could’ve been done with the thunderstorm, although the small budget probably didn’t allow for it). Even at night, the lazily blinking light at the tip of the tower reveals, in red tones, and then conceals. Mann uses the scenes at night as another way for us to catch our breath and listen to the women talk.

I can’t say I wasn’t glad when Fall released me from its breath-stopping grip. After a while, the rising hopes, and hopes dashed, verge on a painful sort of nihilism — oh, no, this isn’t working either! — even though we understand it’s necessary to change up the problems and keep us interested. But there are enough elements here, other than the endurance test of the plot, to keep us aesthetically engaged. The performances, including Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Becky’s concerned dad, are human-scaled and effective. I will complain, however, that Lionsgate insisted that Fall go out with a PG-13 rating, meaning that a couple dozen instances of the F-bomb had to be redubbed (except one). I hope there’s an R-rated cut to come, with all the “fucks” intact. If any movie’s events justified foul mouths on the parts of their leads, Fall would be that movie.

Day Shift

August 14, 2022


J.J. Perry is a martial artist, fight coordinator, and former stunt person/stunt supervisor. So it doesn’t surprise me that Perry’s first film as a director, Day Shift, is a zesty tribute to all those disciplines. Jamie Foxx’s Bud Jablonski, a vampire hunter posing as a pool cleaner in L.A., strides into one vampire nest after another, loaded for bear, and the vampires don’t take Bud’s invasions lying down. No, they come at him whirling and kicking and chopping, and Bud puts them down with various weapons and techniques, though just barely. Vampirism, it seems, confers lots of violent skills upon the vampire other than just biting, and Day Shift is there to showcase them all.

It’s a fast, furious Saturday-afternoon time-killer, but how is it aside from the mayhem? The script, by Tyler Tice and Shay Hatten, comes up with sly ideas like a vampire hunters’ union, whose codes and rules make it hard for a firecracker like Bud to make a living. So he’s been working on his own, making far less money, until he needs a quick infusion of cash to make sure his ex-wife Jocelyn (Meagan Good) and daughter Paige (Zion Broadnax) don’t take off for Florida — he needs to cover the costs of Paige’s tuition and braces. As a plot motor, it’s a bit dusty — we’re to believe Bud has gone all this time keeping his real job a secret from his family — but we go along with it to get to the good parts.

The union stuff gives Bud an unwanted partner — Seth (Dave Franco), a union bean-counter assigned to observe Bud, who’s applying to get back into the union for more money, to make sure he follows all the rules. Bud doesn’t, of course, and the premise that Seth is Bud’s babysitter doesn’t last long. Seth exists solely as a wimpy foil for Bud’s go-for-broke, hammer-headed methods. Foxx and Franco make a mildly amusing team, though I would’ve liked to see more of Snoop Dogg, who has a few scenes and makes them count as Big John, a respected vamp-slayer. For that matter, I was ready for more of Natasha Liu Bordizzo as Heather, Bud’s mysterious neighbor. In some ways, the characters and worldbuilding in Day Shift seem to lay groundwork for further stories, like John Wick (co-writer Hatten worked on the third John Wick and is attached to the next two).

Bud frequently storms enclosed spaces, the better for he and his vampire prey to bounce off the walls. The vehicular stunt work is particularly well staged, composed, and edited. Sometimes when a master of another film vocation — say, special effects or cinematography — ascends to the director’s chair, they focus on their thing and forget most of the other things that go into making a movie. That isn’t the case here. J.J. Perry seems to respect the moth-eaten plot motor of Bud doing battle with monsters for the sake of his little girl, and the scenes that don’t involve stunts don’t seem rushed or half-assed. Day Shift feels like a movie made by a craftsperson who may have gotten tired of watching inept directors disrespect the arts of stuntwork and fight choreography by slicing it into a thousand unviewable pieces in the editing room. You can see what’s going on here, and that’s a relief.  

If Foxx wants a bubble-headed, action-oriented franchise, he’s got one here. As long as they bring all the folks back, especially Snoop, I’ll watch. But is L.A. — hell, the world — really so infested by vampires that an actual union of vampire killers is needed? It’s a funny idea, one that may get fleshed out in sequels, and a vamp bigwig called El Jefe (Dracula?) is mentioned but never seen. Sometimes vampires seem to outnumber humans here. The big bad here is Audrey (Karla Souza), who wants a world where humans worship vamps as gods. But has she really thought it through? If vampires feed on humans all the time, where will their worshipers come from? Or their meals? Zombies chow down on people with no thought for long-term consequences because, well, zombies aren’t big on thinking, but you’d think vampires would be more savvy. 


August 7, 2022


The well-loved Predator (1987) pitted Arnold Schwarzenegger and a cadre of tough guys against an ugly alien hunter with superior technology. After several sequels over the years, the franchise notes its 35th anniversary with Prey, an action-thriller set in 1719 among mostly a Comanche tribe as they attempt, more or less feebly, to contend with this merciless E.T. warrior. It takes Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young Comanche woman raised as a healer but yearning to be a hunter, and her loyal dog Sarii to defend the tribe against the Predator as well as some human predators (some French trappers).

Some have called Prey the best Predator film since the original. I may not be the best judge of that — Predator 2 (1990) eludes my memory, I fell asleep on Predators (2010), and I missed The Predator (2018) and the Alien Vs. Predator duology. But I’ll take their word for it. Sharply and succinctly directed by Dan Trachtenberg, from a meat-and-potatoes script by Patrick Aison, Prey establishes its conflict with no fuss, gives us a hero straining against the role 18th-century Comanche culture dictates for her, and doesn’t skimp on the action. It’s brisk old-school entertainment, and what it’s doing on Hulu and not on a big screen near you is beyond me.

Then again, Hulu offers the choice to view the film in a version dubbed in Comanche, which feels right. Not that there’s much chat anyway. The French trappers, mainly scum and Predator fodder, speak in French subtitled in French, so I guess it doesn’t matter what they’re saying. The one exception speaks Comanche to Naru and provides her with firepower other than her bow and her tomahawk. Why do I mention all this? I guess because the film’s setting (it was filmed in chilly Alberta, Canada) and polyglot nature reminded me of some of the better spaghetti westerns, especially those by Sergio Corbucci. 

I hasten to add Prey doesn’t share much besides aesthetics and a certain people-talking-past-each-other vibe with Corbucci. But I’m glad of any current movie that evokes him. I’m also glad to make a better acquaintance with Amber Midthunder, whom I might’ve seen in one TV show or another; here she takes the screen effortlessly and builds rapport with us immediately. Naru makes a fine no-frills heroine, though she’s made a bit too flawless. Other than the hunting training she works on by herself and doesn’t always come naturally to her, she doesn’t have a streak of impatience or something a young, energetic hero would have to unlearn. Of course, in such an action-centered movie this comes with the territory.

Naru takes some hits and losses, but her dog isn’t one of them, which is fine with me as a frequent visitor to the Does the Dog Die? website. Generally, Prey doesn’t want to bum us out too much. It’s a zippy Saturday-matinee creature feature. The apparent randomness of its setting (there is talk of setting further Predator movies in various other eras) allows for some subtext that isn’t stressed too much. What I admire most is that the film prizes Naru’s smarts above all else. Sure, she’s brave, loyal and independent, but she’s also a quick study, and she notices things about the Predator’s techniques that help keep her and others safe. She’s a great hero for this moment — not tough so much as resilient.