The Owners

56/100

A trio of small-time crooks looking to swipe an elderly couple’s retirement savings get in over their heads in The Owners, a diverting if overly familiar crime drama with horror-movie undertones set in and around a single house somewhere on the English countryside. Nathan (Ian Kenny), Terry (Andrew Ellis) and Gaz (Jake Curran) are neighborhood boys who’ve gotten wind that a massive bundle of cash is stashed in a safe beneath the Victorian home shared by Richard Huggins (Sylvester McCoy) and his wife Ellen (Rita Tushingham). The trio plan to help themselves to the loot while the geezers are dining out; Maisie Williams is Nathan’s girlfriend Mary, whose unexpected arrival on the scene adds logistical and emotional complications that multiply once the Hugginses arrive home unexpectedly early.

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Lock Up

52/100

Lock Up came out in 1989, but for much of its running time it feels like it could have been made at least 15 years earlier. Shot mainly on location at a real state prison (with real prison inmates serving as extras) in Rahway, New Jersey, it isn’t exactly gritty, but it’s convincing enough.

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We Summon the Darkness

46/100

Director Marc Meyers (My Friend Dahmer) attempts to channel the spirit of 1988 with this amiable but overly familiar heavy-metal horror movie about a concert meet-cute between head-banging dudes and rocker chicks that turns bloody when the girls take the boys home for the evening. The screenplay by Alan Trezza draws on the so-called “Satanic panic” of the era, positing a scenario where predators trawl rock concerts for victims and a drunken game of “Never Have I Ever” is a teasing lead-in to devil worship and serial murder. The results are mildly entertaining, especially in the early going, though Trezza’s scenario exhausts itself way too quickly to fill 90 minutes of screen time. Continue reading

Bad Boys for Life

48/100
Martin Lawrence and Will Smith in Bad Boys for Life

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are definitely too old for this shit, which doesn’t stop them from trying to reclaim their 1990s buddy-cop swagger in Bad Boys for Life, a belated threequel that trades in outrageous mayhem for the more street-smart brand of personal combat apparently favored by Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, aka Adil and Bilall. The bones of the story are pretty familiar: aging cop Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) is looking forward to retirement, a fate worse than death for his cocky partner Mike Lowrey (Smith), who mocks Burnett’s increasingly grandfatherly vibes. Just as the two men agree to arbitrate Burnett’s retirement date via the results of an impromptu foot race on the streets of Miami, Lowrey is gunned down by an assassin on a black motorcycle. Once Lowrey recovers, he’s bent on revenge, but his faithful sidekick Burnett wants out of the game entirely. What will it take to bring these bad boys back together … for life? Continue reading

Knives and Skin

52/100
Knives and Skin

Knives and Skin, an oddly inflected new film from director Jennifer Reeder, is unlike much else I’ve seen. Sure, there are signposts. The overall vibe is sort of midwestern David Lynch, with highly theatrical color effects borrowed from Dario Argento and an atmosphere of spotlighted American malaise a la the photographer Gregory Crewsdon. But to enumerate those clear influences is to define the film on the terms of a succession of Great White Men who came before it, and that feels unfair to Reeder. She’s working to open up new territory; Knives and Skin is an explicitly feminist endeavor that’s more interested in upending its forebears than paying them homage. Continue reading

Piercing

58/100

As Piercing opens, Reed (Christopher Abbott) is a man with murder on his mind. About 30, nondescript, slightly schlubby even, with a receding hairline, five-o-clock shadow, and a troubled, unsure demeanor, Reed is first seen hovering over his infant daughter with an ice pick in hand. He’s not making a cocktail. Riddled with anxiety and insomnia, Reed is a wreck. His work isn’t fulfilling him. His wife can’t calm him. And then at one point, as he gazes down into the dark pools that are his daughter’s eyes, the infant speaks to him: “You know what you have to do, right?” The moment is chilling, yet absurd. In a very dark way, it’s hilarious. And with that, Piercing is off to the races. Continue reading

The Spy Who Dumped Me

59/100
Kate McKinnon and Mila Kunis

The Spy Who Dumped Me is a lot — femme-centric rom-com, violent action-thriller, dopey spy farce, and genial paean to friendship in the face of adversity–and director Susanna Fogel revels in the tonal disparities from its opening sequence, which intercuts an enthusiastically mounted, bullet-riddled chase scene set in Vilnius, Lithuania, with scenes from a birthday party for Audrey Stockman (Mila Kunis), a 30-year-old grocery clerk who’s just been blindsided by a break-up text from Drew Thayer (Justin Theroux), her boyfriend of one year. The party’s been organized by Audrey’s devoted pal Morgan (Kate McKinnon), an aspiring actress whose ceaseless shenanigans help blunt Audrey’s sadness. It quickly becomes clear that, somehow, the guy hiding out from Lithuanian thugs in the gloomy, desaturated espionage thriller is Drew himself. When Morgan grabs Audrey’s phone and sends a text calling him a “worthless nutsack” and promising to “set his shit on fire,” Audrey gets a returned phone call from that other movie, in which Drew beseeches her to reconsider. Fogel keeps this up for a solid 10 minutes before the film’s title appears on screen, and it’s an intriguing overture.

The idea of a female-fronted, R-rated spy movie isn’t especially novel in the aftermath of Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow, but there is something delicious about the notion of a couple of completely ordinary millennials boasting and bluffing their way through a multinational conspiracy plot. The funny business isn’t as funny as it should be — too many gags don’t land, and some of the scenes have a choppy quality, suggesting they never quite came together in the cutting room. But Fogel cuts no corners getting her spy-movie pastiche on screen, which helps propel things forward. Second-unit director Gary Powell is a veteran of Jason Bourne, James Bond, and more, and with his assistance Fogel pulls off stunts and executes camera moves that shouldn’t really be possible in a romantic comedy–including a great shot that begins inside an apartment, then follows closely behind and beside Theroux as he takes a running jump off a balcony, rolls off the back of a panel truck, commandeers a motorcycle, and rides off. Scenes shot in Vienna have the sophisticated gloss of a Mission: Impossible movie, and the large-scale modernist architecture of Budapest provides some especially imposing locations as the film’s mood grows darker near its midpoint, when Audrey and Morgan are taken hostage and briefly threatened with torture. That’s when we meet Ivanna Sakhno, who gives an intensely deadpan performance as Nadedja, a round-eyed, tightly strung Olympic-gymnast-turned-assassin with a sadistic streak and a probably unhealthy attachment to her balance beam.

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Before long, the picture springs back into a more broadly comic mode, even developing a second, more devastatingly handsome spy, Sebastian (Sam Heughan of Outlander), as a love interest for Audrey. More than anything else, though, The Spy Who Dumped Me builds a showcase for Kate McKinnon, who first appears high-stepping her way into the frame as she sings “Happy Birthday” like the love child of Liza Minnelli and John Cleese. And she swings, struts, and sashays her way through the increasingly violent proceedings with brio as Kunis plays straight woman to her lanky, savvy jester. Her outfit for the first third of the movie is a black-and-white tank-top, suspenders, and capris combo that suggests a knockabout lineage dating back to vaudeville and silent movies. It is possible Fogel is so smitten with McKinnon that she allows her to overplay this shtick–the extended climax has Morgan fulfilling her longtime dream of performing on stage in a Cirque du Soleil-style trapeze act. (“Remember your training from the New Jersey Circus Center,” she tells herself.) This bit of business is meant, I think, as a triumphant sally into surrealistic lunacy — and there’s something so spectacularly unflattering about McKinnon’s outfit, as well as the way the harsh stage lights hit her face, that you have to admire her commitment–but it seems to go on forever and, worse, separates Morgan from Audrey.

If McKinnon’s constant mugging threatens to deprive her co-stars of oxygen, she nevertheless brightens the film considerably and even gives it a measure of poignancy. The love life described by the title belongs only to Audrey; Morgan is single when the movie begins and single when it ends, and there’s the faintest hint that her surface outrageousness hides a loneliness and insecurity underneath. (She’s stunned into silence when Drew responds to one of her jokes by calling her “a little much.”) But she’s not bitter about it–far from it, she plays Cupid. In one scene, the pay-off to a long-running gag, she’s delighted to learn that Audrey has the film’s MacGuffin hidden inside her vagina. When Audrey retrieves it and hands it to a nonplussed Sebastian, the look on McKinnon’s face is, well, not lascivious, exactly, but kind of wicked. She’s watching a connection being made, and she’s excited for her friend — though not sappy about it. It’s a broad moment, yet well-observed and almost precious in context. The Spy Who Dumped Me isn’t totally successful, but with character beats like this in her wheelhouse, Fogel deserves another shot.

Bad Times at the El Royale

34/100
Photo Credit: Kimberley French.

At least Cabin in the Woods had the sense to call it a day after misrepresenting the horror genre for 95 minutes. Bad Times at the El Royale misunderstands Quentin Tarantino for two hours and 20 and doesn’t stop fêting its own cleverness until the moment the credits roll. Writer-director Drew Goddard brings on the bursts of unexpected violence, ostentatious tracking shots, nonlinear narrative elements, and heavy-handed allusions to faith and salvation, sets them all to a soundtrack peppered with period soul and R&B and some ostensibly sassy dialogue, mixes it up, and strains it into a cocktail glass instead of serving it up in the red Solo cup it deserves.

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