Category Archives: Half-assed

Films in this category have something to offer but also have one or more flaws that detract from the experience. Still, these movies are probably better than most of the shit on Netflix.

The Matrix Resurrections

The Matrix ranks very high on my list of favourite films. But I have always wished the series stopped there. To put it politely, the Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions were not very good, and as far as my lists go, they only rank very high on my list of unnecessary sequels. Given that trend, it seemed inevitable that The Matrix Resurrections would be nothing more than another unnecessary entry in the franchise. And yet, The Matrix Resurrections feels surprisingly worthwhile, feeding viewers’ nostalgia by making that yearning the core of the film.

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is the creator of a massively successful videogame trilogy about the Matrix, a virtual world created by machines to hold humans captive. Thomas (a.k.a. Neo) has everything he could have wanted, but can’t escape the feeling that something is not quite right with his world. So when a stranger (Jessica Henwick) offers him the choice of escaping to the “real world”, you know he’s going to take it, if only to find out how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Except for the up-front reference to the Matrix as a video game concept, the plot is literally copied and pasted from the first film. Those similarities work in the Matrix’s world since we were told in the first trilogy that Neo’s adventures were not the first time around even then. What is confusing to Neo is that he, like the audience, thought he had broken the cycle by making different choices than his predecessors and ultimately by sacrificing himself to save humans and machines alike from the malevolent Agent Smith.

One key difference between this film and Neo’s last adventure is his focus. This time, he’s not trying to save humanity. He’s only trying to rescue Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) from the Matrix. That narrow mission is a welcome change from the previous two entries in the series, which had so many moving parts that they left Neo and Trinity offscreen for extended periods of time. In the original trilogy we were repeatedly told their love for each other made Neo different from his predecessors so it feels right that this time, Neo’s mission is to save their relationship.

No other stakes than that are needed. For Neo, saving his love is enough, as it should be. It’s refreshing that writer-director Lana Wachowski was able to resist the “bigger is better” ethos that all-too-frequently derails sequels (Venom: Let There Be Carnage shows how easy it is for a sequel to lose sight of what made the first movie succeed). Happily, that choice is what makes The Matrix Resurrections worthwhile, not just because it avoids the sequel trap, but because in doing so it gives us the chance to move past the other sequels to a world that feels limitless (mirroring the end of the first film). We finally have a satisfying end to Neo and Trinity’s story.

Now please leave it that way. #nomoresequels

Venom: Let There Be Carnage

Despite playing host to an alien symbiote, Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is doing surprisingly well. He and Venom are getting along famously, exchanging zingers, bonding over their shared love of crimefighting, and just generally becoming best friends. Eddie then stumbles onto an opportunity to revive his stalled career as a journalist after serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) asks for Eddie to interview him before he is executed for his crimes. And that’s where Eddie’s day goes from “good” to “worst ever”.

Cletus, you see, is destined to become Carnage, who in the comics may be even more of an enemy to Venom than Venom’s first nemesis Spider-Man. Spider-Man is nowhere to be found in Sony’s Spider-Man Universe despite Tom Holland being credited on this film (don’t get your hopes up on that point, by the way), so it’s up to Carnage to be the prime antagonist for Venom in this film. Cletus quickly bonds with a piece of the Venom symbiote after Eddie interviews him, and together he and Carnage escape from death row without any trouble. It’s then up to Eddie and Venom together, a.k.a. the Lethal Protector, to stop Carnage before he and his true love Shriek (Naomie Harris) kill Eddie’s ex-girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams) and her new fiancé Dan (Reid Scott).

Venom: Let There Be Carnage is a prime example of how hard it is for Hollywood to make a good sequel. The first Venom was surprisingly fun thanks entirely to Tom Hardy. Hardy fully embraced his symbiote pal and their banter was wonderful. All they had to do here was let Hardy repeat his performance from last time, which would have been great. In Let There Be Carnage, when Venom and Eddie are alone (together), the magic is still there. They are a joy to watch. Unfortunately, since this is a sequel, Sony crammed a whole bunch of new stuff into this film, like Cletus’ and Shriek’s back story, and none of it measures up to the scenes featuring Eddie and Venom. The worst thing is, since this movie did so well at the box office, the inevitable sequel will surely follow the same pattern as this one, adding even more villains and an even more convoluted plot, and no lessons will ever be learned.

Even though Eddie and Venom lose so much screen time to inferior material, there are still enough good scenes between them to make this a worthwhile watch for fans of the first film. However, this film should be a hard pass for anyone who disliked the first, and I’m sure everyone in this category knew that before reading this review. And if you haven’t seen either Venom film, watch the first and then wait to see if the third film ends up being better than the second.

The Suicide Squad

We actually saw this movie a few weeks ago, and like a good sport, I left it to Sean to review. You may have noticed it’s almost always Sean who reviews the super hero genre, and that’s me being my magnanimous self, giving these films a fair shake by not reviewing them myself. But Sean seems to have very little to say about this one, an indictment in itself, so it’s up to me to save the day.

I didn’t like it.

I really didn’t care for the first one either. I thought the music was both the best and worst part, the constant stream of pop songs perking me up, but their overuse indicative of weak writing and poor editing. This one doesn’t even feel as memorably bad, it was just a movie that failed to interest me despite a bevy of recognizable names and some enjoyable James-Gunn-isms.

Yes, the man has a way with manic expression, and away from Marvel’s PG-13 cage, he explodes with violent glee, shooting off confetti cannons loaded with human flesh, painting the scene with guts and gore. And while I welcome the sanguineous spectacle, I wish it splattered an actual story.

So we all know that Belle Reve is the prison where all the very worst super villains are kept, and that shady Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is at it again. When she’s got a job that’s so high-risk only the most expendable will do, she assembles Task Force X, a gang of villains chosen from the prison’s population. They’re promised freedom if they survive the mission, and no one expects them to survive. That’s why they call them the Suicide Squad.

We’ve got some new faces and some familiar faces in this particular squad: Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), and King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), among others, and Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) to keep them all in line. Armed and dangerous, they’re dropped into the jungle of Corto Maltese, an island that’s overrun by enemies, including militaries, guerrilla forces, super villains, and a Big Bad that’s very Big and very Bad, threatening to take over the entire island – and then the world!

Much like the first, the only character worth watching is Harley Quinn, and that’s largely due to Robbie. Suicide Squad’s Harley Quinn isn’t nearly as compelling as Birds of Prey’s, but she’s charming, manipulative, and unpredictable, an irrepressible combination, And though Robbie’s boxed in by the male gaze and the narrower interpretation of her character, she still brings a psychotic empathy to the role that’s a lot of fun to watch. Unfortunately, with such a large ensemble, she can’t be on the screen at all times. More the pity. Once again, DC bites off more than it can chew, padding out the squad with forgettable villains who are ill-used and badly introduced, if at all. Since they don’t care, neither do we, which is the most disappointing part of this film. The first Suicide Squad didn’t get this right either, but considering James Gunn was able to galvanize a bunch of unknown galaxy-guarding losers into crowd-pleasing heroes, we hoped he’d be able to do it again. No doubt DC was counting on him for this as well, but instead this movie doubles down on stacking the deck with mostly filler – not enough to engage the audience, but just enough to steal time from the few things in the film that do work. Bummer.

I think this movie was relatively well-received because we’ve been living in a blockbuster drought. If you’re thirsty enough, you’ll drink muddy puddle water gratefully. James Gunn’s Suicide Squad is muddy puddle water: it will do in a pinch. People will drink it during a time of scarcity, but given any choice at all, they’d rather drink anything else. It’s already on its way to being forgotten with other drinks that ultimately flopped despite lots of hype and fanfare: Crystal Pepsi, New Coke, Suicide Squad.

Sundown

Neil (Tim Roth) is just another millionaire on vacation in Mexico with his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her children when his (well, their) mother dies. Alice of course returns home immediately to start making arrangements, but Neil fakes a passport emergency to stay behind. Why would Neil do that? Well, Neil’s not much of a talker, and believe me, his sister asks, REPEATEDLY. But all Neil wants to do is sit on the beach and drink Coronas out of a never-ending, tourist-priced bucket.

Well, drink beer, and fuck the locals, if we’re being perfectly frank. Bernice (Iazua Larios) in particular. She’s pretty happy to sit and drink beers with him, but the life he left back home is a little more exigent. If he was rich before, he’s now much richer; his wealth comes from some big company back home that’s now officially passed down to the next generation, to his, to him and his sister. Only Neil seems to have opted out. He hasn’t said it out loud, he just won’t engage and he won’t go home. He’s on perma-vacation.

Writer-director Michel Franco knows that life has a habit of catching up with us all. Even money can’t insulate us forever. Maybe money makes us particularly vulnerable.

Sundown features a very cool Tim Roth, maybe not at his Rothiest, but relaxed into a character stripped down to essentials, editing out the bullshit, but whose background is complex and whose life waiting at home is brimming. Unfortunately, I don’t count this among my favourites at TIFF this year. The writing wasn’t as clear as it needed to be; I spent the first bit of the film sorting out its basic elements, and then reassessing the film once I’d made some rather large adjustments. Crucially, it also lacked proper motivation. Man walks away from life. Okay, sure, that happens, in film as in life. But why? Neil is up to his eyeballs in privilege and wealth; has a very cushy life .He’s trading it in for a simpler one. There must be some reason for this, but Franco doesn’t want us to know it, doesn’t even want us to ask. Neil’s life is further wrinkled by the Mexican justice system. You can be sure he’ll call on all his resources to iron this out for him, but while this does introduce some conflict, it fails to culminate in any sort of reckoning.

Sundown is a movie without a message. Tim Roth can’t find meaning where it doesn’t exist. There are ingredients there, and while I admire a film maker who refuses to follow a recipe, I’d still like those ingredients to be mixed and baked. Franco leaves them raw. Sundown is watchable but ultimately pointless.

Intrusion

Meera and Henry have left the rat race of Boston for a small town and their dream home, which Henry, an architect, builds for them. But paradise is about to be, well, intruded upon. A break in rattles the couple, and Meera (Freida Pinto) starts to feel uneasy in her luxurious but secluded home. What’s more, it turns out those responsible for the break in were also suspects in a case of a local missing woman. Meera and Henry (Logan Marshall-Green) might have accidentally built their home in the middle of something complicated and violent.

I think most of us would be frightened by a break-in. It’s very invasive, isn’t it? To feel like someone’s been in the place where you normally feel safe. Meera’s uneasiness grows when it seems that she and Henry are healing along different paths; Henry is ready, in fact insistent, that they move on quickly, while Meera doesn’t feel so confident. She’s a therapist, perhaps more in tune with her feelings, and recently in remission from cancer, so she feels lucky just to be here. Henry was by her side through every treatment and every bad day, so it feels strange to suddenly not be united in this, and issues only worsen as their case gets more complicated.

This thriller by Adam Salky is new on Netflix. It’s a home invasion movie like many before, and many afterward too, I’m sure. They’re effective because they literally hit us right where we live. Intrusion isn’t any great addition to the genre, but it’s fairly benign, and Pinto is lovely to watch. Character in these types of films, especially female ones, tend to be one-note, shrill and terrified, whereas Meera is a little more determined, more pro-active; not merely a victim, but an agent in her own fate. Give it a go if you feel like sleeping a little less soundly tonight.

Nightbooks

Nightbooks is a horror movie for kids – not young kids, mind you, but older, braver ones not prone to nightmares.

Young Alex (Winslow Fegley) is a prolific writer of scary stories, only some recent bullying has him vowing to give it up. On Halloween night he wanders into a strange apartment which turns out to be a witch’s lair, and a prison for the children she holds captured within. Yasmin (Lidya Jewett) is also being held prisoner there, by a witch named Natacha (Krysten Ritter), who collects kids. In order to survive, Natacha forces Alex to read her a different scary story every night, a new one that he writes. Natacha is very fussy about her stories; she actually knows ghosts and vampires and the demons, and the details have to be right. An even stricter rule: no happy endings. Alex will spend the rest of his life trying to write stories that please Natacha, and being threatened with death (or worse!) when he doesn’t!

The movie felt a little familiar to me, but I could definitely see kids, who have fewer references than I do, enjoy this as a gateway into horror. Horror-lite. Magic potions, toothy creatures, frozen children, a hairless cat, sleeping witches, poison candy: this movie has pretty much everything a kid’s nightmares are made of. But director David Yarovesky isn’t trying to scare the stuffing out of your kids, just sort of creep them out a bit, things looming in the shadows, light playing tricks on you, that sort of thing, horror’s oldest tricks, still classics, all of them.

NIGHTBOOKS. KRYSTEN RITTER as NATACHA in NIGHTBOOKS. Cr. CHRISTOS KALOHORIDIS/NETFLIX © 2021

Nightbooks won’t be any adult’s favourite film but it’ll likely be a popular benchmark for kids, possibly a hit among the sleepover set. Fegley and Jewett are sweet kids and perfectly able to carry this film upon small, slimy shoulders. Ritter lends a little something new to the wicked witch trope, with fabulous costumes and beautiful, unwitchy hair. Most of all it’s nice to see aspiring writers and young creative minds being lauded. What a wonderful thing.

Mothering Sunday

Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) grew up in an orphanage and was turned out at the age of 14 and pressed into a life of service. She works as a maid in post-WW1 England for the Nivens (Olivia Colman & Colin Firth), who lost both sons in the war. Their dearest friends the Sheringhams also lost two sons in the war but have one remaining – Paul (Josh O’Connor). All 5 boys grew up together and were quite close. The Nivens have come to think of Paul as a little bit theirs.

Jane, too, has come to think of Paul as a little bit hers because they’re having secret sex at every opportunity, which are admittedly few. In addition to the upstairs-downstairs wrinkle, there’s also the small problem of Paul’s being engaged to marry (someone else). He’s actually engaged to a woman who was meant to become the Nivens’ daughter-in-law, but now goes to Paul, by default. As you can imagine, it’s not the most romantic of engagements, but he considers it his duty as sole survivor to do what the others cannot.

The movie looks gorgeous, of course. This is what British cinema does best. But it’s also completely morose, unrelentingly gloomy, and unforgivably languid. Grief and loss shimmer insistently in the corners, but the British propensity for a stiff upper lip prevails, and all these grief-stricken parents do their best to muddle on in their big empty homes that feel more like memorials.

Traditionally, before mother’s day, mothering Sunday was a day off you gave the servants to go visit their mums. The title used here makes us painfully aware of so many sad circumstances. What is a mother when all her children are dead? And what is a daughter when her unknown mother gave her up? In her fog of despair, Mrs. Niven tells Jane how lucky she is to have been “born bereaved;” with no parents or family to lose, Jane will never know the pain of their loss. Being motherless is a gift, so says a woman drowning in grief and cynicism, Jane is free because she has no-one to care about. It’s both true and not true (not to mention a pretty awful thing to say, though we’ll forgive her because she’s completely heart broken but trying plenty hard not to let the mask slip). Jane has no mother to visit on Mothering Sunday, but that leaves her free for a fuckfest with her lover. And though Paul’s just a fortnight away from marrying (this is likely their last encounter), their time together isn’t tinged with sadness. They linger over each other with fondness, naked and unafraid. But Jane isn’t going to find a happily ever after here (nor, for that matter, is Paul). At most, suggests a future Jane, played brilliantly if briefly by Glenda Jackson, it is fodder for a brilliant writing career.

Unfortunately, the film lingers over literally everything, and though there are some brilliant bits, they are too few and too far between to really gather momentum or build emotion. The whole thing comes off as rather cold, an old woman’s memory of a torrid love affair that’s lost its heat.

Mothering Sunday is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

Body Brokers

Having done absolutely no research on this myself and relying solely on what this movie has told me: the Affordable Care Act classified addictions as a must-treat disease, creating the opportunity for an economic boom in the health care industry. There are thousands of beds to be filled; the trick is in finding the bodies.

The Premise: Utah (Jack Kilmer) goes to treatment after a decade of crack and heroin.

The Verdict: This isn’t a story about an addict in recovery. This is the story of corruption in the treatment industry. The movie feels, and it’s probably fair to say that writer-director John Swab feels, that treatment centers are a scam. An actual multi-billion dollar fraud that relies on repeat customers so isn’t exactly invested in full recoveries, uses its few success stories to recruit other addicts into empty beds to keep the cash flowing in, and profits from relapse. It’s a scathingly cynical view of the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It reminds me of I Care A Lot – which dealt with corruption in nursing homes – in content if not delivery. Body Brokers lacks a certain gloss, a certain finesse, but if you’re in the mood to rage against the machine, this will get it done, and a grounded performance by Michael Kenneth Williams makes it go down that much easier.

R.I.P. Michael Kenneth Williams.

Dreams on Fire

Writer-director Philippe McKie is Canadian by way of Montreal but has lived in Japan for over a decade. A multidisciplinary artist, he has worked in the fashion industry and as a DJ in Tokyo clubs, both of which inform Dreams on Fire, which had its North American debut at the Fantasia Film Festival.

The Premise: Yume moves to big city Tokyo in order to pursue her dream of becoming a dancer. Success is not exactly immediate, so we see her flit between street dance competitions, hip hop classes, anything likely to get her closer to her dreams. But her more imminent need for survival has her chasing cash into clubs where the girls aren’t necessarily dancing. It may not ultimately go on her resume, but Yume is certainly going to learn a lot about herself.

The Verdict: Rhythmic editing really draws us into Tokyo’s underworld, full of unrealized dreams and seedy potential, its lurid lights and colours casting an ominous glow on our protagonist and her compatriots. Bambi Naka is lovely as Yume, clearly a talented dancer in her own right, but willing to stretch and pour herself into the character. Director McKie is perhaps a bit style over substance, but the aesthetic is faultless and the film is never boring.

Beckett

John David Washington’s in the wrong place at the wrong time in this Netflix thriller.

The Premise: Beckett (Washington) is on vacation in Greece when he suffers a tragic car accident, which is only the start of all his problems. Turns out, the abandoned building he crashed into was hiding a kidnapped child, and now Beckett’s in all kinds of trouble, injured and on the run in a foreign country, chased by corrupt cops and determined criminals.

The Verdict: I feared at first that this was simply going to be one of those photo-finish races to the American Embassy: been there, done that. It wasn’t, quite, but nor did it amount to much more. Washington tries his best, and Alicia Vikander oozes enough chemistry to account for his motivation, but the film remains frustratingly underwritten, never giving us enough to fully invest in the thrill, let alone buy into just how quickly Beckett turns from simple tourist to just shy of super hero. His maneuvers are increasingly ludicrous, his luck notoriously bad, and the logic behind this whole farce is something best left unexamined. If you’re in it solely for the chase, you won’t be disappointed, but if you’ve come to expect character and story, maybe give it a pass.