Review by Dan Skip Allen
Netflix is usually known for its groundbreaking tv shows and mini-series. But they would change the game when they started attaching big-name talent in the director's chair, such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, and Michael Bay. With that comes high-profile actors and actresses as well. In the past year films starring Ben Affleck, Robert De Niro, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Meryl Streep, and Ryan Reynolds have premiered on the streaming service. With the Russo Brothers, Joe and Anthony, forming a production company, it was a natural fit for AGBO to work with Netflix. They are usually hands-off and by now they have earned that based on their reputation from working with Marvel and Disney. Their second project out of the gate is Extraction starring Chris Hemsworth.
Hemsworth plays a black market mercenary who likes to drink a little too much. His group gets a job where he is tasked with rescuing a boy who has been kidnapped. He's the son of a big international crime lord. The film is set in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It's teeming with people and obstacles for Rake and his team to get the kid out safe and sound. Most films like this have well thought out action set pieces and Extraction is no different. The problem is when the action isn't hot and heavy the film grinds to a halt. Based on a graphic novel Ciudad, from a script from Joe and Anthony Russo, the film just isn't that interesting until the proverbial shit is hitting the fan. A few subplots are meant to keep the viewer interested but are just a distraction from the action.
With the MCU, the Russos had decades of comic books to fall back on, in addition to two proven writers, Markus and McFeely, with whom they worked on all of their MCU Films. This time out they are only the writers and not the directors. Sam Hargrave is prominently known as a stuntman on the Avengers and Thor films. In fact, Sam has been Chris Evans's stunt man on the Captain America and Avengers films. This is his first film as director, although The Russos must have had trust in him. The sixty-five million dollar budget shows in the production value and cinematography as well as a serviceable cast.
Along with Hemsworth, David Harbour shows up as Gaspar, a friend to Rake who has his own agenda. An all-Indian supporting cast rounds out the film aside from Hargrave that plays a sniper on Rake's team. Co-star Rudhraksh Jaiswal is the breakout star of this film as the kidnapped boy. He holds his own alongside Hemsworth and company. Also in a supporting role is Golshifteh Farhani as a liaison to Rake who has an interesting relationship with him. There might be more to her than meets the eye. As advertised, the stunts and choreography are first-rate. Hargrave's background is in stunt work, so they better look real. Filmed on location in Ahmedabad, the film looks like it is in a different world from our country. That brings authenticity to it like it takes place in an actual war.
Hargrave and the Russos do their best to make Extraction seem as real and authentic as possible. Getting realistic actors to the roles and a bankable star like Hemsworth doesn't hurt either. First-rate production value, cinematography, and stunt work goes a long way to making the film accessible to all viewers. A manageable budget, 65 million, is just enough to get what they needed from this film. Where this film falters, though, is its script and character-building. The script doesn't flesh out the characters enough to make the viewer care that much about them. A boy gets kidnapped and a special team gets hired to get him home to his father. I just didn't care about whether or not he got home or not. The protagonist isn't that interesting either. All in all, this film has some good parts, but as a whole, it is an uninteresting film.
Extraction is now streaming on Netflix.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
It is widely known that the United States went to Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein and take over the country for themselves so they could have a foothold in the Middle East and to have a better negotiating tool for oil. The problem is that the US can't just go into countries and take over — they use words like "elections" to make their take-over make sense in the eyes of the people. They also face the obstacle of getting the blessing of the United Nations, and in this case, the UN sends their own man to evaluate the situation in Iraq: Sergio Vieria de Mello (Wagner Maura).
In his career, de Mello has been in this situation before, having faced a similar situation in East Timor. He's definitely the right man for the job. But the US isn't going to let some United Nations diplomat get in their way of taking over and controlling Iraq for their own selfish reasons. George W. Bush was trying to get revenge on Hussein for his father who failed in Iraq back in the early '90s. Yet de Mello isn't going to be pushed around. He decides it's his job to let the UN know what the US is up to. He writes up an entire dossier and is about to send it to the United Nations when an explosion blows up the hotel he is headquartered in. Is this fate or on purpose?
In East Timor, he starts up a relationship with a colleague named Carolina (Ana de Armas) who follows him to Iraq as well. Ana de Armas is coming off of her biggest role to date in last year's Knives Out. She's had a few other roles before that as wives or girlfriends in such films as Blade Runner 2049, Hands of Stone, and War Dogs. She plays a similar character in Sergio as well, back to being typecast in these kinds of roles. Though with the success of Knives Out, that will hopefully change for her very soon.
Wrapped in a film about war and diplomatic games is a romance that helps the film flow. I do care about these two people and their love affair. The diplomatic struggles are okay, but not great. The East Timor stuff is essential to develop this budding relationship, but it takes away from the real story of what happened in Iraq, which is where the meat of the story lies. This film had a chance to focus on the real issue of this story, but it lacks vision and a linear narrative. This director, Greg Barker, has done similar political films based on topics that are touched on in this film, including Ghosts of Rwanda, Manhunt: The Search for Bin Laden, and The Final Year. He has a knack for telling these types of stories. The problem is Sergio lacks any vision and focus. He doesn't know if he wants to tell the Iraq story, the East Timor story, or the relationship story. This film is all over the place.
Sergio is now streaming on Netflix.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Sally Potter is a self-made filmmaker. She wrote and directed seven films before her latest, The Roads Not Taken. She takes a personal stance in many of her films, but this seems to be her most personal yet. A film about a man who needs constant care is not something you see every day. It's a topic that is difficult to talk about in a film, and The Roads Not Taken doesn't take a straightforward approach to it either.
Leo (Javier Bardem) is a man that needs twenty-four-hour care for his dementia. His daughter, Molly (Elle Fanning) watches him sometimes, but she has a career of her own to consider. While taking Leo out to his appointments, she notices that he goes in and out of consciousness, causing her to become concerned about his well-being. While in his subconscious mind, he spends time with his former lover, Dolores (Selma Hayek). Molly asks her mother Rita (Laura Linney), Leo's ex-wife, for advice on his problems, but no one has any answers.
Bardem has had a great career so far. He has had many iconic roles, including Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men (for which he won an Academy Award), fan-favorite villain Silva in Skyfall, and Juan Antonio from Vickie Christina Barcelona. His career is as varied as the many different roles he has portrayed. He is an actor that can choose any role he wants, allowing him to work with any filmmaker he chooses. This is a very different role for him. He gives it his all, but he is not the problem with this film.
The story should have just focused on Leo and his dementia and not gone off in such a strange direction. The actors all turn in a noble effort with the dialogue and script, but even they can't save a film with no direction. If Potter had focused more on the relationship between Molly, Leo and his ex-wife Rita, it would have been more interesting.
Films about dementia should move the person watching them. Films like Still Alice and What They Had capture what family and friends are going through dealing with a person with dementia. The emotions they feel are palpable. It becomes a situation where they don't want to deal with this person anymore. The Roads Not Taken unfortunately didn't have that effect at all. Though the acting was really solid, this film is mostly disappointing.
The Roads Not Taken is now streaming online as part of a virtual cinema initiative.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Like many other people, I was a wrestling fan as a kid. I loved watching Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior, Macho-Man Randy Savage, Sting, and Rick Flair. Their characters were bigger than life. I watched religiously for thirty years. WWF and WCW were a way to think about that world Vince McMahon created on the USA Network on Saturdays and eventually on Monday Night Raw. The Main Event is like going back in time to when I was a kid, dreaming of being a WWF/WWE Superstar.
Leo (Seth Bane Carr) is an 11-year-old kid in middle school who goes through the normal middle school routine. He gets picked on by bullies at school every day. One day while on the run from them, Leo hides in a wrestling museum where he finds a musty old mask hidden in a box. He puts the mask on and soon realizes it gives him superpowers. With his newly found powers, Leo enters a wrestling competition to be the next WWE Superstar.
The competition is full of WWE Superstars such as Otis (Heavy Machinery), Keith Lee (as Smooth Operator, the holder of the NXT North American Championship), and Sheamus, Mike 'The Miz' Mizanin, and Leo's childhood idle, Kofi Kingston from The New Day. Cory Graves and Rene Young from Smackdown are the announcers. Leo's newfound powers help him become popular at school and he even gets a new girlfriend, Erica (Mamona Tamada). His wrestling name is Kid Chaos and he becomes the talk of his town. Of course, the question now becomes whether or not he has become too big for his friends.
The Main Event has its usual sense of teen angst and family drama as well. Leo's struggling relationship with family and his friends cause him personal trouble. He needs to decide what's most important, his life with his friends or his newfound wrestling career. Leo has tough decisions ahead. A lot of films like this have similar plot threads. Live-Action Disney films have used these types of tropes for decades. They put the main character in a position where he or she has to decide what's right or wrong in their life and who and what is most important to them. Like all those Disney films from the past, The Main Event tackles those topics perfectly.
The Main Event deals with many topics and themes we've seen a thousand times before. The thing is it doesn't get old. I found myself caring about Leo, his friends, family, and this underdog story. The subplot of his relationship with his father intrigued me as well. This is a feel-good story for today just like those Disney films were back in the day. Wrestling fan or not, The Main Event is a film anybody can get behind. Jay Karas has crafted a fun family film. Especially inspiring is the message that you can overcome the odds in life with or without superpowers. Family and friends are what matter most in life.
The Main Event is now streaming on Netflix.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
The world of wrestling has its highs and lows. The toll that being the best in the ring and an entertainer out of the ring year after year can be a detriment. Trying to compensate for the pain and suffering can be hard. Drugs, painkillers, and steroids are quite often the solution until they become the cause of the problems. Chris Benoit was dealing with a lot of pain after the death of his long time friend from both in the ring and out of the ring, Eddie Guerrero. All of this caused him to do the unthinkable, kill his wife and young son in their home in Atlanta, Georgia.
Chris Benoit was a big fan of wrestling ever since he was a little kid. He idolized Thomas Billington, who would later become The Dynamite Kid. This would get him to become a wrestler. He would wrestle in various wrestling organizations including New Japan Wrestling. He was considered one of the hardest working wrestlers in the business and became known for using one of the most realistic styles. This led him to rivalries and later friendships with Eddie Guererro, Dean Malenko, and Chris Jericho.
After being pushed out of the spotlight because of their size, Chris, Dean, Eddie, and Chris all left WCW and joined WWF (World Wrestling Federation) now WWE. They all would reach the heights of their careers. Everything seemed great for these guys until Eddie started on a downward spiral from painkillers which would lead to his death. The death of Eddie was the final straw that sent Chris over the edge. In 2007, Chris Beniot would deliberately murder his wife Nancy and their son in their Fayetteville, Georgia home. He then hung himself from his weights, committing suicide. Was this roid rage or was this tragic event premeditated? That is the biggest question.
Talking heads, including David Benoit (Chris's son), Chris Jericho, Jim Ross, Vicky Guerrero (Eddie's Wife), Dean Malenko, Chavo Guerrero (Eddie's Brother), and Sandra Toffoloni (Nancy Benoit's sister) lend their opinions to the two-part documentary. Usually, too many talking heads can be a detriment to a good documentary. This one had a lot of archival footage from back in the early days of Benoit's career through WCW and WWF. This footage, combined with the talking heads painted a very vivid portrait of this story. This is one of the best documentaries of its kind. Vice went the extra length to get the most incisive and informative information available about this man and the world he inhabited.
As a wrestling fan from way back in the 1980s, I can say this story was as tragic for me as it was for the world. I was not surprised to see this happen though because the wrestling world has had many tragic deaths throughout its existence. From suicides to drug overdoses to death by enlarged heart, death has been a regular occurrence in this world. Benoit was one of my favorite wrestlers until that tragic weekend in Atlanta. Benoit, Guerrero and Jericho and the like will always be the best the business had to offer. This business will never see guys like this ever again. It's not the most popular opinion because he murdered his wife and son, but I will always love Benoit as a wrestler and entertainer.
Dark Side of the Ring airs on Viceland on Tuesdays at 10pm ET/PT.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Inspiring Christian films have become their own genre in the last decade or so. Audiences have come to get that Christian message. Films such as God's Not Dead, Breakthrough, and Overcomer were popular with audiences. The Erwin Brothers, Andrew & Jon, actually directed the successful I Can Only Imagine, about the Christian country group MercyMe's lead singer Bart Millard, two years ago, and they return with their new film I Still Believe.
Jeremy Camp (K.J. Apa) is a kid going to college in California. At a concert, he catches the eye of beautiful Melissa Henning (Britt Robertson). They both see a future together, and a romance quickly blossoms, but tragedy soon comes into the picture. Jeremy has to show strength and compassion he has never shown before in his young life. This type of film is about how believing in God can help the person in question get through whatever roadblock is in their way. We as an audience have to come along for the ride.
Like the Erwins other films, Woodlawn and I Can Only Imagine, I Still Believe is about people and events I didn't know anything about until I saw the films. Once I left the theater, I was so enamored with the people depicted in the film. These films really get to my core, and that's exactly what they are going for. They are trying to inspire those watching the film. I Still Believe does that very well. These directors know how to pick the right projects that lend themselves to that Christian audience.
Similar to I Can Only Imagine and Woodlawn, the Erwins like to cast established actors like Gary Sinise with new and up and coming actors like K.J. Apa and Britt Robertson. Apa is known for his breakout role in The CW show Riverdale, based on the Archie comic strip of the same name. He was perfectly cast as this young man dealing with a difficult journey. Britt Robertson is known for her roles as Casey Newton in Tomorrowland and Tulsa in The Space Between Us. It seems like these romantic teen or young adult romances are perfect for her acting sensibilities. These two young actors had quite the chemistry in I Still Believe that anchored this beautiful inspiring film.
These types of films can be a little under-acted or a little corny at times. When you find one that mixes good music, strong acting, and an interesting story you have a winner. I Still Believe is that to me. I was invested in the story from beginning to end. These actors brought their best to this inspiring film. Like the other films from the Erwin brothers, I Still Believe is a beautiful film with a message quite a few people have to deal with in society.
I Still Believe is now playing in theaters.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Behn Zeitlin broke onto the scene in 2012 with the micro-budget film Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film about a little girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) in the bayous of New Orleans. Zeitlin used no-names and guerrilla filmmaking to make this film. His follow-up, Wendy, was made in a very similar style of filmmaking. With once again unknown actors, Zeitlin and his wife Eliza wrote the screenplay inspired by the classic story of Peter Pan.
Wendy (Devin France) and her two brothers live an everyday life until they see a little boy on top of a train and they decide to go after him. They jump onto the train and find out that the boy is known as Peter Pan (Yashua Mack), and he takes Wendy, Douglas (Gage Naquin), and James (Gavin Naquin) to a mysterious island where children don't age and time is not the same as they know it. Zeitlin's style lends itself to this story very well.
Zeitlin cast unknowns which can be difficult sometimes because, more often than not, they haven't acted or have very little acting experience before filming. Devin France and Yashua Mack give fantastic performances as Wendy and Peter, respectively. Zeitlin seems to be able to get great performances from these child actors, as he also did with Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Child actors can usually be difficult to work with, but Zeitlin seems like a master at working with them.
Not knowing what's going on or where or when this story takes place is part of the charm of the film. As a result, what the kids are going through is what the audience is going through as well. These kids have ups and downs. The story is about them and how they decide things and work out their problems and situations. Adults could learn a lot from this story. Kids have a way of thinking that's different than adults — a simpler way of thinking that is more straightforward.
Through the eyes of these kids, we see innocence and that's why the Peter Pan story was a perfect fit for Zeitlin's script and filmmaking style. With all the sequels and cinematic universes going on in cinemas these days, Wendy stands out as a new and different kind of film. With unknown child actors and beautiful cinematography, this film was fun and all about what it's like to be young and innocent. The Zeitlins accomplished their goal of following up Beasts of the Southern Wild with another good film.
Wendy is now playing in theaters.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Bloodshot is based on the Valiant comic book character of the same name. Even though Sony has the rights to Spider-Man and his Rogues Gallery, it seems like they still wanted to create their own cinematic universe like Marvel/Disney. However, the problem with that is that Valiant comics aren't as well known as Marvel or DC comics. It's going to be a hard task for Sony. First out is the most popular of their characters: Bloodshot.
Vin Diesel is known pretty well for doing franchises, his most popular movies like XXX, Pitch Black, and the most popular of them all — The Fast Saga — having sequels. Additionally, in Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel, he voiced the lovable walking tree, Groot. He rarely does standalone films. If Bloodshot is successful it could spawn a sequel, but for now, it's a standalone film... and it may stay that way.
Ray Garrison (Vin Diesel) is a US soldier who leads a special ops team. He gets too confident and someone takes him by surprise and takes his life. Unbeknownst to him, the US Government gives his dead body to a doctor named Emil Harting (Guy Pierce) who helps save damaged ex-soldiers. With Ray, he used an experimental nanite program to bring him back to life. Bloodshot's story was interesting as a comic book, but as translated into a movie, it's not that original or fascinating.
Dave Wilson is a relatively new director, because he is primarily known as a visual effects director. He has done numerous video games such as Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and Star Wars: The Old Republic. He has also done visual effects for Avengers: Age of Ultron and his own animated short on Love, Death & Robots. Bloodshot is his first full-length feature film. It is undeniable — the visual effects are the best part of the film. The things that Ray has to go through trigger his nanites are all visual effects that were very interesting and exciting.
The problems with Bloodshot aren't the special effects — they are the script and the story. It's a pretty bland story with a new twist. You can't do a new character like this with a story and bland writing we've seen so many times before. A decent cast of supporting actors like Eliza Gonzalez, Sam Heughan, Toby Kebbell & Lamorne Morris does the best they can to keep this train from going off of the rails. Even they can't save this film. Sony better stick with their Marvel agreement for Spider-Man and his supporting characters. That might be the only chance at a shared cinematic universe for them.
Bloodshot is now playing in theaters.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
If a sports film is doing it right, it will inspire and it will leave someone full of emotions such, some positive and some negative. The Way Back accomplishes that in spades. This film will leave you emotionally drained by the end. The stark reality of alcoholism and the cost it takes from a person and those close to said man is evidently clear throughout the film. Everybody in a person's life pays the price of alcoholism. It's a disease that affects thousands around the world every day.
Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) is a man dealing with a lot of pain and anguish. How he deals with it is to drink himself into a stupor every night. One morning after he answers a message from the priest of his old Catholic high school. He has requested that Jack be the new basketball coach of the old team he played for. He begrudgingly accepts the offer. The thing is he doesn't know what he's got himself into. This isn't the same team he played for when he was a player in high school. It's also a different era than when he played as well.
Ben Affleck has had some difficult times in recent years. Like his character in The Way Back, he descended into the bottle. It caused him to be divorced by his then-wife, Jennifer Garner, and lose his kids. Jack is seeking redemption by coaching these kids he could relate to because he was one of them at one time. Ben seems to have this role because it was very similar to his own life. He is also seeking that same redemption by portraying this character. It is a very prophetic experience for him in his life. It's rare that an actor can get clarity, through a role that can help them in their personal life.
Gavin O'Connor has arguably directed some of the best films of the last twenty years in Miracle, Warrior, and The Accountant, the latter of which Ben Affleck back in 2016. Like that film, The Way Back deals with a man completely isolated by his own life. O'Connor has a knack for taking these characters and making them be relatable in society. Whether it be two brothers who don't get along with themselves or their father in Warrior or a coach that has to accomplish the impossible task of forming a team that can beat the unbeatable in Miracle. All the films and characters within them have to battle their own personal demons. That's why they are so effective with the audiences watching them.
With The Way Back, Affleck and O'Connor delve deep into the mind of a very damaged man. The alcoholism portrayed in the film is spot on. From personal experience, I can say that I have never seen this disease depicted better in a film ever! The things he does and the penalty he has to pay is on par with many people who have suffered from this debilitating illness. Including myself. Ben Affleck gives the performance of his career in the best movie of the year so far. This film is the first film of the entire year that actually says something about life and the relationships we form. They can make an impact on someone. A person could come into another person's life at the right time and that could make all the difference in the world. In the case of a coach and his or her team, it could be all the motivation they need to keep on living or fighting to survive.
The Way Back opens in theaters on March 6.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Just as the 2020 Sundance Film Festival started, the winner of the Grand Jury Prize of last year's festival is released in theaters. It had a limited release in late December so it could be considered for awards, but it was worth the wait.
Death row inmate movies seem to be a thing lately. Following a similar release pattern, Just Mercy came out in January. Besides the thematic connection, the films are very different. Clemency is more about the indictment of the prison system as a whole. The prison system in this country is overrun so they have to have a system in place to kill violent offenders and murderers, so some states have a lethal injection system in place. This film has a lot to say about the prison system in this country and doesn't always do it with grace.
Bernadine (Alfre Woodard) is a prison warden. She has to deal with a lot in her role. Some of it can be unpleasant. Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) is a man sentenced to death row for murder. Hodge is familiar with portraying prisoners because he was in Brian Banks earlier in 2019, in which he played a man who was unjustly sentenced to prison for a crime he didn't commit. Both Woodard and Hodge give great performances in Clemency.
Alfre Woodard has had a great career. She even was nominated for an Academy Award back in 1983 for Cross Creek. She has done quite a bit of television and movie work since then. Her entire career has prepared her for the role of Bernadine in Clemency, though. She has to deal with a lot of politics in and outside of the prison. All of this stress puts a strain on her relationship with her husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce).
Aldis Hodge is pro at portraying prisoners by now, but he goes to another level in Clemency. He gives a performance that runs the myriad of emotions. He feels like he can't trust anybody, let alone Warden Bernadine. If Hodge was terrific in Brian Banks, he is even better in Clemency. The man he is portraying deals with so much pain that it comes out in his performance in spades.
Chinonye Chukwu is a relatively new writer-director. She puts the prison system of our country under a microscope. We live in a difficult time when there are so many prisons that are overflowing with felons. She puts a shine on such an ugly part of our country. Cinematographer Eric Branco makes the visuals look like a shiny car, even though the story is so dark and full of emotions. Even the supporting cast, Richard Shiff as Woods's lawyer, Michael O'Neill as Chaplin Kendricks, Richard Gunn as Deputy Warden Thomas Morgan, and LaMonica Garrett as Major Logan Cartwright give terrific performances in this film. Clemency is a beautiful film about an ugly subject and everyone involved gives it their all, especially Woodard and Hodge.
Clemency is now playing in theaters.