‘Sword of God’ Review: A dour swirl of madness and mood lacking narrative gusto

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

Between the “God’s Not Deads,” “I Still Believes” and “Breakthroughs” of the world, faith-based cinema has staked a convincing claim in recent years on the enduring power of earnest – some might say overwhelmingly-trite – stories culminating in everyday peoples’ trust in a higher power, with audiences largely affirming the trend (only a handful of movies that showed on fewer than 3,000 screens last year made more than “Breakthrough’s” nearly $41 million). At the same time there have been more complicated examinations of the relationship between God and man, although Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” and Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life” – movies more interested in challenging audiences than consoling them – have tended towards briefer box office residencies.

“Sword of God” – which will be available via virtual cinema options from Film Movement on Friday after premiering at yesteryear festivals – also presents itself as a movie exploring religion, and yet it’s wholly unlike any of the titles listed above. Wavering between horror and brutal Middle Ages-era drama with the subtlety of an Eli Roth joint, the new offering from Polish director Bartosz Konopka is caked to its spiritual core in aesthetic mood—enough to drown out occasional whispers of profound pondering that ekes through in the film’s achingly good central performances. Continue reading →

‘Extraction’ Review: A muted Chris Hemsworth trades Mjölnir for a rifle in uninteresting shoot-em-up

This review was first published on KENS5.com and can be viewed here. 

 

We’ve hardly seen the mighty Chris Hemsworth as bruised and bloody as he appears in Netflix’s new action extravaganza “Extraction”—that includes his bouts against the dreaded Thanos himself. And yet, Hemsworth – sporting his natural Melbourne accent – rarely feels like less than a superhero even here as he trades in the billowing cape for bullet-proof vest, Mjolnir for the assault rifle.

His name in “Extraction” is Tyler Rake. Occupation: Mercenary. Hobbies: Popping pills and jumping off sky-high cliffs into the water to quiet whispers of pained pasts. If you thought the movie’s overarching narrative linking this humdrum actioneer’s opening credits to the first of its endless shootouts would be less blunt, think again; within about 10 minutes we seen Ovi (Rudhraksh Jaiswal), son to an imprisoned Indian drug lord, kidnapped by a rival psychopath (sporting a pristine suit, of course) and put up for ransom. Promptly entering the other corner of the proverbial ring is Tyler, suited up and hired to…well…I’ll refer back to the title. And, dropped into a version of Bangladesh that “Extraction” makes look like Mars, Tyler lets it rip.

The mayhem is crisp and coherent (I suppose the expertly-maximized gruesomeness of select human disposals is as good a barometer as anything), and it comes courtesy of Sam Hargrave. He’s a veteran stunt coordinator and fellow Marvel alum embarking on his first feature directorial effort, a la “John Wick’s” Chad Stahelski, and his storytelling motivations align almost perfectly with his fist-throwing ones. Bullets fly. Blood spurts. Bones break, occasionally a little louder than we might expect. And, every now and again, a household object comically devolves into an improvised murder weapon. Continue reading →

‘Bad Education’ Review: A contemplative fraud drama, with extra credit for Hugh Jackman’s stellar performance

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

There’s a solid chance you’ll be reminded of yesteryear’s college admissions bribery scandal – and the strange swirl of unbelievability, irony and contempt that came with it – when watching Cory Finley’s exceptionally nuanced “Bad Education,” which premieres on HBO Saturday night. Some familiar questions might also resurrect themselves as the real-life history of embezzlement by Hugh Jackman’s corrupt Long Island school administrator is uncovered (don’t worry—that’s not a spoiler so much as the “how” and “what’s next”) in a community where affluence is practically the high school mascot. How could they even consider this? Haven’t they got it easy enough? What’s the end game? 

The answers aren’t so simple. And the parts of the story that are even less simple is what Finley and screenwriter Mike Makowsky are interested in—the ethical thicket that leads people like William SingerLori Loughlin and Jackman’s Frank Tassone to take advantage of systems that are practically begging to be taken advantage of. “Bad Education” is a white-collar caper loaded with moral ambiguity – though the film itself isn’t morally ambiguous – lifted up by marvelous performances and powered by a surprising amount of thematic depth that makes Finley’s “Thoroughbreds” follow-up as enticing to pick apart as it is satisfying to watch. The dollar amount of Frank’s misdeeds numbered in the millions, but that figure isn’t the end-all, be-all as you’d normally expect from these stories. Continue reading →

‘Sergio’ Review: Unfocused political drama gambles coherency for sweeping romance

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

The early scenes of “Sergio,” a convoluted political biopic that hits Netflix Friday, suggest a movie that would have rather been a documentary in its telling about a Brazilian-born diplomat killed in a terrorist attack in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. A quick glance at director Greg Barker’s filmography and you’ll spot that – aha! – the experienced documentarian made one in 2009 of the same name and subject matter for HBO, to the tune of an Emmy nomination. It’s natural to wonder: Is Barker’s fascination that acute, or does the familiar material simply make for stable ground on which the director can create his first narrative feature?

Arriving in Baghdad as George W. Bush declares a new era and recycled newsreel catches the viewer up (or throws us back), Sergio Vieira de Mello is a United Nations representative on a mission—and he’d rather it be accomplished on its own terms, and not those of White House envoys. How his assignment to bring things under control will end isn’t a mystery the movie dangles over the viewer. It’s in the first five minutes that we see him gasping for breath under rubble, sparking a “Ladder 49”-style structure as the fragmented film skips through years and cinematic tones, turning recent history into a game of hopscotch as it struggles to compromise intimate observations of its title character with the admirable goal of educating us about a rare caliber of sympathetic political deal-broker. Continue reading →

‘Tigertail’ Review: Taiwanese immigrant story is an earnest, often gorgeous debut from Alan Yang

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

In one of the earlier episodes of Netflix’s “Master of None” – once upon a faraway time one of the streamer’s premiere original products – we’re granted access to the recollections of a background character’s journey to America, instigated by a moment of his son taking him for granted. Via spritzy montage, we see this man go from young boy in Taiwan to adolescent with dreams of venturing west before arriving and working his way to success, and finally to holding the infant who will have a bit of a clearer path in life. The momentary irony is rooted in sadness. But it sets up a satisfying payoff down the road when the son discovers his father’s history, and he becomes eager to learn more about it.

That episode of the Alan Yang-produced show (aptly titled “Parents”) now feels like it was a dry run for Yang’s first feature film that debuted Friday on Netflix, “Tigertail”—a thoughtful movie somewhat weighed down by its third act’s unfocused sentimentality.  It’s easy spot the thematic and structural parallels; both trace an Asian-American immigrant’s personal history from Taiwan before arriving on the East Coast, and both feel like intensely personal examinations of evolving relationships between a father and his child. How personal? It’s tempting to buy into the idea that both stories are Yang’s attempts at reparations through the small screen.

But where “Parents” felt optimistic, “Tigertail” is laced with melancholy. Yang’s movie (which he also wrote) feels like the budding filmmaker responding to himself, allowing himself a taste of bitter truths that may have been concealed in “Parents”—namely, that sacrifice and fulfillment don’t always occupy the same territory. Continue reading →

‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ Review: A stark, straightforward story of seeking an abortion

A movie centered around an abortion that’s less about abortion and more about young women supporting each other in the oppressive shadow of uncertainty, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” follows a young protagonist, Sidney Flanigan’s Autumn, who encompasses a rare ordinality that makes us certain we’ve known someone like her before. Maybe we recently passed by her in the grocery store, on a sidewalk, at the bus station. Maybe there was an exchange of words. Maybe we hadn’t thought about them since. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is the kind of film that makes you consider ordinary faces in the crowd as not just faces, but unique collections of decision to make, paths to trod down, experiences to live.

There is sheer power and heart-wrenching effect in how straightforward Eliza Hittman’s third, and best, feature is. With her latest, the writer-director has carved out a trilogy of sorts – one that includes 2013’s “It Felt Like Love” and 2017’s “Beach Rats” – about defining moments in the singular abyss of the American teenager experience. There’s the spark of sexual curiosity in her characters’ eyes, but Hittman rarely goes for sunny destinations; she’s more interested in consequence and fallout. Her movies can have an aura of aesthetic romanticism, yet what she puts her characters through is anything but romantic. Continue reading →