(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Prison movies hold an everlasting fascination, and perhaps the biggest thrill for law-abiding audiences is to be placed in a situation where an ordinary guy is sent to prison, and then learns how it works well enough to succeed inside the walls as well as outside. So it is that with Shot Caller, we follow an ordinary guy who, thanks to some fatal drunk driving, is sent to prison for a short while. Unfortunately, he has the bad luck of being sent to prison in the late-2000s, a time of supermaxes, racist jailhouse gangs and reprisals on the families of convicts. Meaning that once he gets on the treadmill, he has no choice but to go the distance. It gets dark. Darker than Felon (2008), although not as dark as the stomach-churning Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017). Nikolaj Coster-Waldau impressively handles the transition between architect intellectual and muscle-bound prison gang leader. Unlike prison movies of an earlier era, Shot Caller depicts a sordid environment that worsens its inhabitants but doesn’t seem to call for reforms, letting the story speak for itself. It’s familiar material (as I’ve said: there have been a lot of prison movies over the years) but it’s handled competently and the ending manages to find just the right spot between tragedy and hope.
(On Cable TV, October 2016) I’m already on record as having an odd fondness for big-budget box-office bombs (they may not be good, but clearly there’s a lot to see on-screen), so you would think that I’d be favourably predisposed toward Gods of Egypt … and I was. There’s the added attraction of seeing director Alex Proyas’ work on the big screen for the first time since Knowing, the willingness to tackle a different mythology and a cast of good actors (albeit, as amply noted, overwhelmingly Caucasian—too bad for the wasted opportunity). On paper, Gods of Egypt sounds fascinating. On the screen, however, it’s another matter: From an unexpectedly cheap title card and an interminable opening monologue that throws viewers into the ice-cold pool of Egyptian mythology without a lifejacket, Gods of Egypt seems determined to sabotage itself even when it shows promise. As far as the 140M$ budget is concerned, you certainly see a lot of it on-screen: Proyas’s vision for the film is ambitious and expansive, and some sequences do capture an impressive sense of visual awe. The actors do their best, with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau getting another noteworthy role outside Game of Thrones and Élodie Yung looking fetching as the Goddess of Love (imagine having that on your filmography). In bits and pieces, still pictures and six-second video, Gods of Egypt works well. But when Gods of Egypt tries to piece the images together and paper over its ambitious vision with a limited special-effects budget, the film implodes. It feels unbearably dull, interminable, and conventional even in its unconventionality. By the end, it plays exactly like the countless other big-budget fantasy snore fests that have tried (and often failed) to parlay mythology and special effects into box-office receipts. Bad attempts at quips rival with unsympathetic characters and more lore than any brain can care about in an undercooked script that lays a bad foundation for the uneven special effects. By the end of the film, I was just thankful that it was over. I suspect that another viewing of the film with low expectations may improve my reaction slightly … but to be frank I can’t imagine being willing to spend another 130 minutes any time soon watching Gods of Egypt again.
(On Cable TV, April 2015) Revenge fantasies may not be good for the soul, but they can certainly drive a comic film. Here, two (and then three) women are united when they discover that they’re being cheated upon by the same man, who also turns out to be a con artist in other ways. Cameron Diaz is dependably amusing as the lead, whereas Leslie Mann becomes a delightful foil as the most mercurial of them—she has the shrieking madwoman thing down to a science. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, in another striking big-screen role, does have the requisite mixture of charm and sliminess as a philandering fraudster. Other additions to the cast aren’t as memorable: Despite prominent billing, Kate Upton is a bit bland as the Third Woman, whereas I remain unimpressed by Nicki Minaj’s performance in her short scenes (and this despite unexplainably liking Minaj as a musical performer). It’s a cheap and fast comedy without much sophistication, but it does get the chuckles it’s aiming for. There are a few false notes along the way (the ending is a bit more bloodily cruel than I had expected) and the script doesn’t embarrass itself with unpredictable plotting, but The Other Woman pretty much hits its target and delivers unchallenging entertainment for a solid 90 minutes.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) Mama may not be a spectacular horror film, but it’s a remarkably good one, and the thrills it offers are a cut above the usual run-of-the-mill horror productions. Focusing on orphaned children, long-lost secrets, flawed protagonists and a distinctive monster, Mama is heavy on atmosphere and has the merit to aim for chills and emotional investment rather than jump-scares and explicit gore. Writer/director Andrés Muschietti knows what he’s doing, and while nothing in Mama is particularly original, he’s able to wring quite a bit of tension out of familiar elements. The titular Mama is creepy enough, but it’s the complex interplay of parenthood issues (abandonment, fostering, hesitancy, and so on) that clearly lift the script above the average. (There’s an element of the conclusion that feels almost daring in transgressing the kids-in-perils clichés.) It helps that the main role belongs to the captivating Jessica Chastain (notwithstanding the unflattering haircut) and that Nikolaj Coster-Waldau gets a role beyond Game of Thrones. At a time where old-school horror is making a triumphant comeback, Mama may not be quite as good as Sinister, The Conjuring or Insidious, but it’s worthy to hang with the front-runners of the pack and remind us again that horror isn’t just about how much blood can fit on-screen. Don’t expect anything startlingly new, though.