We’re hitting the end of April, but the movies don’t stop. Here we are again. Movies are largely postponed from original theatrical release dates, and going to the movies is not an option, at least for the sane folks out there. Things are different, but there’s still room for new reviews. Thanks to some films made digitally available either by studios or various streaming services, I have assembled some brief takes on new films either currently available or arriving soon, along with one retro pick for the week. The following features reviews for Beastie Boys Story, Extraction, Bad Education, Vanilla, The Wretched, and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.
Beastie Boys Story: 8 out of 10
The Setup: Mike Diamond, aka Mike D and Adam Horovitz, aka Ad-Rock of Beastie Boys tell the story of the band, the influential music, their friendship, and more in a live theater performance that combines a multimedia presentation with humorous anecdotes, and reflection.
Review: I’m not going to try to downplay the fact that I’m a huge Beastie Boys fan, but part of the joy of this live documentary is how little that matters. Yes, there’s a joy in hearing some favorite tracks while getting an update on where the remaining Beastie Boys are with their life. However, I feel Beastie Boys Story is just as exciting and informative for relative newcomers, as far as learning the history behind one of the most influential hip-hop (with a dash of punk) groups of all time.
Conceptually, I liked what the format was going for. Director Spike Jonze has assembled this film from what would appear to be multiple live stage performances, where Ad-Rock and Mike D go over their history in front of a live audience, complete with audio and video cues. Adding to the eccentricity of the format, the film doesn’t edit out the various screw-ups that occur, as it allows for natural banter between the B-Boys, as well as Jonze.
While a major fan is unlikely to learn much that’s new, as far as the origins of the group, the success they had with their first album (and subsequent apologies they’ve made concerning some of its content), the initial flop of “Paul’s Boutique” (which has since become their most well-regarded album), and their continued efforts that allowed them to stand as high as they did, during their run, the presentation is solid. Even better is the way they let themselves be open about their experiences, choices, and slip-ups along the way.
At two hours, there’s plenty of information covered, and it’s thoroughly entertaining. I only wish there was more time spent covering the 2000s. A lot of time is focused on getting to and through “License to Ill,” only to speed it up through the other albums, and not even mention their final three releases (“To the 5 Burroughs,” “The Mix-Up,” and “Hot Sauce Committee Part 1”). I would have found it very interesting to hear about the impact 9/11 had on the New York natives, for instance, but it (expectedly and fittingly) becomes more about celebrating Adam Yauch, aka MCA, who passed away due to cancer back in 2012.
That said, the Boys have always had a way of combining their creativity and sense of humor to deliver an incredibly satisfying experience. I may not have been able to view this film in IMAX, as was originally intended as far as a theatrical release plan, but this was still a sure shot.
Where To Watch: Currently available on Apple TV+
Extraction: 5 out of 10
Review: Given how the MCU helped supplant the many action thrillers of the 90s and 00s that generally worked as summer hits at the box office, it appears the Russo brothers are set on producing a few to remind audiences of that sort of fun. Joe Russo wrote the screenplay for Extraction, which allowed stunt coordinator Sam Hargrave the chance to go big with his directorial debut. Fronting this mission is Chris Hemsworth, who appears to have taken a role purposefully designed to deny him any of the winning charisma he’s carried with him as Thor and other parts that involve some degree of smiling and self-effacement.
As Tyler Rake, Hemsworth is all glower. He has a sad past involving a son who died and begins the film taking a huge plunge off a cliff to show he means business. But the character work and basic setup matter little, as Extraction is designed as an action film, through and through. Playing similar to a Call of Duty firefight, much of the film is focused on Rake destroying bad guys in Bangladesh. Some audiences may have to adjust their morality levels a little bit while watching a white dude shoot his way through brown people (both henchman and supposedly corrupt police), but this is not a movie too concerned with the politics. It’s a mostly stripped-down film compared to Sicario: Day of the Soldado, and as such, the main focus is the brutality.
The thing that will have everyone talking is the 11-minute sequence designed to appear as a continuous shot, which involves car chases, foot chases, knife fights, gunfights, and a little roof jumping for good measure. Much like the rest of the film, the choreography is unquestionably good. The tone is similar to John Wick as far as watching one man take on adversaries and destroy them in elaborate, but relatively grounded ways. Unlike Wick, however, there’s little in the form of stylization of the world. Not that it’s needed, but the film’s stark visuals combined with some shoddy CG and weak character elements only allow the movie to succeed so much.
It’s why this elaborate “continuous shot” doesn’t rank as high as other similarly executed sequences. Much of this feels like a film trying hard to be serious and cinematic, despite ending up as merely one of the better produced Netflix films to come along. One saving grace is Randeep Hooda, as a rival mercenary with a compelling character journey, and a lot of screen presence to make up for Hemsworth’s choice to strip much of what makes him enjoyable away. The film clearly believes in Hood a lot, as the climax does what it can to suddenly have him as a lead, with Hemsworth stuck in supporting territory. That doesn’t last forever, but it shows Extraction as a film that can take some shots as well as it takes hits.
Where To Watch: Currently available on Netflix.
Bad Education: 8 out of 10
The Setup: Inspired by true events, a well-liked superintendent of New York’s Roslyn school district has his life upended upon discovering a massive public school embezzlement scandal that could destroy the reputations and standing of many.
Review: Here’s the film I was hoping to see when watching The Frontrunner from a couple of years ago. Hugh Jackman is an ace performer in pretty much any arena, but he truly shines when it comes to playing some variation of a snake oil salesman. Whatever it is, he can capture what it means to both have the charisma for the crowds, while making it clear something is going on underneath the surface. Bad Education sees that sort of effort fully realized to the point of it providing Jackman with what is perhaps his best work yet as an actor (not for lack of trying with other terrific performances in the past).
Cory Finley directs, and while Bad Education is not as formally challenging as his debut film, the excellent Thoroughbreds, he does a lot with a narrative that reveals itself over time, albeit in a linear and not too complicated manner. The real joy comes from the minor touches on a technical level to emphasize what’s necessary, distract when needed, and allow a very game cast to play into the drama as well as the inherent comedy that comes out of such a wild story.
In addition to Jackman, who pulls off the high-wire actor of being a character living a double life in more ways than one, while never coming off as anything less than likable, Allison Janney brings the best kind of support as a character (with a Long Island accent no less) who never steals the spotlight in her scenes. She has a significant impact on the film, but it all plays naturally into the growing predicaments the audience is clued into. Also solid is Geraldine Viswanathan as the young student journalist making discoveries at precisely the wrong time for the grown-ups involved. Ray Romano, Rafael Casal, Annaleigh Ashford, and Jimmy Tatro, among others, all provide solid support as well.
Still, this is really about just how well Jackman can balance a variety of emotions through his intense deliveries, whether they are lighthearted in nature, full of subtext, or an emotional display of introspection. The work done to fully realize the Frank Tassone character is enough to earn the character whatever accolades are available, but it’s the viewing of the film that serves as the real reward, as this is a performance worthy of the honor roll.
Where To Watch: Currently available to stream for all HBO subscribers.
Vanilla: 6 out of 10
The Setup: A carefree comedian purchases a van from an app developer to save the pizza shop she works at. When the van deal evolves, the two decide to go on a road trip to New Orleans to sell it, with a new relationship forming along the way.
Review: Vanilla plays like the sort of indie comedy that takes on just enough quirky elements to stand out from other films just like it, while also challenging fans of these sorts of movies to go along with a premise that’s almost too silly for its own good. Especially for 2020, the idea of two people going on “the world’s longest first date” feels somewhat farfetched, especially given the personality of Kelsea Bauman-Murphy’s Kimmie. That said, what writer/director/co-star Will Dennis gets right is the snappiness of the dialogue, and the constant movement taking place in the film.
There’s also the very low-budget feel of the film that finds these two characters on a road trip, with stops that feel real, because the cast and crew literally arrived at certain locations like Washington D.C. and started shooting. It lends a sense of naturalism to the film’s look that’s enough to have you not be concerned with what is and isn’t an improved conversation, because the flow just works.
That winning element helps the film play as a modern farce of sorts, taking screwball inspiration to fit into a feature where the professions have changed from stock businessman and elevator girl (like The Apartment) to privileged app developer and a budding stand-up with a curious side business. So yes, much of the film gets by on Dennis and Bauman-Murphy’s chemistry together, even with the Kimmie character functioning as the latest variation of how men write independent women with enough know-how to analyze their agendas, as well as the agendas of others.
The positive and to-the-point attitude of Kimmie is balanced by Dennis’ Elliot, who is purposefully written to be a very vanilla kind of guy (the title is seemingly inspired by Elliot’s non-challenging identity, as well as the two’s penchant for ice cream). That makes him the less interesting character by default, but there are at least other supporting players to fall back on. Best of these is Eddie Alfano as Sal, Kimmie’s boss and former uncle-in-law, who occasionally pops in over the phone, offering advice and knowledge concerning what he’s learning about how to solve a rodent problem at his New York pizza shop.
If the film slips up, it’s in not quite finding the right tone for Elliot’s mother, Molly (Kathryn Grody), to play, let alone some of the more predictable beats in the narrative. That in mind, given what we learn about the characters, there’s an ending here that sticks the landing based on what has been set up from the outset. Between a fitting finale, as well as consistent energy and laughs, Vanilla is a decent serving for a feature.
Where To Watch: Currently available to rent on VOD.
The Wretched: 7 out of 10
The Setup: A teenage boy heads up to an idyllic tourist town to work at the local marina while living with his dad for the Summer. Meanwhile, the family renting the house next-door is invaded by a malevolent witch, who begins causing all sorts of deadly problems by preying on the children in the area.
Review: The Pierce brothers have come along with a fun horror film that felt quite familiar in terms of tone and various developments. I don’t think I’d be out of line in saying the film feels inspired by such horror favorites, including Fright Night, Jaws, and It. Not hurting is the strong sense of imagery the Pierces’ bring to this film, which goes a long way in balancing out the tone. As the film wants to move between coming-of-age story hijinks and gory possession film, having a strong enough handle on craft does plenty to keep things interesting.
I don’t know how often I write about the impact music has in horror, outside of films featuring notably good scores, but there’s a lot to come away understanding early on thanks to what The Wretched puts out there in terms of score. Devin Burrows finds a nice balance in eerie sounds and big moments, which allows the viewer to have the kind of fun you need to watch this sort of film. It’s not that The Wretched doesn’t take things seriously, but that it opts for sitting at an emotional level that keeps the film inviting, as opposed to self-serious.
This can put the film at risk of hurting what works. John-Paul Howard’s Ben often finds himself in between being the teenager who has seen too much and is in over his head and acting like a brat. Yes, he is a teenager rebelling against his parents, but at the same time, letting the film settle hard on dramatic scenes between him and his father (Jamison Jones) only adds so much when everything else is so compelling.
Fortunately, give or take some material involving the other teenagers that ultimately adds little, getting into that Fright Night zone of Ben knowing there’s a witch next door is consistently fun and thrilling. Even when it becomes clear where the scares are going to be placed, it’s a joy to learn the rules of this particular creature, and how it goes about catching its prey. At the risk of betraying the tone, the fact that children are put in harm’s way often (adults get off easy by comparison) reveals a sense of meanness that somehow doesn’t take away from the experience.
Going for a mood that was more inviting than I expected from the outset, and adding in some neat horror layers helped The Wretched hold together. Adding in some creative visuals and practical effects went even further to show the ambition the Pierce brothers had ready to go. Whether or not it’s the season, this was a worthwhile witch to look out for.
Retro Pick: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: 8 out of 10
The Setup: 15 years after The Road Warrior, the world has fallen further into a dystopian future, and the grizzled former cop Max roams the Australian desert, only to be forced to deal with the competing leaders Bartertown, eventually revealing the means for control through a ritual battle inside Thunderdome.
Review: I’ve been revisiting director George Miller’s films, and while the original Mad Max trilogy peaked with The Road Warrior (and yes, somehow Fury Road managed to outdo one of the greatest action films ever made), I wanted to put a spotlight on Beyond Thunderdome, as it practically feels underrated (despite strong critical acclaim, including a spot on Roger Ebert’s Top 10 list in 1985). This is a wild, imaginative action film that truly shows what the power of cinema can accomplish in even the direst of situations, considering the apocalyptic sub-genre this film is a part of.
So many elements work in this film, further showing why Miller sits with James Cameron, and few others as far as directors who absolutely know how to bring their vision to life by way of scale, camera movement, economic filmmaking, and a strong sense of iconography. With a moderate budget, here’s a film that creates entire lived-in worlds, delivers unique characters, and makes it all so funky and compelling at the same time. You have a movie where the theatricality of Tina Turner makes her an ideal villain, even while Mel Gibson (still in a zone where I can tolerate him) manages to have even crazier hair. And this is not even accounting for the action.
The battle between Max and the lower half of Master Blaster in the Thunderdome is one of the all-time great movie fights for being unlike anything before it, violent without being brutal, and a shining example of choreography and visual design. There’s a reason so many films have taken from what Miller accomplished in his first three Mad Max films (and will continue to thanks to Fury Road).
There’s even an added sense of ambition in terms of cinematic references, as Miller and co-director George Ogilvie decided to add in Lawrence of Arabia and the Peter Pan story to the already rich list of cinematic reference points that begin with Stagecoach. As a result, the middle section of the film may be seen by some as a low-point, as Max deals with a band of tribal children, yet I see it as a great sense of evolution for the franchise. And does this matter when the film’s conclusion involves another elaborate car/train chase, masterfully made to incorporate death-defying stunts amidst so much automobile-based chaos?
Beyond Thunderdome has the looks, the action, the music, and the might of an incredibly capable director to pull off a satisfying third part of a series, which is more than many can say when it comes to terrific original franchises. If The Road Warrior and Fury Road have been on repeat for action junkies, remember to pop in Thunderdome at some point. There’s a wealth of greatness to perhaps be re-discovered.
Where To Watch: Currently available on VOD.