Fresh from a nice fall vacation, I have collected a number of theatrical and streaming releases to look into, along with a few to pass on. This set of write-ups includes a classic concert doc, a unique home invasion flick, a satirical vampire film, a sports documentary, an inspiring biopic, an Indian-themed horror film, a family action comedy reboot, and an explosive action sequel. The following features reviews for Stop Making Sense, No One Will Save You, El Conde, BS High, A Million Miles Away, It Lives Inside, Spy Kids: Armageddon, and Expend4bles.
The Setup: A24 has brought director Jonathan Demme’s seminal 1984 concert doc, STOP MAKING SENSE, back to theaters for its 40th anniversary, newly restored in pristine 4K. Demme captures the frantic energy and artsy groove of David Bryne and the Talking Heads in this concert movie shot at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre in 1983.
Review: It’s hard to say what would make for the best concert film ever. Should it be an expansive epic like Woodstock, or is it about capturing an iconic album performed in full? Maybe, like with The Last Waltz, it just needs the hands of Martin Scorsese on it to work out so well. Personally, given how it captures a specific place in time and is combined with great music and comedy, I’ll always stand up for Dave Chappelle’s Block Party from 2005. Of course, I’m also just stalling because what more needs to be said about Stop Making Sense? It’s an iconic concert doc that found Demme doing all that was required to capture the lovable energy of David Byrne, the Talking Heads, and friends. Originally filmed over four nights, the results are a terrific piece of filmmaking that finds all the right ways to show a performance that begins as minimalist as possible and expands into something truly joyous, as well as weird, funky, and very fun. Whatever the case may be for what is truly the best concert doc of all time, there’s no doubt that this film rocks.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters and IMAX.
The Setup: Brynn (Kaitlyn Dever) finds solace within the walls of the home where she grew up until she’s awakened one night by strange noises from unearthly intruders.
Review: Right up front, I will say this is a very effective home invasion thriller featuring some extraterrestrial edge. If anyone plans to go in blind, now is the time to watch this film, as it’s pretty solid and features some neat surprises. For those still here, the minor spoiler is part of the conceit of this film – there’s no dialogue. We watch Kaitlyn Dever providing a pretty excellent performance as a town outcast dealing with aliens invading her home, and not a word is spoken. It’s a curious choice from director/writer Brian Duffield, whose witty screenplays and strong directorial debut, Spontaneous, certainly benefited from the dialogue-heavy attitudes of his characters. Fortunately, this only shows proof of a filmmaker with a good handle on genre filmmaking. As for the UFOs and the aliens that come out of them, while not without some quirks, the actual plot delivers only so much innovation. That said, the efforts to produce empathy in a non-mainstream movie way allows for a more interesting than expected third act, with a weirdly fitting wrap-up. One to save and check out when possible.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Hulu.
The Setup: A satire that portrays Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) as a 250-year-old vampire seeking death., but the vultures around him won’t let him go without one last bite.
Review: In the realm of infamous dictators, Pinochet ranks pretty high, especially given his lengthy tenure as the ruler of Chile. Looking at his past work, director Pablo Larraín clearly has many thoughts regarding Pinochet and Chile’s political history. That makes it especially interesting to see him venture into darkly comedic territory for this fantastical idea that Pinochet was actually an aging vampire. That doesn’t stop El Conde from being a particularly gruesome and weird feature. That said, it’s not quite as psychologically probing as his recent efforts with Jackie and Spencer, nor does it hit upon the ironic detachment so effectively seen in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. Still, that doesn’t mean the film lacks in its own sorts of entertainment, particularly when watching the various people closest to Pinochet attempting to figure out the next steps. Of course, the film’s greatest asset is Edward Lachman’s gorgeous black and white photography, whether we witness this ancient vampire indoors or soaring in the night sky.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Netflix
The Setup: The Bishop Sycamore Centurions find themselves playing a nationally televised football game on ESPN in 2021. However, questions after the game reveal that Bishop Sycamore isn’t a real school at all.
Review: These days, it’s hard to be surprised by the lengths grifters can go to achieve success. Just looking at 2016 America and beyond shows the effectiveness of a professional con artist when they pull all the right strings. With that in mind, the saga of Bishop Sycamore High School is one of the wilder forms of bamboozlement I have learned of, specifically because of the man behind it. Roy Johnson, the man behind BS High, is clearly someone who wants to get ahead by any means, as well as a habitual liar. That’s not just me responding to the angle this compelling documentary takes. Johnson is portrayed as one who proudly details how he played all the angles to create a fake school to essentially get a lot of attention at the cost of exploiting many young men with aspirations of being football players. There are plenty more details to go with that basic idea, which are wonderfully detailed with many interviewees throughout this doc. If anything, directors Martin Desmond Roe and Travon Free almost seem too caught up with Johnson’s audacity to work more towards providing a more explicit critique of his methods. With that said, when someone is laying it all out so clearly, the audience can either rightfully see someone for who they are or fall for the same propaganda.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Max.
The Setup: A biopic about Jose Hernandez (Michael Peña) and his path from a farm worker to becoming an engineer and an astronaut. It is a tale of perseverance, community, and sacrifice to accomplish a seemingly impossible dream.
Review: If there’s a sub-genre I’m often critical of in terms of its structure and tropes, it’s the biopic. What A Million Miles Away manages to do is allow me not to care. Director Alejandra Marquez Abella is not reinventing the wheel as far as the approach to telling Jose Hernandez’s story, but she’s also avoiding some of its larger traps. Much of that comes from the nature of this story, as it’s another example of how representation in film allows for interesting approaches to familiar ideas. While designed as a PG, family-friendly movie, getting an understanding of the life of a migrant worker, let alone some clear portrayals of institutional racism, makes much of the drama hit as well as it needs to. Of course, on top of all this is the winning lead performance from Peña, who makes it nearly impossible not to like this guy. We accept his dream and want him to succeed. There’s admiration that comes from the longevity of the path he must take to achieve it, given that most will know at least part of the outcome of this story. It means a lot to have the right lead providing the right kind of energy into that performance, and even if that doesn’t mean the film is out of this world for all, it’s still a noble journey to watch.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Prime Video
The Setup: Desperate to fit in at school, Sam (Megan Suri) rejects her East Indian culture and family to be like everyone else. However, when a mythological demonic spirit latches onto her former best friend, she must come to terms with her heritage to defeat it.
Review: This was a frustrating miss. I can certainly admire a film that lets South Asian filmmakers and performers put forward a horror story rooted in Hindu folklore while serving as an analogy for the immigrant experience. It’s just a shame that almost nothing about the execution worked for me. Shot with an intent to scare, it sadly felt like writer/director Bishal Dutta kept hitting short of the right key to properly lock in on being an effective supernatural thriller, let alone a film with the proper weight given to its broader themes. The characters felt hollow, the story borrows plenty of elements from other similarly spooky features without feeling as though it’s trying to branch off in its own unique direction, and the symbolism never excelled past being heavy-handed. I’d be more than fine enjoying a film focused on a second-generation, young immigrant woman dealing with depression, but when even the basics aren’t very satisfying, I didn’t feel as though I wanted to live inside any longer than I needed to.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.
The Setup: Director Robert Rodriguez is back with his Spy Kids franchise for the next generation. Spy suits. Safe houses. Super-cool gadgets. When Patty (Everyly Carganilla) and Tony (Connor Esterson) discover their parents (Gina Rodriguez and Zachary Levi) are secret agents, it’s time to become kid spies-in-training to save their parents, beat the bad guys, and save the world.
Review: While they vary in quality, I’ve maintained a soft spot for Rodriguez’s desire to balance his more hard-hitting action-thrillers and crime flicks with homemade, family-friendly features. The first couple of Spy Kids movies benefited from not only their imagination but genuine quality, given the casting and enjoyable level of cleverness. The previous follow-up and films like The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D were less impressive. And now, following the successful and enjoyable Netflix release of We Can Be Heroes, it sadly feels like there’s just no more fresh ground to cover with this latest Spy Kids. Relying on elements from all four previous films, including the plot of the first, the skeleton armies of the second, and the video games of the third, this is a tired re-hash not made any better by new kid actors in the lead roles who don’t click the same way the originals (Carmen and Juni Cortez, respectively) did. There’s a bit of charm coming from Levin and Rodriguez as the parents. Still, they too don’t have anything on Banderas and Gugino. At least the fourth film benefited from some thematic work connected to Rodriguez’s own life. With ‘Armageddon,’ there’s nothing on this film’s mind, and the DIY aspect that allows other Rodriguez films to shine feels similarly worn. Sorry spies.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Netflix.
The Setup: Reuniting as the team of elite mercenaries, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, and Sylvester Stallone are joined for the first time by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Megan Fox, Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais, Jacob Scipio, Levy Tran, and Andy Garcia. Armed with every weapon they can get their hands on and the skills to use them, The Expendables are the world’s last line of defense and the team that gets called when all other options are off the table. But new team members with new styles and tactics are going to give “new blood” a whole new meaning.
Review: For a franchise that has never really lived up to its potential, it’s kind of amazing to see it find new lows. One can sacrifice campy charm if the action is well-handled. Similarly, if we’re coming up short on seeing what a bunch of alpha males (and the occasional female) can offer in a fight, at least they can get buy on spirited comraderies. Expend4bles lacks both in one of the cheaper-looking $100 million movies I have seen. Stallone saw this entry as a way to hand it over to Statham, and it shows, given his minimal efforts to inspire as his least memorable franchise character, Barney Ross. Statham’s Lee Christmas at least gets plenty of time to shine, as the film’s latter two acts primarily function as a film about him, while the other Expendables are left to their own devices (which involves being led around by Fox for some reason, getting caught and imprisoned for a chunk of the film, and eventually dishing out some poorly edited action). We also, once again, get to see The Raid’s Iko Uwais’ talent wasted in another American film, but at least Tony Jaa gets some time to shine. As a series I’ve never had much fondness for, the results here are none too surprising, but perhaps this film’s current box office failure can lead to scaling down and hiring some of the great DTV action talents the John Wick franchise has been happy to utilize. Surely those stunt performers and martial artists aren’t expendable.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.