We’re over half-way through July, and while theaters in America remain closed new movies are still arriving through various streaming services. This week, I have assembled some brief takes on new films either currently available on various streaming platforms or coming soon, along with one retro pick for the week. There’s a biopic, a home invasion thriller, a haunted house film involving WWII soldiers, a documentary on a prolific character actor, and a kaiju flick. The following features reviews for Radioactive, The Rental, Ghosts of War, Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo, and The War of the Gargantuas.
The Setup: Based on a graphic novel recounting the life and work of Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie, Rosamund Pike stars as the famed scientist responsible for discovering polonium and radium with her husband and research partner Pierre (Sam Riley). In addition to her breakthroughs, the film delves into other areas of her life, including passionate partnerships, inevitable tragedies, and the effect of her legacy, including consequences.
Review: Having adapted two of her own graphic novels into features (including the Oscar-nominated Persepolis), it is neat to see director Marjane Satrapi take on someone else’s work for the sake of bringing someone as important as Marie Curie to life in a new way. It is especially important given the accomplishments achieved by such an important woman in history, as she is someone I’d argue isn’t as well-known as other historical figures of a specific type, beyond having a recognizable name. And fortunately, this is a rather good film.
Pike does terrific work as Curie, a woman driven by science and what these contributions could mean for the world. She and co-star Riley have great chemistry, even when things become complicated, as fame begins coming their way. As a biopic, there’s a certain understanding of the kind of film I am getting into, and while it hits a lot of the same kind of tropes, there was a sense of focus and style aided by the committed performances.
The stylistic choices do go a long way, as Satrapi enlisted the right people to provide a modern feel to keep the film engaging. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle makes good use of the science-vibe, with a nice emphasis on colors in the right places to bring out the levels of green used to symbolize a couple of different themes. Similarly, composer siblings, Evgueni and Sacha Galperine, do plenty with the subject matter, finding the right ways to play into the evocative feel of discovery.
While the writing is sometimes not as up to par as other aspects of the film, in addition to the performances, a few sequences showing the future results of Curie’s discoveries allow the film to experiment in presentation and editing. That kept me admiring the efforts to do a little more than what’s typically seen in a movie like this. Given the sincerity of the effort to celebrate Curie’s accomplishments, there’s enough here to keep Radioactive quite stable.
Where To Watch: Available on Prime Video starting June 24, 2020.
The Setup: Playing as a modern update of a ‘cabin in the woods’ type thriller, two couples head out on an oceanside getaway, and wind up staying in a fairly lavish AirBnB. While fun is supposed to be had, impending drama comes in the way of close friendships leading to more than just that for half of each couple. All the while, there may be someone else in the vicinity with nefarious plans for them all.
Review: Dave Franco makes his directorial debut with The Rental, but it comes as no surprise that he co-wrote this screenplay with indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg, who has specialized in minimalism, given the role he has played in the mumblecore segment of filmmaking. Rather than get into the ease at which Franco could afford himself a strong cast, solid locations, and more for his first cinematic outing, it’s much easier to highlight what works about this film.
Patience is undoubtedly key to enjoyment, were a viewer to be expecting a certain kind of film. I can’t say I knew much going in (done deliberately on my part), but beyond the intriguing poster, there’s an ominous feel applied to the tone and look of the film, which functions as a relationship drama for a good portion of the time. Thanks to a setting that allows for a large house full of viewpoints, and surrounding foggy forest, it is easy to get swept up in the atmosphere and the potential for violence, while witnessing something akin to the cast of About Last Night heading into the woods for a weekend.
The cast is quite good as well. Dan Stevens and Allison Brie serve as one of the couples, while Sheila Vand and Jeremy Allen White are the other. Stevens and Allen play brothers, and Vand and Stevens are work colleagues clearly becoming too close to each other. There’s also character actor extraordinaire Toby Huss as the man responsible for renting out the home, and he manages to do a lot with what little is provided for him.
To say more would be to ruin the viewing experience, but there’s enough subversion taking place to keep a viewer interested in how everything will play out. Franco and Swanberg’s choice to allow dialogue when necessary but not overwhelm the film with dialogue-driven explanations further adds to a sense of mystery that won’t entirely end until well into the end credits. For whatever shortcomings The Rental may have, which extends to how much drama one is willing to take versus the outcome of the story, an effective experience that evokes some particular films is handled well enough.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters, on VOD, and on Digital July 24, 2020
The Setup: Five American soldiers are assigned to hold a French Chateau near the end of World War II. This formerly Nazi-occupied compound may seem like a luxurious rest spot, but the soldiers quickly learn there is more to this house than meets the eye. Their stay at this castle soon descends into madness imparted on these men, which proves to be more terrifying than the combat they’ve already faced.
Review: Right away, the premise of this film had my attention. “Soldiers stationed in a haunted house” seems like a neat idea. Not unlike putting a super squad of commandos against an alien hunter, the genre-mash-up could lead to some exciting territory to cover as far as matching up spirits with those who have fallen on the battlefield. Sadly, writer/director Eric Bress seems more focused on making a film full of twists to play with the viewing audience’s mind even more than the characters we follow.
The cast is made up of several recognizable faces, including Brenton Thwaites, Theo Rossi, Skylar Astin, Kayle Gallner, and Alan Ritchson. Aside from the fact that at least three of these guys tend to play untrustworthy characters, they seem to be game for reacting to things going bump in the night, the occasional mirror image that vanishes instantly, and other ghost-related shenanigans allowing for jump scares. Does this cast help the film function?
Well, there’s certainly an attempt to define the time they’ve spent in action by how they react to the experiences in this spooky chateau. At the same time, this is the kind of film that manipulates the characters in ways to respond to these supernatural elements in a manner fitting for the scene rather than the movie as a whole. It becomes a bit tiresome when seeing clichés stack on clichés. However, there are other layers that I will not get into, but at least tap into potentially interesting areas.
That in mind, it is the reveals that end up feeling more like jarring attempts at subversion for the sake of shock value and seeming clever, rather than actually being all that clever. For all the atmosphere and evocative elements that attempt to help the film build towards a message, Ghosts of War ends up feeling like a bag of tricks put on display, hoping to impress. At 90 minutes, the film is well-paced and looks sharp enough, but the attempt to be more than it is ends up making it feel like a mission it can’t quite accomplish.
Where To Watch: Now available on Demand and Digital.
The Setup: A documentary tracking the extraordinary life of one of Hollywood’s most prolific actors, Danny Trejo has a lot to offer. An early life of crime that included drugs and armed robbery let to hard prison time. Wanting to make a better life for himself, Trejo would move on to become not only a recognizable character actor who has worked with many of the top working filmmakers and actors but a man who councils recovering addicts and speaks at state prisons.
Review: You know how wild Danny Trejo’s life has been? It’s so wild that Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo is the second feature-length documentary made about him. He was already the subject of the documentary Champion, made back in 2005, which also went over Trejo’s troubled early years and the self-evolution. That said, it’s been 15 years, and the hero’s journey Trejo has been on has only continued from there.
A film like this will succeed based on how the information is presented. It is not hard to learn about Trejo, as you can read all about him on various websites, let alone hear it from him and others in various YouTube clips, audio commentaries, and other sources. Fortunately, director Brett Harvey does the work to deliver a slickly made documentary, featuring on-camera interviews, clips from Trejo’s many film and TV roles, and some compelling, heartfelt material concerning his family and what he’s done to earn redemption for his past ways.
Given how familiar I have been with Trejo (he’s a very compelling presence), spending time with him is quite welcome, and it is fun to hear from various friends/fellow filmmakers of his, including Robert Rodriguez, Cheech Marin, Michelle Rodriguez, and Donal Logue, among others. To speak to what’s holding this back comes down to what kind of entertainment value one wants from a documentary like this. If the idea is to simply track the man’s path, including his acting career, you have what’s needed. To go further, it lacks more in that respect.
Obviously, it comes down to how willing Trejo’s various family members, including his children and his ex-wife, are eager to talk about themselves, but there’s also the thought of exploring Trejo as a Mexican man who was able to break barriers, yet deal with being typecast. Of course, Trejo finds himself in a position where there’s no real reason to complain about the image he presents, which is supported by the way he’s subverted expectations by starring in roles that have made him a figure all audiences can appreciate. So, as a way of simply enjoying the man for what he’s brought to the people as penance for past ways, there’s enough here to stick a machete into and smile.
Where To Watch: Now available on Digital.
The Setup: An experimental lab creature called a Gargantua is on the loose and severe destruction in Japan. Eventually cornered by humans, another Gargantua arrives to rescue it, only to later realize that his fellow giant monstrous brother is evil. The two battle each other across Japan, while humans attempt to deal with both.
Review: I imagine the main question some will have is, “What is a Gargantua?” That’s a fair question, and the answer will not be one to expect. A Gargantua is a much larger and hairier version of Frankenstein’s monster. Yes, Frankenstein is involved. The War of the Gargantuas is actually a sequel to Frankenstein Conquers the World. There’s no real need to go too far into that, but just know Toho studios wanted to cash in on other recognizable monsters, and when they couldn’t go back to the King Kong well, Frankenstein became the other way to go.
Director Ishiro Honda, the man who gave us the original Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and many other kaiju movies from that series of films, was also responsible for giving audiences these Gargantuas (which is actually just the Americanized naming for these creatures, instead of saying Frankensteins). What this film may lack in an iconic foundation as Godzilla, it gains in being pure fun. Thanks to the creative monster design, a good amount of imagination, and reliable work by the famed director, The War of the Gargantuas remains a blast to watch.
It is the nature of these monsters that allow the performers to be more acrobatic. As a result, the film delivers some of the best kaiju fights out there, as far as practically achieved suitmation, which was the style of the time for these Toho-produced monster flicks. Even in its most widely available form for audiences outside of Japan, whatever dubbing and other changes have done to the film, it remains more than watchable, as this is a film that feels like the result of all the right talents coming together to make the best kind of B-movie (and I didn’t even mention Russ Tamblyn, who stars as the human lead, and he did not get along with Honda).
Fittingly, The War of the Gargantuas has a legacy that extends to various actors and filmmakers who cite it as one of their favorites, including Guillermo del Toro, Tim Burton, Quentin Tarantino, Nicolas Cage, and Brad Pitt. But even regardless of their thoughts, this is the kind of rip-roaring fantasy monster film that delivers on crazy kaiju action, as well as knowing how to leave in all the weird touches. At just under 90 minutes, anyone in the mood for an old school monster movie can’t go wrong with The War of the Gargantuas.
Where To Watch: Now available on HBO Max