This Friday, America may choose to get Unhinged in theaters, but I still have a batch of reviews based around what’s out there on various streaming platforms, as well as theaters. This week, I have assembled reviews on new films either currently available or coming soon, along with one retro pick for the week. There’s a funky biopic, an action-heavy zombie movie sequel, a heist flick, a fascinating documentary, and Ben Affleck’s best-directed movie. The following features reviews for Tesla, Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula, Cut Throat City, Project Power, Boys State, and a retro look back at Gone Baby Gone.
Tesla: 7 out of 10
The Setup: The brilliant and brooding inventor Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) pushes hard to bring his revolutionary electrical system to fruition. However, the efforts from fellow inventor Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) weigh him down continually takes its toll. As the ongoing feud continues, Tesla slowly becomes pushed further into his overactive mind. Meanwhile, Tesla’s associate Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) presents this story as it unfolds through modern means.
Review: I find Tesla and the feud between him and Edison pretty fascinating. Since Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, I’ve been waiting for a film to really capitalize on this part of history. At the same time, my biopic fatigue didn’t exactly leave me overwhelmed with The Current War. Fortunately, Hawke has reteamed with Hamlet (2000) director Michael Almereyda to provide one of the more exciting ways of presenting a historical figure in some time.
Armed with choices to have anachronistic fourth-wall breaks, exposition delivered by way of fake backgrounds and minimalist production design, a crucial song break, and Jim Gaffigan as George Westinghouse, Tesla is the sort of oddity that gets by on its quirks because of the commitment to the bits. Hawke, Hewson, and MacLachlan are certainly up to the challenge, playing into the idea of unreliable narrators and weird touches that help a film such as this stand out.
Being liberated from the confines of a standard biopic makes this jazzier way of handling the story as compelling as it needs to be. It’s a shame there is still a limit to the extremes this film goes, and yet the change of pace and a Tears for Fears-fueled finale make for an experience well worth checking out.
Where To Watch: Available in Theaters, Digital, and On Demand, August 21, 2020.
Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula: 7 out of 10
The Setup: Set four years after the zombie outbreak that took over Korea, director Yeon Sang-ho returns with a new cast and other ways to explore this post-apocalyptic world. Now that South Korea has become a quarantined zone, it will be up to Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) and a few others to embark on a covert operation to retrieve a large sum of money now up for grabs in the deserted and diseased wasteland. Things don’t prove to be so simple, as there’s more than just zombies still lurking in the area.
Review: Just like its melodrama, the previous film Train to Busan wore its efficiency on its sleeve. There was nothing to complex, just a bullet train full of zombies and human passengers. Yeon has pivoted for the sequel (and third in the series, following the animated prequel Seoul Station), making a film that decides to cross Escape from New York with Mad Max: Fury Road, while delivering plenty of zombies as well. The results are fun, though a little less dire compared to the claustrophobic thrills from last time. That in mind, there’s plenty of action, and an extended climax delivering on the best zombie-infused car chase of all time.
Yes, there’s a lot of obvious CG. Also yes, I would have loved to be able to see this gloriously good movie on a big screen. Peninsula goes the preferable route of changing lanes towards a new direction, rather than trying to recreate the same film with a new layer of paint. The wild ideas such as a gladiator-type zombie battle and the aforementioned car chase go a long way in delivering a fun ride through the world of the undead.
Where To Watch: Available in Theaters and On Demand August 21, 2020.
Cut Throat City: 6 out of 10
The Setup: Set in New Orleans, directly following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, RZA directors this story of four childhood friends (Shameik Moore, Demetrius Shipp Jr., Denzel Whitaker, and Keean Johnson), who take on a heist job from a dangerous gangster, after losing out on help from FEMA. As things get more complicated, the friends end up holding the attention of gangsters, cops, and a neighborhood warlord.
Review: While sporadic scenes of promised brilliance couldn’t quite save The Man with the Iron Fists, RZA at least has more to say in this sprawling crime thriller. That’s good because this is an overstuffed venture that is plenty ambitious, with more characters than I can count and a heavy dose of pop culture homages as well. Still, the idea of staging a convoluted heist film within the world of post-Katrina misfortunes allows some interesting commentary on the times. Also not hurting is a stacked cast that also includes Tip “T.I.” Harris, Terrence Howard, Wesley Snipes, Isaiah Washington, Eiza Gonzalez, Kat Graham, and a strung-out Ethan Hawke as a city councilman.
Cut Throat City is too clever for its own good, but there’s a sense of excitement that helps this 2+ hour feature coast along. Strong work from Moore and most of the supporting players is admirable as well. And yes, RZA knows how to bring the right beats. (Note: stay through the credits as well, it’s important.)
Where To Watch: Available in Theaters August 21, 2020.
Project Power: 6 out of 10
The Setup: An ex-soldier (Jamie Foxx), a high school teenager (Dominque Fishback), and a cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) collide in New Orleans as they hunt for the source behind a dangerous new pill that grants users random superpowers for five minutes at a time.
Review: There’s a great premise here that could build into something more fascinating, but directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman are far more convinced putting an emphasis on style and star power was the way to go. As a result, Project Power ends up barely working as a slick action flick, but it’s a very likable one. Credit goes to this trio of leads, as they all bring in the fun to be had. Foxx balances menace with cool. Fishback continues to show promise, matching up with two A-list stars. And Gordon-Levitt just seems happy to be here, making the most of his white boy cop character, putting on a show when he isn’t using the power of bullet-proof skin.
For a movie about temporary superpowers and the metaphor they serve as in regards to drugs in inner-city communities, there so much unexplored territory here that even RZA’s film mentioned above could scoff at. Still, there’s also the punch of a few creative action sequences that deliver on showing these powers at play in a gritty, hardboiled world. Not hurting is the choice to tell a complete story, even if the first act is overlong, and the third feels like a rush to the finish.
Getting into the science of this drug is about as silly as the film itself. Still, there’s enough enjoyment to get out of a movie that has a sense of humor, yet allows the characters enough room to bond in ways not having me mind the hang-out nature, in between shootouts.
Where To Watch: Available on Netflix
Boys State: 8 out of 10
The Setup: A documentary serving as a political coming-of-age story, Boys State is a look at an experiment in American democracy by way of a thousand 17-year-old boys in Texas. Brought together in a yearly summer leadership program, the film follows four boys of diverse backgrounds and political views, as they navigate the challenges of organizing political parties, shaping a consensus, and campaigning for office.
Review: At a time when politics have become a very high source of tension for many, getting a window into how the youth of America is handling their ascension into becoming those with the power proved to be fascinating, scary, and a little hopeful. Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss had the task of taking all of the footage gathered from the is summer program and telling a story concerning several teens and their strategies and philosophies on becoming politicians. There’s a lot to unpack, as we quickly realize what to rely on these various individuals for.
There’s perhaps a slant to which of the students we should be rooting for and which to observe as one’s who are succeeding by way of dirty politics and less than truthful approaches. However, as much admiration as one can form for the honest kids on display, there’s a lot to take away from seeing the lengths some go to achieve the form of success they desire.
Boys State doesn’t take long to turn into an absorbing feature that manages to be humorous, relatable, upsetting, and a key to understanding both the futility of our future and one that could grow based on what’s being shown more clearly now.
Where To Watch: Available on Apple TV+.
Retro Pick: Gone Baby Gone: 9 out of 10
The Setup: Ben Affleck’s directorial debut is an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel, starring Casey Affleck as Patrick Kenzie, a private investigator from a working-class Boston neighborhood. He and his partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) take on a kidnapping case to hopefully get back the young daughter of Helene McCready (Amy Ryan, who received an Oscar nomination for her troubles). What Patrick uncovers, however, will open up a web of corruption challenging everything he stands for.
Review: Affleck proved he had a great directorial eye from the get-go, as Gone Baby Gone remains his best-directed film. I have lots of praise for Argo, and The Town is a solid B-movie with A-level treatment (Live By Night is stylish but a misfire), but Affleck knocked it out of Fenway Park on his first try.
Casey Affleck has just the right amount of baby face to play up a guy in over his head, but still qualified to take on such a burden of a case. He gets plenty of great support from Monaghan and Ryan, along with serious pros Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris. It all makes for a terrific neo-noir, relying on an intimate knowledge of the area, making the film feel all the more authentic.
The mystery is excellent, the performances are strong, but it’s the moral dilemma the film decides to put its characters through, which allows the film to take on even more dimensions, letting the audience question what was truly right. In a very strong year for film, Gone Baby Gone proved to be up there with the other standouts.
Where To Watch: Available on Hoopla and Digital.