This collection of film oddities run the gamut from thrillers and tales of suspense, to prison escapes, a video game movie, and a couple stories about thieves and hustlers. Oh, and one great supernatural slasher flick! Most of these films were random discoveries at local shops around town over the summer. They were mostly picked for their pure entertainment qualities rather than artistry or cinematic legacy, though several did have more depth than expected! The one that surprised me the most however, was one of the movies I saw in theaters, “Free Guy”. That movie was far smarter and more unique than it ever needed to be, and it was refreshing to see such development for a Summer Blockbuster starring Ryan Reynolds. These ten films may not have a lot in common, but they were my summer viewings for a relaxing afternoon or evening after a long day at work. There really isn’t a dud among the bunch, but several did capture my attention and imagination more effectively than others. Hopefully you’ll find something to indulge in here, I certainly had a good time with these films!
Free Guy (2021)
Written by Zak Penn and Matt Lieberman and directed by Shawn Levy, “Free Guy”, is a surprisingly good movie. I walked into the theater expecting to be entertained, sure, but I didn’t expect the film to have as much depth, personality, and nuance for a story about an NPC (non-playable character) in a video game. Ryan Reynolds stars as Guy, a bank teller that lives in an open world style video game that’s clearly based on the insanely popular video game franchise, “Grand Theft Auto”. Every day he’s robbed at gunpoint by people playing the game. He works with his best friend, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) the security guard at the bank. They both seemingly love their lives and live in a near constant loop of cycling through player characters that choose to play the bank heist mission. One day things change for Guy and Buddy when Guy meets Millie (Jodie Comer), someone playing the game, with a mission of her own besides actually playing the game. Guy falls head over heels for Millie immediately and he breaks his loop. After getting himself killed pursuing her, he decides to stand up to the next gamer playing the bank heist mission after being respawned the next day. Much like in “They Live”, a pair of sunglasses reveals the truth of the world to Guy when he takes said player’s sunglasses after accidentally killing them. With the truth of the world revealed to him, he eventually finds Millie and works with her to stop the corporate overlords of the real world that control the game, and the devious secrets that lie within it. It’s not that often that a film comes out of Hollywood where the lead character is not only a quote, “Good Guy”- but a pacifist whose successes in the film come from choosing an alternative to violence at every opportunity. When Millie inevitably has to log off from the game Guy chooses to level up in the game through purely pacifistic options in game missions. He quickly becomes a worldwide phenomenon and eventually the creator of the game, Antwan (Taika Waititi), steps in to wipe out the world before the launch of the sequel game he’s been planning. This movie had so much more earnest heart than I ever imagined, and a surprisingly good message about the corrupting power of the few, versus the collective power of the masses. The film may secretly be about income inequality and personally, I loved that. I came out of the theater with a smile on my face and the notion that money won’t solve your problems, but solidarity just might.
The Vanishing (2019)
Written by Celyn Jones and Joe Bone and directed by Kristoffer Nyholm, “The Vanishing” is a taut psychological thriller about the true story of the mysterious disappearance of three Scottish lighthouse keepers. The trio begins with an elder Wickie statesman in Thomas (Peter Mullan), a grumpy old man with a tragic past. Then there’s the middle-aged, but well built muscle of the three in James (Gerard Butler), a family man of good stock- as they say. The youthful Donald (Connor Swindells) packs out the small crew as a playful, but rash, young man who looks to James for guidance. The three generally get along with each other though there’s friction between Thomas and Donald from the beginning as James plays peacemaker between the two. The film imagines the reasoning behind the mystery to be the sudden arrival of a lifeboat crashing upon their rocks, with a chest of gold bars and a dead body inside it. After dispatching the body that came with the box, the three try to decide what to do with their newfound treasure. Thomas takes control of the scene and tells them that if they act normally in life and don’t act out of their normal routines once they return to the mainland- that they can all three live as kings if they do everything calmly and correctly. As you can imagine, things get complicated from there. I wont ruin the surprises in store, but I was decently entertained by this one throughout it’s runtime. The film wisely relies on a suspenseful atmosphere and slowly reveals evolutions in the story with patience and a compelling nature. If you’ve seen and enjoyed “The Lighthouse”, you may quite enjoy this film as well- though admittedly this film is far more grounded and way less art-house in style and artisanal direction than that film. Generally recommended.
The Color of Money (1986)
Written by Richard Price, based on the novel by Walter Tevis, and directed by Martin Scorsese, “The Color of Money” is a sequel to 1961’s “The Hustler” which was one of Paul Newman’s springboard roles that helped launch his acting career. This film came along twenty-five years after that, and in that time Paul Newman became one of the all time greats of his era. So, it made sense to pair the Silvering Fox with a new rising star, and that star was a young Tom Cruise. Now, personally, I’ve found the first half of Tom Cruise’s career to be a bit lacking overall in the acting department, but this role was practically made for him at this time in his life. He plays Vincent, an extremely skilled but aloof, over confident, and flaky pool player that Newman’s “Fast” Eddie Felson comes across early on in the film. Eddie watches Vincent play while he’s maintaining his liquor business’ details. You can practically see the sound of clattering pool balls bringing him back to that time and place from the first film. He quickly realizes the potential of Vincent and his girlfriend, Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Carmen’s role here balances out the bawdy young Cruise. She’s the brains of the outfit here, but Scorsese plays with Carmen and Vincent like he has, and will do, in future movies (Like “Goodfellas” for example), by toying with the insecurities and manipulations of, and from, both. While the film was entertaining and I do give it a worthwhile recommendation, I have some issues with this one. Firstly, it’s too formulaic. It doesn’t feel like your standard Scorsese film, his presence as the director isn’t as fiercely felt like in “Raging Bull”, “Taxi Driver”, or even “Mean Streets”. There are some fun and clever shots for the montages of Vincent and Eddie raking in the cash, teaching old lessons, playing old tricks. Though this is the first time I’ve ever felt like Scorsese’s guiding hand was slowly vanishing over the course of the film. The first half of the story has more grit, more of what worked in “The Hustler”, but also in Scorsese’s oeuvre ’til that point in time as well. Scorsese’s well trodden ground of exploring the relationships between men in a sub-culture that’s crime adjacent is present, but here it gets a bit muddled with the typical veteran mentor and young new trailblazer dynamic. The ending also seems to clash with the character progression of Eddie Felson over the course of both films. In my humble opinion, the second half of the film contradicts what made the first film so fascinating and unique- especially given that film’s era of release in the early 1960’s. Paul Newman’s first time around as “Fast” Eddie Felson ultimately was a lesson in humility through loss. This film has that energy in spades for key moments. Especially near the last half of the third act where Eddie shamefully realizes that he’s being hustled by a young up-and-comer in the form of a young Forest Whitaker as ‘Amos’. However, the last few scenes of the film betray the emotional truths that the story seems to be hitting on, that Eddie’s lost his nerve and now it’s time to give up the addiction of the game. Unfortunately, it seems that a more… cheery ending was desired, where Eddie finally plays Vincent for real- and not only are we not given the cathartic release of the payoff set up throughout the film, we’re instead brought to the film’s end with Newman’s Eddie ignoring character evolution and declaring confidently that He’s Back Baby! How would the ending of “The Hustler” have felt if after being banished from the pool hall circuit, Eddie had simply crossed country and found another ring of players and halls to hustle? Would you feel as though the character had learned anything from his experiences? With that being said, I still do recommend this one, the acting alone is worth the watch!
Written by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr., based on the autobiography by Henri Charrière, “Papillon” is easily one of the most grueling prison-escape films put to celluloid. Grueling for the characters by the way, not the audience (though I can only speak to my experience with the film). In 1933 France, Henri ‘Papillon’ Charriere (Steve McQueen), a safecracker, is wrongly convicted for the murder of a pimp and sentenced to life in prison in the islands of French Guiana. On the prison ship’s journey there, Papillon (nicknamed this for the large butterfly tattoo on his chest as Papillon is French for Butterfly) recognizes another inmate as the infamous forger and embezzler, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman). Papillon makes Dega an offer, he’ll keep Dega alive if the infamous embezzler can bankroll an eventual escape plan. Dega initially turns Papillon down- but decides to take him up on the offer after another prisoner is stabbed in the middle of the night. Thus begins a surprisingly loyal friendship where the two risk life and limb time after time in a number of divergent plans to escape their island prisons. Several times they escape for days at a time only to be drug back to their captors in surprising new forms of betrayal and failure. The best part of the film for me was just how unpredictable it was as time went on, and just how resilient Papillon was throughout all of it. I won’t ruin the mystery of how it all unfolds, but the story takes places over years and years of their lives and I found it to be a thoroughly entertaining adventure of escape! Highly recommended!
The Good Liar (2019)
Written by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel by Nicholas Searle, and directed by Bill Condon, “The Good Liar” is a thrilling tale of cat and mouse between the two major stars of the film in Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren. McKellen stars as Roy Courtnay, an extremely skilled thief that targets rich old women for a scam or two before leaving town with cash in tow. Mirren’s character, Betty McLeish, is a wealthy widow who’s finally decided to take a shot at love again. She and Roy meet through online dating in a charming sequence where both state in their profiles the image that they want to project to potential mates. Roy says he doesn’t smoke then promptly lights a cigar, while Betty says she no longer delights in alcohol as she pours a glass of wine. Both have their secrets, and its played with a coy charm initially. Most of the film is from Roy’s perspective as he figures out Betty’s true wealth to be far greater than he anticipated as he wrangles other scams across town with all sorts of layers to his scheming. He ropes in old business partners and there’s a few scams we’re witness to that showcase Roy’s skill and attention to detail. The whole film is a great excuse to watch two great actors play off each other with wildly unexpected results when the reveals start to come fast and heavy. I can’t exactly tell you what happens, and this review may be a bit short on details- but trust me on this one, watch it for the acting alone, that makes the price of admission quite worth its value. Definitely recommended!
xXx Return of Xander Cage (2017)
Written by F. Scott Frazier, based on characters created by Rich Wilkes, and directed by D.J. Caruso, “xXx Return of Xander Cage” is a VERY stupid- but moderately entertaining, action flick that returns Vin Diesel to one of his earlier roles in Xander Cage. Okay, so the plot isn’t why you watch this movie. I know that, you know that, we all know it. We’re here to see what crazy stunts and action sequences Vin Diesel and his crew have thought up for this very silly excuse for an action movie. Though I will give you the very basic elements of what’s happening for structure’s sake. So, Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Augustus Gibbons, (Head of the xXx program and recruiter of both Xander Cage and Darius Stone) from the last two films is mysteriously murdered in the first few scenes by a satellite that crashes into him from the sky. The agents of the xXx program want to know why, so they do some deep reconnaissance and find Xander Cage living in self-imposed exile in the Dominican Republic and wrap him back into the fold. They discover that there’s a secret program controlling satellites called Pandora and someone’s using it to dismantle the xXx program. So Xander recruits an “extreme” team; a getaway driver with a penchant for surviving multiple car crashes played by Rory McCann (He famously portrayed The Hound in Game of Thrones), a sharpshooter played by Ruby Rose, and some otherwise forgettable characters to fill out the ranks. They head to the Philippines based on their Intel where they meet Xiang (Donnie Yen) and his xXx team also recruited by Gibbons before his death. The only memorable character on Xiang’s team is Talon played by Tony Jaa- he’s just really good at fighting. They stole what they think is Pandora’s box, but guess what, it was all a set-up by an even larger threat than a wayward xXx team. Who? Well you have to watch this dumb movie to find out- but again, that’s not why any of us are here. We’re here to watch Vin Diesel use snow-skis to race down a jungle mountainside and to see him put water-skis on a motorcycle so he can catch some gnarly waves. Does that sound too stupid to you? Well, then this isn’t the movie for you my friend. It’s dumb fun with no consequences, though I have to say, Ice Cube steals the show with his cameo- I don’t even care, it’s worth watching for that alone. Oh, and Donnie Yen’s fight scenes. Though the movie does do him a disservice by editing the hell out of the fight scenes. Just give the man some wide angles and let him do his thing- like, damn. Somewhat recommended with the right expectations.
Written by Aaron Guzikowski and directed by Denis Villeneuve, “Prisoners” is a brooding psychological thriller that focuses on every parent’s worst nightmare, a kidnapping. This is Denis Villeneuve’s first English language film, and while that may be reflected in the modesty of the writing at times, it’s never failing or flailing about, it just doesn’t draw attention to itself. Though with Roger Deakins behind the camera and the performances that Villeneuve draws out of this ensemble cast, everything else about the film is outstanding in execution. The story follows two families that live down the street from each other, Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Grace Dover (Maria Bello) and Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis). One night, terror strikes them when both families’ youngest daughters are mysteriously, and abruptly, abducted. The only clue left in the wake of the crime is a suspicious looking RV motorhome parked nearby. Once this scrap of a clue is reported to the authorities, after the RV’s similarly timed disappearance, a report on the vehicle’s description is sent out. It’s not long before Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) responds to a call of an RV matching that description parked near the woods on the edge of town and arrests the man inside, Alex Jones (Paul Dano). During his interrogation of Alex Jones, Detective Loki realizes that Alex’s lacking faculties would have prevented him from planning an elaborate kidnapping and he’s forced to release Alex to his only family, his aunt Holly Jones (Melissa Leo). Keller can’t and won’t take that as an option, his entire existence is formed around the idea of self reliance and as he furiously informs a muted Detective Loki, “Every day she’s wondering why I’m not there!!! Not you, but me!!!“. So, Keller goes on his own investigation where he ends up kidnapping Alex and laboriously torturing him to get some answers from him. This one may be a bit hard to watch at times, but it’s a fascinating thriller with brutal performances from the cast as a whole. I would recommend scheduling something positive for after the film though.
Written by Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld, and Nia DaCosta, and directed by DaCosta, “Candyman” is a supernatural slasher sequel, and also a reboot of sorts, to the first film from 1992. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stars as Anthony McCoy, a local Chicago artist living with his girlfriend, and art gallery director, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris). Together they live in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood, a former housing projects community that’s been gentrified over the last couple of decades. One night they have Brianna’s brother Troy and his partner over for dinner and Troy decides to tell the urban legend of Helen Lyle to the group, with a flair for the dramatic. According to the local legend, Helen was a graduate student investigating urban myths and eventually went mad by the stories she’d heard and went on a killing spree in the early 1990’s. This culminated in a giant bonfire outside the Cabrini-Green housing project where she attempted to sacrifice a baby to the fire. The residents nearby mobbed her and saved the child, but Helen dove into the fire anyway. The story captures Anthony’s imagination, and as he’s looking for a new artistic subject to focus on, he heads out to what once was the projects of Cabrini-Green to snap a few photographs and find some inspiration. Which is where he meets Billy Burke (Colman Domingo), a laundromat owner who introduces him to the story of the Candyman. This intrigues Anthony and he goes down the rabbit hole seeking more information about the story of the man at the myth’s legend, that of Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove). Sherman was a resident of the Cabrini-Green neighborhood in the late 1970’s. He had a hook for an arm and often handed out candy to the local children and one of those children was a young Billy Burke. Burke accidentally mistook Sherman’s kindness for malice, and the local Chicago PD beat Sherman to death for it. Even though he was posthumously exonerated, the legend of the Candyman implies that if somebody says “Candyman” five times to a mirror, Sherman’s spirit will appear and brutally murder the summoner. So, naturally, Anthony takes the urban mythology and turns it into a piece of interactive artwork for a gallery piece through Brianna’s summer show. From there, as you can imagine, someone eventually says Candyman in the reflection of a mirror, and thus the Candyman himself is summoned to kill those that brought him upon this mortal plane. Personally, I haven’t seen the original “Candyman” or any of the sequels that it created either, so this was a fresh introduction to the character and mythology. This one really worked for me, I dug a lot of the filmmaking choices throughout the film, like how they played with reflections, often hiding Candyman in plain sight. It was a chilling, thrilling, and satisfying supernatural slasher flick, and I highly recommend giving it a watch if you’re looking for something spooky this Halloween season!
Phone Booth (2002)
Written by Larry Cohen and directed by Joel Schumacher, “Phone Booth” is an exercise in just how much story you can squeeze out of one of the smallest one location films possible. Colin Farrell stars as Stu Shepard, the perfect example of late 90’s and early 2000’s sleaze-ball. From his outfit down to his attitude, he’s the epitome of a self-assured asshole, and we get to watch him get the confidence knocked right out of him in a variety of ways over the runtime. Stu’s a publicist in New York City and frequents one of the last Phone Booths still operating at the time to call his Mistress, Pamela McFadden, played by Katie Holmes. After entering the Booth, Stu answers the ringing phone only to find himself targeted by a mad man with a sniper rifle. The caller on the other end of the line tells Stu that he must confess his sins to his wife or he’ll be shot dead with the suppressed rifle- with no one to blame but himself. From there the stage is set and the film has a real joy in playing out the cat and mouse thrills between Stu and the voice on the other end of the line- especially once the NYPD get involved. I don’t have an extremely large amount of things to say about this film other than the fact that it was the perfect distillation of a thriller loaded to the gills with well-executed cinematic cheese. This is mostly due to the back and forth dialogue between Colin Farrell and the voice on the other end of the line, Kiefer Sutherland. Sutherland really brought his A-game with this maniacal villain of the week, and personally, I’m here for that level of commitment to goof-ball genre goodness. At an hour and twenty one minutes, the film certainly doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, in fact the tight runtime is one of it’s advantages as a thriller. I definitely recommend this one!
Written by Mark Bomback and directed by Tony Scott, “Unstoppable” is a mile-a-minute action thriller based on the true story of two men stopping a runaway train filled with dangerously explosive materials. Those two men were Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington), a veteran railroad engineer and Will Colson (Chris Pine), a young new train conductor placed under Barnes’ tutelage. The film relies heavily on the age old dynamic of an elder mentor character working with a green student to learn from each other and grow through strife together as they solve the problems that the story throws at them. This story’s problem just happens to be a runaway train with thirty-nine cars of highly explosive contents that could cause a major disaster if it crashed. The film takes full advantage of the high stakes potential of the scenario at every opportunity. It’s no surprise really, Tony Scott was incredibly skilled at helming realistic and high octane thrills for many of his films, and with this being his last film it capped off an incredible career. Initially our two leads are simply trying to get out of the way of the runaway locomotive, but after they realize that it’s heading straight for their hometown of Stanton, Pennsylvania- they decide to chase down the train and attempt to stop it. This is, mind you, after several attempts to stop it with helicopters dropping men on the roof of the train or enabling emergency brakes they place on the tracks ahead of time. Barnes and Colson are surrounded by a team of dispatchers (like Rosario Dawson as Connie, and Lew Temple as Ned) and men on the scene as they track and race the train attempting to slow it down or forcibly stop it in a variety of ways. This one was a lot of fun and if you’re looking for a simple thriller, this one should do the trick!
If you’re enjoying my film criticism, I have a few more recent articles over at Films Fatale. They include a ranking of the first 15 Godzilla films that compromise the Showa era of films, and a review of Clint Eastwood’s new film, “Cry Macho”.