Review: ‘Pegasus 2,’ starring Shen Teng, Fan Chengcheng, Yin Zheng, Zhang Benyu and Sun Yizhou

March 4, 2024

by Carla Hay

Shen Teng in “Pegasus 2” (Photo courtesy of Niu Vision Media)

“Pegasus 2”

Directed by Han Han

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in China, the action comedy film “Pegasus 2” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After a long hiatus out of the public eye, a former race car champion tries to make a comeback at the same rally where he experienced a horrific car accident. 

Culture Audience: “Pegasus 2” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, the 2019 “Pegasus” movie and crowd-pleasing films about car racing.

Zhang Benyu, Shen Teng and Yin Zheng in “Pegasus 2” (Photo courtesy of Niu Vision Media)

“Pegasus 2” is utterly predictable, but this action comedy about a race car driver making a comeback is still a fun thrill ride to watch. The cast members’ amusing performances and winning chemistry with each other elevate the movie. This sequel also provides satisfying closure to 2019’s “Pegasus” movie, which ended on a cliffhanger that was open to interpretation.

Written and directed by Han Han (who also wrote and directed “Pegasus”), “Pegasus 2” takes place in unnamed cities in China. In “Pegasus” (mild spoiler alert), champion race-car driver Zhang Chi (played by Shen Teng) won the Bayanbulak Rally, but his car malfunctioned and fell off of a cliff. His fate was unknown by the end of the movie.

The beginning of “Pegasus 2” describes in a caption what happened to Chi: He survived the cliff fall, but his car did not, because it became a total wreck. Chi’s victory that was shown at the end of the first “Pegasus” movie was deemed invalid. Chi has “retired” from racing and has opened a driving school with his two closest friends: outspoken Sun Yuqiang (played by Yin Zheng) and mild-mannered Ji Xing (played by Zhang Benyu), who were both Chi’s racing colleagues in his glory days.

The three pals are trying to find a new work space for their company when someone who is a huge fan of Chi contacts Chi with an offer to do something different. Xin Di (played by Jia Bing) is the owner and manager of Laotoule Automobile Factory. Di wants Chi to make a racing comeback and says that Bayanbulak Rally will be Chi’s sponsor. This is the last year that Bayanbulak Rally will take place. Di is confident that Chi can win the race. (“Pegasus 2” is a very male-centric movie, since there are no women in the principal cast.)

There are some obstacles, of course. First, Chi is very reluctant to go back to being a professional racer. Second, Chi says that if took this offer, he would need about ¥6 million (which is about $833,449 in U.S. dollars in 2024), but Di says he only has ¥4 million, which is about $555,633 in U.S. dollars in 2024. Third, the corporate sponsor Lighttime has won the Bayanbulak Rally for the past two years and can easily outspend Laotoule Automobile Factory in getting the best resources and driver training.

Di asks Chi to reconsider Chi’s decision to not race in the Bayanbulak Rally. In the meantime, a star driver has emerged at Chi’s driving school. He is a young man named Li Xiaohai (played by Fan Chengcheng), who works as a test driver at the school. Xiaohai has never been a professional racer. Di’s nerdy son Liu Xiande (played by Sun Yizhou, also known as Sean Sun) has been paying Chi’s school to be a driver apprentice.

The driving school is about to evicted from its work space due to non-payment of rent. It should come as no surprise that Chi changes his mind about entering the Bayanbulak Rally. He makes the decision to temporarily close the driving school, in order to train for the race. Yuqiang is his co-driver. As a backup duo for the Bayanbulak Rally, Xiaohai will be the lead driver, and Xiande will be a co-driver for another car sponsored by Laotoule Automobile Factory. These drivers have only 100 days to train for the Bayanbulak Rally.

You know where all of this is going, of course. The are more obstacles and challenges in ths journey, including the hero team running out of money, experiencing car malfunctions, and driving during a snowstorm during the race. The racing scenes have adrenaline-packed energy and are filmed from some eye-catching angles. And even if some of the stunt moves are obvious visual effects, “Pegasus 2” makes everything entertaining to watch.

On and off the racing circuit, the characters of “Pegasus 2” are engaging, with every co-star showing good comedic timing. Because “Pegasus 2” doesn’t take itself too seriously, some of the ridiculousness in the movie is easer to take because of the movie’s comedy. “Pegasus 2” shows what can be expected in a story about someone who has to overcome self-doubt in order to make a comeback. It’s the type of inspirational movie that is a familiar as comfort food and is just as enjoyable.

Niu Vision Media released “Pegasus 2” in select U.S. cinemas on February 9, 2024. The movie was released in China on February 10, 2024.

Review: ‘The Stolen Valley,’ starring Briza Covarrubias, Allee Sutton Hethcoat, Micah Fitzgerald and Paula Miranda

February 26, 2024

by Carla Hay

Briza Covarrubias and Allee Sutton Hethcoat in “The Stolen Valley” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“The Stolen Valley”

Directed by Jesse Edwards

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. state, the Western action film “The Stolen Valley” features a cast of white, Latin and Native American cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A young mechanic travels to visit the wealthy father she never knew to ask for money for her mother’s medical expenses, and along the way, she gets mixed up with a cowgirl on the run from criminals and finds out some family secrets. 

Culture Audience: “The Stolen Valley” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in Western movies and don’t care if the movies are poorly made and have bad acting.

Noah Collins and Micah Fitzgerald in “The Stolen Valley” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“The Stolen Valley” wants to make a noble statement about the unfair treatment of Native Americans, but this shoddily made Western action film does it in all the wrong ways. The mind-numbingly stupid plot twists make it even worse. It’s the type of movie that might get unintentional laughs at all the ridiculous scenarios that “The Stolen Valley” is trying to pass off as realistic.

Written and directed by Jesse Edwards, “The Stolen Valley” (formerly titled Alta Valley) comes across as something that looks like a teenager’s fantasy of making a “shoot ’em up” film with two attractive women as the lead characters. There’s a lot of not-so-subtle preaching in the last half of the film about Native Americans being exploited by white people. But it just reeks of a superficial understanding of these problems, in order to make a “politically correct” Western.

“The Stolen Valley” (which takes place in an unnamed U.S. Western state and was actually filmed in Utah) begins by showing a woman named Adamina (played by Paula Miranda) moving away from her home and leaving a note behind for her mother. It’s revealed later in the film that her home was a vast property called Alta Valley that is rich with oil.

Adamina’s mother is of Mexican and Navajo heritage, which is a major part of the movie’s plot. At the time that Adamina left home, she was pregnant by her white married lover Carl (played by Micah Fitzgerald), who did not know at the time that she was pregnant. Carl and his wife had two children: a son and a daughter. Adamina is pregnant with a daughter.

“The Stolen Valley” then fast-forwards 20 years later. Adamina’s daughter Lupe (played by Briza Covarrubias) is now a friendly mechanic who lives with Adamina in a fictional city called Cedar City. Adamina owns a food truck, where Lupe works part-time. Lupe and Adamina are both struggling financially, but they’re saving enough money with the dream that they can someday buy their own home.

Also living in Cedar City are Adamina’s brother (played by Oscar Balderrama), who is only called Tio (which is Spanish for “uncle”); the brother’s wife (played by Doralina Chavez), who also doesn’t have a first name in the movie; and their two pre-teen children: son Marco (played by Striker Henry) and daughter Juanita (played by Shady Henry). They are a close-knight and loving clan, but the family has some big secrets that have to do with Adamina’s past.

The family gets devastating news after Adamina collapses one day and falls into a coma in a hospital: Adamina has a brain tumor and cancer. A doctor says that Adamina can get an experimental treatment that is not covered by health insurance. The treatment costs $50,000, which the family can’t afford.

Lupe’s uncle then tells Lupe a family secret: Adamina lied to Lupe when she told Lupe that Lupe’s father died in a fire. Adamina also lied to Lupe about the identity of Lupe’s father, by showing Lupe a photo of Adamina’s deceased father instead.

Lupe’s father Carl is really alive and well. And he is the wealthy owner of Alta Valley, which he will soon sell to a company called Western Oil. This sale will make Carl even richer. Lupe is then told by her uncle that the only way she can get the $50,000 in time to save Adamina is to ask Carl for the money.

It’s later revealed that Carl is now a widower, who lives with his young adult son James (played by Noah Collins) at Alta Valley. Also living on the property is Adamina’s estranged mother Lizette (played by Paulette Lamori), who has not seen or spoken to Adamina since the day that Adamina left Alta Valley. One of Carl’s other employees is named Aaron (played by Harold Skow), who is very close to Lizette and is about the same age as Lizette.

At the beginning of her road trip to Alta Valley, Lupe stops in a pawn shop, where she tries to sell or trade some of her Navajo jewelry. At the pawn shop, she witnesses a shootout that started in a back room. The dispute is between a rodeo cowgirl named Maddy Monroe (played by Allee Sutton Hethcoat) and a crime lord named Antonio (played by Ricardo Herranz), because Maddy owes Antonio at least $10,000. By sheer coincidence, Maddy was a customer of Adamina’s food truck when it was at the most recent rodeo where Maddy competed.

The next thing that Lupe knows, she and Maddy are driving away in Maddy’s truck to get away from the Antonio’s thugs, whose chief henchman is a pouting hoodlum named Lito (played by Danny Arroyo), who is very inept at things he is ordered to do. The rest of the “The Stolen Valley” is just a series of terribly staged chase scenes and shootouts before, during and after Lupe convinces Maddy to go to Alta Vista with her. During all of this violence, Maddy never looks like a gritty action hero but instead looks like she’s about to go on a fashion modeling assignment. Lupe ends up finding out more secrets about her family that will make viewers roll their eyes at how moronic these plot twists are.

“The Stolen Valley” often looks like a tacky sitcom-ish soap opera with terrible dialogue and awful acting. For example, there’s a scene where Maddy and Lupe try to “hide” from Antonio’s goons by spontaneously pretending they’re part of a dance group called Las Señoritas and joining them on stage. It looks as phony and ludicrous as it sounds. The only thing that realistically gets “stolen” by watching “Stolen Valley” is the valuable time of anyone who has the misfortune of watching this misguided dreck.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “The Stolen Valley” in select U.S. cinemas on February 23, 2024.

Review: ‘Dune: Part Two,’ starring Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Austin Butler, Florence Pugh, Christopher Walken and Javier Bardem

February 21, 2024

by Carla Hay

Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya in “Dune: Part Two” (Photo by Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Dune: Part Two”

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Culture Representation: Taking place in the year 10,191, on the fictional planets of Giedi Prime and Arrakis, the sci-fi action film “Dune” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people, Asians and Latinos) representing heroes, villains and people who are in between.

Culture Clash: House Atreides royal leaders Paul Atreides and his mother Jessica, who are refugees from their planet Caladan, get suspicion from and ultimately join forces with the native Fremen people of Arrakis, to battle against House Atreides rivals in House Harkonnen from the planet of Giedi Prime.

Culture Audience: “Dune: Part Two” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Dune” novel and to people who like epic sci-fi adventures with stunning visuals and good acting.

Austin Butler and Léa Seydoux in “Dune: Part Two” (Photo by Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Dune: Part Two” is a masterful technical achievement that surpasses its predecessor movie on a storytelling level. It’s less cluttered with characters than 2021’s “Dune” and has a more compelling villain and higher emotional stakes. Fans of the the “Dune” franchise will have their expectations met or surpassed with “Dune: Part Two,” a sci-fi epic worth seeing on the biggest screen possible with the best sound system possible.

Directed by Denis Villenueve, “Dune: Part Two” (co-written by Villenueve and Jon Spaihts) is the second part of Villenueve’s movie triology adaptation of Paul Herbert’s densely packed 1965 novel “Dune.” (Villenueve’s “Dune” adaptations are far superior to 1984’s disastrously awful “Dune” movie, directed by David Lynch.) The first part of Villenueve’s “Dune” movie, released in 2021, was an introduction to the main characters and had a lot to do with showing the combat training and the rise of main “Dune” hero Paul Atreides (played by Timothée Chalamet), a royal leader from House Atreides.

Is it necessary to know about the “Dune” book and/or know what happened 2021’s “Dune” to completely enjoy “Dune: Part Two”? Yes. There are many references to 2021’s “Dune” in “Dune: Part Two” that will be confusing to viewers who don’t know what happened in 2021’s “Dune.” Viewers who watch “Dune: Part Two” who don’t know anything about the “Dune” story can still enjoy “Dune: Part Two,” but they will feel like they’ve started reading a book from the middle, not from the beginning.

In “Dune: Part Two” (which takes place in the year 10,191), Paul and his mother Jessica (played by Rebecca Ferguson), who is pregnant with a daughter, are refugees from their home planet Caladan, which has been devastated by a genocidal attack from House Harkonnen. The attack killed Paul’s father/Jessica’s live-in partner Leto Atreides (played by Oscar Isaac), a duke who passed on his legacy to Paul before Leto died. Leto was ordered to be the fief ruler of Arrakis, a desert planet with harsh terrain that is the only place to find a priceless treasure: melange, also known as spice, a dusty substance that can enhance and extend human life.

Because spice is the most sought-after substance in the universe and can make people wealthy, people will go to extremes to get it and to be in charge of Arrakis, whose native people are called Fremen. Prolonged exposure to spice can turn humans’ eyes blue in the iris. Harvesting spice can be a deadly activity because gigantic sandworms ferociously guard the spice. “Dune: Part Two” begins with this caption: “Power over spice is power over all.”

House Atreides and House Harkonnen have been in a bitter rivalry over getting control of spice. House Harkonnen was behind the attack that killed Leto and several of his people. The evil leader of House Harkonnen is a baron named Vladimir Harkonnen (played by Stellan Skarsgård), an obese and ruthless tyrant, who likes to spending time in saunas filled with a tar-like substance. Vladimir’s closest henchman is his sadistic nephew Glossu Rabban (played by Dave Bautista), who doesn’t hestitate to kill anyone for any reason.

The person who orderd Leto to rule over Arrakis was his adoptive cousin: Padishah Emperor of House Carrino named Shaddam Corrino IV (played by Christopher Walken), who was not seen in 2021’s “Dune,” but he has a prominent role in “Dune: Part Two.” In the beginning of “Dune: Part Two,” Shaddam’s daughter Princess Irulan (played by Florence Pugh) can be heard in a voiceover commenting on the night of the House Atreides massacre: “Since that night, my father hasn’t been the same.”

Why? It’s because Shaddam set up Leto as ruler of Arrakis, knowing that House Harkonnen wold respond with a brutal attack on House Atreides. This betrayal (which isn’t spoliler information) becomes a layer in the conficts that exist in “Dune: Part Two.” There is also a big family secret that is revealed that has to do with House Atreides and House Harkonnen.

Meanwhile, Paul and Jessica have made their way to Arrakis, with the help of Stilgar (played by Javier Bardem), the leader of the Fremen tribe called Sietch Tabr. Stilgar is the translator, and negotiator when the Fremens become suspicious of the arrival of Paul and Jessica, who ar ebelieved by many Fremens to be spies. Stilgar, who is convinced that Paul is the messiah from a prophecy, is often the movie’s comic relief in how he how tries to convince his skeptical Fremen people to trust Paul and Jessica and to believe that Paul is the messiah.

In 2021’s “Dune,” Paul met an independent and outspoken young Freman woman named  Chani (played by Zendaya), who kept appearing in his dreams before he met her. In “Dune: Part Two,” Paul and Chani develop a romance that heats up quickly, as Chani teaches Paul how he can better navigate avoiding sand worms while walking in the desert. (“You sand walk like a drunk lizard,” she chastises Paul.) Before the movie is half over, Paul and Chani are kissing each other, and he declares his love for her. None of this is spoiler informaton, since this love affair is part of the marketing of “Dune: Part Two.”

However, the relationship between Paul and Chani doesn’t happen without problems. There’s the difference in their social classes: Chani is more uncomfortable with Paul is about the fact that he’s a royal and she’s a commoner. Chani also has to spend a lot of time defending Paul to Fremen skeptics, such as her close friend Shishakli (played by Souheila Yacoub), who is a perceptive and brave fighter. All of the female supporting characters in “Dune” are capable but obviously not meant to outshine Chani.

Meanwhile, House Harkonnen has heard stories that Paul and Jessica are still alive. And you know what that means: There’s going to be another big showdown. And guess who conveniently shows up? Paul’s no-nonsense mentor Gurney Halleck (played by Josh Brolin), who was one of the teahcers in Paul’s fight training. Gurney is still loyal and mostly stoic. He doesn’t really become a father figure to Paul, but Gurney the closest male connection that Paul has to Leto, since Gurney and Leto knew and respected each other.

For the big showdown in “Dune: Part Two,” House Harkonnen has enlisted the help of a vicious killer named Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen (played by Austin Butler), Vladimir’s nephew whose weapon of choice is a massive knife. A seductive psychic spy named Lady Margot Fenring (played by Léa Seydoux) has a plan to seduce and get pregnant by Feyd-Rautha, for reasons that are explained in the movie. She also does this seduction to find out what Feyd-Rautha’s weaknesses are.

The 2021 version of “Dune” was nominated for 10 Oscars and won six Oscars: Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Production Design, Best Sound, Best Original Score and Best Visual Effects. Without question, “Dune: Part Two” is also award-worthy in these categories as well. Everything in “Dune: Part Two” is done on a grand, immersive scale that are stellar examples of excellence in cinematic world building of a fictional universe. “Dune: Part Two” (which was filmed in Hungary, Abu Dhabi, and Jordan) has scenes taking place in the sand that are truly unforgettable.

As for the relationships between the characters, Paul sees a more vulnerable side to his mother Jessica, when she is pressured into becoming a reverend mother, which is a responsibility with physical and emotional burdens that Jessica is reluctant to have. In the first half of the movie, Jessica shows her powerful fight skills, but after she transforms into a reverend mother, Jessica ctually becomes passive, as she sits by and watches other people fight. Reverend Mother Mohiam (played by Charlotte Rampling), who was in 2021’s “Dune,” has a more scheming side that is revealed in “Dune: Part Two.”

“Dune: Part Two” might have more appeal than 2021’s “Dune” for people who want to see the romance of Paul and Chani that didn’t exist in 2021’s “Dune.” This romance is very chaste, with a “first love” tone to it. The “Dune” trailers already revealed much of the dynamics in this romance, where Paul respects Chani and wants to treat her as his equal. However, will Paul’s royal lineage and duties get in the way of this budding romance?

Chalamet and Zendaya are quite good in their roles as Paul and Chani, but nothing about their performances is worthy of prestigious awards. Paul is depicted as a sensitive and somewhat tortured hero. He tells Chan that he keeps having nightmares of thousands of people dying of starvation because of him. Chani is kind of a stereotypical “tough woman in an action film” who wants to act like she doesn’t fall in love easily, but of course she does just that with Paul.

A characteristic of an above-average sci-fi/fantasy film is the portrayal of the chief villain or villains. Skarsgård as Vladimir Harkonnen and Bautista as Glossu Rabban have less screen time in “Dune: Part Two” than they did in 2021’s “Dune” and don’t really do anything new with their performances. Butler as Feyd-Rautha is the “Dune: Part Two” villain who is the obvious standout, since it’s already been revealed in the movie’s trailers that the climactic battle scene includes a one-on-one fight with Paul. “Dune: Part Two” lacks susbtance by not telling more about Feyd-Rautha’s background. He’s an enigma for the entire movie.

“Dune: Part Two” will no doubt have multiple viewings from fans of the franchise. As for winning over new fans, the movie has a tone that seems to be saying, “You either understand what you’re watching , or you dont. And we don’t have time to explain it all to you.” If you’re unfamiliar with the “Dune” franchise, and you’re the type of person who doesn’t like the idea of dong homework-like research before seeing a sc-fi movie that has a complex story, then “Dune: Part Two” probably isn’t for you. For everyone else, “Dune: Part Two” will fill up your senses with an absorbing story whose cliffhanger ending hints at how this excellent cinematic adaptation continues.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “Dune: Part Two” in outside the U.S. on February 28, 2024, and in U.S. cinemas on March 1, 2024.

Review: ‘Land of Bad,’ starring Liam Hemsworth, Russell Crowe, Luke Hemsworth, Ricky Whittle and Milo Ventimiglia

February 21, 2024

by Carla Hay

Liam Hemsworth and Luke Hemsworth in “Land of Bad” (Photo courtesy of The Avenue)

“Land of Bad”

Directed by William Eubank

Culture Representation: Taking place in Southern Asia, the action film “Land of Bad” features a predominantly white and Asian cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) portraying U.S. military people and Asian terrorists.

Culture Clash: A four-man Delta Force team (a special unit of the U.S. Army) gets attacked by terrorists in a South Asian jungle, and a drone pilot in a far-away control room must guide them out of their predicament.

Culture Audience: “Land of Bad” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s headliners and mindless military films.

Russell Crowe in “Land of Bad” (Photo courtesy of The Avenue)

“Land of Bad” should’ve been titled “Land of Bad Filmmaking.” This woefully inept military action flick wants viewers to believe that remote voices from a portable device cannot be drowned out by massive explosions. Russell Crowe’s career has also devolved into doing awkward comedy in terrible non-comedy movies. Much of the movie’s ludicrous action relies entirely on showing people running for their lives in a jungle with bombs or guns going off around them while still being able to chat on walkie-talkie audio levels with someone who can see everything on a drone video monitor in a far-away control room.

Directed by William Eubank, “Land of of Bad” was co-written by Eubank and David Frigerio. The movie is just one fake-looking scene after another, with juvenile dialogue that is just plain embarrassing if it’s supposed to represent the U.S. military. There are shallow video games that are better than this “Land of Bad” dreck.

“Land of Bad” has this captioned statement in the introduction: “Currently, the Sulu Sea is home to some of the most violent extremist groups in Southern Asia. Intelligence agencies from around the world work together in a global struggle where men and women put their lives on the line every day. We are in a war … we just don’t know it.”

First of all, there are no “intelligence agencies from around the world” working together in this movie. The only “heroes” and “rescuers” are from the U.S. military. It’s an example of shoddy screenwriting that this introductory statement doesn’t match what’s actually in the film.

Second, the movie has a running “joke” that most of the U.S. military people who are supposed to look out for the “people who put their lives on the line” in this story would rather watch a basketball game on TV and ignore potential emergency phone calls in their control center instead of doing their jobs. It’s pathetic.

“Land of Bad” begins by showing the four-man Delta Force squad that is being sent to an unnamed jungle area in Southern Asia, where they are on a vague mission to capture terrorists. (“Land of Bad” was actually filmed in Queensland, Australia.) And by the way, as the squad leader mentions in an offhand manner, a Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) asset has been captured in this jungle, so if they have time, they might as well find him too. Too bad the filmmakers of “Land of Bad” didn’t take the time to make a good movie.

The four men in the squad are:

  • JJ Kinney (played by Liam Hemsworth), a 27-year-old former U.S. Air Force sergeant, who is new to the U.S. Army because he left the Air Force due to “stomach problems,” he tells the other guys. Don’t expect further details.
  • John “Sugar” Sweet (played by Milo Ventimiglia), a master staff sergeant, who is the no-nonsense squad leader.
  • Sergeant Abell (played by Luke Hemsworth, an older brother of Liam Hemsworth in real life), a wisecracking jokester who doesn’t have a first name in the movie.
  • Sergeant Bishop (played by Ricky Whittle), who is stern and judgmental and doesn’t have a first name in the movie.

Monitoring this operation in a control room on a military base is a cynical grouch named Eddie Grimm, nicknamed Reaper (played by Crowe)—as in, “grim reaper” (wink wink, nudge nudge)—a captain who is a drone operator watching their every move on video screens. If the squad finds the terrorist hideout that the U.S. military is looking for, there is a plan to launch a missile bomb at this hideout. At one point in the movie, Reaper mentions that he could’ve been a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, but he mouthed off too much to his commanding officers, so his military career stalled.

Reaper still mouths off a lot, which is supposed to be the movie’s “comic relief,” but his jokes fall flatter than a military buzzcut. Here’s an example of one of the so-called jokes: Reaper complains to JJ that Reaper’s wife is a strict vegan. Reaper says to JJ, “How do you know someone is vegan?” JJ replies, “I don’t know.” Reaper says, “They will tell you.”

During the course of this ludicrous movie, because of all the self-absorbed yakking that Reaper does, viewers will hear more than they need to know about Reaper’s personal life and almost nothing about the squad members whose lives are in danger. Reaper has been married and divorced three times and is married to his fourth wife Lucy, who is pregnant and due to give birth at any moment. (Lucy is never seen in the movie.) The baby will be his ninth child. His eight other children are from his previous marriages.

Reaper has a loyal military sidekick named Nia Branson (played by Chika Ikogwe), a staff sergeant who is the only military woman in this movie. Nia has invited Reaper to her upcoming wedding. Later, when the mission becomes a life-and-death situation for the squad, Nia is by Reaper’s side in helping with drone video monitor duties.

This is JJ’s first Tier One (highly secretive) mission. Abell is friendly and welcoming to JJ. By contrast, Bishop gives JJ a hard time over JJ’s lack of experience in this type of work and is openly skeptical that JJ has what it takes to successfully complete the mission. And as soon as Bishop shows that he underestimates JJ, you just know who’s going to be the main “hero” of the story.

Bishop snarls at JJ: “Do me favor: Keep up. And don’t fuck up. The last thing we need in this ops is to save your ass.” For reasons that are never explained or shown, JJ has been given the nickname Playboy. However, in the beginning of the mission, JJ gets worried because he can’t find his mini-box of Fruit Loops cereal, so Bishop somewhat taunts JJ by calling him Fruit Loop instead of Playboy.

The four men parachute into the jungle. It isn’t long before they get in a shootout with terrorists who have beheaded some people. It’s enough to say that the squad members get separated, and not everyone in the squad makes it out alive. At least one of the squad members gets captured, and it’s up to the “hero” squad member to come to the rescue. This person manages to escape explosions and shootouts with hardly any wounds for most of the movie.

Meanwhile, back in the military base control room, most of the people on duty are watching a basketball game on a TV in the break room. The people who are watching the game include Colonel Duz Packett (played by Daniel MacPherson), who is hardly seen doing any real work. Reaper clashes with Duz (who is Reaper’s commanding officer) because Duz thinks Reaper is being too uptight for yelling at the guys in the room because they turned down the volume on the landline phone in the room. Duz says they need to be able to hear the phone in case his wife Lucy calls when she goes into labor. Later, there’s another big reason why the phone needs to be heard when someone calls.

“Land of Bad” has a very generic terrorist as the main villain. His name is Saeed Hashimi (played by Robert Rabiah), and he doesn’t have most of his scenes until the last third of the movie. That’s because “Land of Bad” spends a mind-numbing amount of time showing JJ by himself in the jungle. Reaper bonds with JJ over their remote chats when Reaper finds out that they’re both from cities that are only a few miles apart in Ohio. (Reaper is from Brook Park. JJ is from Middleburg Heights.) The only other tidbit of personal information that is revealed about JJ is that his father recently died.

When JJ is not dodging bullets and bombs, he’s hiding out in the jungle with potential captors nearby. Even when JJ is supposed to be hiding in silence, Reaper keeps yapping away on the remote communications device that JJ has. Somehow, Reaper’s voice can be heard by JJ during the loud explosions and gunshots (even though JJ is not wearing hearing devices), but then when Reaper talks during moments where JJ has to be quiet because enemies are close enough to find him, somehow these enemies can’t hear these voice sounds coming from JJ’s communications device. That tells you all you need to know about how stupid “Land of Bad” is and how stupid the movie expects viewers to be when watching this junk.

The Avenue released “Land of Bad” in U.S. cinemas on February 16, 2024.

Review: ‘Bad Hombres’ (2024), starring Diego Tinoco, Hemky Madera, Thomas Jane, Luke Hemsworth and Tyrese Gibson

February 17, 2024

by Carla Hay

Hemky Madera and Diego Tinoco in “Bad Hombres” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media)

“Bad Hombres” (2024)

Directed by John Stalberg Jr.

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Mexico, the action film “Bad Hombres” features Latino and white characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An undocumented immigrant and a ranch worker go on the run from a ruthless criminal and his nephew, who have committed murder. 

Culture Audience: “Bad Hombres” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in action films that are nothing but mindless “shoot ’em up” flicks.

Paul Johansson in “Bad Hombres” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media)

“Bad Hombres” is a soulless and violent 21st century Western that is just a bunch of terribly staged chase scenes, obnoxious characters and cliché-filled shootouts. It’s time-wasting junk that has nothing interesting to show or tell. There’s not much that is worth remembering because the movie doesn’t have much of a story.

Directed by John Stalberg Jr. and written by Rex New and Nick Turner, “Bad Hombres” was filmed on location in New Mexico. It’s where an undocumented Ecuadoran immigrant named Felix (played by Diego Tinoco) has illegally crossed over the border into the United States, because he’s searching for work and a better life. In the beginning of the movie, Felix is in a group of other adult migrants who are waiting in a parking lot and hoping to be chosen for a roofing job. Felix is with a friend named Oscar (played by Steve Louis Vellegas), who is among those who are selected.

Felix is not chosen for the job. He’s dejected by not completely discouraged. Felix goes into a nearby True Value hardware store to fill up a bottle with water at a public drinking fountain. A store employee (played by Kevin Moccia) yells at Felix, “You can’t solicit in here!,’ even though Felix isn’t selling anything and is minding his own business. There are racial undertones to this employee’s hostile reaction because the employee is white, and Felix is Hispanic.

A customer nearby notices that Felix is being harassed, so the customer shames the employee to stop harassing Felix. The employee then backs off and leaves Felix alone. This seemingly helpful customer is a native of Australia. His name is Donnie (played by Luke Hemsworth), and he strikes up a conversation with Felix. From this conversation, Donnie finds out that this is Felix’s first day in the United States.

Donnie (who is talkative to the point of being very irritating) correctly assumes that Felix is an undocumented immigrant when it becomes obvious that Felix is looking for a job that can pay in cash. Donnie says that he has an uncle who’s a ranch owner looking to hire someone to do some work at the ranch. Donnie says that his uncle is a “conspiracy nut” but is mostly harmless.

Felix eagerly takes this job offer without getting many details of what type of job he will be doing, except knowing that it will involve manual labor. The person who gives Felix a ride to the ranch is another ranch employee named Alfonso (played by Hemky Madera), who happens to be waiting in the parking lot of True Value. Alfonso is standoffish when Felix tries to start a conversation with him. Of course, Felix finds out too late that this job offer is too good to be true.

At the ranch, which is in a desert area, Donnie’s uncle Steve Hoskins (played by Paul Johansson) bizarrely sits in a car parked outside and watches as Donnie, Alfonso and Felix talk nearby. Felix is told that the job he has to do will be digging large holes in the hard ground. A little later, Donnie shows he’s actually a racist when he says to Felix in a taunting voice about how to pronounce Latinx: “Hey, Felix. I forgot to ask you: Is it ‘Latin-ex’ or ‘Latin-inks’?”

An unnamed rancher (played by Kevin Carrigan) rides up on a horse and demands to know what these four men are doing there, because he says that all four of them are trespassing on his private property. Donnie says that they are there to bury four bodies, which will now be five bodies. Steve then shoots and kills the unnamed rancher. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.

Alfonso overtakes Steve and kicks him so hard that he passes out. Alfonso then stabs Donnie in the head with a pick axe. Donnie shoots at Alfonso and Felix, as Alfonso and Felix drive away in Steve’s car. Felix has been shot in his right leg. Despite the serious injuries sustained by Steve and Donnie, you just know it’s not going to be the last you’ll see of these two villains. The rest of the movie is essentially about Steve and Donnie trying to find and kill Alfonso and Felix.

Some of the people who get caught up in this mayhem are Alfonso’s friend Rob Carlton (played by Thomas Jane); Rob’s friend Dr. Dean “Growler” Graulich (played by Nick Cassavetes); and a killer listed in the end credits as The Man With No Name (played by Tyrese Gibson). That’s really all there is to this simple-minded story, where all the characters are two-dimensional and utterly tedious, with stale or non-existent personalities. “Bad Hombres” is a film lacking in originality or the ability to make viewers really care about any of the characters. In the end, it’s a movie that is as empty as an unloaded gun.

Screen Media released “Bad Hombres” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on January 26, 2024. The movie will be released on DVD on March 12, 2024.

Review: ‘Madame Web,’ starring Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, Celeste O’Connor, Tahar Rahim, Emma Roberts and Adam Scott

February 13, 2024

by Carla Hay

Celeste O’Connor, Dakota Johnson, Isabela Merced and Sydney Sweeney in “Madame Web” (Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

“Madame Web”

Directed by SJ Clarkson

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2003 (with brief flashbacks to 1973), in New York City and in the Amazon jungle of Peru, the superhero action film “Madame Web” (based on Marvel Comics characters) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) portraying superheroes and regular human beings.

Culture Clash: A fire-department paramedic, who grew up as an orphan, finds out that she has spider-related psychic abilities that came from her mother’s mysterious death, and she helps protect three teenage girls who are being hunted by the man who killed her mother. 

Culture Audience: “Madame Web” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Dakota Johnson and movies based on Marvel Comics, but the movie is an idiotic mess, by any standard of bad superhero movies.

Tahar Rahim (center) in “Madame Web” (Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

“Madame Web” and “The Marvels” are the “Dumb and Dumber” of female-led Marvel Comics superhero movies. After the triumphs of “Black Widow” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” it’s a travesty that “Madame Web” is a low point in wannabe feminist superhero films. Perhaps the only good thing to come out of “Madame Web” is that it is an unintentional comedy, because there is so much idiotic filmmaking on display, it’s laughable. Other people who won’t find it so funny will be cringing at “Madame Web,” which is an embarrassment for everyone involved in making this brain-dead film.

Directed by SJ Clarkson, “Madame Web” was co-written by Clarkson, Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless and Claire Parker. “Madame Web” will get inevitable comparisons to 2023’s “The Marvels” because these two flops are obvious attempts to build a franchise around two separate groups of female superheroes. (See 2021’s “Black Widow” and 2022’s “Black Panther Wakanda Forever” for Marvel Comics-based, female-led superhero movies that are done right.) Whereas the story in “The Marvels” was overly ambitious and got tangled up in doing too many things in too many places, “Madame Web” tries to keep the story simple, but in doing so just exposes even more rapidly that it’s a mind-numbing, stupid mess.

“Madame Web” begins in 1973, in the Amazon jungles of Peru. An American scientist named Constance Webb (played by Kerry Bishé) is looking for a rare spider that has the potential to cure hundreds of diseases. Accompanying her on this expedition is an American named Ezekiel Sims (played by Tahar Rahim), whom Constance has hired to be her guide. Constance also happens to be about eight or nine months pregnant.

Ezekiel is over-eager for Constance to find this spider. His impatience should’ve been a big red flag to Constance that Ezekiel has ulterior motives. However, Constance is too preoccupied with finding this spider to notice. When she does find the spider, Ezekiel shoots her, steals the spider, and runs away.

Constance doesn’t die immedately. She is unconscious when she is saved by two tree-crawling and tree-hopping “spider men” of Peru (who basically look like acrobats with painted red skin), who bring her to a swampy area, put a spider on her chest, and deliver Constance’s baby, which is a girl. The spider on Constance’s chest was no ordinary spider. It bit Constance before the baby was delivered, so whatever type of venom the spider had has now been transferred into the blood of the baby.

Constance doesn’t survive, but her baby does, and the baby does not cry at all after being born. One of the Peruvian jungle dwellers who delivered the baby is named Santiago (played by José María Yazpik), who states solemnly to this newborn that she will eventually come back to this jungle to find him for answers to her questions. And when she does, Santiago adds, “I will be here for her.”

The movie then fast-forwards to 2003 in New York City. Constance’s baby is now a jaded 30-year-old bachelorette named Cassandra “Cassie” Webb (played by Dakota Johnson), who works as a paramedic for the Fire Department of New York. It’s mentioned in the movie that Cassie grew up as an orphan in the foster care system. Her biological father is never mentioned in the movie.

Cassie’s best friend is her paramedic co-worker Ben Parker (played by Adam Scott), who is also never-married with no children. Cassie and Ben, as they announce during their dull dialogue, don’t like the idea of “the family thing,” although Ben has been recently dating a special woman, and the relationship is getting serious. Ben won’t share any details about this relationship with Cassie, probably because he knows that bitter spinster Cassie will be jealous.

How do we know that Cassie is bitter about family love? When she saves a woman from a car accident and is at the hospital, the woman’s son (who’s about 8 or 9 years old) gives her a drawing that he made as a gift for saving his mother’s life. Cassie coldly asks Ben what she’s supposed to do with this gift since she doesn’t want it. Ben tells her she should just throw it in the garbage when the kid isn’t there.

It isn’t long before Cassie finds out that she has psychic abilities where she can see events that happen in the future. She discovers this clairvoyance after falling into the Atlantic Ocean while rescuing a man trapped in a car near a bridge. Ben rescues Cassie in a very sloppily staged scene, which is when she first finds out that she can see into the future.

Mike Epps has a very small and brief role as a paramedic supervisor named O’Neil, whose fate does not come as a surprise, since his character wasn’t useful to the overall story. Emma Roberts has a supporting role as Mary Parker, the pregnant wife of Ben’s brother Richard, who is never seen in the movie because he’s away working in Mumbai. Mary is eight months pregnant, and her pregnancy is used for exactly what you think it will be used for in a “race against” time scene later in the movie.

Meanwhile, Ezekiel (who is some type of scientist) was bitten by the spider that he stole, so now he has the ability to poison people just by touching them and holding them long enough. (Don’t ask.) After meeting an opera concertgoer whom he took home for a one-night stand, Ezekiel wakes up from a cold-sweat nightmare and tells her that he keeps dreaming of three teenage girls who want to kill him. His nightmarish visions show that all three girls are dressed as spider superheroes.

Ezekiel enlists the help of a technology expert named Amaria (played by Zosia Mamet) to find these three teenagers, because (as Ezekiel hilariously announces repeatedly in the movie), he wants to kill them before they can kill him. Amaria is only seen working for Ezekiel in a room with hi-tech equipment, such as surveillance cameras that are apparently everywhere in the New York City area.

“Their faces have been taunting me for years,” Ezekiel comments to Amaria about these teen tormenters. “Find them, and I’ll pay you a fortune.” Ezekiel tells Amaria several times that he will kill her if she doesn’t do what he wants. It’s later mentioned in the movie that Ezekiel thinks he’s going to be killed because he was cursed for stealing the spider.

The identities of the three teenagers are Julia Cornwall (played by Sydney Sweeney), a nervous people-pleaser; Mattie Franklin (played by Celeste O’Connor), a rebellious rich kid; and Anya Corazon (played by Isabela Merced), a level-headed undocumented immigrant. All three have encountered Cassie before they formally meet. Julia’s stepmother was a patient rescued earlier in the movie by Cassie, and Julia saw Cassie at the hospital. While skateboarding on a busy street, Mattie was nearly hit by a paramedic ambulance that Cassie had been driving on the way to the accident. Anya lives in the same apartment building as Cassie.

The rest of “Madame Web” is one ridiculous scenario after another where Casse tries to save Julia, Mattie and Anya from being murdered by Ezekiel, because Cassie had a psychic vision that it would happen when all them are on the same train. By rescuing these three teens and putting them in the woods to hide them, Cassie becomes a kidnapping suspect. Cassie spends much of the movie acting like a stern boarding school headmistress to these confused and bickering teenagers.

The acting in “Madame Webb” ranges from mediocre to bad, with Rahim’s stiff performance being the worst. Rahim’s wooden acting and questionable American accent (he’s French in real life) further sink the quality of this already low-quality superhero movie. The action sequences are flashy but empty. And don’t bother sticking around for a mid-credits or end-credits scene, because there is none.

The movie’s soundtrack choices sound like the filmmakers were thinking, “What songs would feminists and teenage girls be listening to in 2003?” The answer, according to “Madame Web”: Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” and Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” The movie’s very “on the nose” soundtrack is in stark contrast to the rest of “Madame Webb,” which misses the mark in almost every single way.

Columbia Pictures will release “Madame Web” in U.S. cinemas on February14, 2024.

Review: ‘Hanu-Man,’ starring Teja Sajja, Amritha Aiyer, Varalaxmi Sarathkumar, Samuthirakani, Vinay Rai and Vennela Kishore

February 4, 2024

by Carla Hay

Teja Sajja in “Hanu-Man” (Photo courtesy of PrimeShow Entertainment)

“Hanu-Man”

Directed by Prasanth Varma

Telugu with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India, the sci-fi/fantasy/action film “Hanu-Man” features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A petty thief becomes an unlikely superhero who battles with a supervillain over a gem that give the hero his superpowers.

Culture Audience: “Hanu-Man” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of superhero movies and don’t mind watching a movie that’s more than two-and-a-half hours long.

Vinay Rai in “Hanu-Man” (Photo courtesy of PrimeShow Entertainment)

“Hanu-Man” is an epic superhero film whose minor flaws are outshone by an engaging story and some stunning visuals. The movie has plot developments that are more unexpected than others. It’s a crowd-pleasing movie that’s obviously conceived as a franchise.

Written and directed by Prasanth Varma, “Hanu-Man” (which takes place in India) begins where most superhero movies usually don’t begin: by showing the origin story of the movie’s chief villain. The opening scene takes place in the Saurashtra region in 1998. A boy named Michael and his best fried Siri, who are both about 11 or 12 years old, are role-playing as a superhero on the roof of a building.

Michael, who is wearing a cape, jumps off of the building and injures himself. Later, when Michael is recovering from his injuries at home, his father yells at Michael for being reckless and for having an obsession with superheroes and comic books. (Michael’s bedroom wall is plastered with superhero artwork and posters.) Michael’s father punishes him with some physical abuse and forbids Michael from reading any more comic books.

Later, Michael and Siri have a private conversation where Michael mentions that all of the most famous superheroes—such as Superman, Batman and Spider-Man—have parents who died when the superheroes were children. The next scene shows Michael secretly killing his parents by setting their house on fire while the parents are trapped inside.

The movie then fast-forwards to Michael (played by Vinay Rai) in his 30s. He has become a superhero vigilante called Mega Man. Michael and Siri (who is now an accomplished scientist) are still best friends. Siri is Michael’s sidekick and does whatever Michael tells him to do. Siri knows about Michael’s secret superhero alter ego because Siri is the one who came up with the inventions that helped Michael become a superhero. Just like Batman, Michael is a human being who doesn’t have superpowers but he has a powerful superhero suit and an arsenal of high-tech gadgets and weapons that he uses for his vigilante activities.

Meanwhile, in the fictional hamlet of Anjanadri, a petty thief named Hanumanthu (played by Teja Sajja) has a best friend named Kasi (played by Getup Srinu), who is sometimes his partner in crime. Hanumanthu’s older sister Anjamma (played by Varalaxmi Sarathkumar) worries about Hanumanthu and wishes that he would turn his life around and become a respectable citizen. Anjamma is engaged to be married. Ner wedding becomes a pivotal point in the story.

Hanumanthu has a crush on an attractive and outspoken doctor named Meenakshi (played by Amritha Aiyer), who has vivid memories of a superhero being her rescuer/protector when she was a child. Meeakshi frequently clashes with Anjanadri’s leader Gajapathi (played by Raj Deepak Shetty), who rules Anjanadri like a dictator. Meeakshi wants the village to be more of a democracy.

The feud between Meeakshi and Gajapathi escalates to a point where Gajapathi sends a gang of masked thieves to rob and attack Meeakshi. Hanumanthu comes to Meeakshi’s rescue during the attack but he’s seriously wounded and falls into a sea nearby. He finds a glowing gem in the sea and is able to go back home.

During his recovery, Hanumanthu finds out that the gem has given him superpowers (such as extraordinary strength and agility), but only when he is in possession of the gem and when the gem is exposed to sunlight. It isn’t long before Hanumanthu and Gajapathi face off in a fight, where Hanumanthu’s new superpowers come in handy. Because Hanumanthu doesn’t want people to know that his superpowers come from this gem, he hides the gem in a mask that he wears in public when he’s using the superpowers.

And what about Michael? He’s been injured in a fight, so his Mega Man activities have been halted until he can fully recover. However, through a viral video that he sees on social media, Michael finds out about Hanumanthu’s exceptional strength and decides he has to find out what is the source of Hanumanthu’s strength. It doesn’t take long for Michael and Siri to arrive in Anjanadri.

“Hanu-Man” has a lot of thrilling acting scenes with mostly convincing visuals. When the visuals don’t look believable, it’s only a temporary distraction. Overall, the cinematography is very effective at immersing viewers into this world. The acting performances are adequate and not as good as the actual story.

Even though Michael is the movie’s chief villain, “Hanu-Man” has a lot to say about resisting political oppression in the conflicts with Gajapathi. Can this power-hungry tyrant be reedeemed? Michael also represents the corruption that can happen when people pursue power at any cost. It’s a tried-and-true theme for superhero stories, but “Hanu-Man” handles it with style and crowd-pleasing entertainment.

PrimeShow Entertainment released “Hanu-Man” in select U.S. cinemas on January 12, 2024, the same day the movie was released in India.

Review: ‘They Night They Came Home,’ starring Brian Austin Green, Tim Abell and Danny Trejo

February 2, 2024

by Carla Hay

Peter Sherayko, Sam Bearpaw and Tim Abell in “The Night They Came Home” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“The Night They Came Home”

Directed by Paul G. Volk

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1895 and 1896, in Arkansas and in Oklahoma, the Western action film “The Night They Came Home” (based very loosely on true events) features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American and Native American) representing the working-class, middle-class and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A marshal and his deputy go on the hunt for the Rufus Buck Gang, a group of ruthless biracial criminals who are committing racist hate crimes against white people.

Culture Audience: “The Night They Came Home” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and Western movies, but this movie is more nonsensical than historically accurate.

Charlie N. Townsend in “The Night They Came Home” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“The Night They Came Home” is an endurance test to see how long viewers are willing to watch an excruciatingly bad movie. Everything about this shoddily made Western reeks of amateurish filmmaking. It’s also a terrible depiction of a half-Black/half-Native American gang on a racist rampage against white people, with horribly acted scenes pretending to be historically true.

Directed by Paul G. Volk and written by John A. Russo (with additional writing by James O’Brien), “The Night Came Home” is very loosely based on true events of the real-life Rufus Buck Gang. This group of biracial marauders went on a killing spree specifically targeting white people out of “revenge” for the racism they and their ancestors experienced by other white people. The gang members are angry about enslavement of black people and the near-genocide of Native Americans, so these thugs are taking out their anger on anyone who is white.

“The Night They Came Home” is not supposed to be a “revenge fantasy,” such as filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 fictional movie “Django Unchained,” which is about an enslaved man who gets revenge on his captors. “The Night They Came Home” is supposed to be based on real history and is just a pathetic excuse to make a “reverse racism” Western. All the acting, dialogue and technical aspects of the movie look as phony as a $3 bill. Very few people in the film look convincing as being from the 1890s.

“The Night They Came Home” begins on July 1, 1896, by showing gang leader Rufus Buck (played by Charlie N. Townsend) in Fort Smith Jail in Arkansas. Rufus is awaiting his execution. For viewers who don’t know the story of the Rufus Buck Gang, there goes any suspense about what’s going to happen to the gang leader, since the movie reveals right from the start that he was captured and executed.

Rufus, who seems to have some mental health problems, looks unusually cheerful for someone who knows he’s about to die. As the sun shines into his jail cell, Rufus smiles and says out loud, “Hello, sun. My last time getting to see your rise.” He also mentions that he’s separated from his “brothers, though I know we shall reunite when we leave this earth.”

A flashback then shows a younger Rufus being physically hit by a white priest, who snarls: “We will kill the Indian in you, Rufus Buck, to save the man.” The “man” is supposed to refer to the white race, but somehow in this 1890s lingo, these character in the movie are talking about “the man” as if they’re stuck in a 1960s counterculture movie.

It gets worse. “The Night They Came Home” has an added narrative layer of a gravedigger named Digger (played by Danny Trejo), who’s sitting in a bar when he meets a stranger with no name (played by Martin Kove) to tell the story of the Rufus Buck Gang and the law enforcement people who went on the hunt for the gang. Digger says that the end of the Wild, Wild West was on July 1, 1896, when the “last outlaw gang was hanged.”

The stranger has a nameless “lady of the night” (played by Carson Lee Bradshaw) by his side as his companion. She’s basically a prop who doesn’t say much of anything. The stranger and his companion sit down at Digger’s table to listen to Digger’s tale. Most of the movie then flashes back to 1895, the year of the Rufus Buck Gang’s biggest reign of terror.

In addition to Rufus, the other gang members are Sam Sampson (played by Hugh McCrae Jr.), Mamoa July (played by Ivan Villanueva) and brothers Lucky Davis (played by Phillip Andre Botello) and Lewis Davis (played by Nicholas Rising), who all have indistinctive personalities. Someone who later joins the gang is Rufus’ cousin Charles “Charlie” Buck (played by Chase Stephens), who is portrayed as someone who was recruited by Rufus and gets corrupted by these criminals. During the gang’s crime spree, Rufus impersonates a sheriff to gain the trust of his victims, who are usually viciously tortured and killed.

The Palmer family in Choctaw Nation, about 20 miles outside of Fort Smith, will be among those who have the misfortune of encountering the Rufus Buck Gang. The ranch-dwelling Palmer family consists of married parents Chuck Palmer (played by Brian Austin Green) and his wife, whose name and actress are not listed in the movie’s credits; their teenage children Tommy Palmer (played by Kassius Marcil-Green) and Jolene Palmer (played by Kelsey Reinhardt); and Chuck’s parents Jake Palmer (played by Bobby Reed) and another unnamed and uncredited female character.

There’s a home invasion of the Palmer family’s ranch that leaves one person dead in the house and another person kidnapped. The gang also goes after two other members of the family in a separate place outdoors, and only one of the two will make it out alive. Let’s just say that even though Green gets top billing in “The Night They Came Home,” he’s in the movie for no more than 15 minutes.

The law enforcement officials who go after the gang are marshal Heck Thomas (played by Tim Abell) and his deputy marshal George Maledon (played by Peter Sherayko), who are both from Fort Smith. Heck and George barely do any interviews in their investigation. Their main informant is Peter Nocono (played by Jayd Swendseid), who conveniently gives them the crucial information they need to know which way the gang is headed. They also enlist the help of locals such as Sam Sixkiller (played by Sam Bearpaw) and Paden Tolbert (played by Tommy Wolfe).

One of the most cringeworthy scenes in the movie shows what deputy marshal George says to a surviving Palmer family member who has found out that most of the other family members have been murdered: “We all die. It was their turn. Relax.” And he’s supposed to be one of the good guys?

There are also some random-looking cameos. Weston Cage (Nicolas Cage’s eldest child, also known as Weston Cage Coppola) plays a silent bartender named Bob in the bar where Digger tells his story. The bartender looks more like he’s in a heavy metal band from the 1980s, not a bartender from the 1890s. Robert Carradine has a very brief appearance as a bootlegger named Bart, whose fate is exactly what you think it will be.

“The Night They Came Home” is a complete failure of trying to show anything except senseless killings, chase scenes, and occasional interruptions to remind people that Trejo (doing his usual “gruff and rough character” schtick) is in this movie as the “storyteller.” Townsend portrays the sadist Buck as someone who’s constantly smirking, but it comes across as more clownish than villainous. At least he puts effort into his character having something memorable about his character. Everyone else’s performances in the movie are just dull or sometimes painful to watch. For a movie that’s about murder and mayhem in the Wild West, “The Night They Came Home” is actually limp and listless, and the only real assaults are on viewers’ intelligence, patience and time.

Lionsgate released “The Night They Came Home” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on January 12, 2024. The movie will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on February 27, 2024.

Review: ‘Argylle,’ starring Henry Cavill, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Rockwell, Bryan Cranston, Catherine O’Hara, Dua Lipa Ariana DeBose, John Cena and Samuel L. Jackson

January 31, 2024

by Carla Hay

Bryce Dallas Howard and Sam Rockwell in “Argylle” (Photo by Peter Mountain/Universal Pictures/Apple Original Films)

“Argylle”

Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, Europe, and Asia, the action film “Argylle” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos, Asians and one multiracial person) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A famous American book author, who has written a series of novels about a British spy named Argylle, goes on the run with a real spy, who has told her that she’s the target of a criminal spy group.

Culture Audience: “Argylle” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, filmmaker Matthew Vaughn, and action movies that have more style than substance.

Bryan Cranston in “Argylle” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures/Apple Original Films)

“Argylle” is an incoherent, bloated mess filled with stupid plot twists, awful dialogue, and a gimmicky cat that looks fake for most of the movie. Henry Cavill is not the main star, even though he gets top billing. “Argylle” is mostly Sam Rockwell acting smug and Bryce Dallas Howard acting terrified. The trailers for “Argylle” are grossly misleading, in terms of certain characters being misrepresented as being more important and having more screen time than what’s actually in the movie.

Directed by Matthew Vaughn and written by Jason Fuchs, “Argylle” is yet another big-budget, globe-trotting spy movie with a flimsy plot that’s just an excuse for filmmakers to overspend on visual effects, lavish locations, and salaries for celebrity stunt casting for cast members who are barely in the movie. “Argylle” has so much idiocy and the worst spy adventure clichés, it’s like the filmmakers took the trash ideas from other spy movies and threw them into the junkpile that is “Argylle.” And with an overly long total running time of 139 minutes (which drags the movie down even further into irritating depths), “Argylle” is like garbage with stench that lingers and gets worse the longer it sticks around.

The central characters of “Argylle” are reclusive novelist Elly Conway (played by Howard) and sarcastic spy Aidan Wild (played by Rockwell), who go on the run from a criminal group of spies called The Division. The opening scenes from “Argylle” are mostly revealed in the movie’s trailers. Elly has a best-selling book series about a dashing and handsome British spy named Argylle (played by Cavill), who is obviously a ripoff of James Bond. Elly has an active imagination where she sometimes envisions Argylle and her other book characters coming to life in front of her.

Argylle’s spy colleagues are his muscular best friend/right-hand man Wyatt (played by John Cena), who does a lot of the work requiring the most physical strength; androgynous field tech Keira (played by Ariana DeBose), an expert strategist who’s often needed to get Argylle and Wyatt out of trouble; and Fowler (played by Richard E. Grant), a senior member of Argylle’s Washington, D.C.-based spy group. Argylle’s chief nemesis is a spy named Lagrange (played by Dua Lipa), who uses seduction and charm to get what she wants. All of these characters from Elly’s “Argylle” novels are not in the movie as much as viewers might think, based on the way the “Argylle” movie was marketed. Lipa’s screen time is barely 10 minutes, with her entire character arc show already shown in the “Argylle” trailers. Grant gets even less screen time.

Elly has just finished her fifth “Argylle” book, which ends on a cliffhanger. (It has something to do with Argylle going to London and whether or not he gets a secret file.) Elly’s meddling and opinionated mother Ruth (played by Catherine O’Hara) reads Elly’s manuscripts and is quick to give criticism. Ruth says that the book should not end on a cliffhanger and tells Elly that the book needs a better, more definitive ending.

Elly, who is very insecure and sensitive, has these doubts swirling in her head when she goes to a personal appearance at a bookstore in Denver, where she answers questions from the audience. She denies speculation that she is a spy in real life, just like spy novelists Ian Fleming or John le Carré actually had experiences working in espionage. When a young man in the audience asks Elly out on a date, she lies and says she already has a date.

Elly’s “date” is really spending time at home with her beloved cat Alfie, a gray-and-white Scottish Fold, who is her constant companion. (In real life, the cat that plays Alfie is named Chip, and he is owned by Claudia Vaughn, Matthew Vaughn’s wife, who is better known by her previous name and profession: supermodel Claudia Schiffer.) Elly is a stereotypical “cat lady” bachelorette, who would rather spend time with her cat than with other people. Elly lives in seclusion in a remote house in an unnamed city in the United States.

Elly has a fear of flying in planes, so she takes other transportation for long-distance trips. On a train ride home after her book appearance, a scruffy-looking and talkative stranger sits in the seat facing her. Elly doesn’t really want him to sit near her, but he ignores her attempt to get him to sit somewhere else. He happens to be reading Elly’s latest “Argylle” book, which he says he’s enjoying. It isn’t long before the stranger, who later introduces himself as Aidan Wild (played by Rockwell), tells Elly that he has noticed that she is the famous author Elly Conway. She tries to deny it, but Aidan isn’t fooled.

As already shown in the “Argylle” trailer, Aidan knew who Elly was all along, because he had been tracking her. And he isn’t the only one who knows that Elly is on the train. About 10 spies from The Division are also on the train. They are on a mission to kidnap Elly, but Aidan fights them all off, with Elly intermittently hallucinating that Aidan is really Argylle during the entire melee. Aidan and Elly then escape from the train by a parachute that Aidan happens to have.

Aidan tells Elly that he’s a spy and that her latest “Argylle” book has strangely predicted real-life spy activities. He tells her about The Division, which Aidan says wants to abduct Elly to force her to write the next chapter of the book so The Division can know in advance what will happen in real life. (Yes, this movie’s plot is as moronic as it sounds.) The fugitive duo’s travels take them to Greece, Colorado, London, France, Hong Kong, and the Arabian Peninsula. Most of “Argylle” was filmed in the United Kingdom.

The Division (which sells spy secrets to the highest bidders) is led by a conniving director named Mr. Ritter (played by Bryan Cranston), who comes across more like a grouchy professor instead of the head of a ruthless crime syndicate. Ritter has a shotgun named Clementine, which he says he inherited from his mother. As soon as Ritter shows ths shotgun and talks about the sentimental value that it has for him, you just know he’s going to use this gun in one of the showdown fight scenes.

Ritter’s chief henchman is Carlos Valdez (played by Tomás Paredes), who is completely generic. Carlos was undercover as an audience member at Elly’s Denver speaking appearance. He was the person who asked her if she’s a real spy. The rest of The Division thugs and fighters are mostly nameless and have no real personalities or storylines.

There’s a poorly written subplot about Aidan looking for an elusive young computer hacker named Bakunin (played by Stanley Morgan), who betrayed Aidan because Aidan overpaid Bakunin for data that Bakunin failed to deliver. Bakunin has now mysteriously disappeared. This subplot is nearly forgotten for a great deal of the movie, until it’s shoved in as an afterthought during the movie’s end credits, which hint that there could be an “Argylle” sequel or spinoff. (Please don’t put more of this “Argylle” nonsense into the world.)

Much of the so-called “comedy” in “Argylle” comes from Elly insisting on bringing Alfie with her everywhere she goes. The cat is kept in Elly’s argyle-pattered, backpack-styled carrying case, which has holes on the side so the cat can breathe. It should come as no surprise that Aidan is allergic to cats. The cat is obviously a computer-generated image (CGI) in most of its scenes. This phoniness takes away a lot of the impact that these comedic scenes would’ve had if the cat looked real.

The Beatles’ “Now and Then” is played several times throughout the movie (the song’s significance to certain characters is eventually revealed), and it’s played often enough that it’s clear that a sizeable chunk of the movie’s budget was spent to license the song. Far superior to the movie’s story is the “Argylle” soundtrack, including the end-credits dance song “Electric Energy,” performed by DeBose, Boy George and Nile Rodgers. The “Argylle” music from composer Lorne Balfe invigorates the movie’s over-the-top action scenes but can’t save the film when the movie drags on with frustrating banality during the dialogue scenes, especially during the long final stretch.

In the production notes for “Argylle,” director Matthew Vaughn (who is also one of the movie’s producers) says one of the main influences for “Argylle” is the 1984 action film “Romancing the Stone,” starring Michael Douglas as a cocky mercenary, and Kathleen Turner as an uptight romance novelist, who go on a misadventure when she enlists him to help her find her kidnapped sister in Colombia. “Argylle” tries desperately and fails to have the winning formula of “Romancing the Stone” and other entertaining movies where two people of the opposite sex are thrown together under dangerous circumstances, as they both argue and pretend that they’re not attracted to each other. Rockwell and Howard (as Aidan and Elly) seem to be doing their best, but they just don’t have the right chemistry together.

Elly should’ve been called Nervous Nellie, because that’s how she is for most of this repetitive movie. Elly constantly has to be rescued and reassured by Aidan, who is supposed to look like an average guy but has almost superhuman combat skills. Aidan and Elly get into tiresome and boring arguments because Aidan wants Elly to take risks that she’s afraid to take. Elly is portrayed as an unfortunate “damsel in distress” stereotype that “Argylle” unconvincingly tries to correct in the last third of the movie, when “Argylle” really falls off the rails into an irredeemable wasteland of cinematic muck.

And the question must be asked: Why is Samuel L. Jackson in this movie? Is he in some kind of personal contest to see how many sidekick characters he can play in big-budget films where he’s usually a loudmouth, know-it-all “elder statesman,” who gets sidelined because the main stars get most of the action? That’s essentially what Jackson is in “Argylle,” where he plays Alfred Solomon, a former deputy director of the CIA, who now lives in exile at a vineyard in France.

Predictably, Elly and Aidan end up visiting Alfred at this vineyard, which has a control room with giant video monitors that can see a lot of the action going on in the movie. It’s just a way to have scenes of Alfred reacting to whatever shenanigans that Elly and Aidan are up to in their globetrotting, as these mismatched runaways try to evade getting captured by The Division. Sofia Boutella has a small and thankless role as Saba Al-Badr, a mysterious person described as “The Keeper of Secrets,” who lives in a palace on the Arabian Peninsula.

“Argylle” could have been much more entertaining if it had a story that was engaging, instead of trying too hard to look “daring” with garishly filmed fight scenes that look distractingly artificial. (A fight scene involving ice skating on an oil-covered floor is an example of this egregiousness.) Elly’s fantasy visions about the world of Argylle are awkwardly placed in the movie. The acting performances are adequate, but the co-star chemistry is very forced and unconvincing. Just like the CGI cat in the movie, “Argylle” is as fake and fluffy as it looks, but the end result is not as cute.

Universal Pictures will release “Argylle” in U.S. cinemas on February 2, 2024.

Review: ‘The Painter’ (2024), starring Charlie Weber, Madison Bailey and Jon Voight

January 30, 2024

by Carla Hay

Charlie Weber in “The Painter” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Global Content Distribution)

“The Painter” (2024)

Directed by Kimani Ray Smith

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, in 2006 and in 2023, the action film “The Painter” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A former CIA operative, who has changed his identity to become a reclusive painter, is being hunted by various people and has his past come back to haunt him when he gets a visitor who says she’s the daughter of his ex-wife.

Culture Audience: “The Painter” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and don’t mind watching mindless action movies.

Madison Bailey in “The Painter” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Global Content Distribution)

“The Painter” is such inept garbage, this forgettable action flick about CIA agents doesn’t have any international CIA activities in its main plot. What you’ll see is a lot of bad acting and supporting actor Jon Voight in some laughable disguises. This is one of those time-wasting movies that just has a bunch of chase scenes and fight scenes around a messy, nonsensical plot until the movie reaches a very predictable ending.

Directed by Kimani Ray Smith and written by Brian Buccellato, “The Painter” (which takes place in the United States but was filmed in British Columbia, Canada) begins in 2006, by showing a botched undercover CIA mission. CIA operative Peter Barrett (played by Charlie Weber) is married to another CIA operative named Elena Maran (played by Rryla McIntosh), and they are each working on an undercover case that they have kept secret from each other.

Peter is the adopted son of a single father named Henry Byrne (played by Jon Voight), a retired CIA operative who now works for the CIA as a consultant. The only times that Henry seems to show up in the movie is when he’s wearing these cheap-looking disguises and tries to fool Peter into thinking that Henry is someone else. Flashbacks show that when Peter was about 11 or 12 years old, he was adopted from an unnamed European country by Henry, after Peter’s parents were killed in a terrorist attack. The attack bizarrely left Peter with hyper-sensitive hearing, almost like a superhero.

In 2006, Peter is in the midst of busting the leader of a crime ring. When it comes time to eliminate Peter’s chief target (played by Doug Chapman) in a dark parking garage somewhere in the U.S., Peter finds out that Elena (who shows up in the same parking garage with her team) has been looking for the same target, but she has opposite motives. Peter has been ordered to kill his target, while Elena says that the target needs to be arrested and kept alive because he’s a key witness for her case.

A shootout ensues. Elena, who is about eight or nine months pregnant, is shot by the target and ends up in a hospital. She is told that her baby did not survive, and she had an emergency operation that has now prevented her from ever getting pregnant again. This traumatic experience eventually ends the marriage of Peter and Elena.

The movie then fast-forwards to 2023. Peter (who still looks the same 17 years later) is now a reclusive painter in an unnamed U.S. city, where he lives in a remote wooded area. He has changed his name and identity to Mark Nicholson. A 17-year-old girl named Sophia (played by Madison Bailey) suddenly shows up at the dive bar where Peter/Mark sells some of his paintings. Sophia, who says she is Elena’s daughter, seems to know who Peter really is, but he denies knowing who Peter Barrett is and insists that his name is Mark Nicholson.

Peter soon finds out that several other people are looking for him because they think he has classified data that he stole when he was a CIA operative. They include a smirking assassin named Ghost (played by Max Montesi), tough-talking CIA section chief Naomi Piasecki (played by Marie Avgeropoulos) and special CIA special agent Kim (played Luisa d’Oliveira), who is very subservient to Naomi. It all leads to chase scenes and shootouts, with Peter’s super-sensitive hearing being a ridiculous and ultimately unnecessary part of the story. “The Painter” is just an embarrassment for everyone involved.

Paramount Global Content Distribution released “The Painter” in select U.S. cinemas on January 5, 2024. The movie was released on digital and VOD on January 9, 2024.

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