Review: ‘Cobweb’ (2023), starring Lizzy Caplan, Woody Norman, Cleopatra Coleman and Antony Starr

October 29, 2023

by Carla Hay

Woody Norman in “Cobweb” (Photo by Vlad Cioplea/Lionsgate)

“Cobweb” (2023)

Directed by Samuel Bodin

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in Pennsylvania, the horror film “Cobweb” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An 8-year-old boy thinks that a mysterious girl is living inside the walls of his house, while his parents try to convince him that he’s imagining things. 

Culture Audience: “Cobweb” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Lizzy Caplan and Antony Starr or slow-moving horror movies that aren’t very imaginative.

Lizzy Caplan in “Cobweb” (Photo by Vlad Cioplea/Lionsgate)

“Cobweb” struggles to be a creepy horror film, and it falls very short of being terrifying or suspenseful. There are too many monotonous stretches of this sluggishly paced movie. The mediocre acting performances and poorly conceived ending don’t help.

Directed by Samuel Bodin and written by Chris Thomas Devlin, “Cobweb” certainly had the potential to be a much better horror movie. The problem is that “Cobweb” has too much stagnant repetition that doesn’t do much to move the story forward. Even some of the principal cast members look bored during crucial parts of the film, which is filled with a lot of weak jump scares that don’t really go anywhere. The essential plot of “Cobweb” gets run into the ground very early.

Taking place in an unnamed city in Pennsylvania, “Cobweb” focuses on the Hall family and what appears to be the family’s haunted house. (“Cobweb” was actually filmed in Bulgaria.) Carol Hall (played by Lizzy Caplan) and Mark Hall (played by Antony Starr) are parents to 8-year-old Peter Hall (played by Woody Norman), who is alarmed because he keeps hearing things inside the walls of their house. The movie’s opening scene shows a frightened Peter waking up his parents at night because he heard noises coming from inside a wall.

Carol knocks on the wall and says she doesn’t hear anything. She tells Peter: “This is an old house. There’s bound to be bumps in the night.” As Carol tucks Peter into his bed, she adds, “You have a great, beautiful imagination.” The family house is predictably dark inside and somewhat shabby. Apparently, the Hall family doesn’t know the meaning of having lightbulbs with regular wattage.

Peter is a student at Holdenfield Elementary School, where he is bullied by a fellow student named Brian (played by Luke Busey), who is a stereotypical brat in a movie. A substitute teacher named Miss Devine (played by Cleopatra Coleman) notices that artistically talented Peter is withdrawn and troubled because he’s too frightened to go outside for recess. Miss Devine takes an interest in Peter’s well-being.

One evening, when the Hall family members are having dinner together, Mark tells Peter that a girl named Rebecca Holbrook, who lived on the same street, disappeared from the neighborhood on Halloween a few years ago. Rebecca still has not been found. The house where Rebecca lived is now abandoned and boarded up.

Carol says to Peter about Rebecca’s disappearance: “It was a very traumatic event for everyone in the neighborhood—and I personally don’t like remembering it.” Peter nervously asks Carol, “Am I going to disappear?” Carol assures him: “Peter, of course not. No. We would never let that happen to you.”

But then, it should comes as no surprise in a predictable horror flick like “Cobweb,” Peter starts to hear a girl’s voice talking to him from the walls in the house. She won’t say what her name is when Peter asks her. It’s an obvious way that the movie wants viewers to think: “Is the girl trapped in the walls the ghost of Rebecca Holbrook?”

“Cobweb” is yet another horror movie where a child makes disturbing drawings that are noticed by adults. Peter’s illustrations are seen by Miss Devine, who thinks that Peter might be getting abused at his home. And you know what that means: Miss Devine is going to show up at the Hall house unannounced to ask the types of questions where she’s acting more like social services worker than a substitute teacher.

Carol, who is a former teacher, is offended that anyone would question the parenting skills of Carol and Mark. There’s also a long stretch of the movie about the bullying that Brian inflicts on Peter, what the adults and Peter do about it, and how the violent bullying escalates. Throughout the film, Mark is portrayed as mysterious and a little weird. Carol is overprotective of Peter and very neurotic about not letting him get too close to the other students at school.

At least half of “Cobweb” rehashes the same things in a very bland manner: Peter hears sounds, such as a girl’s voice, in the walls. His parents tell him that he’s imagining these things. At school, Peter is bullied by Brian. Meanwhile, Miss Devine becomes convinced that something very wrong is going on in the Hall household.

Norman’s performance as Peter is adequate but not very interesting compared to child performances in other movies about kids who experience horror that is not believed by adults. Caplan portrays Carol as the type of Stepford-like housewife whose smile looks forced and whose mannerisms suggest that she’s hiding a lot of secrets. Starr’s performance as Mark is particularly stiff and flat. Coleman gives an average portrayal of Miss Devine, who is written as a generic character.

Of course, the reason for the noises in the wall is eventually revealed. That revelation doesn’t come until the last 20 minutes of the film, which is ruined by a ludicrous showdown that is just stupid, not scary. The big reveal just brings up questions that the movie never bothers to answer. The end of “Cobweb” hints that there’s potential for a sequel, but considering there’s very little about this tedious dreck that is crowd-pleasing, this “Cobweb” is a mess that is better off being swept aside and forgotten.

Lionsgate released “Cobweb” in U.S. cinemas on July 21, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on August 11, 2023, and on Blu-ray and DVD and September 12, 2023.

Review: ‘Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant,’ starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Dar Salim

April 22, 2023

by Carla Hay

Dar Salim and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” (Photo by Christopher Raphael/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant”

Directed by Guy Ritchie

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2018, in Afghanistan and in the United States, the action film “Guy Ritche’s The Covenant” features a cast of white and Middle Eastern characters (with a few African American, Latinos and East Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class and who are connected in some way to the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Culture Clash: U.S. Army master sergeant John Kinley, who has his life saved by an Afghan interpreter, goes on a mission to rescue the interpreter and the interpreter’s family from war-torn Afghanistan and to keep the U.S. government’s promise to give U.S. visas to the family. 

Culture Audience: “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Guy Ritchie, the movie’s headliners, and stories about noble rescue missions during a war.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Antony Starr in “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” (Photo by Christopher Raphael/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” offers an overly simplistic portrayal of an American rescue mission in Afghanistan. However, this action flick has solid performances and capably shows the importance of interpreters during war. The movie is a mixed bag of questionable scenarios that look very fabricated for a movie and realistic depictions of the emotions and motivations for these actions.

Guy Ritchie tends to write and direct action movies that have a lot of wisecracking banter among the characters. Compared to those other films, “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” is a departure for him, since it’s a deadly serious film that is inspired by harrowing situations from the 2001 to 2021 war that the U.S. waged in Afghanistan. (The movie, which takes place in 2018, was actually filmed in Spain.) In addition to directing “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” and being one of the movie’s producers, Ritchie co-wrote the screenplay with Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies.

The rescue mission part of the story doesn’t happen until the last third of the movie. Until then, viewers get to know the two central characters when the movie shows how these two men bonded during the horrors of war. John Kinley (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who is American, is a master sergeant for the U.S. Army. Ahmed Abdullah (played by Dar Salim), who is Afghan, currently works as an interpreter for the U.S. military. Other things about Ahmed’s background are eventually revealed and cause people to trust or mistrust Ahmed. John and Ahmed are both in their 40s and happily married to loyal wives.

The beginning of “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” takes place in Afghanistan, where John is leading a squad of staff sergeants who are tasked with finding explosives from the Taliban. It’s a tight-knit unit that has overall good camaraderie. The members of this specialist unit under John’s leadership are Joshua “JJ” Jung (played by Jason Wong); Tom “Tom Cat” Hancock (played by Rhys Yates); Eduardo “Chow Chow” Lopez (played by Christian Ochoa); Charlie “Jizzy” Crow (played by Sean Sagar); and Jack “Jack Jack” Jackson (played by James Nelson Joyce); and Steve Kersher (played by Bobby Schofield), the youngest sergeant in the group.

Because this is a brutal war, not everyone will make it out alive. The unit has an interpreter named Kalan (played by Walid Shahalami), who is killed by a hidden bomb. John chooses Ahmed from a group of local interpreters to replace Kalan. John hired Ahmed without knowing much about him, except that Ahmed can speak four langauges, and Ahmed needs the money for this interpreter job. Ahmed also has a brother named Ali (played by Damon Zolfaghari), who has a pivotal role in the story.

There are the predictable clashes between Ahmed (who has a tendency to defy John’s orders) and John (who has a tendency to not trust Ahmed’s information over the U.S. military’s intel), but Ahmed and John eventually learn to trust each other. Later, it’s revealed that Ahmed decided to help the U.S. government out of revenge for the Taliban killing his son years earlier, and because the interpreter job comes with the promise that Ahmed and his wife Basira (played by Fariba Sheikhan) can get U.S. visa for themselves and their unborn child. Basira is pregnant at the beginning of the story. The Taliban considers Ahmed to be a traitor, so he’s also a target for murder by the Taliban.

Through a series of events, John and Ahmed are separated from the rest of the unit. Ahmed saves John’s life on multiple occasions. After John gets serious injuries, Ahmed carries a barely conscious John in a cart on a dangerous trek through the mountains. This trip results in John being rescued and sent back to the U.S., but Ahmed is left behind in Afghanistan. Ahmed gets put on the Taliban’s “most wanted” list, so he and his family go into hiding. John is also put on the Taliban’s “most wanted” list.

The fact that John makes it home alive because of Ahmed’s help is not spoiler information, because these details are already revealed in the trailer for “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant.” The middle of the movie is about John recovering at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he lives with his wife Caroline (played by Emily Beecham) and their two underage children: son Lil Chris (played by Kieran Fort) and daughter Jess (played Savannah Fort). It’s mentioned at one point in the story that Caroline (who does administrative work for the U.S military) and John have been together for 12 years.

John is overwhelmed by guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a driving motivation to make good on the promise that Ahmed and his family will get U.S. visas. Not surprisingly, John gets stymied by a tangled web of bureaucracy in the U.S. government. Expect to see montages where John makes phone calls to uncaring bureaucrats, and he gets increasingly frustrated to the point where he has screaming meltdowns over the phone with people who are of no help.

John’s commanding officer Colonel Vokes (played by Jonny Lee Miller) is empathetic, but he tells John that John has to go through the proper channels to get help for Ahmed. John’s U.S. Army sergeant Declan O’Brady (played by Alexander Ludwig), who served in combat alongside John and has a lot of admiration for John, decides to give more pro-active assistance that can bypass the U.S. government. Declan refers John to military contractor Eddie Parker (played by Antony Starr), who can help John for a hefty price.

“Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” certainly has a lot of action-packed suspense and American patriotic moments. And it’s admirable that, unlike many other war movies, it does not portray one side as all “good” and the other side as all “evil.” However, “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” stumbles with some very corny dialogue that prevents this movie from becoming a classic war film. During one of his angst-filled moments, John says to Caroline after she says she’s grateful that John came home alive: “You think they blessed you. Well, they cursed me. I am a man who gets no rest.”

“Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” is different in tone from most of Ritche’s other movies, but this very male-dominated film still continues Ritchie’s pattern of having women in his action flicks only as tokens. In the case of “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant,” Basira and Caroline get very limited screen time and just have roles where they are “the worrried wives at home.” Caroline has one short monologue, where she gives a “stand by your man” pep talk to John before he decides to go back to Afghanistan and rescue Ahmed and Ahmed’s family.

Although it’s a very noble deed for John to go back and rescue Ahmed and Ahmed’s family, the movie makes it unrealistically look like John is some kind of super-soldier. John recovers so quickly from his injuries and is operates on such a high level of extraordinary skills, he can lead a combat mission and be a top-notch international spy (he goes back to Afghanistan under an alias), all without the U.S. government knowing about it. Parker’s team helps, of course, but John uses an alias with Parker too. It’s very hard to believe that a special ops expert like Parker would be this easily fooled.

A movie like “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” isn’t too concerned about making everything look accurate and believable. The film’s main purpose is to make viewers root for the “heroes” of the story. In that respect, these flawed heroes are compelling to watch, even if they always act like movie characters. The meaningful friendship that develops between John and Ahmed is the heart of the story, which gives this movie enough life for it to be worth watching.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures released “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” in U.S. cinemas on April 21, 2023.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival pilot episode review: ‘The Boys’

May 1, 2019

by Carla Hay

Jack Quaid and Karl Urban in "The Boys"
Jack Quaid and Karl Urban in “The Boys” (Photo by Jan Thijs)

“The Boys”

Pilot episode/Season 1, Episode 1

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 29, 2019.

Prime Video’s “The Boys” series couldn’t have come at a better time, when superhero movies have been dominating the box office, and the lead characters in the movies have legions of devoted fans around the world. “The Boys,” based on the graphic-novel series of the same name, explores what it would be like to live in a world where over-worshipped superheroes abuse their fame and power. Based on the pilot episode of “The Boys” that had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Prime Video could have its first big superhero-themed hit.

The main protagonists of “The Boys” aren’t even superheroes. They’re mere mortals who want to expose the corrupt superheroes because of personal vendettas they have against them. Hughie Campbell (played by Jack Quaid) is a mild-mannered employee of an independent electronics store in New York City. It’s the type of store that’s rapidly disappearing in a retail economy that’s killed Radio Shack. Hughie seems to have a safe and predictable life. He and his girlfriend Robin (played by Jess Salgueiro) are very much in love, and although Hughie’s job doesn’t pay too well, it’s enough for him to get by comfortably, even if he still has to live with his single father (played by Simon Pegg).

Hughie’s world turns into a nightmare when his girlfriend is killed right in front of him in a freak accident. It’s because a lightning-speed superhero named A-Train (played by Jessie T. Usher) literally runs right through her while chasing a robber, and that leads to Robin’s gruesome death. A-Train runs so fast (just like DC Comics’ The Flash) that he didn’t even notice that he killed someone until he sees the bloody aftermath, and he makes a quick excuse that he has to leave in order to keep chasing after the robber.

A devastated Hughie tries to get justice from Vought International, the mega-corporation that manages and secretly covers up for the world’s top superheroes, including an elite group called The Seven. (The Seven is written as an obvious satire of DC Comics’ supergroup Justice League.) Vought is run by Madelyn Stillwell (played by Elizabeth Shue), a ruthless executive who puts on a façade of doing what’s best for the world, while hiding superheroes’ dirty secrets. Vought offers Hughie a $45,000 settlement to not sue over Robin’s death, but he refuses. A-Train gives a half-hearted public apology, but Hughie is not convinced the apology is sincere. Hughie isn’t so mild-mannered anymore. He’s heartbroken, bitter, and out for revenge. He just doesn’t know what to do about it yet.

Meanwhile, in Des Moines, Iowa, a naïve young woman named Annie January (played by Erin Moriarty) is training to become a superhero, much like a girl would train for an event that’s a combination of an athletic competition and a beauty pageant. She’s hoping she’ll be the chosen one to replace Lamplighter, one of the superheroes who is retiring from The Seven. What happens to this young superhero will set in motion much of the action for the rest of the series. She joins The Seven under the new identity Starlight, a character clearly inspired by Supergirl.

Not long after Starlight joins The Seven, Hughie unexpectedly meets Billy Butcher (played by Karl Urban), a no-nonsense badass who crashes into Hughie’s store. Billy says that he’s part of a secret vigilante group called The Boys, whose goal is to hold law-breaking superheroes accountable for their misdeeds. Hughie wants in on the action, but Billy wants Hughie to prove himself first.

Billy tells Hughie that all of the superheroes are corrupt except Homelander (played by Antony Starr), the leader of The Seven, an alpha-male, patriotic type who has the superhero ability to fly, just like Superman. But is Homelander really a good guy or has Billy been fooled into thinking he is?

Other characters from The Seven that are introduced in this pilot episode include The Deep (played by Chace Crawford), an Aquaman-type heartthrob who’s secretly a creep abusing his power through sexual harassment; Black Noir (played by Nathan Mitchell), a mysterious silent type; Translucent (played by Alex Hassell), who can make himself invisible, similar to the DC Comics character Negative Man, and uses this ability to be a perverted Peeping Tom; and Queen Maeve (played by Dominique McElligott), a tough-but-tender alpha female, similar to Wonder Woman, who shows signs that she’s not as committed to The Seven’s corrupt ways as the rest of the group.

Translucent is not in “The Boys” comic books, so his storyline in the TV series is the least-easiest to predict. Advance teaser footage of “The Boys” shows Translucent imprisoned in a cage. The Prime Video series also has some other differences from “The Boys” comic books (which were created by writer Garth Ennis and illustrator Darick Robertson), but that spoiler information won’t be included here.

Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, James Weaver, Ori Marmur, Ken F. Levin and Jason Netter are among the executive producers of “The Boys.” They previously adapted a popular graphic-novel series to television with AMC’s “Preacher.” Other executive producers of “The Boys” are Eric Kripke (“Supernatural”), Neal H. Moritz (“The Fast and the Furious” franchise) and Pavun Shetty (CBS’s “S.W.A.T.”).

Based on the pilot episode of “The Boys,” this series is going full-throttle with sex, drugs, adult language and violence. Now that Prime Video has canceled the superhero comedy series “The Tick” (which didn’t really click with audiences, after two seasons), “The Boys” can step in and fill that superhero series void with a rip-roaring abandon that’s a satirical kick in the face to superheroes who are too popular for their own good.

Prime Video will premiere the first season of “The Boys” on July 26, 2019.

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