Review: ‘Tom of Your Life,’ starring Baize Buzan and Jeremy ‘Jer’ Sklar

September 19, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jeremy “Jer” Sklar and Baize Buzan in “Tom of Your Life” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Tom of Your Life”

Directed by Jeremy “Jer” Sklar

Culture Representation: Taking place in Chicago and other parts of the United States, the sci-fi comedy film “Tom of Your Life” has a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few Latinos, African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A hospital nurse kidnaps a newborn person who has a mysterious biological condition: Every hour, he ages four years.

Culture Audience: “Tom of Your Life” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching under-the-radar indie comedies that tend to be meandering with annoying characters.

Dominic Rescigno and Baize Buzan in “Tom of Your Life” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The sci-fi comedy “Tom of Your Life” had so much potential to be a clever story about what happens when someone ages rapidly in one day. Unfortunately, the movie (written and directed by Jeremy “Jer” Sklar) wastes a lot of time with scenes that don’t really go anywhere, unexplained plot holes, and some uneven acting by Sklar, who also stars in the movie.

“Tom of Your Life” begins with viewers finding out that a hospital nurse named Jessica “Jess” Budusky (played by Baize Buzan) has kidnapped someone named Tom from the hospital because Tom was going to undergo scientific studies as a freak of nature. Why? Because when Tom was born at 4:44 a.m. that day, the doctors found out that Tom aged four years every hour.

At the beginning of the film, Tom is now 8 years old (played by Judah Abner Paul), he’s with Jess in a diner, and they’re having breakfast. Jess explains to Tom that he was born two hours ago and why he’s “different” from other people. It’s easy to see why Jess abducted him: She wants to him to experience having a “normal life” before he’s possibly locked up in a research lab. (Tom’s parents are never shown in the movie.)

For whatever reason, Jess keeps getting Tom a red tracksuit with white stripes to wear, up through his adulthood. It’s a little bit of an aesthetic gimmick that isn’t nearly as problematic as the last third of the movie, which goes downhill very quickly with numerous scenes that aren’t funny and wasted opportunities to make Tom a fascinating character.

Inexplicably, Tom already knows how to talk like an 8-year-old, even though he’s technically only two hours old. He can point to things like a clock in the diner and know exactly what it is. He knows how to use eating utensils. It’s implied that the kidnapping happened so fast that there wasn’t time for anyone to teach Tom how to walk, talk, identify objects, and a myriad of other things that a newborn baby wouldn’t be able to do. Therefore, Tom must be at beyond genius level to learn so quickly, right? Wrong.

Jess takes Tom to a schoolyard where several kids are playing kickball, but Tom just stands there dumfounded, as if he doesn’t know what to do. And he still can’t figure it out after watching the kids play, so Jess has to show him how to play this extremely easy game. And oddly, if this kid is supposed to be so smart and inquisitive, he doesn’t seem curious at all about why how long he’s supposed to be driven around by this strange woman who’s not a family member. It’s one of many plot holes in this jumbled movie.

When Tom is 12 years old (played by Joshua Paul), Jess takes him to a farm that gives guided tours so that he can experience being around farm animals. This scene only seems to exist for two purposes: First, so there can be a “put out to pasture” metaphor, when Tom sees that elderly animals are ignored, compared to the younger animals. “Is that what they do to old people?” Tom asks Jess. “Put them to the side and forget about them?”

The other reason for the scene is to show that while Tom is on the guided tour, Jess has snuck back to her car to smoke some dope. You see, she’s not the straight-laced, responsible parental figure that some people might think she would be in this story. She’s a hot mess.

It turns out that Jess has been having an affair with the married doctor who’s one of the few people at the hospital who knows Tom’s secret and that Jess has kidnapped Tom. Dr. Dennis Benedict (played by Paul Tigue) is in love with Jess, but the feeling isn’t mutual. Because of his love for Jess, Dr. Benedict won’t call the police to report the kidnapping. Instead, he hires his private-investigator brother Carl (played by James Sharpe, the movie’s producer) to find Jess and Tom and bring them back to the hospital.

In her car, Jess conveniently has a wig that she puts on when she feels paranoid about being recognized as a fugitive kidnapper. Eventually, she figures out that she’s more likely to get caught because she’s using her own car, so there’s a part of the movie that’s about stealing someone else’s vehicle, in order to make it harder for Jess to be tracked down. But stealing someone else’s vehicle comes with its own set of problems.

While Jess tries to maintain a façade to Tom that they’re on a fun “family-styled” adventure, she’s been persistently calling a doctor she knows in Chicago named Dr. Bill Albrecht (played by Billy Minshall), but she keeps getting his voice mail and he’s not returning her messages. Why does she want to contact him? Because he’s the only medical professional she knows who could possibly figure out what’s going on with Tom.

And there’s something else: Dr. Albrecht happens to be Jess’ ex-boyfriend and he has a restraining order against her. (She seems to have a thing for older men who are doctors.) The reason why he has a restraining order against her is revealed later in the movie. Jess has already made up her mind to drive to Chicago and meet with Dr. Albrecht in person.

At this point, it’s four hours after Tom has been born, and he’s now aged to look like he’s 16 years old. (Dominic Resigno plays Tom in his teens and 20s.) Tom finally asks who his parents are and if they know he’s been kidnapped. Jess gives an extremely vague answer: She tells Tom that his father is in the Navy and that the last thing she knew about his mother was that she sedated from the C-section she had when she gave birth to Tom.

Tom begins to tell Jess that he’d really like to go sailing, and she says they’ll try to do that on their trip. Tom’s fixation on sailing and being on a sailboat is repeatedly brought up in the movie, but not to a lot of great comedic effect. And because he’s a teenager at this point in the movie, he becomes interested in finding out how to drive, learning about sex, and rebelling. The movie has a predictable masturbation scene, and there’s a part of the movie where Tom steals the car to go to a strip club, leaving an infuriated Jess stranded.

It should be noted that although Jess’ life is messed-up, she not very sympathetic at all. It will be hard for viewers to root for her and the adult Tom because they’re both very difficult people to like. At least Tom has an excuse for his tacky behavior since he hasn’t been alive long enough to learn a lot of social skills.

As an example of how rude Jess can be, while she’s stranded on the road, an unnamed man in a purple van (played by Patrick Zielinski) stops and asks Jess, “Do you need a lift?” She snaps at him, “Not in your piece-of-shit rape van!” And when it’s revealed what Jess did to have a restraining order against her, any sympathy that viewers might have for her will vanish, even though the movie gives an emotionally manipulative excuse for her grossly awful actions.

Jess gets even more obnoxious as the story goes on. Even though she’s taken it upon herself to be responsible for Tom during this road trip, she has no qualms about driving under the influence of drugs while Tom is in the car with her. During one part of the trip, she tells Tom that she has a tendency to leave her purse behind wherever she is, and she asks him to keep an eye on it for her. As soon as she says that, you just know that something is going to happen to that purse.

As the story goes on and Tom becomes a guy in his 30s and 40s and so on (writer/director Sklar plays all the oldest versions of Tom), he becomes even more dimwitted instead of the quick-learning person he was at the beginning of the story. Rather than developing a personality, he seems to be an overgrown man-child who has a hard time thinking for himself and is easily led by others.

It’s just an excuse for the movie to have Tom say a lot of politically incorrect things to people, such as when Tom is sitting on a subway next to an African American man and asks him what happened to the color of his skin. The man replies, “What happened to yours?” And then there’s the predictable scene of Tom partying for the first time, with substances legal and illegal, as well as the obligatory prostitute who’s hired when Tom wants to lose his virginity.

As Tom gets older and more experienced, he should have gotten more interesting. Instead, “Tom of Your Life” drags in the scenes where middle-aged/older Tom is just an empty shell of a person. Perhaps Sklar was inspired by the Peter Sellers character in “Being There,” but Sklar’s acting skills just aren’t on that level. And unfortunately, most of the supporting characters aren’t interesting either.

On the plus side, “Tom of Your Life” has some noteworthy cinematography from Christopher Rejano, who really makes great use of autumn colors and exterior shots to really bring some vibrancy to some scenes. And the aging makeup by David Ian Grant is also very good for a low-budget film such as this one. And even though Buzan plays a very aggravating character in Jess, it’s clear that Buzan is more talented than most of the cast when it comes to acting.

“Tom of Your Life” has an original score composed by Sklar, whose band the Blackstrap Molasses has original songs in the movie. The music isn’t very memorable, but it gets the job done on an adequate level. Unfortunately, the last third of the movie just seems to be written as a series of awkward comedy sketches instead of a cohesive story arc, with very little to show that these characters have genuinely relatable feelings and personalities. There’s an attempt to bring some emotional connection and sentimentality in the very last scene of the movie. But by then, it’s too little, too late.

Gravitas Ventures released “Tom of Your Life” on digital and VOD on September 1, 2020.

Review: ‘Bill & Ted Face the Music,’ starring Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter

August 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves in “Bill & Ted Face the Music” (Photo courtesy of Orion Pictures)

“Bill & Ted Face the Music”

Directed by Dean Parisot

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of Earth (particularly in the fictional San Dimas, California) and in outer space, the comedy film “Bill & Ted Face the Music” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and a few Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two middle-aged men who used to be rock stars face several obstacles when they try one last time to find a song that will save the world.

Culture Audience: “Bill & Ted Face the Music” will appeal primarily to fans of star Keanu Reeves and the previous “Bill & Ted” movies, but most people will be disappointed by this incoherent, not-very-funny sequel.

Samara Weaving, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter in “Bill & Ted Face the Music” (Photo courtesy of Orion Pictures)

After years of discussions, false starts and pre-production problems, the long-awaited comedy sequel “Bill & Ted Face the Music” has arrived—and it lands with the kind of clumsy thud that happens when the movie’s title characters use their time-traveling phone booth to crash-land in a different era. The movie is overstuffed with too many bad ideas that are sloppily executed. And the end result is an uninspired mess that brings few laughs.

The movie is the follow-up to 1989’s “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and 1991’s inferior “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.” “Bill & Ted Face the Music” is by far the worst of the three movies, which all star Keanu Reeves as Ted Theodore Logan and Alex Winter as Bill S. Preston. You’d think that with all the years that have passed between the second and third movies that it would be enough time to come up with a great concept for the third film. But no. “Bill & Ted Face the Music” writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, who also wrote the first two “Bill & Ted” movies, have added several new characters and unnecessary subplots as a way to distract from the story’s very weak plot.

In “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” the dimwitted duo Bill and Ted were high-school students in the fictional Sam Dimas, California, with dreams of making it big as a two-man rock band called Wyld Stallyns. Bill and Ted were on the verge of flunking out of school unless they got an A+ grade on their final history exam. Through a series of bizarre circumstances, they’re visited from another planet by someone named Rufus (played by George Carlin), who gave Bill and Ted a time-travel phone booth.

Bill and Ted used the time-traveling booth to collect real-life historical people (Napoleon, Billy the Kid, Ludwig van Beethoven, Genghis Khan, Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud and Joan of Arc), in order to bring them back to San Dimas as part of Bill and Ted’s school presentation for their history exam. Two British princesses from another century named Elizabeth and Joanna ended up as Bill and Ted’s girlfriends and decided to stay in San Dimas with Bill and Ted.

In “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” Bill and Ted fought evil robot replicas of themselves that were sent from the future to alter Bill and Ted’s destiny of becoming rock stars who can save the world. Along the way, the real Bill and Ted also battled with Death (played by William Sadler) by playing a series of games. Bill married Joanna, Ted married Elizabeth, and each couple had a child born in the same year. And (this won’t be a spoiler if you see “Bill & Ted Face the Music”) Wyld Stallyns also became a superstar act.

In “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” it’s explained in the beginning of the film that Wyld Stallyns’ success was short-lived. In the subsequent years, Bill and Ted made many failed attempts at a comeback. They are now unemployed musicians who are trying not to be bitter over their lost fame and fortune. But their wives are starting to get fed up with Bill and Ted’s irresponsible lifestyle.

Joanna (played by Jayma Mays) and Elizabeth (played by Erinn Hayes) are the family breadwinners because Bill and Ted blew all their rock-star money and don’t have steady incomes. Bill and Joanna’s daughter Wilhelmina “Billie” S. Logan (played by Samara Weaving) and Ted and Elizabeth’s daughter Thea Theadora Preston (played by Brigette Lundy-Paine) are both 24 years old and take after their fathers, in that they are both unemployed and not very smart but they are passionate about music.

The movie’s poorly written screenplay assumes that many viewers have already seen the first “Bill & Ted” movies to understand some of the jokes. But even people who saw the first two movies might have seen the movies so long ago that these jokes won’t land very well anyway. Some of the jokes in “Bill & Ted Face the Music” have a little better context if you saw the first two “Bill & Ted” movies, but references to the first two movies make the most sense in the scenes with the wives of Bill and Ted.

In the beginning of “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” a wedding reception is taking place where Bill and Ted give a toast to the newlyweds and then inevitably give a terrible music performance. The newlyweds are Ted’s younger brother Deacon (played by Beck Bennett) and Missy (played by Amy Stoch, reprising her role from the first two “Bill & Ted” movies), who was married to Bill’s father in the first movie in a May-December romance. Missy is not that much older than Bill, and in the first “Bill & Ted” movie, there’s a running joke that Bill lusts after his stepmother Missy.

In “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” it’s mentioned in a voiceover that in the years since the second movie took place, Missy divorced Bill’s father (who is not seen in “Bill & Ted Face the Music”), and then married and divorced Ted’s policeman father (played by Hal Landon Jr., who reprises his role as Ted’s stern father), who is now chief of the local police. And now, Missy is married to Ted’s younger brother Deacon, who is also a cop. These awkward family dynamics could have been mined for hilarious situations and more jokes in the movie, but they fall by the wayside because the movie gets caught up in some messy subplots that get tangled up with each other.

Bill, Ted, Joanna and Elizabeth are in couples counseling with Dr. Taylor Wood (played by Jillian Bell), who is baffled over why both couples want to be in counseling sessions with her at the same time, as if it’s a double date. Bell is a terrific comedic actress, but the dull lines she’s given in “Bill & Ted Face the Music” are so listless and unimaginative, that her talent is wasted in this film. It’s eventually revealed that unless Bill and Ted change their destiny, their wives will leave them and their children will be estranged from Bill and Ted.

How do Bill and Ted find out that they can change their destiny? It’s because someone from outer space comes to San Dimas to tell them the world is ending and can only be saved if Bill and Ted find the song that will not only unite the world but also restore reality as they know it. The visitor from outer space is named Kelly (played by Kristen Schaal), who is sympathetic to Bill and Ted and wants to help them. She has arrived on Earth at the behest of her mother called the Great Leader (played by Holland Taylor), a jaded matriarch who doesn’t have much faith that Bill and Ted can deliver the song that can save the world.

Bill and Ted’s time-traveling phone booth is brought back from outer space (with a hologram of Rufus, using brief archival footage of the late Carlin), so Bill and Ted jump back and forth to different times and places in their quest to find the song. Dave Grohl (of Foo Fighters and Nirvana fame) has a cameo as himself in one of these scenes. Meanwhile, the “world is ending” scenes include historical figures ending up in the wrong places or people suddenly disappearing, as if to show that history and reality are being warped into an irreversible void.

The movie also spends a lot of screen time showing Bill and Ted encountering different versions of themselves in future and/or alternate realities. These scenarios include Bill and Ted as old men in a nursing home; Bill and Ted with bodybuilder physiques in prison; and Bill and Ted as successful rock stars with fake British accents. All of these scenes mostly serve the purpose to show Reeves and Winter acting silly in various hairstyles, costumes and prosthetic makeup. However, almost none of these scenes are genuinely funny

And if all of that weren’t enough to overstuff the movie, there’s a simultaneous storyline with Billie and Thea doing their own time traveling. While in San Dimas, space alien Kelly met the two daughters and explained the urgency of how Bill and Ted have to save the world. In order to help their fathers, Billie and Thea decide they want to create the ultimate band that can accompany the Wyld Stallyns when they play the song that will save the world. Kelly provides Billie and Thea with their own time-traveling spacecraft, and so off Thea and Billie go to recruit top musicians to join the band.

They end up recruiting Jimi Hendrix (played by DazMann Still, doing a barely passable impersonation) and Louis Armstrong (played by Jeremiah Craft, doing an awful, mugging impersonation), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (played by Daniel Dorr, doing an average impersonation), plus two fictional musicians: Chinese violinist Ling Lum (played by Sharon Gee) from 2600 B.C. and North African drummer Grom (played by Patty Anne Miller) from 11,500 B.C. And because apparently no A-list superstars rapper wanted to be in this train-wreck movie, Kid Cudi (playing himself) is also in this makeshift band.

Meanwhile, the Great Leader grows impatient with the bungling Bill and Ted, so she sends a robot named Dennis Caleb McCoy (played by Anthony Carrigan) to assassinate Bill and Ted. The robot keeps announcing that his name is Dennis Caleb McCoy and that’s supposed to be a joke—but it’s a joke that gets old by the second time it’s said. And it comes as no surprise that Death (with Sadler reprising the role) is in this “Bill & Ted” movie too, which recycles some plot elements of “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.”

A huge part of the appeal of the first two “Bill & Ted” movies is that these characters were young and dumb. Their “party on, dude” attitude and antics were meant to be laughed at because it was a parody of how a lot of young people act when they have the freedom to be reckless. But now that Bill and Ted are middle-aged, their doltish mindset isn’t so funny anymore, which is why the filmmakers came up with the gimmick of having Bill and Ted’s children take up the mantle of being the “young and dumb” characters in this movie.

Lundy-Paine as Thea gives the better progeny performance, since she’s believable as Ted’s daughter. And even though her body language seems a bit forced and awkward at times, Lundy-Paine shows a knack for comedic timing. Unfortunately, Weaving is miscast as Bill’s daughter Billie, because Billie doesn’t look like she inherited any of the mannerisms that would make her recognizable as Bill’s daughter. In other words, her “dimwit” act is not credible at all. And it might be a compliment to say that Weaving is just too smart for this movie.

Reeves and Winter do exactly what you expect them to do: act like middle-aged versions of Bill and Ted. But the movie looks like it was thrown together haphazardly instead of being a great and original idea that writers Matheson and Solomon had the time to work on for all these years. You don’t have to see the first two “Bill & Ted” movies to understand what’s going on in “Bill & Ted Face the Music” because so much of the story is lazily written dreck that will confuse some people anyway. Seeing the first two “Bill & Ted” movies right before seeing “Bill & Ted Face the Music” might also underscore how much better the first two movies were.

And for a movie that’s supposed to center on music, “Bill & Ted Face the Music” has original songs that are utterly generic and forgettable. There used to be a time when a “Bill &Ted” soundtrack was sort of a big deal in the music business. Not anymore.

Just like the misguided “Dumb and Dumber” and “Zoolander” sequels that had the original comedic duo stars but came decades after the original movies, “Bill & Ted Face the Music” arrives too late and falls very short of expectations that weren’t very high anyway. Whereas the first “Bill & Ted” movie sparingly used the idea of Bill and Ted confronting their alternate-reality selves, “Bill & Ted Face the Music” over-uses this concept as filler for a shambolic, insipid plot that is the very definition of “throw everything against the wall and see what sticks.” “Bill & Ted Face the Music” is like the equivalent of loud, screeching feedback from an amped guitar that is grossly out of tune and ends up creating a lot of unnecessary and irritating noise.

Orion Pictures will release “Bill & Ted Face the Music” in U.S. cinemas and on VOD on August 28, 2020.

Review: ‘Project Power,’ starring Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dominique Fishback, Rodrigo Santoro, Colson Baker, Amy Landecker and Courtney B. Vance

August 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “Project Power” (Photo by Skip Bolen/Netflix)

“Project Power”

Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans, the action thriller “Project Power” features a racially diverse cast (African American, white and Latino) representing the middle-class and the criminal underworld.

Culture Clash:  An underground drug called Power, which has the ability to give people superpowers for five minutes each time the drug is ingested, is at the center of a power struggle between criminals, cops, a man on a revenge mission and the teenage rebel enlisted to help him.

Culture Audience: “Project Power” will appeal mostly to people who like “race against time” stories that have sci-fi elements, numerous fight scenes and gory visual effects.

Dominique Fishback in “Project Power” (Photo by Skip Bolen/Netflix)

How do you get a superpower? In fictional stories, there are so many ways. And in the world of the action thriller “Project Power,” getting a superpower means swallowing a capsule pill called Power that can have one of two results: give someone a superpower for five minutes or immediately kill the person who ingests it. And in the world of “Project Power,” people are each born with a superpower that they won’t know they have until they take the Power pill that will unleash the power. When the pill kills someone instantly, it’s usually a bloody and gruesome death, such as someone’s body self-exploding.

Is it worth the risk to take the Power pill? That’s a dilemma that characters in this movie, which is set in New Orleans, constantly have to face when they have access to Power. Of course, this is the type of drug that’s not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, so the underground/illegal status of the pill makes it even more valuable, especially to criminals. It’s why in the beginning of the movie, New Orleans is pretty much under siege by criminals who are taking the drug to commit and get away with violent crimes.

It’s during this chaos that three people’s lives collide: Frank (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a cop who’s secretly ingesting Power to fight criminals; Robin (played by Dominique Fishback), a feisty teenager who’s been selling Power; and Art (played by Jamie Foxx), a military veteran who likes to call himself “The Major” who’s out for revenge. (The reason for Art’s vendetta is revealed in the movie.)

Frank knows Robin because she’s the one who sells Frank his Power pills. To ensure her loyalty, he also buys her a motorcycle for her birthday. Frank’s superpower is that he’s bulletproof and can can heal quickly from any injuries.

Frank is involved in a big chase scene with a robber, and it becomes almost impossible for Frank not to hide that he’s taken a Power pill, based on the superhuman way that he was able to be immune to deadly bullets. It might only be a matter of time before Frank’s boss Captain Craine (played by Courtney B. Vance) notices that Frank has superhuman abilities on the job.

Meanwhile, Art rolls into the area from Tampa, Florida, because he’s on a revenge mission. He has to do some investigating into who is responsible for a crime that he’s avenging. He knows that the people he’s looking for are involved in dealing the Power drug. Art stops by the apartment of a lowlife named Newt (played by Colson Baker), who takes a Power pill when he figures out that Art is looking for him and there’s going to be a big fight. This showdown between Art and Newt kicks off a series of high-octane action scenes that involve a lot of mayhem, blood and destruction.

Art and Robin “cross paths” when Art kidnaps her and basically forces her to help him on his mission to find the crime lord responsible for overseeing the illegal sales of Power in the area. Why? Because Robin is a local drug dealer of Power, and Art figures that she can be easily pressured into giving up information that will lead to the higher-ups on the drug-dealing hierarchy.

When she finds out the reason why Art is hell-bent on revenge, Robin becomes more sympathetic to him and a willing ally. But Frank is after Art because he’s convinced that Art is one of the bad guys. And so, Robin is somewhat caught in the middle, and she has to decide which person she can trust more.

The two chief villains of the story are Biggie (played by Rodrigo Santoro), who’s a typical scumbag type who inevitably takes someone hostage in the movie, and Gardner (played by Amy Landecker), the type of boss who walks around in power suits and gets other people to do the dirty work. There’s nothing inherently scary or memorable about these two generic villains.

“Project Power” (directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman) is the type of movie where the characters are constantly chasing after or at the mercy of something that can “get into the wrong hands.” The main reason why people will want to see “Project Power” is to see what type of superpowers that characters will get to when they take the pill. The movie is essentially a showcase for these visual effects and chase scenes.

On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see an African American teenage girl have a prominent role in an action flick, when this type of role usually goes to male actors. On the other hand, “Project Power” (written by Mattson Tomlin) falls back on some over-used and negative stereotypes that African American teens in urban areas are criminals, because Robin is basically a drug dealer.

And the movie has this other tired cliché about African Americans: This teenage drug dealer is also an aspiring rapper. If this role had gone to someone who isn’t African American, it’s doubtful that the character would be a drug dealer/wannabe rapper. There’s a scene in the movie where Robin does a freestyle insult rap to a teacher who tries to discipline her.

The movie also has Robin as another African American negative stereotype: She’s the product of a financially deprived, broken home: She lives with her single mother Irene (played by Andrea Ward-Hammond), who’s struggling with an unnamed illness, and Robin has to be her caretaker. Andrea has no idea that her daughter is a drug dealer, even though it’s obvious that Robin’s minimum-wage, part-time job at a fast-food joint isn’t the reason why Robin has enough cash on her to help with the household bills.

All of these negative stereotypes would be extremely annoying if not for the fact that there is some redemption for Robin, and “Project Power” doesn’t spend a lot of time on these lazy and unimaginative clichés. What saves this movie from being a mindless set of action sequences is that Foxx and Gordon-Levitt have a push-and-pull rapport that is very entertaining to watch. Fishback also has some moments where she’s a scene-stealer.

“Project Power” also has some not-so-subtle messaging about how power (or the idea of having power) can be so addicting that people will stop at nothing to get it, even if it means risking death. There are some scenes where superpowers that are only supposed to last five minutes seem to go longer than five minutes. But most people watching this movie aren’t going to sit there and nitpick by keeping track of the length of time that the superpowers are really in effect. They just want to a lot of thrilling action scenes and at least one “freak creature” that hasn’t been seen before in a movie.

Netflix premiered “Project Power” on August 14, 2020.

Review: ‘Skyman,’ starring Michael Selle, Nicolette Sweeney and Faleolo Alailima

June 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

Michael Selle in “Skyman” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Skyman”

Directed by Daniel Myrick

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in California, the sci-fi drama “Skyman” features a nearly all-white cast (with a few Asian characters) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A man is a social outcast in his community because he believes in UFOs and outer-space aliens, and he plans to celebrate his 40th birthday by trying to reunite with an alien that he says he saw when he was 10 years old.

Culture Audience: “Skyman” will appeal primarily to people who have the patience to sit through a very boring sci-fi movie where not much happens until the last 10 minutes of the film.

Michael Selle in “Skyman” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

If you’re type of person who hates movies where people keep talking about what they’re going to do and they take a long time before they actually follow through with it, then you’re really going to despise the sci-fi drama “Skyman.” It’s a movie that’s stuck on an irritating and boring repeat loop of the main character preparing and talking about something that doesn’t happen until the last 10 minutes of this 92-minute snoozefest.

“Skyman” was written and directed by Daniel Myrick, who is best known for the 1999 horror flick “The Blair Witch Project,” which was his first feature film and a big sleeper hit. “The Blair Witch Project” has been credited with starting the “found footage” trend that has been over-used in many horror films since then. Although “The Blair Witch Project” got some criticism for being an overly talkative movie with a very flimsy premise, most people would agree that “The Blair Witch Project” did have some moments of genuine suspense.

Unfortunately, there’s absolutely no suspense in “Skyman,” which telegraphs the very predictable ending so early in the story that by the time the ending happens, it’s anticlimactic and there are no real surprises. Instead of having a “found footage” format, “Skyman” has a faux documentary format: What we’re seeing is supposed to look like a documentary, but it’s actually all scripted with actors. The story in “Skyman” is supposed to take place in 2017.

There’s so much filler in “Skyman” that it really should have been a short film instead. One of the many unnecessary scenes in “Skyman” is the opening scene, which has a “talking head” interview with Cecil. H. Crawford, Ph.D. (played by Craig Downing), who works in psychology at the University of Washington. Dr. Crawford is speaking outside what looks like the university campus, and he’s talking about people who believe in UFOs and outer-space aliens.

“Typically, there’s a specific, socioeconomic profile that tends to make them more vulnerable to believing in the idea,” says Dr. Crawford. “They’re good people. They may be a little bit lost and looking for something that science can’t provide.” The movie then shows a montage of 1980s-era home videos of a family who lives in a desert area. The father and two sons are featured prominently in this home-video footage.

Who is this family? They are the Merryweather family, and they’ve been living in the desert town of Apple Valley, California, for about 35 years. Something happened to the Merryweathers about 30 years ago that permanently changed their lives: When their son Carl (played by Michael Selle) was 10 years old in 1987, he and some other people in the area saw a UFO. In addition, Carl claims that he also had an encounter with a space alien that day.

The sighting of the UFO (which Carl describes as a “black triangle”) and the space alien made the news, and Carl was interviewed on local TV about it. But all the publicity caused Carl to be ridiculed as crazy by most people in the community, and he’s been a socially awkward outcast ever since. However, about 30 years after the sighting, a documentary filmmaker (played by Myrick, who is mostly heard off-camera and briefly seen on camera) has taken an interest in Carl and wants to chronicle Carl’s quest to reunite with the alien on Carl’s 40th birthday. And guess what Carl  has nicknamed this creature? Skyman.

As an example of this movie’s lazy screenwriting, it’s never explained in the movie how Carl, who has been living in obscurity, got a documentary filmmaker to do a movie about him, considering that are many other people in the world who’ve claimed to have had encounters with space aliens. Did Carl contact the filmmaker, or did the filmmaker contact him? Although it’s a minor detail, it would also put into context how much of a publicity seeker Carl is or not.

Carl has such a plodding demeanor and banal personality that any good documentarian would be able to see within 20 minutes of spending time with him that he would not make an interesting subject for a documentary. And because he’s a loner, the documentary largely hinges on his character and what he does with his life. In the larger context of “Skyman,” making such an uninteresting and often pathetic character the center of this movie can only be blamed on writer/director Myrick. At least “The Blair Witch Project” had an ensemble of distinct personalities trying to solve a mystery that helped make the movie’s story intriguing.

Carl and his divorced sister Gina Campbell (played by Nicolette Sweeney), who do not have children, sit down for an interview together early in this “documentary” to talk about their family history. The Merryweather family, which includes their older bother Kenny, moved to Apple Valley when Carl was 5. Their father (whose name is never mentioned in the movie) was a sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, and he died of a heart attack in 2010. Carl and Gina’s mother Denise lives in a nursing home, where Gina works full-time. Gina is also a student working on getting her nursing degree.

Carl and Gina’s older brother Kenny lives in Alaska and is estranged from the family. Kenny and Carl have a long history of not getting along with each other. When they were kids, Kenny would often bully Carl. What does Kenny have to do with the story? Absolutely nothing. He’s only mentioned as an example of someone who was mean-spirited to Carl, in order to make Carl look sympathetic to viewers.

According to interviews with some of the locals, Carl is known to be an eccentric who likes tinkering with items and fixing things. Carl is described as intelligent when it comes to this type of work, but he’s had a hard time holding a steady job. It’s implied that Carl has a pattern of getting fired because when he’s at work, he can’t help but start babbling about his UFO conspiracy theories. He seems to earn some money by doing independent contractor repair jobs for people here and there.

Anyone who wants to slog through the tedious sludge that is most of this movie’s content should be warned that most of the “documentary” footage looks like outtakes from very mundane family home videos. There’s a scene of Carl giving a tour of his very cluttered “pack rat” home, where he has a large collection of UFO-related books and magazines.

He also shows some of his hand-drawn illustrations of the space alien that he encountered. (It looks like a tall creature with a typical aesthetic that’s been seen in other sci-fi movies about space aliens.) As part of his “sightings” collection, Carl keeps a hand-written book of contact information for everyone he knows about who has claimed to have encountered UFOs or space aliens. There is no subtlety in this movie. Carl is obsessed.

Carl also gives a tour of the Merryweather family’s abandoned high ground house (HGH), which is essentially a large trailer located way out in a remote part of the desert. Carl says that he considers himself to be a doomsday prepper, but he insists that he isn’t crazy. Carl’s father had the family live in the HGH for a good deal of the siblings’ childhood. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Carl reveals that his father had a UFO encounter while on Air Force duty with two other colleagues, but his father and Air Force co-workers didn’t report it because they didn’t want to be accused of having “battle fatigue.”

There’s a long stretch of the movie where the “documentary” follows Carl during his first time attending two UFO Festivals: one in McMinnville, Oregon, and one in Roswell, New Mexico. These events are essentially Comic-Cons for UFO enthusiasts. These UFO Festival scenes, if they had been written better, would have made “Skyman” a slightly interesting film, but Myrick wastes this opportunity by making these festival scenes as lackluster as the scenes of Carl back at home.

This is Carl’s reaction to experiencing these festivals: “I’ve never needed validation …  but it’s nice to know that I’m not as alone in how I feel.” In fact, Carl keeps repeating a variation of “I know what I saw was real” when talking about his UFO/space alien experience, and he says it so many times, that it could easily become a drinking game for this movie.

Even the family tension in the movie is downright dull. Carl’s mother Denise (played by Patricia Lentz) doesn’t approve of his obsession over UFOs and space aliens, but there’s not much she can do about it. When he visits her in the nursing home, all she does is mildly scold him when she finds out what he plans to do for his 40th birthday.

Meanwhile, Gina is feeling the pressure of trying to hold the family together, and she’s carrying most of the financial weight to take care of the siblings’ ailing mother. In a separate interview, away from Carl, she confesses that she feels alone because she doesn’t really have a support system. She breaks down and cries when she says about Carl: “I can’t rely on him.”

Gina is semi-skeptical about the existence of UFOs, but Carl convinces her to go with him to the family’s desert HGH on his 40th birthday. Also along for the trip is Marcus Florio (played by Faleolo Alailima), who’s known the siblings since they were in high school together. As Carl says in the movie about Marcus: “He’s one of the only people in town that doesn’t think I’m crazy.”

Marcus works at a local hardware store, where Carl buys some magnet equipment to test any electromagnetic forces that might change due to an alien’s presence. For the trip to the desert HGH, Carl also brings a small, handmade satellite dish that looks like it belongs in a junkyard. You don’t have to be a genius to see that Carl is desperate to make contact with the alien.

There are very few movies where you can watch the first 10 minutes, then skip to the last 10 minutes, and find out everything you need to know about the story. But “Skyman” is one of those films. And one of the many flaws of this disappointing movie is that it doesn’t stay consistent with the faux documentary format.

In some scenes, the movie looks like raw documentary footage with no musical score. In other scenes, it looks like a scripted drama, including the addition of a musical score that’s supposed to reflect the mood of the scene. (Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan is one of the film’s three musical composers for the sparse “Skyman” score. The other two music composers are Don Miggs and Greg Hansen.)

The acting is mediocre, and there are a few scenes where even the actors break from a naturalistic style to a more affected “it looks like we’re reading a script” style. Since Carl is the focus of the film, Selle (who makes his feature-film debut in “Skyman”) does an adequate job in the role. The acting isn’t the biggest problem with “Skyman.” It’s the very thinly constructed and monotonous screenplay, as well as the unimaginative direction, that make “Skyman” the very definition of a movie that’s overly padded to disguise that there is no real substance to this film.

While Carl, Gina and Marcus wait in the desert for a possible encounter with the Sykman alien, Carl utters, “I hope that this hasn’t been a big waste of time.” Unfortunately, that’s exactly how people will feel while watching “Skyman.”

Gravitas Ventures released “Skyman” in select U.S. drive-in theaters on June 30, 2020. The movie’s digital/VOD release date is on July 7, 2020.

Review: ‘Think Like a Dog,’ starring Gabriel Bateman, Josh Duhamel and Megan Fox

June 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Gabriel Batman in “Think Like a Dog” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Think Like a Dog”

Directed by Gil Junger

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city and in Beijing, the comedy/drama “Think Like a Dog” features a racially diverse cast (mostly white and Asian) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A 12-year-old American boy who’s an aspiring inventor and his online gaming friend in China secretly find a way to make a device that gives people the ability to hear what a dog is thinking, but government officials want to get ahold of the device, while the boy is dealing with family drama at home, because his parents are on the verge of divorce.

Culture Audience: “Think Like a Dog” will appeal primarily to families with children younger than the age of 10.

Gabriel Batman and Megan Fox in “Think Like a Dog” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

Even though the comedy/drama “Think Like a Dog” is set in the early 21st century, there’s something very 1970s quaint about this “talking dog” movie, which has simplistic and preachy messages that are both endearing and annoying. Adults will know exactly how this formulaic movie is going to end, but very young kids (under the age of 10) could enjoy this ride, since the children in this movie are very relatable.

“Think Like a Dog” (written and directed by Gil Junger) seems like a throwback to the 1970s, when movies about family dogs (such as the “Benji” series and “A Boy and His Dog”) were starting to become very popular. Back in the 1970s, life was less complicated for American children, who didn’t have to deal with school shootings or cyberbullying. It was also a period of time when it was more plausible to have a movie where a boy and his “talking dog” team up for the boy’s plan to keep his parents from divorcing.

The concept of a child being able to save a marriage with the help of a talking dog is a lot for any kid to handle in a movie. But “Think Like a Dog” also throws in another heavy-handed plot of the kid trying to dodge getting in trouble with the government because his invention has interfered with important satellite signals that control the world’s economy. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

The child prodigy at the center of the film is 12-year-old Oliver (played by Gabriel Bateman), who lives in an unnamed American city that looks like a pleasantly peaceful suburb. Oliver is a science and computer enthusiast, who keeps pictures on his bedroom wall of Elon Musk and a Mark Zuckerberg-like tech mogul named Ram Mills (played by Kunal Nayyar), also known as Mr. Mills. Oliver is an only child. His parents are Lukas (played by Josh Duhamel) and Ellen (played by Megan Fox), who are going through a rough patch in their marriage.

Lukas (who’s a soccer coach at a local high school) and Ellen (who works in a beauty salon) have grown emotionally distant from each other. Ellen and Lukas have been thinking about separating, but they haven’t told Oliver yet. But, of course, Oliver finds out, when he discovers that Lukas has been offered a coaching job at a college named Springfield University, which is a three-hour drive away from where they live, and Ellen isn’t exactly trying to stop Lukas from taking the job. If Lukas takes the job, it’s a way for him and Ellen to separate, and they plan to “figure it out” from there.

Oliver’s best friend is his mixed Border Collie dog Henry (voiced by Todd Stashwick), who has voiceover narration throughout the entire movie. Most of the “jokes” that Henry tells are the type of jokes that have been heard before in other “talking dog” movies that make the dogs sound like low-rent (but family-friendly) stand-up comedians. Henry shares his platitudes about life by saying that most humans don’t know the secret that dogs know: How to be happy.

Henry’s philosophy is that humans are always looking for ways to improve their lives instead of being content with who they are right now. (That’s easy to say, coming from a pampered house dog whose needs are catered to by humans.) What’s kind of contradictory about this movie’s message is that inventions are usually about improving lives, so Henry’s overly simplistic philosophy doesn’t really work when you consider that Oliver is an aspiring inventor.

Oliver spends a lot of time at home playing online virtual-reality games with a teenager in Beijing named Xiao (played by Neo Hooo, also known as Minghao Hou), who is equally passionate about science and computers as Oliver is. (By the way, this movie has a lot of positive references to China since Chinese-funded M-Star International is one of the production  companies behind “Think Like a Dog.”)

Oliver and Xiao have never met in person, but they consider each other to be close online buddies. Oliver has been working on an invention that can read people’s thoughts. And lo and behold, Xiao calls Oliver to tell Oliver that he’s found a massive breakthrough in Oliver’s invention, which can be activated by using a massive processor. And to their delight, they find out that the invention works.

At school, Oliver is a typical nerdy type who is shy around a fellow classmate who is his big crush. Her name is Sophie (played by Madison Horcher), who is the typical nice but slightly aloof girl who seems to be almost perfect in every way. And since this movie is extremely predictable, there’s the school bully Nicholas (played b Billy 4 Johnson), who picks on Oliver; the bully’s spineless follower Brayden (played by Dillon Ahlf); and wisecracking student Li (played by Izaac Wang), who’s too precocious for his own good.

The movie has several contrived situations to make Oliver embarrassed in front of Sophie, who seems to be in pretty much all of the same classes as Oliver. The school is doing the play “Romeo and Juliet,” and in rehearsals, Oliver is embarrassed when he says a monologue and, as a Freudian slip, accidentally substitutes the name Sophie for Juliet.

Oliver is also embarrassed when he sees Sophie and her adorable female dog (a poodle mix) at a dog park, and he gets tongue-tied when trying to start a conversation with Sophie. The school bully Nicholas naturally has a big alpha male dog (a greyhound), which the movie portrays as being so popular with the opposite sex that the dog has female dog groupies. (Yes, it’s that kind of movie.)

But Oliver’s biggest humiliation happens when Mr. Mills comes to town to give a guest lecture at the Young Inventors Expo. At the event, Oliver gives a demonstration of his invention that has the telepathic powers. Someone wears a tech headband that reads the brain, and that person’s thoughts show up on computer that has a wireless connection to the headband. Oliver asks for a volunteer from the audience, and he foolishly chooses Brayden, who’s a known friend of school bully Nicholas

Olive asks Brayden to think of a color, and that color will be named by the computer. The computer results show that Brayden was thinking of the color blue, but Brayden says he was thinking of the color green. Nicholas then stands up in the audience, as people do in movies like this, to make a taunting remark and lead a chorus of laughter at how Oliver’s invention is stupid and doesn’t work. All of this happens in front of Oliver’s idol Mr. Mills.

A crushed Oliver goes home, and his life gets worse when he finds out that his parents are headed toward a separation. What’s a boy whose life is falling apart to do? He goes in his room and finds comfort with his best friend/dog, while viewers of this movie have to watch Henry in voiceover acting like a know-it-all therapist.

It’s just around this time that some satellite gobbledygook happens in the universe, which suddenly allows Oliver to hear Henry’s thoughts through the invention. (Henry ends up wearing a magical telepathic collar, so Oliver can hear Henry’s thoughts through this portable, wireless collar device.) Oliver is elated that he can now here his best friend talk, but he also knows that if he tells people about it, they’ll think he’s crazy.

Henry is able to communicate these thoughts with Henry telepathically: “When humans grow up, they start to focus on other things and forget about what matters. What are the two most important things in life? Love and family. We [dogs] don’t complicate things like humans.”

And so, Henry and Oliver hatch a plan to fix Lukas and Ellen’s shaky marriage: “We need to teach Mom and Dad to think like a dog,” Henry says, as if he’s Marriage Counselor of the Year. The “plan” is to remind Lukas and Ellen of their wedding day, by getting them to hear their first wedding dance song at Oliver’s school dance. The idea is that the song will trigger memories of happier times, and then Lukas and Ellen can fall in love again, and everyone can live happily ever after.

Of course, there has to a big dramatic scheme to get Ellen and Lukas in the same room to hear this song. And somehow, Oliver’s school dance is the only place that Ellen and Lukas can hear this song, as opposed to anywhere else where Oliver could easily play the song to his parents. And somehow, Henry is the only living being who can get Lukas and Ellen in the same room at Oliver’s school dance. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

Meanwhile, Oliver’s invention has messed with the outer-space satellite coordinates that control the world’s banks. And this satellite interference could cause total chaos in the world’s economy. Oliver’s telepathic invention literally ends up on the U.S. government’s radar at a place called the Global Cyber Protection Agency, which can pick up the dog Henry’s thoughts, which are misinterpreted as terrorist thoughts.

Why? Because when Henry thinks about urinating on the lawn of a white house in the neighborhood, the agency thinks it’s the U.S. president’s White House. Therefore, the agency thinks a terrorist is behind the mysterious interference in satellite coordinates. And so, two agents—Agent Munoz (played by Julia Jones) and Agent Callen (played by Bryan Callen)—are dispatched to find this dangerous terrorist, or else the world’s safety could be at stake.

Meanwhile, Oliver gets a big surprise when he’s visited at school by Mr. Mills’ efficient assistant Bridget (played by Janet Montgomery), who meets Oliver outside the school to show him a hologram message from Mr. Mills. In the message, Mr. Mills says he was so impressed with the idea of Oliver’s invention that he has invited Oliver to be his guest at the Tech Summit in China.

Oliver says he can’t go to the summit, but he tells Mr. Mills about his friend Xiao, whom Oliver credits with being a big help with the invention. And so, Xiao becomes Mr. Mills’ guest at the summit, which takes place in Beijing. The event is so over-the-top in treating Mr. Mills like a “god” that a giant projection of his face appears on the steps of the convention center where the event is held. Of course, there’s a plot twist with Mr. Mills, which is revealed in the movie’s trailer, but it won’t be discussed in this review, since we all know how this movie is going to end anyway.

Will Oliver win Sophie’s heart? Will Henry help save the day? Will Lukas and Ellen fall back in love again? Do people need a dog’s brain to know the answers to these questions?

“Think Like a Dog” would have been a better movie if it weren’t so unimaginative and if it weren’t so preachy. The jokes in the movie just aren’t very funny. (There’s an over-reliance on jokes about farting, dog poop and the canine habit of dogs smelling each other’s rear ends.) There’s a lot of the movie that’s been seen and done before in other films about talking dogs or nerdy boys who are social misfits at school.

Some of the cast members stand out as being better actors than others in this movie. Bateman (as Oliver) carries the film with winning charm. Fox (as Oliver’s mother Ellen) is also quite good, and she does her best to act believable in a bland movie. Wang (as the smart-alecky Li) is a scene-stealer, just as he was in the much-raunchier 2019 comedy film “Good Boys.”

But ultimately, these slightly-above-average performances are not enough to save “Think Like a Dog” from too-corny mediocrity. The ways that problems are resolved in “Think Like a Dog” are such moldy concepts from a bygone era, that it’s the equivalent of a dog with mange that needs a good scrub-down bath of today’s reality.

Lionsgate released “Think Like a Dog” on DVD,, Blu-ray, digital and VOD on June 9, 2020.

 

 

Review: ‘Algorithm: Bliss,’ starring Sean Faris, Sarah Roemer, Seth Kirschner, James Saito and Frank Deal

June 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sean Faris and Thomas Kopache in “Algorithm: Bliss” (Photo courtesy of Green Apple Entertainment)

“Algorithm: Bliss”

Directed by Dena Hysell-Cornejo and Isak Borg

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the sci-fi/horror film “Algorithm: Bliss” has a predominantly white cast (with one Asian character and one African American character) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two inventors with a medical background face ethical issues after they discover a way to transfer emotions from one human being to another, through brain waves and computer technology, and some of their experiments go very wrong.

Culture Audience: “Algorithm: Bliss” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching poorly acted, low-budget horror flicks.

Sarah Roemer in “Algorithm: Bliss” (Photo courtesy of Green Apple Entertainment)

“Algorithm: Bliss” had a lot of potential to be a memorable high-tech horror film, but the movie’s best ideas are wasted on a flimsy plot and uneven, subpar acting from several of the movie’s cast members. When the movie doesn’t what know what to do next, it just resorts to violence and bloody gore that’s supposed to be shocking, but it’s really not very original to any horror aficionado.

Directed by Dena Hysell-Cornejo and Isak Borg, “Algorithm: Bliss” takes too much time (about two-thirds of the film) to get to the horror of the story. Instead, the movie starts off as a straightforward drama with sci-fi elements. In the beginning of the film, it’s shown that Vic Beckett (played by Sean Faris) and his nerdy best friend Henry (played by Seth Krischner) are Harvard medical students who’ve gotten into some serious legal trouble (the details aren’t revealed until later in the movie) and they’ve been asked to leave the school.

The matter is serious enough that Vic and Henry are shown in a meeting with an attorney, who tells them that they should take a deal that has been offered to them,. A distraught Vic says, “I’ll never practice medicine again.” What exactly happened? A big clue is in the movie’s opening scene when Vic is shown performing an autopsy in a pathology lab.

After being expelled from medical school, Vic is seen at a snooty cocktail party by himself, looking very uncomfortable. A blonde named Elizabeth (played by Sarah Roemer) approaches him and they start to make small talk. She admits that she’s also not a fan of this boring atmosphere at the party, and says as an icebreaker, “I hate these things, don’t you?”

Elizabeth tells Vic that her job is coordinating housing and social services for homeless people. Vic won’t tell her what he does for a living, but he hints that it’s something scientific that will be so big, “it if all works out, it could change the world.”

There’s an obvious attraction between Vic and Elizabeth, but there’s also a problem: She has a boyfriend named Robert (played by Ryan Farrell), who’s at the party. Robert makes it clear from the way he shows up and kisses Elizabeth at the party that she’s his girlfriend and not available to flirt with anyone. And it just so happens that Robert is Vic’s former roommate from Harvard.

When Vic and Robert have a moment alone at the party, Robert shames Vic by telling him that this is an alumni party and Vic isn’t welcome there, since Vic never graduated. Before Vic slinks off in embarrassment, Elizabeth sees Vic  leaving, and she asks him where he’s going. Vic makes an excuse that he just has to be somewhere else.

Meanwhile, Vic and Henry have been working in a lab, where they’ve been secretly experimenting on transferring memories from one being to another through a non-invasive way of attaching wired patches to the head and making the transfer by computer technology. Henry and Vic have been experimenting on rats that they put through a maze. However, Henry believes that it’s not just sense memories that can be transferred, but emotions can also be transferred.

Henry pressures a reluctant Vic to start trying this experiment on humans, and Henry volunteers to be the one to have his emotions transplanted by someone else’s. An unidentified man is part of the experiment, and it seems to work very well. Henry describes the feeling about having his emotions transplanted: “It feels like I couldn’t imagine worry about anything, like everything was just good.”

Henry explains that it’s not the same feeling as getting high on a drug: “It’s a feeling of peace, like a mother’s hug—not like my mother’s, of course, but an ideal mother.” This experiment’s blissful effect on humans gets Vic really excited about the possibilities, but he wants to take the experiment further.

Vic later tells Henry, “I want to test this on someone who’s truly problematic.” And this is where the movie’s plot starts to go downhill. Vic pays an orderly at a psychiatric institution to let Vic take a deranged and violent man (played by Thomas Kopache), who’s still strapped to his gurney bed, out of the psych institution and to the lab. While at the lab, the psych patient starts angrily ranting and forcefully trying to get out of the bed.

But when the patient is hooked up to the experimental equipment, Henry is able to transfer calm and happy emotions to the patient. The patient goes from acting like a rabid dog to acting like a docile child. The patient says to Vic in a blissful voice, “Thank you.”

Although Vic and Henry are elated at the findings of this experiment, they end up getting fired by their no-nonsense boss Dr. Stein (played by James Saito), who found out through video-surveillance footage that Vic illegally brought a psychiatric patient onto the work premises and experimented on him. However, Vic and Henry’s dismissal from their jobs doesn’t deter their enthusiasm for their discovery.

They decide to launch a start-up company to make their “emotion transplant” invention available as an app that can be marketed to consumers. The idea is to have the emotions transferred from people who are hooked up to a machine at the company headquarters. People around the world will be able to access the emotions through an app that will be connected to a wireless wristband worn by people who sign up for the app.

Vic and Henry name their new company and app Mudita (pronounced “moo-deetah”) and have a meeting with potential investors. Vic, who’s the alpha male of the pair, does all the talking in the sales pitch, but he gets flustered and nervous in trying to explain this invention, so the meeting is a disaster. One of the potential investors even questions Vic’s sanity and asks Vic when he’s going to check back in the psych ward.

As a dejected Vic and Henry leave the meeting, one of the men from the meeting catches up to them in the office lobby and tells Vic and Henry that he’s interested in their invention. His name is Kirwin (played by Frank Deal), and he offers to buy a 51% stake in the company. In exchange, Kirwin says that Vic and Henry can run Mudita any way that they want to run the business. Vic and Henry immediately accept Kirwin’s offer.

It isn’t long before Vic and Henry start beta testing the invention with more people. Kirwin observes some of the experiments, by watching them on video monitors. During a four-way video monitor observation, one of the testing patients has an adverse reaction to the experiment. Instead of being calm and peaceful, he acts as if he’s hallucinating something terrible.

Vic rushes in the room to take the wires off of the distressed man. Kirwin begins to have doubts about his investment in Mudita, but Vic assures Kirwin that this was a minor issue that can be fixed. “The tracking was too long,” Vic explains to Kirwin.

Meanwhile, Sarah breaks up with Robert to be with Vic. Sarah and Vic have a passionate love affair, and they end up living together. And after eight months of dating each other, Vic secretly buys an engagement ring. Things are apparently going so well for Vic and Henry, they have enough money where Henry is now attracting “Russian models” to date, according to Vic. (Viewers actually never see anything about Henry’s personal life, since almost all of the characters in the movie are written in a very two-dimensional way.)

Once the beta testing is done, Mudita will be available for sale. Word has gotten out to the public about the app, thanks to a high-profile TV appearance Vic has made on an Oprah Winfrey-styled talk show hosted by Crystal Blue (played by Kimberley Locke), who tries out Mudita on the show. Crystal loves the results, and gives the app an enthusiastic endorsement.

Even before the Mudita app is for sale, it has 2 million pre-orders. To celebrate the success of the pre-launch, Mudita throws a party, complete with a celebrity appearance by “American Chopper” star Paul Teutul Sr. as himself. But it isn’t all smooth sailing for Mudita.

On a business TV network (similar to CNBC or Bloomberg), three analysts give their opinions if Mudita stock would be a good investment if the company goes public. One analyst says Mudita would be a great investment, one analyst is neutral, while one analyst warns that the investment would be too risky.

The public attention for Mudita, with Vic as the frontman for the company, also means that Vic’s background is facing scrutiny. His exit from Harvard Medical School and his scientific credentials are being called into question by scientists and other skeptical parties. Although the circumstances of Vic and Henry’s ouster from Harvard Medical School are supposed to be part of a confidential settlement, it doesn’t take long for rumors to leak that Vic and Henry’s forced exit was for scandalous reasons.

And it’s not just scientists who are questioning the ethics of Mudita. Religious leaders are also condemning Mudita for trying to “play God” with people’s emotions. Vic tries to do damage control by appearing on a cable TV news network called Newsline on the prominent “Becky Sanders Show.” Instead of it being a good PR move, the interview is a humiliating mess for Vic, as host Becky Sanders (played by Leslie Marshall) interrogates Vic, who’s caught off-guard and does a terrible job of defending himself. (It’s actually one of the best scenes in the movie.)

Things get worse for Vic in his job and his personal life. And this is where the horror part of the movie kicks in—he starts making drastic and desperate decisions in order to save the business. He says it’s not about the money, but for the greater good of humanity.

Unfortunately, “Algorithm: Bliss” is such a poorly conceived movie, that there’s not much that can be improved from this ridiculous plot. (The screenplay was co-written by co-director Borg and Golan Ramraz.) Even if there’s an alternate world where technology like Mudita could exist, the movie has a laughable portrayal of the company headquarters as a dark and dingy warehouse-styled place, which is definitely not equipped to serve at least 2 million customers. This is a low-budget movie, but the production design is still very amateurish.

Another big problem is that none of the characters has a meaningful personality. Vic and Henry’s expulsion from Harvard Medical School is the only backstory that’s presented in the movie. Meanwhile, Faris (whose Vic character is the main focus of the story) is just not a very good actor, since he over-acts in some scenes and is very wooden in other scenes. Some of the supporting actors in the “horror” scenes also ham it up too much, so that the acting almost becomes campy, even though the movie takes itself way too seriously.

The pacing of “Algorithm: Bliss” sometimes drags, which makes this thriller a lot more boring than it should be. And the “twist” at the end of the film isn’t very surprising, since anyone who’s seen enough sci-fi movies about “change the world” type of inventions can easily predict what can happen when these inventions are no longer a secret.

“Algorithm: Bliss” might have been a better movie if it continued with the concept that is presented in the very last scene of the film. Instead, the movie lazily becomes just another forgettable horror flick in the last third of the film, with lots of bloody mayhem to try to make up for the weak storyline and plot holes.

Green Apple Entertainment released “Algorithm: Bliss” on digital and VOD on June 2, 2020.

Review: ‘The Vast of Night,’ starring Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer and Bruce Davis

May 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick in “The Vast of Night” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“The Vast of Night”

Directed by Andrew Patterson

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 1950s in fictional Cayuga, New Mexico, the sci-fi drama “The Vast of Night” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with one African American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two young people unexpectedly find out about mysterious UFO occurrences that appear to involve massive government conspiracies and cover-ups.

Culture Audience: “The Vast of Night” will appeal mostly to people who like movies that explore issues about life in outer space and what the U.S. government knows about it.

Sierra McCormick in “The Vast of Night” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

People who don’t know anything about “The Vast of Night” before seeing this sci-fi drama will get some pretty obvious clues within the first 20 minutes of this slow-burn-to-intensity film that’s clearly been inspired by “The Twilight Zone.” Taking place in the 1950s, the movie is set entirely during one night in the fictional city of Cayuga, New Mexico, where some of the people have reported unidentified flying objects (UFOs) in the sky during a night with a full moon.

There have also been some strange interruptions in the electrical lighting in certain buildings. “The Vast of Night”—directed by Andrew Patterson and written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger—takes a while to get the action going, but the last third of the film is worth sticking around for, as the movie deliberately builds up to a suspenseful pace.

The city of Cayuga in this movie at first appears to be the type of tranquil, middle-class suburb where the majority of the city residents will turn up for a Cayuga High School basketball game as a major social event. That’s what is going on in the beginning of the film, as viewers are introduced to Everett Sloan (played by Jake Horowitz), a radio DJ who goes by the on-air name “The Maverick” when he works at the local station.

Everett, who appears to be in his late teens or early 20s, has in his possession a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder, which was a fancy new technology invention at the time. He’s making the rounds at the school’s gym during the pre-game practice to test out the recorder, which he plans to use to record the basketball game. Everett interviews people in the gym because he’s an aspiring investigative news journalist, but there’s also a sense that he wants to show off this recorder too.

Everett’s activity is briefly interrupted when he’s asked to help out some school administrators who have reported an electrical power problem in the room where the generators are stored. Apparently, the lights have been blinking off and on in certain parts of the school, and they don’t want any of these problems during the basketball game.

When Everett arrives, he finds out that there was an identity mix-up, and they wanted to send for a guy named Emmett (the school’s electrician), not Everett. The administrators mention that the electrical glitches are probably because of a small animal, such as a mouse or squirrel. As the movie continues, it seems like the only purpose of this scene is to establish that the town is having some unexplained electrical problems.

One of the people whom Everett encounters when he’s showing off his tape recorder is 16-year-old Fay Crocker (played by Sierra McCormick), who’s fascinated and a little intimidated by this new technology. Fay and Everett aren’t close friends, and he treats her like an older brother who doesn’t want his younger sister tagging along. But tag along she does, as Sierra and Everett make their way into the school’s parking lot, where several families are in their cars, waiting to be let in for the basketball game. Everett goes from car to car to further test his new tape recorder.

Although the dialogue in “The Vast of Night” is spoken with a rapid-fire pace (in the manner that many American sci-fi/thriller films did back in the 1950s), the story unfolds in a leisurely manner in the beginning of the film. Not much happens in the first third of the movie, in order to create an atmosphere that this is supposed to be just a regular night in Cayuga, where the biggest thing going on is the basketball game.

Sierra and Everett aren’t staying at the basketball game because they have to work elsewhere. Everett is headed to the radio station, where he has a live broadcast for his music/talk show. Sierra is scheduled to work a shift alone as the city’s telephone switchboard operator.

Before they walk to their respective workplaces, Sierra and Everett have a lively discussion about some of the future technology that’s she’s read about in magazines like Modern Mechanics. She tells Everett that by the year 2000, there will be vacuum-tube transportation that can travel at incredible speed; phones that will look like tiny TVs; and lifelong telephone numbers as IDs that will be assigned to babies at birth, with the numbers disconnected upon death. Everett tells Sierra: “I believe the train tubes in the highways, but the tiny TV phones—that’s cuckoo.” (It’s the screenwriters’ obvious inside joke, since smartphones now exist.)

As soon as Sierra begins her switchboard operator shift, a few strange things start happening. She gets a call where all she hears is a repeated clicking-echo type of noise and nothing else. Then another call comes in, with a terrified woman saying that there appears to be a tornado coming toward her. A barking dog can be heard in the background, and then the caller is suddenly disconnected.

A concerned Sierra then calls a neighbor named Ethel to check on Sierra’s  pre-school-age sister Ethel and the babysitter Maddie, who are both home alone at Sierra’s house. Sierra has been listening to Everett’s radio show while she works. She hears the strange clicking sound at the beginning of the show’s news broadcast, so she calls Everett to ask him if he heard this strange noise too.

Everett didn’t hear it, but Sierra hooks him up to the phone line where he can hear it, and he records the noise. They both decide that Everett should play the noise on the air and ask listeners to call in and say if they recognize what this mysterious sound is.

A retired military man who identifies himself by the name Billy (played by Bruce Davis, in a voice role only) then calls in, and begins to tell a story live on the air. This story takes Everett and Sierra down a path of trying to uncover a mystery. Everett also gets a call from an elderly shut-in named Mabel Blanche (played by Gail Cronauer), who also has some information that’s part of the mystery, as the movie accelerates to a breakneck speed with a heart-pounding conclusion.

“The Vast of Night” uses a visual device of framing the story as if it’s an episode of a fictional show called “Paradox Theater” (an obvious nod to “The Twilight Zone”), by having some scenes open with the action playing out on a  tiny, 1950s-style black-and-white TV.  The movie’s cinematography by Miguel Ioann Littin Menz is infused with a lot of sepia tones that were common in movies of the 1950s, when color technology in films was still fairly new. And “The Vast of Night” also takes an unconventional approach by having the screen go completely dark during some suspenseful moments (one “blackout” scene lasts for about five minutes), which might give the viewers the impression that something is wrong with the screen or the movie’s playback.

Avid sci-fi fans will also notice some Easter eggs in “The Vast of Night,” such as Cayuga is the name of “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling’s Cayuga Productions. And the radio station that Everett works at is WOTW, which is an acronym for “War of the Worlds,” even though radio and TV stations west of the Mississippi River are supposed to have call letters that start with the letter K.

The only real flaw of “The Vast of Night” (and it’s a fairly minor one) is that the movie never really feels like it takes place in New Mexico, because “The Vast of Night” was actually filmed in Texas with a cast of mostly Texans and Oklahomans who keep their heavy Southern accents in the film. It’s kind of distracting for the cast to have the wrong accents, but this discrepancy in regional accents doesn’t take away too much from this engaging story. “The Vast of Night” might not be completely original in its subject matter, and the acting is good (not great), but the way the story is told with some unique touches should please die-hard sci-fi fans.

Amazon Prime Video premiered “The Vast of Night” on May 29, 2020.

Review: ‘Vivarium,’ starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots

March 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jesse Eisenberg, Côme Thiry and Imogen Poots in “Vivarium” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/Saban Films)

“Vivarium”

Directed by Lorcan Finnegan 

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in England, the sci-fi thriller “Vivarium” has an all-white cast representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An unmarried couple who live together go to a mysterious housing development to look for a new home and find out that they can’t leave.

Culture Audience: “Vivarium” will appeal mostly to people who like unsettling suspense stories with a sci-fi angle.

Senan Jennings in “Vivarium” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/Saban Films)

“Vivarium” is a somewhat haunting sci-fi thriller that’s meant to give people the creeps and/or anxiety throughout the entire film. The movie—directed by Lorcan Finnegan and written by Garret Shanley—is actually a very simple story that gets drawn out over approximately 97 minutes. The middle of the film has a very sluggish pace, but there’s enough of the story to keep people interested to find out what happens in the end.

In the beginning of “Vivarium,” there are startling images of hungry baby birds in nests, demanding to be fed by their parents. It’s a metaphor for what happens later in the story, which takes place in present-day England. Gemma Pierce (played by Imogen Poots) is a teacher at a primary school (which is called elementary school in the United States) to children who look about 5 or 6 years old. After school lets out for the day, one of the girl students finds two baby birds stomped to death near a tree in the school front lawn.

It’s here that viewers first see Gemma’s live-in American boyfriend Tom (played by Jesse Eisenberg), who climbs down from a ladder placed near the tree where the birds were found. It’s not made clear what Tom does for a living, but since this is one of the movie’s few scenes that’s set in the “outside world,” one can assume he works as a handyman at the school.

Tom and Gemma are looking for a house and they have an appointment at a real-estate company that wants to show them a new housing development in the area. When they arrive at the office, Gemma and Tom are greeted by a very creepy real-estate agent named Martin (played by Jonathan Aris), who has the kind of unblinking, crazy-eyed look that would make most people feel very uncomfortable. There’s something “off” about his mannerisms too: His smile is too fake, his way of talking seems unnatural, and at one point in the conversation, he mimics what Gemma says, almost as if he’s mocking her.

Tom senses that something isn’t quite right about Martin, and so Tom is a little reluctant to go any further in the inquiry about the house. However, Gemma (in an effort to be polite) indicates that she still wants to see the property. Against his better judgment (and since they arrived in the same car), Tom agrees to go with Gemma to get a tour of the house. They follow Martin (who drives in a separate car) to see the house where they might live.

The housing development is named Yonder, which Martin describes as “both tranquil and practical.” And it’s definitely a Stepford-type environment. All of the development’s green two-story houses and yards are identical to each other. Somehow, Tom and Gemma don’t notice that there is no one outside on the streets of this large neighborhood. It’s a major red flag of what’s to come.

Unfortunately, probably because of this film’s low budget, all of the exterior shots of the housing development looks very CGI fake. Once the characters are in the mysterious Yonder environment, it’s very obvious where the “green screen” is whenever there are scenes that are supposed to take place outside.

During a brief tour of the house, which has the number 9 as its address, Martin  abruptly leaves Tom and Gemma at the house without a goodbye or any explanation. Gemma and Tom are ready to just write it off as a weird experience, so they get in their car to leave. But every time they try to find their way out of Yonder, they come right back to the house where they were. The bird’s eye view of the Yonder housing development also looks very CGI fake, like a video game.

This circling around the neighborhood goes on for quite a bit, as Tom argues with Gemma, demands to do the driving, and then he gets “lost” too. Gemma and Tom soon find out that they have no cell phone service. And as it starts to get dark, the car runs out of gas. In a major plot hole, Gemma and Tom don’t even try to see if anyone else is home who can help. Not that it would matter, since the movie’s entire plot is about them being stuck in this neighborhood with no one to help them get out.

Exhausted by their strange ordeal, they have no choice but to spend the night at the house. The contents of the house’s refrigerator has just one item: a gift basket with a bottle of champagne and fruit (strawberries), which Gemma and Tom consume since they have nothing else to eat and drink. Tom remarks that the strawberries have no taste.

The next day, Tom has the idea that he and Gemma should follow the direction of the sun to find their way out. They spend most of the day doing just that, climbing over neighbors’ fences and trekking through the streets. But to no avail. As it gets dark, the only house that they see with its lights on is the same No. 9 house that they were at in the beginning.

Then another strange thing happens: A box of food and other house essentials has mysteriously been delivered at the front of the house. (There’s no sign of who delivered the box.) Out of desperation, Tom (who’s a smoker) decides to use one of his cigarettes to light the house on fire, to see if anyone will notice the fire and call for help. Tom and Gemma watch nearby as the house burns to the ground, before they fall asleep.

When they wake up, Gemma and Tom are covered in ash. And the house has mysteriously appeared again, completely intact, as if the fire never happened. And then they get another box delivered to them. And what’s in the box sets in motion the rest of what happens to Tom and Gemma in the story.

The box has a baby boy in it, with a message: “Raise the child and be released.” Given that Gemma and Tom are stuck in this weird limbo environment, they basically don’t have a choice but to raise the child. (Côme Thiry plays the child as a baby.) The movie then fast forwards to 98 days later, and the baby has grown into what looks like a human boy who’s about 7 or 8 years old (played by Senan Jennings), thereby making it very clear to viewers that whoever Tom and Gemma are raising is definitely not human.

Tom is extremely resentful of the child, who has a tendency to randomly scream at the top of his lungs until he gets something. He always screams this way when he wants food, which is a nod to the bird scene that was shown in the beginning of the movie. One of the creepiest aspects of “Viviarium” is that the child (who doesn’t have a name) mimics what Tom and Gemma say in their own voices. The boy has a normal child’s voice, but more often than not, the voice that comes out when he speaks is a male or female adult voice.

Tom is quick to lose his temper and, at times, he deliberately abuses the child through physical assault and later by locking him in the car and refusing to give him food. Tom also refuses to call the child “he” and instead calls the child “it.” Gemma doesn’t like taking care of the child either, but she’s more patient than Tom is. In a scene that sums up their feelings about their forced parenting of this odd creature, Tom and Gemma both show the child their middle fingers in anger, and the child does the same. 

The middle section of the film somewhat drags down the pace of the story. There are repetitive scenes of the boy doing things that irritate Tom and Gemma. Although Tom wants to try and get rid of the boy in some way, Gemma can’t bring herself to do it, not matter how much she detests taking care of the boy.

At this point in the story, Tom has a distraction to keep him out of the house for long periods of time. He’s discovered, by flicking a cigarette on the front lawn, that the cigarette has burned a mysterious circle on the grass, which exposes the dirt on the ground. Tom begins digging the dirt and hears menacing sounds underneath. Digging as far as he can into the ground then becomes Tom’s obsession and takes up a great deal of his (and this movie’s) time. In one scene, Gemma speculates that the hole that Tom is digging will lead to hell. Tom replies, “No, we’re already there.”

Meanwhile, the boy who lives with them has been fixating on watching something bizarre on the house’s TV: black-and-white color patterns that look like psychedelic cell mutations. And in the house, Gemma finds a book that has strange coding and illustrations which are clues to what is possibly going on and what kind of being that she and Tom are raising.

“Vivarium” is by no means on the level of a Christopher Nolan sci-fi movie. A Nolan film has layers and layers of deep meaning that viewers will contemplate long after the movie is over. The ending of “Vivarium” actually explains exactly why all of this is happening to Tom and Gemma. The explanation is kind of basic and actually not all that surprising.

And because so much of “Vivarium” is repetitive (Tom and Gemma’s stir-crazy angst is pretty much 90% of the movie), the movie probably would’ve been better as a short film. However, if you’re looking for a movie to pass the time and give you some suspenseful chills, “Vivarium” should do the trick. Just don’t expect anything close to a masterpiece.

Lionsgate and Saban Films released “Vivarium” on digital and VOD on March 27, 2020. The film’s Blu-ray and DVD release is on May 12, 2020.

Review: ‘Bloodshot’ (2020), starring Vin Diesel

March 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Vin Diesel in “Bloodshot” (Photo by Graham Bartholomew)

“Bloodshot” (2020)

Directed by David S. F. Wilson

Culture Representation: Taking place in various cities around the world, the sci-fi/action flick “Bloodshot” has a racially diverse cast (white, black, Asian and Latino) and a story that revolves around a U.S. military soldier who’s brought back from the dead, as well as the current and former members of a secret high-tech organization that’s experimenting on him to make him into an easily manipulated killing machine.

Culture Clash: Certain characters in the story have ethical dilemmas about using technology to train assassins.

Culture Audience: “Bloodshot” will appeal primarily to fans of star Vin Diesel and the comic-book series on which the movie is based, but the movie’s formulaic tropes will have little interest to people who aren’t die-hard fans of action movies.

Guy Pearce and Vin Diesel in “Bloodshot” (Photo by Graham Bartholomew)

Vin Diesel is best known for starring in the wildly successful car-racing “Fast and Furious” franchise since 2001, when the first “The Fast and the Furious” movie made him famous. Ever since then, he’s starred in multiple action movies that were clearly made with the hopes that they too would become blockbuster franchises with a series of several movies, but none outside of “The Fast and the Furious” and “XXX” (pronounced “triple X”) has panned out to be that way.

The sci-fi/action flick “Bloodshot” (based on the Valiant Comics series) is another attempt by Diesel (who’s one of the movie’s producers) to try and create a movie-franchise vehicle for himself, and this attempt will also fail. Although “Bloodshot” is a passably enjoyable film, the movie doesn’t have the charisma to make it the type of film where audiences will demand any sequels. This personality deficit in the movie has largely do with the fact that Diesel is a very robotic actor, which is no surprise to anyone who’s seen most of his films.

“Bloodshot” begins with a montage of Diesel’s Ray Garrison character on active duty as a U.S. Marines soldier. He saves a man from a hostage situation and ends up at Ariano Air Force Base in Italy, where he gets praise for his rescue mission. All of this globetrotting away from home has put a strain on his marriage to his British wife Gina (played by Talulah Riley), who’s an action-flick cliché of being the hero’s modelesque love interest who (of course) gets half-naked in the movie. Gina comments to Ray about his soldier duties, “At some point, your body can’t do this forever,” in what is supposed to pass as deep, meaningful insight in her dialogue.

Sure enough, Ray does get killed. But how he gets killed might or might not have happened in the way people might think it happened, since the movie plays tricks on characters’ minds about what’s real and what isn’t. What does happen on screen is that Ray is ambushed and kidnapped by two men in his bathroom. The next thing Ray knows, he’s tied to a chair in a slaughterhouse, where he undergoes a brutal interrogation about information that he swears that he doesn’t know.

Ray’s tormenter/interrogator in this kidnapping is Martin Axe (played by Toby Kebbell), who’s clearly unhinged because he starts dancing to the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” before showing that Gina has been kidnapped and tied up too. And then Gina gets murdered in front of Ray.

As viewers soon see, the entire tragic scene was an elaborate virtual-reality manipulation that later will be used on Ray, who is dead in real life and being experimented on by a secret American high-tech organization called Rising Spirit Technologies (RST), led by the overly ambitious mad scientist Dr. Emil Harting (played by Guy Pearce). Harting wants to perfect a technology that can resurrect soldiers from the dead and train them to be assassins with superpowers. He plans to sell this technology to the highest bidder, and he expects to make billions. (This isn’t a spoiler, since this concept of reanimating Ray from the dead is in the movie’s trailer and it’s the origin story in the “Bloodshot” comics.)

Ray finds out that he’s been brought back from the dead when Harting shows Ray how he’s undergone a blood transfusion that has replaced his blood with a plasma-like liquid filled with molecular creatures that can quickly rebuild his body in any way after getting injuries or wounds, thereby making Ray virtually indestructible. (The visual effects for “Bloodshot” are actually quite good, but they won’t be winning any awards.)

Ray is the first person that RST has been able to bring back to life, according to what Harting says. Harting also says that no family members claimed Ray after Ray’s death, so that’s why Ray’s body ended up at RST. Ray’s memory has been erased, so he has no way to know if Harting is telling him the truth, and he’s trapped in the facility anyway. In order to ease Ray’s fears, Harting puts a positive spin on the situation by telling Ray that Ray now has a second chance at life. What he doesn’t tell Ray is that Ray is being used by RST to see if Ray can be turned into an easily programmable killing machine.

At RST, Ray meets three people who are also part of RST’s experiments: Katie, nicknamed KT (played by Eiza González), is someone whose respiratory system has been restored into something high-tech that can be controlled by Harting. Jimmy Dalton (played by Sam Heughan) is Harting’s most loyal foot soldier (literally), since his legs have been replaced by super-speedy mechanical limbs. Jimmy has other high-tech abilities that are revealed later in the story. Tibbs (played by Alex Hernandez), the quietest of the three, has ocular prosthetics that give him a superhuman ability to see.

What viewers see but what Ray doesn’t is that RST can create virtual worlds in Ray’s mind and erase his memories to start over and implant other ideas in his mind whenever they want. And what Harting wants to do in this phase of the experiment is to see if he can get Ray to complete a series of assassinations around the world, by tricking Ray into thinking that each of the men he assassinates is the same man who murdered Gina in front of Ray.

In order to do that, RST has to erase Ray’s memories every time he completes an assassination and start over by replacing Gina’s murder re-enactment with a different image of each man as the murderer, who will then be the target of Ray’s revenge assassination. And who are these men that Ray is supposed to kill? And why does Harting want them killed? Those details are revealed in the movie.

Meanwhile, KT gets a little closer to Ray, and there are hints that she’s attracted to him and wants a better life than the one she’s trapped in at RST. There’s also a fast-talking coding whiz named Wilfred Wigans (played by Lamorne Morris), a Brit who’s the comic relief in the movie. Wigans has a self-deprecating sense of humor that shows he’s aware that he’s a nerd who gets disrespected, but he’s determined to have the last laugh. Wigans is the only character in the movie who seems to have a personality that goes beyond two dimensions.

Most people who want to see “Bloodshot” will be interested in the action sequences. And some of these scenes are thrilling, particularly the movie’s best action scene, which takes place on a skyscraper. But the assassination scenes are very formulaic, especially since there are video games that have upped the ante and people’s expectations for this type of action.

In this age of Marvel Studios’ domination of superhero flicks, movie audiences are now expecting a lot more from superhero movies than what “Bloodshot” delivers, because the movie version of “Bloodshot” is a story that’s on the same quality level as a video game. “Bloodshot” director David S. F. Wilson (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Eric Heisserer) should have kept in mind while making this film that today’s movie audiences want genuine and relatable character development in superhero movies, not just impressive visual effects. Wilson, who makes his feature-film directorial debut with “Bloodshot,” has a visual-effects background in mostly video games, including several “Star Wars” video game titles.

As the ruthless and greedy Dr. Harting, Pearce does a reasonably good job with his character, but he’s already played a memorable mad scientist in a superhero movie before—Aldrich Killian in 2013’s “Iron Man 3.” Since “Iron Man 3” was a much better movie than “Bloodshot,” the latter movie seems like an inferior retread for Pearce, and the Harting character doesn’t have the wounded emotional depth that Killian had.

And in the role of KT, González does a serviceable performance that, quite frankly, could have been played by any number of actresses. Huegan’s soulless Jimmy Dalton character is strictly a one-dimensional role where he has single-minded loyalty to RST and some jealousy toward Ray, who’s being groomed as RST’s alpha male experiment. And as the quiet Tibbs, Hernandez doesn’t have much to do with this character, who’s basically there to just follow Jimmy’s lead.

In order for a superhero movie to go from a one-picture deal to a series franchise, audiences have to want to come back for more because of the personalities of the main characters. In that respect, “Bloodshot” falls woefully short, because as the center of the story and as the titular superhero, Diesel’s acting is almost as artificially lifeless as Ray Garrison/Bloodshot.

Columbia Pictures released “Bloodshot” in U.S. cinemas on March 13, 2020. 

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has moved up the digital and VOD release of “Bloodshot” to March 24, 2020.

Review: ‘Horse Girl,’ starring Alison Brie

February 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

Alison Brie in "Horse Girl"
Alison Brie in “Horse Girl” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Horse Girl”

Directed by Jeff Baena

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the sci-fi drama “Horse Girl” (which has almost nothing to do with horses) has a predominantly white cast of characters representing the middle class.

Culture Clash: When a seemingly normal woman tells people about why strange things are happening to her, they think she’s crazy. 

Culture Audience: “Horse Girl” will appeal primarily who audiences who prefer arthouse sci-fi films, but this movie can’t quite rise above its mediocrity and ultimately disappointing conclusion.

John Reynolds and Alison Brie in “Horse Girl” (Photo by Katrina Marcinowski)

Don’t be fooled by the title of the movie drama “Horse Girl,” because this isn’t a “National Velvet” type of story about a girl and her “best friend” horse who overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to win a race. Nor is this a non-sports horse movie about someone with a special talent to communicate with horses, such as “The Horse Whisperer.” In fact, after seeing “Horse Girl,” you might wonder what the word “horse” was doing in the title in the first place. There’s a horse in this movie, but it’s not central to the plot, and the horse is in this 104-minute film for no more than 15 minutes.

So, what is “Horse Girl” about anyway? It’s about a shy, neurotic woman named Sarah (played by Alison Brie, who co-wrote the “Horse Girl” screenplay with director Jeff Baena) who believes she’s discovered something horrible about her life, but everyone around her thinks she’s crazy. When viewers first see Sarah, she’s living a routine and boring life that consists of her working as a sales associate at a local arts-and-crafts store and then coming home at night to watch TV. Her favorite show is a paranormal drama series called “Purgatory,” which features detectives investigating strange crimes that might or might not have to do with vampires and the occult.

She also spends time at a ranch where the people there don’t look too happy to see her. There’s a horse at the ranch named Willow that Sarah is overly attached to, for reasons that are explained later in the story. From the way that Sarah acts around the horse and the teenage girl who gets to ride Willow, it would be easy to assume Sarah is either the owner of the horse or a horse trainer. But things aren’t always what they seem to be with Sarah.

In the film’s opening scene—which almost looks like a parody of the  prissy characters that the Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph in “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar”—Sarah and her co-worker Joan (played by Molly Shannon) commiserate over finding out what their heritage is through DNA test kits. Joan raves about getting her DNA test results, as if it’s the most exciting thing to happen to her all year. She urges Sarah to do a DNA test too, and Sarah says that she’ll think about it. Later in the movie, Joan surprises Sarah by giving her a DNA test kit for Sarah’s birthday, and Sarah does the test.

Meanwhile, Sarah’s home life is fairly lonely, even though she has a roommate. Sarah’s pretty and confident roommate Nikki (played by Debby Ryan) is the kind of woman who gives off the aura of someone who was probably a queen-bee cheerleader in high school. Nikki and her boyfriend Brian (played by Jake Picking) spend a lot of time at each other’s place. When they’re over at Nikki and Sarah’s apartment, they rarely spend time with Sarah.

You can tell that Nikki feels sorry for Sarah when Nikki suggests that Brian’s roommate Darren Colt (played by John Reynolds) come over sometime so they could double date. Sarah is reluctant and doesn’t show further enthusiasm about the “double date” idea, until Darren actually comes over with Nikki and Brian. Sarah and Darren feel an instant attraction to each other. And the fact that Darren is the name of the male lead chatacter in “Purgatory” makes it even better for Sarah, who blurts out this information to Darren.

It’s the first clue that something is really “off” with Sarah, but Darren brushes it off and thinks that Sarah is just nervous and awkward. During this house-party get-together, all four loosen up with alcohol, while the guys smoke some marijuana too. Everyone gets very intoxicated, which leads to Darren and Sarah dancing with no inhibitions with each other. After Darren leaves, Sarah vomits in the toilet.

The next day, Darren shows up at the apartment unexpectedly because he forgot to ask Sarah for her phone number. She gives him her number, and they start dating. Sarah gets an occasional nosebleed, but she doesn’t think much about it.

Meanwhile, Sarah goes to a home of a young female friend around her age to visit with her. The woman has difficulty walking, and her speaking skills also sound physically challenged. Who is this mysterious friend?

In a flashback, we see that she used to be a horse-riding pal of Sarah’s until a horrible accident left her impaired. Sarah was riding Willow at the time of the accident. Although it’s never shown or fully explained in the movie, that traumatic incident had something to do with why Sarah no longer owns Willow, but she keeps showing up at the ranch of Willow’s new owners, who can barely tolerate Sarah, since she acts like she’s still responsible for taking care of Willow.

What does that horse have to do with some of the twists and turns in the rest of the story? It’s enough to say that Sarah’s nosebleeds and her habit of sleepwalking have more to do with the story than the horse. Sarah’s sleepwalking starts to become very unsettling when things start happening, such as her stepfather’s car, which he’s let her borrow, ends up being towed because it was found in the middle of a street with a door open and the keys still in the ignition. (Paul Reiser plays Sarah’s stepfather Gary in what is essentially a cameo role.)

Sarah has no memory of driving the car there, and before she found out where the car was, she reported the car stolen. Viewers find out that Sarah’s mother had a history of depression and committed suicide years earlier. Sarah’s maternal grandmother (who looks just like Sarah in photos that are shown) also had a history of mental illness. Did Sarah inherit any of their mental problems? She seems terrified of that possibility.

One thing’s for sure: Sarah has a recurring dream that she’s lying face up in a completely white, clinical-looking room. She’s in the middle of two other people, who are also lying face up, but they appear to be asleep. One is a middle-aged man and the other is a woman who’s around Sarah’s age. Before anything happens next in the dream, Sarah wakes up.

One day, Sarah is shocked to see the man from her dream show up randomly in real life, when she sees him from a distance while she’s at her job. She follows him outside, and sees from the van that he’s driving that he works for a company called Santiguez Plumbing. She goes to his place of work and finds out that his name is Ron (played by John Ortiz), but he doesn’t know who Sarah is when Sarah asks if they’ve ever met before.  He also says he has no memory of having a dream similar to hers.

More strange things keep happening to Sarah. There are long, horizontal scrape marks on her apartment wall that have appeared with no explanation. Sarah also wakes up with mysterious bruises on her body. By this point in the movie, Sarah has gone from a passive, soft-spoken person to almost manic and hysterical when she starts to put together a theory of what’s happening to her. It’s a theory that won’t be revealed in this review (even though it’s revealed in the movie’s trailer), but it takes the story in a direction that’s completely different from how the movie began.

It’s enough to say that Sarah has a very public meltdown, and she ends up getting psychiatric help. She’s assigned to a counselor named Ethan (played by Jay Duplass) who remains sympathetic but highly skeptical, as Sarah explains to him what she thinks is happening to her. (Hint: It involves a conspiracy.) The problem with “Horse Girl” is that even with the sci-fi elements that come into play with this story, where people have to suspend a certain amount of disbelief, there are so many plot holes for Sarah’s conspiracy theory that even if the theory were true, it would be almost impossible for Sarah not to find out about certain actions a lot sooner than she does.

“Horse Girl” director Baena and Brie previously worked together when she co-starred in the 2017 offbeat comedy “The Little Hours,” which was about horny Catholic nuns who act on their lusty desires. That movie gave viewers the anticipation of wondering what’s going to happen next. “Horse Girl” doesn’t have quite the same ability to keep viewers compelled, because of its nonsensical storyline. The first half of “Horse Girl starts off fairly intriguing, but the last half is a lot like a slogging through mud.

Horse fans, you’ve been given fair warning. This movie is definitely not about horses. If you want to watch a conspiracy-theory movie with sci-fi gimmicks that have been done much better in other films, then feel free to waste about 104 minutes of your time to watch “Horse Girl.”

Netflix premiered “Horse Girl” on February 7, 2020.