‘The Sparks Brothers’ Review: Weird Band, Great Documentary

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The Sparks Brothers (CREDIT: Anna Webber/Focus Features)

Starring: Ron Mael, Russell Mael, and Plenty of Their Biggest Fans

Director: Edgar Wright

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: R for Language (That I Remember Being Pretty Mild, Honestly)

Release Date: June 18, 2021 (Theaters)

What separates a Behind the Music-style biography from a truly feature-worthy documentary? Attitude, for one thing. And Ron and Russell Mael (aka the pop/rock duo known as Sparks) have got plenty of attitude. A friendly attitude, that is! But inscrutable nonetheless. The Edgar Wright-directed The Sparks Brothers posits that you could look these brothers up on Wikipedia and still know nothing about them. That’s more than a bit of an exaggeration, as their actual Wiki page is a healthy length for a band that’s been around for 50+ years. (It’s about as long as, say, Edgar Wright’s.) But it becomes clear pretty quickly that that contention is hardly meant to be literal. The real story of Sparks is that they’ve remained perpetually under the radar despite their impressive influence and proflicacy to the point that plenty of music lovers have never heard of them. And even among their biggest fans, they are – and will probably forever be – a mystery.

The structure of this film is hardly groundbreaking as far as music documentaries (or documentaries in general) go. Vintage performance clips are mixed in with interviews of the musicians and their colleagues and fans. But that ostensible normalcy is perfectly fine, as the subjects themselves are just so confounding. They don’t appear to live on this planet Earth with the rest of us, or if they do, it’s within a different sort of dimension entirely. Really, how do you explain a Hitler mustache-sporting keyboard player and his moptopped singer brother that seemingly everybody loves and who have been at the forefront of so many of the major historical trends in popular music? If you’re Edgar Wright, you make a whole dang movie about them so that people like myself who never knew about them before can witness the wonderful world of Sparks.

One major thread running through The Sparks Brothers is the idea that people don’t take comedy in music very seriously. Performers who are decidedly comedic tend to be relegated to the novelty act heap. And indeed, the comedy is a major part of Ron and Russell’s appeal, which helps explain why some of the interviewees include the likes of such professional funny people as Mike Myers, Patton Oswalt, and Scott Aukerman, as well as Comedy Music Extraordinaire himself, “Weird Al Yankovic.” As far as Sparks go, they haven’t exactly had a Yankovic-style career; instead, they’ve existed in some sort of no man’s land that seems like a parallel universe version of major rock ‘n’ rollers like Rolling Stones or Talking Heads or even Prince. This is not a tragedy, far from it. All signs point to them being quite content with the life and career they’ve lived. So check out their story, and I bet it’ll bring a smile to your face.

The Sparks Brothers is Recommended If You Like: Any of the popular music from the 60s to today

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Sparks

‘Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It’ is Just a Documentary That Decided to Be About Rita Moreno

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CREDIT: Roadside Attractions

Starring: Rita Moreno, and Friends

Director: Mariem Pérez Riera

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Casual Hollywood Cruelty

Release Date: June 18, 2021 (Theaters)

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is your typical celebrity biography documentary, though the subject is far from your typical celebrity. She was the third person ever to EGOT, after all! So obviously respect must be paid. We get to know the skeleton of her story via interviews with the 89-year-old living legend herself, as well as some of her closest friends and collaborators. She had struggles early in her life, as she dropped out of school at 15 and became the breadwinner for her family. She also had struggles throughout her career, as she endured sexism and harassment and navigated Hollywood’s notorious habit of racism by employing what she refers to as the “Universal Ethnic Accent.” She also had some romantic encounters that came and went along the way (Marlon Brando comes up a fair bit), and there’s that one project that looms large above them all (West Side Story, of course). Once again, this is typical celeb profile fodder through and through, but it’s worth paying attention to, because Moreno has endured, clear-headed and still full of energy.

I believe that all movies are best experienced on the big screen, even something as straightforward as Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It. Alas, I did not see this particular movie in a theater (studios are back in the swing of holding in-person press screenings, though not quite at the pre-pandemic rate), and while I wish I had, the Sunday evening that it spent on my television felt appropriate. This very much feels like the sort of in-depth human-interest reporting that you would see on PBS on CBS that tends to air on the first day of the week. If someone told me that this was a series of about ten separate CBS Sunday Morning and 60 Minutes features stitched together to form one feature-length piece, I wouldn’t be surprised, both in the sense that it has the vibe of those shows and because it’s perfectly believable that Moreno would be covered that often on the same program. So if you’re a big Rita Moreno fan and you have the opportunity to make it out to the theater, I recommend it, but if you prefer waiting until you can lounge at home and summon her up on your TV, that’s not a bad option either.

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is Recommended If You Like: Rita Moreno herself of course, Celebrity features on newsmagazine shows

Grade: 3 out of 5 EGOTs

‘In the Heights’ Review: Washington Heights is So Hot Right Now

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In the Heights (CREDIT: Warner Bros. Pictures/YouTube Screenshot)

Starring: Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jimmy Smits, Gregory Diaz IV, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Noah Catala, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Marc Anthony, Christopher Jackson

Director: Jon M. Chu

Running Time: 143 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Young Adults and Older Adults Dealing with Adult Stuff

Release Date: June 10, 2021 (Theaters and HBO Max)

How could anyone possibly sing and dance on the streets of Manhattan as the temps creep up into the high 90s? This is the conundrum that In the Heights forces us to face. Sure, it’s a musical, and its attendant heightened reality isn’t meant to represent literal truth. But the vibe of this movie-based-on-a-Broadway-show is very much “This is what life is really like in the neighborhood of Washington Heights.” So how to explain it? Well, the heat can make people do some pretty irrational things. And you can get away with a few bouts of illogic here and there if you’re generally focused on friends and family.

So just who are these Washington Heights-ians in the midst of a heat wave and looming blackout in this movie musical based on the stage musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes (the latter of whom also wrote the screenplay)? First off, there’s Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), Navi for short, a young bodega owner who’s looking to buy himself a plot of land in the Dominican Republic. Then there’s his teenage cousin Sonny (Gregoy Diaz IV), who could really use some documentation to firm up his immigration status. Also hanging around the bodega is his good buddy Benny (Corey Hawkins), who really ought to make things right with Nina (Leslie Grace), who’s buckling under the pressure of being the first one in her family to make it to college. Most of that pressure is coming from her kind-of pushy dad Kevin (Jimmy Smits), who never met a financial pickle he wouldn’t crunch his way out of. And then strolling right through is Vanessa (Melissa Berrera), who’s keen on starting a fashion design career while also making sure that Navi isn’t too much of a dingus for the two of them to consummate their obvious feelings for each other. Finally, looking over it all with grace and a steady heart is Navi’s abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz). And I cannot fail to mention that LMM is also present on screen as the local shaved ice cart pusher who has an only-in-New York rivalry with the neighborhood Mr. Softee ice cream truck driver (fellow Hamilton alum Christopher Jackson).

This story all plays out via the framing device of Navi telling the tale to a quartet of kids on the beach several years later. And that’s obviously the right sort of vibe. The older generation tells the younger generation stories of their families that happened before they were born so that they know where they came from. And I love to see it, because I am just innately fulfilled by keeping track of how people are related to each other and who’s friends with whom. In the Heights doesn’t need to have song-and-dance numbers to pull off that energy, but because it is a musical, I know that these characters’ familial, romantic, and platonic emotions are indeed larger than life.

Remember at the beginning of this review when I mentioned how senseless it is to be moving your body in the midst of the mucky Manhattan heat? Let me clarify: I’m not mad at In the Heights for that. Sometimes it makes sense to be senseless, especially when you’re in a city that’s not exactly designed to offer relief for that rising mercury AND you’re in the midst of a days-long massive power outage. Hopefully in this situation, you have enough brain cells to take care of what you need to take care of, and the thrill of In the Heights is making sure that these characters maintain the minimum number of brain cells. (Barest of Spoiler Alerts: They do.)

In the Heights is Recommended If You Like: Hamilton, Step Up 3D, Family reunions

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Lottery Tickets

‘The Misfits’ Serves Run-of-the-Mill Heist Energy, But Nick Cannon is Kind of Dang Compelling

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The Misfits (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Hermione Corfield, Nick Cannon, Rami Jaber, Jamie Chung, Mike Angelo, Tim Roth

Director: Renny Harlin

Running Time: 94 Minutes

Rating: R for Some Loose-Lipped Language Here and There

Release Date: June 11, 2021 (Theaters)/June 15, 2021 (On Demand)

The best way I can possibly enjoy The Misfits is by pretending that it’s an unusually elaborate episode of The Masked Singer. How else to explain TMS host Nick Cannon teaming up with Pierce Brosnan for a globetrotting heist? That’s the sort of maniacal thinking that happens around an elaborate display of costumed singing celebrities, not a major action blockbuster directed by Renny Harlin. And after all, like The Masked Singer, The Misfits opens with some tone-setting narration from Cannon. Here’s a sample line from the latter that could very easily be at home on the former: “Funny thing about safety deposit boxes: ain’t nothin’ safe about ’em.” For the uninitiated, it’s not hard to imagine a Safety Deposit Box costume on the next season of The Masked Singer. (In case you haven’t already figured it out, I’m a major Masked Singer devotee.)

Okay, I suppose I should spend at least some of this review describing the actual plot in some detail. Despite what the opening scene might lead us to believe, the focus is not primarily on Cannon, even though his character’s name is Ringo. (And he makes a big deal out of how much he loves his namesake Beatle!) Instead, the main character is Brosnan as some fellow named Richard Pace, who gets wrangled into the whole heist scheme by his estranged daughter Hope (Hermione Corfield). Then he meets up with the rest of the crew, who are just as anti-complementary with each other as the title implies. Then as with a lot of crime flicks, I’m not entirely sure what’s actually going on, although I’m pretty sure Tim Roth is the mark. Also, they head to somewhere in the Middle East that I’m pretty sure is fictional (“Jazeristan”?), and yeah, this isn’t exactly the most sensitive movie. Oh well, at least it’s thoroughly lightweight.

Anyway, my biggest takeaway from The Misfits is that I like Nick Cannon’s energy, and I’m not sure I would’ve said that 10 or 20 years ago, although it was probably true then as well. Or at least it’s now true in retrospect. He’s certainly not immune to the aforementioned insensitivity, but despite some missteps here and there, I feel like I’m in good hands with him if I’m promised a good time. Does that make me a fellow Misfit? I don’t know, probably not. It’s doubtful that I’ll be spending very much mental space on this movie for much longer. But I do also love Ringo (the Beatle), so there is that.

The Misfits is Recommended If You Like: Nick Cannon’s emcee energy, Ocean’s Lite, Fast and Furious Lite

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Heists

‘Censor’ Invites Us Into a Trippy, Bloody Good Time

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Censor (CREDIT: Maria Lax/Magnet Releasing)

Starring: Niamh Algar, Michael Smiley

Director: Prano Bailey-Bond

Running Time: 84 Minutes

Rating: Unrated, But It’s Pretty Gory as Befitting the Subject Matter

Release Date: June 11, 2021 (Theaters)/June 18, 2021 (On Demand)

I imagine the inspiration for Censor came about while writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond was watching David Cronenberg’s body horror classic Videodrome and thought, “We need another movie like that.” And I can’t be mad at how lovingly Censor wears that influence on its sleeve, as I 100% agree with that sentiment. Let me shout it so that everyone in the back can hear: there aren’t enough movies emulating Videodrome! There should be more! Especially when one of them ensconces itself within the moral panic of Britain’s 1980s “video nasties” era. This is a time and a place when some bloody, bloody fantastical violence is being passed around by the kids – could it somehow burst out of those videocassettes?

If there’s someone at risk of that happening to, it doesn’t appear to be film censor Enid, at least not when we first meet her. She operates with a seen-it-all attitude towards the potentially objectionable content she encounters in her job, and if you’re the type of moviegoer inclined to watch something like this, you probably feel much the same way. But she has a distinct psychological vulnerability: the long-ago, not-fully-explained disappearance of her sister. Feelings of guilt and protectiveness bubble back up and become overwhelming when she’s declared dead in absentia and Enid encounters a video in her work that seems to mirror this past trauma. What follows is a mystery-unraveling journey reminiscent of 8MM, but much more personal and surreal. Throw in some supernatural flair very much a la The Ring, and we’ve got ourselves our very own full-flavored 21st Century Video Nasty.

And now I’ll conclude with a goofy thing I like to occasionally do when reviewing a film, in which I ask if it has convinced me to want to do the thing that it is about. So then, does Censor make me want to be a film censor? In a way, I’m already inclined towards such a pursuit. It’s not that different from being a critic, after all. Both involve thorough analysis and serve the purpose of guiding audiences towards a well-informed decision. So yeah, if the MPAA or some other film board needs some extra help, I wouldn’t mind being called to duty, especially if it means I get to have a trippy sidequest like Enid’s (although I’d prefer it if it weren’t so deadly).

Censor is Recommended If You Like: Videodrome, 8MM, Trading gory cult classics with your friends

Grade: 3 out of 5 Video Nasties

The Devil Made Me Go See ‘The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,’ But Not the Devil Referenced in the Title

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The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (CREDIT: Warner Bros. Pictures/YouTube Screenshot)

Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ruairi O’Connor, Sarah Catherine Hook, Julian Hilliard, John Noble, Eugenie Bondurant, Shannon Kook

Director: Michael Chaves

Running Time: 112 Minutes

Rating: R

Release Date: June 4, 2021 (Theaters and HBO Max)

Can a horror franchise be comfort food? It certainly can be for weirdos like me. Especially if the franchise in question is The Conjuring Universe. Whenever I see Vera Farmiga and Pat Wilson as Lorraine and Ed Warren, it’s like checking in with old friends. (I’m also pleased to see Shannon Kook return as their assistant Drew!) They confront some evil, and we know they’re going to defeat it eventually – there’s no tension there! The appeal is seeing them being endlessly supportive of each other. There’s also some familiar comfort with my old Fringe buddy John Noble swinging by. And while I’m not too familiar with the rest of the cast, perhaps I will be someday, and we can then look back and laugh about all those times we slayed those demons!

Grade: Enough Evil, Could Have Used Slightly More Romance (Even Though There’s Plenty)

Memorial Day Weekend 2021 at the Movies Report: Nobody Puts ‘Cruella’ in ‘A Quiet Place Part II’

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(CREDIT: Jonny Cournoyer/Paramount Pictures; Disney/YouTube Screenshot)

A Quiet Place Part II:

Starring: Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Cillian Murphy, Djimon Hounsou, John Krasinski

Director: John Krasinski

Running Time: 97 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: May 28, 2021 (Theaters)

Cruella:

Starring: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Mark Strong, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Kayvan Novak, Tipper Seifert-Cleveland

Director: Craig Gillespie

Running Time: 134 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: May 28, 2021 (Theaters and Disney+ Premier Access)

A Quiet Place Part II is pretty much more of the same. It’s not exactly the same, as we do get a flashback to right before the aliens arrive, and the Abbott family makes their way to a couple of new locations. But the vibe is very much a continuation, and the feelings it produced in me are pretty much exactly the same as they were the first go-round. Ergo, I will be giving it the exact same grade as I gave the first one.

Meanwhile, Cruella gave me pretty dang different reactions to every previous version of Ms. de Vil. A mashup of 101 Dalmatians, The Devil Wears Prada, and the Flight of the Conchords song “Fashion is Danger,” this is a triumph of getting down with your own bad self. Emma Stone … has got It. Emma Thompson … has got It. Costume designer Jenny Beavan … has outdone herself. That classic rock soundtrack is perhaps a little too dang relentless, though. But that’s the energy of the Cruella vs. Baroness Fashion War! It demands your attention, and more often than not, it earns it.

GRADES:
A Quiet Place Part II: 3.5 out of 5 Shushes (3 Years Old Version)
Cruella: 40 Quick-Changes out of 50 Dresses

‘Funhouse’ Asks: What If ‘Big Brother’ But Horror?

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Funhouse (CREDIT: Magnet Releasing)

Starring: Valter Skarsgård, Gigi Saul Guerrero, Khamisa Wilsher, Christopher Gerard, Karolina Benefield, Amanda Howells, Mathias Rematal, Dayleigh Nelson, Jerome Velinsky, Bradley Duffy

Director: Jason William Lee

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Rating: R for Gleefully Bloody Violence and a Little Bit of Sexy Time

Release Date: May 28, 2021 (Theaters and On Demand)

The satirical horror flick Funhouse offers up a cornucopia of brutal torture and a terribly cynical view of humanity (or at least celebrities), but oddly enough, I found parts of it oddly familiar and comforting. Most of that comes down to the casting. None of the actors are particularly famous, but a few of them have a similar look and vibe as some other somewhat famous folks. To wit: Karolina Benefield looks like SportsCenter anchor Antonietta Collins, Christopher Gerard looks like Puck from Glee, Amanda Howells looks like one of the girls on the Disney+ high school basketball series Big Shot, and Valter Skarsgård looks just like his big brother Bill. That might be a subset of celebrity familiarity that’s highly specific to me and only me, but it speaks to a sense of frivolity and false security that Funhouse quickly establishes.  The cast members mostly come across as reliable, likeable tropes: the cute and sexy girl, the brooding sad boy, the mysterious quiet one, etc. Surely nobody could wish these people any harm!

But of course, someone very much does wish them harm. So, so much harm. A group of eight D-listers who are all basically famous for being famous find themselves in a Big Brother-style competition show in which they test their stamina to see who can stay inside the house and follow the rules the longest. At first the biggest threat appears to be no more deadly than claustrophobia. But then an animated panda avatar pops up on the monitors and reveals the lethal stakes through a friendly mask. You see, whichever residents get the fewest votes from viewers are subject to challenges that will leave them killed if they don’t complete them properly. It’s psychological, physical, and moral torture all wrapped up in one, as the anonymous puppetmaster behind it all really doesn’t like these supposedly fake fame-o’s.

If you’re in the mood for a goofy and frothy takedown of the reality TV ecosystem, Funhouse offers that for its first twenty minutes or so. But then it turns much darker, and you’ll have to make sure you have the intestinal fortitude to handle that. There are some clever touches to the torture, but the dreadful inevitability of the game is overly bitter if you’re not cynically inclined yourself. If you’re like me, you can at least revel in the cheap moments that writer/director Jason William Lee makes no effort to hide, like stock footage-esque shots of supposedly enthralled viewers. Instead of being an unforgivable cinematic sin, I found these editing workarounds a balm to help remind me that this is just a movie and I should really just relax.

Funhouse is Recommended If You Like: Saw, Nerve, Big Brother, The Soup

Grade: 3 out of 5 Amputations

‘New Order’ is an Unpleasant Portrayal of Social Upheaval in Mexico City

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New Order (CREDIT: NEON)

Starring: Diego Boneta, Naian González Norvind, Samantha Yazareth Anaya, Dario Yazbek Bernal, Eligio Meléndez

Director: Michael Franco

Running Time: 88 Minutes

Rating: R for Violence, Nudity, and Torture

Release Date: May 21, 2021 (Limited)

New Order at first looks like it’s going to be a nice story about a high-society wedding, but then soon enough there’s a mass rape scene that doesn’t give you any time to get your bearings. Well, I suppose it was never going to be a nice story. It takes a little while for the violence to arrive, but before it does, we’re witness to an especially angst-ridden ceremony. An elderly man named Rolando (Eligio Meléndez) needs 200,000 pesos for a heart operation for his wife, so he shows up to the wedding, as it’s being thrown by a family he used to work for. He’s mostly treated as a nuisance, but the young bride Marianne (Naian González Norvind) actually cares enough to step out from her own nuptials and help deliver Rolando’s wife to where she needs to go. Meanwhile, protesters are crowding the streets of Mexico City and full-blown revolution is only one gunshot away.

I’ll admit to a fair amount of ignorance about the social status quo in Mexico, but as a cinematic experience, I don’t think that matters too much. New Order is plainly miserable no matter what context you’re aware of. It didn’t have to be that way. The first 30 minutes promise a fascinating mix of high society satire, social commentary, and running-against-the-clock thriller. But then Marianne and a bunch of other people are taken hostage, and we’re forced to endure them being relentlessly tortured. And then we’re forced to endure that some more, and it all just feels so empty. At first, I cared about what would happen to Marianne and Rolando and his wife, but that investment just frittered away unceremoniously.

Also, there’s a visual motif about green paint that had me going, “What’s the deal?!” (I never figured out what the deal was.)

New Order is Recommended If You Like: Salo-level torture

Grade: 2 out of 5 Pesos

I Saw ‘Spiral’ and ‘Wrath of Man’ on the Same Weekend, and I’m Happy with That Decision

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(CREDIT: Brooke Palmer; Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

Spiral:

Starring: Chris Rock, Max Minghella, Samuel L. Jackson, Marisol Nichols

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: R

Release Date: May 14, 2021 (Theaters)

Wrath of Man:

Starring: Jason Statham, Holt McCallany, Jeffrey Donovan, Josh Hartnett, Chris Reilly, Laz Alonso, Raúl Castillo, DeObia Oparei, Eddie Marsan, Scott Eastwood, Niamh Algar, Babs Olusanmokun, Josh Cowdery, Andy García, Rob Delaney, Lyne Renée

Director: Guy Ritchie

Running Time: 119 Minutes

Rating: R

Release Date: May 7, 2021 (Theaters)

I’m tempted to say that Spiral is my favorite Saw movie, but that wouldn’t mean all that much, as it’s only the second one I’ve ever seen. And it might not even be true anyway, since I enjoyed the philosophical conundrums that Saw 2 made me ponder. But Spiral has a whole “surprisingly favorite” vibe to it in opposition to the rest of the series. It may not be entirely different from its predecessors, but it diverges enough for me to go, “I’m pleased with the new direction.” I may not have seen Saw, Saw‘s IIIIV, Saw 3D, or Jigsaw, but I’m familiar enough with them to feel like I’m emerging upon a new horizon. The torture is still too mentally and visually taxing, but the game’s rules and players have been updated.

As for Wrath of Man, I can confidently say that it is indeed my favorite Guy Ritchie movie. Although I should note that I haven’t seen his early stuff, so this might sound like faint praise. (My previous favorite by default was probably Aladdin. Or the parts of The Gentleman with Hugh Grant.) But Wrath of Man nevertheless stands tall on its own, and in opposition to the rest of its director’s filmography. Instead of being about a bunch of gangsters having a bloody good time, this is about a bunch of criminals and working stiffs being deathly, DEATHLY serious about everything. This movie is so bleak. It’s as bleak as a butt. It’s an elemental examination of Violence, Retribution, and Pure Evil. I don’t want to spend all my moviegoing hours in Wrath of Man Land, but visiting there every once in a while provides a healthy catharsis.

GRADES:
Spiral: 3 out of 5 Minghella Rocks
Wrath of Man: 4 out of 5 Statham Hartnetts

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