‘Held’ Locks Up a Married Couple on the Edge for a Little Bit of Torture

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Held (CREDIT: Magnet Releasing)

Starring: Jill Awbrey, Bart Johnson

Directors: Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: Unrated, But This is R Territory for Bloody Bodies and Bloody Profanity

Release Date: April 9, 2021 (Theaters and On Demand)

The two main characters of Held are held captive, and I daresay this movie would like our attention to be held as well. So was my attention indeed held for an hour and a half? I’m going to have to be honest with everyone here… it was! It helps that everything starts out simply enough: husband and wife Henry and Emma (Bart Johnson and Jill Awbrey, the latter of whom also wrote the script) haven’t been feeling too romantic lately, so they decide to spend a few days away at a rental house. Now, this premise doesn’t necessarily have me jumping out of my seat, as it’s a little more angsty than I’m typically in the mood for. But I’m happy to be on board, if for no other reason than Awbrey’s striking resemblance to Liz Cackowski. That latter name may not mean a lot to too many people, but if you’re like me and you love shows such as Community and Speechless, you’ll find yourself going, “Hey, that lead character looks a lot like someone who’s guest-starred on some of my favorite sitcoms!”

Co-directors Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff wisely upend any sense of stability almost immediately, as we soon discover that some all-seeing mastermind with a voice modulator has hacked into the house’s smart devices and is keeping Emma and Henry all locked up until they complete a gauntlet of psychological manipulation. The unseen villain is so outrageously evil that it’s a little hard to believe that this couple could in any way be deserving of this torture. But that’s part of the fun of a nasty little genre piece like this one. The commitment to the bit (the bit here being “false imprisonment”) is so thorough that I just cannot help but be impressed by all the metaphorical mustache-twirling.

Eventually there is an explanation for why Emma and Henry are being targeted, and I won’t reveal that here, because the social contract of reviews of mysterious movies assures us that twists are to remain unspoken. But suffice it to say that the revelation gives way to some satisfyingly sizzling takes about what’s going in our world today and how married men and women have related to each other over the years. As a tease, let me just say that there’s nothing quite like a genre pic leaning hard into awful stereotypes. Weirdly enough, Held is kind of like the gender politics version of what Antebellum was trying to be, and that’s something to be excited about.

Held is Recommended If You Like: Funny Games, The Dharma Initiative tapes on Lost, Mad Men

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Commands

Who Can Resist Taking a ‘Bad Trip’ with Eric Andre? Not I, Said This Reviewer

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Bad Trip (CREDIT: Dimitry Elyashkevich/Netflix)

Starring: Eric Andre, Lil Rel Howery, Tiffany Haddish, Michaela Conlin

Director: Kitao Sakurai

Running Time: 84 Minutes

Rating: R for Thoroughly Shameless Crudity, Nudity, and Psychoactive Drug Indulgence

Release Date: March 26, 2021 (Netflix)

I sure wish I had been able to experience Bad Trip in a packed theater, but at least my hearty laughs in my solo viewing experience were enough to fill my living room. This delightfully demented piece of guerilla filmmaking is basically a feature-length version of the man-on-the-street bits from Eric Andre’s anarchic eponymous Adult Swim talk show. Starring alongside Andre are a couple of famous funny people as well as dozens of unsuspecting members of the public. There’s a bit of a story (with the screenplay credited to Andre, Dan Curry, and director Kitao Sakurai), in which Florida Man Chris (Andre) has a chance meeting with his old school crush Maria (Michaela Conlin), who invites him to come check out her art gallery in New York City. He then invites his best pal Bud (Lil Rel Howery) on a road trip to the Big Apple, and they abscond in a car that belongs to Bud’s incarcerated sister Trina (Tiffany Haddish), who busts out and tracks down the boys with deadly intentions. The narrative actually hangs together a lot more nicely than I would expect in a prank film, but ultimately it’s just an excuse for a bunch of outrageous shenanigans.

Practical jokes can be hilarious, but ethically speaking, if you’re going to be a professional hooligan, you ought to be careful about who you select as the butts of your jokes. I approve of Andre’s mischief because he is consistently the target of his own pranks. He renders himself into every possible version of a fool, while the unsuspecting public provides another layer of humor by serving as witnesses struggling to make sense of the chaos unfolding around them. In Bad Trip, that chaos includes fake blood splatter, fake projectile vomit splatter, and fake semen splatter. (Shame is a foreign concept to Eric Andre.) The crowd might get hit by some shrapnel, but Andre’s the only one who’s truly suffering for his art.

Bad Trip unsurprisingly holds up when considered on a scene-by-scene basis. But it’s tough to sustain a narrative when utilizing a sketch-comedy sensibility. But shocker of shockers, it turns out that the script delivers some satisfying emotional payoffs to all of its characters. It helps that everyone involved takes a decidedly askew approach to the tropes of buddy flicks. For example, there’s a runner about the notorious 2004 Wayans Brothers cross-dressing comedy White Chicks that improbably gets its own little mini-arc and cathartic conclusion. We all need a space for our ids to run free every once in a while, and I’m so glad that Eric Andre and his cohorts have put theirs on display for all the world to see.

Bad Trip is Recommended If You Like: The Eric Andre Show, Jackass, Borat

Grade: 4 out of 5 Stolen Cars

Supposed ‘Nobody’ Bob Odenkirk Seeks Revenge, and I’m Never Quite Sure Why

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Nobody (CREDIT: Allen Fraser/Universal Pictures)

Starring: Bob Odenkirk, Connie Nielsen, Christopher Lloyd, RZA, Aleksei Serebryakov, Gage Munroe, Paisley Cadorath

Director: Ilya Naishuller

Running Time: 92 Minutes

Rating: R for All The Expected Blood and Profanity

Release Date: March 26, 2021

When I saw the trailer for Nobody and was teased by its promise of Bob Odenkirk pushed to the edge to protect his family, I couldn’t resist. This is a guy who’s famous for his nonpareil knack for frustrated bursts of a certain profanity, after all. How has he not been getting cast in some of the secret-badass roles that Liam Neeson’s been hogging the past decade? But then when the movie actually gets going, it makes a very odd decision. During an opening home invasion scene, Odenkirk just … lets the burglars get away with it. It’s strongly implied that that’s actually the safest decision for everyone, but this doesn’t appear to be the mild-mannered-man-goes-rogue story we’ve been promised. Nor does it seem like we have the appropriate setup for a tale of vengeance. What’s the deal?!

Despite what the title and the thoroughly suburban setting assures us, Hutch Mansell (Odenkirk) is far from a nobody. He doesn’t have to summon his penchant for violence out of nothing; in fact, he has a history of violence just bubbling under the surface. The film is vague about that backstory, but it’s clear that regardless of how he learned, he knows how to bash heads. But what really flipped my head is the explanation of Hutch’s entire motivation for his spree of mayhem. As it turns out, the thieves took his young daughter’s kitty-cat bracelet Sammy (Paisley Cadorath), and that’s apparently enough to convince him to take on an entire crime organization., even though Sammy doesn’t seem especially bothered by the loss! In fact, none of the shenanigans that Hutch gets up seem to be on behalf of his family. It’s more like it’s just done out of his desire to star in his own outrageous action movie.

And that really sums up the entire m.o. of Nobody. If I were a betting man, I would bet that screenwriter Derek Kolstad and director Ilya Naishuller noticed that Bob Odenkirk had never been showcased in this genre and they decided that they needed to rectify that immediately. Then they mixed in a Russian drug lord, plenty of guns, and a car chase set to Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker,” and they decided that they were good to go. What’s missing from all this? Any sense of logic at all! Now, you may ask, do you need to have logic when Odenkirk’s brother is played by RZA and his dad is a shotgun-toting Christopher Lloyd? Honestly, I think it would’ve helped. But, eh, nobody needs logic, and certainly neither does Nobody.

Nobody is Recommended If You Like: Senseless violence delivered with conviction

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Kitty Cat Bracelets

The Charmingly Low-Budget ‘Doors’ Invites You Into an Interconnected Series of Psychotically Surreal Sci-Fi Vignettes

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Doors (CREDIT: Epic Pictures)

Starring: Josh Peck, Lina Esco, Wilson Bethel, Kyp Malone, Dugan O’Neal, Kathy Khanh, Julianne Collins, Aric Generette Floyd, Rory Anne Dahl, Kristina Lear, Bira Vanara, Bailee Cowperthwaite, Darius Levanté, David Hemphill

Directed by: Saman Kesh, Jeff Desom, Dugan O’Neal

Created by: Chris White

Running Time: 81 Minutes

Rating: Unrated (There’s some intense sci-fi that most 10-year-olds could probably handle)

Release Date: March 19, 2021 (Theaters)/March 23, 2021 (On Demand)/April 6, 2021 (DVD/Blu-ray)

There’s something kind of thrilling about watching a movie that’s an interconnected series of vignettes and not even realizing that fact until the very end. Or at least, I was thrilled while I had this experience during my viewing of Doors, as I was on the edge of my seat wondering how these disparate sets of characters would eventually come together into a single narrative. In my defense, the sci-fi subject matter lends itself to this possibility, as a bunch of probably-extraterrestrial so-called “doors” pop up all over the world and offer the promise of entry into different dimensions. Thus, the film’s scattered approach – in which sequences don’t end so much as stop – feels like a feature rather than a bug. Its underdog vibes are all over the place, but they’re buoyed to victory by an eagerness to explore. And that, my friends, is always going to grab my attention.

Fair warning: Doors features several generic B-roll shots accompanied by woo-woo voiceover, which would usually be a big ol’ Red Alert, warning us that we’re entering into SyFy original Z-grade territory. And while Doors‘ budget probably isn’t much higher than the latest Sharknado or MegaRocktoGatorKookaburra, that lack of cash actually results in an alluring surreal charm. Each segment has this same sense of resourcefulness. The visual effects rarely go beyond simple camera tricks, or undulating liquid-ish metal, or multiple Josh Pecks wearing different outfits. But the acting makes up for the lack of fireworks with bald emotionality. To paraphrase Troy Barnes, pretty much everyone’s whole brain is crying at some point. The last segment is just a videoconferencing call between two guys that manages to pull off some Lynchian end-of-the-world panache by sheer virtue of overwrought screams of agony.

So in conclusion, if you like a good Narnia-esque jumping-through-worlds setup and a generous dollop of student film energy, then you ought to give Doors a try. This is committed sci-fi that doesn’t mind getting silly in the name of knocking the screws in your cerebrum just a little bit loose.

Doors is Recommended If You Like: V/H/S, Evil flowers, The formal inventiveness of Unfriended

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Knockers

‘Happily’ Ponders Whether or Not Transcendentally Happy Marriages Are Allowed to Exist

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Happily (CREDIT: Saban Films)

Starring: Joel McHale, Kerry Bishé, Stephen Root, Natalie Zea, Paul Scheer, Natalie Morales, Jon Daly, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Shannon Woodward, Charlyne Yi, Breckin Meyer, Al Madrigal

Director: BenDavid Grabinski

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: R for A Very Horny Couple and Other Couples Who Wish They Were That Horny

Release Date: March 19, 2021 (Theaters and On Demand)

Do you know a married couple who are so in love that you absolutely hate them for it? That’s the hook of Happily, and it’s a good one. Tom and Janet (Joel Mchael and Kerry Bishé) said “I do” 14 years ago, but even after all that time, every time they look at each other it’s like they’re discovering the entire concept of love for the very first time. They can barely go five minutes without going all the way in the nearest bedroom. Their conflicts (insofar as they have any conflicts at all) consist of little more than one of them asking for an omelette, but then doing it on their own, and immediately apologizing for being ever-so-slightly thoughtless. But then one day a fellow played by Stephen Root in a business suit shows up at their doorstep, and he might as well have a flashing sign shouting “DANGER!” above his head.

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‘Raya and the Last Dragon’? More Like ‘Raya and the Dragon-Who-Can’t-Stop’!

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Raya and the Last Dragon (CREDIT:
Walt Disney Animation Studios/YouTube Screenshot)

Starring: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh, Thalia Tran, Lucille Soong, Alan Tudyk

Directors: Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: PG

Release Date: March 5, 2021

Now that I’ve seen Raya and the Last Dragon, do I want a dragon of my own? It doesn’t have to be a “last” dragon, but I guess if that’s all that available… Anyway, if she’s voiced by Awkwafina, I won’t complain. In fact, that’s a positive in my book! She’s good company. That’s probably my most positive takeaway about this movie. Sisu’s a friend to all, as she’s been imbued with the personality of the lady who voices her, i.e., one of our favorite current Queens-bred rapper-actor-comedians. And I’m also happy to report that friendship ultimately shines through brilliantly in this flick, even with creatures who initially seem like they’re going to be enemies. That’s great news in a world in which magic objects can turn people to stone. You suddenly find yourself alone, but next thing you know, a dragon’s your best friend.

Also, the music reminds me of Woodkid’s “Run Boy Run,” a song that’s had a surprisingly strong pop cultural impact.

Grade: 3 out 5 Credit Purchases

‘Coming 2 America’ Actually Goes to Zamunda for the Most Part

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Coming 2 America (CREDIT: Quantrell D. Colbert/Paramount Pictures)

Starring: Eddie Murphy, Jermaine Fowler, Arsenio Hall, Leslie Jones, Tracy Morgan, Kiki Layne, Shari Headley, Wesley Snipes, Teyana Taylor, James Earl Jones, Bella Murphy, Akiley Love, Paul Bates, John Amos, Louie Anderson, Luenell, Colin Jost, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Paul Bates, Nomzamo Mbatha

Director: Craig Brewer

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Occasionally Crude Silliness and a Drunken Sex Flashback

Release Date: March 5, 2021 (Amazon Prime Video)

So the big question we must all ourselves is: does Coming 2 America make me want to come 2 America? Well, I’m already in America, and have spent the vast majority of my life in this country, but I have to believe that there’s a difference between “coming to” and “coming 2,” because otherwise why even make this 30-plus-years-later sequel? Maybe in this case, “2” means the opposite of “to,” considering that this time around, Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy, happy to be surrounded by friends) and company actually spend more time in Zamunda than they do in the U.S. of A. With that in mind, maybe “America” is a state of mind more than just a physical place. Looking back at Queens in 1988, that was a magical place for Akeem, despite its rough-and-tumble exterior. It’s where he found his queen, and it can now be seen as the wellspring of his own family, and in the sequel, it’s been elevated to the level of myth with the recreation of special Queens landmarks in Zamunda (in particular, the McDonald’s-knockoff McDowell’s). Is that feeling of home just as strong in 2021?

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‘Chaos Walking’ is an Impenetrable But Fascinating Piece of Dystopian Sci-Fi

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Chaos Walking (CREDIT: Lionsgate)

Starring: Tom Holland, Daisy Ridley, Mads Mikkelsen, David Oyelowo, Demián Bichir, Cynthia Erivo, Nick Jonas, Kurt Sutter, Óscar Jaenada

Director: Doug Liman

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Wham-Bam Action

Release Date: March 5, 2021

Chaos Walking is one of those movies where I’m not entirely sure what’s going on, but I kind of wish I did know more, because the things that I can make sense out of really do grab my attention. It’s an apt title then. Chaos really is walking everywhere, baby! That’s most obvious in the form of its signature visual motif: a swirl of inner thoughts dancing around people’s heads known as “the Noise.” All the men on this planet are afflicted by this condition, and it’s presented so matter-of-factly and therefore so effectively. I initially found it jarring, almost overwhelming, but within ten minutes it made all the sense in the world. I wish I could say the same thing about the plot, though. It’s driven by some sort of fight to figure out the secrets underpinning society, as is the case with so much dystopian sci-fi. I can tell that Tom Holland is earnest and well-intentioned and that Daisy Ridley is probably the key to everything and that Mads Mikkelsen doesn’t want them to succeed because he’s so grumpy, but beyond that, I feel like I needed to study the novel trilogy the film is based on to really understand the specifics.

If you can’t quite follow a movie’s storyline, you can at least vibe with it a bit if you can get on the wavelength of its action energy and its stylistic approaches. From a production design standpoint, Chaos Walking‘s decor is basically Hunger Games-esque arboreal but without the whiz-bang flamboyance. On a thematic level, it clearly has something to say about religion, though who’s to say what exactly that something is, though it’s at least fun to hear characters shout things like “I am the sinner! Purify my sin!” And on the action front, director Doug Liman is a reliable pro. He can even make you absolutely compelled by a chase scene that’s clearly a ripoff of Return of the Jedi‘s speeder bike sequence. (It even features Star Wars‘ very own Daisy Ridley, to boot!)

In many ways, Chaos Walking struck me as shouty, empty, and stitched-together. But I don’t want to dismiss it entirely, because it also struck me as intriguing, unique, and unburdened by expectations. This is a movie that’s comfortable being its own damn self, almost a little too much so. But that qualification is also why I admire it. At first glance, it looks like a generic slice of dystopian YA, but sticking with it allows it time to reveal that it’s a bit of an odd beast. Chaos is  indeed walking, and it’s reigning supreme, and I can’t argue with that.

Chaos Walking is Recommended If You Like: Lots of trees, Visually loud neuroticism, Differences between boys and girls writ large

Grade: 3 out of 5 Spackle Noises

Let ‘Stray’ Introduce You to the Homeless Dogs of Turkey

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Stray (CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures)

Starring: The Homeless Dogs and People on the Streets of Istanbul

Director: Elizabeth Lo

Running Time: 72 Minutes

Rating: Unrated (But It Would Surely Be a G)

Release Date: March 5, 2021 (Theaters and On Demand)

I recently had the pleasure of watching the documentary Stray, which follows a trio of homeless dogs around the streets of Turkey (the country, not the famous answer from Family Fortunes). The runtime clocks in at a perfectly reasonable seventy-two minutes, though I would certainly be happy to spend even more time with these pooches. The three lead mutts are Zeytin, Nazar, and Kartal, who seem to be local celebrities in their neighborhoods, but alas that fame doesn’t mean that anyone is available to offer them a furever home. At least they don’t seem to mind too much; if you let a dog roam, it’s gonna roam!

If these pooches were wandering the streets of America, I imagine that they would end up in a shelter and quite possibly be euthanized. But Turkey has a no-kill, no-capture policy toward stray dogs, and that sensibility seems to have permeated the general attitude of the Turkish people. The humans that we see in this film accept the dogs as a fact of day-to-day life in much the same way that the dogs accept the humans. Director Elizabeth Lo accordingly offers a straightforward, essentially dog’s-eye view that allows viewers to simply discover this fact of life if they weren’t aware of it already.

While looking over my notes for Stray, I noticed that I happened to have written down on the same page some thoughts about the most recent Puppy Bowl, and I was struck by the juxtaposition of these two very different facets of canine culture. The Puppy Bowl is a beloved annual event in which the dogs are coddled and catered to, with the promise of a permanent residence at the end of it all. Meanwhile in Stray, the pooches are just as much the star of the show, but the resources aren’t quite there for them to have regular lodging. If you’re as much of a dog lover as I am, then you’re liable to fall for both the Puppy Bowl and Stray equally hard, since they’re both about dogs being dogs. And that leads me to the conclusion that I think Elizabeth Lo would like us to draw and that I would happily co-sign, which is that dogs are eternally watching and emulating.

Stray is Recommended If You Like: The philosophy of Diogenes the Cynic, Fights over street meat, Making new friends and running around with them

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Howls

‘Night of the Kings’ is a Visually Captivating Piece of Storytelling Emanating From a Prison in Côte d’Ivoire

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Night of the Kings (Courtesy of NEON)

Starring: Koné Bakary, Steve Tientcheu, Rasmané Ouédraogo, Issaka Sawadogo, Denis Lavant

Director: Phillipe Lacôte

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: R for A Bit of Nudity and a Fairly Violent Prison Milieu

Release Date: February 26, 2021 (Theaters)/March 5, 2021 (On Demand)

I recently had the pleasure of watching Night of the Kings, Côte d’Ivoire’s official entry for Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards. If you’re familiar with classic international literature, it will probably strike you as it struck me, i.e., as a modern Ivorian version of the Arabian Nights. The setting is the notorious MACA Prison, which is essentially run by the inmates. A new prisoner who is dubbed “Roman” (Koné Bakary) finds himself thrust into the worst of it, as he is forced to tell a story over the course of the night, and if his fellow inmates don’t like what he’s offering, the penalty is death.

Luckily for Roman, he is able to summon his inner Scherherazade without too much fuss. And luckily for us, director Phillipe Lacôte has the requisite visual craftsmanship to match his main character’s imagination. There aren’t too many other movies nowadays that feature a woman dancing in a way that turns an elephant into a hawk, after all. As a lifelong American resident who only gets bits and pieces of African news, I don’t know much about the culture of Côte d’Ivoire, and I imagine that Night of the Kings represents only a very small piece of that culture anyway. But I think it offers a fine opportunity to take your first bite to discover what Ivorian cinema is all about. Much like the MACA inmates, I found it compelling because of the enduring, worldwide appeal of just listening to someone tell a story. On a narrative and thematic level, I’m not entirely sure how to best explain Night of the Kings, but on an emotional level, I can say with confidence that it felt just right and just so.

Night of the Kings is Recommended If You Like: City of God, Framing devices of characters telling a story, Giving a chance to movies from countries you know very little about

Grade: 3.5 of 5 Microbes

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