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Films I Neglected To Review: Are We Out Of The Woods Yet?
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Hunted," "The Marksman," "One Night in Miami," "Outside the Wire" and "WandaVision."

The fairy tale involving Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf has inspired any number of films that have tried to transplant the material into a more contemporary framework--two of the best examples of this are Neil Jordan's brilliant "The Company of Wolves" (1984) and Matthew Bright's deeply bizarre "Freeway" (1996). (Like most polite people, we shall pretend that ludicrous thing with Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman never existed.) Now comes another variation on that theme in the grisly thriller "Hunted" and what it may lack in originality, it makes up for with an equal lack of subtlety. After a bad day dealing with a domineering boss and her constantly phoning boyfriend, Eve (Lucie Debay) flees her apartment (helpfully leaving her phone behind) to go to a local club where she is rescued from the advances of a creep by a seemingly nice guy (Arieh Worthalter). As it turns out, he and his buddy (Ciaran O'Brien) are true wolves in sheep's clothing and before long, she finds herself tied up in the trunk of their car as they speed off to a far-off location to add her to their collection of homemade snuff videos. A twist of fate frees her from the trunk and she runs off into the woods, hands still bound, with the two guys in hot pursuit but as she flees goes further into nature, the surroundings seem to give her a greater sense of strength and purpose than she previously possessed that may be enough to save her from her hunters

Director/co-writer Vincent Paronnaud certainly does not try to shy away from its mythic origins--Eve even sports a bright red coat throughout, for Pete's sake--and the prologue, in which a woman (Simone Milsdotcher) tells her son (Ryan Brodie) a strikingly rendered tale of a woman in danger being protected by the forces of the very same forest where most of the subsequent action takes place, is interesting enough to raise hopes that he and co-writer Lea Pernollet have found a new approach for handling the familiar tropes. Unfortunately, the next two-thirds of the movie is little more than a rehash of the marvelous French thriller "Revenge" and while it features a decent sense of style and credible performances from Debay and Worthalter, they are not enough to elevate the material into something that can stand on its own. Things do pick up considerably during the wild and gruesome final stretch but it isn't quite enough to warrant the wait. "Hunted" isn't completely worthless--as stylized revenge sagas go, I certainly prefer it to the obnoxious likes of "Promising Young Woman"--but there are plenty of other films that have taken similar material (in addition to the ones mentioned above, I would also add last year's strong thriller "Alone") and done far more with it than this one manages.

Liam Neeson has been cranking out one increasingly anonymous action film after another for the last decade or so and while his latest, "The Marksman," may not be the worst of the lot (though that assertion wouldn't be too far off), it could well be the ickiest of the bunch. He plays Jim Hanson, a widowed Marine who is in danger of losing his ranch on the American/Mexican border because he used all of his savings on medical bills for his late wife. He does pass the time turning in Mexicans who have snuck through the wall and landed on his property and it is here that he comes across a woman who has just crossed with her 11-year-old son Miguel (Jacob Perez). Alas, by stopping them, this gives a trio of violent cartel members, led by Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba), time to ambush them and shoot the woman. Before she dies, she makes Jim promise to get Miguel to relatives in Chicago. Once he realizes that his mom was carrying thousands in stolen cartel money and that Miguel will most likely be killed as soon as IA sends him back home, Jim impulsively decides to free the kid from the holding center--it is amazing what you can accomplish just by being a white guy--and sets off on a road trip for Chicago, pursued by both immigration agents, led by his stepdaughter (Kathryn Winnick), and the cartel (turns out that Jim killed Mauricio's brother in their previous encounter), who will kill anyone--inclding a dog and a teen girl who sold Jim an atlas--who gets in the way of them apprehending Miguel.

The problem with the film does not lie within the action beats--there are probably fewer of them than one might expect and they have been staged by director Robert Lorenz in a reasonably low-key and realistic manner (at least until the big climactic showdown in which Jim loses more blood than even a character played by Liam Neeson might be able to handle). Unfortunately, the rest of the film is as boring and pro forma as can be--a lazy and uninspired tour of familiar tropes and lazy plotting that not even Neeson's sheer professionalism can help overcome. The film also gets a little offensive at times in the numerous ways that it panders to the MAGA crowd that it clearly hopes to attract, ranging from the way that it defers to certain presidential views regarding Mexicans to a scene in a gun shop that is too astonishing to believe. If Neeson is determined to continue his pursuit of being the most unlikely action star of our time, he really needs to start finding better material--not only does "The Marksman" feel like one of the direct-to-whatever programmers that Steven Seagal has been making for years now, it may be the first one that might have been slightly improved (or at least less disappointing) if he had actually starred in it instead.

Oscar-winning actress Regina King makes a highly impressive move behind the camera with her debut feature "One Night in Miami." Set on the evening of February 25, 1964, the evening that Cassius Clay became the world boxing champion after his surprise defeat of Sonny Liston, the film, adapted from the play by Kemp Powers (who also did the screenplay), presents an after-bout meeting of the minds between Clay (Eli Goree) and three equally famous black American men of the era--NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). Over the course of the evening, the four friends have a long, impassioned and occasionally bitter discussion about race, religion, politics and power that stems in large part from Malcolm X's insistence to the others that they use their fame to promote a more activist mindset instead of trying to please white society, a militant stance that puts him at odds with the others. In one particularly incisive bit, he mocks Cooke for recording fluffy songs instead of recording more politically-minded material util it is pointed out that Cooke's so-called fluff has earned him more actual power and independence in his field than any of the others have attained in theirs. ("Everyone talks about how they want a piece of the pie," Cooke remarks at one point, "Well I don't. I want the goddamned recipe") Of course, looming over the proceedings and lending them additional weight is our knowledge that within a year of this meeting, two of the four would die violent deaths.

The film gets off to a seriously clunky start with a series of prologue scenes featuring the four characters that have presumably been included to open up the proceedings from the otherwise motel-bound setting but only the one involving Brown is worth it--a seemingly genial encounter back in his Georgia hometown that ends in a moment of racism that is more heartbreaking than horrifying. Once the four get together in that Miami motel room, things pick up very quickly as the four co-stars play off of each other in fascinating and compelling ways throughout. This is especially tricky when you consider that not only are the four playing very well-known people but Goree and Ben-Adir are playing people who have already been given seemingly definitive screen portrayals. However, all of them are spectacular as they find the simple humanity behind the outsized public personas of the men that they are playing so that you do get the feeling that you are watching four actual friends interacting instead of four symbols brought together in the service of a fictional narrative. As a director, King does an excellent job of showcasing these performances in a lively and energetic manner that keeps it from feeling too stagebound. As a showcase for its four co-stars and director and as an exploration of four important figures wrestling with the question of how best to wield their considerable cultural power--a question as vital and important today as it was back in 1964--"One Night in Miami" is a vibrant and often-mesmerizing drama that is smart, funny, incisive and not to be missed.

"Outside the Wire" is a film that plays like what might have resulted if Isaac Asimov had written "Training Day" and while that might sound intriguing in theory, it is a premise that no one involved seems to have figured out how to actually transform it into something interesting. IN the not-too-distant future—a time in which robot soldier technology has advanced to allow them to fight alongside humans in skirmishes around the world-hot-shot drone operator Harp (Damson Idris) obeys a direct order while participating in a battle in the Ukraine and launches a strike that saves 38 soldiers but kills two in the process. The result is a court martial and a reassignment to an actual demilitarized zone so that he can get a taste of what real combat is like. He is assigned to serve under Leo (Anthony Mackie), who, unknown to most of the other soldiers stationed there, is actually a super-advanced robot of unsurpassed strength, agility and intelligence. Leo enlists Harp and his willingness to think outside the box to help him capture slick Balkan terrorist Viktor Koval (Pilou Asbaek) before he can launch some terrifying action. Without giving it all away, it should be noted that as the mission goes on and the two find themselves up against waves of bad guys, Harp slowly begins to unravel what is really going on and struggles to set things right before it is all too late.

The film starts off badly--the opening action sequence in the Ukraine is remarkably incoherent--and never quite manages to regain its footing. Once Leo reveals what he really is, there is a glimmer of promise but it is quickly snuffed out by a screenplay that somehow manages to come across as both confusing and boilerplate and listless staging by director Michael Hafstrom that renders both the action beats and the more dramatically motivated moments all but inert. Mackie and Idris are both charismatic performers but not even they can make much of the characters they are playing--the former ends up becoming a prisoner of the machinations of the plot while the latter is playing a character who is such an arrogant jerk in the early scenes that is is impossible to warm up to him later on when he begins to realize the error of his ways. Although not without a certain amount of ambition, "Outside the Wire" is a film the fails both as a moral drama and as an acton thriller and fails to offer viewers anything that they haven't seen done both before and better that it has been handled here.

"WandaVision" marks the first foray into episodic television for Marvel Studios but anyone looking for the usual array of dazzling heroics, at least based on the first three episodes made available to critics, may come away from it somewhat confused. The show takes two of the more somber and serious-minded characters from the MCU--Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany)--and places them in a decidedly artificial universe in which they find themselves enacting familiar old sitcom situations from different eras of television history, paying respective homage to "The Dick Van Dyke Show" (the two are forced to throw an impromptu dinner party for Vision's boss (Fred Melamed) and his wife (Debra Jo Rupp), "Bewitched" (Wanda is forced to secretly use her powers to save the day at a local fundraiser) and "The Brady Bunch" (I will leave you to discover what happens for yourself). As they go through these well-known motions (complete with laugh track), there is the sense that something is not quite right and indeed, the end of the third episode sends things in a new direction entirely.

It is hard, of course, to judge a ten-episode series based on seeing only three installments but at this point, I confess to being split down the middle. On the one hand, I suppose that Marvel deserves some credit for coming up with such an oddball project for their first foray into television and the performances by Olsen (who gets far more space to shine than she was ever allowed in the "Avengers" movies) and supporting players Kathryn Hahn and Teyonah Parris (playing stock characters who also change with the times) are quite good. The problem is that it doesn't take a rocket surgeon to realize that something is not quite right and spending nearly a third of the show's season offering up replications of bygone eras of television--imagine a more quietly malevolent version of "Pleasantville"--seems somewhat perverse. Of course, MCU buffs will eat it up and I suppose that there is the possibility that there may be additional nuance to the material that is simply going over my head at the moment. For others, "WandaVision" is interesting and probably worth a look for now, though that may change if the elaborate setup doesn't start to pay off before too long.


link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=4284
originally posted: 01/15/21 14:15:15
last updated: 01/15/21 14:20:29
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