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Films I Neglected To Review: Nothing To See Here
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Die in a Gunfight," "Great White," "Gunpowder Milkshake," "How to Deter a Robber" and "Mama Weed."

Although it is very clearly a retread of his immortal "Romeo & Juliet," William Shakespeare's name, as far as I can recall, never comes up once during "Die in a Gunfight," which means that if he were alive today, he would probably be the only person who might come away from watching the film feeling happy or at least relieved. Basically, the young offspring of two rival media barons--the spectacularly annoying and self-destructive Ben (Diego Boneta) and the spectacularly dull Mary (Alexandra Daddario)--defy the wishes of their families by falling in love and plan to run off and get married. This decision set in motion a number of increasingly violent and idiotic events, especially once a couple of weirdo hitmen--including one with a stalker-like fixation on Mary--become involved. This half-assed assemblage of romance, violence and dark humor is such a bore--even managing to maker the usually electrifying Daddario blandly uninteresting--that I was a bit startled to look at the credits afterwards and discover that it was directed by Collin Schiffli, whose previous films have included "Animals" and "All Creatures Here Below," two dramas that, although not without flaws, were serious-minded works that showed him capable of presenting complex narratives featuring interesting characters. This, on the other hand, is little more than a brutally tiresome cartoon that is never close to being as hip, quirky and subversive as it thinks it is. "Die in a Gunfight" may not be the most aggravating film of 2021 but it certainly deserves to hold the title until the real one comes along.

Although both deal with shark attacks, "Great White" is not, I fear, a remake of the 1981 Enzo G. Castellari joint of the same name (also known as "The Last Shark") that was such a blatant "Jaws" ripoff that Universal was able to get an injunction against its American release. Trust me, if they had made a movie about that particular story, it might have made for a far more interesting film. Instead, this one focuses on Charlie (Aaron Jakubenko) and Kaz (Katrina Bowden), a couple who run charter flights for tourists in their seaplane off the Australian coast. Short on cash and with a baby on the way, they, along with Charlie's assistant Benny (Te Kohe Tuhaka), agree to do a last-second job flying a married couple--tightly-wound data analyst Joji (Tim Kano) and his wife Michelle (Kimie Tsukakoshi)--to a remote island. When they arrive, they discover the remains of the man who, along with his girlfriend, was chewed up by a shark in the opening sequence and--because there is no movie if they don't--decide to fly off in search of the boat he was on. They find the wrecked boat and the remains of the girlfriend but just as they are preparing to leave, the shark attacks their plane, sinking it and forcing them into a life raft that will prove to be surprisingly durable (at least more so than many of its passengers) as they try to make it to shore with the shark in continuous pursuit.

Unlike a lot of the increasingly ridiculous shark-related movies that have come down the pike in recent memory, "Great White" offers up a narrative that leans more towards the theoretically possible. That is a welcome relief but while the screenplay by Michael Boughen and direction by Martin Wilson keep the goofball stuff to a minimum, they don't really offer up anything in its place, such as interesting characters, dramatic tensions or even creative scares and kills. The story, while not exactly original, would seem to have the ingredients for a lean and tense struggle against one of the deadliest and most implacable forces of nature imaginable but is undone throughout by an extremely pokey pace--the middle stretch is especially devoid of thrills, terror or basic narrative momentum--and supremely dull characters, most of whom are required to act like idiots in order to keep the story contrivances moving along. (The only vaguely interesting person is the one played by Tsukakoshi, to the point where I found myself thinking that it might have proven to be more effective if the script had been retooled into a solo vehicle for her character.) As for the shark, it only puts in a few token appearances--probably a wise move, considering the chintziness of the CGI involved--but unlike "Jaws," where you still felt the shark’s presence during the long stretches when it was offscreen, the absence here just suggests that the filmmakers couldn't afford any more shots of it. (Seriously, there is a dolphin that pops up here and there and it may actually have just about the same amount of screen time as the shark.) To be honest, "Great White" isn’t the worst shark movie that you will ever see--it certainly beats most of those "Sharknado" sequels—but with films like "Jaws," "The Shallows" and "The MEG" (which I persist in liking despite its unabashed silliness) readily available, there is no reason to bother with it unless you are a cheapo shark movie completist and even in that case, you might want to consider rethinking your priorities.

"Gunpowder Milkshake" is a film that borrows so many elements from its action movie forefathers that it almost feels as if it should be reclassified as an anthology. Sam (Karen Gillan) is a second-generation hired killer--following in the footsteps of her long-absent mother Scarlet (Lena Headey)--who works for a shadowy criminal organization known as the Firm and gets her assignments from the business-like Nathan (Paul Giamatti). After her latest job goes sideways and finds her killing the son of a rival criminal head, Nathan and his fellow Firm board members decide to throw her to the wolves despite it not being her fault. To complicate things further, the other job she is currently working on finds her badly wounding a man who stole millions of dollars in Firm money, only to learn too late that he took it to rescue his kidnapped eight-year-old daughter Emily (Chloe Coleman). When the father dies, the guilt-ridden Sam rescues the girl, who then becomes her loyal sidekick, and decides to go up against her former employers with only the help of the Librarians, a trio of women (Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh and Carla Gugino) whose place of employment serves the same basic purpose that the Continental does in the "John Wick" films and who offer up copies of the works of Virginia Wolff that turn out to be deadlier than usual.

Although the "John Wick" movies and the Luc Besson classic "Leon" are the most obvious reference points here, there is hardly a scene to be had in this film that does not owe a specific debt to an earlier film. The problem is that while Navot Papushado, who directed the film and co-wrote it with Ehud Lavski, certainly knows his contemporary action films, he doesn't seem to know what made them work, at least to the extent that he is able to apply those lessons to his own work. The film is fast and flashy but none of the big action beats stick in the mind after they have finished--despite the amount of bullets fired, blood spilled and bodies dropped to the ground, most of these scenes are frankly tedious and overlong. (The sole exception is one reasonably ingenious, if logically dubious, sequence in which Sam has to fight off a trio of killers despite having her arms temporarily paralyzed--the scene makes no sense but at least it has some energy to it.) There are a lot of good actors on display here but none of them really get a chance to do much of anything besides spitting out ironic bits of boilerplate dialogue before shooting people in the face--the wasting of Bassett, Yeoh and Gugino in particular is far more insidious a crime than anything else on display here. In the end, the best thing about "Gunpowder Milkshake" is its title--unfortunately, it offers up hints of super-cool thrills and excitement that the actual film never even begins to make good on.

As "How to Deter a Robber" opens, aimless 18-year-old Madison (Vanessa Marano) and goofball boyfriend Jimmy (Benjamin Papac), stuck with her overbearing family at their remote lake house over Christmas vacation, sneak away to the unoccupied home next door to get stoned and have a seance, only to accidentally doze off. When they awake the next morning, they discover that the place has been robbed and when they call the police to report it, they end up being named the prime suspects. Forced to remain in the area when the others return home, Madison and Jimmy end up staying with her uncle Andy (Chris Mulkey) at his place but when it also gets ransacked, the three go back to her family's house. Although Madison and Jimmy set up a bunch of "Home Alone"-style booby traps (bubble wrap under the rug, hidden paint cans), it doesn't prevent the actual robbers, Patrick (Sonny Valicenti) and Christine (Abbie Cobb), from breaking in. The two thieves are not exactly expert criminals--they only hit places they believe to be empty--and they find themselves unsure of how to handle the three witnesses or what to do with them once their identities are accidentally revealed.

Debuting writer-director Maria Bissell has a lot of ideas here--blending together elements of the slapstick comedy, teen angst and home invasion genres--and a game cast but never quite figures out how to pull them together. The early scenes, centering on a particularly awkward Christmas dinner, are the best, especially in the way that they delineate the barely simmering tensions between Madison and her mother (Gabrielle Cartieris), who constantly browbeats her about doing something with her life. Things start to sag during the long middle section where not much of anything happens and then fails to navigate the switch in tone in the final act when things ostensibly turn more serious with the arrival of the robbers. And yet, even though the film as a whole does not work in the end, it is undeniably ambitious and contains enough individual bits that do work that inspire you to keep watching in the hopes that it will eventually transform into a satisfying whole. It ultimately doesn't but it is just interesting enough to make you curious to see what Bissell might accomplish with the benefit of a more focused screenplay.

As she has done so many times throughout her long and illustrious career, the great Isabelle Huppert steals every single scene in which she appears in the new comedy-caper hybrid "Mama Weed" but in this particular case, the most she could possibly be charged with is extremely petty theft. She plays Patience, a French-Algerian woman who works as an Arabic translator for the police. When she listens to a wiretap of a conversation between a dealer bringing in a large shipment and hashish and his mother and recognizes the woman’s voice as that of the nurse who cares for her invalid mother, she surreptitiously gives her a heads-up so that her son can dump the drugs before the bust commences. With considerable money problems of her own, Patience hits upon the idea of tracking down the discarded drugs, storing them in the basement of her apartment building and recruiting a couple of local low-level Arabic dealers to sell them for her, even going so far as to sport dark glasses and a hijab to disguise herself as a Moroccan. Improbably, "The Matron," as her alter ego is quickly dubbed, she becomes one of the top figures in the Parisian drug trade--she is able to use her translating abilities to give the cops false information while making her own moves--but her success and notoriety soon makes her a target of both the police and rival drug dealers who want to stop her from moving in on their turf.

Although it feels, at least on the surface, like a simple and somewhat silly star vehicle for Huppert to cruise through on the basis of her sheer star power while waiting for another project along the lines of "Elle" to come along, "Mama Weed" has a couple of key creative flaws that prevent it from achieving even those modest goals. For starters, for a film like this to work, either as a comedy or as a straightforward thriller, there has to be some sense that the main character is entering a world that is wildly outside of their comfort zone and that it is only by using their wits and outside perspective that they are able to just skirt by against all odds.By making Patience a cop who is not only intimately familiar with the police procedure towards going after drug dealers but who is key to providing them with the information that they act upon, any possible tension, either comedic or serious, is eliminated as she pretty much breezes through any potential roadblocks. The other flaw is that there is an odd strain of ethnic stereotyping that permeates the entire film that casts a bit of a pall over the proceedings at times---even if you can somehow work around the notion of Huppert popping up in Arab drag n order to pose as "The Matron," there is still some weirdly unpleasant humor involving Patience's Chinese landlord that seems decades out of date. Despite being miscast, Huppert is still the best thing in the film but she is clearly just coasting along in a project that is quite obviously beneath her extraordinary talents. Her sheer charisma pretty much single-handedly helps keep "Mama Weed" moving along but even with her efforts, this is a film that simply lacks the necessary spark required to make it interesting.

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originally posted: 07/16/21 05:44:03
last updated: 07/16/21 06:09:04
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