Screening Room: Without Remorse, Best Summer Ever, Four Good Days, Cliff Walkers & More

More Like Amateur

The Virtuoso

by Hope Madden

Hey, Anthony Hopkins just won his second Oscar! The octogenarian was not the favorite, but there’s no denying that, after dozens of phoned-in near-cameos, he landed the role of a lifetime and gave a performance to match.

So, back to phoned-in near-cameos, I guess.

In director Nick Stagliano’s The Virtuoso, Hopkins plays The Mentor, an enigmatic man in a shadowy office. Mentor to whom, you ask? To The Virtuoso (Anson Mount), of course. He’s one of those “put my black ops training to good use responding only to this one guy by phone who sends me on my missions and otherwise I am utterly, stoically alone” kind of guys.

The Virtuoso is a man of few words—except in voiceover. In voiceover you cannot get him to shut up, his monotone musings on scheduling, technique, blah blah blah so wearying you can’t help but suddenly, brightly realize all over again what an absolute masterpiece American Psycho was.

One hit goes well. One hit goes south. Then we dig in for the next hit, where all the voiceover details about planning, timing, persistence and detail go straight out the window.

From here, we’re with The Virtuoso step by step as he bungles this and misunderstands that and misfires his weapon over here and makes poor decisions over there. It might make a half-decent comedy if it weren’t played so, so, so seriously.

Stagliano and writer James C. Wolf aim for neo-noir hipness but miss the mark by a wide distance.

Mount does what he can and almost generates interest as his character practices making normal people faces in the mirror before going out in public. Hopkins is saddled with nonsensical speeches meant to suggest his deadened soul. He doesn’t try too hard to make anything of it.

Abbie Cornish does try, bringing a flash of human interest as The Waitress. But no amount of homespun charm can save a movie this dumb.

Whack A Mole

Cliff Walkers

by George Wolf

At this point, Yimou Zhang could bring a two-hour rendering of my neighbor’s lawn maintenance regimen to the big screen, and I’ll be there opening night.

After Shadow, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Raise the Red Lantern and so many more, Zhang has proven himself a bona fide stare-at-the-screen-in-awe visual master.

He’s no slouch in the storytelling department either, and those skills move a little closer to the spotlight in Cliff Walkers, screenwriter Yongxian Quan’s intricate tale of espionage in the years before WWII.

It is 1931, and four Russian-trained Chinese communist party agents parachute into snow-covered Manchukuo (a Japanese occupation that was previously Chinese Manchuria) to put operation “Utrennya” into action. Their orders are to locate a surviving witness to a Japanese massacre, and smuggle him out to shed light on the atrocities.

The four agents agree to split up in pairs, and the double-crosses come early and often. As one pair of agents attempts to find and warn the other, a cascade of spy games, torture, accusations and suspicion gels into a suspenseful and engrossing ride.

And though Cliff Walkers may be less overtly showy than Zhang’s usual visuals, it is no less stunning. The constant snowfall becomes a character in itself, deadening the footsteps that run through the streets and enveloping the wonderfully constructed set pieces in gorgeous color contrast.

Many a butt is smoked in Cliff Walkers, and many a deadly stare is leveled in the criss-crossing searches for moles, snitches, turncoats and witnesses. Blood will be shed, and sacrifices will be made.

And again, Yimou Zhang will make it easy to get lost in, and nearly impossible to look away from.

Do Not Pass Go

Murder Bury Win

by Cat McAlpine

Friends Chris, Adam and Barrett are trying and failing to launch their indie board game Murder Bury Win. When a mysterious benefactor expresses interest in developing the game, the friends have to ask themselves how far they’re willing to go to make their dreams come true.

Those unfamiliar with modern board games and the cutthroat, rarely lucrative industry that’s behind them may be left out on a handful of jokes. Especially the constant references to “Flaming Puppies,” a stand-in for the real game Exploding Kittens. But the film eventually descends into stakes we can all understand – life or death.

Writer/Director Michael Lovan spends a little too much time setting up the story and the other shoe could drop 10 minutes earlier. Murder Bury Win shines best when it’s being silly, and the more fun it has, the better it gets.

When Chris (Mikelen Walker) discovers he’s in the presence of his hero, he’s bathed in a holy glow from the window behind him. Fantasy scenes of the board game world make for fun vignettes. The horrifying use of a cheese grater pushes the comedic thriller into horror. These little moments stand out despite a sometimes stilted script.

The performances from the small ensemble cast shine across the board. Walker is a dreamer, and a stoic straight man who has finally had enough. Henry Alexander Kelly is able to summon grit for the soft and caring Barrett. And Erich Lane’s Adam becomes unhinged so easily, so seamlessly as the film progresses that he matches increasingly insane circumstances perfectly. Brian Slaten as Officer Dan and Craig Cackowski as V. V. Stubs both create fun, sometimes outlandish characters that counterbalance the main trio. And Lovan’s cameo brings such a weird energy that I wish he’d been in more of the film.

Lovan has an eye for color, effectively using red to bathe the remote cabin where most of the film takes place. The custom game mat, the too-long curtains, and even the backing of The Murder Wall (yes, you read that correctly) are all the color of blood. It trains you to recognize blood later as it appears in an otherwise white bathroom, in a fine mist across faces, and seeping through the bottom of a brown paper bag.

Each of the best friends is dressed in a bold signature color, yellow, blue, and green, like tokens on a gameboard.

Overall, Murder Bury Win is a zany look at our murder fantasies and what it takes for an ordinary person to suddenly become capable of such bloody acts. Whether you’re a board game fan or not, this film makes for a fun playtest.

Without Explanation

Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse

by Hope Madden

Michael B. Jordan is a bona fide movie star, a butts-in-seats celebrity ready to front his own spy thriller franchise. He’s ready to Harrison Ford.

He definitely is ready, there’s no doubt he has the talent, charisma, looks and mass appeal to bring a Tom Clancy story to the big screen. But should he do it?

Jordan’s John Kelly finds himself in an unexpected operation in Aleppo. He loses a friend and nearly loses his commanding officer (Queen & Slim’s Jodie Turner-Smith, wasted), much thanks to a cagey CIA operative (Jamie Bell) who’s hiding something from the team. Something Russian.

Well, those Russian secrets keep resurfacing, and they rack up a heavy body count. Next thing you know, Jordan has to take off his shirt and splash water on his bare chest because…I don’t know. It might honestly just be a contractual thing now.

I’m not saying I’m sorry it happened.

Stefano Sollima directs this espionage thriller, and he has even less luck than he did with his last feature, Sicario: Day of the Soldado. The problem this time around is not that his film suffers terribly by comparison. (Man, that was the problem last time.) The problem is that writers Will Staples and Taylor Sheridan just don’t seem to be trying very hard.

And Sheridan can be one of the finest writers working in film (Sicario, Hell or High Water). But you would not know that here.

The thrills are mediocre, the shootouts and fights are middling, and the only thing more obvious than the plot points are the performances. Worse still, the writing is sloppy and convenient. There’s an unmanned, unlocked, running vehicle right when John Kelly needs one, and don’t even ask how he gets unconscious villains from point A to point B. I guess that’s confidential.

It’s not that Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse is a terrible movie. It isn’t. But there’s no excuse for it to be utterly mediocre, which it is. The director’s proven to be competent and the co-writer has proven to be genius. Plus there’s a bona fide movie star at the height of his wattage leading the effort.

I blame Putin.

The Right to Bare Arms

Golden Arm

by George Wolf

You know it’s been 34 years since we got a funny movie about arm wrestling?

True, it was Stallone’s Over the Top and it wasn’t meant to be a comedy, but the point is…the drought is over! Golden Arm is here with a new tournament, new stakes and plenty of laughs.

Danny – aka The Dominator! (Betsy Sodaro) – is a tough lady trucker who enjoys a good bar fight and the womano y womano competition of arm wrestling. Danny’s good, but not good enough to beat “Fuckin’ Brenda” The Bonecrusher (Olivia Stambouliah) in the upcoming championship tourney.

But you know who could be? Danny’s old friend Melanie (Mary Holland, who stole so many scenes in last year’s Happiest Season). Mel might be a soft spoken wimp who can’t even stand up to rude customers at her struggling bakery, but Danny also remembers Mel as having one impressive right arm.

So we’re gonna need a training montage!

First-time feature director Maureen Bharoocha serves it up, along with some nicely organic info on the rules of the game that serve to get us situated (don’t forget to “suck and tuck!”). And as Danny and Mel take to the road, the debut screenplay from Ann Marie Allison and Jenna Milly provides plenty of room for inspired antics (the bit about Twister had me howling) on the way to the arms race that ends with a 15k Grand Prize.

Holland and Sodaro make an endearing odd couple, and it’s the pure engagement of their characters that keeps the film afloat during a shaky first act. But hang in, because from picking out Mel’s wrestling persona (“I’m ‘The Ex-Wife!'”) to a gynecologist’s detailed condemnation of the phrase “balls out,” it just gets funnier as it rolls along.

Call it “stupid funny” if you want, but it’s still funny, with some underlying themes about gender stereotypes, personal growth and female friendships that are far from dumb.

It’s the bawdy excess that’s in your face, so close you may even miss the wink-wink nods to both the Stallone flick and The Karate Kid. But those bits of subtlety are even more evidence that the rough edges in Golden Arm don’t come from sloppy construction.

With this one, it’s guns out, fun’s out.

Sweeping the Clouds Away

The Outside Story

by Hope Madden

Even the title The Outside Story sounds like a children’s book. It’s a vibe writer/director Casimir Nozkowski conjures intentionally. His film is about a man who really never leaves his Brooklyn apartment because, why bother?

That man, Charles, is portrayed with real tenderness and charm by Brian Tyree Henry. An actor of absolutely stunning range, Henry has delivered stellar supporting turns as every type of character in every genre of film over the last few years (Widows, If Beal Street Could Talk, Godzilla v Kong and about a dozen more). The dude works a lot, and he has yet to hit a false note. It’s high time he leads a movie.

The film Nozkowski builds around him feels like Sesame Street for adults. Once Charles finds himself locked out of his apartment, he (and we) gets to learn Who are the people in his neighborhood?

There’s an angry traffic cop (Sunita Mani, Save Yourselves!), brats with water balloons, an incredibly pregnant woman having a stoop sale, a young girl (Olivia Edward) with a problematic mother and so many more.

Nozkowski creates a series of harmless, even sweet mini-adventures for Charles to fall into, each one helping him recognize that maybe he’s closed himself off a bit too much.

It’s not entirely Sesame Street, though. There are plenty of f-bombs, a congenial threesome, and that problematic mom thing. But the darker elements feel downright wholesome in the bright sunshine of Charles’s street.

For the most part, that cheery disposition really aids in the film, and Henry’s wildly compassionate performance is the soft gooey center inside Nozkowski’s brightly colored candy shell.

The Outside Story nearly derails in a late-act scene during which local police mistake Charles for a stocking-footed burglar who’s been breaking into apartments in the neighborhood. Played for good-natured laughs, the scene feels instantly and uncomfortably tone-deaf.

There are other storyline missteps, as well, but The Outside Story is so refreshingly uncynical, so huggable, and often so funny that those misses are easily forgiven. It’s very rare that you see a film this dissimilar to anything else in recent memory.

I may have to think as far back as the last time I watched Sesame Street.

Demon Seeds

Percy vs. Goliath

by George Wolf

Not that long ago, this film was called Percy and ran a full two hours. Since then, it’s gained a word and a half in the title while losing about twenty minutes of run time. What’s left is a rushed, but fairly standard telling of a real life everyman’s battle with a corporate behemoth.

In the late 1990’s, Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser (played with weary conviction by the iconic Christopher Walken) was sued by the Monsanto corporation for “patent infringement.” Their claim was that Percy was planting his fields with some of Monsanto’s patented GMO seeds without a license.

A multi-generational family farmer, Percy argued that he has never planted with anyone’s seeds but his own. His father taught him to be a “seed saver” and store the most robust seeds for use the following year. Any Monsanto seeds found in his fields, Percy argued, must have traveled by wind or passing trucks.

Monsanto’s lead counsel Rick Aarons (the always welcome Martin Donovan) ain’t buying it, and Percy’s folksy lawyer Jackson Weaver (Zach Braff) advises Percy and his wife Louise (Roberta Maxwell) to cut their losses and settle.

But Percy’s moral code – along with plenty of encouragement from environmental activist Rebecca Salcau (Christina Ricci) – lead him to the courtroom. Once there, the introverted Canadian farmer gets more attention than he bargained for, and pariah status in his own community.

The script from Garfield Lindsay Miller and Hillary Pryor hits all the required notes, but director Clark Johnson (2003’s S.W.A.T) never provides the breathing room to let events in or out of court truly connect. While many films are wise to trim the fat, the twenty minutes gone from PvG feel haphazardly culled, leaving behind whiplash edits and stalled resonance.

Led by the sympathetic Walken, the ensemble cast is uniformly effective, but caught in a scattershot narrative. With its mind on justice for the little guy, local and global farming conflicts, manipulation from all sides and above all, doing the right thing – Percy vs Goliath has many hearts.

And while all those hearts may be in the right places, what holds the film back is a tendency to take the early advice that Percy ignored. Make the cuts and settle.

Survive and Advance

Four Good Days

by Hope Madden

In many ways, Four Good Days feels like a Rodrigo Garcia film. The co-writer/director frequently spins tales of women, often mothers and daughters whose own pain keeps them from clearly seeing and addressing the pain they inflict.

His films (Nine Lives, Mother and Child, Albert Knobbs) routinely examine relationships built as much on survival as on love, and the strain that puts on people.

Glenn Close, a frequent Garcia collaborator, stars as Deb, put-upon mother of a drug addict. That addict, Molly, is played by Mila Kunis as you’ve never seen her. Kunis’s trademark big eyes swim in a gaunt face marked by the scars of the life of an addict, the actress’s million-dollar smile replaced with rotten nubs.

Kunis clearly lost a substantial amount of weight to complete the transformation from Hollywood sweetheart to hopeless addict. Her performance is not simply skin deep, either.

Characteristic of Garcia’s strongest films, the friction and flaws in these women leave the biggest impression. Kunis lands on the button-pushing most effective in manipulating her mother: chaos and accusation. In her hands, Molly is profoundly unlikable because why would she need anybody to like her? What does that get her? She shoots rapid-fire guilt and shame bullets at her mother and sees what hits.

Molly’s defenses and manipulations blend together so believably that when she does hit a note of emotional depth and sincerity, it’s heartbreaking.

Close’s performance is no less commendable, though her character is frustrating. The writing here has some trouble creating the natural if infuriating behaviors of a woman torn between protecting herself and believing in her daughter. Too often, the situations and behaviors feel like what they are: plot points meant to increase tension as we rush toward the inevitable climax.

Here is where Four Good Days (co-written with Eli Saslow) does not feel like a Rodrigo Garcia film.

The movie mainly makes up for these missteps. It’s a difficult film to watch in that it doesn’t tread on your sympathies, doesn’t create tragic and noble characters, doesn’t even ask you to like either lead. Instead, it insinuates itself in the battle between the shrill, ugly survival tactics a mother and daughter wield like daggers as they claw their way toward sobriety.

The Kids Are Not Alright

Here Are the Young Men

by Christie Robb

Based on Rob Doyle’s 2014 novel of the same name, Eoin Macken’s Here Are the Young Men is a bleak look at the emotional lives of three boys poised between school, with a somewhat sheltered boyhood, and real life, with its associated responsibility.

The boys witness the death of a little girl and their individual reactions send them down different paths. Rez (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Vikings) sinks into depression and nihilism, more or less disappearing from the movie.

Matthew (Dean-Charles Chapman, 1917/Game of Thrones) desires the stabilization of a proper job and a romantic relationship. Kearney (an unsettling Finn Cole, Peaky Blinders) is awakened, inspired by the immediacy of death, and gives himself permission to satisfy his dark impulses.

The boys’ days and nights are awash in a staggering amount and variety of drugs, downed with beer or vodka. Much of the movie is shot out of focus or uses staccato editing to reinforce the sense that the boys are more or less skating over the surface of their lives, ignoring the emotional depths beneath.

Despite their purported friendship and shared traumatic experience, there’s no solace for the boys in their relationships with each other. The few adults that occasionally appear are either menacing, distracted, or bearers of tired bromides. The young men are isolated and left to stumble along, making choices that aren’t informed by reason. The choices are a creature’s response to an applied stimulus.

Matthew and Kearney’s inner lives are somewhat illustrated by shots of their television screens, which show a kind of cartoonish representation of their subconscious or inner lives. Sometimes the TV shows what is happening to a character separated from the others by distance. I imagine this is an attempt to compensate for the lack of the novel’s inner monologues. And it’s ok, but is kind of jarring, given the spare emotional tone of the rest of the film, and inconsistently applied.

You might ask where the young women are. Well, there is one, Jen (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Queen’s Gambit), Matthew’s sometime girlfriend. Taylor-Joy is magnetic and draws the eye in every scene. There’s just not much for her to do except to express disappointment and defend her virginity. With another actress, this character would be all but forgettable. In the real world, Jen would hang out with other people.

Ultimately, the film serves as a reminder of similar, but more memorable entries in the genre like A Clockwork Orange or Trainspotting. Here Are the Young Men fails to differentiate this generation’s young men from the generations proceeding them. Just more sludge in the puddle of toxic masculinity.