… You won’t believe what happens next!

“Fast X,” the 10th entry in the “Fast & Furious” franchise

Genres: Action/adventure

Country: American

Directed by: Louis Leterrier

Written by: Dan Mazeau and Justin Lin

Starring: A cast of thousands, including Vin Diesel, Jason Momoa, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Nathalie Emmanuel, Jordana Brewster, John Cena, Jason Statham, Sung Kang, Alan Ritchson, Daniela Melchiorr, Scott Eastwood, Helen Mirren, Charlize Theron, Brie Larson, Rita Moreno, Michael Rooker

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive material, language

Run time: 2 hours, 21 minutes

Release date: In wide release in theaters on May 19, 2023

Where I saw it: Republic Studio 10 Cinemas in Shelbyville, Ind., on a Wednesday night, $7 (with senior discount), eight other people in the theater

What it’s about: Fast cars, faith and family. Mostly family. But also, a terrifying threat (Momoa as Dante Reyes) emerges and seeks revenge on Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his family (there’s that word again).

What I liked about it: The familiar “Fast and Furious” gang is back (some of them unexpected … hint, hint), but this is Momoa’s show, and “Fast X” rises, falls, flatlines and rises again on the shoulders of his hammy performance. Momoa is in most every moment that does not involve Dom blah-blah-blahing about faith, family, legacy and such as sentimental music drones on, and Momoa is in turns hilarious, menacing, campy, annoying, repetitive and quite obviously basking in the spotlight. His Dante clearly is a riff on Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, only (because this is a F&F movie) bigger and louder and … more gay. Maybe. Were this an artsier, more ambitious film, I would think that his character’s flamboyancy (if that’s an OK word) was a purposeful juxtaposition against the relentless brooding, sleeveless-shirts machismo of Dom and Co. But given that this is a fan-pleasing action franchise entry made to formula, the painted nails, hair in rollers, pink bath robe, costume jewelry, effeminate body language and lavender muscle car (really!) are played for giggles and possibly shock value. Through it all, Momoa makes for a can’t-look-away villain. … I’m not sure if this is supposed to be the comedy hit of the Summer 2023 season, but I laughed out loud a lot. And occasionally threw up my hands, as in “Whaaaatttt?!?!?” Though these movies shamelessly give the people what they want, each new entry also must find a way to escalate the ridiculousness, and this one won’t disappoint in that regard. An on-fire bomb rolling through the streets of Rome, a bank vault being dragged down a highway by two cars, a car being used as a tether for flaming helicopters used as battering rams, a car (from a dead start) climbing over and through a concrete wall at the top of a dam and somehow landing on a road a long way down, and a flying kid (!) are clues that this is no documentary. Or even remotely related to reality. But it’s a whole lot of dumb, unbelievable fun.

What I didn’t like about it: Beyond the “wow!” factor, there isn’t much here that would qualify a movie as “good,” per se. Stretches of it are notably dull (or maybe just too familiar), the revolving door of characters (some of them are in the movie only briefly) and the quick-cut editing feel like white noise after a while, the comedy is hit-and-miss (and much of it whiffs by a lot), and the sentimentality is maudlin (to put it kindly). Take Momoa out of this movie and there isn’t much left for it to stand on unless you are a diehard follower of the franchise. “Fast X” is doing well at the box office, but more so overseas (it cost $340 million to make) than in the States, perhaps an indication that the domestic audience is growing tired of the franchise. That or they don’t just get the importance of faith and family.

Who it will appeal to: The same audience the franchise has appealed to for 22 years now.

My score: 50 out of 100.

So bad it’s …

What if I told you a movie is so bad that it’s good but also terrible and a waste of your time but that you should consider checking it out though you might regret it? That makes as much sense as “Faithfully Yours” (Dutch; 2022; crime drama/mystery; run time 1 hour, 35 minutes; directed by André van Duren, written by van Duren, Elisabeth Lodeizen and Paul Jan Nelissen; rated TV-MA for language, sex, smoking, suicide; streaming on Netflix on May 17, 2023), which is all-around awful. And therein lies its appeal. It’s as stupid as it is slimy, a tawdry mess of a movie about terrible people doing terrible things (and mostly getting away with it) that will have you cackling as often as you are cringing, grimacing and sighing. It’s one of THOSE Netflix movies that finds its way to the top of the streaming service’s top 10 list, each one calling into question the audience’s taste while putting more money in the Netflix piggybank. The hits just keep on comin’.

Bodil (Bracha van Doesburgh) and Isabel (Elise Schaap) are besties and married women. When we meet them, they are leaving the Netherlands for a wholesome girls’ weekend away in Belgium. Which is true except the “wholesome” part. Isabel has brought a burner phone because she knows her depressed novelist husband (Gijs Naber as Luuk) has put a tracker on hers. Isabel has given Bodil her real phone so that she can take convincing touristy pictures and send them to Luuk. We’re just getting warmed up in the deception department. Bodil begins her getaway by attending a pseudo-TED Talk about (wouldn’t you know it?) lying. She’s dressed provocatively (even relative to the rest of the audience, made up exclusively of attractive women somehow) because, as it turns out, she knows the handsome “philosopher” speaker (Matteo Simoni as Michael Samuels). And I mean REALLY knows him. They do the no-pants dance, but then Bodil reminds him not to go thinking that he’s her boyfriend or anything. He sulks and disappears. Meanwhile, Isabel has gone to an underground nightclub/orgy palace with a pile of money and has drugs licked off her fingers. Just your average weekend getaway. Next thing you know, there’s a pool of blood in the foyer of the fancy family beach house where Bodil (but not Isabel) has been staying. And then Isabel turns up missing. And then turns up dead. Luuk and Bodil’s doctor husband (Nasrdin Dchar as Milan) arrive on the scene, Bodil tries to lie her way out of her web of lies, the police get involved to deliver the exposition, an old guy wearing a white suit splattered with blood just kind of wanders by, Bodil’s bad girl sister (Hannah Hoekstra as Yara) gives Bodil a taser (surely that will come in handy), there’s something about the dark web, and a missing piano string, and unprescribed sedatives, and a lawyer who doesn’t know how to do anything except advise his client to keep quiet, and a same-sex extramarital affair, and a husband really enjoying (you know what I mean) the idea of his wife hitting it with other dudes, and vanishing secret video files, and Bodil killing a guy in the ocean (it’s nice and legal because, well, she’s a family law judge) and a novel that holds clues, and a private airport, and … and … and huh? Come again?

That the performances aren’t all that and that the story makes little to no sense and that there’s more red herrings than logical plot points and that the final twist ending will having you howling with laughter don’t much matter, do they? You came her for solacious behavior, which is all good and well, except that beyond rampant sociopathic lying, “Faithfully Yours” is disappointingly mild. Van Duren keeps everyone’s mysterious naughty parts off-camera, and the sex scenes (including ones seen through video footage) are more room temperature than steamy. And even if they were hot, the, uh, mood would be chilled by the ridiculously clichéd crime investigation moments. One wonders why the police have so much trouble solving the case when practically everything was telegraphed. If there’s a message here (pausing for laughter), it’s that if you lie, just keep on lying until you lie your way out of it, and then slip away with your TED Talk not-your-boyfriend and forever have PG-13 sex. Or whatever.

My score: 16 out of 100.

When narcissism hurts

“Sick of Myself” (in Norwegian, “Syk pike”)

Genres: Black comedy/body horror/social satire

Country: Norway

Directed by: Kristoffer Borgli

Written by: Borgli

Starring: Kristine Kujath Thorp, Eirik Saether, Fanny Vaager, Sarah Francesca Braenne, Fredrik Stenberg Ditlev-Simonsen, Steinaar Klouman Hallert, Andrea Braein Hovig, Henrik Mestad, Anders Danielsen Lie

Rated: N/R but includes unsettling scenes of body horror, cruelty

Run time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Release date: Made its debut at Cannes Film Festival on May 22, 2022; in limited release in U.S. theaters on April 12, 2023

Where I saw it: At the Kan-Kan Cinema and Brasserie in the Fletcher Place neighborhood of Indianapolis, on a Saturday afternoon, $12, four other people in the theater

What it’s about: A young barista (Thorp as Signe) who feels unseen will stop at nothing to get attention as the career of her artist boyfriend (Saether as Thomas) begins to take off.

What I liked about it: “Sick of Myself” is darkly hilarious and squirm-inducing from start to finish (though the movie loses a little steam in the late going), or at least will be in front of the right sets of eyes. Those easily offended, put off by bad people being bad or grossed out by blood (and skin ailments) have been warned. Borgli’s film wickedly skewers a world in which everyone seems to be a narcissist, desperately seeking to be the center of attention and insatiably chasing likes and follows on social media. Borgli doesn’t limit his darkly funny examination of narcissism to just social media, though. The self-absorption on display here is prevalent in all walks of life (though Borgli pays particular attention to the stuffy world of art), in the way we find society’s online behavior seeping into the real world. … Thorp, as a young woman who never gets as much notice as she thinks she deserves, carries most of the film and delivers a knockout performance. At times her Signe seems worthy of real sympathy; Thomas ignores her, too zeroed-in on his art, made mostly from pieces of furniture he has stolen (with Signe’s help) and repurposed, and advancing his small-time career. Their relationship is highly dysfunctional. They are so unloving that his artist friends think the two are brother and sister. But Signe is too ruthless, too self-absorbed, too cruel to shed a tear over. Take, for example, when she encounters a dog on a sidewalk and antagonizes it, hoping it will attack her. Signe’s downward spiral of desperate attention-seeking had started when a woman in the coffee shop where Signe works was attacked by a dog and Signe helped her, covering Signe in blood that she didn’t clean off because it made others take notice. Signe never tires of retelling exaggerated stories of her “heroism” to anyone who will listen. Signe will do far worse than that, mostly to her own detriment (especially physically), though she can’t stop because she is in too deep, lost in a mix of fantastical lies, bizarre fantasies and real-world consequences. It’s great, morbid fun watching Signe go from bad to worse to even worse than that.

What I didn’t like about it: The story misses out on a couple of opportunities to tread into even darker territory (along the lines of “American Psycho,” also social satire about a sociopathic ego maniac who has lost grip on reality) that might have worked well within the tone of the film. As is, Borgli pulls a couple of punches in a movie that otherwise is unafraid. … The story is more journey than destination. Once it establishes its message (that narcissistic behavior in a social media obsessed society is rampant), it doesn’t do much with it, other than Signe amping up the desperate measures she takes to get noticed.

Who it will appeal to: Those who can see humor in absurdity and awful, selfish human behavior.

My score: 79 out of 100.

‘Inception’ it’s not


Genres: Sci-fi/crime drama/mystery/thriller

Country: American

Directed by: Robert Rodriguez

Written by: Rodriguez and Max Borenstein

Starring: Ben Affleck, Alice Braga, William Fichtner, J.D. Pardo, Hala Finley, Jackie Earle Haley, Dayo Okeniyi, Jeff Fahey, Kelly Frye

Rated: Rated R for violence

Run time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

Release date: In wide release in theaters May 12, 2023

Where I saw it: At Republic Studio 10 Cinemas in Shelbyville, Ind., on a Wednesday evening, $7 (with senior discount), one other person in the theater

What it’s about: Set in Austin, Texas, a detective (Affleck as Danny Rourke) investigates a series of reality-bending crimes that might be related to the kidnapping of his young daughter. With the help of a gifted psychic (Braga as Diana Cruz), he pursues an evil hypnotist (Fichtner as Dellrayne) who also is pursuing Rourke and Cruz. But how much of the situation is real?

What I liked about it: Not much. On occasion “Hypnotic” basks in its B-movie leanings (though it reportedly cost $65 million to make; it took in a little more than $3 million in its first week), though not often enough to make it consistently fun or engaging. And it has a certain throwback charm (especially its score), reminiscent of mid-budget, star-fueled thrillers from 20- to 25-years ago. But that’s about it. As is the case with many a bad movie, the backstory of the film’s production is far more interesting than the finished product. This movie was written in 2002 (!). Rodriguez wasn’t confirmed to direct the film until 2018, but his then 16-year-old script was re-written by Borenstein. Though the setting contributes mightily to what little bit of entertainment value it delivers, Austin was Rodriguez’s third choice of shooting locations behind Los Angeles and Toronto. Because of the COVID pandemic, filming didn’t start until September 2021. Solstice Studios was supposed to release “Hypnotic,” but it went under in late 2022. It was released with little fanfare by Ketchup Entertainment, but not until after a “work-in-progress” cut of the film made its debut at the South by Southwest festival in Austin in March 2023.

What I didn’t like about it: Just about everything. In the 2017 comedy-drama “The Big Sick,” CJ (Bo Burnham) says of a fellow standup comedian, “He’s like Daniel Day-Lewis, except he sucks.” “Hypnotic” is like the 2010 Christopher Nolan movie “Inception,” except it sucks. “Hypnotic” borrows enthusiastically from “Inception,” including its central idea, but isn’t nearly as clever or as thrilling or as anything. To be fair, it was written before Nolan’s film. If that matters. … Perhaps because many viewers (even the ones who like it) complain that “Inception” is challenging to unravel, Rodriguez or Borenstein or whoever is responsible assumed audiences would want EVERYTHING spelled out for them ALL THE TIME. Cruz’s character is like a living, breathing technical manual for the story. She’s never not delivering exposition about “divisions” and “constructs.” And even if after all that you still need help sorting things out, along will come a TV anchorperson to help fill in the gaps. … Fichtner makes for a decent enough bad guy, and Haley is fun in a too-brief appearance. But Affleck seems out of place at best and mundane at worst. Were it not for the heftier budget and substantially slicker sets and production values, this would feel like one of those straight-to-DVD action movies that starred a barely present and aging Bruce Willis and were mocked incessantly (at least until it was revealed that Willis has serious health issues), only with Affleck in Willis’ place. This might be better than any of those seemingly infinite releases (or at least most of them), but it’s just as ridiculous. The box office take for “Hypnotic” marks a career-low opening weekend for an Affleck movie, so maybe it also should have went straight to Redbox kiosks.

Who it will appeal to: Those who desperately need a bad “Inception” knockoff in their lives

My score: 25 out of 100.

Origin story and bickering

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3”

Genres: Comic book superhero/fantasy

Country: American

Directed by: James Gunn

Written by: Gunn, based on characters from Marvel Comics

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Will Poulter, Sean Gunn, Chukwudi Iwuji, Linda Cardellini, Nathan Fillion, Sylvester Stallone, many others

Rated: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, action, strong language, suggestive/drug references, thematic elements

Run time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Release date: In wide release in theaters May 5, 2023

Where I saw it: VIP Legacy 9 theater in Greenfield, Ind., on a late morning/early afternoon Saturday, $5.50 (matinee price), about 30 other people in the theater

What it’s about: The Guardians, led by Peter Quill (Pratt), must infiltrate the headquarters of Orgocorp, which has an override code that can save Rocket (voiced by Cooper) from a kill switch that was embedded in him by his creator, the High Evolutionary (Iwuji).

What I liked about it: This is the 32nd Marvel Cinematic Universe entry, and as ridiculous as that is, GOTG3 is entertaining in the way you would expect an MCU movie to be entertaining. It checks off all the boxes of audience expectations – familiar, cheer-worthy or hiss-worthy characters; fun in a meaningless diversion sort of way; at times superficially sentimental without it bogging down the fun parts; action-packed; lots of CGI battles and explosions; and a happy ending, one that, though this is the final part in this GOTG trilogy, guarantees the MCU money-making machine will keep right on rolling to the bank (this movie made more than $500 million in its first two weeks). And you can bet GOTG will return in one form or another. … Far and away the best segments (and the darkest and, undoubtedly to many audience members, the most disturbing) amount to Rocket’s origin story. Playing out in flashback form through the cyborg raccoon’s memory, the scenes give the bad guy (Iwuji’s High Evolutionary) plenty of room to stretch out and do his thing (and he does it well) and, somehow, despite featuring animals that have been operated on and tortured, represent the most human part of the film. Rocket and his fellow “experiments” get along in a way the other (sort of) human characters can’t or won’t (or at least aren’t allowed to by the MCU writers, all in the name of humor, I suppose) as they bond over nurturing in each other a sense of hope that they can escape their awful predicament. The flashback scenes can be hard to watch, and their tone is borderline out of place in a GOTG installment, but they represent Vol. 3’s most substantial and rewarding moments.

What I didn’t like about it: If I can pinpoint the most prevalent aspect of MCU fatigue, it’s the constant quipping, snarking, ribbing and bickering among far too many characters. “You’re stupid!”/ “No, you’re stupid!” and the whole “I like you but I’m going to pretend I don’t like you” thing undoubtedly appeals to the elementary school set. And their parents buy tickets and concessions, so there. But in this third go-round (and you’ll want to try and forget that this type of thing happens in most of the MCU movies), to this grown-up at least, it feels less snappy, more forced, more obligatory, less fun. And it often seems wedged in, bringing to a halt any momentum built in the best parts of the film. Numerous times I felt like yelling at the screen, “Shut up already!” but then that would have been one more person caught up in the bickering. You could cut out all the arguing and have yourself an exceptional 90- to 110-minute dark comic book movie about Rocket’s origin story and some sort of planet needing to be saved. … The fatigue also is noticeable with the frequent nostalgic needle drops, which also are feeling like a formulaic obligation. And besides, I’m going to be in denial that a song by Florence + the Machine now qualifies as nostalgic.

Who it will appeal to: Just about everyone but me

My score: 61 out of 100.

Passing the smell test

“The Five Devils” (in French, “Les Cinq Diables”) (French; 2022; queer drama/fantasy; run time 1 hour, 36 minutes; directed by Léa Mysius, written by Mysius and Paul Guilhaume; rated R for brief nudity, sexual situations; in French theaters Aug. 31, 2022, available on VOD and streaming services, including Mubi) is a movie with much promise that delivers on only part of it. It glides easily between genres but also leaves many questions unanswered. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in a movie, unless the result is that the audience is not sure what to make of it. And unexplained major plot points are bound to leave an audience perplexed. It is built on fascinating concepts, but one of them is how the sense of smell can be a powerful driver of emotions, the problem being that smell is challenging to convey in a visual medium like movies. A couple of tender romantic moments hit the mark, and the performances are a strong suit. But “The Five Devils” feels more like an enigmatic movie than a fulfilling one.

Set in a French village at the base of the Alps, the story centers on Joanne (Adéle Exarchopoulos), a young married woman who is a swimming instructor. She and her husband Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), a firefighter/EMT, have an 8-year-old daughter (Sally Dramé as Vicky) who has no friends, is bullied at school (presumably because she is Black; her father is an immigrant from Senegal) and has a gift – a hyper-developed sense of smell. Her parents’ marriage is troubled and lacks intimacy, but there’s a reason for that. And that is explained when Jimmy’s younger sister (Swala Emati as Julia) shows up at her brother’s house after having been away for 10 years. Julia has issues, including that she is an alcoholic. Joanne doesn’t want Julia around, but not because she doesn’t like her. The two have a history, if you know what I mean. And if you don’t know what I mean, Joanne and Julia were young, forbidden lovers. They were going to steal away to Marseille, but Julia’s mental health issues (manifesting in her seeing a young girl not visible to others) lead to a tragic event that has affected everyone in the present, including the young Vicky. How will Julia’s past affect the others’ present now that she is back? Will Joanne and Julia get a second chance at love?

One of the major drivers of the story feels like a mere plot device. Vicky keeps jars of scents that will remind her of loved ones. But when she combines them with a mysterious liquid in an unmarked bottle, she faints and can go back in time, where she sees the story of her mother, her father and aunt unfold. That leads to jumps in time that fill in some of the holes in the story, but not all of them. Among them: How did Vicky get this power? Why could Julia see a young girl traveling back in time when others couldn’t? Why did Vicky’s classmates also become unconscious when exposed to Vicky’s scents but not travel back in time? And how and why, when Julia had to go away 10 years earlier, did Joanne and Jimmy become a couple and have a child? Was Joanne getting revenge on Julia? Did she think her lover’s brother was the second-best option? That should have been explored. Exarchopoulos is stellar in her role as a woman who is tormented by what might have been (and what could be), and Dramé is compelling, especially given the young actor is tasked with carrying much of the story. Other characters aren’t as developed, including Mbengue’s Jimmy, who is given little to do but be confused by being the odd man out in his own marriage. “The Five Devils” might be frustrating, but it’s worth a watch, especially if you enjoy a film that you can’t quite solve. And one that leaves you wondering what might have been.  

My score: 66 out of 100.

Art about art and artists

“Showing Up”

Genres: Indie drama/comedy

Country: American

Directed by: Kelly Reichardt

Written by: Reichardt and Jon Raymond

Starring: Michelle Williams, Hong Chau, Maryann Plunkett, John Magaro, André Benjamin, James Le Gros, Judd Hirsch, Lauren Lakis, Ted Rooney, Heather Lawless, Matt Malloy, Amanda Plummer

Rated: Rated R for brief graphic nudity

Run time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Release date: In limited theaters April 7, 2023

Where I saw it: Kan-Kan Cinema and Brasserie in Indianapolis, on an early Tuesday evening, $12, only one in theater

What it’s about: Lizzy (Williams), a middle-aged sculptor, is two weeks from what could be a career-changing exhibition. As she prepares, she is distracted by the lack of hot water at her apartment and the apparent indifference to the situation by her neighbor/landlord/fellow artist (Chau as Jo), the escalation of mental health issues for her artist brother (Magaro as Sean), her uneasy relationship with her divorced mother/boss (Plunkett as Jean) and sculptor father (Hirsch as Bill), and an injured pigeon that she reluctantly helps nurse back to health.

What I liked about it: It’s difficult to fathom that Reichardt’s works (“First Cow,” “Old Joy,” “Meek’s Cutoff”) exist in the same medium in the same universe as the Marvel movies. MCU movies are explosive, huge in every way (cast, storylines, visually, sonically) and cast a wide net over an audience (and thus make billions), while Reichardt’s films are small, quiet, detailed and made for a niche audience (“Showing Up” had not quite made $700,000 at the box office as of this writing). This film is more of the same. And though not quite as engaging as 2019’s “First Cow,” it delivers what Reichardt’s small but loyal audience has come to expect. “Showing Up” is art about art, and observant, simple, subtly emotional. Reichardt’s films sneak up on the viewer. It might not seem like much is going on (“Showing Up,” like her other works, delivers nothing along the lines of thrills or chills), but there is plenty there for those paying attention to the minutiae. And don’t be fooled into thinking the lack of suspense means there won’t be an emotional payoff. Because there will be. … Reichardt likes to surround herself with familiar collaborators (including co-writer Raymond and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt), and this marks the fourth time she and Williams have worked together. Williams is barely recognizable, decidedly unglamourous and frumpy while draped in saggy, drab sweaters with unkempt hair. Her Lizzy is cynical and serious, and she walks as if it takes too much effort. Everyone at the art school where she works praises the figurines she makes, but Lizzy seems indifferent or maybe skeptical. In many ways she and Chau’s Jo are contrasts. Jo listens to loud music, never seems to worry and has a zest for life (and friends). Williams and Chau both are brilliant here, beautifully capturing the essence of being artists coming at their work with decidedly different attitudes and approaches. … Many of the moments in “Showing Up” are small and probably wouldn’t seem like much on paper. But they quietly resonate. Among the best: Jo’s childlike exuberance as she rolls an old tire down a sidewalk before she hangs it from a tree to swing in; Lizzy rummaging through a pile of junk left curbside so that she can incorporate pieces of it in her exhibit; Hirsch’s Bill circling his daughter’s work at the exhibition, beaming and grunting in approval; Jo driving at night past a window where one of her exhibits is being set up and radiating with satisfaction; and Magaro’s troubled Sean dealing with a situation at his sister’s exhibit with compassion and tenderness.

What I didn’t like about it: I hesitated to label this as a comedy (though that’s how it is billed) because the humor is oh so dry and slight. I laughed out loud a couple of times, giggled a few more. And though Reichardt’s film doesn’t take itself too seriously, in the way a stuffy indie drama would, the laughs are subtle and minimal. … Much time is spent showing the process of making art (which is better than listening to artists babble on and on about “inspiration” and such), and that might test the patience of even the most seasoned arthouse patron.

Who it will appeal to: Artists and the arthouse crowd

My score: 82 out of 100.

An action movie being an action movie

“AKA” (French; 2023; action thriller; run time 2 hours, 3 minutes; directed by Morgan S. Dalibert, written by Dalibert and Alban Lenoir; rated TV-MA for language, pervasive violence; streaming on Netflix on April 28, 2023) is an action movie for action movie fans, and it never strives to be more than that. The result is a serviceable, workmanlike film that is adequately entertaining and never feels anything but familiar. Its best moments are, of course, the intense, testosterone-fueled action scenes; the drop in quality is palpable during the dramatic parts, and the dialogue couldn’t be any more mundane. It has a couple of surprisingly touching moments, but they come and go rather matter-of-factly as our stoic action hero gets back to the business of kicking butt.

The tough guy is Adam Franco (Lenoir, who co-wrote), a no-nonsense special ops lone wolf who is tasked with infiltrating a French crime family led by Victor Pastore (Eric Contana), who is small time compared to who he will lead Adam to, a Sudanese warlord (played by Kevin Layne) who is suspected in a Paris bombing. In a tense cold opening that really has little to do with the main plot (what there is of it), we meet Adam as he is pretending to be the prisoner of Tunisian terrorists. The bad guys don’t stand a chance. Adam is so tough that he has taken five shots – at point blank range! – in the torso and has shrugged them off. Back at Victor’s mansion, Adam quickly gets in tight with the crime family patriarch, who thinks his new gang member seems familiar. What happens during Adam’s journey while tracking down the Sudanese warlord is average stuff (including predictable visits to a brothel and cuts to undercover agents in a van listening in on surveillance equipment), mere scenes strung together to form a vague plot but mostly to get the movie from one beatdown to the other. The light touches of sentimentality come as Adam is assigned to be the chauffeur for the young son (Noe Chabbat as Joe) of Victor’s wife Natalya (Sveva Alviti) from a previous relationship; and a sleight-of-hand involving the warlord and his young daughter, which is explained in a jolting flashback mid-movie.

Lenoir ably fills the action hero requirements – be forever stone-faced, smoke a lot and always be the baddest hombre on the scene. He’s the alpha male among alpha males, and Lenoir has a certain magnetism that has almost everything to do with physical presence and little to do with acting chops. Two of the action scenes stand out. In one, we see Adam beating up several nuisances outside the brothel through a security camera monitor. And in the other, Adam and three of his fellow crime family members have just executed a heist when their getaway car is purposely slammed into by bad guys who sure would like a piece of that of that bounty. They seem to have been tipped off, but who would do such a thing? Few people in this movie will not end up on the wrong end of a gun. Dalibert, who was the cinematographer for two action vehicles for Lenoir (2020’s “Lost Bullet” and 2022’s “Lost Bullet 2”), employs much of the same gimmickry that can be found in other standard-issue action flicks, including slow-motion executions offered in collage form during the climax. But if pedestrian action movies are your thing (and they are for a lot of people; that’s why they keep getting made), this is about as pedestrian as you could hope for. No more, no less.

My score: 49 out of 100

The devil’s in the details

I went to a demonic possession/psychological thriller horror movie and a sermon broke out. I should have done my homework before seeing “Nefarious” (American; 2023; evangelical drama; run time 1 hour, 37 minutes; written and directed by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon; rated R for mildly disturbing violent content; in wide release in theaters April 14, 2023). Billed as a horror movie, with a horror movie poster and horror movie trailer, the only horror is realizing you’ve been snookered in the name of God. I guess I didn’t bother to Google the writers/directors or I would have known they are lifelong friends who so loved the world that they gave us “God’s Not Dead” and the inexplicable franchise that followed. And if I had been paying attention to Rotten Tomatoes, I would have known it is not faring well among critics (33 percent) but that audiences are, sorry/not sorry, singing its praises to the tune of a 97 percent approval rate. If that doesn’t scream “faith-based movie,” I don’t know what does. Another clue: When a friend and I saw it in a nearby theater, the only coming attractions trailer was a teaser to something called “The Last Patriot” in which the premise is, apparently, “they” are coming for our guns. It, like a lot of pro-gun propaganda, seemed remarkably tone deaf just mere hours after the American mass shooting de jour, this one in Atlanta (when I saw this trailer, the alleged killer still was on the loose). And, come to think of it, the small crowd we saw it with did not have the look of a horror movie audience, although I’m not certain I can define what that means. If you know, you know. Anyway, the point: “Nefarious” is a sheep in wolf’s clothing, an unflinching and unsubtle conservative Christian slap-back at Hollywood, the media and smug liberals who are atheists and thus in the express lane to hell. At least until they can be converted. And in these movies, they WILL be converted.

The setting is current day Oklahoma. Edward (Sean Patrick Flanery) is a serial killer who is mere hours away from execution by electric chair. After the psychiatrist who was supposed to evaluate him to determine if he is of sound enough mind to be executed apparently commits suicide, a substitute is called in. He is Dr. James Martin (Jordan Belfi), and he has only a few hours to make his diagnosis. He and Edward are seated at a small table in a secure room in the prison. Edward has nervous tics galore and … a demon named Nefarious (or something close to that) inside of him. Or so he says. Or is it Edward saying it? A theological chess match ensues, and like a chess match, it goes on forever without much happening. On occasion, Edward reverts to “himself” and is childlike, shy and stuttering. When he’s the demon, he tells Dr. Martin that he (the doctor, not the demon) will have committed three murders by the end of the day. Edward/Nefarious seems to know a lot about Dr. Martin, which is weird. Anyway, Edward will predictably get under Dr. Martin’s skin, who will react with a predictable outburst, and predictably Dr. Martin will get too close to the handcuffed Edward and wish that he hadn’t. A climactic scene that made me LOL (not the filmmakers’ intention, I suppose) happens, followed by an epilogue featuring Glenn Beck as himself. Wait. What?

Flanery is swinging for the fences on every pitch, even the ones 20 feet over his head. His schtick is vaguely intense and entertaining at first, but after about 15 minutes of it you wish he (and Nefarious) would just stop talking for a moment, please. As he’s rambling on and on with his theological gobbledygook, it becomes apparent what is going on. And what is going on is a heavy-handed condemnation of all things not Christianity. Dr. Martin is a stereotype. He’s smug. He’s well-off. He’s a non-believer. He’s single. Sinner! But he got his girlfriend pregnant (also a sin), and as fate (or awful scriptwriting would have it), she’s off having an abortion (again with the sin) for which Dr. Martin has given his, umm, blessings. Eventually, Edward/Nefarious starts dropping what sound like Fox News references into his relentlessly preachy monologue. Is he now possessed by Tucker Carlson? What started as a presumed fair fight between serial killer and psychiatrist and a decent movie devolves into a sludgy and grating finger-wag of “better find God.” The climactic scene starts out intensely (could an execution not be?) but gives way to remarkably implausible circumstances (like a loaded gun in the witness room during an execution) that are allegedly all the proof Dr. Martin needs to change his atheist ways and spread the gospel. That’s what he’s doing during the epilogue from hell, which must have lasted 10 minutes but felt like 10 hours. If you want what you are purporting as an undisputable message of “truth” to be taken seriously, is Glenn Beck really the best messenger you’ve got?

My score: 18 out of 100.

Hey! Look at us!

See Matt and Khani meet online. See Matt and Khani date. See Matt and Khani ignore each other’s red flags. See Matt and Khani get stranded in a tropical paradise. See Matt and Khani befriend an iguana. See Matt and Khani create content. See Matt and Khani become alcoholics. See Matt and Khani never have to deal with the real world. See Matt and Khani cultivate the perfect made-for-Instagram romance. See Matt and Khani do EVERYTHING. Well, almost. “Longest Third Date” (American; 2023; documentary; run time 1 hour, 15 minutes; directed by Brent Hodge; rated TV-MA for language; streaming on Netflix on April 18, 2023) is a voyeur’s dream, if that voyeur dreams of watching self-absorbed, vacuous young adults doing what billions of others also did in 2020 – deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Only most of us didn’t spend the first three months of it partying and having sex in a tropical paradise. Matt and Khani did and, fortunately (?) for all of us (especially those tasked with making Netflix documentaries), Matt doesn’t do anything without pointing his phone camera at everything, especially himself. The result is a documentary that takes an idea with potential (what happens when two young people who had gone on two dates with each other leave the country and can’t return home?) and turns it into a slog, an even duller modern-day equivalent of the neighbors’ never-ending vacation slide show from hell.

Matt Robertson and Khani Le, both New Yorkers, met on something called Hinge. Neither was looking for love. Matt, an aspiring influencer (who isn’t?), was working his way through a stream of female Insta models he met at New York nightspots. Khani had endured a string of bad dating experiences because, well, she was online dating. On Hinge, he broke the ice with (pay attention, guys), “Hi, beautiful,” with a smiley face. That’s all it took. Well, that and his good looks and money. Their first date was a fancy dinner that led to an hours-long conversation that ended with Matt pecking Khani on the cheek. Or as we call that in dating circles, the friend-zone kiss of death. A disappointed Khani agreed to a second date, though, and they went with the can’t-miss combination of drinking and throwing axes. And they kissed on the lips! For Date 3, Matt was feeling adventurous and, apparently, oblivious. Because with something called the pandemic just warming up, he booked a bargain-priced flight for two to Costa Rica on a mostly empty jet. Khani’s friends warned her that this was too much, too soon, especially with a guy she didn’t really know yet. But she is game – “I didn’t get murder-y, stalker-y vibes from him,” she says matter-of-factly — and lives with disregard to personal boundaries. They get to Costa Rica and – wouldn’t you know it? – everything shuts down (including return flights to the U.S.) a few days in. They make the best of it (it’s not like they were slumming it), embarking on an adventure that would include Airbnbs that come furnished with lizards and every insect imaginable, a pregnancy scare, the consumption of every drop of alcohol in Costa Rica and … love. Aww.

If you are going watch this all the way through without constantly tapping on the jump-ahead button (which I did), you are going to need to like Matt and Khani. Best of luck. Maybe it’s the man-bun, but Matt immediately elicited feelings of my fist to his face. His best buddy says, “Matt vlogs himself ALL … THE … TIME. He just can’t help himself.” His decision to whisk Khani off to Costa Rica (despite the wildfire spreading of a virus) seems far less romantic when he utters, “I’m going to get some cool content because I’m in Costa Rica.” He says things in his vlogs like, “Can’t make this shit up, y’all.” Wait. There’s more. He calls himself “Movie Matt” because his life is a “movie.” He even has a trailer for his life. No, really. Matt is so full of himself that you are surprised he went looking for someone else. Khani fares better, for a while. And then you realize, a) she hates influencers, and here she is in another country on a date with a wannabe influencer, b) she admits to being a compulsive liar growing up and has lied to her father about being in Costa Rica with a man (so surely Matt can trust her, right?) and, c) she apparently had no prior knowledge of how booze works. “The more we drank, the more comfortable we became with each other.” If at first you don’t like someone, get drunk so that you will. To celebrate their 30th day in Costa Rica (they would spend nearly three months there), Matt and Khani took 30 shots. Each. Ain’t love grand? There’s little drama here, other than the father finding out the truth, Khani finally getting her period (neither wants children, except a dog, the human children of our time) and flights being canceled. Matt and Khani still are together, which isn’t a spoiler since the tone and the fact that the movie exists suggest that they would be. I won’t care whether they are together or recall the details of their idealized lives and alcohol-induced love five minutes after I post this review. But I will remember skipping through much of this so that it felt less like “Longest Netflix Documentary.”

My score: 20 out of 100.