RAW FEED: ‘Roald Dahl’s The Witches’ Flirts with Body Horror but Doesn’t Commit

A peek inside the mind of a film critic in real time. Readers discretion is advised.

  • There’s a lot of good will towards the 1990 version of The Witches. Completely out of his element, director Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now) came up with creative solutions to the challenges of adapting the Roald Dahl classic. Chief among them, dudes playing witches (now, not PC).
  • Chris Rock’s narration (as the adult version of the protagonist) makes this movie feel like a very special episode of Everybody Hates Chris.
  • Octavia Spencer as the grandma is the one casting decision that’s clearly an improvement over the Roeg adaptation. As the witch-savvy healer, Spencer has agency and her charisma looms large throughout the movie.
  • The good thing about Warner being behind The Witches revamp is the top tier Motown soundtrack.
  • As the Grand High Witch/main nemesis, Anne Hathaway vamps it up, but lacks the casual cruelty of Anjelica Huston. The world needs more Anjelica Huston movies.
  • In turn, the kids are delightfully normal. Until Hathaway turns them into mice.
  • Of all the Robert Zemeckis movies, the one The Witches resembles the most is Death Becomes Her.
  • On a second thought, The Witches is more like a David Cronenberg romp. Those witches are gnarly. Good on Zemeckis for taking risks and pushing boundaries. Parents may disagree.
  • Speaking of which, Anne Hathaway issued an apology for the depiction of physical deformities as trademarks of evildoers. Did anyone think this was a true-to-life representation? This may be more of a Roald Dahl problem.
  • I would watch a movie about dueling concierges Stanley Tucci (1990’s Roald Dahl’s The Witches) and Rowan Atkinson (1990’s The Witches).
  • The top half of the movie is stronger than the latter.
  • Between chocolate addicts Augustus Gloop and Reginald, it seems like Roald Dahl takes issue with portly children.
  • Why a numerologist would build a room 666?
  • The ending is faithful to the book and a departure from the 1990 version. Yet I can’t help thinking the non-Dahl conclusion was better.
  • Alfonso Cuarón is a producer and Guillermo del Toro is a co-writer. The movie offers zero clues of their involvement outside the credits.
  • The controversy has been blown up out of proportion. The Witches is reasonably entertaining. But there’s something to be said about taking creative licences when adapting a book. Two and a half planets/prairie dogs (out of five).

Roald Dahl’s The Witches opens Christmas Day in theatres and VOD.

REVIEW: ‘Wonder Woman 1984’: Come for the Hero, Stay for the Villains

Wonder Woman saves the day while Steve Trevor watches.

There’s something to be said for DC and Warner’s willingness to pivot. Wonder Woman’s 2017 solo adventure—still set in the Snyder-verse—was hamstrung by continuity and the darker tone that characterized the DC cinematic universe early on. Freed from those shackles, Wonder Woman 1984 is a better rounded and more accomplished film with an openness reminiscent of Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies (the third is a masterpiece of unintentional comedy, but that’s neither here nor there).

The tonal inconsistencies are still here (the comedy is forced and basic), but overall Wonder Woman 1984 is more successful than the first. More adventurous, even.

Set over 65 years after the events of Wonder Woman, the sequel finds Diana Prince employed at the Smithsonian in Washington, still moping for Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who sacrificed himself for the sake of London in the waning days of WWI. Diana moonlights as a superhero, the kind that doesn’t kill villains and doesn’t want to be photographed (despite her shiny red, gold and blue suit).

(Very mild spoilers ahead)

Diana’s ennui is shaken by an archeological discovery, a stone that grants wishes. Hot on its tracks is Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal channeling Tony Robbins), an entrepreneur on the verge of public humiliation and jail. Desperation is a powerful motivator, and the combination of an oily salesman and a monkey paw turns out to be world-threatening. Think of an ultra-expensive edition of Wishmaster.

The film starts with a short trip to Themyscira, in which a young Diana learns about accepting defeat. The lesson is unfortunately reminiscent of The Phantom Menace’s pod race, but it comes in handy.

Never mind the heavy handed Cold War references and Eighties-on-steroids setting, Wonder Woman 1984 has more realistic heroism than other superhero movies. Sure, the massive set pieces are there, but the acts that make the biggest difference are small in scope.

There are a few problems that prevent the film from being a smooth ride. First is the return of Steve Trevor (not a big spoiler since he’s in all the WW84 trailers) and the comedy bit with the fanny pack. Chris Pine is a good sport, but he can’t give the character consistency: At times, he adjusts quickly to his new surroundings but then he’s helpless the very next scene.

Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is a great physical performer but scenes that require emoting reveal her shortcomings as an actor. In fact, the film suffers whenever Pedro Pascal and Kristen Wiig — the charismatic villains — aren’t on screen. Pascal in particular is excellent as the sleazy, charming Maxwell Lord. So good, you’re never rooting against him.

Wonder Woman 1984‘s feminism is showy—nearly every man is a horndog or a predator, with the exception of, you guessed it, Steve Trevor. It’s becoming a cliché (see also Birds of PreyThe CraftPromising Young Woman). Director Patty Jenkins has leveraged journeyman competence into a blockbuster career—she’ll be helming the next Star Wars movie, Rogue Squadron—but you can’t say the filmmaker has delivered on these opportunities. Regardless, Wonder Woman 1984 sits pretty in the top tier of DCCU movies. One has to applaud a film whose main message is to have faith in people in a year when it often feels like humans couldn’t be any more disappointing. Three stars out of five.

Wonder Woman 1984 opens Christmas Day in theatres and on demand. 

‘Soul’ Story Head Pulls Back the Curtain on the Making of a Pixar Movie

©2020 Disney/Pixar.

One of Pixar’s most striking trademarks is the ability to turn abstract concepts into accessible plot points. The gold standard is Inside Out, a film as entertaining as profound, and an unexpected source of insight into the pre-adolescent mind.

Like Inside OutSoul comes from the mind of Pete Docter (and collaborators Kemp Powers and Mike Jones) and tackles tough ideas like death, self-determination and having a purpose. Boldly, the film doesn’t answer some of the questions it introduces. Then again, nobody in history has convincingly done so.

At the center of the film is Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a jazz pianist turned disenchanted music teacher. Out of the blue he gets his big break, just to depart the land of the living moments later. Unwilling to miss his shot, Gardner breaks from the afterlife into the before-life and crosses paths with a soul reluctant to make its way to Earth. It all makes sense sooner rather than later.

As it often happens with Pixar movies, Canadians are deeply ingrained in Soul (see Duke Caboom in Toy Story 4). The film’s story head is Trevor Jiménez, an animation artist who just two years ago was nominated for an Oscar for the Toronto-set short Weekends. Jiménez has been linked to the company since we Finding Dory. We connected over Skype to talk shop. 

What does a story lead do and how does it apply to Soul?

I started as a story artist and was promoted first to story lead and then story supervisor. A story lead gets key scenes in the film. You’re also in the writers’ room contributing ideas. As a story supervisor, you’re managing a team of story artists, we have six to eight per team. I made sure they were healthy, happy and in tune with the director. I was also in editorial and we would watch sequences and fine tune.

Were you also involved with the animation?

I would go to dailies to check out what the animators are doing. If a continuity or story question pops up I would answer it. We (story leads and supervisors) are the first in line: Working with the writers and director, we put together a blueprint of the whole film in drawings. We try to make sure that the scenes are working emotionally. An editor would then cut the right kind of music to capture the tone and add voice recordings. Once that’s working, an animator can take that on.

How would you prime a scene emotionally?

I don’t know if I can pinpoint what makes a scene work. It’s always different. The context is important, the music is so huge in dictating the tone and feeling. A lot of it feels like happenstance. Sometimes you get a scene in script form and you know it’s going to be amazing.

It’s something you do instinctively.

Yeah, it’s hard to articulate. It’s like watching a film or listening to music you love. You respond to it. Sometimes, when you see a scene edited together, it surprises you. You never thought it would work, but it does because of the juxtaposition of music, acting and some kind of magic.

Is there a specific contribution to Soul that you feel particularly proud of?

I was able to contribute a lot to this film. If I had to highlight one, early on, I had the honor to be asked by Pete to direct a small part of the film, the one where the protagonist is falling through black and white space.

Which is insane-looking. I haven’t seen that before.

That was our hope. We made that independently. Pete wanted us to push visually what it could be. I storyboarded the scene originally and made it all the way to the end.

Soul takes place in these two very different planes. How hard was to make them mesh?

Hearing the production designer Steve Pilcher talk about it, he tried to make them contrast as much as possible: The afterlife being soft and ethereal and New York, gritty and textured. There’s a Pixar touch that —when you get to the CG— harmonizes everything, but the stark difference between the two places remains. The story begs for that and it all fits within the concept.

Soul premieres on Disney Plus on Christmas Day.

REVIEW: ‘Monster Hunter’ Is More like Monster Gatherer

Milla Jovovich in Monster Hunter.

Based on Paul W.S. Anderson’s filmography, I approached Monster Hunter warily. I can only recall one movie of his that has been any good, Event Horizon, and it premiered 23 years ago.

Turns out Monster Hunter is… okay. Not good, but not unbearable like Pompeii or overstuffed like The Three Musketeers. In fact, in the first half hour this thing moves and then hits a level of simplicity unheard of for Anderson. Coherence and cohesiveness, imagine that.

Based on the Capcom videogame of the same name, Monster Hunter stars Anderson’s muse/wife Milla Jovovich as Artemis, the leader of a UN elite military unit. While patrolling a war-torn country, a sandstorm takes them to a different dimension where a gigantic creature and slightly smaller spiders make mincemeat of the soldiers (given the presence of some recognizable names, you would think they would last longer).

This being a Paul W.S. Anderson movie, Milla’s character survives. Artemis establishes a reluctant partnership with only local in sight (martial arts maverick Tony Jaa) and they go on their merry way taking down monsters while searching for an interdimensional portal. It’s like The Wizard of Oz. With tactical weaponry. 

Even though the dialogue is ear-splitting, Monster Hunter does an okay job unfurling the mythology while remaining mildly entertaining. Characters are introduced at a reasonable pace and the stakes are broadly established early. The intention to turn the movie into a franchise becomes evident soon enough, but I can’t say I cared enough for the characters to hope for a sequel. Except maybe Ron Perlman, but because he’s Ron Perlman (channeling David Lee Roth for some reason).

I’m fully aware nobody watches a movie called Monster Hunter for the character development or witty dialogue (that’s a bonus). The action scenes are reasonably well-staged, but at no point you forget you’re watching CGI creatures. The tension is just not there, and without anything else to capture your attention, the whole enterprise feels pointless. Nice faux Vangelis score though. Two prairie dogs/planets.

Monster Hunter is now playing at Scotiabank, Cineplex and Landmark cinemas. 

REVIEW: The Sweet ‘Sound of Metal’

More than a year after premiering at TIFF to rave reviews, Sound of Metal is finally getting released digitally.

A sturdy drama written and directed by The Place Behind the Pines’ Darius Marder (a barrel of laughs, it’s not) , the film follows Ruben (Riz Ahmed, Rogue One), a hard-rock drummer who loses most of his hearing suddenly and irreversibly.

Considering his entire existence revolves around music, Ruben is reluctant to accept this new lot in life. His girlfriend/band mate, Lou (Olivia Cooke, Ready Player One), fears the unwelcome development may lead to a relapse (Ruben is a former heroin addict), so she convinces her beau to enter an isolated community for the hearing impaired.

Ruben is assailed by an assortment of impulses and desires: The drummer believes a cochlear implant may be the solution to his problems (his sponsors at the community know better). At the same time, Ruben discovers he has the capacity to adapt and even thrive, but stops short from accepting his condition. No matter how supportive Lou appears, he knows the relationship is doomed if he gives up on music.

While well written and directed, Sound of Metal is further elevated by Riz Ahmed’s superb performance and extraordinary sound design (if a movie ever deserved that Oscar, this is this one). The film excels at placing the audience in Ruben’s place.

Ahmed embodies the character’s complex and often contradictory emotions with ease. Ruben may have his heroin addiction under control, but his addiction to sound is going strong and the entire time he’s angling for a fix.

In spite of the lead’s intricate state of mind and the sophisticated portrait of deafness, Sound of Metal feels raw, unvarnished. Nothing about it feels fake and it’s unwavering even when courting controversy.

In the end, Sound of Metal is a story of self-acceptance and the costs of it. The two hours it lasts may feel taxing, but it’s a minor qualm given the myriad of accomplishments. Three and a half planets.

Sound of Metal is available on demand.

REVIEW: Costner and Lane Go on a Solo Mission in ‘Let Him Go’

Diane Lane and Kevin Costner in Let Him Go. Credit : Kimberley French / Focus Features

For an actor who has repeatedly delivered iconic performances, particularly in the 90’s, Kevin Costner gets little respect. Sure, two major bombs were built around him (WaterworldThe Messenger), but his successes dwarf his failures. In days of antiheroes and sensitive leading men, one would be hard-pressed to find another performer embodying the (granted, old-fashioned) strong, silent type as well as Costner.

In Let Him Go, he and Diane Lane (his screen partner in Man of Steel) become George and Margaret Blackledge, two ranchers distressed over their grandson’s wellbeing. The Blackledges’ son died and his widow married a ne’er-do-well who squirrels them out of town. Their concern is not misplaced: Margaret witnessed the stepfather physically abuse the boy.

As the Blackledges take the road in search for the kid, they realize they’re going against a particularly vicious clan, the Weboys. The matriarch, Blanche (Lesley Manville), is a force of nature who intends to rule the life of every Weboy, whether related by blood or marriage.

While set in the 60’s in the American Midwest, Let Him Go is a western at heart (not for nothing Costner’s character is a retired sheriff). Director Thomas Bezucha delivers a contemplative, compelling film with brutal bursts of violence. Based on his filmography (Selena Gómez’ MontecarloThe Family Stone), I didn’t know he had it in him.

The plot is your standard good vs. evil clash, enhanced by terrific performances by Lane and Costner as ‘salt of the earth’ people and an appropriately camp turn by Manville, far cry from her restrained performance in Phantom Thread (few actors can say “I hope you like pork chops” in more threatening fashion). Kayli Carter as the daughter-in-law whose bad decisions started this mess doesn’t come close to match the strength of this formidable trio and it shows.

As the driver of the action, Diane Lane’s Margaret causes considerable mayhem and her husband ends up paying for all her brilliant ideas. Towards the end it becomes cartoonishly funny, not the intended outcome. Nevertheless, it’s the rare good movie daring to open in theatres and deserves some credit for that. Three planets packing heat.

Let Him Go is now playing at Scotiabank Theatre, Cineplex at The Centre and Landmark Cinemas. 

Clark Johnson, Director of ‘Percy’: “This Is an Homage to the Schmeisers”

Director Clark Johnson during the making of Percy.

Filmmaker Clark Johnson epitomizes the notion of the journeyman actor-director. He has sat behind the camera in countless TV shows, going from superhero fare (Luke Cage) to prestige productions (The West Wing) and everything in between. Not only that, he directed four episodes of The Wire, the cult HBO hit he also appeared on, and got an Emmy nomination for handling the The Shield pilot, the one in which a character in the opening credits gets offed and set the tone for the rest of the series.

Percy is far from Johnson’s first foray as a film director. Most notably, he was at the helm of S.W.A.T., the Samuel L. Jackson-Colin Farrell big screen adaptation of the 70’s TV staple. The story of the Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser who battled biotech giant Monsanto features a different kind of fireworks. The legal kind.

FarmAid and the United Nations have gotten behind Percy, increasing the film’s chances to get eyeballs around the globe. Sadly, just as the movie was unrolling in theatres across Canada, Schmeiser passed at age 89, presumably from Parkinson’s disease. There’s no word whether he got to see the movie before his death.

Clark Johnson phoned from Chelsea, New York. Really pleasant dude, we didn’t start talking about Percy until exchanging immigrant stories. Turns out the pairing of filmmaker and subject was meant to be.

I learned a lot about farming watching Percy. I presume this mirrors your own learning curve.

As kids, we weren’t allowed to have grapes, grape jelly or lettuce because of César Chavez and the action for micro-farm workers. My parents’ activism was my first connection to farmers. Jump forward 45 or so years and I get to tell the story of Percy Schmeiser. Being a city guy, I went to Whole Foods and learned the difference between corn oil and canola oil, and moved from there.

I know the answer to this, but I want to hear your take: Why was Percy shot in Manitoba and not Saskatchewan?

That’s a fair question. Tax deals. A good portion of our crew travelled to Manitoba to shoot because there’s no work in Saskatchewan. It was not lost on us we couldn’t shoot a SK movie in SK. 

Was it useful to have the real-life referents at hand?

Oh, yeah. This is an homage to the Schmeisers. We relied heavily on their interactions with our writers in early stages. When you are in the farming community in the Prairies, you find a similar discourse. We shot at a farm north of Winnipeg. Everybody had the same intimate connection with the land. We felt totally engaged with the story. 

How did you manage to have all four seasons on screen?

I have a lot of pull in the film industry, Jorge (laughs). We were in Toronto and our locations people called us in early June (2019) and asked us if we were planning to travel anytime soon. The canola was blooming and that would last a week or so. Our director of photography, Luc Montpellier, jumped on a plane, grabbed a camera and a drone, and shot that beautiful yellow-blooming late-spring canola. Then it snowed in September, a whole foot of snow, so we got a crew and shot, instead of coming back in January.

Don’t Ask Christopher Walken to Dance

It’s been a while since Christopher Walken has had a role as meaty as Percy Schmeiser. You would have to go back to 2015 to find the actor headlining a movie (the little seen One More Time).

Walken and Clark Johnson go way back. The filmmaker’s first film as a special effects technician was the David Cronenberg classic The Dead Zone (1983), starring Walken. Their paths crossed two more times before Percy.

How hard is to direct Christopher Walken?

He’s very conscious of how people perceive him. Like any good actor, you don’t want to be judged by what’s expected of you. He said “I’m not going to dance or anything”. I kind of wished he would. It was his suggestion that his wife would be played by Roberta Maxwell, because they started together in Stratford. The cast kind of came together in support of Chris.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many executive producers in a movie as in Percy.

I’m glad you said that. You can always tell it’s an indie by the number of EP credits. Nobody can get paid, but if this movie ever makes any money, you get EP points. I stopped counting after 18 or 19 EPs.

Mumbai Via Winnipeg

There was a lot of ingenuity at play in the making of Percy. As a good independent film, financing came down to the wire and Johnson wasn’t sure if they would be able to go to India to shoot a pivotal scene. Clark Johnson managed to make Winnipeg play the part of Mumbai, at least the interiors: “It was a wonderful surprise to find such a diverse community there.”

Eventually Johnson, Walken and crew made it to Mumbai to shoot exteriors, some time after they finished principal photography. “That was a bonus. We learned from the Indians they revere Schmeiser too. The farmers knew who he was, they all had stories about dealing with the agroindustry. That was enlightening to us and I believe added to the story.”

Monsanto is known for being litigious. Was this a concern during the creative process?

For sure. Garfield (Miller) and Hilary (Pryor, the scriptwriters) sticked fairly religiously to the trial transcripts, so we wouldn’t get any backlash from people not interested in us telling the story. 

Having done so much television, is there any aspect of that process that has made your work in features more efficient?

Absolutely. You learn expediency when you’re on a TV schedule. You become highly disciplined. I use those principles to make my days. I can be spontaneous because I’m getting my meat and potatoes done as I go. Also, from being an actor, I know what that entails. It all adds up.

Percy is now playing at the Scotiabank Theatre in Saskatoon.

VOD REVIEW: ‘2067’ Brings Back the Australian Dystopia

For reasons worth exploring at depth, Australian cinema is uniquely good at exploring apocalyptic scenarios: The Mad Max movies, The RoverThese Final HoursCargo, you name it. They’re all perfectly believable and unsettlingly dark.

2067, the latest production to join this weird little subgenre, doesn’t reach the heights of Max Rockatansky and company, but the bleakness and lack of faith in mankind is right there. Earth has gone to the dogs in believable fashion: Energy sources are dwindling, the greenhouse effect has killed most plants in the planet and the air is so rarified, oxygen is only available in synthetic form. This has also caused an acute class division in which only the employed have a shot at survival. And not for long.

Ethan Whyte (Kodi Smit-McPhee, now in proper adult roles) is a nuclear technician barely scrapping by. His main concern is the wellbeing of his partner, who’s coughing blood and not getting enough oxygen. The opportunity of a lifetime falls in his lap when he’s offered the chance to go into the future and bring back remedies to the many maladies affecting the world. But something else seems to be at play, as the time-travelling machine calls for him specifically to do the trip.

2067 deserves kudos for how far stretches a modest budget. The obvious Blade Runner influences are palpable and for the most part it’s quite effective at portraying a rundown society on the verge of collapse. The problem is not the production design, but a script that’s not nearly as clever as it thinks that it is. Every ground-shattering twist can be seen from a mile away and the family drama at the center of this sci-fi romp is the least interesting part of it.

While not well supported by the dialogue (portentous, yet barely functional), Smit-McPhee and True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten are likeable enough to carry the audience to the conclusion. The film flirts with hard sci-fi concepts like time paradoxes and religious ideas like predestination, but doesn’t develop them enough. There’s a good movie somewhere in 2067, but this one takes one wrong turn too many. 2.5/5 breathless planets.

2067 is now available on demand.

REVIEW: Antebellum Makes America Grey Again

The wave of horror laced with social content has been a respite after the umpteenth zombie movie or Paranormal Activity knockoff. Antebellum doesn’t quite reaches the heights of Get Out, but it’s a sturdy feature that makes great use of the ‘confederation nostalgia’ sweeping America’s redest corners.

The charismatic Janelle Monáe is Eden, a slave in a confederate garrison. We meet her as a breakout attempt has gone horribly wrong and she’s held as responsible. But even after the botched escape, others in the plantation see her as a leader, a position she’s reluctant to accept.

Those who saw the (perhaps too revealing) trailer know Monáe also plays a successful academic in modern times. The heart of the movie lies on how are these two characters linked, a plot twist I won’t reveal here.

Antebellum brings together these two pivotal eras to underline how little certain elements of American society have evolved. It does it first broadly, showing the excruciating cruelty of the slavery, and then bringing attention the casual racism, insidious enough to be noticed, but low-key so it’s often tolerated. The film also highlights how intelligence can be particularly irritating for bigots who think of themselves as superior (see Trump’s obsession with Obama).

The main reveal is certain to launch a thousand think pieces, but all you need to know is that it works. When you think about it, it’s horrifying because it’s not far-fetched.

Social undertones aside, Antebellum is a serviceable piece of entertainment. The movie is lusciously shot and allows a modicum of comedy when appropriate. Every so often, the writer/director duo of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz feel the need to spell out the themes of the film (“discrimination is written in the DNA of this country”, “unresolved past can wreak havoc in the present”), but overall it’s worth your time. 3/5 planets.

Antebellum is now available on demand.

TIFF ’20 – Day 6: MLK/FBI, Beans, Good Joe Bell, Concrete Cowboy

MLK/FBI (USA, 2020. Dir: Sam Pollard): We all have a generic idea of the contentious relationship between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the FBI. It’s common knowledge that the director of the Bureau, J. Edgar Hoover, had King under constant surveillance given his considerable influence over the black community. Turns out there’s a lot more to the story. According to recently declassified documents, the trigger was King’s acquaintance with a communist lawyer. Both Kennedy and LBJ were aware of Hoover’s illegal surveillance of MLK and didn’t do anything to stop it. In turn, reports of King’s extra-marital dalliances failed to sway his followers away from him, irritating Hoover. MLK/FBI is filled with fascinating details about this period and excellent footage. The doc does a great job putting all the pieces together. The outcome is a notch cold, but it’s definitely worth your time. 3/5 planets aware of the limits between public and private life.

Beans (Canada, 2020. Dir: Tracy Deer): A look to the Oka Crisis through the eyes of a tween, Beans is a different kind of coming-of-age story, one in which the edges are not sanded off. A 12-year-old Mohawk girl nicknamed Beans gets a crash course in adulthood when, as a result of the standoff to protect her people’s land from developers, gets to face racism, violence and police inaction first hand. Not only that, a friendship with older teens push Beans towards uncharted territory too early. The film is rough around the edges—the acting is at times amateurish and the dialogue could have used more polishing— but triggers visceral reactions other movies wish they could. 3.5/5 planets that won’t forget.

Good Joe Bell (USA, 2020. Dir: Reinaldo Marcus Green): Based on real events, Good Joe Bell is a well-intentioned effort (even though it has written “Mark Wahlberg wants an Oscar” all over) that avoids getting into difficult territory. The titular character (Wahlberg) is a grieving father whose son committed suicide after being bullied for being gay. His reaction is to walk across America to raise awareness, but his own responsibility on the tragedy slowly creeps in (reluctantly accept your kid’s homosexuality doesn’t cut it). Written by the same team behind Brokeback Mountain—Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana—Good Joe Bell doesn’t come close to break new ground: Bullying is bad, inaction is bad, platitudes are useless and people suck. We know all that. Also, why isn’t this movie about the kid and not the straight guy who wants to feel better about himself? 2.5/5 planets happy at least it’s not Entourage 2.

Concrete Cowboy (USA, 2020. Dir: Ricky Staub): You know your life has taken a turn for the worse when you’re sharing accommodations with a horse. It’s what happens with Cole (Caleb McLaughlin, Stranger Things), after his fed-up mom drops him at his father’s place in Philadelphia. Two options present themselves to Cole: Double down on his bad behavior and join a criminal enterprise or accompany his presumed deadbeat dad (Idris Elba) at the city stables and learn to tame horses. While Cole’s story is perfunctory as heck (trouble kid is redeemed by his love for horses), the setup is worth your attention: For years black cowboys have been training horses on the streets of Philly, but city development has been pushing them away. That story should have anchored this movie, not been relegated to the background. 2.5/5 planets that are all for teens developing character, but in their own time.