Big Dumb Bloody Fun at the Movies
There are two truly excellent films available to you this week—an Ed Helms indie dramedy and a coming-of-age film that does the impossible. Or, just go with your adolescent leanings and watch somebody finally make a movie as bloody as the video game. (Or may we interest you in some Irishmen, some pints, and a vampire?)
In theaters and on HBO Max
by Hope Madden
Dude, how dumb is Mortal Kombat?
So dumb! But—and this is the important thing—it’s R-rated. And not just regular old R-rated. This third attempt to bring the notorious Midway video game to the big screen is Aussie Rules R-rated.
As it should be. The video game inspired by Jean-Claude Van Damme and boasting fights-to-the-death can hardly be done justice with PG-13 movies and animated TV shows. I mean, sure, they did that and made an insane amount of money, but none of it was any good.
So, is this any good?
No! It’s idiotic. Insufferable, really, until Josh Lawson enters the scene, chained up and cursing a blue streak as Kano. The writing is awful and the acting is worse – except for Lawson, who’s a stitch.
But damn is this movie violent!
Again, as it should be.
Australian director Simon McQuoid has made commercials up to this point. He’s very good at stylized, 90 second, conspicuous drama. He’s also very good with a fight sequence and he’s not shy when it comes to glorying in fatalities. He includes plenty of nods to the most notorious moves from the video game franchise, fresh kill ideas, and even a well-placed Story of Ricky homage.
McQuoid delivers less inspiration when dealing with actors, not that his screenplay (co-written with Dave Callaham and Oren Uziel, based on Ed Boon and John Tobias’s original characters) gave them anything to work with.
Lewis Tan (Netflix’s Wu Assassins) is our bland-as-cottage-cheese hero Cole, unmemorable in every way. The film outright wastes Tadanobu Asano. (He’s done a lot of amazing work over his 30+ years in film, but he’ll always be Ichi the Killer’s Kakihara to me.)
No one—not Jessica McNamee, Joe Taslim, Mehcad Brooks, Hiroyuki Sanada or anyone else—has much opportunity to create a real character. The arcs are telegraphed, the fight pairings obvious, and a lot of the villainous roles are tossed in and disposed of without fanfare toward the end of Act 2.
Why? Because Mortal Kombat is a big, dumb movie. So big and so dumb.
And so much gory stupid fun, I just might watch it again.
by George Wolf
It takes a full two minutes to get a really good feeling about Together Together.
Writer/director Nikole Beckwith delivers witty, engaging dialogue from the jump, defining characters and setting the stakes in a beautifully organic manner. This is much more difficult than Beckwith and her two leads make it appear.
Matt (Ed Helms) is interviewing Anna (Patti Harrison) to be the surrogate mother who’ll deliver his child. Matt, a forty-something app developer, is single but wants to be a father. 26-year-old Anna needs the money and wouldn’t mind the healthy deposit in the bank of good karma.
So if you’re keeping score, the film boasts a fresh premise, crisp writing and likable personalities before you’ve sipped your beverage of choice. And as we follow Matt and Anna from first trimester to labor, Together Together is never less than warm, insightful and lovely.
With no romance and only a few laugh out loud moments (most of those delivered by Sufe Bradshaw’s sarcastic medical tech and Julio Torres as an over the top barista), you can’t really call this a rom-com. But even that seems to fit. Just like Matt and Anna, Beckwith (helming her second feature after 2015’s Stockholm, Pennsylvania) is proudly going her own way.
Helms adds important layers to his usual nerd persona, slowly revealing more detailed reasons why Matt is choosing to be a single father, and why Anna is challenging his perceptions on nearly everything.
Harrison, whose resume sports mainly TV and voice work, delivers a fantastically understated breakout performance. Anna is pleasantly frank and sarcastic, but guarded. She’s hiding some scars, and Harrison reveals them with ease and authenticity.
Beckwith fills nearly every frame with a tender empathy that has us pulling for this offbeat pair as a matter of course, making it that much easier for her to reach us. From surrogacy and masculinity to Woody Allen, Friends, and the proper use of tampons, the film drops its insight in ways that are consistently fresh.
There’s love and family and funny stuff here, and though none of it is quite the kind we’re used to seeing, all of it is wonderfully real. Together Together is a delivery that somehow feels comfortable and unique, both overdue and right on time.
Via Gateway Film Center’s virtual screening
by Brandon Thomas
Coming-of-age movies are hard. As we move into adulthood, humans tend to forget the confusing swirl of emotions teens experience day-to-day. That loss of awareness can make these kinds of movies feel phony and tone-deaf. With Beast Beast, writer/director Danny Madden crafts an emotionally authentic portrayal of young adults that’s a true standout.
Nito (Jose Angeles) is the new kid in town. The always tough move to a new school is softened for him when he meets Krista (Shirley Chen), a self-proclaimed theater brat. Nito is immediately smitten. As Krista and Nito spend more and more time together, Krista’s neighbor, Adam (Will Madden, Danny’s brother), is clumsily trying to get his firearms-centered YouTube channel off the ground. As the pressure from his parents to succeed mounts, Adam begins to lose the grip on his own emotional stability.
Produced by Jim Cummings (Thunder Road, The Wolf of Snow Hollow), Beast Beast is a gripping look into the lives of three modern-day young people. While not having the darkly comedic overtones of Cummings’s work, Madden’s film strikes the same level of emotional honesty. Madden seamlessly captures the carefree joy of youth, while also acknowledging the fear, loneliness and confusion that the transition into adulthood can hold.
The natural looseness of the cast is where the film truly shines. Chen and Angeles are captivating with their easy, immediate connection. Will Madden’s Adam is much more internalized and isolated. He captures Adam’s directionless existence by playing the character with a mixture of simmering panic and naivete.
Beast Beast’s visual aesthetic stays grounded and unassuming. While never fully succumbing to that indie impulse of going entirely handheld, the camerawork stays fluid. It’s the kind of cinematography that doesn’t draw attention to itself until you get to one of those compositions that literally takes your breath away.
Similarly, the score starts as a mixture of bells and an organ very much in need of tuning. But as the drama within the film intensifies, the score takes a more sinister turn and comes much more to the forefront.
The film’s third act will likely split much of the audience. It’s not particularly easy to sit through, but does feel like the natural progression of the story. Nothing about the plot or character actions feel gratuitous or cheaply played.
Fans of indie dramas will find a lot to celebrate in Beast Beast. By focusing so strongly on character, and throwing in a few nice twists and turns, these filmmakers have delivered one of the best films of 2021 so far.
Boys from County Hell
by Hope Madden
Lend me ten pounds and I’ll buy you a drink.
That’s Eugene’s (Jack Rowan) line. He’s done working for his Dad (Nigel O‘Neill), the meanest bastard ever to run a construction crew. Eugene’s happy to waste his youth drinking with his mates in The Stoker and ushering naive tourists to that pile of stones they come out to see – not that there’s really a vampire under there. Certainly not the one, true vampire that inspired Bram Stoker in the first place.
Right! So, many pints and backhoes and buddies later we find out whether ol’ Abhartach under those stones is a myth or not.
As writer/director Chris Baugh adapts his 2013 short into a fun, effective monster flick, he begins by tossing out vampire tradition. Ireland’s own Bram Stoker had written a piece of fiction, after all, and this is reality. The new mythology is a little muddier and more monstrous than Dracula, but never less than fun.
Baugh taps into the same kind of smalltown boredom that situates the nation’s most memorable monster movies, from Grabbers to Rawhead Rex. He does a lot with a small budget, suggesting the monster more than showing it until the final act, but there’s plenty of blood to make up for the subtlety.
A couple of veterans (O’Neill, as well as John Lynch, also on Shudder right now in Christopher Smith’s The Banishing) give the cast a strong backbone. A solid group of young ne’er do wells (Louise Harland, Michael Hough and Fra Fee joining Rowan) create a lived-in camaraderie. The charm and familiarity among the ensemble are undoubtedly the reasons the film works as well as it does.
Boys from County Hell is a horror/comedy, but it’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny. It’s actually a good deal more tender in its own endearingly bull-headed way, with a narrative more focused on the father/son dynamic than on coming of age or bloodshed. Baugh’s deep sense of these characters and this terrain benefit the relationship building and give the film a nice throughline.
This is a “what are you going to do with your life” film, and for some people, it takes a good, old-fashioned bloodletting to help them make up their minds.
by George Wolf
For a while, less can be more in a monster movie (i.e. Jaws). Still, diving into a werewolf flick without the budget for showy CGI or well-crafted practicals is ambitious.
While Dog Soldiers proved you can make an impression without breaking the bank, so much of werewolf lore is about transformation – both the literal and the metaphorical – that as much as one layer falters, the other needs to stand that much stronger.
Unfortunately, Bloodthirsty is shaky on both grounds.
Pop singer Grey (Lauren Beatty) became a sensation with her first album, and now she’s feeling the pressure to produce a blockbuster follow-up. Grey is plagued by nightmarish hallucinations about turning into an animal, so her doctor (Michael Ironside in a distracting cameo) has upped her meds.
Plans for the second album look brighter when famed producer Vaughn Daniels (Greg Byrk) agrees to helm the project. He invites Grey and her girlfriend Charlie (Katherine King So) to stay at his lavish home/studio in the Canadian wilderness while they record, but Charlie is concerned about Vaughn’s unsavory past.
Grey isn’t, but things get weird as soon as Vaughn’s creepy housekeeper (Judith Buchan) shows the ladies to their room. Music isn’t the only reason Vaughn volunteered to work with Grey, and director Amelia Moses (Bleed With Me, which also starred Beatty) attempts a tone of Gothic seduction as the mystery unfolds.
But it’s not really much of a mystery. The script, from Wendy Hill-Tout and her daughter Lowell (who also contributes original songs) delivers pale imitations of the carnivorous temptations in Raw as their film builds to a reveal that is less than shocking.
Bloodthirsty is a werewolf film that never really feels like one, which has both up and down sides.
Ditching the focus on full moons for a lesbian artist at a creative crossroads has promise, but the characters lack the depth required for any effective metaphor to take root. Pair that with scant transformation scenes which impress more with sound than vision, and a horror fan’s thirst for blood will likely be left wanting.
Follow George and Hope on Twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.