Monthly Archives: June 2018

Superfly: Movie Review

The original Superfly came out in 1972, part of that new wave of blaxsploitation films following Sweet Sweetback’s Badaasssss Song in ’71. The word blaxsploitation was initially a pejorative, suggesting that they were bad films that exploited black performers and audiences. In time, though, filmmakers came to embrace the term. To be sure, these films may have done harm to black perceptions and ambitions, given how they dealt, for the most part, with the stereotypical black urban world of gangsters, drug dealers and pimps, whores and violent criminals. But a lot of really good actors got work and paychecks. And as a teenager, I loved ’em. Shaft, Foxy Brown, Blacula, I saw a bunch of ’em. I loved their energy, their cool, their nihilism. I loved seeing the action scenes, and the cool, tough guy characterizations. And I loved the soundtracks. Superfly was maybe not the best film of the genre, but it had Curtis Mayfield’s superb soundtrack, which I bought and wore out.

Now comes a 2018 remake of Superfly, and it follows the basic story and characters of the original fairly well. It’s now set in modern Atlanta, which it portrays as a city of crooked cops, corrupt politicians, and a rising black upper middle class. In a lot of ways, though, I found it more reminiscent of the TV show The Wire–quite possibly the best show in the history of television. The hero of the original Superfly was Priest (Ron O’Neal), the toughest, smartest drug dealer in Harlem. In this one, Priest has a first name: he’s Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson). He’s smart. He’s basically Stringer Bell from The Wire, only 10% smarter, and with less of a tendency towards violence. Priest prides himself on the fact that he’s never been arrested, that the police don’t even know who he is. He never uses a gun, though he’s a juijitsu expert, and isn’t afraid to fight. He’s always in control, relaxed and calm, the kind of guy who thinks three steps ahead while his enemies are reacting to events. He’s reasonable. He also has two girlfriends, Georgia (Lex Scott Davis), and Cynthia (Andrea Londo), with whom he enjoys leisurely shower threesomes.

Priest, however, is richly blessed with enemies, adversaries, and untrustworthy friends. His mentor, Scatter (Michael Kenneth Williams, from The Wire), is also, sort of, his boss and supplier. But Priest wants more. He sees the handwriting on the wall, realizes that a career in the drug trade is bound to end badly, and he wants out, with as much money as he can possibly get together, running off to a country with no US extradition. So he plans one final big score. This requires that he takes the kinds of chances he has previously eschewed. His business partner, Eddie (Jason Mitchell), isn’t 100% on board, though he reluctantly goes along, only to make the one big mistake that Priest has always feared. Which also gets Priest’s bodyguard, Fat Freddy (Jacob Ming Trent), killed.

Priest also faces a rival gang, the spectacularly flamboyant Snow Patrol (cocaine=snow), a gang that only wears white jump suits, drives white cars, and fires white guns. Priest is on uneasy good terms with them, but, again, Eddie screws that up. He also has to push to the breaking point his relationship with Adalberto Gonzalez (Esai Morales), Scatter’s supplier, a cartel boss who he also uses. Plus, a dirty cop, Detective Mason (Jennifer Morrison), has learned of him and expects her cut.

The rest of the movie involves Priest’s careful negotiation of that perilous terrain, with various gangbangers, bad police, a drug cartel, and his old mentor all out to get him. And we root for him to get away with it, to outwit his various enemies.

The film’s music score was by rapper Future, and it pales next to Mayfield’s masterwork. But the director, Director X, keeps the action moving, and Jackson’s performance holds the movie together. It was a pretty good Moviepass movie. And, hey, a whole bunch of good actors got work. It’s very seriously R-rated, like all blaxsploition films, but it passed the afternoon agreeably enough.

Hereditary: Movie Review

My daughter and I went to see Hereditary this morning, a 10 a.m. screening where we had the theater to ourselves. I’m glad the place was empty. About the only way we made it through was to comment on it back and forth. Had to do something to break the tension.

It is one creepy, scary movie. A first-time feature, written and directed by a young guy named Ari Aster, it’s a remarkable achievement, a combination of psychological thriller, nightmare, ghost story and awake-an-ancient-evil Lovecraftian mind trip. It’s one of those movies where you’re never quite sure if what you just saw really happened, or if it’s meant to be a dream. Sometimes, when the movie signals that it was just a dream, it feels more real than the movie’s actual setting, in a dreams-tell-the-truth kind of sense. And it’s held together by an utterly stunning central performance. Two stunning central performances, actually.

As the movie begins, Annie (Toni Collette), speaks at her mother’s funeral. Their relationship appears to have been fraught, and Annie’s eulogy is hardly warm and loving, but she gets through it. Annie works as an artist, a crafter of miniature houses, with furnishings and tiny human figures. Many of them resemble her own house, and other places from her life, including one of the hospice where her mother died. Which, I might as well tell you, is very far from the creepiest piece in her collection. She’s putting together a big show of her work at a gallery, and they call from time to time, rather pointedly checking up.

Her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), seems to be somewhat older than she is, and is clearly the more stable partner. Annie is, uh, volatile. At times, she seems like a loving, concerned mother, wife and daughter, but her work is disturbing, and at other times, she seems quite demented. She does sleepwalk, cannot find repose in the bed she and Steve share, and she also seems to have chosen to keep their house at a temperature he finds freezing. Still, he supports her. Their house is away from the city; looks like a nice mountain cabin-like residence like you see well-off people owning in places like, well, Utah.

They have two children. The oldest, Peter (Alexander Wolff), is in high school, probably a senior, which would make him 17 or so. He seems to be doing fine in school, and also has a few close friends, who he bonds with over bong hits. The youngest, Charlie (Millie Shapiro), is a decidedly awkward and more-than-a-little-creepy thirteen-year old girl, who seems to be following her mother’s footsteps in the building things from scratch department, but who was essentially raised by her late grandmother, we’re told. She also has a strange habit of making a popping mouth noise.


I’m not sure how much of this is a spoiler, in fact, because it happens pretty early in the film, and everything subsequently relies on it, but, okay: Charlie dies. In the most shocking and horrific way. And it’s arguably Peter’s fault. And also, arguably, her Mom’s fault. Certainly, enough so that Mom and son, who don’t much get along anyway, have some knock-down drag-out fights over it, horrendous battles that leave both of them shaken and devastated and in tears.

And so, Annie turns to spiritualism. Which we learn, her Mom was also into. And which involves a dear, sweet, kindly woman she meets at a grief group counseling session, Joannie (Ann Dowd), who, of course, turns out not at to be what she appears to be.

Things go badly from there, and then go unimaginably worse. Having said that, I would add this: I found the ending disappointing, and insufficiently prepared for. So much of the movie focuses on Annie’s deteriorating mental state, and her battle-to-the-death with both her surviving family members, that when that focus shifted late, I found it less creepy and scary and imaginative than I expected. This is 9/10s of a terrific horror movie. The last tenth worked less well. But that small criticism doesn’t ruin the movie or anything. I liked it very much indeed.

And Toni Collette is glorious. Oscar-nominee brilliant. And Wolff is likewise terrific. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric horror film, and a thoughtful and intelligent one, that doesn’t rely on cheap spectacle or gotcha jump cuts to achieve the terror it produces. And earns. It’s a movie where you have to watch the entire frame, where you’re constantly going ‘wait, there in the corner, is that . . . ?’ Highly recommended, for those who like horror as a genre. Don’t see it alone.

Ocean’s Eight: Movie Review

But first, a joke. Why is the all female heist movie Ocean’s Eight, when the first, all male one was Ocean’s Eleven? Because 8 divided by 11 is 78%. . . .

It isn’t actually. It’s 72%. But a nice pointed sexism joke nonetheless. In fact, watching Ocean’s Eight, you don’t really ever think of it being a female Ocean’s Eleven. They’re both caper movies, about exceptionally clever thieves stealing tons of money from bad guys. They both star attractive, famous actors, the cast rounded out by attractive, less-famous actors. Both movies are a lot of fun, and neither exists in any actual recognizable reality. They’re both fun escapist romps. The plots, in both cases, are cunningly contrived, with plot twists throwing us off and then inviting us back in. And they both exist in a largely amoral universe, a topsy-turvy plane, where charm and adroit planning trump any ethical considerations.

Having said that, I’ll add this; Ocean’s Eight is a bit more fun than its guy-centered predecessors. I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that Anne Hathaway is much more fun as the target of the scam in Eight than Andy Garcia was in Eleven. The second is that Cate Blanchett is just a touch more enjoyable as a logistical expert than Brad Pitt was in Eleven.  What carries movies like these is the cast, and their charm and wit and charisma. And a cast that includes Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham-Carter, Hathaway, and Sarah Paulson is a cast I would see in anything, no matter what the subject matter or story.

But Hathaway makes it work. Let’s face it, in real life, criminals are not cuddly and canny and charming. In real life, criminals, especially con artists, are vicious and selfish and, you know, bad. Caper movies exist in a moral vacuum. They’re movies in which we root for bad people to do bad things. We cheer for them, because the people they’re stealing from are even worse than they are. A good deal worse, in fact. In this movie, it’s Anne Hathaway, as the delightfully named Daphne Kluger. She’s an actress/socialite, selfish and sort of hilariously insecure, and poisonous of temperment, and Hathaway has an absolute ball playing her. Her scenes are marvelously entertaining, and by the time we get to the robbery, we’re totally fine with her being the one robbed. And, in fact, she’s not really out much. The diamond necklace that’s the actual target of the thieves is insured, which means that the entity being stolen from is an insurance company. Boo! And not just an insurance company, but one that specializes in insuring high priced bling worn by celebs. So some super-rich people have their premiums go up. Big deal. We think. If we bother to think about it that much. It’s not like there’s violence involved, we say to ourselves.

Bullock plays Debbie Ocean, sister to Danny Ocean (George Clooney in Eleven). As the movie begins, she’s in prison, at a parole hearing, in which she gives a heart-felt testament to the sincerity of her repentance, how she’s learned her lesson, and will never engage in criminal undertakings, ever again, promise. This is, of course, a complete whopper, and next we see her, she’s re-upping her wardrobe and accessories, in a fancy-schmancy department store, minus the formality of actually paying for anything. She’s been brooding and plotting in stir, and immediately reconnects with old friend Lou (Blanchett), who she persuades to join her. Big heist. Big payoff. Fun for all. And we’re off.

And so the obligatory rituals and plot staples of the genre–putting together the string, logistical hurdles overcome, the night of the robbery, and the obligatory Big Twist near the end. They need a fence: hence Tammy (Paulson), a nice suburban mom, whose garage is full of stolen goods, and who deals with equipment needs while also raising her daughters via cell phone (“no, honey, you can’t put chewing gum in your sister’s hair.”) They’re stealing diamonds, so they need a jewelry expert, and bring in Amita (Mindy Kaling). They need a hacker: Nine Ball (Rihanna). They need a pickpocket, and recruit Constance (rapper Awkwafina). Best of all, they need a down-on-her-luck former Important Designer, Rose Weil (Bonham-Carter). HBC is terrific as this eccentric, unstable fashion world former icon.

I don’t want to give away details of the plot. Suffice it to say that it’s detailed, carefully worked out, and in the general vicinity of plausible. Lots of celebs round out the cast–Bullock’s plan involves the Met Gala, and so we get that tiny frisson of seeing super-famous people for three seconds each (“Is that Kim Kardashian? Oh, wow, Anna Wintour! Hey, Serena Williams!”).

The result is a very fun movie, well-paced and delightful and splendidly wicked. My wife and I had a great time at it, and I think you will too. Sometimes, in movies, crime does pay.

In Defense of Mixed Economies

Thought experiment: let’s suppose your daughter just got a new job. It’s a great job, one she has been training for and preparing for all her life. She’s tremendously excited by it, and you’re excited for her. But it will require that she relocate. in fact, it will require her to move to another country, leave the US, if not forever, for at least a substantial length of time. How excited would be for her? How scared would you be?

My guess is that in large measure, it would depend on where she would need to move to. If her new job were in France, you’d be delighted. You might have some trepidation–after all, this is your daughter we’re talking about. But you can always Skype, you can email, you can text, you can call. It’s not like you’ll lose touch with her. And France, my gosh, France is beautiful. You’ll think of ways to plan vacations around visiting her. You’ll celebrate at a nice French restaurant. You’ll brush up on your high school French. You’d be excited for her. Right?

But let’s suppose that she told you her new job was in Libya. Or Somalia. Or Afghanistan. Well, you’d be scared to death. You’d try to talk her out of going. If she was, in fact, going to those three countries, it would probably mean that she was in the US military, and heading into a combat zone. But those countries are, economically, not prosperous. They’re for the most part failed nations.

You want your child to move, if move she must, to a country with jobs, good health care, good schools, rule of law, adequate transportation. You would want her to go to a relatively prosperous nation.

In short, you would want her to move to a country with a mixed economy. You would be thrilled if she moved to Norway, Sweden, Denmark or Finland. You’d be delighted if her job were in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, or Germany. Austria would be fine. So would South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada. Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Italy would be fine. Latvia, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, all have growing economies. So does Romania. Mexico has a problem with gang violence, but is otherwise fairly safe and prosperous. And they’re all countries with, to some degree or another, mixed economies.

What is a mixed economy? It’s a system that combines market capitalism with socialism. It has some of the characteristics of each. Generally, it means an economy where private property is protected, where the free market and supply and demand determine prices. It’s an economy that relies on the enlightened self-interest of individuals, to make their own basic economic choices–where they’ll live, what they’ll drive, what they’ll purchase. Rule of law makes for orderly conflict resolution, and regulation and taxation keep income inequality under control. It also has a robust social safety net. Quality of life is protected through laws governing how much people are paid, how many vacation days they’re allowed, what to do in the case of illness or incapacity. Generally, pensions are either generous or, at least, adequate. Education is well-financed. Governments take infrastructure needs seriously. Taxes can be fairly high. And health care is regarded as a right, and provided for either through the government or via government mandate.

A lot of my friends on the Right are terrified of the spectre of creeping socialism. They warn against it. They point, with trembling fingers, to the Bad Examples of Venezuela recently and the Soviet Union historically. If LDS, they like to quote Ezra Taft Benson on the subject. And if they’re LDS, they vote for either conservative Republicans or Libertarian Republicans. Libertarians are likewise loathe to embrace socialism. Their mantra is Freedom, by which they mean complete deregulation, with private enterprise expected to take over many government services, and with health care up to each individual. “There has to be a market solution” to the problem of health care access, they say.

And, up to a point, they’re right. The defining characteristic of socialism is public ownership of industry and commerce, with a command economic element. Prices are set by government. production quotas are set by the government. Weak industries are propped up and not allowed to fail, and everyone is guaranteed full employment, at wages established by government bureaucracy. It’s been tried, and it doesn’t work. By the end, the Soviet Union was an economic basket case. Today, Russia is a deeply corrupt kleptocracy, but with market elements–it’s doing a bit better. Free markets work. It really is fair to say that socialism, as an economic system, is a proven failure.

But so is laissez faire, deregulated, fully-liberated-and-free unrestrained capitalism. The nineteenth century demonstrated that nicely, both here and in Europe. Libertarianism doesn’t have a lot of test cases anymore, but Somalia remains one, a country without rules, laws or policing. They have two major industries–sale of an addictive hallucinogen, qat, and piracy. It’s a nightmare state, just recently starting to emerge with something resembling rule of law. The nineteenth century tended to devolve into the worst kind of Dickensian nightmare. Income inequality was rampant, and the poor largely just starved. And if we learned anything from the world-wide debacle of the Financial Crisis of 2006-09, it’s the complete failure of financial deregulation.

By hook and by crook, by trial and error, through experimentation and by degrees, what has developed in its place is the mixed economy. Free markets are essential, and free trade preferential. But economies do also include some planning, and markets are carefully regulated. And social safety nets prevent income inequality from utter destructiveness. In nation after nation on earth, we’ve learned a lot in the last fifty years. Scandinavia led the way, as did the Fabian incrementalist model in the UK and elsewhere.

In the United States, in many respects, we’re a mixed economy. Every country is different, every example internationally can teach its own lessons. Right now, I would suggest that the US needs a greater commitment to the socialist side of the mix. We need universal health care; we need pension reform, we need to make college affordable for our kids. This is all doable. And should be the policy approach of the Democratic party going forward.

Solo: A Star Wars Story, movie review

You’ve probably heard that this newest entry in the Star Wars franchise is disappointing. You’ve heard that it hasn’t done as well as anticipated in box office receipts, and you may well have read reviews that were less than rapturous. I have. I put off seeing it for awhile, knowing I would eventually see it, as mandated by federal law, but expecting a less-than-stellar experience.  (See what I did there?)

Well, I finally saw it last night, and am delighted to report that it’s great fun. In fact, of all the post-Star Wars Star Wars films, I would say that this one comes closest to the giddy pleasure of, you know, Star Wars. The first one, the original, the movie I pig-headedly refuse ever to call Episode IV: A New Hope. It’s the IV that does it for me: it implies that the first three prequels are something other than Ghastly Mistake One, Two and Three. (Only Revenge of the Sith is even watchable, and that only for the 2 minutes of Samuel L. Jackson’s fight scene). Finally, with Solo, we get a prequel that captures the self-mocking, B-movie charm of Star Wars. Does it reference many many other action movies? Yes, of course it does, as did Star Wars. (There’s a spectacular heist scene that reminded me a lot of the truck heist in Raiders of the Lost Ark, hardly surprising, since this movie was also written by Lawrence Kasdan, in this case working with his son, Jonathan). The originality of this Solo is more about creative recycling than innovation. That’s fine with me. Star Wars was never anything but the funnest B-movie ever made.

Above all, and I cannot emphasize this enough, this is the first Star Wars movie to make no mention whatsoever, at all, of The Force. What a blessed relief! I was so happy to see a Star Wars movie without all that New Agey pontification. It’s just fun. It’s a rolicking adventure yarn; it never tries to be anything else. It’s entertaining, consistently and without pretend profundity. I can’t even begin to express my gratitude to this group of filmmakers. Ron Howard is hardly groundbreaking as a director, but he’s a solid pro, who builds terrific action sequences in which the camera is always where it needs to be, in which we’re always oriented in time and space, and without sacrificing character or story. I know it was a troubled production, with the original directors let go and replaced, and maybe their vision would have been genuinely astounding. I don’t much care. I wanted to see a fun movie, and this is a fun movie.

Alden Ehrenreich (who was so dazzling in the Coens’ Hail Caesar), is charismatic and charming as Han Solo, despite not particularly looking like Harrison Ford. Emilia Clarke, from Game of Thrones, is delightfully duplicitous as Q’ira, his love interest. Woody Harrelson is fine as grizzled veteran thief and scoundrel Beckett, who apparently robs trains between writing Endgame and Godot. Finnish actor Joonas Suotamo is splendid as Chewbacca. But to me, the cast standouts were Donald Glover, as the charming rogue Lando Calrissian, and Thandie Newton as Beckett’s partner-in-crime, Val. She dies much too early in the film, and Lando’s part was badly underwritten, but both are compelling enough entertainers to carry their scenes. The film also features a particularly sassy ‘droid, L3, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, veteran actor Warwick Davis, far too briefly, and Erin Kellyman, playing a young revolutionary, prefiguring the rise of the Rebel Alliance. Another evil creature, Proxima, voiced by Linda Hunt, is essentially a female Cthulhu, a nice touch. And I must also mention Paul Bettany, playing a particularly repellent villain also named after a famous playwright, Dryden, author of All for Love. Which could be this film’s subtitle.

Because that’s what’s going on, a rolicking look at what we do for Troo Luv. For the most part, the story is fairly straightforward. Han is a gifted pilot, deeply into Q’ira and determined to buy a ship so he can rescue her, and enjoy the life of a smuggler and wanted criminal. He joins Beckett’s gang hoping for that One Big Score that will enable his dreams. While he’s at it, he is tossed into a mud pit, to fight A Monster, who turns out to be Chewbacca. Han speaks some Wookie, and is able to first, communicate with, and second, rescue, his new friend. The movie provides as much Chewie back-story as it does Han’s. Along the way, the film’s one main theme is consistently reiterated; you can’t trust anyone. Han has always been a cynical cuss, and we see the roots of that cynicism, but we also see his essential good heart. In the clutch, Han comes through for his friends. Q’ira can’t be trusted, sure, but he’s still all about her, and always will be. You know, until he meets Leia. Oh, yes, and we see Han, in the Millenium Falcon, make the Kessel run in 12 parsecs. If you round up, that is.

Anyway, fanboys who deride this movie–and their names are Legion–are wrong, and should be ignored. I thought it was fun. I enjoyed it immensely. I suspect there will be a sequel–a prequel sequel, if such a thing isn’t too absurd–in which we will see Han contract with Jabba The Hut. Who, I understand, will be played by Sergei Kislyak.

So ignore the cynics, and embrace your young idealist. And enjoy a rolicking good time at the movies. My only regret is that I didn’t buy popcorn.

Adrift: Movie Review

A few years ago, my niece Marilyn went on a boat ride. A friend owned a big sailboat, and proposed to sail it from New York to London–did she want to come along? Marilyn is the most fearless and intrepid woman I know, and said sure. And in the North Atlantic, a hurricane hit, and the boat was badly damaged. She somehow survived, rescued by a Portuguese fishing boat. Her boat sank a few minutes after her rescue.

So when I saw the trailer for Adrift, about a young couple who survive their boat being wrecked in a Pacific hurricane, I knew this was a must-see movie. I mean, it’s the Marilyn Stout story! (And if any Portuguese fisherman had showed up in the movie, we were prepared to sue!). Different ocean, of course, different circumstances, different time frame. And Adrift is based-on-a-true-story, but it’s actually about a woman named Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley), and her fiancee, Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin), back in the 1980s.  (Marilyn and her co-sailor were never romantically attached). But the basic situation is equally dire. A sailboat, a hurricane, a really big ocean. The deep blue sea, and desperation and a fight for survival. And, honestly, Shailene Woodley even looks a little like my niece.

And Adrift is truly terrific, genuinely exciting and harrowing and scary. Although the screenplay’s insistence on emphasizing the Troo Luv attachment between Tami and Richard got a bit cloying, Claflin and Woodley make it work. They’re both–wait for it–adrift, rootless people in love with the rhythms and textures and solitude of the sea. And they find each other, and are convincingly in love with each other throughout, and it works.

Woodley in particular is first-rate. I’ve always liked her as an actress, and she’s great in this. If you’ve seen the trailers, you know that Richard is unable to do much to help them survive; she has to navigate, jury-rig a sail, catch fish to survive, pump the water-logged boat out. She has to do everything. And she’s up to it. And I love that.

I love stories about competent people. I love stories about people who can fix things and arrange things, and do what’s needed to survive. In this story, Tami is the less-experienced sailor of the two of them, but she figures things out. She’s a strong, capable, insanely courageous woman. The movie sets various obstacles in her path, and she surmounts them. She finds food and water, she operates a sexton, she seats a mast, she sets sails, she clears the rudder of the drag of an errant sail, she spearfishes. I mean, it’s a tale of survival. Woodley survives. Her performance carries the movie. Quite spectacularly, in my view. Sunburnt, dehydrated, starving; she survives. If you think of Shailene Woodley as a teen star, or as the Divergent girl, think again. She can flat-out act.

The Icelandic director, Baltazar Kormakur directed, and once again proved he has a dab hand for man-vs-nature. The last movie of his I saw was Everest, in which Josh Brolin and Jake Gyllenhaal and Jason Clarke battled the elements found on the world’s tallest mountain. It’s kind of a favorite of mine, in part because Kormakur captured both the magnificence and danger of that amazing mountain. He does the same here–captures the loneliness and isolation and teeming life and power of the ocean. I read somewhere that filming was difficult, because mostly the movie was shot on location on the open sea, and the crew kept getting seasick. I bet. I was completely engaged throughout.

Above all, I appreciated being able to have the visceral experience of, well, being alone and terrified and injured in a small boat on the ocean. My grandfather was a seaman, and I loved hearing him tell his tales, not just about ports he visited and places where they docked, but those long empty days and nights peering over an endless horizon. And my niece, who I completely adore, survived a hurricane in a boat. Survived a damaged craft, no radio, no engine, sails in scraps. I know it’s just a movie, but I’m grateful for that tiniest hint of vicarious shared experience. And am, and always will be, grateful to Poseidon for sparing her.


Upgrade: Movie Review

Upgrade is the very definition of a MoviePass movie. You’ve never heard of any of the actors, and it was barely marketed at all. You probably wouldn’t spend 10 bucks on it. But it’s an intriguing little flick, much more engaging than it has any right to be, on a very promising sci-fi premise. And it’s got loads of well executed action sequences, brutal but effective. It probably would have been a drive-in movie back when I was a kid, what used to be called B-movies. Today, it’s MoviePass. The story doesn’t make much sense, but you don’t really expect it to. It’s got a good Rottentomatoes score, and the cooler the website, the more positive the review, so that’s all good. It’s a whim movie, an impulse movie. Those are fun too.

It’s set in a not-too-distant future, a time when driver-less cars are a thing, but not yet ubiquitous, and when AI software firms are fiercely competing for market share. Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green, and isn’t that a great character name?), is an anachronism, a grease monkey, a mechanic who fixes up and sells old muscle cars for rich jerks. His wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), is more with-the-times; she works for an AI firm, and her ride is driver-less and awesome, a Tesla on steroids. So they’re something of a mismatched couple, but those crazy kids make it work somehow. (Vallejo is very engaging). His latest client wants a rebuilt Firebird, which Grey delivers, to an amazing house dug deep into the earth, owned by semi-reclusive billionaire Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), who looks absurdly young, and borderline sociopathic, but also lonely and misunderstood. But on their way home, the AI running Asha’s car malfunctions, and it crashes, and four thugs rob and murder her, and shoot Grey in the spine. He survives, but as a quadriplegic. A deeply depressed, suicidal quadriplegic.

Until, his old client, Eron shows up. He has an AI implant that can restore Grey’s mobility, and allow him to do what he really wants to do, which is find and take revenge on the thugs who killed his wife. Meanwhile, a detective, Cortez (Betty Gabriel, so great in Get Out and the only actor in this I’d ever heard of before), is working the case, and getting nowhere. In fact, a police surveillance drone saw the murder happen, recorded it, but the drone’s AI functionality is also compromised. She’s baffled. And also, in the meantime, Eron is fiercely protective of his proprietary tech, and works to keep Grey’s abilities top-secret.

Grey’s implant is called Stem, and it can talk to him. (It’s voiced by Aussie character actor Simon Maiden). And, when activated, Stem can help Grey walk and run and drive a car–it basically give him normal-person powers. But if Grey lets it take over completely, Stem gives him superpowers. Suddenly, he can fight with maximum effectiveness. It also pretty turns him into Robocop. Remember how Robocop moved? Sharp turns, leading with his head, no rounding off corners? That’s how Stem-controlled Grey moves.

I don’t know Logan Marshall-Green at all, but his physical performance is first-rate. There are all these fight scenes in which Grey’s body inflicts maximum damage on various baddies, while Grey’s face is completely appalled by it. It made for an interesting dynamic for an action movie. Most of the time, Our Hero is good at fighting, and his face is set at Grim Determination. Grey has all the martial artsy moves, but his face is reacting with Yikes.  It’s nicely comedic.

Obviously, Grey finds the bad guys one at a time and dispatches them with a ruthless efficiency that Grey finds alarming and tries to stop from happening. And Cortez stays grimly on the trail, though her investigation is slowed by the fact that her suspects keep getting bumped off in horrendous ways, and that the guy who appears to be bumping them off can’t possibly be doing it, seeing as how he’s quadriplegic. Main baddie, by the way, Fisk (Benedict Hardie); delightfully nasty.

No spoilers, but of course, not all is as it appears. I was a mile ahead of the movie story-wise, and a bit disappointed by the big plot-twist reveal at the end. Still, it was a decent popcorn movie. Quite R-rated, if that matters to you, for language and for violence. But it’s a well-paced thriller, directed by an Aussie bloke named Leigh Whannell, who previously had directed a couple of Insidious movies, and who does a nice job with his own screenplay here. It’s an interesting twist on AI-is-going-to-change-everything futurism. And I saw it via MoviePass. And, yes, I also bought popcorn. The movie theater came out ahead on my presence in their theater. Which was packed, at noon on a weekday. Recommended? Heck, yes.