Movie Review: More trouble on the border, this time in “No Man’s Land” Texas

“No Man’s Land” is a well-intentioned take on the “troubles along the border” story, so at least it has that over Liam Neeson’s latest. Nobody accused “The Marksman” of having the best intentions.

But “No Man’s Land,” from the duo of director Conor Allyn and co-writer and sometime star Jake Allyn (“Forsaken”) is something of a misfire in its own way.

It’s got the “prejudiced man’s redemption” story arc that “Marksman” avoided, and a pretty good cast. But it blunders its way through the Texas-Mexico border country like a blind bull in a Talavera pottery shop, with stereotypes, flakey lapses in logic and an unbalanced story seen from multiple points of view.

Jackson (Jake Allwyn of TV’s “The Baxters”) is a ranch kid with a rocket arm and a tryout with the New York Yankees in his future. But he’s reluctant to leave the ropin’, ridin’ lifestyle, and his mom, dad and big brother behind. He figures he’s needed there.

The Greer Ranch is south of the U.S. border fence but north of the Rio Grande. For some reason, groups of illegal immigrants — or the coyotes leading them — cut their fencing when they pass through this “no man’s land.” Cattle get out, and that’s a serious cash loss if the Greers can’t retrieve them.

Gustavo (Jorge A. Jimenez) is on the other side of that border, a guide nicknamed “The Shepherd” because he’s more Good Catholic than “coyote.” He doesn’t prey on desperate people trying to cross into the U.S. When we meet him, he’s bringing his teen son and a group with him, avoiding the clutches of more predatory coyotes like Luis (Andrés Delgado).

Gustavo and those in his care run afoul of patriarch Bill (Frank Grillo) and oldest boy Lucas (Alex MacNicoll) in the dark as the ranchers try to round up the cattle who got out the last time migrants crossed their land. A scuffle is just starting as Jackson gallups up.

Somebody gets stabbed, somebody gets shot and the Ranger (George Lopez) who arrives has more hunches than evidence. But Jackson knows who pulled the trigger and killed young Fernando. And it eats at him.

With a brother clinging to life in the hospital and his dad willing to take the fall for pulling the trigger, a Yankees tryout and uh nobody to mind the ranch, Jackson and his painted pony cross the river to make amends. Grieving Gustavo and his new pal Luis might have something to say about that.

The Allyn brothers try to conjure up a Western out of its time, a sort of “All the Pretty Horses” without the punch of Cormac McCarthy, a “No Country for Old Men” with young men. They’re stealing from the best, but the whole affair is more frustrating than fulfilling.

The action is thin, the pace is meandering. And their stabs at political correctness mean we set eyes on stereotypically lawless Mexico, here supposedly burnished by the saintly Gustavo, who does everything but call the people he smuggles across the border his “flock.”

Although Jackson’s learning curve has hints of redemption, some of the waypoints on his journey are eye-rollers. He’s grown up on the border and doesn’t know the territory, the cuisine, the history or more than a couple of words of Spanish?

Jake Allyn isn’t particularly graceful at getting across the Jackson’s manslaughter guilt and grief. Taking a job at a Mexican ranch and meeting the fair Victoria (Esmeralda Pimentel) is a cliche and a pace-killing distraction the movie can ill afford.

But as we’ve heard the migrants note that “Texas looks a lot like Mexico,” it’s helpful to have that rancher (Juan Carlos Remolina) here to underscore the movie’s “We’re the same on both sides of this border” message.

“We are all cattle drovers, and we will all meet again down the road.”

Lopez brings a hint of gravitas to his Texas Ranger able to sympathize with the both sides of the conflict. MacDowell has a nice motherly moment, but veteran screen tough guy Frank Grillo is pretty much wasted here.

“No Man’s Land” plays like a buffet diner who has overfilled his plate. There’s too much thrown in here to do justice to anybody’s story.

And despite its dragging pace, little more than lip service is paid to the many points of view addressed in a story that wants to look at a political flashpoint but is too afraid of striking a match to get a grip on it.

MPA Rating:  PG-13 for some strong violence and language

Cast: Jake Allyn, Jorge A. Jimenez, Andie MacDowell, Frank Grillo, Esmeralda Pimentel, Alex MacNicoll and George Lopez.

Credits: Directed by Conor Allyn, script by Jake Allyn and David Barraza. An IFC release.

Running time: 1:55

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Movie Review: Muslim and gay and “Breaking Fast” in LA

“Breaking Fast” is an Islamic “Wedding Banquet,” a West Hollywood rom-com so cute it flirts with “cutesy,” almost cloying when it isn’t being cute, but damned adorable in the bargain.

The fact that it arrives 28 years after Ang Lee’s food, family and gay-romance makes it feel quaint at times, “daring” in some pretty dated ways. Filmmaker Mosallam, expanding as he remakes his short film, leans into some stereotypes and amusingly punctures others in this story of a devout Muslim immigrant who slow-walks his way to love, in between calls to prayer.

Mohammed, who goes by “Mo” (Haaz Sleiman), is a prosperous gastroenterologist from a tightknit family who always hosts the relatives at his West Hollywood home for Iftar every year. That’s the meal that Muslims eat at the end of the fast of Ramadan.

We meet him just as his lover Hassan (Patrick Sabongui) is deciding that he needs to “get married” to a woman just to avoid coming out to his family, especially his father.

Mo, his parents’ pride and joy, doesn’t have that problem. He’s the son who can do no wrong, especially in the eyes of his adoring mother (Rula Gardenier). I mean, he is a doctor, after all.

So Mo and Hassan break-up. And Mo’s flamboyant younger pal Sam (Amin El Gamal) cannot leave his fellow “Gay-rab” single. If he won’t cruise the bars of “We Ho” (West Hollywood), then there’s nothing for it but to set him up at Sam’s next birthday party.

Kal (Michael Cassidy of “People of Earth” and “Batman vs. Superman”) is Paul Rudd-handsome, flippant and flirty.

“Actors always make me uncomfortable,” Mo complains.

“Hey, I’m an actor, creep.

But…but what would you do “if this acting thing doesn’t work out?”

“Porn...Hey, I thought Muslims weren’t supposed to judge!”

It helps that Kal is also a teetotaler, loves Arab cooking and being an Army brat, learned Arabic when he was in the Middle East.

But Mo? He’s trying to balance his desires with his “Mister Islam” “mindset.” Everything has to go slow slow slow.

Can this couple make that work?

The value in a film like this is in its cultural immersion. There’s a traditional food and halal lifestyle primer tucked into all the witty, quippy banter in the gym, an Islamic funeral, parties and family gatherings.

Those new to this world (Sam’s new beau) are lectured that “There are no punishments for homosexuality in the Koran,” and that The Prophet didn’t persecute gays, along with long lists of things one simply doesn’t do, like taking off your shoes and letting them point towards Mecca.

“Sounds time consuming” may be the funniest line among many funny lines.

Egyptian-American actor El Gamal goes full Dan Levy here, sashaying into a funeral filled with wailing, disapproving Muslim women with a “What YEAR are we in here? It’s not the Dark Ages!”

The stereotypes embraced are the funniest ones — “Sound of Music,” “West Side Story” and “Easter Parade” (with Judy Garland) references.

“Hey, you know ‘Into the Woods,’ in act two when…?”

But Mo and Kal have another show that they bond over, one starring Christopher Reeve and that gave Kal his name.

The entire affair is a tad too on-the-nose to trip by as lightly as it might. A lot of rough edges are rubbed off in the cause of staying upbeat.

But as a culture-illuminating rom-com, it never goes far wrong. Mo’s “call to prayer” phone app, his family’s smothering-ululating concern for his happiness, a visual/sexual tease here, some Ramadan innuendo there, it’s often funny and it always plays.

“Even a single impure though would RUIN this whole day’s fast!”

MPA Rating: unrated, sexual situations, innuendo

Cast:  Haaz Sleiman, Michael Cassidy, Amin El Gamal, Patrick Sabongui, Rula Gardenier and Veronica Cartwright

Credits: Scripted and directed by Mike Mosallam. A Vertical release.

Running time: 1:32

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Netflixable? Hippie teen has a Rio predicament in “Double Dad”

Mamma was a free spirit, a hippie chick back in the day. That’s why Vincenza grew up without knowing who her dad is.

As she grew up on a commune — Mamma never outgrew her crystal/herbal/spiritual predilections — that’s never been an issue, or much of one. But Vicenza wants to know. And when Mamma takes off on a pilgrimage to India, the sheltered, sweet-spirited teen sets out for answers in “Double Dad,” a teen comedy from Brazil.

As “Who’s your Daddy?” comedies go, this one is a lot more “My Two Dads” than “Mamma Mia!” — sitcom lame. It lacks much in the way of wit or conflict, although being built around a young Brazilian “TV presenter,” it doesn’t lack for smiles. Emotions expressed beyond the exceptionally toothy smile of Maisa Silva (so famous she’s billed as just “Maisa” in the credits)? She’s not there yet.

A photo her Mom (Laila Zaid) hid from her sends the kid packing the moment her mother skips off from the Universa Cosmica (Cosmic Universe) commune deep in the mountains. There’s a picture of Mom all lovey-dovey during Carnival with this fellow, a name — “Paco” — and an old address.

Nothing for it but to take a ten hour bus ride to Rio and check him out.

Paco’s a painter, something Vicenza aspires to be. She doesn’t give herself away. “Classes” she says. She’ll sign up for that. She sketches him (Eduardo Moscovis) in a few quick strokes and he agrees to take her own. But after giving him a couple of hints in that first meeting, she just blurts it out.

“I might be your daughter, Paco,” in Portuguese with English subtitles.

Jumping right into that removes suspense and any tension that might build up over him not knowing and her wanting to tell him. But as this four-screenwriter-script isn’t into the stuff of drama — “conflict” — that’s what we get.

Vicenza ingratiates herself into the creatively-blocked Paco’s life. And she meets a boy from a Carnival group, Naked Amoeba. Cabu (Pedro Ottoni) is bubbly and supportive and seriously into the hippy girl, who fits right in with a Carnival parade corps.

Rummaging through their photo archive (as with Mardis Gras, crews can go back decades, generations), she comes up with another of Mom’s Carnival paramours back in the day. Uh oh. Might wealthy banker Giovanni (Marcelo Médici) be her “real” father?

And might dueling Dads be the conflict this diet cola desperately needs?

A sweet touch here, aside from Vicenza’s tendency to grin and hug at hill, is that neither would-be father freaks out. Both embrace the possibility and take the commune-raised Vicenza hiking, beach walking, to museums and fancy meals.

No paternity suit necessary. But the obvious, a DNA test? Ok. Eventually.

At every point, promising comic directions to take this are lost or abandoned. There’s no commune girl encounters the big city “fish out of water” joke, no edgy rejection from the potential dads, no real obstacles to overcome, nobody to “win over.”

A few scenes with Mom in an ashram (teleconferencing group meditations with the guru, who has moved to LA). are cute, but never quite funny.

Director Cris D’Amato wrings a little heart out of Giovanni’s realization of why Vicenza is here, something the director blows in that first “Dad” encounter with Paco. Médici plays the hell out of that tender, shocking moment.

But aside from that, there’s nothing here but a cute kid finding another cute kid and considering a romance while she waits for that DNA test, or her mother, to come back.

MPA Rating: TV-14, squeaky clean

Cast: Maisa Silva, Eduardo Moscovis, Marcelo Médici, Pedro Otonni and Laila Zaid.

Credits: Directed by Cris D’Amato, script by Marcelo Andrade, Renato Fagundes, João Paulo Horta, Thalita Rebouças. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:43

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Movie Review: The line about the “Tapeworm” is the only funny one in this Canadian “comedy”

“Tapeworm” is a deader-than-deadpan Canadian comedy whose 78 minutes are reminiscent of a pharmacist’s last instructions when handing over your prescription of Praziquantel.

“This too will pass.”

Pitched as a “cringe” comedy, it’s a largely silent — mostly a lot of dead spaces surrounding vacant characters, many of whom spend much of their screen time weeping.

There’s the stoner couple (Stephanie Berrington, Sam Singer) who have lots of sex and inhale lots of weed.

“Do you love me?” “No.”

“Do you love ME?” “No.”

“That’s harsh.”

“Will you come to my funeral if I die?”

That’s almost funny and not at all representative of this deathly dry and existentially empty experience.

A lot of the weeping is done by the balding, bearded hypochondriac (Adam Brooks). He does what bears do where bears do it — in the woods. There’s blood in the stool.

“I’m dying,” he wails to his desperately unhappy waitress/partner, Gigi (Julie Simpson). She cries and cries and he’s no comfort. “Stop crying, Gigi. Stop crying, Gigi.”

Hey, at least she’s given a name. Most characters in “Tapeworm” aren’t. Kyle (Dave Barber), a lump who plays a soccer video game at home all day while his sad mother (Jennifer Mauws) comes in from her in-home nursing job near tears, buying him clothes and food and getting nothing in return.

We don’t know who the stand-up comic (Alex Ateah) is. We know she has no idea what she’s doing. Her three minute sets performed to stony silence are death itself. It’s almost a relief when she suffers a brain injury.

Short film veterans Milos Mitrovuc and Fabián Velasco shot this in Winnipeg, so there’s a Tim Horton’s, a chocolate-covered donut and scene set by the river. Mr. Hypochondriac weeping at the foot of the bed with the copulating stoners stopping to comfort him.

The misery depicted here — rarely interrupted — is contagious.

Here’s the only funny line, one I’d swear was swiped from deadpan stand-up Steven Wright.

“I think I have a tapeworm…I’m keeping it.”

There are some rave reviews of this piffle, mostly from Slamdance. Stay off drugs, kid critics.

MPA Rating: unrated, drug use, nudity, scatological humor, profanity

Cast: Adam Brooks, Julie Simpson, Alex Ateah, Sam Singer, Stephanie Berrington, Jennifer Mauws, Dave Barber

Credits: Scripted and directed by Milos Mitrovic and Fabián Velasco. A Winnipeg Film Group release.

Running time: 1:18

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Movie Review: Neeson narrows his beady eyes as “The Marksman”

Of all the steadily slower-moving action pictures Liam Neeson has stumbled into the sunset with in the latter stages of his action hero career, “The Marksman” stands out as the stupidest.

A tedious pastiche of other “tough guy on the run with a kid” variations, it’s built on a somewhat gutless, gun-happy turn by Neeson, a fine actor playing a character who has less of a redemption story arc than a villain who has few lines and lots of closeups, a child co-star who has no chops, obvious plot turns and a laugh-out-loud dumb finale.

Think “Witness” rendered “witless.”

Neeson plays Rancher Jim, a recently-widowed loner with “underweight” (no money to feed them) cattle and a drinking problem. He’s in foreclosure, and he lives along the Arizona border with Mexico.

He avoids cell phones, but keeps a walkie-talkie in his truck, tuned to a frequency where he can summon Border Patrol whenever he stumbles across a cluster if “IAs” (“illegal aliens”) crossing his property, often in bad shape.

Jim’s got a Marine Corps tattoo on one arm and an eye that still fits his medium-sized-magazine rifle’s scope like a glove. We see him take out a coyote. That shows his accuracy, and the fact that they coyote was finishing off a dog it killed maintains our hero’s righteousness.

That’s a tone-setter, and it’s important, considering what follows.

South of the border, a mother (Teresa Ruiz) and her boy (Jacob Perez) get a warning that their family’s got fresh cartel troubles and it’s time to flee. Their paths will cross Jim’s in a flash. And as they slip through the border fence, the armed black Suburban gang led by mob lieutenant Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba) rolls up behind them on the Mexican side just as Jim calls in more “IAs” on the walkie.

Could this be a “Mexican Standoff?”

Jim barks “Speak English” at them, and then gives them his best taste of tough guy.

“Sorry, Pancho. These illegals are mine.”

This is the guy Jim needs to be for this movie to work. This is the guy good guy Liam waters down and refuses to give any edge. He’s set up as an embittered, racist immigrant hater. And Neeson doesn’t dare play him that way.

When the mother is shot and begs him to get her boy to relatives in Chicago, we remember his earlier, callous dismissal — “It’s a cruel world.” His reluctance to take her request seriously, desire to follow the rules and protocols, and then abandon that on a quest for humanizing redemption only works and makes sense if there’s a big dose of Joe Arpaio in him.

Without that, his coldheartedness loses its sting. Leaving the kid with a Border Patrol team led by his stepdaughter (Katheryn Winnick) is all he’ll do. Instead, a MacGuffin is introduced that changes his credo, and seeing the bad guys again (and not reporting them) gives him a mission.

The cross-country chase is the usual collection of “Eat, what’s the matter with you? No hablo ingles?” (He just saw his mother murdered.) cliches and tech-savvy mob tracking and pursuing.

There’s a kid and a /Jim’s dog on the journey, and you know what means. Got to hit a “good guy” gun store to buy off-the-books firearms. Got to teach the expressionless child in his charge how to use a pistol.

And as the gangsters murder and bribe Border Patrol guards and sheriff’s deputies cross country, we wonder how long before we get to the biggest “Witness” borrowing of all.

“The Marksman” is set up like a lot of the movies Mel Gibson is making of late — violent, self-righteous and unapologetic. Jim is literally wrapped in the flag in one scene.

But the slow, stumbling progress of the picture matches Neeson’s uncertain footing in the character. He doesn’t want to make him hateful, can’t even bear to let him be unlikable. He stops at a church. He figures out the kid loves Gummy Bears (product placement in a lot of movies these days).

But a hero’s journey isn’t epic unless there’s a broad character arc, a big change in who he is by the story’s end. Redeem a believer? No big deal. Convert Mary Magdalene and you’ve done something.

This kid is bland, and all these faraway-eyes closeups of Raba (TV’s “Wild District,” “Shot Caller”) make us wonder what the script has in store for our standard-issue murderous psycho. Oh, that’s a doozy.

All these waypoints where the movie gives us an excuse to check out or just shake our heads make “The Marksman” a thriller that misses the mark, and not by a little.

MPA Rating: PG-13 for violence, some bloody images and brief strong language

Cast: Liam Neeson, Jacob Perez, Katheryn Winnick and Juan Pablo Raba.

Credits: Directed by Robert Lorenz, script by Chris Charles, Danny Kravitz and Robert Lorenz. An Open Road release.

Running time: 1:48

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Documentary Review: Retirees look for Paradise in Florida’s The Villages — “Some Kind of Heaven”

It used to be more pronounced, back when The Villages was a smaller, more compact enterprise. But the overwhelming first impression driving in is still very Patrick McGoohanish.

As in, “The Prisoner.” As in “I am NOT a number, I am a FREE man!”

The Mission style Disney-ish architecture, the sea of cute customized golf carts, the smiling, busily recreating monocultural demographics (almost all white, old)–“brain washed” crosses the mind.

I used to visit the first movie theater there (there are others, now) and marveled at how artificially spotless it all was. The cinema’s prices were set low. Coffee was just 10 cents a cup back when America’s largest retirement community was still trying to lure The Greatest Generation to settle there (founded in the ’80s, booming by the late ’90s), what these seniors had paid for it back in their younger days

In this “bubble” another America, preserved in amber, seemed and seems to live on.

Filmmaker Lance Oppenheim’s “Some Kind of Heaven” doesn’t dive into the most famous pieces of The Villages’ lore — the lack of diversity, the somewhat more diverse and poorer work force that keeps it humming, the rumors of venereal disease spikes due to the “swinging” seniors, the monolithic right wing politics.

Oppenheim, plainly-influenced by the films of Errol Morris, centers on “the dream” that this “heaven on Earth” has sold to some 130,000 residents and how that’s worked out for a select few. It’s a fair-minded and fascinating sample of the populace that he examines, lives that have their share of trials amid all the dance classes, pickleball groups, Parrothead clubs and golfing.

And if their stories play out in wistful shades of twilight, that feels accurate, too.

Barbara came down from Boston with her husband. Then he died, “the money ran out” and she went back to work — booking physical therapists and home care for residents for a health care center. She’s just starting to think about dating again, something a community with 20,000 single seniors wealthy enough to live there is totally set up for.

Dennis is a more piquant case. He’s a well-preserved Californian, a free-spirit musician and former Palm Springs “handyman.” He’s living in his small van and “looking for a wealthy woman,” preferably “good looking,” somebody he can date, move in with and be company for in their twilight years. He’s tried the churches and the bars, but “the pool” is where the action is, he says.

And Anne and Reggie are long-marrieds who have settled into the lifestyle, or rather she has — socially active, playing pickleball with new friends. Reggie admits to feeling left out and a little lonely, and to dabbling in recreational drugs along with his own perhaps self-designed (yoga-ish) exercise regimen.

Reggie is given to announcing he’s “reincarnated” to Anne, and talking about his other new “hobbies” on his Youtube vlog. Anne is mortified.

Over the course of the film, those profiled are lightly tested by the lives they’ve bought into, or in Dennis’s case, that he wants to mooch onto.

I like the resident who describes the place as “like going off to college. Everybody can be what they want to be here.” Acting classes, joining a Polynesian-style (big canoe) rowing team, everything people with money and time they never had can indulge in is offered, along with the chance for one last reinvention, just like the one most college kids take a stab at.

There’s little criticism of the place, per se — just a few smirks at the Disney-styled “made up history” that went into planning the familiar looking Main Street business district, Mission style highway overpass and the like.

Some of that intellectual/architectural “story” cohesion has been abandoned in recent years as development has exploded. We meet founder Harold Schwartz’s son, Gary Morse, but as I mentioned, there’s no discussion of Morse’s political “kingmaker” machinations.

As residents listen to “final arrangements” pitches in the Ruby Tuesday’s or pick out a sweet new ride at a golf cart dealership, you can think that it’s a shame that all retirees can’t have this stimulating, social and pleasant version of their last active years. But we don’t have to be reminded “It’s not cheap.”

Oppenheim’s film is its own bubble, in that way. There’s barely a hint of what’s “beyond” this life and this insular world. He frames his deadpan camera shots like the Oscar-winning Errol Morris, but the visual whimsy is as far as that extends. There are more serious issues — having enough money for retirement — hinted at but not really addressed.

For all the promise of a “New York Times Presents” documentary, “Heaven” isn’t exactly an infomercial, but it’s not much deeper than that.

Yet there’s humor to Dennis’s mercenary flirtations, pathos to Barbara’s loneliness and a sad comedy even to Reggie’s “adventures,” which can feel like we’re watching some sort of late-life breakdown.

You come away from the film feeling that its Disney touches might be a great way to spend your twilight years, turning you into what the locals call “a frog. Here till I croak!” Or you can look at all this almost manic organized “activity,” designed to keep everybody social, “happy” and as the word implies, “active,” is something you’d quickly want to escape.

Just like that “prisoner” in that other “village.”

MPA Rating: unrated, drug abuse, some profanity

Cast: Barbara Lochiatto, Anne and Reggie Kincer, Dennis Dean

Credits: Directed by Lance Oppenheim. A New York Times film, a Magnolia release.

Running time: 1:23

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Netflixable? Mackie stars in messy “Outside the Wire”

Anthony Mackie plays a robotic super soldier who develops an agenda of his own in “Outside the Wire,” a generic and draggy thriller built on firefights, digital effects and bad robot jokes.

‘”Did your motherboard freeze?” Stuff like that.

Damson Idris of TV’s TV’s “Snowfall” is a drone pilot in the not-that-distant future who watches Marines engaged in peacekeeping shoot-outs in Ukraine while chewing Gummy Bears. He’s focused, but dispassionate. And yet he countermands orders to save a couple of platoons at the loss of two Marines, pulling the trigger on a Hellfire missile too early.

That’s what gets Harp sent from Nebraska, where he sits in a trailer and flies remotely all day, to the conflict zone. That’s why he has to report to Captain Leo.

“Experientum auctoritati” it’s called, a little on-the-ground learning the “authority of experience.”

“I don’t have any specialist training” the Air Force drone pilot whines.

“Don’t worry,” the Captain says, peeling off his shirt. “I’m special enough for both of us.”

Get a load of the captain’s technobody. He’s a cyborg of sorts, a one-man mission who travels behind enemy lines procuring weapons of mass destruction from the Russian backed warlord (Pilou Asbæk)making all the mayhem. Harp is about to get his feet wet and his hands dirty.

The threat of global destruction hangs over their mission, and the mistrust of the smart pilot for the machine he’s subordinate to. This 2036 war zone has combat robots engaged on both sides, “Gumps” that look like “Star Wars” battle bots. Leo is just the next generation of that.

But he’s an African American robot because that’s less menacing, with a face strangers “trust” that helps de-escalate tense situations. He’s helpful to aid workers like Sofiya (Emily Beecham), and doesn’t mind entering those life-threatening scenarios because he’s not actually alive.

Of course, that lowers the stakes in every firefight in this thriller by the Swedish director of the John Cusack horror dramedy “1408.” Mikael Håfström may make good use of a effects with decently choreographed stunts. But the dialogue is heavy on the exposition and explication, all these “Here’s how I’m programmed to make decisions” stuff mixed in with bad robot jokes.

“Who programmed you to curse so much?”

Idris doesn’t give us a character arc that the screenplay half leaves out, this callous kid-pilot nicknamed “Gummy Bear” learning this new thing — “It’s called compassion.”

Mackie always gives fair value, but this seems silly and beneath him, even though he’s done time in the Marvel universe.

Every action film that doesn’t come off shares the same shortcoming — pace. Pace denotes urgency and in a slack picture like this, slashes the running time and raises the stakes. But when digital gadgets are doing most of the shooting and the actors are here just for lame one-liners…

The prosecution rests.

MPA Rating: R for strong violence and language throughout

Cast: Anthony Mackie, Damson Idris, Emily Beecham, Michael Kelly and Pilou Asbæk

Credits: Directed by Mikael Håfström, script by Rowan Athale and Rob Yescombe. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:56

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Documentary Review: Horror filmmaker braves the vicissitudes of the “Clapboard Jungle” of making movies today

It’s a miracle when anybody gets their first feature film made, a miracle that anybody not born into the business or with a silver spoon film school degree on their resume even gets a shot.

If you knew the hell first-time filmmakers endure– a hell sometimes repeated several times before they A) go broke and give up or B) make that first, second or third film and nothing happens and give up or C) break through– you’d never look at any film without a measure of compassion and pity again.

Of course, that doesn’t count for critics. We can’t take the struggle into account. We can’t grade on the curve just because of what it took to get you here.

“Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business” is a documentary about a filmmaker’s five year journey to get a feature film made. It’s of its moment, because there have been books and object lesson articles about how Steven Soderbergh got “sex, lies and videotape” into Sundance, how George A. Romero used his Pittsburgh TV connections to make “Night of the Living Dead,” how Robert Rodriguez got his mom to cater his no-budget breakthrough “El Mariachi,” Richard Linklater’s “Slacker” story and how “Slacker” inspired Kevin Smith to make a convenience store comedy, “Clerks.”

A bunch of guys working in video editing and other jobs around the periphery of production cobble together a film festival horror movie and “The Blair Witch Project” becomes a phenomenon.

The model for how every single one of those iconic “How I got myself a career in the movies” stories was shattered long before a pandemic shuttered most of the world’s cinemas. And “Clapboard” will be out of date in its observations of “The way the business works now” before you know it.

We don’t really know Justin McConnell’s financial background or bonafides, just what he tells us in his film. He grew up in Haliburton, Ontario, started tinkering with movies early on, moved to Toronto — where they hold one of North America’s premiere film festivals — and started the struggle to get money, skills, contacts and everything else it takes to get his ideas for movies made.

He finished one, here and there. No, you’ve never seen them. He takes the Amazon reviews of these efforts hard. But he’s still at it. And with all this access to cameras and all the filmmakers who show up for the Toronto Film Festival — panel discussions and interview opportunities — he started collecting tips, hints, career advice on how to get one of the projects on his “slate” (among them a novel adaptation) financed and in production.

Legions of legends trot across the screen in “Clapboard Jungle,” from Guillermo del Toro to Romero and Garris and Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman, along with indie filmmakers engaged in the same struggle like Jenn Wexler and Noburu Iguchi. All are full of often contradictory advice about how to go about it, how to navigate “the wild west of streaming,” direct online sales via Amazon or Youtube, boutique distributors such as Dark Star, Shudder and the Canadian “We’ll release it if no one else will” co-op that released “Clapboard,” IndieCan.

McConnell, who films himself and flatly narrates throughout, is the latest to remind us that “the business” is still a place where “the reality doesn’t match up to the dream.”

At the outset, he wants to make a $275,000 project that he’ll get to direct and faces the difficulty getting that “first dollar,” the “first money in.” He’s told “get the letter of intent” (LIO) from your stars first, then raise money off that. Then “get the (first in) money first,” then start luring talent. Which direction do you take?

Writers, producers, journalists, publicists and actors (Michael Biehn, Dick Miller) whom he grabs a little time with (or films from the audience at panel discussions) gripe about the “content pipeline” that is every distributor/streamer’s bottom line concern these days. They all need something fresh for people to watch every time they log onto Topic, Netflix, Film Movement, Amazon Prime or Hulu. Filmmakers don’t like the “pipeline” connotation because of its connection to “oil, or sewage,” taking the art and connection with the audience out of their work. But that’s the Brave New World.

Filmmakers watching this will get lots of tidbits of usable advice about making a “proof of concept” short film, prepping a slick illustrated book that sells your script in storyboard/comic book fashion and the like.

I don’t think he mentions this, but an entertainment lawyer is more important to have than an agent.

But everybody looking at this mountain she or he has to roll that boulder up is facing the damning odds that “Taxi Driver” screenwriter and “Cat People” director Paul Schrader warns about, the “tsunami of content” being generated because generations have been indulged in the delusion that this is a viable career option for them, with their pluck and their families propping them up.

There’s all this content out there, most of it is no-budget horror, most of the people making it have the skill level of guys like McConnell. Most of what they create is crap. And even if the new Welles is in their ranks, nobody will find their handiwork.

Most critics can’t be bothered with IndieCan’s product, can’t dive deep into Shudder or Dark Star, Anchor Bay (McConnell is dealing with them in “Clapboard.” Are they still around?) or even the movies that turn up on the lower levels of Netflix, on Tubi, Pluto TV’s specialty channels or elsewhere.

Making money out of your efforts is nigh on impossible in this environment. The gatekeeping that studios and networks used to provide almost promised a rewarding career, if the few — the exceptionally talented, the connected, the related — who got through that gate had the drive to use that access to make movies or TV that people wanted to see. But that’s gone.

Filmmakers could watch “Clapboard Jungle” and see McConnell’s struggles and learn from them. Will they take the lesson, that he gets a film made and pretty much nobody sees it, to heart?

Probably not.

As for anybody else watching this, you’ll miss the drama and melodramatics of “Project Greenlight,” and the (limited) entertainment value. And you might just recognize how representative and sadly unexceptional this story is. There are thousands and thousands of McConnells. Luck, talent, skill, pluck or originality, they all lack something that kept them from realizing their dream.

Whatever drama and arc there is to his story is mostly suggested (depression, ballooning in weight for a time), is stuff that happened after he got his first feature made years BEFORE he started making this movie. The clips and boilerplate, unemotional on-camera narration of “Clapboard Jungle” seems less interesting than what he’d already been through.

Like most filmmakers, he’s not a natural on-camera talent. Kind of grating after a while. And the endless blur of on-camera snippets of filmmakers making single sentence points is a drag, cinematically.

As Lloyd Kaufman lectures him, nobody gave him a break, nobody figured he was entitled to distribution, and Lloyd didn’t whine…much. Why should anybody else taking the same longest of long shots be any different?

MPA Rating: unrated

Cast: Justin McConnell, George A. Romero, Jenn Wexler, Guillermo del Toro, Lloyd Kaufman, Daisy Hamilton, Mick Garris, many many others

Credits: Written and directed by Justin McConnell. An IndieCan release.

Running time: 1:38

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Movie Preview: Nic Cage is here to “clean” “Willy’s Wonderland”

A broke traveler has to take a job for a night, and all hell breaks lose at the theme park.

Gonzo Nic Cage is the Nicolas Cage for me. Feb. 12 VOD.

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Movie Review: Lawyers fight over a terror suspect — “The Mauritanian”

This is the way it used to work, the image we used to be famous for.

An accused man is locked up on suspicion of his involvement with the 9/11 hijackers. Lawyers hear about him, locked up at the prison on Guantanamo Bay, not charged, and take up his case.

Because as a country that the world expects to operate under the rule of law, you don’t keep somebody locked up for years, interrogated above and beyond the pale without someone getting outraged, without somebody crying out for justice.

“The Mauritanian” is about an infamous case from the post-9/11 Bush years. Mohamedou Slahi was approached at a family party by his country’s police, told “the Americans” wanted to question him…and disappeared. For years.

Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) has directed a factual, well-acted and somewhat laborious look at his story, a detailed movie that runs out of time rather abruptly at the two hour mark and shoves a summary finale in that skips over years of Obama administration involvement.

So it’s fascinating but flawed, more truncated than thorough.

Tahar Rahim (“A Prophet,” “The Kindness of Strangers”) plays Slahi, a guy we see just enough of to wonder about his innocence. He lives in a country where the police are feared, but does what he can to protect himself when they come calling.

He’s allowed to change clothes, which allows him to erase his phone’s contact list and call history. And he gets to drive his own car to the station.

It’s November of 2001 and we’re not given a lot of information. “Would they let me drive my car if I wasn’t coming back?” he reassures his mother (in Arabic).

But clearing one’s phone seems suspicious.

Jodie Foster plays Nancy Hollander, an Albuquerque attorney who’s “been fighting the government since Vietnam.” She’s a bit of a ball-buster — older, her name’s on the firm, and she’s not shy about taking on an ACLU case. It’s been over three years and this guy’s family wonders what happened to him. He might be among the 7-800 detainees at “Gitmo.”

Calling around only gets her a “He’s not not here” answer. That’s great detail, showing just how hidden from the world these prisoners were and how hard it was to even learn who was there.

With a young associate (Shailene Woodley), Hollander gets on a plane to Cuba, struggles to win the trust of this man who doesn’t trust anything associated with America, and becomes his lawyer. She will fight for a writ of habeas corpus — a demand to know what the government has on him and if it has the right to keep holding him without charge.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has decided to pursue legal precedents that allow them to put Slahi on trial for his Colonel assigned the job of prosecuting Slahi, whom they accuse of helping recruit the 9/11 hijackers.

Rough justice, that’s what this administration wants,” he’s told. Get it for them.

As each side digs into the case, facing “classified” and “redacted” material at every turn, Slahi writes a long account, over several long letters to his lawyer, telling his story. Flashbacks from those letters recreate his life — a bright kid given a scholarship in Germany, outrage over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, traveling there.

Macdonald, working from a three-credited-writers screenplay (with one writer taking the name of “Treasure of Sierra Madre” scribe B. Traven), may struggle to wrestle this into a compact narrative. The film has a geographical and sociolinguist disconnect. It never really feels like we’re watching an American story playing out in the US. That’s jarring, but by design.

The performances, the scenes recreated, the dialogue and the detail immerse us in this case even if we get lost here and there.

“Even in Mauretania we have watched ‘Law & Order’ and ‘Ally McBeal,'” Slahi says at one point. But the legalese here, the blizzard of legal and military acronyms, scenes of wholly-redacted paperwork in a top secret government archive, is enough to test even lawyers watching this.

Scenes of what Slahi went through — endless interrogations, torture — aren’t as rough as many films depict them. But the process and procedure as seen here is fascinating. Two questioners and an interpreter all play “good cop,” at first. And then one by one they turn hard.

Foster gives Hollander a brusque, clipped demeanor, impatient with anyone who blows her off or minions who can’t keep their feelings out of the case. Call her a “terrorist lawyer” and this woman has the perfect comeback.

Woodley, collecting credits with every Oscar winning actress under the sun, holds her own. Rahim has some nice moments, but his character doesn’t have enough scenes to properly engender sympathy. And Cumberbatch does a good job with Couch’s soft Southern accent even if there’s not enough screen time to develop the man’s faith-backed decision making.

The players make the whole enterprise watchable and worth taking a look at, just to remember that the erosion of America’s “rule of law” reputation didn’t start with the outgoing administration in Washington. It’s been withering under three presidents.

But the screenplay needed more work and the film in the can a lot more editing to make “The Mauritanian” worthy of the talent on the set.

MPA Rating: R, violence, profanity

Cast: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch and Shailene Woodley

Credits: Kevin Macdonald, script by Michael Bronner (M.B. Traven), Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani. An STX release.

Running time: 2:08

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