Movie Review: A Pandemic paradox — Tough time to make a movie, tougher time to pull a caper? “Locked Down”

As an exercise in making a reasonably entertaining movie in the middle of a pandemic, “Locked Down” is something of a triumph.

Limited sets, a stellar “socially-distanced” cast, some shooting their own footage in ill-framed cell phone video, screen-freezes and Oscar winning fashionista Anne Hathaway playing a boss with business sharp blouse and jacket combos worn over pajama bottoms in Zoom meetings? It’s a terrific artifact of life in these times, in “this situation,” this locked-in, isolated “land of the walking dead.”

The caper comedy it eventually becomes? Strictly an afterthought, and one that should have been discarded, seeing as how badly botched it is on a very basic genre level.

Director Doug Liman is the guy who wants to film his “Edge of Tomorrow” star Tom Cruise in space as his next stunt. I have no doubts he’ll manage it, even if the movie comes out like the rest of his filmography (“Fair Game,””The Wall”), more interesting in concept than execution.

You could do a lot worse than hiring the fellow who scripted that Tom Hardy, on his cell in an SUV talking drama “Locke,” Steven Knight. He comes up with a LOT of things for people to muse over, confess, debate and complain about, and co-star Hathaway handles all that verbiage at a staccato screwball comedy pace — a blur of words, many of them funny, biting and close to perfect in summing up city life in COVID.

“How are you?” “Terrible. You?” “Just awful.

Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor are a London couple waiting until “this madness is over” to complete their break up. They’re cohabiting as a survival mechanism. She works for a multi-national promotions/event managing company of some sort, and on the day we meet her, Linda Zooms her entire staff in to lay them off.

Her now-ex partner Paxton (Ejiofor) is antic and verbose, regaling their city block with poetry recitals before the nightly banging of the pans (Remember those?).

“I write poetry! I could BE someone!”

Except he isn’t. He’s a delivery truck driver, and he a bad-boy-on-a-motorbike past that was catnip to Linda. Once. How’s her day going?

“I just had some bad news…nothing…compared to…EVERYthing.”

They keep their distance, barely communicate and when they do, they erupt in duologues — either talking over each other or not paying enough attention to what the other is saying. His family (Jaymyn Simon, Dulé Hill) are upset at hearing about the breakup via Zoom. We figure out why when Linda walks in on him on his motorcycle in the garage.

“Why is the hose in the exhaust?”

His boss (Ben Kingsley, in and out of his cell phone camera frame) needs to fudge Paxton’s ID to get him higher security clearance for deliveries of items from posh department store Harrad’s — in the middle of a pandemic. Her German boss is ready to move her back to the States, and her US counterpart (Ben Stiller, very funny), chilling with his teens and wife in Vermont, may be threatened by that.

“Do you have a temperature, Linda?” That’s the COVID version of “Is it that time of the month?” Not nice. Then again, she’s not even keeping her omni-present wine glass out of camera range.

Eventually, these two intolerable work situations force our splitting up couple to find common ground and purpose — a heist.

That twist in the picture arrives well after the point where one has stopped summarizing the movie’s plot, an after-thought. It’s introduced clumsily and executed without much suspense, wit or urgency.

It doesn’t break “Locked Down,” which needs judicious trimming in the first two acts as it is. But it robs us of most of the elements that make a caper comedy/heist picture fun — the planning, the logistics. We don’t know enough to know when to be worried they might get caught.

All that other talk and they couldn’t squeeze the basics in?

Ejiofor is OK, somewhat underwritten as a biker “poet.” Hathaway is in top form but could stand to lose every line that isn’t funny or doesn’t advance the plot.

Some of the cameos — Kingsley, Stiller — are funnier than others (Mindy Kaling has nothing funny to play). The use of Harrad’s and Zoom was inspired, details like druggies eyeing the poppies they have growing in their garden plot — hilarious.

But in the end, we’re left with a gimmick movie that doesn’t come off, an accurate-enough artifact of the global lockdown of last spring that will be remembered for that, and little else.

MPA Rating: R for language throughout and some drug material

Cast: Anne Hathaway, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ben Kingsley, Jaymyn Simon, Ben Stiller

Credits: Directed by Doug Liman, script by Steven Knight. An HBO Max release.

Running time: 1:55

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RIP Michael Apted, 1941-2021, a great director of fiction features and a classic documentary series

No filmmaker made me cry more often than Michael Apted.

He could handle most any genre, directed multiple Oscar nominated performances, with Sissy Spacek winning best actress for his Loretta Lynn bio pic, Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

Apted, who passed away last week at the age of 79, did biographies and a Bond film, but was never happier than when he could “put something real, something true” up on the screen. Native American issues were important to him, and he made docs and a feature film touching on that.

“Thunderheart,” “Enigma,” “Amazing Grace,” “Nell,” “Gorillas in the Mist,” “Chasing Mavericks,” “The World is Not Enough” and many other titles put him in rare company as a director — not among the immortals of the top tier, but right below them.

But his true claim to immortality is a classic of British sociology, his “7 Up/28 Up etc.” series, documentaries that caught up with a cross section of British kids every seven years, starting when they were seven, exploring how their childhood lives, upbringing and opportunities, shaped their adulthood.

Those films, made original for British TV, were remarkable lessons in social mobility and immobility, and never failed to bring tears. The last one, “63 Up,” catching us up with people who endured the struggle of life with varying degrees of success, is a life affirming experience.

I interviewed him several times over the years, here’s a link to our first chat. Fascinating man who worked with his heart on his sleeve, often as not.

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Movie Preview: A first look at the “Days of the Bagnold Summer” adaptation

Based on the graphic novel, Motherhood and Metallica and Rob Brydon figure in this mid Feb. Release.

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Movie Preview: A first look at the Martial Artist battling her “demons” — literally — “Hellkat”

“Stand up and FIGHT for your SOUL!”

For those who like their horror kind of nuts and on-the-cheap side.

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Netflixable? A World War, Love and Death Loom over Archeologists at “The Dig”

The vast smorgasbord that is the British Museum offers too many riches and distractions to count for the history buff. But if you’re into archeology at all, the temptation is great to give the Elgin Marbles and the like a pass and make your way straight to room 141, to the treasures of Sutton Hoo.

“The Dig” is a warm, stately and beautifully-acted drama about how this Anglo Saxon era burial treasure was unearthed, a tale given weight, poignance and urgency by the events hanging over that dig. World War II was looming, giving this “amateur” unearthing in Suffolk a somber tone and need for speed.

They’re called “salvage digs” these days, a somewhat rushed job because something is coming — usually new construction — threatening whatever you hope to find with the risk of being “lost forever.” I took part in one as a teenager, a Native American village in my hometown that would be destroyed by an expansion of a sewage treatment plant.

Imagine that situation with the added menace of a World War on everybody’s mind.

That’s just one of the ticking clocks Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) internalizes when she offers a job to “excavator” Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes). She and her late husband bought their land with a notion of finding out what’s in these mounds on the property. And after some haggling over wages, Brown agrees.

It’s 1939, and the lady of the house won’t be digging herself. She’s too frail. But she can commission this dig, on the cheap, and figure out what previous digger King Henry VIII never did. What’s under these mounds?

Her inquisitive, comic-book fan little boy (Archie Barnes) will be under foot, literally. He offloads his entire brain’s supply of questions on Brown while wearing (literally) a tin foil hat and star-bedecked bedspread he wears as a cape.

Mrs. Pretty might be looking to leave her mark, lamenting an academic life she never had, or might be fulfilling a dead husband’s wishes. Brown is an autodidact — self-trained — and a veteran of such digs. Academia and the local museum toffs regard him as a laborer, someone whose value they don’t appreciate until he leaves them for her.

Both are looking for validation, and she has “a feeling” about this biggest mound, about “the dead and what they leave behind.”

Warplanes roar overhead on training missions, soldiers muster everywhere and the wireless crackles with news of the escalating crisis on the continent. But Brown, following the boss’s hunch, continues to dig in the dirt and mud under overcast skies. His own hunches, flying in the face of the “experts” who figure their Roman villa dig across the county is more important, have the promise of “This changes everything.”

But if it does, you can be sure those with degrees will rush in, led by British Museum archeologist Phillips (blustering Ken Stott) and take over and take the credit while they’re at it.

“You men there, finish up and then don’t move ANOTHER PEBBLE!”

That allows more characters to be introduced, the professorial Piggott (Ben Chaplin) and someone who might well have been his student, his new wife Peggy (Lily James).

Her arrival, summoned by Phillips as well, provides the film’s best sexist joke. As fragile as this long-rotted-away ship is, he needs someone “light” to get down there in it for the fine-work required.

Director Simon Stone (“The Turning”) and screenwriter Moira Buffini (the Mia Wasikowska “Jane Eyre” and “Tamara Drew”) cloak this story in deaths past and deaths sure to come, in class snobbery and curiosity. And then they toss in a hint of romance.

The late second act new characters and incidents associated with them give the film more of a fateful World War II romance touch. They also slow it down.

“Stately” implies the pacing is slow, and “The Dig” generates a feeling that it’s taken on a few too many issues and messages for its own good. “Class” and “credentials” snobbery are the heart of the story, and with all this added-on stuff, there’s barely time for our heroine to stand up for our hero against the snobs of academe.

But Mulligan — drawn, wan and yet steely here — and Fiennes’ lightly-laid-on sturdy working class polymath turn make “The Dig” touching and richly rewarding, as entertaining as any movie about archeology could be without a bullwhip.

MPA Rating: PG-13 for brief sensuality and partial nudity 

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, and Ben Chaplin

Credits: Directed by Simon Stone, script by  Moira Buffini, based on a book by John Preston. A Netflix release (Jan. 29)

Running time: 1:53

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Series Review: Is “WandaVision” a Marvel?

“WandaVision” arrives on your SmartTV as a singular bit of whimsy mined from the intellectual property that is the comic book publisher turned studio, Marvel.

It’s a spoof of sitcoms from various periods, with Marvel characters shoved into say, something inspired by “Bewitched” or “The Brady Bunch” or what have you.

There are inside Marvel Universe jokes and parody TV commercials — in period style — advertising assorted products — toasters, toys — with a hint of Hydra about them.

Because underneath the sunny silliness that American TV has served up in sitcom form, there was always something sinister or at least a lot more real left unexamined and unspoken of — by Samantha and Darren or Rob and Laura or Carol and Tom Brady.

Disney provided three episodes for review, so the suggestions of something Stepford or Patrick McGoohanesque is just hinted at. The first three episodes don’t give us Kat Dennings or Randall Park. So I can’t speak much about where the “darkness” will go, other than repeating my usual gripes about the glacial pace of streaming series storytelling.

“WandaVision” is built around the happy and sitcom-ditzy relationship (“No wedding ring?”) of Wanda Maximoff aka “Scarlet Witch” and AI in the flesh Vision, a mating that…shouldn’t work. Well, in the era of no sex, separate twin beds and Mid Century Modern furniture, it just might.

Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany unleash their collective considerable charms on Wanda and Vision in a very black and white, very “Bewitched” opening episode, changing eras and TV sitcom styles as they (in later episodes) add a baby, experience life in suburban Westview and hide their identities from their nosey/funny sitcom neighbors.

Comic actress Kathryn Hahn was born too late to be Mary Tyler Moore’s “best friend next door” in “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” but she knocks her helpful/welcoming Agnes right out of the park. She’s sorry, for instance, that she didn’t “pop by” earlier.

“My mother-in-law was in town. So I wasn’t.

Fred Melamed of “A Serious Man” and “In a World…” plays the obligatory tyrannical boss where Vision (masking his robotic looks) works, setting up many a “What do we actually PRODUCE here?” satiric jibes, and deflected probing questions about Vision’s background.

“You don’t have any skeletons in your closet, do you?”

“I don’t HAVE A skeleton, sir!”

This frothy tone and style is cute, and wears thin quickly enough. So does the whole “supernatural” housekeeping, cooking and child-gestation line of gags. Watch the long closing credits to see how much effort it took to get those dishes to float in the air and what-not.

The charity talent show where Vision and Wanda put on a magic act, with a drunken Vision showing off their supernatural powers as sober assistant Wanda has to think fast to “explain” the tricks to their Westview neighbors makes great use of comic talents neither actor got to demonstrate before their indentured servitude with Marvel, much less after.

Bettany’s Vision, playing the ukulele to “entertain” houseguests while commenting on the “nonsensical nature of the lyrics” of current Hit Parade products such as “Yakkety Yak” is just adorable.

But even with the Stepford organization of the charity wives, even with all the Hydra pro-consumerism parody ads (What you buy could control your life, or kill you…like an iPhone?), the pickings are pretty slim in the early episodes. And the series is only six installments long.

As each and every one of the six starts with a :55 second Marvel logo credit, and ends with “Mandalorian” length closing credits in the five-to-six minute range, there isn’t a whole lot of “content” in these sitcomish installments.

Throw in credits for whatever “WandaVision” series (time frame) they’re in this time out, and you’re looking at 20 minutes, with (weak, I have to say) parody commercials mixed in.

If you’re deep into this universe and have been keeping up on all the creator and staff commentary “explaining” what they’re aiming for, you’ll get more out of “WandaVision” than any casual viewer.

The end product is comedically wan, the double-takes broad and all the Olsen/Bettany/Hahn charm squeezed into tiny dabs of screen time and doesn’t add up to enough to make the whole worth the investment in time, even if you switch shows as the endless closing credits start.

And unlike with Marvel movies, that’s allowed.

MPA Rating: TV-PG

Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Kathryn Hahn, Kat Dennings, Randall Park

Credits: Created by Jac Schaeffer, directed by Matt Shakman. A Marvel Studios release on Disney+.

Running time: 6 episodes @25-30 minutes each

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Netflixable? A dying mother becomes famous writing “Notes for My Son”

A mother, dying of cancer, starts tweeting her thoughts and limited plans for her limited future in the Argentina drama “Notes for My Son,” a dry-eyed weeper that’s not nearly as sad as you might expect.

And that’s a problem, because “sad” is what they were going for here. Not comically brave, not hopeful.

Carlos Sorin’s film, inspired by a true story, has Maria Vazquez (Valeria Bertuccelli, good) musing about “my biggest wish” (in Spanish with English subtitles), to see her “son finish primary school.”

Little Tomy is kindergarten age, and that’s just not going to happen.

As the spreading-beyond-treatable ovarian cancer shifts doctor’s (Mauricio Dayub) from hope to alleviating “pain” and “suffering,” her committed but numbed husband (Esteban Lamothe) tries to take it in, to think beyond the here-and-now.

He lies about what sort of day it is outside, because there’s no sense adding to her sadness. He fulfills her requests, even the most difficult ones.

That’s something “Notes” does very well, showing us the weight and the burden that spreads from a key member of the family’s illness. Getting someone to care for the boy (Julian Sorin), figuring out how to get him to see his mother and when (not too often) as Dad spends his nights with her in hospital, the simple logistics of meeting your obligations to a dying woman aren’t large scale problems — unless you’re facing them alone.

We also get the distinct impression that this wasn’t the happiest of marriages, but that he’s determined to do one last thing for her and do it right. And some of that involves talking to physicians and dealing with lawyers, because one thing that comforts Maria is the assurance that “once the pain gets too bad, you’ll just put me to sleep, right?”

That’s a big ask in much of the world. “Euthanasia” has dangerous legal issues tied up in it, and even “terminal sedation” (a slower, family-assisted sedated death of dehydration) would break the average person asked to carry it out in permanent ways.

Is Fede up to it?

Her family and friends gather, resolving as a group to not cry in front of Maria. She genuinely looks sick and never tries to laugh all this off. But she refuses to be morbid with them or Fede. She hugs her little boy, who is too young to understand all this and takes this unusual routine in stride. She writes in the notebook she’s leaving behind for him.

“I feel jealous and envious of the people who get to watch you grow up.”

And she tweets.

“Everything is more vivid and real when you’re dying.”

Her “notes” and tweets are typed or handwritten in English for this version.

Writer-director Sorin has a built-in weeper here, but at every turn he pulls his punches, stops just short of the paroxysms of grief — tears — that feel called for and yet avoided at all costs. We see Maria get “famous” for her tweets. And?

It’s not like she’s the only person ever to go through this, and her musings about her last days are a common Internet phenomenon these days. She’s not a poet, and her profundities aren’t unique. Without the sadness, without her and those around her letting us see what she is reluctantly leaving behind, “Notes for My Son” feels empty, something of a cheat, a film stuck in “acceptance” when we long for something leading up to that terminal resignation.

None of this takes anything away from the real victim’s life and experience. I’m just saying if somebody’s telling the story of my last days, I hope they have the guts to let somebody (other than one character) cry.

MPA Rating: TV-MA, adult subject matter

Cast: Valeria Bertuccelli, Esteban Lamothe, Julian Sorin

Credits: Scripted and directed by Carlos Sorin. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:24

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Movie Preview: Thomas Nicholas, Mickey Rourke, Penelope Ann Miller, Lou Diamond Phillips and Sean Astin square off in “Adverse”

This Lionsgate thriller about drug money and the guy it’s owed to comes our way on a variety of platforms March 9.

Looks generic, but you never know.

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Movie Review: Kidnapped, she gets away — only to be “Hunted”

Amy Adams became a movie star playing a princess living in a land out of a fairytale, someone so “Enchanted” she could summon her forest creature friends to help her get through her day.

The English-language French thriller “Hunted?” Basically the same movie, with kidnapping, torture, bloody wounds and plot twists nuttier than anything in “The Disney Version.”

It’s a very violent woodlands parable from the co-director and screenwriter of “Persepolis,” Vincent Paronnaud. It’s a little bit “High Tension” and a lot “Alone,” with pieces of pretty much any woman-on-the-run from kidnappers movie tucked in.

Except that it’s a lot nuttier than that. It’s an escape-and-avenge fantasy that never quite settles on a tone, and never quite matches the over-the-top third act laughs to the eye-rolling opening acts, all of it bathed in bloody violence.

When wild boars, a snake, an elk, a crow and others conspire to help our damsel in distress, on the run from guys with duct tape, a camcorder, Viagra, a taser and box cutters, you have to appreciate the novelty, even if removing the animal touches would make it utterly conventional and very grim going.

“Hunted” begins with a woman telling a story (animated, with live action human silhouettes) of “the wolf girl” and “the song of the forest.” Sometimes, the forest and its creatures rise up to defend the innocent is the moral of that story.

Eve, played by Lucie Debay (“Melody”) is a Belgian English-speaking construction supervisor out in the countryside on a job. A simple drink in a bar, rebuffing one pick-up, charmed into another, turns deadly serious when the hunk who “rescued” her (Arieh Worthalter of Neflix’s “The Take”) turns their back-seat sexcapade into a kidnapping, complete with a weakest-link accomplice (Ciaran O’Brien).

“What’s happening here? Where are we going?”

Her protests seem to have talked her out of a jam, but no. Next thing we know, she’s in the old BMW’s trunk, taped and tied. As I said, they’ve come equipped for murder.

But on the drive into the woods, nature grasps her plight and she finds herself with a fighting chance.

“Hunted” flirts with torture porn, and the run of the mill elements to the script — the accomplice, cell phones aren’t your salvation, they’re what give your position away — are a drag on it for entirely too long.

The whole Helped by Nature gimmick isn’t as interesting as it sounds, but it does underscore Eve’s sylvan transformation from bullied office worker to feral fury of the forest. And the more feral Eve gets, the more fun “Hunted” becomes.

Debay is fierce in this, the villains are venal and the framing device — animated — is stylish and smart.

But the half-hearted lean into “jokey” means that “Hunted” never gets under your skin and transitions into a visceral experience. “Alone,” which came out this fall, was better at that, and even more savage.

“Hunted” is far too “enchanted” to ever manage that.

MPA Rating: unrated, graphic violence

Cast: Lucie Debay, Arieh Worthalter, Ciaran O’Brien

Credits: Directed by Vincent Paronnaud, script by Vincent Paronnaud, Léa Pernollet. A Shudder release.

Running time: 1:27

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Movie Review: Stuck in town, waiting for “The Wake of Light”

“The Wake of Light” is a dreamy, reflective movie, something of an interior monologue delivered by a stoic loner living out her limited life in a small town in the Southwest.

It’s built on lots of solitary (mostly) walks through the scenery of Sutter Creek, California by our rather colorless, closed-off heroine. For all that walking and (again mostly) interior talking, the tale is a relatively short journey, from insulated and trapped to a little bit less so. Which is a roundabout way of calling it “dull.”

Filmmaker Renji Philip returns to his longtime muse, Rome Brooks (“Cheesecake Caserole”) for this forlorn tale of loss that’s led to a life of limited risks.

Mary tends to her stroke-victim father (William Lige Morton), visits the well pump behind the family homestead and fills bottles with the crisp water that comes out. She puts a candy cane colored straw in each, loads up a tray and makes her rounds through town, selling the bottles, picking up the empties from supportive stores along the way.

She doesn’t chat with anyone much, save for the special needs kid Russell (Tyler Steelman). Even after she meets the needy/pushy traveling stranger (Matt Bush of “The Goldbergs”) she’s hard-pressed to keep a conversation going.

He talks and talks, imposes his company on her, ignoring her social signals, her “I can’t” and “I need to go now” and later “You should leave.”

Cole goes on and on, and we pick up that he’s from Danville, Va. (“Mostly rednecks and hillbillies.”) and on his way to Grand Flats, Utah, that his Honda Civic broke down on the edge of town, that he’s staying in it as he criss-crosses the country, seeing the sites.

He follows her as she makes her rounds and finally figures out a way to ingratiate himself into her world. One little repair job at her house, and he’s joining her and her silent-dad for dinner. And eventually, this woman who’s never been anywhere takes his reaching-out seriously enough to want to show him her “favorite place.”

There’s little chemistry between the leads, which is somewhat by design. He’s interested, and she’s more into the solitude.

And there’s very little that happens here, just Mary narrating prayers in this place where nature can give you a sensitivity to the spiritual.

“If you’re real, show me how to find you.”

“Wake” isn’t entirely plotless, but what plot points there are don’t reach out and grab you, and don’t really reward you for meeting the movie more than halfway. What few incidents there are play as predictable and drab.

But if you’re into musing about the ethereal with an immaculately put together but uninteresting character as she sits in the sun, runs her fingers over tree bark or walks in the surf, have at it.

MPA Rating: unrated

Cast: Rome Brooks, Matt Bush, William Lige Morton, Tyler Steelman and Sandra Seeling.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Renji Philip. An Axis Pacific Filmworks release.

Running time: 1:19

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