Movie Review: Heche, Baldwin, Ulrich and Co. Chase a “Supercell”

The producers pulling together a long-expected sequel to “Twister” would be wise to take a look at “Supercell” before shooting starts. It’s a “Twister” sequel in everything but name.

A kid grows up in Florida, where his blonde, ex-storm scientist mother moved him after his famous storm-chasing died in the line of duty years before? The teen runs off to Texas where an uncle now tracks tornadoes and drives paying customers around for a bullying, grizzled and storm-obsessed tour operator?

That would have been an excellent plot to build “Twisters,” slated for release in 2024, around. The filmmakers of “Supercell” think so, too. The teen does a Google search for his dad, and one of the names he scrolls past is Bill Paxton, the late star of that 1996 hit.

“Supercell” is the last or next to last film Anne Heche made before she died. Its “bullying, grizzled and storm-obsessed tour operator” is played by Alec Baldwin, who makes lines like “Storm chasing is 90% driving and 10% witnessing the Creator’s Wrath” work.

Truth be told, a lot of this debut feature by director/co-writer Herbert James Winterstern works. Consider its structure and shooting strategy, capturing the stark beauty of the great, flat middle of America’s Tornado Alley, that Texas to North Dakota belt that this Montana-based production depicts. Listen for the French horns in the emotional moments of the Corey Wallace score.

This guy isn’t fooling around. He’s doing Spielberg, a “Close Encounters/E.T.” take on storm chasing. Hey, if you’re gonna steal…

A prologue that avoids showing adult faces lets us see a little boy learning weather basics as he’s eyeballing storms from his dad, and caution from his mother. The kid is handed Dad’s stethoscope and told that “Mom is inventing something” that will let the world “hear” storms about to turn tornadic from far enough off to save lives.

Close-ups of hands grabbing radios or dial cell phones, a “Brody Storm Labs” truck peels out, a child walks up to a Spielbergian window to glimpse an awesome “Close Encounter” in the making and a tragedy, mostly off-camera, is heard on shortwave radio and seen in the unanswered cell phone in an overturned truck.

That seven minute prologue is so beautifully handled it should give Winterstern a dandy sizzle reel to show folks when he’s trying to line up work, even if not a lot of people see “Supercell.”

Here’s what you’ll miss if you don’t.

Daniel Diemer of TV’s “The Midnight Club” is Will Brody, son of the “legendary” storm chaser, a teen helping his mom clean houses in BFE, Florida because that’s where she moved them and that’s what she does after the trauma of losing her husband and two Oklahoma University grad students did to her.

Will’s grown up not knowing his dad, and obsessed with storms and the DIY gear his parents invented to “listen” to them. That gadget gets him in trouble when he keeps it in a backpack at school. The principal and the cops thought it was a bomb.

When he bolts out a window to climb on the roof in “the lightning capital of America” (Florida) to use it, they get it. Longtime rich girl crush Hunter (Jordan Kristine Seamón), the one giving him driving lessons in her vintage Mustang, is further smitten.

Dad’s old journal arriving in the mail has Will hitchhiking to Texas, just showing up at Uncle Roy’s (Skeet Ulrich) door. That’s how he falls in with “Brody Storm Chasers,” a company named for his uncle and his late father but owned by gonzo, low-rent capitalist Zane (Baldwin).

When Mom finds out, she’s “There’s no place safe in that entire TIME zone this time of year” pissed. But since her truck’s broke, she’ll have to ride share to Texas with Danger Boy-loving Hunter.

They’d better hurry. It’s that time of year.

The state of the art in digital effects is in a different universe than the one “Twister” was filmed in, so much so that the late Ms. Heche was able to film two convincing and perfectly watchable tornado movies in the last couple of years of her life — this one and the more tense and perilous “13 Minutes.”

Nobody is going to call “Supercell” a great film. There’s a blown line or two, attempts at humor seem strained, more suspense was needed as the Big Storm payoffs arrive too-abruptly. Characters are thinly-developed and its corny enough to be predictable, even though there aren’t really enough tornado tales on film that one could call it a genre.

But it is well-thought-out, beautifully shot by Andrew Jeric (“Sightless”) and the actors, playing stock “types,” add value with performances that land, even when characters are doing one of the “three things” you should never risk in a tornado, even as the sentimental script is skipping past a teenager’s questions about the afterlife so that we can get to a scene where today’s storm chasers slow-clap the son of their late idol.

It isn’t “Twisters.” But if the makers of that sequel have the good sense to sample everything else that’s been done on the subject recently, it is a film that sets the bar for them. A little script-doctoring, a few family photos of the late Bill Paxton and Philip Seymour Hoffman and the presence of Oscar-winner Helen Hunt and you’ve got yourself the outline, the tone and the look of a movie almost sure to be a hit.

Rating: PG-13 (Profanity, some peril, smoking)

Cast: Daniel Diemer, Anne Heche, Jordan Kristine Seamón, Skeet Ulrich and Alec Baldwin

Credits: Directed by Herbert James Winterstern, scripted by Herbert James Winterstern and Anna Elizbeth James. A Saban Films release.

Running time: 1:40

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Movie Review: “Shazam: Fury of the Gods”

“Shazam: Fury of the Gods” stumbles down the narrow line between “kid-friendly” and “just plain juvenile.” As the “Shazam” movies are engineered for a younger audience, Janie and Johnny’s first comic book movie, that isn’t a blanket condemnation.

It rises to cute, every now and then. The effects are decent and a few of the one-liners land. The tone is light throughout. And there’s a grand product placement gag.

The guest stars include an Oscar winner (Helen Mirren) and an actress who never lets us see “What did my agent get me into?” But we feel it in Lucy Liu’s sometimes uncomfortable turn as an armor-clad warrior required to ride a CGI driftwood dragon through the skies and down the Streets of Philadelphia.

While “Fury of the Gods” shares tropes and story elements with most other comic book movies, there’s a dash of cribbed Harry Potter magic dust sprinkled in too-obvious borrowings, and a narrative barely worthy of that label. Even by comic book movie standards, this is something of a stiff.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is still living with his foster “fam,” including five kids he shared super powers with when a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) passed them on to him. They’re teenagers who transform into beefy super heroes played by Zachary Levi, Grace Caroline Currey, Adam Brody, Meagan Good, Ross Butler, and D.J. Cotrona when they say “Shazam!”

But as they fight crime and try to save folks from a crumbling bridge, for instance, not everything goes to plan. “Philly Fiascos” is not the greatest name for a gang of super friends who team up, “All, or none,” on every problem they face.

But at home, they’re just kids. And at school, nebbishy, crutch-using Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) is still bullied.

A new threat has come their way. The magical wooden staff used to bestow their powers on them was broken after using, and has turned up in a Greek museum. That’s where two armed warrior princesses, Daughters of Atlas (Mirren and Liu) find it, steal it and set out to track down the kids who have the powers it conveyed to them.

That cute new girl at school (Rachel Zegler) taking the time to talk to the annoying Freddy? You know she’s too good to be true.

At least the wizard they once conferred with (Hounsou) didn’t turn to dust after all.

“Aren’t you dead-ass dead?”

That’s the caliber of the jokes here — juvenile, a little swearing teenaged.

Shazam’s hero’s journey is to face Hespera (Mirren) and his own feelings of inadequacy and immaturity.

“You play the part of a man, but you do not play it well.”

Everyone is tested, and the answer is always going to be working as a “fam” and understanding that “The most powerful thing in you, is YOU.”

Levi is still committed to the part and gives the character a big kid vibe, and that spreads among the regulars in the cast, even the ones with little to do in this sequel.

“Annabelle: Creation” director David F. Sandberg (look for her as a prop) keeps the fights and monsters visually coherent and easy enough to follow.

But the villains are generally bland, everything between the fights is dull and trips into a “Hogwarts as Imagined by Maurice Escher” kiddie superhero “lair” add almost nothing.

I’m inclined to cut comic book films made expressly for kids a little slack, but if the new head of the DC comic book film universe isn’t endorsing this corner of their empire, despite cross-over cameos in the finale and after-credits teasers, you can see why.

They may have wrung everything out of “Shazam” in just one movie. And this is just that movie’s inferior sequel.

Rating: PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, and language

Cast: Zachary Levi, Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu, Rachel Zegler, Meagan Good, Jack Dylan Grazer, Grace Caroline Currey, Asher Angel, Adam Brody, Diedrich Bader, and Djimon Hounsou

Credits: Directed by David F. Sandberg, scripted by Henry Gayden, Chris Morgan and Bill Parker. A New Line/Warner Brothers release.

Running time: 2:10

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Documentary Preview: Remembering “Little Richard: I Am Everything”

It’s 2023. Maybe the world is finally ready for Little Richard and everything he unleashed

April 21, from Magnolia and CNN Films.

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Movie Review: “Stonewalling” completes a Downbeat portrait of Being Young in China

The Beijing-based husband and wife team of Huang Ji and Ryûji Otsuka’s latest portrait of China’s Generation Xi follows a protagonist from their drama “The Foolish Bird” into college but unable to escape the rootlessness and grind that the country’s work-first/money-obsessed modernization has woven into the fabric of life.

“Stonewalling” follows 20 year-old Lynn through an unplanned pregnancy. A limiting education (“Flight Attendant” is her major) propped up by a life of part-time jobs and side hustles all point to an aimlessness that sends her back home, where we see her limited parents burdened by the same grind she sees for herself.

Whatever the ecological and economic benefits of a generations-long “One Child” policy, it slams up against demographic despair as young people come of age on the back end of boom in which their parents often left them behind to move to a city to make money. They’ve grown up unmoored and uncertain of the future and their prospects, and just in time for COVID-19.

We meet Lynn at a Changsha party for the English school where she’s been studying, in addition to her university/trade school, which is teaching her first aid and everything else you need to know to be a flight attendant.

Her more outgoing live-in boyfriend is into modeling and MCing contests and the like, and is all-in on the plans of everybody at this small school’s bilingual dinner party. Learn English, get a job as a flight attendant or anything multi-lingual, and move to Australia, the UK or elsewhere the first chance you get.

Introverted Lynn (Yao Honggui) hasn’t mastered English, won’t mingle and feels ill at ease. She won’t commit to the boyfriend’s “plan.” Meanwhile, she’s doing everything she can to hustle up cash — dressing up as a bride to be a greeter at a jewelry store, even selling her eggs to the infertile.

That last side hustle is where she figures out why her breasts are hurting. She can’t donate eggs. Not yet, anyway. She’s pregnant. Still, she goes through the screening process and we pick up on some of the “tests.” With every prospective parent wanting an attractive child with a “high IQ” and “good DNA,” it’s obvious a lot of her fellow applicants can’t answer simple math questions which are this “agency’s” informal IQ test.

Gaunt Lynn doesn’t look all that healthy herself. As we get to know her, see her bullied towards an abortion by her boyfriend and then go home to live with her parents, we have to wonder about how intellectually prepared she is for the world.

Her mother’s a flighty gynecologist who runs her own “clinic” but has enthusiastically fallen into a multi-level marketing scheme for “Vital Cream,” whose enthusiastic pitch-men she parrots at sales meetings which play like TED talks for pyramid scammers.

That’s a subtext of this deliberate and sometimes touching drama. Lynn is confronted by “I just got into this business” salespeople on the subway, in every office she seems to visit in search of work. It’s a culture dedicated to working, selling and scraping together as much money as possible with every waking minute. She herself has to pitch in at Dad’s shop, which has a run on masks as soon as “the virus from Wuhan” makes the news.

Everybody tries to talk her into an abortion, especially her mother. But Mom had an “accident” at the clinic, and she’s having to pay off a family whose pregnancy she botched. That’s why Lynn has been sending money home despite going to college and taking English classes on the side.

And that’s a tipping point in her Big Decision. She’s ditched the boyfriend. Now she’s going to carry the baby to term to “give to the family” that lost theirs thanks to her mother’s blunder.

Even that decision is subject to endless negotiations between Mom and the “cousin” of the woman wronged by Mom’s mistake. China is all business, with everybody mistrusting everybody else, and there’d be a contract to sign if this whole idea wasn’t off-the-books and illegal.

Yao brings a naive frailty to her performance, a very young woman who doesn’t know the biological basics of this or that procedure she’s considering, unhappy in her relationship before the pregnancy, slow to break free of it when this new stress is put on it.

But I have to say this film, which finally finds some genuinely moving moments in the third act, is slow to the point of laborious. Lives are observed with a decent degree of closeness (Lynn’s father slaps around her mother, and she has to intervene in one of their many fights). It’s just that there isn’t enough story here to justify the excessive run time, despite the vast collection of details that add up to a picture of China that’s something other than State Approved.

The pathos of the third act is somewhat muted as our co-writers/directors never develop the affair that led to the pregnancy or overly get at Lynn’s ennui and angst.

Still, it’s worth checking out “Stonewalling” just to see a picture of China that’s not State Approved or attempted by outsiders. This is a culture people are growing up in, and a generation of them are “lost,” with many hell bent on escaping for all sorts of reasons.

Rating: unrated, nudity

Cast: Honggui Yao

Credits: Scripted and directed by Huang Ji and Ryûji Otsuka. A KimStim release

Running time: 2:28

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Next screening? Let’s dip into “Shazam 2: Fury of the Gods”

Big name guest stars, same jokey tone. Could be fun. Let’s see.

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Movie Review — “John Wick: Chapter 4”

“John Wick: Chapter 4” is way cool, and way too damned long.

It is the epic and epic-length installment in a franchise that’s served up “the same, only more of it” with each fresh outing, a lurid, violent, over-armed, over-designed thriller with video-game brawls and comic book compositions.

The script? Aside from the pithy aphorisms and fortune cookie profundities, it really isn’t much. But stuntman turned “John Wick” director Chad Stahelski, production designer Kevin Kavanaugh and cinematographer Dan Lautsen serve up standard-setting set pieces and homages, battle royales in grand spaces that had me going, “Wait, how the HELL did they get permission to film THERE?”

I’m not going to spoil them by listing them. But if you’ve been Paris and its environs, you will be gobsmacked at all the places we and John Wick go.

It begins in “Lawrence of Arabia” and climaxes with “The Warriors,” with a lot of John Woo and Walter Hill in the middle acts. Sure, they overreach. The “Lawrence” homage is pointless aside from the matched locations, simply another way to set up the last “kill John Wick” feeding frenzy. And “The Warriors” finale is more a ripoff than an homage.

Top tip? If you’re radio reference to “The Warriors” in Paris, go to the trouble of finding a French cover of “Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide.”

“Chapter 4” is packed with fan-friendly “fan service” casting. We’ve got Ian McShane, Lance Reddick and Laurence Fishburne back for an Encore with Keanu. Hiroyuki Sanada of “Sunshine,” “Westworld” and Keanu’s “47 Ronin” runs the Osaka “Continental Hotel” for hitmen and hitwomen. Walter Hill alumnus Clancy Brown is a high priest of the secret society of hired killers. B-movie martial arts star Scott Adkins shows up as an obese, gold-toothed Russian mobster, and just kills it in his best role in ages.

And the great Donnie Yen strolls on set in sunglasses, another “blind swordsman” character that pretty much steals the movie, exactly the way he stole “Rogue One.”

Revel in their presence, enjoy the even more over-the-top fights and the grandeur of the locations and set-pieces. Try not to notice how repetitive it all is, from the start, as each action beat strives to outdo all that have come before.

The continuing story — assassin’s guild outcast John Wick (Keanu Reeves) takes his revenge tour, on horseback, to Jordan. He crosses a line there, and all of a sudden everything in his world is attacked in a new round of tit for rat-a-tat-tats.

His favorite hotel and hotelier are threatened and the price on his head spikes as he seeks relief, revenge and resolution in the assassin’s dens and over-designed nightclubs of Berlin, the expansive Continental Hotel Osaka and its bamboo Zen gardens, and the historic sights of Paris.

John Wick is pursued by the highborn Marquis, given an aristocratic venom by Pennywise himself, Bill Skarsgård. “The High Table” has empowered this inbred creep with the authority to destroy Wickworld and John Wick in it. No pardons, no hope for pardon or redemption.

“Second chances are the refuge of men who fail.”

The Henchman Who Will Not Die (Marko Zaror) is added to the ranks of The Best Who Faced John Wick. And of all those hitfolk out to cash in his contract, the most persistent is the Man with a Dog, “Mr. Nobody,” aka a “Tracker” (Shamier Anderson).

“I’m going…to kill them all,” Wick vows.

“Not even you can kill everyone.”

We’ll see about that. His foe sees him as “but a ghost in search of a graveyard.”

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Lined up around the theater for the “John Wick 4” preview in O-Town

A “pre COVID mob scene” per the theater manager of this Regal Cinemas.

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Movie Review: Growing up with “Special” parents, a concerned but sardonic “Wildflower”

You’ve got to be brave when you include “special needs” characters in your movie. There are sensibilities, issues of compassion, prejudice in a “pre-judging” sense and even nomenclature that can get you into trouble.

I hesitate to even mention movies that might encompass that term, because characterization is everything these days. “Rain Man” and “Benny & Joon” were born before “on the spectrum” gave filmmakers and actors and those reviewing their works wriggle room.

The Oscar-winning “CODA” wasn’t about mental disabilities, but the deaf parents depicted in that had “special needs,” at least in the eyes of their co-dependent daughter, whom they lean on to make their lives work.

It’s hard to consider a “Poppy” or a “Champions,” to name two titles from this still-new year, without implied judgement in how they’re depicting and “mainstreaming” characters in their fictional stories, and whether it is “realistic” or responsible to simplistically insist — as “feel good movies” do — that they should be.

“Wildflower” does a fine job of walking that tightrope. “Inspired by a true story,” screenwriter Jana Savage and director Matt Smuckler aren’t shy about the pitfalls and perils associated with two adults of childishly-diminished capacities marrying and having a baby that the most sensible members of both their families see as a burden they’re all going to have to share, because the parents aren’t going to be all that parental.

“Wildflower” is closer to “CODA” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” than “Benny & Joon,” as there are responsible adults who shrug off the idea of Sharon (newcomer Samantha Hyde) and Derek (Dash Mihok) — one with a genetic condition since birth, the other a survivor of a brain injury at 12 — “dating.” And then there’s everybody else.

A “running gag,” if you can call it that, is this person or that one blurting out, at the appropriate time, “I KNEW something like this would happen!”

The film opens with teenaged Bea (Kiernan Shipka of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”) being gurneyed into the emergency room. She’s had an accident. She’s in a coma. Her family gathers, her parents, the permissive but always-concerned Jewish grandmother (Jean Smart, terrific) and the chain-smoking and unfiltered Vegas granny (Jacki Weaver at her Jackiest) and Bea’s practical aunt (Alexandra Daddario) and doting uncle (Reid Scott).

They remember the tortured path that brought them to this point, with every “I KNEW something like this would happen” along the way. The most under-booked social worker (Erika Alexander) in history questions them all, even Bea’s boyfriend (Charlie Plummer) and her bestie (Kannon Omachi). Flashbacks, narrated by Bea, tell the long story of how she got to that fateful night.

It’s a dramedy, so we’re going to be treated to sweet moments, laugh-out-loud blunders, “inappropriate” talk and manners and some genuine cringes all through the years.

What emerges is a childhood of terrible decision-making by “adults” who were not “21 INSIDE” when they met and fell in love. They haven’t matured into parents who can put their daughter’s needs ahead of their impulses and can’t focus on simple things like shopping, cooking and feeding themselves, dealing with money or helping their child settle into school on a path that will lead to her success.

If the house is a mess, it’s because little Bea (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) hasn’t gotten around to cleaning it. If Mom isn’t ready for work, it’s because Bea hasn’t made her get dressed and led her to the bus stop.

“Did you brush your teeth?”

If Dad’s impatient with driving lessons for her “in case something bad happens,” it might be because he’s not a good teacher. And that he’s doing this when Bea is TEN.

The viewer might be amused or appalled at all this. Bea, who prefers that name because her folks named her “Bambi,” just rolls with it, a sardonic commenter on her life and hard times, her massive responsibilities and the way all the petty problems of high school are over-shadowed by this life-limiting burden she carries, mostly without telling anyone.

I like the way the script introduces the “R-word,” which little Bea hears someone call her mother at school.

“Your mom’s not retarded,” her Dad insists. “Are you?” his kid wants to know?

Dad, like his brassy, blowsy mother, is into Jesus. And he likes that term “special.” That’s why he declines Mom’s “disability” payments at one point.

Bea grew up just as cluelessly inconsiderate of how dangerous the world can be as her caregivers. Of course she jumps in the aunt’s pool. Swimming? Who learned how to do that?

You can see why Bea chooses to give up a beloved dog. Even at 10, she knows “I can’t take care of him AND my Mom.”

That could easily have been a heartbreaking moment in a movie that shies away from those. A touching scene or two in the third act is all the emotion “Wildflower” really allows. The script, to a fault, leans more on the high school smart-ass eschewing “normal” because that’s what life has denied her, but grabbing the first “normal” thing — a boyfriend — that comes along, just to see what it’s like.

There’s a distance in the writing and in Shipka’s performance that hampers the film and robs it of some of the heart that should have been its birthright. Incessant voice-over narration, the lazy screenwriter’s crutch, is a big part of that.

So’s the tone. This is a serious subject with some seriously silly things to present, observe and laugh out loud about. The movie feels like any other sensitive, smarter-than-seventeen but with BIG problems high school comedy, with “Charlie Bartlett” leaping to mind more than once.

Gullible Mom can’t even make change, so sure she’ll buy us beer and hard seltzer. Dad’s short attention span and self-absorption mean there’s no high school track meet he won’t skip to go something that’s “fun” to him.

Misgivings aside, I did enjoy the characters, laugh a lot at the right moments and wince at the appropriate times. Even when it strays away from its core messaging, “Wildflower” never steps on a mine. And when you’re working your way through a minefield, you call that a win every time.

Rating:  R for some language, teen drinking and a sexual reference Cast: Kiernan Shipka, Dash Mihok, Jacki Weaver, Charlie Plummer, Alexandra Daddario, Reid Scott, Erika Alexander, Samantha Hyde, Brad Garrett and Jean Smart. Credits: Directed by Matt Smuckler, scripted by Jana Savage. A Momentum/eOne release.

Running time: 1:46

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Movie Review: Dafoe’s an art thief who goes through some things while trapped “Inside”

Willem Dafoe leads us into madness as a sort of performance art in “Inside,” a simple, austere thriller with a highly-polished sheen.

A man, trapped by his greed and artistic/class resentment and passion for that one missing “self portrait” by Schiele, must cope with his circumstances and struggle with his fate in an apartment that was designed to be a self-contained fortress, one that easily becomes his “cage.”

Our unnamed protagonist narrates an anecdote from his youth, about a class assignment to name the “three things you would save” if your house caught on fire. He failed to mention his family or his cat, but made sure to save his sketchbook.

“Art,” he intones, “is for keeps.

He’s a 50ish struggling artist who turned to art theft at some point. But his latest elaborate heist goes wrong when the unseen tech whiz on his team — somebody else helicoptered onto a penthouse roof — underestimates the electronic security of this luxury flat owned by some sort of oligarch from Kazakhstan. The “inside man” is trapped “Inside,” with a radio-crackled “You’re on your own” the only sign-off from outside.

The claxon from the alarm is deafening. The Medieval church-door he entered through is sealed, and backed by an impenetrable steel sheet. The windows won’t break. The skylight is on a ceiling vaulted so high as to be unreachable.

When he finally works the problem and smashes the alarm, his fate appears to be sealed.

But there’s no “armed response” to this home invasion. No cops, no security from downstairs, no call to the owner, wherever he is, that his alarm was tripped. The CCTV cameras the owner’s entertainment center accesses show only indifference from the front desk guard, the maid eating her lunch in a stairwell, the rich swells going to and fro in the busy lobby.

Our thief is trapped in a spacious flat with a lot of art, much of it flattering the owner. The water to the sinks and such is turned off. The smart fridge works, and alerts him that “supplies are low,” and plays “La Macarena” if he leaves the door open too long.

Water will be an issue long before food is.

Even if he had something to cook, the stove apparently doesn’t work. The wiring, which he has ripped up in efforts to silence the alarm and/or open the door, has very selectively shut off to this or that.

The TV reception is staticky and useless, save for the CCTV feed.

Finding the owner’s Pritzer prize explains the construction. But how in the hell is this thief supposed to get out of there when even security or the police don’t show up after he’s triggered and trashed the alarms?

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Next Screening? “John Wick: Chapter 4”

Such a clever title must herald great things from “King” Keanu. That’s how he’s being pitched in the latest ads. “The King” is coming March 24.

This should be fun mayhem and infliction of grievous bodily harm.

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