Halloween Kills Review

Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) spends the 12th Halloween experience laid up in a hospital bed after her near mortal injuries incurred from the 11th one. In that sense, Halloween Kills is quite similar to the first official sequel from 1981. The samesies comparisons don’t stop there as this is an inferior follow-up to what came before it. The difference is that the 1978 original was a slasher classic to which all followers have been judged. 2018’s Halloween was not and therefore the letdown isn’t as steep.

Kills takes place (like Halloween II) during the immediate events after its predecessor. Laurie, daughter Karen (Judy Greer), and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) had left Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney) to burn at her tricked out house. Unsurprisingly, it turns out to be mission unaccomplished as the masked one escapes that space and leaves plenty of dead firefighters in his wake.

While Laurie is recovering from her own stabbing, Michael has his knives out for plenty of other townsfolk in Haddonfield. As you may recall, we are on our third iteration of the killer’s most famous prey reuniting with her predator. The 1981 sequel continued John Carpenter’s storyline and revealed that Laurie is Michael’s little sister. 1998’s Halloween: H20 set their sibling rivalry 20 years later.

By the time David Gordon Green and company came around and another two decades passed, 2018’s Halloween ignored all of that. The familial connection was slashed in favor of Laurie becoming a survivalist and waiting for escaped booby hatch patient Myers to find her. Kills allow for other figures in the ’78 pic to return – Tommy Doyle (who Laurie babysat) is now Anthony Michael Hall. Kyle Richards reprises her role as Lindsey, one of the other kids tormented that night. And we catch up with Sheriff Bracket (Charles Cyphers) and Nurse Chambers (Nancy Stephens). We also spend some unnecessary time with flashbacks to 40 years before that don’t add much (though if you want CG Donald Pleasance, you’re in luck).

The phrase “Evil Dies Tonight” is repeated ad nauseam as the denizens of our Illinois murder spot (led by Tommy) seek to end Michael’s return engagement. Of course, we know that ain’t happening. Halloween Kills is the second of a trilogy that will end (?) with next year’s ambitiously titled Halloween Ends. This has the feel of stopgap viewing with no real payoffs and our star player relegated to the sideline. There are a few garish highlights. I was entertained by the couple Big John (Scott MacArthur) and Little John (Michael McDonald… not that one) who live in Michael’s childhood house of horrors and probably should’ve upped their homeowners insurance. A hospital set scene where the residents chase down another of the escaped mental patients is shot effectively.

Ultimately Halloween Kills, for most of its running time, feels painfully average. It’s more violent than part one… which was actually part II if you ignore that other part II. So I suppose this is part III when ignoring nine other movies. The gimmick of Laurie coming back (again) had its pleasures in 2018. Tommy and Lindsey coming back in the mix doesn’t really cut the mustard. Michael cuts the tracheas and tendons with dutiful impassioned restraint. It seldom rises above the mediocrity where most of this series has dwelled since part one (the real one).

** (out of four)

F9 Review

Make no mistake. We don’t watch the Fast and Furious movies because they have any resemblance to the real world. For a franchise that I cannot imagine was envisioned to reach nine entries deep, we can park our logic immediately and settle in for a thrill ride. Surprisingly it’s a formula that’s usually worked (certainly at the box office and often with the quality of the product). In F9, the luster has gathered rust. This is the first Fast feature since part 4 that I wouldn’t recommend as a guilty pleasure. We’ve reached the long-lost brother stage of the storyline. We also have characters blasting into outer space. So it’s time to stop being polite about what’s going on in this fading fantasy world.

Returning director Justin Lin (who made parts III-VI) and his cowriter Daniel Casey have swapped out ex-wrestlers turned thespians. Gone is Dwayne Johnson (a result of a feud with Vin Diesel), who brought a jolt starting in Fast Five. Tagging in is John Cena as the aforementioned and previously never mentioned sibling Jakob Toretto. As we are told in overdramatic and overlong flashbacks, he played a role in the late 80s racing death of his father. This doesn’t sit well with brother Dom (Diesel) and the two haven’t been on speaking terms since. Jakob reacts as most would with the family estrangement by becoming an international mercenary and obtaining a deadly computer system that will wreak global havoc. His employer is the son of a dictator (Thue Erstad Rasmussen) who’s working with part 8’s hacker bad girl Cipher (Charlize Theron).

The return of the banished brother causes Dom to interrupt his farm life seclusion with wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and their 5-year-old son. The band, including Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris Bridges), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) reassemble for the forthcoming sequences where automobiles do things they have no earthly business doing. Also back are the thought to be dead Han (Sung Kang) and a trio of street racers from Tokyo Drift who are now (somehow) rocket scientists. Jordana Brewster (as Dom and Jakob’s sister Mia) hops a flight home. This is where I’ll address a sensitive issue. When Paul Walker died in 2013, the filmmakers were faced with the unenviable task of dealing with his character Brian who served as co-lead for the previous entries. They handled it deftly in Furious 7. However, in a saga that constantly beats the drum of helping your teammates, the explanation of Brian simply being retired and not taking part in the action strains credibility. We’re told he’s babysitting while wife Mia is away. I know it might seem silly to discuss credibility in a Fast flick, but it is an unfortunate minor distraction.

F9 takes too long to get its motor running. The 143 minute runtime (bogged down by those flashbacks of young Dom and Jakob) is a momentum stopper. Part of the intrigue involves a super powerful magnate (think more than fridge quality grade) that whips anything in its path towards it. It’s cool the first time we see the hurling. And then we witness it again and again. Cena has shown considerable comedic chops elsewhere. That magnetism is nowhere to be found here. Dwayne Johnson is missed as is Jason Statham as sparring partner Shaw. Theron, Kurt Russell as government agent Mr. Nobody, and Helen Mirren as Shaw’s mum are barely seen (though the latter’s brief appearance is kind of a hoot).

What we’re left with is a mopey family dynamic that the franchise didn’t need. Roman’s character brings self-reference to the screenplay, often commenting on the ridiculousness of everything – how come no one ever gets a scratch on them? As I said, that doesn’t matter much when we can mindlessly settle in and enjoy it. F9 doesn’t achieve that like the bulk of its predecessors. Put another way, my tank was half full for parts V-VIII and now it’s half empty. By the time Roman and Tej enter moonwalking territory, it should feel ludicrous in a positive way. Instead we’ve had to slog through over two hours of make it up as you go along nonsense to get there.

** (out of four)

The Card Counter Review

For a filmmaker who always focuses on loners, it stands to reason that Paul Schrader’s newest picture is about playing cards. That’s not really what The Card Counter is ultimately about as the emotional damage inflicted upon the man at the poker and blackjack table is the real story.

William Tell (Oscar Isaac) follows the archetype of many a Schrader creation. Emotionally distant and more comfortable on his own, he spends considerable time in casinos across the nation. Tell, as the title suggests, knows how to count them. He also knows when to fold them. Tell could cash in big, but prefers modest winnings and even more modest motels (where he covers all the room’s decor in plain white sheets that he provides). His existence seems to suggest not wanting to be noticed at all.

William’s orbit expands when he happens on a global security convention during a gambling spree and meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan). They share a connection. Cirk’s father is deceased ex-military who was present at Abu Ghraib. So was Tell. The speaker at the conference is Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), who’s now a private contractor. He escaped any blame for the horrific actions overseas. Tell did not and flashbacks show us the subhuman conditions he witnessed, participated in, and was incarcerated for. In Cirk, our card counter attempts to help a troubled soul by winning him some some cash and paying off debts. Tell enlists La Linda (Tiffany Haddish, going for no laughs), a players manager on the mission.

From Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver to Ethan Hawke’s pastor in First Reformed, Isaac’s Tell fits the mold of the auteur’s central figures. These are damaged figures tired of what the world have to offer while making last ditch attempts to help another troubled soul. The problem with The Card Counter is that there’s not much in this example that we haven’t witnessed before from the same author. Most distressing is that the players around Tell simply aren’t compelling. In Schrader’s Light Sleeper (see that one), Susan Sarandon provided a captivating counterpart to Willem Dafoe’s lonesome drug dealer. Haddish’s character is barely written and her late inclusion as a love interest seems forced. So too is the case with Sheridan’s mopey apprentice. Dafoe’s character here hints at a fascinating backstory that’s unexplored.

Isaac’s performance, as we’ve come to anticipate, is quite good. Yet his tale isn’t nearly as gripping as others in the director’s previous works. We catch a glimpse of Tell’s training as a torturer and it is riveting and brief. With First Reformed, Schrader is righteously angry at political events. In that predecessor, it involved the Earth’s destruction via environmental means. In The Card Counter, it’s the hell on Earth that Tell witnessed in an Iraqi prison.

The screenplay offers not enough exploration of its universe. Had Schrader delved into the redundant and seedy world of casino dwellers more deeply, perhaps it could have paid off. After all, few writers have succeeded better in their other scripts penning depraved figures. The plot just never seems to properly call its ideas to fruition and the result feels unfinished. That’s rare when Schrader is at the table and it makes The Card Counter all the more disappointing.

** (out of four)

No Time to Die Review

The five film run of Daniel Craig as perhaps the world’s most famous cinematic character comes to a close in No Time to Die, the 25th feature in the nearly 60-year-old 007 franchise. It began 15 years ago with Casino Royale, which I list at #2 in the canon behind only From Russia with Love (Sean Connery’s second entry).

For those who think the dedicated team behind the series have no time for surprises, be prepared. Like the midsection poker sequence in Royale that stands as one of the finest in Bond history, there’s times where they go all in. There’s also moments that harken back to the Roger Moore days and, in this case, I mean it as a compliment. By the time we reached Craig’s third and deservedly praised Skyfall in 2012, the pics had achieved a level of seriousness that risked becoming too dour.

Despite its considerable flaws, 2015’s follow-up Spectre thankfully remembered that the action and plots in this cinematic universe can be silly. 007’s 25th adventure isn’t afraid to display that. The threat to the world here involves passing a weaponized virus only through that individual’s DNA and those related to them. It’s a little ridiculous and I once again mean that in a good way.

This is not quite the triumph that Casino Royale was. In fact, I’d also rank this a smidge behind Skyfall. The villain is not particularly memorable. Like all Craig films that followed the first, no romantic entanglement will rival the one he had with Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. Yet Die achieves the unlikely feat of bringing those fun Moore elements dashed with Timothy Dalton’s more weighty tone. The result is that Craig’s time as the super spy (the longest in terms of actual time but not volume of titles) is easily the most satisfying since Sean Connery’s.

From the jump, we realize Die is going to be a little different. The pre-title sequence begins with a franchise first: an eerie and gorgeously rendered flashback that sheds light on the childhood of Madeleine Swann. As you may recall, she’s Bond’s love interest from Spectre played by Lea Seydoux. Her connections to that criminal enterprise led by Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) is expanded upon. In the present day, James and Madeleine are making a romantic go of it. A visit to Vesper’s tomb disrupts both their safety and Bond’s trust in his current relationship.

This all occurs in the lengthy prologue before we hear Billie Eilish’s title cut. Let’s dispense with that. Ms. Eilish has some quality tunes, but her contribution is forgettable and not the kind of Bond tune you’ll be humming leaving the theater or rushing to download for the ride back.

In the serialized fashion we’ve come to expect from Craig’s tenure (something unique only to his), we jump five years to Bond in retirement. And (gasp) he’s no longer 007. MI6 is still going strong but relations with their U.S. counterparts are strained. It’s not the new 007 (Lashana Lynch) or M (Ralph Fiennes) or even his beloved Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) or Q (Ben Whishaw) that convince Bond to emerge from his Jamaican R&R. Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), along with a new eager associate (Billy Magnussen), recruit him for a mission that involves dismantling SPECTRE. Bond hooks up (not literally as Bond’s libido seems to be catching up with his age) with another agent (Ana de Armas) to do so. This culminates in a wonderfully fabulous and bizarre action set piece in Cuba.

All this activity soon puts James in the same space with Madeline again and with Blofeld. And we soon meet Safin (Rami Malek), the head baddie with his own troubled history with the criminal organization. I won’t wax rhapsodic about Safin as I mentioned he’s a pretty weak villain. On the other hand, No Time to Die is not really focused on his story. This Bond story, more than any other besides Skyfall, is really about Bond. That gives us one more opportunity to soak in Craig’s terrific performance that’s spanned this quintet. One could argue the series goes too far in making it all about him. With Craig in control, you’ll hear few complaints from me (heck even Quantum of Solace had some cool stuff in it).

No Time to Die has Cary Fukunaga taking over directorial duties from Sam Mendes, who helmed the previous two. He presides over some amazing looking chases and battles that rank right at the top of what we’ve seen previously. On a slightly contradictory note, there’s one during the climax that was a little too video game oriented for my taste. The screenwriters (with an assist from Phoebe Waller-Bridge) also remember to bring the humor. As much as Safin isn’t much of a memorable character, he does get a moment with a toddler that left me chuckling for a good minute or two after their interaction. The makers also don’t forget that these pictures can be quite weird in their production design. Safin’s Poison Garden is a glorious example.

Additionally, the team isn’t afraid to bring a rare level of emotion to the proceedings. However, it’s not that out of place for Craig’s service. We witnessed a love story in Casino Royale that went beyond his typical dalliances. His connection to Judi Dench’s M (particularly in Skyfall) went far deeper than the same character giving James his orders in the past. In No Time to Die, Mr. Craig’s mission involves the striking visuals that we’re used to. What’s different is that over the five adventures connected to each other, I felt like these missions developed a familial bond that shook the foundation of a franchise in a stirring fashion.

***1/2 (out of four)

The Many Saints of Newark Review

The Sopranos richly earned its reputation as a game changer that kickstarted a golden era of TV drama over two decades ago. James Gandolfini’s portrayal of Tony Soprano certainly deserves all the praise it got. The late actor’s work influenced so many antiheroes that followed on the small screen. You loved to hate him and kind of hated to love him, but he was a fully realized character that played out over six celebrated HBO seasons.

The main problem with The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel set in the late 1960s and early 70s, is that it’s difficult to fully realize those that populate it in just two hours. The hook drawing fans in is viewing Tony in his formative years. I couldn’t help but think of Star Wars episodes I-III (particularly The Phantom Menace). Did we really need to see Darth Vader as a precocious youngster? We catch glimpses of Tony’s journey to the dark side as he begins to abandon thoughts of a pro football career in favor of a Mafioso life. Yet the players around him don’t have time to breathe and that makes for a disappointing watch.

Many Saints (which translates to Moltisanti in Italian) begins in the tumultuous year of 1967 when Newark is in the midst of race riots. For the DiMeo crime family, they’re hoping for business as usual but the political strife keeps interfering. Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) welcomes his gregarious father (Ray Liotta) and his gorgeous Italian bride (Michela De Rossi) back to the mainland. The organization’s enforcers include some familiar names from the show with more youthful faces: Junior (Corey Stoll), Sil (John Magaro), Paulie (Billy Magnussen) and Pussy (Samson Moeakiola). And there’s Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal), who’s nefarious activities are about to land him behind bars for a chunk of son Tony’s upbringing.

Played by William Ludwig in the ’67 portion and Michael Gandolfini (James’s real-life offspring) in the 70s, Tony is drawn to Dickie’s magnetism. With his father away and his deeply troubled mother Livia (Vera Farmiga, impressively adopting Nancy Marchand’s voice and mannerisms) not making life easy, we witness the seeds sown for Tony entering that thing of theirs.

Well… we kind of do. The screenplay (from show creator David Chase and Lawrence Konner) often focuses on Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.). He’s a low-level African-American employee of Dickie’s. The racial upheaval of the era causes him to develop his own little empire and that puts him at odds with the boss. Harold’s subplot is a fine example of one that could be fascinating given more time and context. Here it seems rushed and that includes an out of nowhere love triangle that seems forced to move plot points along.

Just as the older Tony housed multiple contradictions, so does Dickie. He fancies himself a good person, but his actions keep getting in the way. If Tony had mom issues, Dickie is chockfull of stepmom ones. And daddy ones. His most confessional relationship is with his dad’s identical brother Sally (also Liotta) who’s been locked up for years. Sally, in many ways, serves in the Dr. Melfi role from The Sopranos. He gets to hear the angst ridden thoughts of a crime leader who struggles with virtuous ideas while also being a madman.

Nivola gives an impressive performance as a character I ultimately didn’t care much about. As for Gandolfini, he’s the spitting image of his father and there are moments of wistful recognition in that (as well as short peeks at the rage). The script is littered with winking nods to the series past (or future I guess). Some are mildly fun while others come off as unneeded. The latter includes a surprise narrative structure that I won’t spoil. I left Newark appreciative of the rich experience that The Sopranos provided in its six course meal. The power dynamic of Dickie Moltisanti and Harold would be familiar in any Mafia tale. It’s just not as appetizing and it wasn’t enough to pull this viewer back in.

** (out of four)

Old Review

M. Night Shyamalan’s latest is Old and it plays like a long Twilight Zone episode which rapidly puts its subjects in that time frame of their lives. If you’ve seen the trailer or TV spots, what you see is essentially what you get. The writer/director is responsible for putting this uninteresting group on a gorgeous beach. That’s in the figurative sense since he created them. It’s also in the literal way because Shyamalan casts himself as the driver who takes them there.

Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca Cappa (Vicky Krieps) are on the verge of splitting up and they take their 6-year-old boy and 11-year-old daughter on a tropical excursion before they break the news. They know this is meant to be a short-lived paradise, but they get more than they bargained for. You know how parents say their youngsters act like teenagers before they should? It happens here.

The Cappas are taken to a secluded area of the island for R & R. Joining them are a surgeon (Rufus Sewell) and his snotty wife (Abbey Lee) and their 6-year-old going on 11…13…15 (eventually played by Eliza Scanlen). There’s a nurse (Ken Leung) and his wife (Nikki Amuka-Bird) that’s prone to seizures. In the latest example of eye rolling character choices, we also have a hemophiliac rapper (Aaron Pierre) who goes by the name of Mid-Sized Sedan. This might an even more cringe worthy use of a hip hop reference than James McAvoy’s MC skills in Split. 

Once placed in the breathtaking locale, all the vacationers discover they’re aging approximately one year every half hour. This is, of course, first noticed with the children. The Cappa kids morph into Thomasin McKenzie and Alex Wolff. Their elders fall prey to the typical signs of advanced age – disease, Alzheimers, low calcium content. Poor Mid-Sized Sedan never gets the chance to trade in for a cooler sounding vehicle name.

In Shyamalan’s best features (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs), the auteur created pretty interesting characters to place in his twisty tales. That is just not the case with this group. Even a coasting Shyamalan is reliable for a few thrills, but they don’t roll in too often.

Too much of Old is filled with his clunky dialogue. The kids talk like adults before they actually are a few hours later. The surprise developments toward the end (which aren’t all that shocking) hint at a larger picture. They may have been engrossing had we not been subjected to an hour and a half of watching this dull lot waste away. This could have made a nifty Twilight Zone episode because that program ran 30 minutes. In Shyamalan’s labored production, it feels closer to a year.

** (out of four)

Blue Bayou Review

Justin Chon’s Blue Bayou has a compelling message about a touchy political issue. In its final moments, it serves as an angry takedown on the country’s immigration policies. This is spliced with moments of melodrama and a generous heaping of subplots. The mix is often just a little off in this overflowing gumbo of storylines though it occasionally has the recipe right for an emotional payoff.

The director serves as star and writer here. Chon is Antonio LeBlanc and he’s lived just outside of New Orleans for his cognizant life. A tattoo artist with a criminal past, Antonio is on the right track with his pregnant wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and precious stepdaughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). He remembers little (or so he says) about his first years in South Korea before becoming a foster child stateside, which too is off limits for discussion.

Kathy’s ex (Mark O’Brien) is a police officer who wants more face time with Jessie. That domestic dynamic puts Antonio in jeopardy when an encounter calls his naturalization status into question. Facing deportation, Bayou shifts to showing the impossibly jumbled procedural morass to remain in the only home that Antonio has truly known.

Speaking of shifting and jumbling, there’s a lot of it in this screenplay. In addition to the looming court date, our protagonist strikes up a friendship with a cancer stricken Vietnamese woman (Lanh Dan Pham). Their interactions touchingly show Antonio a life of family and fellowship that’s often escaped him.

Regarding his past criminal offenses involving stolen motorcycles, Antonio’s quick need for cash has him pondering a return to that life. This causes major tension between him and Kathy. Vikander is quite good in the role. She’s not your typical suffering spouse. One gets the impression that she’s the one holding it all together for her small but growing family. The actress gets a lovely moment in which she croons the track serving as the title.

We delve into Antonio’s abusive past – both in Louisiana and overseas. He also happens to be good buds with an ICE agent (a hulking Tony Vitrano) who might be escorting him onto a plane at some point. There’s Kathy’s disapproving mother. In the film’s worst characterization, there’s the partner of Kathy’s former boyfriend. He’s played by Emory Cohen as an exaggerated coconut drink sipping buffoon who’s either being the main reason for Antonio’s troubles or talking about andouille sausage. Cohen’s role has about as much subtlety as J.W. Pepper, the loud and crude Bayou sheriff from Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun (Roger Moore’s first two James Bond features).

The heart of Blue Bayou is certainly well-placed and its urgent call for reform is best felt in the epilogue displaying real cases of injustice and the legal loopholes that caused them. In the midst of all the subplots and busy work of the script, Antonio’s connection with Jessie is the one that may get you misty eyed. Chon is passionate about his subject matter. Yet it frequently feels like the passion could have been harnessed into a more cohesive structure and not this unwieldy result.

**1/2 (out of four)

Malignant Review

Malignant is exactly the kind of movie you get to make if you’re responsible for the success of three hugely profitable horror franchises like Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring Universe. That’s James Wan and he’s also dabbled in other cinematic series by directing Furious 7 and Aquaman. Here he gets to return to his roots and clearly do whatever he pleases. Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but I volleyed between wanting to commend and condemn him for it.

A prologue set in 1993 introduces us in dimly lit fashion with Gabriel. He’s a young psychiatric patient who can control electricity and speaks in a manner where he sounds like he’s on a bad Zoom conference call. There’s also some serious killing skills involved.

In the present day, he reappears in the visions of Madison Lake (Annabelle Wallis). The Seattle native lives in a creepy home with her creepy abusive husband Derek (Jake Abel). She’s preggers and anxious after suffering previous miscarriages. A fight with Derek results in the appearance of Gabriel that leaves her a widow.

Turns out that Madison shares a connection with the murderer that’s stronger than his cell phone connection when he threatens victims. Writing a proper review would spoil the surprises of what’s to come, so I’ll be careful. Gabriel is exacting revenge on some medical professional who scarred his childhood. The adopted Madison must exorcise repressed memories from her own upbringing to solve the mystery. Helping our central figure is sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson). Searching for the bloody connection between Madison and Gabriel are two detectives – sympathetic Kekoa (George Young) and no nonsense Regina (Michole Briana White).

Much of the backstory is told via grainy videotapes. That seems appropriate as Wan is paying homage to 1980s slashers that would have went straight to the aisle for your VHS perusing. There’s cheesy dialogue, a reliance on splatter over scares, and I never had a doubt that Wan is having a ball getting away with making it. This might have gotten a lengthy writeup in Fangoria magazine and I bet its maker would’ve loved that. The magazine still exists but the article woulda been cooler in 1985.

Malignant is bound to be debated by genre fans for its WTF twist that occurs in the third act. I won’t lie – I grinned ear to ear when first revealed. Yet it was more of a reaction to the filmmaker getting a $40 million budget to put this out to unsuspecting viewers. Wan is a master craftsman and there are a few moments of technical bravura. Conversely there’s plenty of times where it looks like his cheapest pic since Saw and that’s not an accident.

I could never fully escape the thought that Wan is having more fun than I was. The first half of Malignant isn’t much different than your run-of-the-mill sound effects laden fright fest. Once it reaches the aforementioned nutty turning point, I admired the brazenness more than the execution.

**1/2 (out of four)

Worth Review

Sara Colangelo’s Worth tells the true story of a man tasked with the impossible – assigning a price tag to the thousands of individuals who perished on 09/11. That’s Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton), an expert numbers cruncher. He’s a former Chief of Staff to Senator Ted Kennedy, but his own political skills are lacking. Feinberg approaches the assignment of creating the Victims Compensation Fund with a lawyerly precision that doesn’t match the emotional toll and anger of its survivors. That’s until he begins to listen.

In the wake of that horrific Tuesday, the Congress passed the measure which allows Feinberg to get to work. The kicker is that 80% of respondents must agree to sign up and therefore waive the ability to sue the airlines and they must do so within two years. That’s a tall order as Feinberg and his team, including Amy Ryan’s second in command, pore through each case. How much should the family of the cleaning crew at the World Trade Center be paid as compared to the CEO’s widow in the corner office? Can there ever be a satisfactory formula for an unprecedented situation?

The screenplay from Max Borenstein gives us specific case files to ponder. There’s the wife (Laura Benanti) of a firefighter who had a secret family. The long-time partner of a man whose parents won’t acknowledge their relationship (therefore cutting him out as a beneficiary). And there’s the widowed Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci) and the blog he starts that points out the unfairness and inequities of the Fund. Wolf’s civil interactions with Feinberg (and the fine performances of Keaton and Tucci) provide the film’s most involving dramatic moments. They occasionally punctuate a somewhat repetitive watch.

I got the feeling that a documentary where the actual survivors talked about their own decision making process with the Fund would have been far more worthy of attention. This dramatized version does a commendable job setting up the premise and is so-so at the execution. President Bush phones Feinberg to josh him that no one would want this job. The lawyer must navigate opaque meetings with Attorney General John Ashcroft (Victor Slezak) and airline lobbyists whose bottom line is not to go bankrupt. Yet most of the running time centers on Feinberg’s growing sympathy for those left behind. Each case is important, but the script does little to elevate any of them beyond a different kind of formulaic treatment.

**1/2 (out of four)

Pig Review

Michael Sarnoski’s Pig is best savored when not knowing what course it will take next. This is more of a character study with Nicolas Cage playing a fascinating one. It’s a reminder of how special he can be when the recipe is done right.

Cage’s Rob lives off the grid in the Oregon wilderness with his trusty truffle pig. When that beloved companion is taken from him, the unkept and determined recluse makes it his mission to bring home the bacon. By his side is Amir (Alex Wolff), a supplier to high-end Portland restaurants who is seemingly Rob’s only non-swine contact. He has a strained association with his rich father (Adam Arkin), who pulls a lot of strings in this unique world of Pacific Northwest based foodies.

I wouldn’t blame you for assuming that Cage goes all John Wick in his quest. That’s only one area where the screenplay (written by the director) leaves you pleasantly surprised. Our lead has given us gobs of overly hammy acting outbursts and the one named Pig lets him do the opposite. This is a mostly quiet and even subtle performance from Cage.

This picture is about past and current losses and how Rob and Amir deal with them. It’s about relationships that cannot be rekindled, but how the memories of them could help heal. The script also amusingly plays around with the self-importance of its characters. This applies to chefs preparing tiny and pricey meals when they’d rather be cooking something else. There’s also Amir’s incessant classical music listening with a voiceover telling him how special it is.

We also see glimpses of an underground lair of culinary employees who seem to adhere to a code known only to them. This is a strange universe which might be at home in a John Wick flick if explored further. To borrow another Keanu Reeves reference, it’s also one in which Rob used to be its Neo. All of this comes together due to that sow swipe, but Pig has more on its mind thematically than revenge. This dish serves up consistently unexpected rewards.

***1/2  (out of four)