Netflixable? Siblings try to keep the secret of “Black Snow (Nieve Negra)”

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I love the way director Martín Hodara folds his flashbacks, seamlessly, into the fictive present in “Black Snow.” “Nieve Negra,” as it is titled in Spanish, is another polished, stark thriller from Argentina, and the feature directing debut from this career second-unit chief obviously knows his craft.

The worn and world-weary screen presence of Ricardo Darín (“The Secret in their Eyes,” “Truman”) has become as sure a guarantee of “quality” as any actor in the South American cinema.

The plot? That’s the weakest link in this frosty thriller about family tragedy, grudges and guilt.

Marcos (Leonardo Sbaraglia of “Pain and Glory”) and his pregnant wife Laura (Laia Costa of “Maine” and “Duck Butter”) have come to Argentina from Spain to settle his father’s affairs. The old man has died and there’s property to contend with.

“The Canadians” have made an offer for their land. But his estranged father has left a last request, that his ashes be buried with Juan, a brother whom we’ve seen killed in some sort of hunting incident in the prologue.

Thirty years have passed, and as unsettling as being back in these mountains is to Marcos, there’s nothing for it but to do as his father wished, especially since there’s a recalcitrant, reclusive brother (Darín) living in a cabin on that land, which is worth a lot of money if he can be talked into agreeing to sell it all.

“I thought we could have a coherent conversation,” he offers (in Spanish, with English subtitles). Salvador? He’s pointing a gun at him at the time.

The cabin and the sibling prompt flashbacks — sometimes in the form of dreams — about what really happened that winter hunt long ago. There’s a third sibling, a sister, in a mental institution and a newspaper clipping about “an avalanche” that tells Laura, and us, that what really happened was covered up. The only two people who know the truth are out here, in the wilderness, casting dark accusatory looks in each other’s direction.

Darín has the showiest role, a man wrecked by what happened long ago, embittered by it and not letting go of any grudge attached to it, especially against their father.

But the plot doesn’t deliver much in the line of mystery or suspense. The script, by Hodara and Leonel D’Agostino, has some twists, not all of which are strung out in the most cinematically effective manner.

“Black Snow” benefits most from its striking wintry setting, the ways this family’s sea of troubles seem anchored in that land and its secret and Darín’s brooding turn as a man who left civilization and family behind because he had his reasons, some of which we can guess, a few which arrive as a shock.

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MPAA Rating: TV-MA, violence, sex

Cast: Leonardo Sbaraglia, Laia Costa, Ricardo Darín

Credits: Directed by Martín Hodara script by Leonel D’Agostino, Martín Hodara. A Direct TV production on Netflix.

Running time: 1:31

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Documentary Review — “Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies”

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Say this for “Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies.” It’s thorough, almost academic textbook/video-accompanying-a-film-studies-class broad in its scope.

The documentary’s two hours and nine minutes take us from the first naked moving images of the human body to #MeToo, coming a lot closer to mentioning and showing a clip from EVERY movie that has ever had nudity in it than you might expect, or than is absolutely necessary. No, “Skin” doesn’t just dance through the hundreds of movies that the academics, historians, filmmakers, journalists and actors label as “groundbreaking,” or that moment when “the floodgates opened.”

Maybe that’s to be expected as Jim McBride appears in it and has a producing credit. The “senior entertainment editor” at the online film nude scene repository MrSkin.com is something of a completist, after all.

There’s marvelous, little-known history brought out, from “pre-code” to post-MPAA, “Extase” to “Henry & June,” “Magic Mike” and “American Pie.”

But the effect of this decade-by-decade, film after film having its plot summarized by a critic, a professor, an actress who appeared in it or the filmmaker, is muted by the excess.

Lost in the excess are actresses talking about “nudity riders” in contracts, nudity “required” in a film that producers and a studio want to reach a certain rating for pure business reasons, the not-really-nuanced difference between “essential nudity” and “exploitation,” the power imbalance that has ALWAYS put actresses in particular in the awful position of wondering, “Was it coercion, or consent?”

These matters are visited, right from the opening credits, a sort of CYA “permission” the filmmakers give themselves for their sometimes glib Survey of Skin on film. The differences between American attitudes and European ones on the subject are used to dismiss any thoughts of the exploitation that occasionally enters into the conversation.

When an actress talks about the eating disorder that hit her the minute she saw her naked self up on a theater screen for the first time, some editor or more enlightened producer might have said, “This is what our movie is about” because it’s certainly the most interesting thing in it.

When Sean Young mentions having to lift her shirt at the end of her audition for “No Way Out” for director Roger Donaldson, somebody — not just the viewer — should have cringed enough to say “We need to emphasize this more.”

And when an actress we’ve seen in “Skin,” time and again, explain away the decisions she made that painted her into a career corner — “She does nude scenes– finally adds “I didn’t have the choices women do today,” maybe rethinking this whole “survey” of skin in cinema as an organizing strategy should have entered somebody’s mind.

Because not every starlet could shrug it off with a carefree “When am I ever going to look this good again?”

As an overview, the blizzard of titles and parenthetical detours — into “nudie” and its subgenres, “women in prison” pictures, “stag films,” “art films” — could launch a hundred dissertations.

Great raconteurs Peter Bogdanovich, “Last Picture Show” director and film historian, and actor Malcolm McDowell (nude in “if…” and “Caligula,” a rapist in “A Clockwork Orange”) tell well-polished tales of this scene in that movie.

Landmark films in their treatment of nudity– many of them forgotten — are sampled, from the pre-Code silents to the competitors of Russ Meyer. We can laugh at the on-screen perversions that Cecil B. DeMille visited and revisited, and the ’50s and ’60s obsession with “nudist colony” set “nudies” (lampooned in “A Shot in the Dark”).

Then a wag jokes that “Last Tango in Paris” “certainly put butter on the map,” even as allegations that star Maria Schneider made about feeling “a little raped” on the set are downplayed and written off (by another male “expert” who looks about 30). And an actress tells us about learning how to read a script and a contract to ensure that you’re not “just the pair of (naked) boobs in that (film’s) distribution deal.”

McDowell sneering at the “hypocrisy” of Hollywood, the sexism that puts naked women on the screen exponentially more often than nude men, opens another can of worms “Skin” doesn’t fully address.

Any prurient value the film with “MrSkin” built into its bones has vaporizes in an instant. Let’s hope that’s by design, but the light touches that make a joke of Monroe’s openness and the “shock” of Julie Andrews losing her top in “S.O.B.” or the pointless inclusion of “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” suggest that it isn’t.

In setting out to do a complete history of on-screen skin, director Danny Wolf and the producers must have been bowled over by the access they got and the “names” they landed interviews with, all the titles they had permission to sample, and not been able to edit some of them out.

Perhaps a better approach might have been splitting this into a two or three film series, the way clips-heavy “cult films” and other histories of film genres or issues in the cinema have been dealt with. Entire episodes on “pre-Code” and “exploitation vs. ‘essential (necessary) nudity'” and the like would have streamlined “Skin,” and lessened the sense that ugly, important subtexts are given lip-service, and little more.

Because we know what the MrSkin crowd wants and will be streaming this for. “Thorough,” in this case, feels like pandering to the prurient.

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MPAA Rating: NC-17

Cast: Shannon Elizabeth, Pam Grier, Malcolm McDowell, Mariel Hemingway, Martha Coolidge, Sean Young, Joe Dante, Peter Bogdanovich, Sylvia Miles, Amy Heckerling, Mamie Van Doren, Traci Lords and Eric Roberts.

Credits: Directed by Danny Wolf, script by Paul Fishbein and Danny Wolf. A Quiver release.

Running time: 2:09

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Documentary Review: Another murder, an earlier summer of protests — “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn”

It seems like ancient history, now. In a lot a ways, it is.

There was a summer roiled by a murder of a black man, one that laid bare the open wound of American violence and racism long before this one.

Yusuf Hawkins was a black teen of 16, murdered because he and some friends went to check out a used car somebody was selling in a part of town their parents never warned them about.

The fact that this happened in supposedly cosmopolitan, enlightened and integrated New York City in 1989 hit America, and especially the city, as a shock.

But not filmmaker Spike Lee. His defining and most important film, “Do the Right Thing,” was still in theaters when Hawkins was murdered.  And it took civil rights marches through Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, the stabbing of an emerging activist leader and mob involvement to bring the killers to justice.

In “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn,” director Muta’Ali Muhammad tells this story in “true crime revisited” form, interviews that dissolve into voice-over narrations over crime scene photos and mesmerizing drone shots of the locations as they are today.

Survivors, cops, a mayor, relatives of the deceased and the accused are heard from. Archival news footage and screaming newspaper headlines follow the media coverage given this murder in America’s media capital.

And the story is as convoluted, bizarre and tragic as anything that Spike Lee dreamed up as fiction. A friend sees a classified ad for a cheap, used Pontiac, Yusuf and three friends take the train with him from East New York to Bensonhurst, because, as one survivor remembers, “Nobody told us ‘That’s off limits. You can’t go there.'”

But their parents knew.

Meanwhile, in Italian American Bensonhurst, a mouthy teen named Gina Feliciano taunted a beau with threats that she’d invited Black and Hispanic teens into the neighborhood. That guy “warned” other guys, and the next thing you know, a mob armed with baseball bats is confronting four Black kids at a convenience store, a shot is fired and a kid is dead.

Hawkins’ mother Diane relates the heartless way she got the news, family members and others tell of cops warning them to “keep this quiet.” And then the Reverend Al Sharpton, new in the public eye and fresh off the debacle of the Tawana Brawley case, is summoned.

Muhammad (“Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee”) peels layers off this story with the interviews, which include lawyers and cops involved with the case, as they contradict “the media narrative” that was pushed (probably by cops and lawyers) back in 1989.

It wasn’t going to be easy keeping racial tensions, simmering for a decade, under control. Other mobs had killed other Black men. The Central Park 5 case had exploded that spring, five young Black men railroaded into prison for a crime they were later cleared of. And the mayor, Ed Koch?

“His finger was on the trigger, too,” Spike Lee declared, interviewed outside the Hawkins home in 1989. There’s footage of Koch, leaping to conclusions about other cases where the accused are Black, to back up that argument.

The next mayor, David Dinkins, was running for office when Hawkins was murdered. He is interviewed here and seen back then, and can’t help but come off as exploiting the tragedy.

Muhammad gets so much of the story in here that it’s as if he’s re-trying the case himself. Lovely details color the film, about how the marches pushed a mafia figure to lean on the neighborhood to “give up” the criminals to the police, the lone Black Bensonhurst kid who was there that night — culpable in some ways, righteous in others, tormented about his unique part in the tragedy, the first paramedic on the scene getting the first ear full of “keep this quiet” from a cop.

And New Yorkers remember how shocked they were when those marches exploded into white riots, laying bare the racism that the city had been doing its best to ignore.

“Storm Over Brooklyn” is a tense, tight and timely film that reminds us that America itself has been doing the same — trying its best to ignore something that’s been there, for those willing or forced to see it, all along.

3half-star

MPAA Rating: unrated, some violence, profanity 

Cast: Amir Hawkins, Diane Hawkins, Rev. Al Sharpton, Joey Fama, David Dinkins, Det. Joseph Regina, (archival) Moses Stewart, Ed Koch, Spike Lee

Credits: Directed by Muta’Ali Muhammad. An HBO release.

Running time: 1:40

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Documentary Preview: The guy who might cure Alzheimer’s has a gambling problem, “The Blech Effect”

This one streams Aug. 25. Looks compelling — mental disorders among scientists and gamblers aren’t rare — and maybe annoying. “Dude, get up from the poker table and CURE this already.”

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Documentary Review: Taxidermist stuffs Bigfoot — “Big Fur”

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What an odd duck of a doc “Big Fur” is. But that just means director Dan Wayne has gotten damned close to his subject.

Alberta, Canada taxidermist, Roy Orbison impersonator and Bigfoot believer Ken Walker is a veritable rural Renaissance man.

Wayne’s film watches Walker, one of the world’s very best at taxidermy — he has the ribbons, trophies and absurdly lifelike menagerie to prove it — as Walker works his magic on his greatest “recreation,” bringing the Bigfoot of Myth, and 53 seconds of film footage to (still) life.

Walker’s work “has never been recognized by ‘the art crowd.'” There aren’t many scientists who’d stake their reputations on saying that “forest people,” “Sasquatch” or “Bigfoot” exist. And Walker confesses that taking on an “animal” for which he has no fur or skeleton to work with, which most don’t think actually exists, makes “people think I have lost my mind.”

But by the time “Big Fur” is done, your opinions on one or two of those three prejudices are sure to have changed.

“Big Fur” takes on the herculean task of rescuing the reputation of taxidermy, which city folk in particular regard as kind of ghoulish. Thank Norman Bates for that, Walker says. “Ever since ‘Psycho,’ taxidermists,” who used to garner a little respect thanks to the craft’s most famous practitioner, John James Audubon, “have been fighting that (murdered and stuffed his mommy) stereotype.”

That’s one of the few places in his movie that director Dan Wayne lets us in on a joke. He plays a little “Psycho” music as Walker carves away at styrofoam body structures, touches up glass eyes or paints the nails of this or that critter.

The rest of this quirky film is played deadpan straight — just a man, his art, his competitive streak, his “understanding” family and his obsession. Big. Foot.

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Watching him study, frame-by-frame, the Zapruder Film of Bigfoot believers, the Patterson-Grimlin Film, less than a minute of a hulking, big-hairy-bosomed beast lumbering away and glancing over her shoulder (“Patsy” she is called, after Big Foot “researcher” Patterson) from 1967, you figure “Canadian dude’s been drinking the Kool-aid.”

But the back-and-forth over that movie’s authenticity has never conclusively settled on “hoax” or “the real deal,” although “hoax” still has the upper hand. “Big Fur” throws graphics up that tell us of the thousands of alleged “sightings” over the past 100 years of North American deforestation and population growth.

No, it’s not likely. That “film” has never been replicated, for starters. But as Ken Walker croons into the mike in a spot-on Roy Orbison impression, you concede that “In Dreams” might not be the only place Sasquatch stalks the dwindling forests.

And as Ken’s project nears completion, his fame growing as it does, his story takes a personal turn that’s kind of “on brand” for rural white North America, as well.

But conspiracies, killing critters, country music, and art? He’s got quite the task on his “magic hands,” changing the world’s mind about that last label.

“Taxidermy,” Ken says, regaling another competitor at a convention, “it’s all done by right wingers, who don’t BELIEVE in ‘art,’ and won’t call themselves ‘artists.'”

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MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Ken Walker, Amy Carter, Ken Walker Sr., George Roof, Colette Walker, Chantelle Walker

Credits: Directed by Dan Wayne, script by George Langworthy.   A 1091 release.

Running time:

 

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Series Preview: Hillary Swank goes “Away” to Mars

A Netflix series about the first mission to Mars, with a multinational crew, perilous obstacles and the cost to those back home.

Josh Charles also stars in this Sept. 4 Netflix release.

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Movie Preview: “Behind the Line: Escape to Dunkirk”

A throwback B-movie about Tommies trying to make it to the evac zone, where Kenneth Branagh, the Royal Navy and “The Little Ships” could whisk them to safety. Look for “Behind the Line: Escape to Dunkirk” Aug. 17.

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Movie Review: Peril peril everywhere, when you’re trapped in “The Pool”

 

“The Pool” is terror at its most primal, a simple Thai thriller that’s complex in its simplicity.

The situation? A guy finds himself trapped in a deep, now-drained and abandoned Olympic sized swimming pool. There is no ladder to climb out on. There is no OSHA in Thailand — apparently.

His girlfriend tumbles in after him, knocking herself out as she does.

A Siamese crocodile tumbles in as well.

The pool has a  pool float mattress, a divan (used on an underwater commercial the guy was helping film), a roll of duct tape, a tree limb, and whatever jewelry and clothing they have on them.  Will any of that help them escape?

I was thinking writer-director Ping Lumpraploeng (“Dreamaholic”) blundered in telling much of this story in flashback. The opening scene, after all, shows production assistant Day (Theeradej Wongpuapan) bloodied, waking up to that croc clamping down on his leg.

But no, there’s plenty to be said about how Day got to this point (“Six days earlier”) and whether or not he’ll free himself and anybody else in the process.

Suspense comes from the near “discoveries” that pile up, the cell phone, dangling over the pool’s edge by its charger cord, just out of reach, the trained sheepdog Lucky, that Day brought to the commercial shoot, the barbed wire, the locked drain opening, the ticking over of days Day goes without his insulin.

Did I mention he’s diabetic? Sorry.

Girlfriend Koi (Ratnamon Ratchiratham) tumbling in after him just complicates matter. The script hangs Day on the horns of one dilemma after another — what to save, who to save, what injuries to avoid, which to accept to climb out of this death trap.

There isn’t a lot to “The Pool,” but that’s another way of saying there’s no more here than is absolutely necessary, and that includes dialogue. It’s an immersive and visceral movie-watching experience, inviting us to share the hopelessness, forcing us to “work the problem” and second guess the hero as he tries to do the same.

Yeah. It’ll leave you drained.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, bloody violence

Cast: Theeradej Wongpuapan, Ratnamon Ratchiratham

Credits: Written and directed by Ping Lumpraploeng. A Shudder release.

Running time: 1:31

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Classic Film Review: Original “The Fast and the Furious” still crackles 65 years later

I hadn’t seen the low-budget black and white “original” “The Fast and the Furious” since catching it in a college film society way back when.

And eight movies into the Vin Diesel franchise — with “F9” pushed back to next year — I have to say it’s still the most memorable incarnation of the title. The dialogue crackles, the simplicity of it all makes the narrow focus — on just two characters — pop.

The story? Well, you can see why Universal and the guardians of today’s franchise would pretty much abandon that. But it’s still more fun than any 1950s on-the-lam/on-the-track thriller has a right to be.

“Furious” covers an exposition-packed prologue in the opening credits and ends just before we get a dose of “the consequences.” And an awful lot of what comes between is B-movie action and dialogue at its wittiest.

Dorothy Malone (“Man of a Thousand Faces,””The Big Sleep”) is Connie, the bombshell blonde with the Jaguar XK120, the fastest car of its era. She stops into a roadhouse on her way to “The International,” a road course race that would take drivers from California, into Mexico and back. She’s just minding her own business, waiting for waitress Wilma to open a can of pineapple juice, when a busybody with a gun fingers the fellow in a black leather jacket as Frank Webster (John Ireland, of “Red River,” “Spartacus” and co-director here).

Frank is a truck driver wanted for murder. He’s just escaped from custody. He grabs the gun, the dame and her car and we’re off — to Mexico, so he says.

“I like quiet women, stay that way!”

She doesn’t, thank God.

Frank — “You wanna play rough?”

Connie — “I don’t wanna play at ALL…I guess I should be grateful you haven’t murdered me!”

Frank — “Don’t TEMPT me.”

Connie — “I HATE you!”

Frank — “Just hate me…all the way to Mexico!”

Everybody, from the roadhouse to the Esso gas station attendant to the fellow sports car racing drivers they fall in with to dodge the cops sizes Frank up as “not the Jaguar type.”

Snobs.

Some of them get downright mouthy, to his face. But Frank has to take it. He can’t risk calling more attention to himself, can’t blow his last chance to skip to Mexico.

There’s a rough and ready quality to the kidnapper/kidnap victim relationship and a gritty, “Don’t tell the insurance company” air to the racing.

It’s not just rear projection and stunt doubles. Ireland drives, and producer, screenwriter and future B-movie mogul Roger Corman was behind the wheel in one of the other Astin Martins, Austin Healeys, Nash-Healeys, Triumphs, MGs, Allands, Maseratis, Bandinis and Porsches on the track.

Maybe it’s not a great film, but it’s great fun and you can see why, 20 years ago (wow) Universal would choose to revisit the title, the crime milieu and car-craziness of “The Fast and the Furious.” If you’ve never seen the original, now’s the time to catch up, seeing as how Vin and Michelle and D. Johnson et. al. have to cool their heels for a few months more.

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MPAA Rating: “approved”

Cast: John Ireland, Dorothy Malone.

Credits: Directed by John Ireland and Edward Sampson, script by Jerome Oldum, Jean Howell and (story by) Roger Corman. An American Releasing Corp. film, now on Tubi.com (free), Amazon, Youtube etc.

Running time: 1:13

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Movie Review: Death can’t keep them apart as their love is “Endless”

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Imagine “Ghost” without the potter’s wheel, no Demi-Patrick heat — no Whoopi and no “whoopie.”

That’s “Endless,” a teen romance about love that endures past an untimely death, an entirely tepid affair, thanks to a romance that is more photogenic than passionate.

Alexandra Shipp (“Love, Simon” and “X-Men: Dark Phoenix”) and Nicholas Hamilton of “It” star as the mismatched lovers separated by a car crash.

“We totally didn’t make sense on paper,” she narrates.

Chris is a little older, having barely graduated from high school, with few prospects we can see. Riley’s rich, waiting to hear from Georgetown — on a path to law school.

But but…he has a motorcycle, a leather jacket! And he’s the latest Aussie to bear a faint resemblance to James DEAN.

She doodles graphic novels on the side, but art isn’t where the money is. He…well, we don’t see much of his outside-the-relationship life.

We don’t get much of anything out of the relationship, either — a little kissing in dramatic (Pacific Northwest) settings. And just like that, she’s accepted at the cross-country school, there’s a party, an argument, drinking and a wreck.

Queue “Unchained Melody.” Just kidding. That song is nowhere to be found, but otherwise, basically what we deal with from here on out is “Ghost.”

Yes, death comes abruptly, as it does in real life. But it comes so quickly in the film. Or maybe it just seems that way, because we haven’t had time to commit to the romance, to share Riley’s heartbreak on waking up in the hospital, with Chris in the room, to be told Chris is dead.

Only nobody told him.

“I’m not dead! I’m not dead!” Nobody hears you, dear.

You know what follows, or would if you’ve seen other versions of this sort of story — “Ghost” being the most famous. We get a glimpse of Riley’s grief, and we follow Chris into the afterlife, where he runs into ghosts who are hostile, and a friendly tour guide (DeRon Horton of “Dear White People,” the TV series).

“The one absolute rule of being dead is that you CAN’T contact the living!”

You KNOW that’s the rule these crazy, lovesick kids are going to find a way to break.

Whatever variations on a theme this script offers, none of it works without the ache we’re supposed to feel for those torn apart by sudden death. “Endless” never delivers that.

The one person who makes us feel the tragedy is Chris’s working class mom. Famke Janssen knows how to play that, dissolving into howls of pain, lashing out at the rich girl who reaches out to apologize for the wreck. 

Shipp sheds a tear or two, and reacts to the first flashes of the supernatural she experiences from Chris “reaching out” the way we do — with a hair-raising start.

But without seeing that love, and more importantly feeling it, nothing else about the movie matters. “Endless” staggers ever-onward, adding more story and not for one minute making us care.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: unrated, alcohol abuse, some profanity

Cast: Alexandra Shipp, Nicholas Hamilton, Zoë Belkin, Eddie Ramos and Famke Janssen

Credits: Directed by Scott Speer, script by Andre Case and Oneil Sharma. A Quiver release.

Running time: 1:34

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