If you've seen numerous action thrillers over the years, there's a sequence in the first third of director Ilya Naishuller's Nobody that you may initially feel you've seen before. In it, our beleaguered (anti)hero Hutch Mansell, having just endured his latest emotional setback, is morosely taking the city bus home. A gang of drunken street toughs soon boards the bus and begins harassing the driver and Mansell's fellow commuters, making particularly queasy overtures toward the vehicle's only female passenger. Deciding enough is enough, Mansell orders the five men to quit harassing the woman, and when they refuse, he proceeds to effectively, violently kick the crap out of them. Pretty much par for the action-flick course, and if you substitute the bus for a subway car and the inebriated louts for Wall Street douche-bags, you basically have Arthur Fleck's coming-out party as the Joker.
But a couple elements separate this ferocious birth-of-a-badass scene from Joaquin Phoenix's. For one thing, despite doing an excellent job of causing physical harm, Mansell is eventually thrown off the bus – through one of its windows, no less – and proceeds to get right back on, doubling the length of the sequence and its thrillingly nasty, fiercely choreographed fun. And for another, after the goons have been dispatched and it appears that the carnage has reached its end, Mansell, sensitive husband and father that he is, takes pity on the poor sap who's choking on his own blood: He gives the kid a tracheotomy. With a drinking straw. You know … so the guy doesn't suffer much.
That's Nobody in a nutshell: more brutal than you expect it to be, and, in its dementedly over-the-top way, a lot wittier than it has any right to be. At first, I hesitated about going into too much detail regarding the bus attack, partly because the sequence boasts such a great, vicious punchline. Yet aside from its delirious reveal involving one of the film's supporting figures, this pungent revenge saga is almost entirely spoiler-resistant; the fun comes not from what happens, but rather the speed, economy, and cleverness with which it happens. Naishuller's debut feature was 2016's Hardcore Henry, a nausea-inducing experiment in first-person video-game technique that remains the only cineplex release I've walked out on (after a mere half hour!) in nearly two decades. But while I would have happily watched this sophomore effort for longer than its allotted 90 minutes, that length proves absolutely ideal for the spine-cracking, viscera-splattering kick Naishuller delivers. He and Derek Kolstad – the latter, not coincidentally, the original screenwriter of John Wick who also wrote or co-wrote its two sequels – know that we've seen the same action thrillers they have. Consequently, you can practically hear their presumed mission statement during Nobody's brisk exposition and subsequent scenes of havoc: Let's move this thing along. And do they ever.
A snappily edited opening montage introduces us to Mansell (Bob Odenkirk) and his tedious domestic life – literally the same thing day after day, week after week – with wife Becca (Connie Nielsen) and their two kids (Gage Munroe and Paisley Cadorath). Even if he weren't played by Odenkirk, that reliably inventive comedian and Better Call Saul star who's like the physical embodiment of a comfy station wagon, you'd have no trouble accepting Mansell as a put-upon, emasculated schlub, and that's before the man apparently chickens out when confronting a pair of home invaders. (One of them – a petite woman – he could easily have knocked out with his golf club.)
But Mansell, like Odenkirk's TV alter ego Jimmy McGill, has a more complicated history than his mild-mannered facade suggests. And after the guy gets his macho mojo back following that bus incident, Mansell finds himself again wrapped up in a world he thought he left behind, one filled with semi-automatic weapons, hidden gold bars, makeshift booby traps to shame Rambo, and a karaoke-loving Russian gangster (Aleksey Serebryakov) whose sibling, naturally, was on that ill-fated bus. If you don't think you're gonna hear an intensely hissed “You killed my brother!” at least once during this thing, you're required to immediately surrender your Action Nonsense Fan Club card.
Much of Nobody is silly. It's silliness, however, with a straight face and its eye on a stopwatch. Naishuller and Kolstad are as aware as any of us that the eccentric, ruthlessly amoral Russian gangster is a total cliché, so they and Serebryakov make their heavily accented lunatic somewhat more sociopathic, and lighter on his feet, than usual. We've seen Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and any number of other action icons go through these readying-the-traps motions before, so this film's creators speed through that process, too. Ditto the setting-the-warehouse-of-cash-on-fire trick that Heath Ledger's Joker initiated in The Dark Knight. Movies of this type routinely pause the action so our protagonist can launch into a soulful reverie about his buried past; that happens a couple times here, but with comedic yet logical flourishes to serve as punctuation. Nearly every genre touchstone, from the aid supplied by Mansell's brother (RZA) to Becca's reaction at seeing her hubby unexpectedly bruised and bloodied, is given an ingenious, abbreviated twist, and even the less-thorough updates have their merits. Violent chaos, and its incipient threat, being underscored by recognizable pop tunes has been an unhappy action-flick staple for a long time now. You'll get a jukebox worth of over-employed music cues here, as well. But at least this tale of middle-aged mayhem has the thematic sense and smarts to make its most “current” inclusion – Pat Benatar's “Heartbreaker” – more than 40 years old, just like its hero. (Mansell, we learn, is an avid record collector, and you won't hear a single song selection in Nobody that didn't make its debut on vinyl.)
The casting of Odenkirk, though, may be the movie's savviest, shrewdest touch. Not only is he instantly and effortlessly believable as a put-upon suburbanite who works for his father-in-law (iconic screen heavy Michael Ironside) and is an embarrassment to his teenage son, but Naishuller and Kolstad use our collective awareness of the actor's decade-plus Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul tenure to fill us with giggly anticipation for a Bob Unleashed. (Odenkirk characters may traditionally be goofs, but generally speaking, they're crafty goofs.) While Naishuller's lead is certainly credible in his hand-to-hand combat, Odenkirk is mesmerizing in repose, and it's a gas watching the wheels in Mansell's brain spin while his nemeses continually, pathetically underestimate him. This seemingly dumb yet enticingly sly action thriller does right by its star, and he does right by the movie, and the only thing I maybe enjoyed more than seeing Odenkirk in John Wick mode was seeing Christopher Lloyd in the most satisfying film role he's had in years. At one point, the comedy legend even steals the whole picture through a perfectly timed sparkle in his eye. That's cinematic larceny like Nobody's business.
OPERATION VARSITY BLUES: THE COLLEGE ADMISSIONS SCANDAL
With his affectless line deliveries and phlegmatic bearing apparently not being much of a career impediment over nearly 40 years in movies, Matthew Modine, in my humble opinion, is an actor who can ruin just about anything. But even in a starring role, Moline isn't able to completely waylay Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal. A recently released Netflix documentary directed by Chris Smith (he of the sensationally entertaining American Movie, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, and Fyre), the film is just what its title indicates: an exploration into how Lori Loughlin, Felicity Huffman, and loads of other 1-percenters – people who seemed to already have everything – got their kids into elite schools via illegal payments, suspiciously timed donations, and just a bit of Photoshopping of their children's heads onto the bodies of niche-sport athletes. Rather than delivering a straight-on talking-head doc, though, Smith treats us to reenactments with actors, in scenes shot like fiction, conversing through dialogue taken directly from the participants' actual FBI transcripts. Modine portrays the scheme's resident mastermind Rick Singer, whose transcribed phone chats and readiness to turn on his conspiratorial “victims” make the guy comes off as oily, untrustworthy, and shallow. In other words: perfect Matthew Modine role.
As re-enacted drama, Smith's movie is largely ineffective. None of the performers (not even Modine) are all that bad, but the director can't think of much to do with them besides have his phone-clenching “characters” walk languidly around tastefully decorated interiors and next to swimming pools, and actual transcribed conversation, it should go without saying, doesn't exactly have the bite of well-scripted banter. (Even a play as famously honored as The Laramie Project struggles in making its legit-real remembrances sound real.) The film doesn't dive terribly deeply into how Singer, with considerable help from school recruiters, was able to pull off his charade so long, and so often, for so very many people. And it sure would've been nice if even one of the shamed parents had consented to an interview – Loughlin probably wouldn't have been a possibility, but surely someone, perhaps even Huffman, might've been convinced to publicly come clean?
Yet Operation Varsity Blues is still worth watching for the many nuggets of procedural and, especially, motivational insight we are given, as well as the heartbreaking home-movie footage of more deserving students being denied entry into the institutions of their (or their parents') dreams when so many wealthier, better-connected kids were unfairly admitted. Kudos, too, to Smith and Netflix for letting their doc clock in at just under 100 minutes, as opposed to subjecting us to another one of the service's four-to-six-hour binge marathons. (Those can be a treat under the right circumstances, but ya know ... enough already.) An hour-40 for this one felt just right, even if Smith's fiction/nonfiction hybrid does come with a built-in hindrance, as you simply can't believe all those parents were stupid enough to fall for Singer's spiel. Didn't anyone notice that he looks and sounds uncannily like Matthew Modine?!
MY OCTOPUS TEACHER
Last week, Nomadland won the feature-film prize from the Producers Guild of America, which is frequently the sign of an impending Best Picture victory at the Academy Awards. In a similarly anticipated outcome, Soul won for animated feature, so a corresponding Oscar for that title seems likely, too. And what movie took home the PGA's top acknowledgment for feature-length documentaries? Directors Pippa Ehrlich's and James Reed's underwater adventure My Octopus Teacher, which has been streaming on Netflix for a couple months now, and which I initially thought would have been too sweet, serene, and family-friendly (i.e. G-rated) to score with the motion-picture academy. But now I'm not so sure. The argument for a win, after all, couldn't be simpler: “It's March of the Penguins … with tentacles!”
While Ehrlich's and Reed's film most definitely improves, it starts off kind of draggy, with our narrator and screen surrogate Craig Foster explaining how he staved off mid-life misery through a daily scuba-diving regimen off the African coast. (Recruiting the Nobody team to whisk us through these tiresome introductory scenes wouldn't have been the world's worst idea.) But one day, on the bottom of the sea floor, Foster encountered a young octopus whose furtive movements and chameleonic abilities the man had never witnessed before, and what results in My Octopus Teacher is a man-and-beast love story in which Foster watches the creature grow into adulthood and the creature literally reaches out and touches our human host. Will I be drummed out of the critics' union if I admit that, while watching the movie, I cried, like, three or four times?
Cinematographer Roger Horrocks' underwater photography is consistently eye-catching and gorgeous, and his camera always seems to be around at incredibly opportune moments, as when a hungry shark terrorizes our unnamed octopus friend and even bites off one of her tentacles. (Boo! Hiss!) She's a resilient little bugger, though. Not only does her tentacle grow back – who knew that could happen?! – but she develops what looks very much like a genuine bond with Foster. In one shot, I swear to God, it looks like she actually reaches out and hugs the empathetic diver, a moment that hit me in my sentimental sweet spot like benevolent James Cromwell saying, “That'll do, pig. That'll do.” Alternately investigative and frisky, serious and playful, My Octopus Teacher may start like any number of well-meaning edu-tainments you've seen. Yet by its end, this spirited nonfiction has morphed into freaking Charlotte's Web, and I won't mind in the least if it does indeed scoop up that Documentary Feature Oscar in four weeks' time. When it comes to lovable-mollusc docs, I guess I'm just a sucker.
A SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE: FARMAGEDDON
Speaking of the Oscars, the only one of this year's Best Animated Feature nominees I hadn't seen prior to the March 15 nominations announcement was the Aardman Animations sequel A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, which, like My Octopus Teacher, has also been streaming on Netflix for months. Well, I finally caught up with directors Will Becher's and Richard Phelan's outing, and given how much I adored 2015's similarly nominated original, I wish I had a better excuse – that is, any excuse – for waiting so long, because this thing is priceless.
A stop-motion-animated affair like the other works in Aardman's genius oeuvre, Farmageddon opens with our voiceless scamp Shaun and his cottony barnyard companions ordering pizzas and winding up in possession of a lost alien who looks like a powder-blue beagle in a floor-length dress, but with octopus arms. (Netflix does have a type, doesn't it?) In one subplot, the huffy sheepdog Bitzer is mistaken for an extraterrestrial; in another, the mumbly Farmer builds a tacky, UFO-themed “amusement park” in his backyard where there's a 30-pound fee to enter his tourist trap – no refunds. As with the first Shaun movie and its preceding British-TV series, the only actual human words heard come via the bevy of pop tunes that accompany the action. Otherwise, it's gloriously imaginative non-verbal slapstick, as usual – 87 minutes of unmitigated delight. The plot is E.T. The villain is Men in Black, but with a pinch of Ratatouille. The music cues are Close Encounters and 2001 and The X-Files. The visual gags are War of the Worlds, and Arrival, and Signs, and Doctor Who, and Gravity, and … . And I'm giggling again just thinking about them. Soul clearly has the Animated Feature Oscar in the bag. But spare an hour-and-a-half for the off-the-wall, surprisingly touching nuttiness of A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon. Invite the kids, too, if you want. They might not reflexively chuckle at the implications of the bull in the china shop, but they'll be absolutely tickled to learn that garbage-collecting WALL•E can double as a paper shredder.