Reviews: Jack Black in 'The Insufferable Groo,' Sylvester Stallone (barely) in 'Backtrace' and other movies

‘The Insufferable Groo’

Over the last two decades, Utah-based micro-budget filmmaker Stephen Groo has made hundreds of shorts, features and music videos, relying on friends and film students to work for peanuts or less on movies that freely rip off characters and concepts from popular comics, video games, fantasy novels and horror flicks.

Scott Christopherson’s documentary “The Insufferable Groo” covers Groo’s biggest opportunity yet: to work with a real producer on a project with better production values, potentially featuring a cameo by comedian (and Groo fan) Jack Black.

The gist of “The Insufferable Groo” will be familiar to anyone who’s seen similar “portrait of the impossible dreamer” docs “American Movie” and “Anvil: The Story of Anvil.” All these films thread a very narrow needle — successfully, for the most part — between eliciting sympathy for marginal artists and finding the humor in their blind spots and foibles.

All of them also ultimately want to leave the audience feeling moved. In the case of “The Insufferable Groo,” any kind of happy ending seems unrealistic at the start, when Groo and his wife and kids are living well below the poverty line, to support what’s more of a time- and resource-consuming hobby than a career.

Making matters worse — as the doc’s title implies — Groo isn’t always the easiest fellow to work with. In this movie at least, he comes across as bossy, with an inflated sense of self-importance and poor communication skills.

But he also has a passion that inspires loyalty and affection. To end on an up note, Christopherson moves the goalposts on what constitutes a “win” for someone whose work is as amateurish and outré as Groo’s. Still, there’s something undeniably inspiring about his stick-to-it-iveness, as he hustles around the Utah mountains, completing more movies in a year than better filmmakers ever will.

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‘The Insufferable Groo’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Playing: Available on VOD, starting Dec. 14

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‘The Quake’

A somewhat chillier, European-style version of an environmental disaster movie, “The Quake” (a sequel to 2015’s “The Wave”) balances city-leveling destruction with smaller, more internal devastation. Viewers seeking American action bombast may grow impatient waiting for the ground to start shaking and the walls to start crumbling. But when the trouble does hit in this film, it hits hard, at which point all the investment in character pays off.

Kristoffer Joner reprises his role as Kristian Eikjord, a geologist who keeps stumbling onto inconvenient truths about crumbling Norwegian ecosystems. Hailed as a hero for predicting an avalanche and tsunami a few years ago, Eikjord has since retreated into seclusion, alienated from his family and haunted by the horrors he saw in “The Wave.” Because of his emotional fragility, he almost misses a warning from a late colleague about an imminent Oslo earthquake.

The last half-hour of “The Quake” delivers all the collapsing buildings, debris-dodging and hanging precariously from great heights that audiences expect from disaster pictures — with director John Andreas Andersen skillfully blending practical and digital effects. But like “The Wave,” this sequel is really about a keenly observant scientist rediscovering what’s really important to him. When he ends up using his skills yet again to protect his country, it’s primarily because this is the home to the people he loves.

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‘The Quake’

In Norwegian with English subtitles

Rated: PG-13, for intense sequences of peril and destruction, injury images, and brief strong language

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Playing: Available on VOD, starting Dec. 14

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‘Beyond White Space’

It’s a testament to how advanced CGI technology has become that for less than a million bucks, “Beyond White Space” director Ken Locsmandi (a former VFX artist on the likes of “Percy Jackson” and “Geostorm”) was able to make a movie that for the most part looks as polished and eye-catching as any blockbuster. A 22nd century update of an old-fashioned seafaring adventure, this story of interstellar creature-hunters has impressively futuristic spaceship and creature design.

Unfortunately, the script (credited to Ryan Colucci and Clay McLeod Chapman) is nowhere near as good as the effects. An uninspired amalgam of “Alien” and “Jaws,” “Beyond White Space” assembles the usual ragtag crew of hotheaded ruffians and stealthily valorous soldiers of fortune, and has them get raided by pirates and attacked by a leviathan — all of which leads to a lot of scrambling down darkened corridors, and people in drab jumpsuits desperately pushing multicolored buttons.

The story almost feels like an afterthought, whipped up to support the spectacle — and not, as it should always be, the other way around.

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‘Beyond White Space’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Playing: Starts Dec. 14, Galaxy Mission Grove, Riverside

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‘Backtrace’

A sprinkle of science fiction fails to add much flavor to the bland action picture “Backtrace,” the latest in the seemingly unceasing string of low-ambition VOD star vehicles, where most of the budget seems to have been paid out to the two or three recognizable faces in the ads. In “Backtrace," the biggest name is Sylvester Stallone, who appears in a handful of scenes as a cop tracking down prison escapee Donovan MacDonald (played by Matthew Modine, who has a much more substantial role).

It seems some shady characters have dosed the amnesiac MacDonald with a drug to help him relive his past, so he can lead them to the millions he stashed away after his last heist. That little bit of fantasy schtick adds nothing to a movie that very quickly becomes yet another story about people with guns chasing other people with guns, through featureless forests and abandoned buildings.

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‘Backtrace’

Rated: R, for violence and some language

Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes

Playing: Stars Dec. 14, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; also on VOD

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‘Antidote’

Originally titled “Treasure Hunter: Legend of the White Witch,” the supernatural thriller and jungle adventure “Antidote” has a title that reflects its missed opportunity. The presence of mixed martial arts superstar Randy Couture and cult action favorite Chuck Zito might entice some curious fans of two-fisted action pictures, but even genre buffs will be disappointed by how minor-league this movie is.

Set in the wilds of Mexico, “Antidote” stars Natali Yura and Rafael de la Fuente as humanitarians who suspect the diseased mothers and children in a Central American village have been cursed by ancient magic. But Couture and Zito’s fortune-hunting brutes theorize that rumors of a “White Witch” may be just a smokescreen, meant to obscure an ancient fortune.

There’s some novelty here in the idea of a modern B-picture aping an Indiana Jones film rather than “Death Wish” or “Die Hard.” But stiff acting and a general lack of verve keep “Anitidote” from making much of a lasting impression.

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‘Antidote’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Playing: Starts Dec, 14, Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino

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