Drenched in rather noticeable, digitally created blood splashes, the simply titled “Maria,” from Filipino director Pedring A. Lopez, serves grisly tropes of vengeance in an adept but generic package.
Formerly known as Lily during her years slicing throats for the Black Rose criminal organization, the titular Maria (Cristine Reyes) renounced her deviant past as an assassin seven years ago, morphing into an everyday wife and mother. Now, as expected with action sagas following the persecuted deserter recipe, unsettled quarrels have resurfaced.
Early on, the mention of a popular political candidate grounding his campaign on “fake news” suggests the writers were attempting to imbue greater substance into their trite formula. It’s disheartening, however, to witness those minimal touches of personality be devoured by conventional feuds among thinly constructed characters.
In the aftermath of a massacre, Maria’s demand for retribution rises as the film’s sole priority, disregarding most opportunities for moral nuance or insight into her psyche. Think last year’s “Peppermint” minus the racist undercurrents. Nevertheless, Reyes impressively harnesses the physicality and stoic demeanor of the heartbroken killer. One never doubts she’s a highly trained, fear-instilling combatant.
Aside from the aforementioned CG spatter, Lopez and crew produced a sleekly photographed venture. American viewers may still find amusement in watching this type of movie from another part of the world, even if every beat is blatantly foreseeable. Short on cultural specificity or distinctive attributes, “Maria” is utterly universal in the most discouraging manner.
— Carlos Aguilar
In Filipino and English with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: Available on Netflix
‘The Meanest Man in Texas'
Uninspired even in how it communicates its religious intentions, Justin Ward’s “The Meanest Man in Texas” doesn’t warrant much hyperbole in favor or against it. At best, it’s an amateurish effort with ill-judged ambitions that surpass both the skill level involved and its budget. At worst, it’s an incoherent collection of brutishly crafted and edited scenes.
Taking its title from Don Umphrey’s novel about real-life offender Clyde Thompson — who in 1928 became notorious as the “Kick Killer” after taking the fall for a gruesome double murder — it suffers from a lackluster screenplay that crams a decades-long process into a TV movie format, jumping through time with little concern for clarity.
Somehow Thompson, played by the director’s son Mateus Ward, never visibly ages despite surviving death row, adding life sentences to his name, and enduring barbaric corporeal pain. Physically, there is no transformation to back up the timeline, plus the graceless structure renders his path to redemption unearned on an emotional level.
Commendably, amid the second-hand dialogue that plagues his role, Mateus gives a palatable turn — which functions to his advantage when paired with seasoned thespian Jamie McShane (as the arrogant Captain Colt). Legions of inconsequential supporting characters fill the flatly lighted environments while being so underdeveloped it makes no sense to decipher who’s who. Showing up in the final third, love interest Julia (Alexandra Bard) adds another awkward performance.
Not only are the film’s individual parts subpar, but perhaps more concerning is that Ward managed to conceive a faith-based project devoid of conviction — typically, their primary strength.
— Carlos Aguilar
‘The Meanest Man in Texas’
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills
Everyone is terrible in “Extracurricular Activities,” a dark comedy without any laughs and a mystery that doesn’t need to be solved. The indie film is as cynical as the best teen black comedies such as “Heathers” and “Election,” but it lacks that crucial element: wit. You can’t root for its awful characters, and you can’t really laugh at them either.
Though Reagan Collins (Colin Ford) is smart, the 17-year-old has an extracurricular activity he can’t list on a college application. He engineers the deaths of his fellow students’ parents to look accidental, then collects a portion of the insurance and inheritance as a fee. However, he’s met his match in smug detective Cliff Dawkins (Timothy Simons of “Veep”), who sees Reagan as the connection between all the deaths.
Beyond its pair of leads, “Extracurricular Activities” assembles a cast of recognizable faces from TV comedies, including Angela Kinsey of “The Office,” Vicki Lewis of “NewsRadio” and Bobby Lee of “MADtv.” However, they only appear briefly and don’t buoy the film significantly with their presence.
The script from Bob Sáenz is contemptuous of teens, their parents and the audience, but there’s little actual humor here. Jay Lowi proves to be a largely competent director on the technical side, but Sáenz’s idea is entertaining only in concept, not in execution. “Extracurricular Activities” tries to give its characters an undeserved happy ending, but the only thing happy about it for the audience is that it’s over.
— Kimber Myers
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; available June 4 on VOD
‘Zilla and Zoe’
There’s promise in the premise of “Zilla and Zoe,” a quirky, Portland-set comedy about a 10-year-old girl who would rather blow up her Barbies than play dress-up with them. Writer-director Jessica Scalise’s debut starts off strong with its introduction of Zoe (Aida Valentine) as she sets up a shot for her horror movie that leaves her doll in pieces and her cherubic face covered in fake blood and a triumphant smile.
But Scalise’s film wanders away from its fun concept with the addition of its other titular character, Zoe’s college-age sister, Zilla (Sam Kamerman). She has returned home to announce her impending wedding to her fiancée Lu (Mia Allen). Zilla and Zoe’s dad (Greg James) tries to prepare for the ceremony, and he hopes that hiring Zoe as their videographer will dissuade her from her dreams of making a gore fest. (It doesn’t.)
“Zilla and Zoe” eventually gets to a message of love and acceptance, but you have to slog through some real cruelty from the girls’ father to get to that point. His behavior feels out of step with the film’s sweet, oddball core and leaves a far worse feeling than any of Zoe’s faked violence ever could.
Some scenes — especially the ones with the impending wedding and family drama — drag on and on, and you just want to get back to the magic of Zoe’s world. There’s something special here, but it’s surrounded by drudgery.
— Kimber Myers
‘Zilla and Zoe’
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: Laemmle NoHo, North Hollywood