THE MARKSMAN (2021)

January 14, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Liam Neeson’s particular set of skills, and his grumpy face, seem to show up on screen most every January. If there is a surprise to this year’s entry, it’s that the annual Liam action movie is not directed by Jaume Collet-Sera, as were THE COMMUTER (2018), RUN ALL NIGHT (2015), NON-STOP (2014), and UNKNOWN (2011). Mr. Collet-Sera has apparently traded Liam in for The Rock as his go-to action star. Instead, it’s director Robert Lorenz (TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE, 2012) who co-wrote the script with two other first time screenwriters, Chris Charles and Danny Kravitz. As with most (not all) of Mr. Neeson’s aging-action-hero films, this one is both watchable and forgettable.

Jim Hanson (Neeson) is a struggling Arizona cattle rancher. He’s also a flag-flying former Marine, who carries a walkie-talkie so he can immediately inform the Border Patrol whenever he spots “IAs” (illegal aliens) crossing his land. Jim is a shell of his former self ever since his beloved wife passed away. He spread her ashes on the hill next to his rundown home … a home that sits on land in the final stages of bank foreclosure. Her daughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick, “Vikings”) is part of the Border Patrol and periodically keeps tabs on Jim.

Although he never seems to care much for those crossing the border, Jim’s quick to offer a drink to anyone stranded and injured, even as he calls the Border Patrol. A young boy and his pleading mother are no different until a carload of cartel boys show up. The subsequent shootout leaves a couple of people dead and ignites a cross-country cat-and-mouse chase. A previous scene from Mexico taught us that the mother, Rosa (Teresa Ruiz), and her son, Miguel (Jacob Perez), were sent on the run thanks to her brother’s crossing of the cartel. Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba, THE 33, 2015) is the intimidating cartel soldier sent to kill the mother and son.

The story covers Monday through Saturday, in what would be considered a stressful week for just about anyone. Jim had promised Miquel’s mother that he would take the boy to her cousin’s home in Chicago, and being the good soldier, he is committed to fulfilling his duty. Along the way, the grizzled old man and the angry young boy bond while driving in Jim’s bullet-riddled pickup truck. Hot dogs and hamburgers play a role, but mostly a late confrontation in a barn attempts to add some character development to a story that, to this point, had very little.

Filmmaker Lorenz has a history with Clint Eastwood, and offers up a respectful nod to his mentor by including a grainy scene from HANG ‘EM HIGH on a motel television. There is surprisingly little political commentary included, which actually adds to the slowness and dryness of the material. Liam Neeson is now 68 years old, and he has developed a nice little niche for himself with these action movies that are interesting enough to burn a couple of hours for viewers.

Coming to theaters January 15, 2021

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DA 5 BLOODS (2020)

January 8, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Co-writers Danny Bilson (father of actress Rachel) and Paul De Meo, collaborators on the underrated THE ROCKETEER (1991), originally wrote this story about white veterans returning to Vietnam. That project was never able to move to production. When (Oscar winners for BLACKKKLANSMAN, 2018) Spike Lee and his co-writer Kevin Willmott got involved, the characters shifted and it became a story about African-American veterans, and the film now carries a distinct message about racism and the effects of war on those who feel unappreciated.

Director Lee opens the movie with a montage of such historic events and influential people as the lunar landing, Angela Davis, LBJ, Kent State, Jackson State, Richard Nixon, Bobby Seale, and Donald Trump, along with statements from Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, both vocal in their opposition to the Vietnam War. Mr. Lee knows exactly what he’s doing, as this prologue sets such a serious tone upfront that we are maneuvered, or at least urged, into accepting his film as truth-based.

Four war veterans who served together are seen reuniting in the lobby of a hotel in modern day Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). As the men warmly greet each other, we quickly grasp the individual personalities. Paul (Delroy Lindo) is the hot-headed, grudge-holding, MAGA hat wearing fellow who bares his emotions on his sleeve (if he were wearing sleeves). Otis (Clarke Peters) is the former medic, and calm mediator, while Eddie (Norm Lewis) is the successful capitalist, and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr) is the free-wheeling, party guy. Why are there only 4 ‘bloods’? Well, officially the men are there to exhume the remains of their fallen and revered squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and return him to his family in the United States.

The official mission got the men back to Vietnam, but it’s their ulterior motive that turns this into something akin to a heist movie. The men plan to recover the millions of dollars of gold bars they buried in the jungle all those years ago. Though he has not been invited, Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) shows up, intent on accompanying dear old dad and his war buddies on their big score. Cashing in on the gold requires the men to trust Tien (Y. Lan), a former local prostitute who had a relationship with Otis during the war, and Desroche (Jean Reno), a shady black market French money man. Director Lee attempts to sustain some suspense regarding the Desroche character, but as the only white man involved, that mystery falls a bit flat.

Additional supporting work is provided by Melanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, and Jasper Paakkonen as a trio that inadvertently gets caught up in the bloods’ scheme. A nice touch is Veronica Ngo as Hanoi Hannah, with her lines pulled from actual broadcasts during the war – including the unsettling send off, “Have a good day, gentlemen.” There is little doubt this is meant to be Delroy Lindo’s film. His raging rants and explosive PTSD express the frustrations felt by many Vietnam War veterans, but particularly the African Americans, whom we are told made up 32% of soldiers on the battlefields. Lindo has a scene near the end of the film where he looks directly into the camera and goes off for a few minutes. It’s the kind of scene that garners award recognition. Special notice also goes to Chadwick Boseman, whose final two films were this one and the excellent MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM. In Lee’s film, we absolutely accept Boseman as the spiritual and military leader of these men.

Spike Lee seemed to enjoy paying tribute and tipping his Knicks’ cap to many influences throughout the film. Especially notable are the similarities to scenes from Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) and John Huston’s THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948), including the iconic “stinkin’ badges” line. Lee also pokes some fun at Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo, and the whole genre of a white man as savior. Donald Trump certainly doesn’t escape unscathed, as he’s referred to as “President Fake Bone Spurs”. On a lighter note, the 5 Bloods plus Paul’s son share their first names of those from the original Motown group, The Temptations, as well as their famed producer (Norman Whitfield). Lee also includes heartfelt tributes to African American war heroes Crispus Attucks and Milton Olive, and then includes some tremendous songs from the late, great Marvin Gaye.

The cinematography from Newton Thomas Sigel is exceptional, and Lee opts to change aspect ratios for the flashback scenes. Yet another interesting choice is that even during those flashbacks, the Bloods look their current age, even though it was 50 years prior. The idea being, in their memories, they see themselves as they are today. One glitch is that, periodically, composer Terence Blanchard’s score overpowers the moment. Not always, but enough to distract. Spike Lee really mixes things up, as at various times, this is a story of friendship, loyalty, history, greed, and camaraderie … and the emotional price paid for war. At 154 minutes, the run time is a bit long, but it’s one of Mr. Lee’s more ambitious films, and perhaps one of his best.

Available now on Netflix

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GRIZZLY II: REVENGE (1983/2021)

January 6, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. The slate of movies I review each year leans heavily towards serious and dramatic material, but is there anything more serious than an 18 foot tall grizzly bear seeking revenge for the poaching of her cubs? And is there a better springboard to success for actors than the sequel to a cheesy land-based riff on JAWS? OK, I sense your skepticism. What if I told you that sequel featured three Oscar winners, and the original was one of the most profitable ROI films of the year? Starting to come around, aren’t you?

Well, before you get overly excited in anticipation of this film’s release, please allow me to explain … or come clean. This 1983 film has its own special place in cult film lore. Some even doubted its existence (or at least the actual title). But now, after all these years and rumors, the legend comes to life, and has not only been “completed”, but is getting a semblance of release. If you love schlock horror where nature-goes-awry, with the added bonus of ‘spot the actor’ (now almost 40 years older), then there is the possibility you are worthy of watching this … this … abomination (meant here as a term of endearment).

You should know that there are very few sightings of the enormous grizzly bear; although we do get an opening sequence with some quality camera work featuring grizzlies in the wild. Even though we don’t see much of the titular beast, she does dominate the story. The earliest sequence features three young campers ignoring bear warning signs. These three campers are why we are all here. A pre-“E/R” George Clooney (21 years old) sports a denim vest before climbing in a sleeping bag with a partially clothed 16 year old Laura Dern, who has somehow managed to complete the hike wearing sandals and whining the entire time. The third wheel is played by a 17 year old with hair hanging in his eyes and acne on his face. You’ll recognize him as Charlie Sheen, although here he looks very much like brother Emilio. If you show up for this trio, hold off on the potty break, because there’s an angry grizzly lurking.

There are other pieces to the story … and I use ‘pieces’ in a manner similar to what one sees in an intersection after a couple of cars collide. A group of drunk poachers roam the woods looking to collect grizzly gall bladders, which evidently have value on the black market. The Park Rangers are preparing for an upcoming rock concert where 100,000 attendees are expected. A concert promoter played by Louise Fletcher (an Oscar winner as Nurse Ratched in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, 1975) bullies the newest Park Ranger played by Steve Inwood (who also appeared in STAYING ALIVE that same year, reaching world class clunker status twice in 1983) into “the show must go on” despite the grizzly killings.

This was director Andre Szots’ second and final feature film as a director, though he did have a career as a producer. The husband and wife writing team of David Sheldon and Joan McCall ‘crafted’ the screenplay. He was also a co-writer on the original GRIZZLY (1976), while she appeared on screen in it. Continuing our game of ‘spot the actor’, we can’t help but notice Deborah Foreman as the lead Ranger’s wide-eyed daughter. Ms. Foreman was a very popular actor in the 1980’s, including a starring role in VALLEY GIRL (1983). Unfortunately her career never hit the heights many predicted, although she does have one of the best lines in this film when she proudly states her skill at working a phone – both dial and push-button! Fans of either the “Lord of the Rings” or “Indiana Jones” franchises will surely get a kick out of John Rhys-Davies as a lumberjack-American Indian, who is renowned for his expertise in hunting “the devil bear”. Other familiar faces include a young Timothy Spall (MR TURNER), Deborah Raffin (rumored to be the second choice for Sandy in GREASE), Ian McNiece (ACE VENTURA: WHEN NATURE CALLS, 1995), Dick Anthony Williams (a hard-working actor from the 1970’s until his death in 2012), Jack Starratt (actor in FIRST BLOOD, 1982, director of RACE WITH THE DEVIL, 1975), and Charles Cyphers, who played the Indians’ General Manager in MAJOR LEAGUE (1989).

The joy in seeing these folks in one place is compromised (to say the least) by the horrendous 1980’s pop music being performed by those on stage attired in just about any outrageous 80’s fashion you can recall. Initially comical, the musical acts quickly evolve into something stomach-churning to watch. The kindest description of the production quality is “low-budget”, but there is simply no term for the effects. A Darth Vader breathing sound is heard when the grizzly is near, a speeding Ranger jeep on a dirt path is used to create suspense (the same shot is used multiple times), the day-night inconsistencies could be their own drinking game, and fireworks and a forklift prove to be a bad mix with our grizzly. Finally, for reasons we never really understand, a US Senator is a guest at the concert, and these days a Senator would likely be considered a greater threat than an 18 foot grizzly. You’ve heard the adage, “so bad it’s good”, well this one is simply so bad it’s bad. William Girdler directed the original GRIZZLY in 1976, and he tragically died at age 30, just two years later.

Available On Demand January 8, 2021

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WONDER WOMAN 1984

December 26, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Some of the key elements that make Wonder Woman appealing is that she’s smart, she’s nice, she’s dedicated to doing good, she’s grounded in her history, and her use of her powers makes sense (in a comic book kind of way). Most of that holds true in filmmaker Patty Jenkins’ sequel to her 2017 blockbuster WONDER WOMAN. So why did that one work so well, while this one falls short? It’s not an easy question to answer, though it could be as simple as having the wrong target.

Gal Gadot returns as Diana Prince, and this time she’s plopped into 1984 (the year, not the novel). This creates a cornucopia of opportunity for social commentary and satire from Ms. Jenkins and her co-writers Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham. After all, it was the era of atrocious popular music, outlandish fashion, and a relentless pursuit of greed by the “me” generation. The film pounces on each of these by using the return of Diana’s main squeeze, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), as a device for highlighting the absurdity of belly bags and pastel tank tops for men. In the first movie, the WWI pilot wakes up in Themyscira, and this time, he just kind of materializes in the year of GHOSTBUSTERS, shopping malls, and President Ronald Reagan. While this certainly qualifies as extreme culture shock, the parade of outfits and Steve’s wide-eyed tour through the city are over-the-top, even for their attempted comedic effect.

Over-the-top also describes the film’s two main villains. Pedro Pascal (“Game of Thrones”) plays TV hypester and con man Maxwell Lord. He’s a greedy, self-centered man willing to do anything to get “more”. Kristen Wiig is Barbara Minerva, a bumbling, forgettable klutz who works at the same museum as Diana. She simply wants to be cool like Diana and have people acknowledge her existence. Things shift quickly thanks to the Dreamstone sitting in Barbara’s in-box waiting for research. What follows is more than two hours of seeing the fallout of people having their wishes come true. If you’ve learned anything about human nature during this pandemic year, then you won’t be surprised at how people react to gaining power.

Maxwell Lord is not dissimilar to Lex Luthor in SUPERMAN (1978), as his goal is ultimate power and control – though to what end, he’s not sure. Barbara Minerva was never really power hungry, but a taste of it was much to her liking, and she transitions to The Cheetah for Wonder Woman’s biggest fight scene. There is also a message about what one sacrifices to have their wishes come true. This aspect of the film could be psychoanalyzed were one so inclined. Lord’s relationship with his son is convoluted, and the early Barbara is a mess … making their “sacrifices” a bit less obvious than that of Diana.

The opening sequence is the one this viewer most enjoyed. Spectacular camera work takes us to a competition on Themyscira, as a very young Diana (Lilly Aspell returns) goes against the grown warriors, while Antiope (Robin Wright) and Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) look on and teach hard life lessons. Not only do these actors return, but most of Ms. Jenkins’ WONDER WOMAN crew is back, including cinematographer Matthew Jensen. The changes include Film Editor Richard Pearson and Hans Zimmer provides the new score. Some of the dialogue is tough to take. As an example, Diana says “I don’t know what to think, Steve. I only hope I’m wrong.” And later, Steve explains, “Flying is easy. It’s only wind and air.” Dialogue like this makes us want to renounce our own wishes. It may be one film later than it should have been, but Ms. Jenkins does deliver a much-appreciated cameo at film’s end, and if nothing else, it leaves us wondering, ‘what would you give up for a wish?’

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NEWS OF THE WORLD (2020)

December 25, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Even in the midst of a pandemic, December is Oscar-qualifying time. And that means we get Tom Hanks’ latest movie. This time out, the two-time Oscar winner reunites with his CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) director Paul Greengrass (three “Bourne” movies, and Oscar nominated for UNITED 93, 2006) for Hanks’ first ride into the western genre. Luke Davies (Oscar nominated for LION, 2016) adapted the screenplay from Paulette Jiles’ 2016 novel.

The beloved Mr. Hanks stars as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd. We know his full name because he proudly announces it at each stop of his news-reading route. That’s right, even in 1870, which is before television and radio and internet, a person could earn a living reading the news. OK, so it wasn’t the millions that national anchors make these days, as he was dependent on the audience dropping a coin or two in the tin cup. For this they were treated to Captain Kidd’s robust presentation of news and events (and some gossip) from around the nation … straight from the news clippings he collected during his travels.

On the trail one day, Captain Kidd comes across a horrific scene of violence, and a 10 year old girl with a shock of blonde hair. She only speaks Kiowa, but the found paperwork lists her name as Johanna (the first American film for Helena Zengel). It turns out, tragic events in her family’s home many years earlier left Johanna being raised by the Kiowa Indians. Captain Kidd is now on a mission to return her to her surviving relatives (an aunt and uncle), but there are at least three obstacles to his plan: it’s a rigorous trip of about 400 miles, the girl doesn’t want to go, and there remains much tension in the split among the post-war citizenry. So what we have here is a western road trip (trail ride) that’s a blend of TRUE GRIT (minus the witty banter) and THE SEARCHERS.

It should be noted that Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd has served in three wars, including the recently concluded Civil War. He may make his living wearing bifocals and reading newspapers, but Kidd is no nerd. He handles pressure quite naturally, as we witness in chase scene up a rocky hill. The resulting shootout not only creates the first bond between Kidd and Johanna, but also flashes the Captain’s calming influence. This is a soulful and principled Tom Hanks (as usual), but this time he’s riding a horse and his furrowed brow is working overtime.

The trip to Johanna’s home coincidentally takes Kidd very close to where he once lived – a place that holds his best and worst memories. As viewers we see what Captain Kidd and Johanna don’t. They are both headed back to a past they no longer belong to. Along the way, the two travelers cross paths with characters played by Elizabeth Marvel, Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham, and the always great Bill Camp. There is nothing rushed about the story or these people. Fans of director Greengrass will be surprised to find an absence of his trademark rapid-cut action sequences, but he has delivered a sweeping epic with superb cinematography (Dariusz Wolski, “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise), expert editing (Oscar winner William Goldenberg, ARGO), and a terrific score (8-time Oscar nominee James Newton Howard). Mr. Hanks delivers yet another stellar performance (of course), and young Ms. Zengel’s assured performance likely means we will be treated to her work for years to come. It’s a quasi-western period piece that is plenty interesting to watch, yet lacks the memorable moments to justify multiple watches or a place among the genre’s best.

Opens December 25, 2020

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PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020)

December 23, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” The protagonist in writer-director Emerald Fennell’s (“Killing Eve”) feature film debut is a woman on a mission to avenge not just what happened to her friend, but also change the mentality of predatory men … one “nice guy” at a time. She is a #MeToo heat-seeking missile.

Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie, and when we first see her, she appears to be nearing blackout mode while drinking alone on a bench inside a bar. Most people have hobbies like crochet or golf. Cassie’s hobby, or maybe mission is a better word, is to lure men, with the appearance of a drunken easy score, and then scare them straight into respecting boundaries. She’s a non-violent vigilante (as opposed to Beatrix Kiddo) for morality and respect towards women.

As the film progresses, we pick up bits about what traumatized her to this extent. It turns out her best friend Nina was victimized by a group of men from their law school class. See, Cassie is the titular ‘promising young woman’ whose career dreams were dashed over what happened to her friend. Now, Cassie works in a coffee shop with a supportive and wise-cracking friend Gail (Laverne Cox, “Orange is the New Black”), who knows nothing of Cassie’s hobby … and neither do Cassie’s parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown) who can’t help but wonder what happened to their bright, ambitious daughter, and why she still lives at home with them.

Cassie’s mission gets momentarily de-railed when former classmate Ryan (an excellent Bo Burnham, THE BIG SICK) pops in to the coffee shop and awkwardly proclaims his long-time distant crush on her. The two are clumsy and believable together, and their relationship has more ups and downs than a pogo stick. For most movies, this would be enough to hold our attention, but not for ambitious filmmaker Fennell who has much more to offer. There is a cleverness to the presentation with four specific segments: a friend who didn’t believe her (Alison Brie), the law school dean who didn’t want to ruin a boy’s future (Connie Britton), a regretful defense attorney who took the money (Alfred Molina), and a bachelor party that gathers those who make up her nightmare.

Ms. Fennell is also an actor (and has a cameo in this one), and it’s clear she has a real feel for putting actors in the best position to maximize a scene. Of course, Ms. Mulligan is an outstanding actor on her own, but the actors benefit from Ms. Fennell’s work. Other supporting work is provided by Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Molly Shannon, Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell, and Sam Richardson. The color palette is similar to an early Tim Burton movie, and in fact, Cassie’s home looks like a museum or possibly a middle-class Liberace setting.

There is a lot going on here, and some of it is quite uncomfortable – and sprinkled with dark humor in unexpected moments. Advice like “move on” and excuses like “we were kids” ring hollow to Cassie, who carries some guilt over what happened to Nina, and remains focused on attacking a system that enables inexcusable behavior. Ms. Mulligan embraces a character who possesses raw nerves and emotions she sometimes hides, while other times flashes in neon. This isn’t about a guy here or there who takes advantage, but rather a faulty system that protects these guys at the expense of victims. The ending is unusual and unexpected, and kudos to an exciting new filmmaker.

In theaters December 25, 2020

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THE MIDNIGHT SKY (2020)

December 22, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Screenwriter Mark L Smith has described his adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s book, “Good Morning, Midnight”, as a cross between the Oscar-winning GRAVITY (2013) his own THE REVENANT (2015, nominated for 12 Oscars). It’s a lofty comparison, and unfortunately, one that doesn’t prove out. Two-time Oscar winner George Clooney takes on the dual role of director and lead actor, and it’s his first movie role since 2016’s MONEY MONSTER.

Clooney plays Dr Augustine Lofthouse, a renowned scientist, and the only one staying behind as everyone else evacuates the Arctic Observatory after some unspecified “event” as left the earth uninhabitable. Augustine has a terminal disease (also unspecified) and evidently decides to stay behind because he likes drinking alone and self-administering blood transfusions. The drinking alone fun ends when he “finds” a stowaway young girl named Iris (Caiolinn Springall in her first film) and must assume the role of father-figure. To complicate matters, Iris doesn’t speak.

It’s 2049, and the film cuts between 3 storylines. While Augustine and Iris and working on a survival plan, we get flashbacks to a time when he was a younger scientist (played by Gregory Peck grandson Ethan Peck) and sacrificing a relationship with Jean (Sophie Rundle, “Peaky Blinders”) to focus on his career. The third story occurs simultaneously with Augustine and Iris, and involves Aether, a manned spacecraft on a years long mission to determine if Planet K23 can be inhabited by humans. The crew is commanded by Adewole (David Oyelowo, SELMA), and includes his partner, a pregnant Sully (Felicity Jones, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING), pilot Mitchell (Kyle Chandler, “Bloodline”), navigator Sanchez (Demian Bichir, THE HATEFUL EIGHT), and rookie astronaut Maya (Tiffany Boone, “Hunters”).

When Augustine learns of Aether and its route back to Earth, he takes it as his responsibility to inform them that they need a new plan. In order to do this, he and Iris must trek across the frozen Arctic tundra through a blinding snowstorm to reach the satellite equipment that will allow communication with Aether. This road trip through a whiteout allows for the best effects during the Augustine/Iris section. Aboard Aether, the crew is relatively non-descript, but there is a spacewalk segment that is quite something to watch thanks to the cinematography of Martin Ruhe. There is also a visually interesting segment featuring blood in zero gravity.

So what we have is a three-piece post-apocalyptic science-fiction space survival tale with a surprise twist that won’t surprise anyone. It’s likely meant as a warning about how we are destroying our planet, and global catastrophe may not easily be solved through space exploration. The film presents an interesting symmetry between the vast wasteland of Arctic winter vs the vastness of space … neither seem to have borders or boundaries, yet are fraught with dangers. If you pay much attention to the story, you’ll likely be disappointed; however, if you watch for the visuals, you should be fine.

Premieres on Netflix December 23, 2020

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HUNTER HUNTER (2020)

December 19, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The initial assumption is that this is a story of a lone wolf stalking a family. Early on, it shifts into the story of Joseph Mersault, a throwback trapper teaching his 13 year old daughter how to survive off the land. Yet, what writer-director Shawn Linden ultimately delivers is the story of Joseph’s wife, Anne, who combats not only the wolf, but something even worse.

Joseph (Devon Sawa) is one grumpy dude. He’s no fan of society or people, and the only pleasures he seems to find in life are living in an isolated cabin and teaching his daughter Renee (Summer H Howell) how to do the same. They are joined in this quiet and very hard life by wife and mother, Anne (Camille Sullivan). Anne dutifully carries out her chores, but dreams of a more normal life for herself and her daughter. The family barters animal skins for food and supplies and live mostly off the grid – and we later learn there are complications to even something as simple as their cabin.

The forests of Manitoba provide what the family needs, but just barely. Winter is approaching and now a wolf is stealing from their traps, leaving them short of food. This wolf has previously stalked the family, and Joseph aims to hunt him down. The camera work in the forest is terrific – giving us the visual beauty, as well as the constant danger. And in this story, danger and traps take on many forms, including the secrets folks keep from each other.

The wolf only makes a couple of appearances, yet the threat is always present. There is a terrific sequence that cuts between Joseph, Anne, and Renee, as each are in different areas of the forest at the same time. Each of the situations is tension-filled and our minds are bouncing around as much as the characters. Other characters enter the story, including a couple of Rangers who are unprepared for what they are about to face, and another character (Nick Stahl) who shifts the entire dynamic of the film.

Director Linden gives us a survival thriller, one that probably best compares to LEAVE NO TRACE. This one is also a psychological study of just what a person is capable of when pushed to the limit. Anne’s story is about her ability to navigate this world while raising a daughter. The final sequence leads to extreme violence, and acts as her emotional release every bit as much as rage and revenge.

VOD beginning December 18, 2020

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ANTEBELLUM (2020)

November 14, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the movie for anyone unaware that racism was prevalent during the Civil War, and still continues to this day. Of course anyone fitting that description is likely enjoying their life in a cave, and is clueless that movies exist. It even goes as far to “inform” us that slaves were abused, tortured, and lynched, while today racism can take the more subtle form of a less desirable restaurant table or a concierge with an attitude. However, while the message may be unnecessary and too obvious, the originality and creative approach of filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz is commendable, especially for their first feature film.

An uninterrupted extended take kicks off the movie, and shows us the lay of the land at a cotton plantation where the slaves are controlled by confederate soldiers. When an attempted escape goes wrong, the brutality of the soldiers is on display. One of the slaves is Eden, played by Janelle Monae. She’s the favorite of the General (Eric Lange, seen recently in two popular cable mini-series, “Escape at Dannemora” and “Perry Mason”), and he literally brands her as his property. Many of the sequences are difficult to watch as the cruelty and abuse is not sugar-coated.

When we next see Ms. Monae wake up from a dream, she’s living in a swanky home with a perfect husband (Marque Richardson) and cute daughter. She’s now Veronica, a well-known author and speaker who is living the American dream. A night on the town with her friends played by Gabourey Sidibe (Oscar nominated for PRECIOUS, 2009) and Lily Cowles purposefully comes across like it’s from a different movie altogether. It’s this contrast the filmmakers use to deliver their M Night Shyamalan style twist. Afterwards, it’s wheels-off for the movie, but we are able to assemble the pieces of what we’ve seen to this point.

Jena Malone and Jack Huston also play key roles here, but it’s Ms. Monae who gets the majority of the screen time, and mostly nails both Eden and Veronica. Although much of the film and story seems exaggerated and over-played, cinematographer Pedro Luque (THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB, 2018) delivers a beautifully shot film, so it always looks good, regardless of what else we might be thinking. Filmmakers Bush and Renz likely have much more nuanced and effective storytelling in their future, and we do expect Ms. Monae to take the step from supporting roles to leads. She’s earned it.

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DREAMLAND (2020)

November 12, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Outlaws on the run have been fertile ground for movies over the years, and young director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte and writer Nicolas Zwart give the genre their best shot (pun intended). The easiest comparisons are probably Sam Peckinpah’s THE GETAWAY (1972), Jonathan Demme’s SOMETHING WILD (1986), and Arthur Penn’s Oscar nominated classic BONNIE AND CLYDE (1969). However, given the style of this film, Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS (1973) was likely more of an influence for the filmmakers.

Phoebe Evans (as voiced by Lola Kirke, GONE GIRL, daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke) is our narrator, and from 1955 she recounts the story of her half-brother Eugene. Most of what she tells takes place twenty years earlier – 1935 Dust Bowl Texas during the Great Depression. Finn Cole (“Animal Kingdom”) stars as Eugene, and we pick up a few years after his dad left the family behind and headed for what he expected would be an easier life in Mexico. Mother Elizabeth (Kerry Condon, “Breaking Bad”) is now re-married to local Deputy George Evans (Travis Fimmel, LEAN ON PETE) and his bad haircut, and they now have a young daughter Phoebe (the magical smile of Darby Camp, THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES). Eugene reads Detective stories and mostly tries to stay out of George’s way, while Phoebe is a curious little sister, easily the most intelligent of the lot.

One fateful day, Eugene’s beloved detective stories come to life. After a local bank robbery turns violent, he discovers Allison Wells (two-time Oscar nominee Margot Robbie, I TONYA) hiding in his barn, with a bullet in her leg. Despite the $10,000 reward on her head, Allison sweet talks young Eugene into keeping her whereabouts secret, and helping her plot an escape. She swears she didn’t kill anyone and rationalizes the bank robbery by blaming the government for letting people suffer hard times. Eugene may or may not buy her story, but he recognizes this is the most excitement he’s likely to ever have in his life … plus, he’s smitten.

During the first half of the film, we follow Eugene as he helps Allison and holds the secret. When the second half kicks in, we find ourselves along for the ride as the two are on the run from the law, including Eugene’s stepfather George. Along the way director Joris-Peyrafitte includes some flashbacks to the botched bank robbery giving us a look at Allison’s “Clyde”, Perry Montroy (played by Garrett Hedlund). There are also numerous artsy flashes of coastline, supposedly representing Allison and Eugene’s landing spot should they escape. Of course, we know where this is headed – a shootout finale. Filmed in New Mexico, we do get the feel of the hard life fought by those during this era, including the powerful and devastating dust storms that require gas masks to prevent suffocation. The film is watchable thanks to the performances and atmosphere, though it’s not at the level of similar type movies listed earlier.

Watch the trailer