LAST NIGHT IN SOHO (2021)

October 28, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Every once in a while a movie captures that magic feeling of being swept away, and this wild film from writer-director Edgar Wright and co-writer Kristy Wilson-Cairns (1917) did just that for me. This is my kind of psychological-horror-thriller and with the exception of one sequence that went a bit too “slasher” for my tastes, I had a blast watching it. I’ll admit that, while also acknowledging more people will probably not enjoy this, than will. But for those who do, I feel confident they will share my enthusiasm.

Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie, JOJO RABBIT, 2019) opens the film by expressively dancing to Peter & Gordon’s “A World Without Love” while sporting a self-designed dress made of perfectly creased newspaper. Her room is filled with 1960’s colors and memorabilia and we soon learn she’s an orphan raised by her grandmother (Rita Tushingham, A TASTE OF HONEY, 1961). Eloise, or Ellie as she’s called, dreams of following her mother’s path to London, and is thrilled beyond measure when her acceptance letter arrives from the London School of Fashion. Ellie does carry the burden (and visions) of her mother’s mental illness, and her grandmother warns, “London can be a lot.”

Small town (Cornwall) Ellie with her timidity and wide-eyed innocence arrives in London and is immediately the target of ‘mean girl’ and fellow student Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen). Rather than subject herself to the abuse, Ellie sublets an attic room from an old lady landlord named Mrs. Collins (the last screen appearance for the great Diana Rigg). Ellie loves the room and her independence, but her dreams act as a portal back to those swinging 60’s of which she’s so fond. But that’s only the beginning. It’s here where she follows/becomes Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), and the mirror effects are truly other-worldly. Sandie is everything that Ellie wishes she was herself – confident, radiant, ambitious, and beautiful. This dream state allows Ellie to live vicariously through Sandie. At least initially.

The Ellie-Sandie sequences mess with your head in a wonderful way. Sandie seems to float across the club’s dance floor, and Ellie is mesmerized at first, before turning protective. The tone shifts when Sandie meets sleazy Jack (Matt Smith), a would-be agent who promises to get Sandie the shot at stardom she desires. This leads to ATJ’s amazing and breathy version of Petula Clark’s “Downtown”. It’s a standalone highlight of the film, and a moment that shifts the story yet again. If you are struggling to keep pace, you’re not alone.

Soho’s glamour is matched only by its grunge. The recurring dreams turn to nightmares, so that even Ellie’s waking hours are surreal. A mysterious elderly gent played by Terence Stamp may be the key to the mystery Ellie’s so busy trying to solve that she is oblivious to the romantic overtures by nice guy John (Michael Ajao). The nostalgia of the 60’s provides a visual treat with the Café de Paris, a massive theater marquee advertising James Bond’s THUNDERBALL, and Cilla Black’s “You’re My World”.

Filmmaker Wright gives us so much to discuss, but it’s crucial that the best parts not be spoiled. Just know that Oscar winner Steven Price (GRAVITY, 2013) provides an incredible mix of music, while Chung-Hoon Chung’s cinematography, Marcus Rowland’s Production Design, and Odile Dicks-Mireaux’s costumes all nearly steal the show. But of course, that can’t possibly happen thanks to the stupendous performances from Anya Taylor-Joy and (especially) Thomasin McKenzie. These are two of the finest young actors working today, and we will be fortunate to watch their careers develop.

Edgar Wright is having quite a year. He’s already delivered the terrific documentary, THE SPARKS BROTHERS, and now comes what is his best work yet. You may know his work on BABY DRIVER (2017) or the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy that kicked off with SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004). Here, he playfully bounces between genres serving up time travel, a murder mystery, the Soho history, a memorable soundtrack, surreal dream and ghost sequences, a touch of romance, and that previously mentioned ‘slasher’ scene. A final tip of the cap to Diana Rigg, whose career spanned her role as Emma Peel in “The Avengers” (from the 60’s), her time as a Bond girl in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969), and ultimately as Olenna Tyrell in “Game of Thrones”.

Opens in theaters on October 29, 2021

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ANTLERS (2021)

October 28, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. I’m sure Scott Cooper is a well-adjusted, happy guy. At least I hope so. However, if he were to be judged only by his movies, we would assume the man is humorless and focused on serious topics only. He’s also extremely talented as a filmmaker, as evidenced by CRAZY HEART (2009), OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013), BLACK MASS (2015), and HOSTILES (2017). This latest is his first monster movie, and again – no happy thoughts, despite the expert craftsmanship. Mr. Cooper co-wrote the script with Henry Chiasson, and Nick Antosca’s, adapting Antosca’s short story, “The Quiet Boy”.

There is a lot to take in with this one: Native American legend, child abuse, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, economic woes, strained family relationships, and yes, a violent monster. Keri Russell (“The Americans”) stars as Julia Meadows, who has returned to her hometown to teach school. She left 20 years ago due to an abusive father, and still carries the guilt of leaving her younger brother in that situation. Trying to mend their relationship, she has moved in with him. Paul (Jesse Plemons, I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS, 2020) is the reluctant town Sheriff who doesn’t say much, but carries out his thankless responsibilities in a dutiful manner.

We witness Frank Weaver (Scott Haze, OLD HENRY, 2021) in his meth lab hidden deep in a coal mine, while his youngest son Aiden (Sawyer Jones) waits in the truck outside. In a terrific scene, filmed brilliantly, Frank discovers what else is hiding in the mine, and it changes things forever. Julia teaches Frank’s older son Lucas (Jeremy T Thomas), and immediately hones in on him as a kid with all the signs of being abused. And it turns out, Lucas does get bullied by a Scut Farkus lookalike played by Cody Davis, and Lucas’ art work leaves little doubt things aren’t going well in his life.

What we soon learn is that Lucas is carrying a burden that no one should have to. Julia’s history plays a role in pushing a school administrator (Amy Madigan) to investigate his home life. Filmmaker Cooper has created a perfectly oppressive atmosphere, and there are some terrific elements – including the performances of Keri Russell and young Jeremy T Thomas. However, at times, it feels like the story strains to include all the messages it’s trying to deliver. Proof of that comes in the form of Graham Greene (WIND RIVER, 2017) and his role as the former sheriff. His appearance is too brief and he seems to have drawn the short straw as the character having to spell things out for the audience – the Native American legend of Wendigo, and how the spirit has been awoken by man’s destruction of nature.

Florian Hoffmeister’s cinematography is top notch and captures small town life in rural Oregon, as well as the monster moments. Composer Javier Navarrete is to be commended. His score never overwhelms, as happens so frequently in horror films. The film is produced by horror master Guillermo Del Toro, and his fingerprints are evident. The loose mythology and heavy-handed lessons for mankind are salvaged by the terrific practical effects and gloomy atmosphere. Director Cooper has delivered again, though this may not be his natural genre.

Opens in theaters October 29, 2021

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THE GRAND BOLERO (2021)

October 27, 2021

Austin Film Festival 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The symphonic crescendo of Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” is perfectly synched with this film’s crescendo, creating a heart-racing, frantic few moments of passion, lust, revelation, and shock – for both the characters and viewers. Also shocking is discovering that this is writer-director Gabriele Fabbro’s first feature length narrative film (after many shorts and videos). This is expert filmmaking and creative storytelling that harkens back to classic 1970’s cinema in a time when it’s certainly needed and appreciated.

Veteran Italian actor Lidia Vitale stars as Roxanne. The film opens on her haggard face as she utters, “F-you”. Right on cue, the organ music thunders over the opening credits. Her bitterness is aimed at the banner hanging outside the church where she works. The words on the banner dare state, “Everything will be fine”. This is March 2020, and Italy has just begun the initial shutdown over COVID-19.

Roxanne is a passionate restorer of pipe organs, and this 1700 church currently houses two – one from 1500 and one from 1900. After a workplace tragedy, Roxanne’s supervisor, Paolo (Marcello Mariani), finds her an assistant who will work for organ-playing lessons and food. Lucia (Ludovica Mancini) is a young, eager-to-learn mute. Her soft, soulful eyes are in stark contrast to Roxanne’s sharp facial features and stone cold glares of loathing. Whereas Roxanne is angry, annoyed, and hot-tempered, Lucia remains spirited, open, and energetic.

Of course, the barriers between the two slowly break down, but the twists and surprises and secrets are gradually unveiled. Roxanne’s obsessions are not limited to the beautiful pipe organs and sweet Lucia has a side to her no one would have predicted. Ms. Vitale’s performance really drives the story and the building of trust between Roxanne and Lucia. The manner in which conveys the softening of her barriers and the re-directing of her focus is fascinating.

Without being overbearing, the film reminds us of the pandemic through Paolo’s all too frequent ringing of the ‘death bell’, the television reports playing in the background, the protective mask defiantly looped around Roxanne’s ear, and the warning that nature may carry out God’s wrath. And speaking of nature, the camera work outside the church is, at times, stunning in its beauty, striking angles, and message. It’s rare to find a filmmaker’s ‘first’ feature so original and well-executed, and that is on top of Mr. Fabbro’s use of powerful pipe organ music throughout. This is a truly fine film that hopefully will find an audience.

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NO TIME TO DIE (2021)

October 10, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Bond 25 is here, and it’s quite a curtain call for actor Daniel Craig. The film’s release has been postponed numerous times since September 2019, which has caused expectations and anxiety to build amongst Bond fans. It’s been almost six years since SPECTRE (2015), and this is Daniel Craig’s fifth and final turn as 007. This production faced challenges even before the pandemic hit. Cary Joji Fukunaga (best known for “True Detective” and BEASTS OF NO NATION, 2015) was hired to direct after Danny Boyle stepped down (or whatever happened), and Phoebe Waller-Bridge was brought in to spice up the dialogue on the script from Fukunaga, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade (the latter two having been involved in writing all five Bond movies for Craig). Of course, it’s Ian Fleming to whom we stand eternally grateful for the original characters.

For those accustomed to the James Bond cinematic formula, you’ll notice quite a few differences – beginning with the opening scenes. Traditionally, breathtaking action kicks off the film; but this time a shift in tone and style serves up a tension-filled opening that occurs a few years prior to the rest of the story. It takes a few minutes before we get the first true action sequence. Of course, we must keep in mind that we are dealing with a “retired” James Bond (don’t worry, it’s not like “fat Thor”) … in fact, there’s already a replacement 007 and she (Lashana Lynch, CAPTAIN MARVEL, 2019) packs quite an attitude and skill set.

It’s his old CIA buddy, Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), who draws Bond back into the espionage game, and of course, the reason is to save the world (what else could it be?). This year’s world-domination-seeking villain is the cleverly named Lyutsifer Safin, and he’s played by Oscar winner Rami Malek (BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, 2018). Safin is a low-key baddie whose weapon is a DNA-altering chemical that’s probably a bit overly complex for a Bond movie, and it’s also a bit strange that Safin/Malek only has a few substantive scenes. For those who saw SPECTRE, you’ll recognize many of the faces, including Lea Seydoux as Madeleine Swann, Ralph Fiennes as M, Ben Whishaw as Q, Rory Kinnear as Tanner, and Naomie Harris as Moneypenny. Also back for a terrific scene is Oscar winner Christoph Waltz as Blofield. The new faces include the aforementioned Lashana Lynch as Nomi, Billy Magnusson as Logan Ash, and Craig’s KNIVES OUT co-star Ana de Armas as Paloma. Ms. de Armas brings a jolt of energy and some smiles to the proceedings, and it’s a shame her appearance is so short.

It’s unusual for a Bond song to win its Grammy before the movie is ever released, but that’s exactly what happened for Billie Eilish’s achingly somber title song. Oscar winner Hans Zimmer (THE LION KIING) delivers a wonderful score in his first Bond outing (you’ll hear how he incorporates the Eilish song), and the cinematography from Oscar winner Linus Sandgren (LA LA LAND) is everything we could hope for in the action sequences (there is no shortage of bombs), as well as the quiet moments.

Speaking of the quiet moments, this is undoubtedly the most sentimental and emotional of all Bond films. Sure, we get the amazing set pieces, the crazy stunts, the awesome Aston Martin (until it isn’t), the cool gadgets, the wisecracks, and the shootouts – but we also get Bond at his most reflective and personal. There is a line in the film, “Letting go is hard.” And it is … both for Bond and for us. So welcome back and adieu, Mr. Bond. Craig. Daniel Craig.

The film opens in U.S. theaters on October 8, 2021

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THE GUILTY (2021)

September 30, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Let’s start with this disclosure: the original Danish film from Gustav Moller was one of my top 5 favorite films of 2018. Even then, I fully expected an Americanized version to happen at some point. The surprise is having director Antoine Fuqua (TRAINING DAY, 2001) handle the remake. He’s known more for bombast and action, than the nuanced suspense delivered by the original. To offset this, Mr. Fuqua wisely chose the dependable Jake Gyllenhaal as his lead, and the talented Nic Pizzolatto (creator and lead writer of HBO’s “True Detective”) to adapt the screenplay.

Gyllenhaal never cheats the audience, and he dives into the role with his typical full force commitment. Except for a few blurry visuals of cars on the highway and the dramatic opening shots of the raging California fires, Gyllenhaal’s Joe Baylor is on screen for the entire run. He’s a detective on desk duty at the 911 call center pending his court case on charges that only become clear towards the end. Joe is also separated from his wife and daughter; a crucial element in how his shift plays out in front of us.

As we listen in on his first few calls, it becomes obvious how Joe’s time on the streets have fine-tuned his quick-to-judge persona. He’s not shy about telling callers their own choices are responsible for their current predicament. Just as he’s about to dismiss his latest caller Emily, his instincts kick in, and he discerns that she’s been abducted by her husband in a white van, and fears for her safety. This initial call between Joe and Emily is a work of art, and kicks off the nearly unbearable tension for the rest of the movie and Joe’s shift.

Fuqua and Pizzolatto infuse commentary unique to modern day America. The fires are always in the background impacting emergency resources, as well as the air being breathed. Police collusion and abuse of power are also an underlying aspect of what unfolds in front of us. Yet somehow, the film (perhaps accidentally) speaks to the immense pressure faced by law enforcement and how instincts and quick judgments are crucial to assistance and survival. Joe bounces from calm demeanor to explosive overreaction in the blink of an eye – or the beep of an incoming call. We witness how preconceived notions can lead one astray, even if they’ve worked in the past.

In addition to Gyllenhaal’s commendable performance, the film includes terrific voice work (via phone) from such actors as Riley Keough (as Emily), Peter Sarsgaard, Ethan Hawke, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Christiana Montoya, and Paul Dano. Adrian Martinez and Christina Vidal appear alongside Gyllenhaal in the call center, although the single setting contributes to this being mostly a one-man show.

We understand that Joe Baylor is seeking personal redemption in his all-out pursuit to save Emily, and one line in the film speaks directly to this: “Broken people save broken people.” If you haven’t seen the original, you are likely to get caught up in the tension, and ask yourself many of the same questions Joe is asking himself at the end. Gyllenhaal previously teamed with director Fuqua in SOUTHPAW (2015), but this crime thriller is something different for both. If you are up to the challenge, watch this version and the original, so that you can compare the contrasting approaches.

Streaming on Netflix beginning October 1, 2021

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THE KILLING OF KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN (2020)

September 16, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. No one denies law enforcement officers have a tough and demanding and risky job. However, with cell phones putting video cameras in the hands of just about everyone, any poor decision by cops … and certainly any tragic one… is likely to get recorded and then plastered across all media. Writer-director David Midell delivers a dramatized reenactment of a tragic and inexplicable interaction between one man and a team of frustrated cops whose actions proved deadly.

On November 19, 2011, former Marine Kenneth Chamberlain Sr was asleep in his White Plains, NY apartment. He rolled over and accidentally enacted his LifeAid alert pendant. Since he slept without his hearing aids, Kenneth didn’t hear Candace, the LifeAid operator, try to reach him. Following protocol, Candace ordered a welfare check. 90 minutes later, Kenneth lay dead – killed by police after they broke down his front door. The tension during that 90 minutes is nearly unbearable.

Frankie Faison (“Banshee”) gives an excellent and gut-wrenching performance as Chamberlain. We ‘feel’ everything he says. As he talks to the cops through the door, we learn he has a heart condition, as well as a mental health issue (likely bi-polar). His constant pleas of “leave me alone”, “I’m fine”, the alarm “was an accident”, and “you’re not coming in” all heighten the sense of impending doom he feels. We feel it too. His experience tells him to expect something to go wrong anytime the police are involved.

The three cops banging on his door are Sergeant Parks (Steve O’Connell), Officer Jackson (Ben Martin), and Officer Rossi (Enrique Natale). Jackson is the racist, hot-headed gum-smacking cop (blond of course) who has judged Chamberlain simply by the demographics of the run-down complex he lives in. Rossi is the empathetic rookie cop who has a feel for the pressure Chamberlain is under, and his attempts at preaching patience are shot down by the more experienced cops. Parks has little time for Rossi’s cuddly approach or Jackson’s on-edge nature, but he’s not appreciative of Chamberlain’s refusal to cooperate, and certainly can’t relate to his distrust of the badge.

Midell’s film has been well received at film festivals the past couple of years, and his ‘real time’ approach coupled with the performances and the claustrophobic setting (it all takes place in Chamberlain’s apartment and the stairwell outside his door) work to give us a feel for the emotions and nervous energy of the situation. Throughout the ordeal, Chamberlain communicates with Candace at LifeAid and his own family on his cell. The opening quote tells us that depending on who you are, the sight of a police officer could mean “safety” or “terror”. This film relays the latter, and the actual audio and photos over the closing credits prove this horror film was unbearably true. “This is my home” was not enough for Kenneth Chamberlain. One small quibble: Chamberlain’s hearing aids come and go through the film.

In select theaters and VOD on September 17, 2021

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INFINITUM: SUBJECT UNKNOWN (2021)

August 5, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. In 2015, director Sean Baker’s use of an iPhone to film TANGERINE was viewed as experimental or rogue. Since then, other filmmakers have utilized this method, though it’s only been during the pandemic when filmmakers, desperate to create, have used the iPhone out of necessity. Such is the case with Matthew Butler-Hart, who not only utilized the mobile device for the majority of scenes, but also directed a couple of cameos remotely via Zoom. Co-written with his wife Tori Butler-Hart, who also stars, the film takes full advantage of empty streets and the absence of other people during the lockdown.

Ms. Butler-Hart stars as Jane, whom we first see as she awakens alone in the attic of a house. She’s gagged and bound to a chair, with no recollection of how she got there. She also experiences visions in flashes – some type of memories – as she looks for an escape route. She notices that she’s under surveillance, but after her initial stage of fright, she becomes quite determined to free herself. And that’s where things get really interesting. In the mode of GROUNDHOG DAY (1993) or HAPPY DEATH DAY (2017), only without Sonny and Cher music or a homicide, Jane is constantly re-awakening to find herself back in the same attic, in the same chair, with the same constraints.

Sir Ian McKellan plays the founder of Wytness Research Centre and Conleth Hill (“Game of Thrones”) plays a scientist. These two talking heads (filmed via Zoom) serve up the Quantum science overview that provides the structure of Jane’s situation, and also offer a couple of short breaks for Jane, who appears in nearly every other scene. The Wytness Centre holds the key to her situation, and we are informed that the work there is “propelling human evolution to a staggering new dimension.”

Jane stays focused on solving the puzzle that will allow her to escape the house (mysterious staircase and all) and track down what is causing her to experience these events time and time again. There is a video game feel to this as Jane frantically tries to reach the next level of escape, only to be zapped back to the starting point with each failure. Although time is relative and a parallel universe is in play here, we can’t help but notice Jane seems to lack the food, water, and basic hygiene one would require. That point has little impact on the creativity of the story and situation. Rorschach tests appear in certain places, as does a mint condition VW van. What we don’t see are people, though Quantum science does hold infinite possibilities.

Ms. Butler-Hart delivers a strong performance and keeps us interested in her character as she carries the film. Mr. Butler-Hart delivers excellent “camera” work, and the ultra-low budget film shows what can be accomplished. The lockdown has caused isolation and uncertainty for many, and mind games can certainly affect one’s perspective. The Butler-Harts have plans to convert this little film to a graphic novel and TV series, and it appears the “time” is right for both.

Coming to Theaters and VOD on August 6, 2021

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NAKED SINGULARITY (2021)

August 5, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. After co-writing the screenplay (adapted from the Stephen King book) for the box office horror hit IT (2017), Chase Palmer gets his first opportunity to direct a feature film. He also co-wrote this screenplay with David Matthews, as the two have adapted the 2008 novel “A Naked Singularity” by Sergio De La Pava. Think of it as a meaning-of-life science fiction comedy drama heist film that critiques the justice system. You know what they say about trying to be all things to all people. But it does get bonus points for trying hard!

John Boyega (Finn in the STAR WARS movies) stars as Casi, a Public Defender who is exasperated with the NYC criminal court system. Casi is overworked and underpaid, and his heart of gold and frumpy suit matter little in his courtroom clashes with Judge Cymbeline (Linda Lavin, “Alice”), who thrives on antagonizing and baiting the young attorney. Casi’s early idealism has faded and now he’s just fed up, looking for a way out. The talented Olivia Cooke (SOUND OF METAL, 2020) co-stars as Lea, a bored clerk at a city impound lot. Lea is a previous client of Casi’s and they cross paths again when his lawyer friend Dane (Bill Skarsgard, Pennywise in IT) passes along a file for her latest case.

There are basically three stories going on here: First, Casi is (unsuccessfully) fighting the bias in the halls of justice. Second, there is a weird glitch in the matrix, referred to as a “ripple” by Casi’s stoner friend Angus (Tim Blake Nelson), who works out physics problems on the wall of his apartment. And third, there is a botched drug deal featuring creepy hoodlum Craig (Ed Skrein, DEADPOOL, 2016), who has dragged Lea right into his web of crime. Of course, Lea already had a criminal record, and she’s frustrated that the system penalizes her for the past … leaving her with lousy options for employment. She’s too is looking for a way out.

As the film begins, director Palmer includes a quote from Candide: “If this is the best possible world, what then are the others?” This goes directly to the dreamers – those who imagine escaping their situation, and those who imagine making it better. Act 3 becomes a heist film, but we miss out on the fun part, as the planning just seems to happen. When the big day arrives, some things go right, and some things go wrong. Mostly, it’s an unrealistic chain of events that involves every character listed above, plus The Golem (Kyle Mooney) as the leader of the drug-dealing Hasidic Jews, a couple of NYC Detectives, and a Mexican cartel boss, who raises eyebrows outbidding Craig for the Navigator where the drugs are stashed. It seems fairly likely that Lincoln contributed to the film’s production since “Navigator” is mentioned numerous times.

Director Palmer utilizes a countdown to the big event … assuming the “ripple” wouldn’t be considered a bigger event … and that provides the odd pacing for the film. Also odd is the inclusion of a Popeye Doyle reference, when it’s quite unlikely that these characters would be familiar with THE FRENCH CONNECTION. Additionally, it’s the unnatural dialogue and the wedged-in social commentary that come across as misplaced. Comparing being poor to slavery in a five second scene makes it appear the goal was to fit in as many social issues as possible within a 90 minute run time. Sometimes weird is interesting. Sometimes it’s just weird. Sometimes it’s just kind of meh.

Screen Media will release NAKED SINGULARITY in select theaters on August 6th as well as opening wide and on demand August 13th, 2021

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STILLWATER (2021)

July 29, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s understandable if you are taken in by a trailer that hints at a movie featuring an unknown dad going non-stop in cold pursuit of justice for his daughter (those numerous Liam Neeson references were for my own pleasure). In fact, this father has his own particular set of skills: he’s a master at carpentry and electrical, he speaks the Oklahoma version of English, and he owns two guns (neither of which he has with him). And yes, this film is billed as a crime thriller, but you should know, we see very little crime, and the thrills are mostly non-existent. Despite all that, I connected with the story, not as a thriller, but rather as a character study of a flawed man trying to do the right thing by his daughter and find redemption for himself.

Oscar winner Matt Damon plays Bill Baker, a quiet out of work oil worker whom we first see on a clean-up crew after a disastrous tornado. Not long after, he’s on an international flight to Marseille to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin). She’s been incarcerated for five years after being found guilty of stabbing her French-Arab lover, Lina, to death. In a highly publicized trial, Allison held fast to her claim of innocence, and still does. Her father visits regularly, delivering supplies and clean laundry. Although they hug on the visits, a definite chasm exists. We later learn that Bill previously struggled with drugs and alcohol and never received votes for Father of the Year. Allison asks her father to deliver a sealed letter to her attorney claiming there is new evidence in her case – she heard a guy named Akim had bragged at a party about committing Lina’s murder.

You likely noticed the similarities to the 2007 Amanda Knox case. The differences being that was Italy, this is France; and it was Amanda’s roommate, not lover. In this movie, the media fascination is derived from the ‘rich’ entitled American white girl brutally murdering her minority working class lesbian lover (a textbook Hollywood rendering). Allison growing up poor in Oklahoma mattered little to the media.

Damon plays Bill as a stoic, Heartland of America man who’ll do anything for “his little girl”. But he’s no Jason Bourne. He’s the proverbial fish-out-of-water on this mission. He doesn’t speak a bit of French, and depends on the kindness of local actress Virginie (Camille Cottin, ALLIED, 2016) to be his interpreter and cultural guide in a world he doesn’t comprehend. Bill quickly bonds with Virginie’s precocious daughter Maya (a sterling film debut by Lilou Siauvaud), and soon a platonic family unit has formed. Bill’s frequent prayers and odd American manners are the perfect cultural clash with Virginie’s artsy French ways. Of course, this ultimately leads to a shift in the platonic nature of their relationship.

The film is directed by Tom McCarthy, an Oscar winner for SPOTLIGHT (2015). I highly recommend two of his other films, the excellent THE VISITOR (2007), and his sinfully under-seen directorial debut THE STATION AGENT (2003). McCarthy co-wrote this script with Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noe Debre, which explains why the French details are so spot on. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi delivers brilliant camera work to go with the story’s methodical pacing, and Mychael Danna’s music adds intensity and depth to situations both quiet and fraught with emotion. Damon does some of his best work here as a man burdened with his own past and slowly becoming aware of possible personal and family life redemption. Ms. Breslin burst on the scene in 2006 with LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, and she has transitioned well to adult roles … though this role is somewhat abbreviated, she still does nice work in her scene with Maya and Virginie.

Bill and Virginie and Maya have some terrific segments together, including a dance to Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night”. I’m guessing the rousing applause the film and actors received at Cannes was due partly to its French setting, and also to the depth of Bill’s character (and Damon’s performance). There are elements that seem far-fetched and maybe even overly complex, but viewed as the story of one man, it delivers some thought-provoking topics to the big screen. And yes, “life is brutal”.

Opens in Theaters Friday, July 30

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TWIST (2021)

July 29, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. This is billed as “a modern take on the classic tale of Oliver Twist”. The problem with that is this feels neither modern, nor in line with the renowned Charles Dickins novel. Mostly it feels like a failed attempt at copying Guy Ritchie’s SNATCH, or the KINGSMAN movies, or even the NOW YOU SEE ME movies. Directed by Martin Owen with a script by John Wrathall, Sally Collett and six other credited contributing writers (in addition to the inspiration from Dickens), this film simply lacks the entertainment value necessary for any type of positive recommendation. So I won’t be writing much here, only addressing what we see on screen.

Raff Law (Jude Law’s son) nabbed his first starring role as Twist, a street artist living on his own. One day he stumbles into Dodge (Rita Ora), Batesy (Franz Drameh), and Red (Sophie Simnett) who introduce him to Fagin (two-time Oscar winner Michael Caine), who presides over this group of criminal misfits. The offer of free clothes, decent housing, a team to work with, and a possible romance, is enough to entice Twist out of his rooftop tent.

This is really a simple art heist movie with multiple scenes of parkour included in place of real danger or creative thrills. David Walliams plays the target, and as a bonus, ripping him off would settle an old score for Fagin, and the over-the-top psychopath Sikes (Lena Headey). Somehow out of step in a movie with no real step is a recurring gag featuring a traffic cop played by Leigh Warden. It’s unclear if this was held over from an early slapstick version of the film, or if it was intended to portray Twist as an outlaw.

Noel Clark maintains his dignity as Detective Brownlow, and Ms. Headey attempts to liven things up, but mostly the characters are forgettable due to an all too simple story and a lack of development. The annoying music doesn’t help, and neither does the lack of any insightful social commentary (a Dickens specialty). It seems obvious the filmmakers were trying to create something edgy and modern, and go so far as to open with a jab at Carol Reed’s 1968 musical OLIVER!, by having narrator Twist state there will be ‘No singing. No dancing. And no happy ending.’ If a filmmaker risks re-making or re-imagining a classic story, they must be ready for the comparisons. This one falls well short of that 1968 version, as well as David Lean’s 1948 OLIVER TWIST, with Alec Guinness as Fagin.

In theaters and On Demand starting July 30, 2021

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