TEACHER (2019)

August 14, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The first feature film from writer-director Adam Dick is actually a full length version of his own short film (same title) from a couple of years ago. In it, he covers many of today’s hot topics: bullying, racism, white privilege, and gun control. No one can argue against any film that takes on these issues, and the filmmaker gets many things right in this low budget presentation.

David Dastmalchian (whose crazed eyes we first noticed in THE DARK KNIGHT, 2008) stars as James Lewis, a devoted English teacher who cares about students despite his own personal issues. Those issues include a rough divorce, anger issues, alcoholism, and a less-than-ideal childhood. Having been bullied himself as a youngster, he recognizes what his mirror image student is going through. Preston (Matthew Garry) is a shy, sensitive, intelligent student who has a knack for photography. Preston is also the target of school bully Tim Cooper (a talented Curtis Edward Jackson), a star athlete and son of powerful local community businessman Bernard Cooper (the always excellent Kevin Pollak). When Preston befriends Daniela (Esme Perez), she also becomes a target – this time of cruel cyberbullying.

During Lewis’ class, Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” provides literary symmetry to the student experience, especially when the focus is on Shylock. This is the most creative portion of the film, and it’s a film that does a pretty nice job of capturing the helplessness of meek students, as well as the lack of power a school official often has in such situations. The film and characters are at their best in those moments of fear, frustration and desperation.

What doesn’t work so well is Mr. Lewis as a vigilante. At that point, it feels like a fantasy solution to a real world problem. Still, there are enough solid points and performances to keep us mostly engaged … especially when Kevin Pollak (he’s worked consistently and quite well since the mid-1980’s) spews forth with privileged rich guy righteousness. Sure, it’s all a bit obvious and over-the-top, but there is some underlying truth here as well.

watch the trailer:

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THE KITCHEN (2019)

August 8, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is not a comedy. Ordinarily a movie review would not begin by telling you what the movie is not, but when the theatre marquee flashes “Starring Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish”, most anyone would assume they are in for a 2-hour laugh out loud romp with the promise of some outlandish one-liners to drop at the next party. Instead, the directorial debut from Andrea Berloff is a relatively violent mob movie. Ms. Berloff also adapted the screenplay from the Vertigo comic book series by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle.

Kathy (Ms. McCarthy), Ruby (Ms. Haddish), and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) are left isolated when their mob-connected husbands are busted by the FBI, and sent to prison. Survival instincts kick in for the previously uninvolved ladies, and they quickly realize that a bit of strategy would allow them to not only run the business their husbands left behind, but also build it into something better. Of course the mobsters left behind are none-too-pleased with the women outperforming them, and so we get a good old fashioned ‘brains vs. brawn’ battle.

The setting is the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan. The year is 1978, so the Irish community still has a stronghold on the area. This is basically the same timeframe and the same streets that serve as the setting for the classic TAXI DRIVER (1976). We see what happens when a woman’s touch is applied to gangster activities: bonds are built, services are rendered, and payments are made. The illusion of power draws the three women in deeper, and the movie has us believe they are good at it. The issue is, as viewers, we never really buy into these three seizing this power. We are just supposed to sit back and accept that Kathy is an expert community organizer, Ruby gets things done behind the scenes, and timid Claire evolves. Actually, Claire’s (Ms. Moss) transformation is the best part of the film. Seeing her discover new talents and her true persona is as exciting for us as it is for her. However, in total, the 3 characters are little more than caricatures.

In addition to the three stars, the cast is deep. The three husbands are played by Brian d’Arcy James, James Badge Dale, and Jeremy Bobb, and all three are criminals and bad husbands. Domhnall Gleeson resumes his chameleon ways in what could have been a more interesting role, Common plays a federal agent, Annabella Sciorra has a nice turn as a mobster’s wife, and the great Margo Martindale (with prop cane) and Bill Camp are both standouts (as they usually are) in their respective gangster roles.

The film does a nice job tying in historical elements of the era, including the construction plans for the Javitz Center. There are more than a few moments of violence, but the shots aren’t nearly as dramatic as we’ve come to expect in mob movies. It’s simply not as gritty as it pretends to be. There are some similarities to last year’s WIDOWS (directed by Steve McQueen and starring Viola Davis), but with this cast, Ms. Berloff might have considered approaching the tone of Jonathan Demme’s MARRIED TO THE MOB (1988). A raised eyebrow from the ultra-talented Ms. Haddish elicited laughter from the audience, rather than respect for her power. I expect it will be a crowd-pleaser for those along for the ride. Just remember – it’s not a comedy.

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LIGHT OF MY LIFE (2019)

August 7, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The opening scene features an adolescent child spellbound by the bedtime story being told by a father. The story is an enhanced and personalized version of Noah’s Ark, and the scene goes on for at least 10 minutes … the camera never leaving their faces. What appears to be a simple campout turns curious, if not a bit ominous, as the father is next shown taking down a rigged security system and hiding certain personal items. This is the narrative feature directorial debut for Casey Affleck, who also wrote the story, produced the film, and is the lead actor (the father noted above).

As the daily rituals of these two characters unfold, the pieces of the puzzle come together and we learn there has been what is described as QTB – a female plague – that has killed off most of the females on the planet. As if a world of only men isn’t frightening enough, the father’s traveling companion is soon revealed to be a young girl disguised as a boy. This creates the ominous tone and explains the ever-present danger for these two, as rumor has it that the few remaining women are being held captive in camps to prevent the entire species from being eliminated. This is the story of one man’s efforts to protect his precious daughter from a society gone awry.

Anna Pniowsky establishes herself as a young actress to keep an eye on, as she is terrific as Rag, the daughter in disguise. Wise beyond her years, and though she has a general understanding of the constant threat, she is also quite curious about herself, her mother, and this bizarre world she is traversing with the only person in the world she can trust. Elisabeth Moss appears as the mother during flashbacks for Affleck’s character. This previous home life was a peaceful and loving environment, but the mother was stricken by the plague not long after giving birth to the daughter.

In contrast to the motherly environment, this father-daughter bond and existence requires constant preparation for escape. They must always be ready to “go” at a moment’s notice. Their red alerts and back-up plans are discussed and repeated. Their life in hiding means they never know who they can trust, and their solution is to distrust everyone – even though the father explains not all men are the enemy. His low key sense of calmness masks the constant stress they face.

Mr. Affleck is an Oscar winning actor (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA), and he shows some promise as a filmmaker (after his previous experiment with Joaquin Phoenix in I’M STILL HERE). Expert cinematography is provided by Emmy winner Adam Arkapaw (“True Detective” season one). At its core, the film is a story of the bond between father and daughter; however, it’s wrapped in a survival story. They strive to survive the next hour, the next day, and the next night. The film is a blend of CHILDREN OF MEN (2006), THE ROAD (2009) and LEAVE NO TRACE (2018), yet it brings a different tone and an emphasis to just how far a parent will go to protect their child. It’s a dystopian tale with a splash of gender identity questions, and a bond between father and daughter best surmised with their own words, “I love you to the sun and back.”

watch the trailer:


THE NIGHTINGALE (2019)

August 2, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. With only her second feature film, Jennifer Kent (THE BABADOOK) has created a near cinematic masterpiece. The only thing holding it back is the historical subject matter and the no-holds-barred approach that will surely limit its audience. From an emotional aspect, the film is extraordinarily uncomfortable and disturbing to watch; however, from a filmmaking perspective, it’s a thing of beauty. The two sides of my brain were at war the entire time.

Set in 1825 Tasmania, the opening scenes are ominous and cloaked in dread – even though nothing has happened (yet). We just feel it in our bones … things are about to go wrong. And oh my, do they ever go wrong. Now you are likely similar to me in that your knowledge of 1825 Tasmanian history is quite limited. This was the era of “The Black War”. The British were in the midst of colonizing the country. Violence was prevalent towards women, native Aboriginals, and even the land and existing culture.

Clare (Aisling Franciosi, “The Fall”) is a young Irish woman, recently married with a newborn. She has served her 7 year sentence for theft (likely food for survival) and is now an improperly indentured servant to the ambitious and quietly despicable Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin, THE HUNGER GAMES). Clare is headstrong, but wise enough to understand her place. Her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby, HACKSAW RIDGE) lacks the same judgement and his foolish attempts to deal directly with Hawkins results in the atrocity that leads to the core of the story.

When her pleas for justice fall on the deaf ears of the British military, Clare’s need for vengeance transforms her into a woman-obsessed. Due to the harsh elements of the Tasmanian forest, Clare reluctantly agrees to hire an equally reluctant Aboriginal tracker/guide. Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) takes the job, and the two have little respect for each other as the trek begins. As a female Irish convict, Clare was treated poorly by the British, yet she somehow views herself as superior to Billy. On the other hand, Billy lumps all white people into the category of those to hate and distrust. This pair make quite a statement on racism, classism and pre-judging others. Of course, as their journey continues, their similar backgrounds and commonalities are revealed, bringing these two broken people closer together and building mutual respect.

This is a part of history that Australia understandably doesn’t work to keep in the forefront. But the atrocities were very real and Ms. Kent’s film never shies away from the gut-punch of a moment. And though it takes place during this dark period with numerous appalling characters, the core element to the Clare’s story is determining the consequences and price of seeking vengeance. How does one hold on to compassion and humanity while trapped in an environment that is barely survivable? Does violence truly beget violence? Is there another way? One of the most striking elements of the story is the contrast of mindless slaughter against the intimacy of vengeance. The British soldiers seem to pay little mind to their victims, while Clare is an emotional wreck when violence is required. It’s quite a thought-provoking debate.

This is the first leading role for Aisling Franciosi and she is a marvel. Clare is quite a complex character and Ms. Franciosi is remarkable … as is her singing voice. Also impressive is the performance of Baykali Ganambarr as Billy. Known as a stage performer, this is Mr. Ganambarr’s first film role and he is terrific and believable as a young man looking to move on from a life that hasn’t been kind or fair. Other key supporting roles include Damon Herriman (“Justified”) as Hawkins’ right hand man, and Charlie Shotwell (CAPTAIN FANTASTIC) as young Eddie. All performances are strong, and filmmaker Kent was obviously attuned to presenting the authenticity of the period, even down to the spoken language. The costumes never look like something out of a Hollywood warehouse and cinematographer Radek Ladczuk captures the harshness of the land and brutality of the people. It’s a gripping tale focused on the reaction to the deepest of personal loss. The reward is there for those brave enough to give it a watch.

watch the trailer:


LIGHT FROM LIGHT (2019)

June 12, 2019

2019 Oak Cliff Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. Festivals are often programmed with many films that will never be screened outside of a festival environment … low-budget passion projects to be viewed only by those with an appreciation (bordering on obsession) of deep cut and one-off films. Writer-Director Paul Harrill (SOMETHING, ANYTHING) has possibly bridged the gap with a film that capitalizes on grief, while excelling in quietness and stillness.

Marin Ireland (“Homeland”) stars as Sheila, a single mom who plods through each day at her dead-end job as a rental car agent. We learn from a radio interview that Sheila may also have a connection to the afterlife, and she sometimes works as a ghost hunter or paranormal investigator – although, she has somehow lost her crew. Still, this doesn’t stop a Priest from reaching out to her in hopes that she can help Richard (Jim Gaffigan), a distraught widower who has reported strange occurrences in his farmhouse – occurrences that may or may not be related to his dead wife, and occurrences that he may or may not be imagining.

Sheila takes the job (even though she’s no Zelda Rubinstein) and recruits her teenage son Owen (Josh Wiggins, so good in HELLION, 2014) and his friend-study partner-would be girlfriend Lucy (Athena Frizzell) to help set up cameras and recording devices at Richard’s house. It’s at this point where it should be noted that this is not a horror film. It’s not even a thriller. And even though Gaffigan co-stars, it’s certainly not a comedy. It’s not even really a ghost story or a romantic tale, although those elements do exist.

The intrigue is derived from these four characters. These are not special or extraordinary people – just normal folks trying to figure out life. We learn the inner struggles of each, and as viewers we are joined at the hip with them. It’s been a year since Richard’s wife died in the crash, and he’s still coming to terms with her death, and even more so, the affair she confessed.  Sheila is wondering where she fits in the world, and her advice to Owen proves the level of overprotectiveness she has for emotion. Owen likes Lucy, but doesn’t see the point in starting a relationship that will end when she heads off to school, and Lucy is confused by his reaction to her strong attraction to him.

Ms. Ireland and Mr. Gaffigan are both excellent here, and having recently seen the latter in THEM THAT FOLLOW, I’m not the least bit surprised that he can pull off such a dramatic turn. The film reaches a different level in their scenes together – especially a hike to the crash site located within the Great Smoky Mountains. Not much is said, and there is little action, but the scene solidifies all the emotions hinted at in the preceding scenes.

A film that might be characterized by some as slow and dull, may just strike a chord with enough folks to gain some momentum for an audience. David Lowery, the director of A GHOST STORY, 2017) is an executive producer, so he has a track record of success with stories that are understated and quiet. Are there ghosts among us – possibly even the living? Richard and Sheila come pretty close. Additionally, special recognition goes out for a practical effect that is the film’s crescendo … and it involves Tolstoy! So rather than view this as a bit of a downer, as the title suggests, we should let there be light.

(I couldn’t find an online trailer)

 


JOHN WICK 3: PARABELLUM (2019)

May 16, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Worlds are colliding! No, no … not in the way of “The Avengers” movies, but it’s kind of hard not to smile when Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne share a scene (or two) in a mini-reunion of THE MATRIX. Mr. Reeves and director Chad Stahelski are back for a third time, and somehow they manage to raise the bar yet again on the fight sequences. And let’s face it, the fighting and action are why so many are drawn to this franchise. This latest entry runs 2 hours and 10 minutes, and almost every bit is a frantic chase scene or violent fight … or both.

The film picks up mere moments after JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 ended. If you recall, John had killed a member of the High Table inside the Continental Hotel, an unforgivable break in the treasured rules. Winston (Ian McShane), the manager of the hotel, has given his friend a one hour head start prior to issuing the “excommunicado”. It’s that order (and the $14 million bounty) that sends every assassin on the planet on Wick’s trail.

No need to wait for the good stuff … the film’s first two fight sequences are extraordinary feats of stunt coordination, and consume the first 15-20 minutes. Here is what John Wick (and we viewers) are in for: Guns (many kinds), lots of knives, a hatchet, swords, a book, enough broken glass to fill a recycle center, horses, motorcycles, cars, every martial art known to man, highly trained dogs, a public library, a museum/collectibles display, a stable, and a ballet theatre complete with dancers. There is even a current NBA player, 7’3” Boban Marjonovic, who battles John Wick and ultimately learns books can be used for something other than reading.

John Wick’s background is revealed, and his general level of tiredness reaches exhaustion, which actually adds an element to a character who is quite efficient with his conversation. There are a few people who are called on to help Wick, in particular we have Laurence Fishburne as the Bowery King, Anjelica Huston as the Ballet Director, and Halle Berry as Sophia, a former assassin who now runs the Continental Hotel in Morocco. See, even an underworld crime syndicate promotes from within. The segment with Sophia is one of the most fun, and it’s not because of Ms. Berry. Rather her beautiful and highly-trained dogs are scene stealers who are devastating in their commitment to carry out orders.

Other characters of interest include Asia Kate Dillon (“Billions”) as the Adjudicator, one who enjoys doling out punishment; Mark Dacascos (Wo Fat in “Hawaii 5-0) as Zero, the ultimate Wick fanboy who wants nothing more than to be the one who kills him; Jerome Flynn (“Game of Thrones”) as Berrada, the senior official who doesn’t negotiate fairly; Said Taghmaoui as The Elder from the High Table, who listens to Wick’s proposal. Other supporting roles are filled admirably by Robin Lord Taylor, Jason Mantzoukas and Susan Blommaert.  Of course, some of the most fun occurs again at The Continental Hotel as Reeves’ Wick interacts with Lance Reddick and Ian McShane.

From the department of “Give ‘em what they want”, the film has a very similar look, feel and tone to the first two, but director Stahelski (a standout stunt coordinator) and writers Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Mark Abrams keep it fresh with new characters, new props and some terrific set design. The early model computers are contrasted with the high tech gadgetry of the Continental, and with a body count likely higher than the first two films combined, this entry can best be described as brutally entertaining … is that even a thing?  The violence is vivid and excessive and non-stop, and if that’s not your style, you should at least know that the title is taken from the Latin “Si vis pacem, para bellum” – If you want peace, prepare for war.

watch the trailer:

 


US (2019)

April 1, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Jordan Peele first got noticed on “MADtv,” and then for his impersonation of Barack Obama. His career got a boost with “Key and Peele” with Keegan-Michael Key, and then it simply exploded in 2017 with GET OUT. For that film, he won his first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and was also nominated for Best Director (his directorial debut) and for Best Picture (as a Producer). With his follow-up to that breakout film, Mr. Peele has squashed any talk of being a one-hit wonder, and has actually elevated his work with this latest.

The film opens in 1986 as a family is on vacation at Santa Cruz, California. While taking in the amusement park along the boardwalk, their young daughter Adelaide wanders off into a house of mirrors where she comes face to face with her doppelgänger – her exact lookalike. It’s the film’s first creepy moment, but certainly not the last. The story then jumps forward to present day where Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar winner for 12 YEARS A SLAVE), her husband Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke, BLACK PANTHER), and their teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and young son Jason (Evan Alex) are on a getaway to a lake house … one located near their friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss), and their in sync twin daughters (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). Adelaide is not thrilled when husband Gabe suggests they head over to Santa Cruz beach.

Part of the brilliance of the film is that it works as a straight-forward horror film with some very funny moments (often thanks to Mr. Duke), but its real purpose is to inspire multiple theories along with the corresponding debate. Alternate meanings, metaphors and clues are dropped in most every scene. A toy ambulance, a JAWS shirt, a “Thriller” shirt, a TV commercial for the “Hands Across America” event, and the corresponding VHS tapes next to the family TV only hint at the numerous nods Peele serves up to other films, especially some horror classics.  You’ll note the director chooses an aerial shot not dissimilar to that of Kubrick’s THE SHINING as the family drives towards their vacation spot. Also present (in a couple of scenes) is the reference to bible verse Jeremiah 11:11, and sharp-eyed viewers will spot other references to the double 11.

While the Wilson and Tyler families are visiting on the sandy beach, young Jason wanders off sending mother Adelaide into a near-frenzy with recollections of her night on that same beach so many years ago. Later that evening, the true horror begins. A terrific shot of 4 figures all clad in red at the end of the Wilson’s driveway kicks the film into high gear. More doppelgangers appear and lead us to a subterranean community living in tunnels, and sharing the space with bunnies. We learn of “the tethered”; those who are (mostly) identical to those living above. Those of identical likeness square off in the ongoing battle for survival, and that’s really all you should know before seeing for yourself.

The cast is terrific, especially Ms. Nyong’o, who like the other actors seems to relish playing the dual roles. She also nails the final shot with a smile that will chill you to the marrow. Madison Curry makes a strong impression as young Adelaide, and as much fun as we have with the characters, the true joy lies in trying to “catch” all that filmmaker Peele throws at us. That final wall of folks in red is pretty easy to decipher, but some of  the little clues and prods require a second viewing. It’s fascinating and historic that Jordan Peele’s follow up movie could possibly make this yet another horror movie contending at Oscar time. One site currently places the odds at 19/1 to win Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars. If you are up for a fun little horror movie that’s also a mind-bending societal commentary on those who are born into privilege and those who aren’t, then Mr. Peele has just the flick for you.

watch the trailer: