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.

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HOTEL MUMBAI (2019)

March 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. A group of quiet and focused young men with backpacks arrive by boat and then split into taxis. We hear the calm voice being fed into their ear buds. The voice assures them that “God is with you” and “Paradise awaits.” Of course, since this is based on true events from 2008, we know the horror that is about to be unleashed by these terrorists (more than 170 killed).

This is the first feature film from writer-director Anthony Maras, and with his co-writer John Collee (MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD, 2003), we are taken to CST, the train station which is one of the 12 terrorist targets. Actual footage is mixed in, leaving no doubt as to the panic and violence that unfolded. As the individuals in the group divide into their well-orchestrated terrorist teams, we flash to the morning routine at a nearby home. Arjun (Dev Patel) is frantically getting prepared for work before heading to his pregnant wife’s place of work. He is dropping off their young child since the sitter was a no-show.

Arjun is part of the staff at the prestigious Taj Mahal Hotel Palace, affectionately referred to as “The Taj”. The service is impeccable … to the point of checking the temperature of bath water for one of the guests. Those who stay here are accustomed to and demanding of the very finest. However, on this stay, they will experience the sharp contrast of ultimate luxury and raw terror. As viewers, our guts sense the feeling of dread, even as the hotel managers and staff are welcoming arriving guests such as a retired Russian Special Forces officer turned wealthy playboy (Jason Isaacs) and newlyweds David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi, “Homeland”), along with their newborn baby and nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).

As the cold-blooded attack is carried out by the terrorists at The Taj, we witness so many innocent people mowed down with precision – some execution style. Many hotel guests find hiding spots, including an exclusive club in the heart of the hotel. The staff, including Arjun and renowned Chef Hermant Oberoi (Anupam Kher), courageously try to survive while also protecting the guests. David and Zahra get separated from each other and from their baby, leaving the nanny desperately trying to keep the oft-crying infant from being heard.

We also witness the local police – undermanned, under-armed, under-trained – try their best to defuse the situation, knowing that Special Forces are “hours away”. Courage is on display throughout the film, but this is no Jason Bourne or John McClane scenario. These are cooks and waiters and hotel guests caught in one of the most frightening situations imaginable.

For cinematic effect, the attack seems to take place over the course of a single night, whereas the actual events were over 3 days, resulting in 31 deaths at The Taj. The level of tension is maintained throughout … it’s a well-made thriller centered on actual events and real people. The filmmakers seem to go out of their way to avoid any political, social or religious commentary or insight. We only know the terrorists are told to take American prisoners and “Go and do Jihad”. It’s described as “indiscriminate terror” and that they are reclaiming what has been taken from them over the years. It is a difficult film to watch, though we understand there will always be bad people doing bad things for what they believe are the right reasons. Fortunately, there will also always be courageous and good people. More than once we hear the staff mention “Guest is God” … but not all of these guests were welcome.

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THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019)

March 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Setting one’s film up to be compared to a long time classic can be quite challenging for a filmmaker, but that’s precisely the situation director John Lee Hancock finds himself. Known for crowd-pleasers like THE FOUNDER, SAVING MR BANKS, and THE BLIND SIDE, Mr. Hancock delivers a Netflix film destined to face off against Arthur Penn’s 1967 classic BONNIE AND CLYDE. Where the earlier film focused on the anti-hero celebrity (and beautiful faces) of the young outlaws, this latest film flips the lens and puts law enforcement (particularly grizzled veterans) front and center (Bonnie and Clyde are barely glimpsed until near the end).

The film begins with a well-planned and deadly prison break in 1934 and then moves into a meeting where Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) of the Department of Corrections is pitching Texas Governor “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) on his idea of reactivating the defunct Texas Rangers, and bringing legendary lawman Frank Hamer out of retirement. It’s pretty simple – the FBI and its new-fangled forensics is failing miserably in tracking down Bonnie and Clyde, and the hope is that Hamer and his old-fashioned detective work will succeed.

Kevin Costner plays Frank Hamer, and we first see him and his well-trained pet pig trying to enjoy a peaceful retirement at home with his wife Gladys (Kim Dickens). Not long after, he’s joined by his old partner Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), who is down on his luck, drinks too much, and is in desperate need of a purpose. Thus begins the buddy road trip featuring the no-nonsense Hamer and the quipster Gault. Not many play self-importance better than Costner, and few deliver wisecracks better than Woody.

The screenplay comes from John Fusco, whose previous western projects include HIDALGO and YOUNG GUNS. Though this isn’t a traditional western, it has most of the expected elements. Aging lawmen chasing colorful outlaws. Good versus evil. Right versus Wrong. While it’s a relief the film doesn’t romanticize the Barrow gang and their violent ways, it’s a bit frustrating to see that the movie tries to make Hamer and Gault as famous and iconic as the outlaws they were chasing. Sure Bonnie’s fashion influenced many women of the era, but that had to be nauseating for those lawmen in pursuit who were putting their lives on the line. In the 1967 film, Denver Pyle played Frank Hamer in a shamefully written role, and here Costner strikes so many hero poses and seems to invoke mystical ESP abilities in his police work, that we half expect Hamer to walk on water at some point.

The best part of the film is watching Costner and Harrelson work together, with the latter really making this work on whatever level it does. Additionally, there is a scene with Hamer and Clyde’s dad that features William Sadler in a cameo. I don’t know if this meeting actually took place in real life, but it teases what the film could have been. As a fantasy for cinema aficionados, the project was originally intended to be a vehicle for Robert Redford and Paul Newman, but just never progressed. Combine that with BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and THE STING, and you’d have an unmatched triumvirate of buddy greatness. Hancock’s film certainly pales in comparison to the 1967 film, but it’s a worthy story that deserves to be told.

available on Netlix March 29, 2019

a few years ago, I posted one of my revisited articles on BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967). You can check that out here: https://moviereviewsfromthedark.com/?s=bonnie+and+clyde

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GRETA (2019)

February 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Don’t touch anything on the subway.” That should be a warning posted in all New York City tourist brochures. Recent NYC transplant Frances didn’t get the memo. She not only picks up a “lost” handbag, but also wants to personally return it to the rightful owner – despite the counseling of her streetwise roommate.  Oscar winning director Neil Jordan (THE CRYING GAME) co-wrote the screenplay with Ray Wright, and they blend in many elements … not the least of which is making friends with someone you shouldn’t.

Chloe Grace Moretz plays Frances as the good-hearted Boston-raised girl who is almost too innocent to believe, given the day and age we are in. When Frances returns the purse, she is greeted warmly and appreciatively by a kindly Greta (Isabelle Huppert). The two bond over their individual loneliness: Greta says her daughter lives abroad, and Frances’ mother passed away about a year ago. It’s easy to see how a friendship forms through a substitute mother-daughter gap-filling.

An accidental discovery by Frances sends her out the door, intent on cutting ties with Greta. What Frances soon learns is that Greta is a crafty psychopath of the highest order. It’s at this point where filmmaker Jordan kicks in the twisted, dark humor and serves us a cheap-thrills ride via a full blown stalker movie. Greta is truly deranged and once Ms. Huppert cuts loose, we see how much fun she’s having. She even plays a piano teacher, which is kind of funny since she was also the piano teacher in THE PIANO TEACHER (2001). She becomes my first and favorite Liszt loving psychopath, who likely isn’t as technologically challenged as she makes out.

There are stylistic and story elements reminiscent of movies like FATAL ATTRACTION and SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, and Jordan’s camera angles and lighting combine with Javier Navarrete’s score to dish up some B-movie type comically dark moments. Maika Monroe (IT FOLLOWS) is terrific as Frances’ roommate. She’s the direct type who tells Frances that “this city will eat you alive”, but is also extremely supportive and protective (and good at yoga).

Stephen Rea and Colm Feore appear in limited roles, but the fun you have here is directly related to how you buy into the Greta vs Frances web. It’s rare to see an onscreen female predator, but neither Mr. Jordan nor Ms. Huppert round off any edges. We are reminded that being nice doesn’t always pay off, but having friends certainly does. There is some creepy evil fun to be had, as well as a key life lesson: never trust a woman with too many purses.

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THE WEDDING GUEST (2019)

February 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. I pity the poor soul who, based on the film’s title, buys a ticket assuming it must be a light-hearted romantic-comedy starring Katherine Heigl. While we do watch a slow-building romance, this is much more of a road trip through parts of the world we don’t usually see on screen. Writer-Director Michael Winterbottom (A MIGHTY HEART, THE KILLER INSIDE ME, THE TRIP) has had a solid career with movies that tend to be quite watchable, though not particularly memorable. Chalk up another.

The film opens in a subdued manner with a man (Dev Patel) meticulously packing a suitcase, boarding a plane, landing in Pakistan and renting a car. These are all things any of us might do if headed to a wedding. Only this mysterious man of few words also buys 2 guns, plastic ties and duct tape. Either this is going to be a honeymoon unlike any other, or he’s on a different mission altogether. We don’t have to wait long, as the night before the wedding, Patel sneaks past the armed security guard and into the family compound so that he can kidnap Samira (Radhika Apte), the bride-to-be.

Mr. Patel plays a British Muslim man with various names and identities, and a supply of passports. He was hired by a shifty rich guy (Jim Sarbh) who loves Samira to prevent her from going through with the arranged marriage. The meet up gets delayed as the kidnapping and fallout make national news. The story evolves into a predictable and familiar road trip, but with a delightfully different setting and backdrop than what we are accustomed to. A train to Delhi plays a role with Samira and her kidnapper on the lam – working to remain anonymous.

The film does offer up some twists and turns for us, but after an intriguing first 15 minutes, we pretty much know where things are headed. Fortunately the camera work of Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (HELL OR HIGH WATER) keeps our attention, as does the back and forth between Dev Patel and Radhika Apte, two excellent performers. So yes, the film is one we can enjoy watching, though it will likely never come up in conversation.

watch the trailer:


Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts 2019

February 22, 2019

Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts 2019

Top-to-bottom, this is the strongest shorts category I can recall. The quality of each is such that winning the Oscar would be well-deserved for any of the nominees. Four of the five are tension-packed, while the fifth is just as emotional – only in a more intimate manner. That being said, I have listed these in order of my preference. However, should you ask me tomorrow, the order might change. All five films are that strong. Just a reminder, these are not Oscar predictions, just personal opinion.

 

 MADRE (Spain) 19 min

Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker Rodrigo Sorogoyen begins his film with a long, slow pan shot across a deserted beach until we see the waves rhythmically rolling in and out. It appears to be a most peaceful setting, but instead it’s actually the set up for one of the most intense and emotionally shattering short films ever.

Marta Nieto and her mother Blanca Apilanez are hanging around the apartment on what’s a typical day for them. When Marta’s answers a call, an unimaginable horror unfolds via cell phone. On the other end is her 6 year old son. He’s on holiday with his father, Marta’s ex. Only her son tells her, as his cell phone battery is dying, that dad left him and now he’s alone on a beach … he thinks it’s France, but could be Spain.

Marta and her mother juggle cell phones as they try to track down the father, while keeping the young boy as calm as possible. It’s a captivating and stunning performance by Marta Nieto, and a brilliant piece of filmmaking from Mr. Sorogoyen. It may be the most unsettling 19 minutes of movie I’ve seen, and if it had gone any longer, it might have become truly unbearable.

 

 DETAINMENT (Ireland) 30 min

Greetings again from the darkness. Evil personified. That is the only possible way to describe 10 year old boys Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. In February 1993, the British boys skipped school and spent the day doing typically mischievous activities around the local shopping center. Typical that is until they abducted 2 year old James Bulger.

This is writer-director Vincent Lambe’s 4th short film, and it’s based on the disturbingly true story of the abduction-torture-murder of toddler James by the two young boys. The film draws directly from the actual tapes of interviews/interrogations once the boys were identified from the grainy security footage. This dramatization includes the pleas of innocence from the boys, as well as the reactions of both their parents and the police officers. The scenes depicting the questioning of the boys is powerful, and the scenes of the 3 boys together is more than most of us can bear, despite little of the crime being shown (thankfully).

Young actors Ely Solan (Jon) and Leon Hughes (Robert) are both extraordinary in their performances. Director Lambe deftly applies judgment in what is shown on screen and what instead corrupts our thoughts. It’s heart-breaking to see what the parents of these boys must endure, but it’s beyond our comprehension to imagine what Baby James Bulger’s parents must have endured. The boys were tried as adults in 1993, and both subsequently released from incarceration and given assumed identities for their own protection. If somehow Lambe’s short film isn’t disturbing enough, it’s pretty simple to get the full report of what the boys inflicted on that poor child. Evil personified.

 

 FAUVE (Canada) 19 min

Greetings again from the darkness. Two young boys, obviously good friends, are spending the day just hanging out and exploring the area on the outskirts of town. They are engaged in an ongoing game of one-upmanship as they spontaneously compete over a string of mindless pranks to see who is the bravest or toughest.

Director Jeremy Comte places Tyler (Felix Grenier) and Benjamin (Alexandre Perreault) in common situations that most of us (at least from my generation) easily recognize. A vacant lot or deserted train car are easily turned into a playground as the mischievous boys deal with their unchaperoned independence. We find ourselves chuckling at their harmless teasing … well, harmless until it’s not.

Even with a run time of only 14 minutes, director Comte doesn’t rush the set up. It’s just a lazy, care-free day until the boys make their way into an open-pit mining zone. For someone with a quicksand-phobia (thanks to those early Tarzan movies), the shift in tone delivers an emotional gut-punch. A terrific final scene caps off a powerhouse short film that deserves the festival accolades it has received. From Canada with French dialogue, expect this one to receive even more award consideration.

 

 MARGUERITE (Canada) 19 min

Greetings again from the darkness. It was after the Oscar nominations were announced that I tracked down this one, the last of the 5 nominated live action shorts in the category that I’ve watched. While the other 4 nominees are tension-packed, this beautiful 18 minute film from writer-director Marianne Farley is serene and both heart-warming and heart-breaking.

Beatrice Picard began her acting career in the 1950’s, and here she is extraordinary in the titular role. Marguerite is a lonely elderly woman in the final stage of life. Understanding that her time is near, she has refused the daily dialysis recommended by her doctor. A window in her living room is literally her window to the world. As her body slowly fails, she is a captive in her home. Her time is spent anxiously awaiting the daily arrival of her in-home caregiver Rachel (Sandrine Bisson), a patient and compassionate woman who provides care, as well as Marguerite’s only human contact.

Bathing Marguerite, shampooing her hair, helping her get dressed, and applying lotion are part of Rachel’s routine. The importance of these moments is obvious by Marguerite’s face. One day she overhears a brief phone conversation between Rachel and her partner, which leads to an innocent question … the answer which ignites a memory in Marguerite that causes much reflection.

Forbidden love left unrequited and unmentioned highlights the generational and societal differences between these two women in ways we don’t often consider. It also brings them closer together. The wound that won’t heal on her foot is truly insignificant to the decades-long pain Marguerite has carried in her heart. Making peace with her past allows her final stage to play out thanks in part to the tender compassion shown by Rachel.

Marianne Farley is a French Canadian known mostly as an actress, yet this, her second short film as director creates a deep connection despite minimal dialogue between the two women. Cinematographer Marc Simpson-Threlford expertly uses lighting, color and framing to guide us through. C’est beau.

 

 SKIN (USA) 20 min

Greetings again from the darkness. Bestowed with an Oscar nomination for Best Live Action Short Film, this story from Israeli director Guy Nattiv, who co-wrote the script with Sharon Maymon, is stunning and frightening in how much of a punch it packs into 19 minutes. The influence parents have on their kids is at the heart of this devastating tale.

Jackson Robert Scott (Georgie from IT) stars as Troy, the young son of Jeffrey (Jonathan Tucker, “Justified”) and Christa (Danielle Macdonald, PATTI CAKE$). The film opens with dad Jeffrey taking the shears to Troy’s hair on the front porch. Then all 3 hop in the car with friends, singing a horribly inappropriate song on the way to shooting guns at beer bottles. Later, Troy convinces his dad to take him “surfing”. Of course, there are no waves in sight … you just have to see it to believe it.

Two things are abundantly clear: these are stereotypical hillbillies, and Troy loves his dad very much. Soon we learn something else. Dad is a white supremacist. While at the grocery store, a black man (Ashley Thomas) offers a friendly greeting to Troy, and dad snaps into vile racist mode. Seemingly out of nowhere, Jeffrey’s fellow gang of racists join him in violently pummeling the friendly black man. The vicious beating takes place in front of the man’s frantic wife, daughter and son (roughly the same age as Troy). It’s a family that mirrors Troy’s, with one exception – skin color.

It’s not long before a group of African-Americans take revenge on Jeffrey, albeit in a less violent, yet more permanent and clever manner. Bronny (Lonny Chavis, “This is Us”) is allowed to watch as the revenge plays out. The tables have been turned on Jeffrey, and the shocking ending proves that hate only leads to more hate … and sometimes hate is blind. Racism is a self-perpetuating culture that survives only when passed from one generation to the next. Filmmaker Nattiv and his producing partner-wife Jaime Ray Newman remind us that we reap what we sow. They have a feature length film being released later this year based on the true story of Bryon Widner – a story that likely influenced this impactful short.

 


EVERYBODY KNOWS (2019, Todos lo saben)

February 21, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes we just click with the work of a particular filmmaker, and such is the case with Iranian-born Asghar Farhadi. From ABOUT ELLY (2009) to his two Oscar wins for Foreign Language films, the instant classic A SEPARATION (2011) and THE SALESMAN (2016), Mr. Farhadi has proven himself to be a terrific and distinct story teller. As an added bonus in this latest film, he works with cinematographer (and frequent Pedro Almodovar collaborator) Jose Luis Alcaine to take his visuals to a new level.

There is a playful and warm and familiar set-up before the switch is flipped. Laura (Penelope Cruz) has been living in Argentina with her husband Alejandro, teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra) and young son Diego (Ivan Chavero), and has returned to her hometown outside of Madrid for her younger sister Ana’s (Inma Cuesta, THE BRIDE) wedding. Laura’s husband Alejandro did not make the trip, and that plays a role deeper in the story. Hugs and kisses are exchanged amongst some of the most attractive people you’ll see on screen as family and friends are reunited … including Laura and local vineyard owner Paco (Javier Bardem), who share a romantic history from years ago. We quickly learn that Laura’s daughter Irene is a bit rebellious and free-spirited as she re-establishes her connection with Paco’s lovestruck nephew.

Slowly, we are introduced to other friends and family members, including Paco’s wife Bea (Barbara Lennie). These introductions are vital, not for the raucous and music filled wedding reception, but for what happens after. Having put her to bed earlier, Laura comes back to find daughter Irene missing and the only clues are newspaper clippings from a local child kidnapping years past. A most festive evening has been jolted into panic and dread. Soon Laura receives an untraceable text (I guess that’s how it’s done these days) asking for a huge ransom. It’s at this point, where secrets previously kept begin to surface.

The Farhadi trademark kicks in about this time. Although Laura is understandably distraught and disoriented, it’s clear the story is less about the crime and more about the interactions of the characters – resentments, the weight of long held grudges, and more of those dark secrets that begin to find the light. Everyone is a suspect, including Laura’s husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin, THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES) who shows up convinced God will protect his daughter. The worst traits of human nature are on full display as quick assumptions are drawn. There are lots of pieces to this puzzle and it’s dizzying fun keeping track.

Trust within the family and amongst friends is at the core of the story, and Mr. Farhadi makes solving the crime secondary to the actions and reactions of these folks who have known each other for so long. Melodrama abounds (in a good way) and there are some wonderful visuals, including drone photography from the wedding reception, and an opening sequence featuring the church bell tower and clock. This is the 5th film collaboration between real life couple Cruz and Bardem (the most recent being the disappointing LOVING PABLO), and both are exceptional here. Ms. Cruz offers up a gut-wrenching performance and Mr. Bardem is a joy to watch as he struggles with emotions too complex to verbalize. This is Mr. Farhardi’s first Spanish language film, but it’s clear his subject matter and characters are universally recognized.

watch the trailer: