SHIRLEY (2020)

June 4, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Thrillingly awful”. That’s how Rose describes the feeling she had from reading Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story “The Lottery.” It’s also a likely reaction many will have to watching director Josephine Decker’s (MADELINE’S MADELINE, 2018) mostly fictionalized biography of the author known for her widely diverse novels, short stories and articles. The film is uncomfortable to watch and challenging to process, yet thanks to the performances and fascinating interactions, we remain enthralled the entire time.

As the film opens, Rose (Odessa Young, ASSASINATION NATION, 2018) is on the train reading Jackson’s divisive story. We gain some insight into her personality as she allows a sly grin to cross her face, and then gets frisky with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman) in a train cabin. Soon they arrive at the home of Ms. Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor and literary critic. Shirley is suffering through a bout of depression brought on by writer’s block, and though she’s initially against the young couple staying with them, she slowly finds a use for Rose. It doesn’t take long for us to realize everyone here wants something from the others. Stanley is worried about Shirley’s mental stability, so he convinces Rose to take on the domestic chores. Fred hopes Stanley will bless his thesis so that Bennington College will hire him. Stanley seizes on Fred’s ambition by having him take over some of his teaching load. Rose endures some harshness from Shirley, but the two ladies end up with an awkward bond which has Rose serving as a quasi-muse for Shirley’s new novel.

The new novel is “Hangsaman”, which Shirley actually wrote years before this story is set. It’s about the disappearance of a college student named Paula, and it’s at this point where the visions and/or projections begin. Things get a bit hazy for us … and for Rose. At times, Shirley is downright creepy. Are we watching something supernatural?  Is she a good with or a bad witch … or something else altogether? At times, Shirley appears to be unraveling – and possibly bringing Rose down with her. But then we hear another of the razor sharp verbal sparring matches between Shirley and Stanley. These are works of art. Stanley needling her just enough to inspire more writing. Shirley fires off cutting remarks as brutal as any wounds a knife fight might cause. It’s an advanced course in the creative mind vs the pompous academic. Stanley understands that allowing her to become unhinged is all part of the process, and will likely lead to her best work.

Multiple dynamics between characters creates chaos for viewers. Shirley and Stanley have their gamesmanship, while Shirley and Rose are going down an entirely different twisted path. And then there is odd relationship between pregnant Rose and husband Fred, and again between Fred and Stanley. And we haven’t even gotten to what the outside world thinks of Shirley, and how Stanley’s disclosed infidelities keep a fire burning inside Shirley, despite her humiliation. There is a lot to take in – domestic life in the era of “little wifey”, the strains of starting and maintaining a career, and the inner-demons of the creative mind. One of the key elements that sticks out is how each character is striving desperately to establish their own identity, and given the times, this should be much easier for the men.

Sarah Gubbins’ first feature film screenplay is based on the 2014 novel “Shirley” by Susan Scarf Merrell. Again, this is mostly fiction, albeit with nuggets of Shirley Jackson’s real life mixed in. Of course Shirley’s and Stanley’s four kids are nowhere to be found, allowing for more focus on the contrasting featured couples. In fact, Ms. Young’s Rose is the perfect “opposite” for Ms. Moss’ Shirley, both in looks and demeanor. It’s impossible to miss the similarities between this and director Mike Nichols’ classic WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966) starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. That one had more yelling, but this one cuts just as deeply. One of the best ever onscreen jabs occurs when Stanley sourly describes Fred’s thesis as “terrifically competent”, and then adds in a disgusted tone, “There’s no excuse for that.”

Special notice should be made for the music and cinematography. Composer Tamar-kali (MUDBOUND, 2017) pierces us with music often limited to plucks of cello and/or piano, adding a near-horror element to the frightening interactions we are watching. And with most of the film taking place in the creaky, book-filled house, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen (WENDY, 2020 and VICTORIA, 2015) expertly captures the harrowing glares of Shirley and the bemused smirks of Stanley in close quarters. The camera work adds to the constant immediacy of each moment.

Shirley Jackson’s most famous full-length work was “The Haunting of Hill House” (1959), which was adapted into director Robert Wise’s 1963 film THE HAUNTING, as well as another version in 1999. Most recently, it was the source material for the very popular Netflix limited series in 2018. Ms. Jackson did suffer with anxiety issues and agoraphobia, and her writing influenced many who came along later. While Mr. Lerman is a bit short-changed, the other three leads are superb in this film that likely will have very little appeal to the masses … you know … those people who can’t find pleasure in almost two hours of misery and a head-scratching ending. The end result is a story about Shirley written in a manner that we can envision it as one of Shirley’s own.

Neon will release SHIRLEY on Hulu, VOD, Virtual Cinemas and participating Drive-Ins June 5th, 2020

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THE VAST OF NIGHT (2020)

May 28, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “There’s something in the sky.” We’ve heard the line, or something similar, in most every UFO/Alien invasion film for the past 70 years. However, while employing a few conventional tropes of the genre, the brilliant directorial debut from Andrew Patterson is somehow simultaneously familiar and inventive. The director seems to thrive on serving up a story that proceeds as expected, with an innovative style that marks a true visionary.

We open on an early model television set as an exceptional Rod Serling impersonator introduces ‘Paradox Theater’, a riff on the classic series “The Twilight Zone.” Tonight’s episode is “The Vast of Night.” The black & white picture dissolves into color and we find ourselves in the late 1950’s outside the Cayuga, New Mexico high school gymnasium. A terrific opening sequence, filled with rapid-fire and overlapping dialogue, introduces us to Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick). Everett arrogantly struts through the venue as he assists with the electrical issue, pranks the band’s trombone player, and begins chatting with Fay about her new tape recorder.

The two characters remain on the move through the gym and back out into the parking lot, where Everett tutors Fay on the basics of recording interviews. See, Everett is the evening DJ at WOTW, the local radio station, and director Patterson uses their journey through the gym and parking lot, and back into town, to not just introduce us to Everett and Fay, but also give us a feel for the town and its people. As Everett heads to the station for his shift, Fay resumes her evening job as the switchboard operator. In yet another terrific sequence, we watch as Fay handles the calls and the bizarre ‘sound’ she hears. Again she enlists Everett’s help and he plays the sound over the radio. This elicits a call from Billy (Bruce Davis), who recognizes the sound from his days on a secret military mission, and from a shut-in elderly lady (Dallas’ own Gail Cronauer) who wants to tell her creepy story directly to Everett.

The fun here comes not so much from the story, but rather HOW it’s told and how it’s performed by Mr. Horowitz and Ms. McCormick, who both wreak of energy and youthful spirit. The latter is exceptional with her giddy and nervous approach as eager Fay, while donning her cat-eye spectacles. She is mesmerizing in a 10 minute uncut shot of her executing the switchboard. Director Patterson and cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz (RESISTANCE, 2020) employ long takes a few times, and none is more breath-taking than when they take us through town, into the basketball game, out the gymnasium window and back to the radio station. I was left wondering how they pulled it off, yet impressed at how it visually informed us that the town was almost deserted during the big game.

Not only is this director Patterson’s first film, it’s also the first screenplay from co-writers James Montague and Craig W Sanger. They have worked together to capture the feel and atmosphere of the era in the sets, the costumes, the Soviet Union concerns, and the attention to UFOs and aliens. JJ Abrams’ SUPER 8 (2011) may be the closest comparison, and there’s also bits of Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), “The X-Files”, and even George Lucas’ AMERICAN GRAFFITI. Rarely does a first time director burst on the scene with such craftsmanship and innovative vision, and it wouldn’t be surprising to find Mr. Patterson hired for a significantly higher budget movie project very soon. This one is pure joy for us movie lovers who thrive on creative approaches … from “a realm between clandestine and forgotten.”

Available on Amazon Prime Video May 29, 2020

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TORPEDO: U-235 (2020)

May 18, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Desperate times, desperate measures” is a phrase that dates back to ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (he of the Hippocratic Oath), and has been applied in many and varied situations since … war strategy being one of the most common. We hear the phrase a couple of times in the War Room during an early scene in the feature film directorial debut of writer-director Sven Huybrechts submarine movie. The term “submarine movie” is used with the utmost respect, as I’m a huge fan of the sub-genre.

Opening with a well-orchestrated attack on Nazi soldiers, we are soon in the midst of a group of resistance fighters – a rag tag bunch committed to wiping out as many Nazis as possible. In the War Room scene, this group is referred to as “The Bad Eggs”, and everyone from all sides seems to want them stopped. However, there is a problem – this group is made up of the only ones crazy enough to accept the current ‘suicide’ mission: delivering a Uranium filled submarine from the Belgian Congo to the United States, where the cargo will be used for the Manhattan Project.

The cast is excellent, led by the ongoing conflict between two outstanding and renowned leads: Belgian actor Koen De Bouw as Nazi-hater Stan, and German actor Thure Riefenstein as captured U-Boat Captain Franz Jager. Co-writers Huybrechts and Johan Horemans effectively use the dangers and claustrophobia of the submarine, and are truly expert in their pitting Stan against Jager. Stan’s beautiful (and sharpshooter) daughter Nadine (Ella-June Henrard) is also on the mission, but it’s Stan’s tragic backstory (which we see in tension-filled flashbacks) that have filled him with a lust for revenge and over-protectiveness.

Training for submarine crews typically lasts a year, and this group of misfits has only three weeks to prepare. Some of the early soundtrack reminds of the iconic Elmer Bernstein theme to THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, which comes across a bit misplaced, but that’s a minor quibble for a film that gets most everything else right – except for a too-good-to-be-true sequence near the end. Along the way, we see vivid images of the brutality and cruelty of Nazis, which helps us understand why all of these folks are so committed to the mission.

Working with a low budget, the film still manages to deliver the danger and tense situations we expect from a submarine during WWII. There is even a sub vs sub battle for some underwater action. The lineup of other worthy submarine movies over the years include: Jules Verne’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954), THE ENEMY BELOW (1957) with Robert Mitchum, RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP (1958) with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster, ICE STATION ZEBRA (1968)  based on the Alistair MacLean novel, the nerve-rattling DAS BOOT (1981) from Werner Herzog, THE ABYSS (1989) from James Cameron, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990) from Tom Clancy’s novel starring Sean Connery, CRIMSON TIDE (1995) pitting Denzel Washington against Gene Hackman, U-571 (2000) with the great Thomas Kretschmann, and BLACK SEA (2014) with Jude Law. And let’s not forget the 1968 classic featuring The Beatles animated, YELLOW SUBMARIINE.

This latest begins in 1941 and the final scene takes place on August 6, 1945. Huybrechts’s film could be described as a cross between INGLORIOUS BASTERDS and DAS BOOT, and it includes plenty of material for conversation on race, religion, nationality, and duty.

Available VOD beginning May 19, 2020

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FINDING EDEN (2020)

May 11, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Rodney Luis Aquino opens his first feature film on a happy and loving family consisting of father/husband, mother/wife, and son. They are a normal family who eat dinner together while discussing spitballs. The wife questions the husband’s “vacation beard” … a beard that has, by the looks of it, been growing for 3-4 months, leaving us to wonder what kind of benefits his employer offers. Their paradise is rocked one evening when the National Emergency Warning goes off. We learn from the news reports that the Earth has gone off its axis, leading to weather catastrophes around the planet.

We then flash forward as narrator Lisa (the wife) informs us “The Turn” occurred three winters ago, and sometimes she wonders if this is all a dream. It’s not a post-apocalyptic world, but it might as well be. She tells us there are rumors of cannibalism; however, in this family they hunt for food and scrounge for water. Adam takes his bow and three arrows in hopes of nabbing dinner. But Adam (Jason Sutton) is no superhero. He leaves his beloved Lisa (Jennifer Faith Ward) and son Sam (Michael Campion) at the campsite. When he returns empty handed, he discovers his family has been taken. His mission is no longer wild rabbit for dinner, but rather rescuing his loved ones.

On his journey, Adam crosses paths with Fred (Joseph Gatt, whom you’ll recognize from many roles), who tells him about “Eden”, a community of good folks who are forming a new society. It’s here where we learn that the bloody handprint signs Adam has seen along the way belong to Donner, a vicious guy who was kicked out of Eden. Of course, we understand that Adam and Donner are headed for a showdown if the family has any hope of survival. Veteran character actor Tom Proctor plays Donner, and he brings all he can to a role that embodies evil … Donner is a deliciously nasty fellow.

With an ultra-low budget project, some slack must be given for production value. Kraig Swisher takes on the rare combination of screenwriter and cinematographer, and at times the dialogue could have used a jolt, while the visuals never seem to take full advantage of the Florida and Georgia filming locations. The sound mixing is entirely too noticeable at times (those footsteps), and Mr. Sutton doesn’t really have the chops yet for leading man. Mr. Gatt and Mr. Proctor certainly elevate the film during their sequences, and the soundtrack is mostly in sync with what we see on screen. Overall, there are some fine moments, though we would have preferred the scenes of peril and danger to go much deeper, along with some more incisive commentary on the likelihood that most humans would take shortcuts when things go badly (like what is currently happening).

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THE SOUND OF THE WIND (2020)

April 29, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s the first feature film from Jared Douglas, and as with most dedicated independent filmmakers, he wears many hats in this production: writer-director-producer-editor. Mr. Douglas certainly didn’t take the easy route or shy away from difficult material. Instead, he takes us deep into the dark world of mental illness.

Rather than a peek inside an asylum or mental hospital, we are up close and personal with Lucio and his struggles. Lucio is played by Christian Gnecco Quintero, and our first inclination something isn’t quite right comes when he’s buying diapers at a convenience store. Lucio gets skittish and looks around as if someone is watching or following him (the camera enhances the feeling). He calls Vanessa (Stefanie Rons) to tell her that he’s in danger and he can’t come home to her and their young daughter. Lucio then hits the road … he’s on the run from something or someone we don’t see.

Our eyes are on Lucio nearly every moment of the 84 minute run time. It’s not pleasant to see what he’s going through. Lucio is paranoid to the point of self-destruction. When his car breaks down, a kind stranger named Chris (Dwayne Tarver) takes him back to his ranch cabin. Throughout the film, Lucio flashes the ability to converse with others, but it’s never long before the illness kicks in. Even the charity or generosity of strangers isn’t enough to put Lucio at ease, and the consequences can be severe. His biggest challenge … his biggest hurdle … is himself. Periodic calls to Vanessa provide us the insight to see what a devastating scenario this is for her as well.

I know you’re out there!” The phantom is all too real to Lucio. His reality is not ours. Cinematographer Neeraj Jain effectively captures the frantic moments and Quintero’s performance relays the urgency of every tick. Mental illness is often overlooked or overplayed in movies, but not so here. There is no comic relief, only the relentless pressure of trying to make sense of the confusion.

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EXTRACTION (2020)

April 23, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The description for this movie labels lead character Tyler Rake “a fearless black market mercenary.” Now I’ve personally never shopped for a mercenary, but my assumption is that every one of them is ‘black market’, and none would likely self-identify as anything other than ‘fearless.’ My Facebook account is inundated with unwanted advertisements, and I’ve yet to see one for any mercenary, much less one that lacks courage. Now you likely find this to be worthless meanderings, but that’s where the first feature length film from director Sam Hargrave took me. Mr. Hargrave is a veteran stunt coordinator and stunt performer (he’s been the stunt double for Chris Evans’ Captain America), and he’s working from a script by Joe Russo (director and producer of the last two Avengers movies and the last two Captain America movies).

Chris Hemsworth (THOR) stars as the aforementioned Tyler Rake. It’s a role that would have just as easily worked for Jason Statham or, in past years, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Rake is a live action hero, haunted by visions and dreams of better times. His fighting prowess, shooting skills, and willingness to play roulette with his own life, make him the perfect hire for imprisoned drug lords when their son is kidnapped by a rival drug lord. And that’s exactly what happens.

The film opens with Tyler in a bad spot. He’s injured and trying to shoot his way out of a mess where he’s badly outnumbered. The film then flashes back a couple of days where we witness the kidnapping of Ovi Jr (Rudrhaksh Jaiswal) by Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyuli), the drug lord rival to Ovi Jr’s imprisoned father. We also see Tyler, after a few too many drinks, take a running leap off a 30 meter cliff into an Australian lake. Soon he’s visited by Nik (Golshifteh Farahani, Adam Driver’s wife in PATERSON). She acts as his handler for the dangerous jobs, and few are more risky than extracting Ovi Jr.

What follows are fast-paced car chases through the dusty streets of Dhaka, bone-crunching hand-to-hand combats, and more shootouts than we’ve seen in a while. Tyler’s job is to extract Ovi Jr and deliver him safely home. When things go sideways, the two end up on the run from an entire army, and take cover in a local sewer … with all the sights and smells you might imagine. Supporting roles are covered by David Harbor as Tyler’s old friend, and Randeep Hooda as Ovi Sr’s right-hand man.

As you might expect, there are double-crosses and plenty of opportunities for Tyler to show off his ‘fearless’ Samercenary skills. Ovi Jr is a bit of a nerd, but does offer up some life philosophy for his troubled protector: “You drown not by falling in the water, but by staying submerged in it.” The kill count here is extraordinarily high and literally thousands of rounds get fired. What’s most surprising, however, is that Tyler’s cell phone somehow survives his many falls, gunshots, sewage, and car collisions. It’s much more impressive than the old Timex commercials. Gifted cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (X-MEN movies, DRIVE, THREE KINGS, THE USUAL SUSPECTS) does an admirable job capturing the action sequences; it’s just that this is too similar to many movies we’ve seen before, though it serves as a chance for Hemsworth to be something other than Thor. For those in need of an action flick fix after all this social distancing, EXTRACTION should scratch the itch.

opens Netflix April 24, 2020

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THE HUNT (2020)

March 12, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Let’s face it. It was a brilliant marketing strategy. In the wake of mass shootings, the release date of this film was delayed when its subject matter was deemed controversial, even scandalous The film’s new marketing slogan became, “The most talked about movie of the year is one that no one’s actually seen.” Of course, it wasn’t really true, as very few were actually talking about it. But that’s what made it genius marketing … they created interest amidst controversy that has since proven unnecessary. Director Craig Zobel (Z FOR ZACHARIAH, 2015) has delivered the least controversial, non-polarizing film of the year. It basically laughs at extremes on the left and right, and reminds us how laughing at something can often take away its power. And regardless of your “side”, you’ll find some laughs here.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know that the premise has a group of liberal elites hunting a hand-selected group of social media-active MAGA deplorables. It’s a twist on Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game”, although the modern day rich aren’t hunting for sport, but rather for political affiliation – gun lovers and climate change deniers. That may sound politically charged, but in fact, it plays as more comedy than comeuppance. Sure, the violence is over-the-top and often quite graphic, but this is a skewering of both red and blue.

Preventing the project from falling into B-movie muck is a standout performance from Betty Gilpin (“Glow”) as Crystal. She’s a Rambo-type who speaks (with a southern drawl) only when necessary, and seems to have learned a lot while serving in Afghanistan. Most of the time she looks like she has “a pinch between her cheek and gum” (a tip of the Stetson to Walt Garrison), and she also hums to herself and tosses down some unusual facial expressions. This is a seriously oddball performance that is the film’s highlight.

One of the best sequences of the film comes quite early as the dozen or so ‘deplorables’ slowly wake-up and find themselves gagged in a field. A container of weapons leads to an early massacre that allows the filmmaker to tease us with numerous familiar faces taking turns as the heir-apparent lead. Some of the faces that pop up include Ike Barinholtz, Wayne Duvall, Ethan Suplee, Emma Roberts, Christopher Berry, Sturgill Simpson, Kate Nowlin, Amy Madigan, Reed Birney, Glenn Howerton, Hannah Alline (flight attendant), and Usman Ally.

Of course we know this is headed to a showdown between Crystal and Athena (2-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank), the ringleader of the hunting party. A fight scene reminiscent of the KILL BILL movies (sans Samurai swords) takes place at Athena’s “manor”, and it is stunningly staged and executed. Unfortunately this scene also highlights the mostly inadequate dialogue that exists throughout the film. Some of the quips click, but many fall flat – surprising since the co-writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof have previously collaborated on “Watchmen” and “The Leftovers.”

Blumhouse Productions keeps cranking out these offbeat genre films, and this one likely benefits from a misplaced scandal, and it strives for self-importance by comparing itself to George Orwell’s “Animal House” and with an obscure reference to TEARS OF THE SUN (2013). It’s not at the level of last year’s gem READY OR NOT, and it missed the opportunity to make some political points, but it’s a hoot to watch and as an added bonus, Hilary Swank teaches us the proper way to make a grilled cheese sandwich!

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