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)

 

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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:


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.

watch the trailer:


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

watch the trailer:


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.

watch the trailer:


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: