THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD (2021)

May 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Taylor Sheridan was Oscar nominated for his screenplay of the superb HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016). He also wrote and directed WIND RIVER (2017), wrote the screenplays for both SICARIO movies, and is the creative force behind the TV series “Yellowstone”. He has excelled in generating slow-burn tension and conflict. For his latest film, he’s back in the director’s chair after co-writing the script with Charles Leavitt (BLOOD DIAMOND, 2006) and the 2014 novel’s author, Michael Koryta.

Oscar winner Angelina Jolie stars as Hannah, a thrill-seeking smokejumper (those folks who jump out of airplanes to fight fires and save lives) burdened with a faulty decision that cost lives in a massive forest fire the previous year. After flunking her psyche-evaluation, Hannah packs up the blame and her flashbacks and accepts her low-key assignment to the solitude of “Fire Tower”, a lookout perched above the tree line of Soda Butte, a park area within Yellowstone that encompasses the Continental Divide. Early on we see the camaraderie of the smokejumpers as they tease each other and “welcome” the new firefighters to the park.

In a seemingly unrelated storyline (although we know the intersection is coming), Owen (Jake Weber, “Medium”) and his son Connor (Finn Little) take an emergency detour on the way to school. Owen is a forensic accountant who uncovered some corruption while working for a Florida DA who was recently murdered by the same hitmen now chasing Owen and his son. Soon, Connor is wandering alone through the forest looking for someone he can trust, and up pops Hannah. The pair of calm-cool-collected hitmen are played by Aidan Gillen (“Game of Thrones”) and Nicholas Hoult (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, 2015). They track down Owen’s brother-in-law Ethan (Jon Bernthal, BABY DRIVER, 2017), who happens to work for the sheriff’s department in the same park.

Whether you call it a hunt or a chase, it’s always a bit creepy when professional hitmen are tracking down an innocent kid, and the tension is elevated when we see the bad guys take their direction from a higher-up bad buy played by Tyler Perry in one brief scene. The film features a hand full of excellent action sequences, including a shootout between the hitmen and Ethan’s pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore). Conveniently, Allison runs a survivor camp, and despite her belly, manages to put up quite a fight.

Cinematographer Ben Richardson (BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, 2012) capitalizes on the extraordinary vastness and beauty of Soda Butte, and some of the forest fire effects are so good we can almost feel the heat. The supporting cast is excellent and the multiple story lines all work together nicely. For me, what prevented the film from reaching the level it could have, was the presence and performance of Angelina Jolie. Her last action movie was SALT in 2010, and here she seems too concerned with a look of glamor – right down to consistently brushed hair and perfect make-up – than fitting the profile of the courageous (and slightly off-center) smokejumpers. She stands out from the others on the team not because of her inherent extreme risk-taking, but rather because of her magazine-cover approach – something not limited to the hair and make-up, but also her posing and preening, including many of the same gazes from other movies like GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS (2000). I often admire and respect the choices actors make, but in this case, those choices work against everything else in what could have been an excellent dramatic thriller.

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SING STREET (2016)

April 20, 2016

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2016

sing street Greetings again from the darkness. The vast majority of 1980’s music usually inspires nothing but groans and an immediate change of the radio channel from me. Yet writer/director John Carney masterfully captured and held my attention with this crowd-pleasing story that leans heavily on the tunes from that era.

Mr. Carney was also responsible for two previous music-centric movies, Once (2007) and Begin Again (2013). He is an exceptional story teller who puts music at the center, but avoids the label of “musical” by making it about people, rather than notes.

It’s 1985 in economically depressed Dublin, and a strong opening sequence introduces us to Connor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) as his ever-arguing parents (Aidan Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy) inform him of the economic necessity of pulling him out of prep school and enrolling him into a much tougher environment … one that comes with bullies and hard-nosed teachers/clergy.

Soon enough Connor is hanging with the misfits and inviting an enchanting “older” girl to star in his band’s video. She agrees, and wide-eyed Connor quickly sets out to form a band that didn’t previously exist.

There are two interesting and fully realized relationships that make this movie click: Connor and the enchanting Raphina (Lucy Boynton), and Connor and his older brother Brendon (Jack Reynor). Brendan is Connor’s life mentor and music guru. They are quick to jump on the new world of music videos, and it’s a real hoot to watch Connor emulate the style and fashion of Duran, Duran, The Cure, etc.

It’s fascinating to note that Connor, while a pretty talented lyricist and singer, doesn’t really seem to be in love with the music except as a means to an end … a way to get the girl. That said, the real message here is that while teenagers often feel like they can’t fix the outside world (parents, teachers, bullies), they can fix themselves by finding a passion in life (the movie uses the term vocation).

It’s hard not to notice the influence of such filmmakers as John Hughes and Cameron Crowe, and Carney certainly brings his touch of romanticism. Plus, one must appreciate any movie that delivers an original song as catchy as “Drive it like you Stole it”, while also taking a shot at Phil Collins. It’s a funny and sweet movie that should really catch on through positive word of mouth.

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CALVARY (2014)

August 3, 2014

calvary Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh and actor Brendon Gleeson re-team (The Guard, 2011) in what can be viewed as one giant leap for both filmmaker and actor. Mr. McDonagh is immensely talented and seems to be a natural at keeping his viewers unsure of what’s coming, and Mr. Gleeson gives his best yet performance of a quite impressive career.

Set and filmed in a western Irish coastal town, the film has a most unusual first scene, including an acknowledgment of such as the priest (Gleeson) says “Certainly a startling opening line“. This occurs in the confessional, with an extreme close-up, as the unseen (by us) parishioner then says “I’m going to kill you Father“. With Sunday week as the promised deadline, the movie follows the Priest with a placard for each day, as he makes his way through consulting the maze of local town characters. He also receives a visit from his daughter (Kelly Reilly), fresh off a suicide attempt (he was married prior to joining the priesthood).

The film bounces from very dark humor to extreme philosophical and theological discussions (faith and mortality) between the town folks and the priest. We quickly learn what a good man (with an imperfect past) he is, and struggle to understand why the locals flash such vitriol his way. The Catholic Church, and all that implies these days, certainly plays a key role, but more than that, this is about the make-up and character of people.

An impressive and talented supporing cast includes Aidan Gillen as the atheist doctor with a dark side, Chris O’Dowd as the local butcher, Orla O’Rourke as his unfaitful wife about town, Isaach DeBankola as one of her chums, Dylan Moran as the conflicted local rich boy, Killian Scott as the frustrated virginal local, Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan’s son) as an incarcerated serial killer, and the always great M Emmet Walsh – back on screen as the local old timer who spins yarns and enjoys attention.

This is not the place to go into detail about the story, as the film is best unwrapped and interpreted by each viewer. Rather than a whodunnit, it has a rare who-is-going-to-do-it element that hovers over each scene. What can be said is that this is exceptional filmmaking: it’s well directed, beautifully photographed (landscapes and aerials), superbly acted, has a terrific script (incredible dialogue), and encourages much discussion.

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