NINE DAYS (2021)

August 5, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The meaning of Life is an ambitious topic to tackle for any filmmaker, but certainly as a first feature film. Japanese-Brazilian writer-director Edson Oda not only doesn’t shy away from existential questions, he has found a creative way of exploring these, leaving us with plenty to discuss after viewing. His approach is often bleak and slow-moving, yet his film excels in pushing us to examine our own attitude and appreciation for the gift of life.

Winston Duke (US, 2019) stars as Will, a kind of guardian angel charged with selecting the replacement souls after deaths occur on his watch. Will has a wall of old-style tube TVs, each with its own VCR wired up. He spends his time watching folks go about their lives. He takes notes and maintains files. See, those he watches are the ones Will previously selected for life. He picks his team, but he no longer plays the game (although he was once alive). His job now is to tweak humanity in the right direction by selecting “good” souls who are tough enough to handle life – not overly sensitive types, and certainly not those too self-centered.

There is no denying Oda’s film is high-concept, and some may outright dismiss his premise. What if pre-life was a competition to determine worthiness?  Will sets up nine days of interviews for the next round of souls. Of course, some won’t last the full nine days, but the process involves a series of quizzes as the candidates watch the wall of TVs and offer up their answers to Will’s questions. Well, all but one, that is. Emma (Zazie Beetz, JOKER, 2019) is a free-spirited soul who sees Will for what he is and what he was. She answers his questions with her own questions, or simply states that she can’t answer. He is intrigued and frustrated by her willingness to play this out in her own way.

Tony Hale (“Veep”) and Bill Skarsgard (IT, 2017) are a couple of the other candidates, and each has their moments to shine. Benedict Wong (DOCTOR STRANGE, 2015) plays Kyo, Will’s co-worker and the one who assists him with the interview process. Kyo also strives to make sure Will maintains some humanity, despite a recent event that shook him to his core, and now has Will second-guessing himself. As Emma slowly gets Will to open up about his ‘alive’ time, we also see how Will recreates a special moment for the candidates as they are dismissed … providing them with a taste of life.

A ‘taste of life’ is fitting because the point Oda is trying to make is that the best parts of life are emotions and sensations – the intangibles that bring joy, fear, and sadness. It’s not all cupcakes and unicorns, and being so tough to block out the senses is not the best way of living. Without him realizing, Emma helps Will re-connect with his inner-being of when he was alive. His re-awakening is a highlight.

The candidates are informed that, if chosen, their memories will be wiped clean, yet “you’ll still be you”. This conforms to the theory that much of who we are is inherent at birth. Again, some may disagree. Oda’s film will inspire thought and debate. If each of us aced our pre-life interviews, let’s make the most of it!  This is a terrific film with a unique look and style, and a standout performance from Winston Duke. We can only hope enough folks take the time to watch and think about the message.

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NAKED SINGULARITY (2021)

August 5, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. After co-writing the screenplay (adapted from the Stephen King book) for the box office horror hit IT (2017), Chase Palmer gets his first opportunity to direct a feature film. He also co-wrote this screenplay with David Matthews, as the two have adapted the 2008 novel “A Naked Singularity” by Sergio De La Pava. Think of it as a meaning-of-life science fiction comedy drama heist film that critiques the justice system. You know what they say about trying to be all things to all people. But it does get bonus points for trying hard!

John Boyega (Finn in the STAR WARS movies) stars as Casi, a Public Defender who is exasperated with the NYC criminal court system. Casi is overworked and underpaid, and his heart of gold and frumpy suit matter little in his courtroom clashes with Judge Cymbeline (Linda Lavin, “Alice”), who thrives on antagonizing and baiting the young attorney. Casi’s early idealism has faded and now he’s just fed up, looking for a way out. The talented Olivia Cooke (SOUND OF METAL, 2020) co-stars as Lea, a bored clerk at a city impound lot. Lea is a previous client of Casi’s and they cross paths again when his lawyer friend Dane (Bill Skarsgard, Pennywise in IT) passes along a file for her latest case.

There are basically three stories going on here: First, Casi is (unsuccessfully) fighting the bias in the halls of justice. Second, there is a weird glitch in the matrix, referred to as a “ripple” by Casi’s stoner friend Angus (Tim Blake Nelson), who works out physics problems on the wall of his apartment. And third, there is a botched drug deal featuring creepy hoodlum Craig (Ed Skrein, DEADPOOL, 2016), who has dragged Lea right into his web of crime. Of course, Lea already had a criminal record, and she’s frustrated that the system penalizes her for the past … leaving her with lousy options for employment. She’s too is looking for a way out.

As the film begins, director Palmer includes a quote from Candide: “If this is the best possible world, what then are the others?” This goes directly to the dreamers – those who imagine escaping their situation, and those who imagine making it better. Act 3 becomes a heist film, but we miss out on the fun part, as the planning just seems to happen. When the big day arrives, some things go right, and some things go wrong. Mostly, it’s an unrealistic chain of events that involves every character listed above, plus The Golem (Kyle Mooney) as the leader of the drug-dealing Hasidic Jews, a couple of NYC Detectives, and a Mexican cartel boss, who raises eyebrows outbidding Craig for the Navigator where the drugs are stashed. It seems fairly likely that Lincoln contributed to the film’s production since “Navigator” is mentioned numerous times.

Director Palmer utilizes a countdown to the big event … assuming the “ripple” wouldn’t be considered a bigger event … and that provides the odd pacing for the film. Also odd is the inclusion of a Popeye Doyle reference, when it’s quite unlikely that these characters would be familiar with THE FRENCH CONNECTION. Additionally, it’s the unnatural dialogue and the wedged-in social commentary that come across as misplaced. Comparing being poor to slavery in a five second scene makes it appear the goal was to fit in as many social issues as possible within a 90 minute run time. Sometimes weird is interesting. Sometimes it’s just weird. Sometimes it’s just kind of meh.

Screen Media will release NAKED SINGULARITY in select theaters on August 6th as well as opening wide and on demand August 13th, 2021

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IT (2017)

September 7, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. There are two clown schools: Funny clowns (Bozo, Ronald McDonald), and Terrifying clowns (the one in POLTERGEIST, Pennywise the Dancing Clown). Stephen King first introduced Pennywise in the 1986 novel, and the great Tim Curry brought him to life (and our nightmares) in the 1990 TV mini-series (2 episodes). So, that’s 27 years since the TV version. How fitting that director Andy Muschietti (MAMA) introduces a new generation 27 years later, since that’s how often the supernaturally evil clown visits Derry, Maine to frighten and feast on kids. It’s a terrific update.

Horror films are similar to comedy films in that it often comes down to one’s own personality quirks … what makes you laugh, and what scares you. This new version covers the first half of King’s novel, focusing on “The Losers Club” – the seven kids who band together to fight their fears. Director Muschietti sets the story in 1989 (rather than the 50’s) and the obvious comparisons are to THE GOONIES, STAND BY ME (another King story), and the recent hit “Stranger Things”.

The opening sequence gets us off to a great start. You’ve probably seen it in the trailer. Young Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is joyfully splashing through the rain puddles following his paper boat as it disappears into the storm drain. It’s there that he meets, and we get our first look at, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard, son of Stellan and brother of Alexander). Giving us an early peek at what we came to see creates time for the development of a long list of characters. Of course the mini-series and the novel didn’t have the time restrictions of a feature film, so it’s impressive how quickly we connect with the kids.

Georgie’s older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberther, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL) is the leader of The Losers despite his propensity to stutter, and his belief that little Georgie may still be alive. Motormouth Richie (Finn Wolfhard, “Stranger Things”) is the bespectacled wiseass, while Beverly (Sophia Lillis, an Amy Adams lookalike and star in the making) is the tough-on-the-outside female who deals with the rumors that accompany being a teenager. Hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), straight-laced son of the Rabbi Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), chubby brainiac new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and home-schooled Mike (Chosen Jacobs) round out this group of outsiders who are all frequently the target of bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), creepy parents, and of course, Pennywise.

A couple of the set pieces are outstanding. Beverly’s bathroom (especially the sink), the creek for the rock fight, and the rickety old house and its corresponding clown lair all contribute to the overall level of menace. Rising star composer Benjamin Wallfisch produces a score that guides us through the thrills and spills, as well as the quieter moments. As for Pennywise, even though the dancing clown had more screen time in the mini-series, Skarsgard is memorable, although the modern day special effects (those teeth!) often diminish the humanistic feel of Curry’s clown and escalate things to an other-worldly level.

Expect more of the Halloween Haunted House type of scary rather than the emotionally crippling stuff of horror films like THE EXORCIST or THE SHINING. The sudden bursts of sinister are surprisingly balanced with the humorous one-liners from the kids, and the actualization of the infamous “you’ll float too” is a stunning effect. The nostalgic feel complements the best part of the story … the power of friendship and connected groups. Watching these kids face their biggest fears certainly provides a bit of a chill to the upcoming fall season … and as a bonus, it’s a fun time for viewers.

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ATOMIC BLONDE (2017)

July 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. David Leitch has taken the rare Hollywood career path of stuntman-to-director. His expertise in fight scenes is beyond reproach as evidenced by his limited work on JOHN WICK (2014), and in his helming this heavily promoted, style over substance summer action film masquerading as a spy thriller. Kurt Johnstad (300) adapted Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel “The Coldest City”, and in collaboration with director Leitch and the ultra-talented Charlize Theron, has created some of the most brutal, bone-crunching and violent fight scenes ever seen on screen.

Ms. Theron stars as Lorraine, an MI6 agent whose life-sustaining nourishment is apparently derived from Stoli on the rocks and an endless supply of cigarettes. The opening scene features a naked Lorraine submerged in an ice cube bath seeking relief for her bruised and battered body. She then heads to an official debriefing by her supervisor (Toby Jones) and a CIA officer (John Goodman); they want details on what went wrong with her most recent mission. Those details come through flashbacks of Lorraine’s trip to Berlin to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and the stolen list of all agents. It’s 1989, and the Cold War concern is that the list falls into the hands of the KGB, immediately placing all agents and missions in peril.

With the recurring backdrop of President Reagan exhorting Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down that wall”, the film in no way employs the clever clandestine strategies of the TV series “The Americans”, or even slightly resembles international espionage classics like TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY or THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR. Instead, whatever plot lines or MacGuffins exist have one sole purpose: generate another fight scene for Lorraine.

Stairwells, kitchen utensils, a skateboard, water hoses, car keys and a corkscrew all have their moments (no, it’s not a Jackie Chan movie), as do a couple of car chase sequences. Ms. Theron is a physical marvel (she performed most of her own stunts) as she takes on numerous adversaries in various locations all while sporting more fashionable black & white outfits (with coordinated stilettos) than we can count. She has proven many times (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, NORTH COUNTRY, MONSTER) that she is much more than a pretty face, and this is her most grueling role to date.

This is undoubtedly Charlize’s show, and supporting work is provided by an underutilized James McAvoy (fresh off of SPLIT) as the rebellious Berlin station agent, Eddie Marsan as a German Stasi known as Spyglass, James Faulkner as MI6 Chief, Roland Moller as the Soviet Bremovych, the always-cool Til Schweiger as the watchmaker, and Bill Skarsgard (Pennywise in the upcoming IT remake). Sofia Boutella plays the wonderfully named Delphine LaSalle, a French agent who, like most of the human race, is attracted to Ms. Theron/Lorraine.

Though it’s understandable we don’t get to see much of Berlin, the soundtrack continually reminds us that we are in 1989 thanks to music from such varied artists as David Bowie, Public Enemy, Nena, The Clash, Depeche Mode and A Flock of Seagulls. There is even a throwback clip from MTV making a crack about the ethics of sampling, and Cinematographer Jonathan Sela’s background in music videos works perfectly for the flash cut action segments.

A more intricate and full-bodied story tied to the international espionage of the Cold War could have elevated the film to a more elite status; however, it immediately becomes one of the top female-led action films and features some of the most impressive and fun to watch cinematic fight scenes ever. Next up for director Leitch is Deadpool 2, so we will soon find out if he can inject humor into his expert action.

watch the trailer: