VENGEANCE (2022)

July 28, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Cultural differences between various states are a big part of what gives the United States its flavor of diversity. The west coast is much different from the east coast, and both coasts contrast with the Midwest. Even within states, the differences can be fascinating. Think of upstate New York versus Manhattan, or the forests of Redding versus the glitz of Los Angeles. Perhaps no cultural comparison of states is more stark than that of the home pride of Texas versus the elitism of New York City. Writer-director-producer-lead actor BJ Novak seizes the opportunity to serve up these differences on a platter, while exposing a touch of reality and hope from both geographic areas.

You likely recall Mr. Novak as Ryan, the young staffer on the TV series “The Office” (in which he also had a hand in writing and directing some episodes). He quickly establishes that stereotypes will be hit head-on, and his self-awareness is at play in an opening sequence featuring Novak’s Ben Manalowitz and his bro-buddy John (a cameo by John Mayer). They improvise the douchey attitude of city-dwelling types whose interest in one-night gratifications overrides any deeply buried thoughts of a meaningful relationship with the opposite sex. Their constant use of “hundred percent” to express agreement in the latest lame point made by the other won’t be the last humorous sequence that also conveys a bit of disappointment in society.

One night, Ben receives a call from Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook) informing him that Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton) has died unexpectedly. Ty believes Ben was Abilene’s serious boyfriend, while Ben has to search his phone to discover that she was but one of many casual hook-ups. Roped into flying to Texas for the funeral, Ben stumbles through the eulogy by saying “she loved music”, a sentiment that endears him to her family. Despite having a coveted job as a writer for ‘The New Yorker’, Ben has his sights set on becoming a popular podcaster, and things fall into place when Ty discloses his conspiracy theory that, rather than die of an afterparty overdose in an oil field, his sister Abilene was murdered – perhaps by a Mexican cartel. Ben quickly pitches the idea to renowned podcast producer Eloise (Issa Rae), who green lights “Dead White Girl.” OK, so most of the humor here is a bit dark.

This much information is included in order to give a taste of the twists and turns that Novak has in store. Abilene’s family embraces him for staying to investigate, not understanding that his goal here is professional advancement rather than solving a case … a case that was closed by the local law enforcement – an incompetent and apathetic Mike and Dan. It’s Ben’s interaction with the family that are key to many of Novak’s points. Mother Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron, “Succession”) is quietly wise. Granny (Louanne Stephens, “Longmire”) is excessively direct. Abilene’s two sisters, Paris (Isabella Amara) and Jasmine (Dove Cameron), are respectively, a goth wanna-be filmmaker and a rudderless dreamer of becoming famous. The little brother, nicknamed “El Stupido” by the family, is played by newcomer Eli Bickel and he has a particular phobia that adds yet another touch.

Ben’s investigation finds him crossing paths with a local drug dealer named Sancholo (Zach Villa), who displays polar opposite personalities in front of his crew and then behind closed doors with Ben. Perhaps the most interesting character in the film is local record producer Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher). Quentin is a smooth talker who impresses Ben with his philosophical meanderings, while donning attire that pops with flair. It’s also during the investigative stage that Ben learns all there is to learn about the sanctity of Whataburger for Texans, and how those in West Texas view the big cities of Dallas and Houston … again, more humor and truth.

My description of Novak’s film is ‘observational dramedy’. He utilizes the current political divisions in the country and blends it with the dominance and corruption of social media. By embracing stereotypes, he manages to pull back the curtain and expose the humanity that exists, as well as the darkness in some. The abrupt finale is startling as it seems to go against many of the points Novak makes throughout, but it’s clear he has a bright future as a filmmaker with something to say.

Opens in theaters July 29, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


RUN ALL NIGHT (2015)

March 13, 2015

run all night Greetings again from the darkness. Imagine if Liam Neeson’s burned out Air Marshall from Non-Stop was instead a one-time mob hit man who had seen better days. That seems to be the inspiration for director Jaume Collet-Serra’s film (yes, he directed Non-Stop as well). When a guy is a drunken mess with no family who speak to him and only one friend – his old mob boss – a nickname like The Gravedigger tends to conjure better days of yore.

Neeson plays Jimmy Conlon, the has-been hitman whose only remaining friend is boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). These days, Conlon expends more effort emptying a glass than fulfilling a contract.  Shawn respects their history and does all he can to protect his long-time friend who seems intent on boozing himself to death. As is customary in these “crime doesn’t pay” films, things get really messed up in the blink of an eye. Thanks to a wrong place at the wrong time moment, Conlon protects his own son (Joel Kinnaman) by shooting Maguire’s misguided son (Boyd Holbrook). Thus endeth the friendship.

The script is from Brad Ingelsby who wrote the original script for Out of the Furnace (2013), but most of it is pretty predictable. Still, with an excellent cast and some wildly creative camera work from cinematographer Martin Ruhe (Harry Brown, The American), this one offers plenty on the entertainment scale. The restaurant scene where Harris and Neeson face off is alone worth the price of admission.

As you might expect, there is plenty of gun play and swagger, but as the title suggests, mostly it’s a game of running and being chased … featuring a crazy car chase. Neeson has an extended public bathroom fight scene with Holt McCallany, and the detective played by Vincent D’Onofrio continues his decades long pursuit of Neeson’s character. Bruce McGill plays Harris’ right-hand man and Common is a steely new age hit man. Kinnaman’s wife is played by Genesis Rodriguez, and the film’s most bizarre scene features a grizzled Nick Nolte – you will find yourself asking “is that him or not?”

Mr. Collet-Serra has directed Unknown and Non-Stop, so Neeson is quite comfortable working with him, and you should certainly know what to expect going in. The friendship between two mobsters ends the way most do, and it’s another take on the blood family vs mob family loyalties. The Gravedigger may have one foot in his own grave, but he also has enough left for one wild night.

watch the trailer:

 


LITTLE ACCIDENTS (2015)

January 17, 2015

little accidents Greetings again from the darkness. You know how we always hear that there are no secrets in a small town – how everyone knows your business? This first feature film from writer/director Sara Colangelo exposes the fallacy of that notion. It seems all residents of this small mining community are carrying secrets, and some are whoppers!

The story picks up about a year after a horrible coal mining accident killed ten local miners. The lone survivor was Amos (Boyd Holbrook) who is struggling with physical limitations resulting from the incident.  However, generating more pain for Amos than his withered arm and leg is the internal battle the ongoing investigation is causing him. Should he expose the known safety issues that caused his co-workers to die?  If he does, those 10 families probably get justice and a financial reward, but the mine likely shuts down – crippling the local economy and throwing much of the town out of work.  If keeps quiet, those families get nothing and it’s business as usual for everyone else.

Amos is joined in a daily conundrum of secrets by: Owen (Jacob Lofland), who is much too young to handle the situation an accident has placed him; Owen’s brother James (Beau Wright) who has Down Syndrome and is even less equipped to keep his secret; the mine’s supervisor Bill (Josh Lucas) who defends his poor decisions by saying he only did what the company forced him to do; and Diane (Elizabeth Banks) who is Bill’s wife and reacts to the disappearance of her son and lack of respect for her husband in a manner that can’t possibly end well.

As is common in poverty-stricken communities, there is even more to add. Owen’s father was one of the miners killed in the accident, and Owen was among the group who last saw Bill and Diane’s son alive. Also, Amos is living with his father who is paying the health price for a lifetime of coal mining. The film is bookended by Amos’ testimony regarding the accident, and in between we see these intertwined lives and much soul-suffering and personal stock-taking. It’s a reminder of how powerful grief can be, especially after such an instantaneous tragedy.

Boyd Holbrook and Jacob Lofland deliver outstanding performances. Mr. Holbrook’s career is in skyrocket mode as he appeared in 8 projects during 2013-14 (including Gone Girl, The Skeleton Twins), and has 5 more for 2015 (including Terrence Malick’s next film). Young Mr. Lofland was a standout in both Mud (2012) and his recent recurring role on TV’s “Justified“. Also of note is one of the few dramatic turns for Elizabeth Banks. We have come to expect comedy excellence from her (even as Effie in The Hunger Games), but we have rarely seen the emotional depth she portrays here.

The movie is beautifully shot by Rachel Morrison, and the film stock provides the grainy look that adds to the realistic feel necessary for us to be absorbed into this isolated world. Comparisons to other mining movies are expected, and North Country (2005) and Matewan (1987) come to mind, however, those were centered on mistreatment in the workplace and labor issues, respectively. This movie is much more concerned with grief, and for some reason The Stone Boy (1984) comes to mind. Dealing with tragedy does not become easier with age, financial status or social standing. Ms. Colangelo’s film provides an intimate look at this.

watch the trailer:

 


THE SKELETON TWINS (2014)

September 23, 2014

skeleton twins Greetings again from the darkness. Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Ty Burrell and Luke Wilson … prepare yourself for 90 minutes of side-splitting laughter! OK, well you can prepare all you want, but you should know that while there are some funny moments, this is one of the bleakest films of the year. Bleak as in achingly painful to watch at times due to the emotional misery most every character experiences.

Hopefully no one stopped reading after “side-splitting laughter” because here is a sampling of thematic elements covered in the film: attempted suicide, suicide of a parent, adultery, sexual abuse of a minor, rampant lying, depression, horrific parenting, drug use, animal cruelty (goldfish).

If Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig of SNL fame don’t spring to mind when considering those elements, please keep an open mind. Both are extremely good (and believable) in their roles as twins estranged for a decade, forced back together after a near tragedy. See, after a miserable childhood, their time apart has prevented both from establishing a strong personal relationship with anyone else. Hader plays a self-professed “gay cliché”, while Wiig is pretending to have the perfect suburban life with her gung-ho, always “up”, good guy husband (Luke Wilson).

The film’s best humor is produced in small moments thanks to the connection between Wiig and Hader. It’s definitely not in the almost shameful attempts at crowd-pleasing offered in the SNL-ish scenes of lip-synching to Starship, and over-indulging on Nitrous Oxide at the dental office.

Real emotional turmoil exists in the scenes between Hader and Ty Burrell, and the unnecessary and inexplicable reunion between Hader, Wiig and their mother (Joanna Gleason). Burrell, known for his outstanding “Modern Family” role, is intriguing as a dramatic actor. Looking forward to more of this from him.

The script, co-written by director Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman, really does capture some poignant and dramatic moments, and certainly benefits from the extremely talented cast. Just don’t expect that side-splitting laughter … unless you are susceptible to lip-synching and/or nitrous oxide farting humor.

watch the trailer (but don’t believe the 50% comedy ratio):

 


A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014)

September 18, 2014

tombstones Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome to the annual off-season gift from Liam Neeson. Seemingly every year, he provides us with a February or September release that requires his particular set of tough guy skills. This time, he plays Matthew Scudder – of the popular Lawrence Block crime novel series (17 books).

Director Scott Frank (The Lookout) works to create a 1970’s feel, although the film opens up as a flashback to 1991, and quickly fast forwards to 1999 NYC. There are no shortage of clichés here, yet nothing is over the top; and the bleak, somber, usually rainy setting establishes the tone that fits with “unlicensed” private detective Scudder’s preferred method of living and detecting.

Of course, Scudder is a recovering alcoholic and former cop, with a tragic, careless incident on his record and conscience. The film is so ever-bleak, that the moments of humor … though often awkward and out of place … are quite welcome. The only shining light of innocence comes courtesy of a sharp homeless kid named TJ, played by Brian “Astro” Bradley. TJ is a Philip Marlowe wannabe, and quickly assumes the role of Scudder’s partner/intern/IT Department.

Bad guys are everywhere. Even the serial killers (David Harbour, Adam David Thompson) target the family members of criminals, so as to minimize the involvement of the proper authorities. As an improper authority, we can’t ask for better than Liam Neeson. He works for “favors”, not a paycheck. It should also be noted that this time, he is more likely to outwit the bad guys, than kick their butts.

Other support work comes courtesy of Dan Stephens (“Downton Abbey“), Boyd Holbrook, and creepy cemetery groundskeeper (is there another type?) Olafur Darri Olafsson, who creates yet another memorable character with limited screen time (see “True Detective“).

Mr. Neeson gets plenty of telephone action, which plays right into the strength of Taken, and it’s pretty amazing how much WALKING he does throughout the story. He looks great walking in his duster, but it seems a bicycle would be more efficient … though admittedly, much less intimidating. As a whole, though the movie is probably a bit familiar, it’s the little details and the powerful Liam Neeson that makes it a welcome late summer release.

**NOTE: the character of Matthew Scudder previously appeared on screen in the 1986 Hal Ashby film 8 Million Ways to Die, and was played by Jeff Bridges.

watch the trailer: