DREAMLAND (2020)

November 12, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Outlaws on the run have been fertile ground for movies over the years, and young director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte and writer Nicolas Zwart give the genre their best shot (pun intended). The easiest comparisons are probably Sam Peckinpah’s THE GETAWAY (1972), Jonathan Demme’s SOMETHING WILD (1986), and Arthur Penn’s Oscar nominated classic BONNIE AND CLYDE (1969). However, given the style of this film, Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS (1973) was likely more of an influence for the filmmakers.

Phoebe Evans (as voiced by Lola Kirke, GONE GIRL, daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke) is our narrator, and from 1955 she recounts the story of her half-brother Eugene. Most of what she tells takes place twenty years earlier – 1935 Dust Bowl Texas during the Great Depression. Finn Cole (“Animal Kingdom”) stars as Eugene, and we pick up a few years after his dad left the family behind and headed for what he expected would be an easier life in Mexico. Mother Elizabeth (Kerry Condon, “Breaking Bad”) is now re-married to local Deputy George Evans (Travis Fimmel, LEAN ON PETE) and his bad haircut, and they now have a young daughter Phoebe (the magical smile of Darby Camp, THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES). Eugene reads Detective stories and mostly tries to stay out of George’s way, while Phoebe is a curious little sister, easily the most intelligent of the lot.

One fateful day, Eugene’s beloved detective stories come to life. After a local bank robbery turns violent, he discovers Allison Wells (two-time Oscar nominee Margot Robbie, I TONYA) hiding in his barn, with a bullet in her leg. Despite the $10,000 reward on her head, Allison sweet talks young Eugene into keeping her whereabouts secret, and helping her plot an escape. She swears she didn’t kill anyone and rationalizes the bank robbery by blaming the government for letting people suffer hard times. Eugene may or may not buy her story, but he recognizes this is the most excitement he’s likely to ever have in his life … plus, he’s smitten.

During the first half of the film, we follow Eugene as he helps Allison and holds the secret. When the second half kicks in, we find ourselves along for the ride as the two are on the run from the law, including Eugene’s stepfather George. Along the way director Joris-Peyrafitte includes some flashbacks to the botched bank robbery giving us a look at Allison’s “Clyde”, Perry Montroy (played by Garrett Hedlund). There are also numerous artsy flashes of coastline, supposedly representing Allison and Eugene’s landing spot should they escape. Of course, we know where this is headed – a shootout finale. Filmed in New Mexico, we do get the feel of the hard life fought by those during this era, including the powerful and devastating dust storms that require gas masks to prevent suffocation. The film is watchable thanks to the performances and atmosphere, though it’s not at the level of similar type movies listed earlier.

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LOST GIRLS (2020)

March 25, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Long Island serial killer is a famous unsolved case, yet very few filmmakers would take on a true murder mystery that has no ending (The Boston Strangler and Zodiac excepted). Liz Garbus long ago established herself as an expert documentarian, and has earned Oscar nominations (WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? 2015; THE FARM: ANGOLA, USA 1998). My guess is she was initially attracted to this story as a documentary, but transitioned to her first narrative feature out of necessity. Working from the book by Robert Kolker and a screenplay from Michael Werwie (EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE, 2019), Ms. Garbus and her talented cast offer up a different viewpoint of the crimes … the viewpoint of a mother who refuses to give up her daughter a second time.

Amy Ryan (Oscar nominated for GONE BABY GONE, 2007) gives a fierce and compelling performance as Mari Gilbert. Mari is a struggling single mom holding down two jobs – one as a construction worker, and one in a local diner. She is raising two daughters: Sherri (rising star Thomasin McKenzie, JOJO RABBIT, 2019) and Sarra (Oona Laurence, THE BEGUILED, 2017). Mari takes a phone call from her eldest daughter Shannan, expressing delight that the girl will visit for dinner, and with little hesitation, asks her daughter for some money to fill the gap left by reduced work hours.

Shannan never shows up, and a mysterious phone call the next morning sends Mari and her daughters into investigative mode. Daughter Sherri uncovers the secrets her mom has been keeping from her, while at the same time watching her mom tear into the cops for their apparent lack of interest in finding Shannan. Dean Winters (“Mayhem” from the insurance commercials) plays Detective Bostick, who barely hides his contempt for Mari and her missing ‘prostitute’ daughter. Police Commissioner Dormer (Gabriel Byrne) deals directly with Mari, and bears the brunt of her aggressive fight to keep her daughter’s case from fading.

Mari is wrestling with her own emotions regarding Shannan, and it’s really daughter Sherri (Ms. McKenzie) who becomes the most interesting character in the saga. Other key players are Kevin Corrigan as conspiracy theorist Joe Salise, Reed Birney as creepy Dr. Peter Hackett, and Lola Kirke (daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke, and GONE GIRL) as Kim, the sister of one of the missing sex workers. With Mari pushing the cops, four bodies are discovered near a wealthy gated community called Oak Beach. There is a tremendous sequence involving 911 calls, and it plays right into the debate of whether this was incompetent police work or a cover-up. The lack of interest regarding missing girls seems to make it clear that the cops were hardly motivated to find the sex workers, and when Mari reminds them that these are daughters and sisters, it’s a powerful moment.

Director Garbus includes some actual news clips, and at the film’s conclusion we see a 2016 press conference with the real Mari Gilbert. Shannan disappeared in 2010, and 10-16 bodies have since been attributed to the Long Island serial killer – though the cases have never been solved. As a police procedural, the film has far too many gaps and skims over details and evidence. However, as a personal drama and commentary on police attitudes, it succeeds.

The film is now available on Netflix.

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MISTRESS AMERICA (2015)

August 27, 2015

mistress america Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Noah Baumbach has quite the track record of human nature commentary with his films: The Squid and the Whale (2005), Greenberg (2010), and Frances Ha (2012). The conversations he writes on the page are somehow at once both realistic and stagey when they reach the big screen. It’s like his characters speak the way we think, rather than the way we actually talk outloud … and this makes for some awkward scenes. Awkward, but no less insightful.

Mr. Baumbach’s real life partner, co-writer and lead actress Greta Gerwig stars as Brooke, an eternally optimistic just-turned-30 New Yorker who is never without a new idea, but unfortunately lacks the follow-through gene. Prior to meeting Brooke, we are introduced to her soon-to-be step-sister Tracy (Lola Kirke, who was so memorable in Gone Girl). Tracy is a misfit college freshman who quickly latches on to the much more exciting life of Brooke, and sees her as a combination mentor and limitless source of material for her short stories.

The first part of the film allows us to get a real feel for both Tracy and Brooke, but it’s the change of pace that occurs when the setting hits a house in the wealthy area of Connecticut that is most startling. This portion is a modern day screwball comedy in the mold of Hawks and Sturges. The conversation cadence throughout the film is offbeat, but it’s here that the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue pacing really pushes the viewer to keep up. Some of the funniest lines aren’t the dominant ones in a scene, forcing us to juggle overlapping characters and sub-plots. It’s really quite fun … and showcases some nice support work from Michael Chernus, Heather Lind, Matthew Shear and Jasmine Cephas Jones.

Even the “slower” first segment has some stellar writing including an explanation of “X” in Algebra tutoring, and a college freshman coming to grips with what makes a writer (it’s not the looks). Baumbach and Gerwig have a knack for creating whiney people who talk (incessantly) their way through the process of assembling pieces of the universe. Some might call this the painful process of maturity, but it seems to also include learning the difference between acting happy, real happiness, and acceptance of one’s life.

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GONE GIRL (2014)

October 5, 2014

gone girl Greetings again from the darkness. One of the benefits of seeing so many movies is the ability to readily ascertain whether the appeal is to specific movie-goers (teens, romantics, et al), to mass audiences, or perhaps only to film critics and cinephiles. The downside is that when one of the rare mass appeal thrillers hits theatres, my enjoyment of the twists and surprises tends to suffer. Such is the case with director David Fincher‘s version of Gillian Flynn‘s best-selling novel.

Whether or not you are a devotee of Ms. Flynn’s novel, you are likely to find guilty pleasure in this pulpy, neo-noir thriller featuring Ben Affleck as the man who may or may not have killed his missing wife (Rosamund Pike). This is less “whodunit” and more “did he do it?”, at least for the first half. When Nick (Affleck) returns home to discover his wife (Pike) is missing, we hear Amy’s voice guiding us through her journal as we go from blossoming romance to crumbling marriage. Nick’s perspective is derived from his work with the detectives (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) and conversations with his sister (Carrie Coon).

This story-telling structure is beautifully executed, and when combined with director Fincher’s fascination with the dark side of people (The Social Network, Zodiac, Se7en, Fight Club), and the terrific camera work and lighting, we witness elevated   technical filmmaking. Watch how Fincher uses lighting and shadows to change the tone of the film as the noose tightens on Affleck’s character.

Much has been made of the critically acclaimed performances of Affleck and Pike, so I’d prefer to focus on a couple of others. Carrie Coon steals every scene as Nick’s twin sister Margot. She is the moral compass of the film, and gives the absolute best performance. Kim Dickens provides the necessary screen presence and wry humor to prevent the stereotypical detective role from emerging. This is a real person working a complicated case. Also of note is Missi Pyle‘s obnoxious Nancy Grace style TV reporter clearly attempting to build ratings by guiding the sheep (everything we hate about the media, but continues to draw big ratings). Lastly, and most surprising, Tyler Perry‘s slick and slimy headline-grabbing defense attorney provides a punch when the film needs it.

The second half of the film transitions from mystery to anatomy of a scheme, and features one of the most brutal and bloody on screen murders you will ever see. It also provides more excellent support work from Lola Kirke and Brad Holbrook as a couple of trailer park opportunists, and Scoot McNairy and Neil Patrick Harris (against type) as Amy’s former lovers.

The wicked fun in this movie is derived mostly from the misdirection and personalities of Nick and Amy. It’s nice to see a female lead character with some real scene-chewing, even though I believe many actresses would have been better picks. When I hear talk that it could be best movie of the year, I certainly hope that’s off base. This one is at the level of other mainstream thrillers such as Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, and it’s not difficult to imagine Michael Douglas in the lead, were this 1988. Adding to the fun is the satire and social commentary … especially on the current trend of media speculation in place or reporting. So enjoy the twists and ask yourself just how much you really know about your spouse.

***NOTE: for those who read the book, this would be considered a faithful adaptation … unlike some of the early rumors led us to believe

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you enjoy your thrillers with a dose of social commentary OR you want a glimpse of the new Batman body in progress.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  an exceptionally gruesome and bloody murder scene is something you prefer to avoid

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